There’s a segment of the British middle class who have been drawn into public life in response to Brexit and the collapsing centre. Prior to 2016, this group was largely satisfied with the status quo. They were pursuing professional jobs and their political activity involved incremental challenges to current policy; through academia, law, journalism or lobbying, advisory, consultancy and think tank work. Most of their engagement, though intensive intellectually, did not involve working in the public eye or trying to mobilise large groups of people in protest. If they wanted to change something, they’d contact a colleague in Westminster, arrange a policy session or luncheon, or lodge a formal legal complaint.
2016 changed that, as the status quo; liberal, market oriented, based in globalised trade and open borders for the wealthy white nations, began to collapse. Institutions that had previously been taken for granted as the birthright of a political class: free movement, legal protection, and most importantly, influence in reform and legislation, waned rapidly. At the same time the Labour centre lost substantial ground and control of the party to an insurgent Labour left, losing the liberal class its most numerous voice in parliament. A large chunk of this previously docile class has become mobilised around restoring some of these privileges: A decade ago, Alastair Campbell stalked Labour HQ behind the scenes, while Jeremy Corbyn spoke on a platform at the end of a march down Whitehall against Labour foreign policy in Iraq. At a protest on 25th March 2017, their positions were almost reversed, as Campbell took to the stage to oppose Brexit. British centrists have had to ‘go activist’ to defend their inheritance.
While the socialists’ inexperience in the politics of Westminster is pilloried, less attention has been turned to its mirror, the centrists’ inexperience in the politics of the streets. A whole generation of once-contented grey blurs have been forced into the public eye. The result is a parallel of that found in the US as Democrats talk awkwardly of ‘resistance’, going against their intuition to rub shoulders with socialists. Political liberalism is now being forced by the right to share dwindling platforms, airtime, and column inches with the historically extra-parliamentary left, which resents what they see as arrivistes who previously had no skin in the game and veer away from the consequences of their rhetoric.
To a segment of the British left that uses twitter, this process is embodied in ‘The Jolyons’: legal campaigner and former Miliband advisor Jolyon Maugham and vocal anti-Corbyn activist Jolyon Green (among others). Jolyon sticks because it is a name that captures several essences: to them, it reeks of middle class indulgences in child naming and cultural superiority. As an antiquated way of spelling ‘Julian’, the primary classical referent is Julian The Apostate, the Roman Emperor who tried to reconvert the Empire to the dying doctrine of paganism. Some insist that they hadnever heard the name until now; it’s a Baader-Meinhof effect, or even an entirely novel appearance in the shifting boundaries of shared reality. Whether men like Green and Maugham actually embody the new political landscape is irrelevant: they have become totemic of an entire class of suddenly disenfranchised centrists, who are now attempting to speak the language of protest to restore lost honour. Welcome to a new, tragic, age of activism. Welcome to the Jolyoncene.
I want to give a quick plug on here to some work by my good friends and colleagues at various institutions who have supported me in various ways; there’s been a bit of a rush this last two months of books or edited collections out or forthcoming. I thought I’d give a quick shout out to them as they deserve your support and all bring invaluable contributions to new developments in the social science and humanities. In no particular order:
Marie is a music and cultural theorist, and works through theories of affect and its relationship to how we think about noise to create new and relevant critiques. She was on Radio 4 recently and you can listen to her chat about noise here. Worth reading if you’re at all interested in affect.
Deidre Duffy- Evaluation and Governing in the 21st CenturyPalgrave
By one of the hardest-working social scientists I have ever met, I’m sure this is going to be a very timely look at youth service and the role of evaluation mechanisms in neoliberal governance.
Forthcoming, but looking likely to be the definitive overview of political squatting in the ‘global north’ for the foreseeable future. Alex’s previous book Metropolitan Preoccupations is detailed and rich.
David M. Bell Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect Routledge
Utopian Studies can appear to outsiders as a somewhat sleepy backwater full of science fiction nerds and intellectual hobbyists, but the quality of publications tends to show otherwise. Dave is a very good communicator and brings a vital energy to the idea of utopia that challenges many assumptions of the concept.
I’ve not had the chance to read through this yet but the impressive list of endorsements speaks for itself. Likely to be very relevant to anyone interested in coercion and disciplinary power under capitalism.
Vasudevan, Arrigoitia, Brickell (eds) Geographies of Forced Eviction Palgrave
I’ve got a chapter in this, so I’m biased, but this is a long-overdue collection of work bringing together world-leading research on forced eviction. If you have any interest in the global housing crisis or the politics of evictions you need to read it.
Today’s Times Headline (paywalled), “Apartheid on the Streets of Britain” is a significant public expose of a disturbing policy that appears to have been in effect in Asylum Seeker Housing in Teesside. The report concerns Jomast, a company subcontracted by the multinational G4S to manage the housing of asylum seekers and refugees on behalf of the Home Office as part of the Home Office’s COMPASS asylum housing outsourcing program, brought in in 2012. COMPASS outsourced housing provision to 3 contractors: Serco, G4S, and Clearel.
Jomast are accused of enacting a policy of painting asylum seekers doors red to mark them apart from ‘normal’ housing. The report also documents Jomast’s millionaire owner Stuart Monk, and interviews many tenants who have been affected by the apparent policy. G4S, for its part, denies that such a policy exists. There are 3 points that I think are worth making in relation to the story.
1)The ‘Policy’ is Not New
Reports as far back as 2013 document the practiceof painting the doors of Asylum Seekers red. In a report by Suzanne Fletcher, a former councillor in Stockton on Tees to the Home Affairs Committee on Housing Conditions for asylum seekers, Fletcher stated:
“Despite instructions in the Compass document about reducing the possibility of conflict in the neighbourhood, the landlord has painted the doors of each of their properties housing asylum seekers red. This clearly says “this is where asylum seekers live”. It should be part of the contract that such clearly outwardly visible signs should not be allowed by housing providers.”
“We know that… local communities were not prepared for our arrival. We know that many of them face disadvantages themselves and are angry. And we know the negative picture the national media presents about asylum seekers as ‘bogus ‘and ‘scroungers’. We see how asylum seekers become the target of hate and we’re easily identified by our skin colour and the painted red doors of the houses we’re accommodated in.”
The Times article itself mentions Ian Swales (then Lib Dem MP for Redcar) raised the issue at a parliamentary committee hearing in 2014. Swales mentions a ‘intake of breath’ being audible from those present when he mentioned the practice.
2) This is about More than Doors
G4S have claimed that the Red Doors were not an official policy: they’ve missed the point; door colour or no, it is the separate system of asylum housing itself that is creating the conditions reported above. Red Doors, like Homeless Spikes and Poor Doors, are just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the red doors lies a whole set of policies marginalising of asylum seekers through housing.
Dr Steven Hirschler documented these practices in his PhD thesis, ‘The Biopolitics of Asylum Seeker Housing Provision in the UK’. Hirschler looked at COMPASS, and interviewed employees of housing providers and asylum seekers in the region. Amongst other findings were the profound psychological impact of being effectively forcibly relocated to a new city:
“For instance, of the interviewees that explicitly described a sense of depression, half (6) of these respondents were living in the North East of England. Like others in COMPASS housing, asylum seekers dispersed to Middlesbrough cited feelings of stress, isolation and fear. The impact of shared housing felt uniquely acute for respondents in the North East; over 60 per cent of respondents reporting problems with housemates were residents in Middlesbrough or Sunderland. Two respondents explained that they felt that the managers of the COMPASS programme were insensitive to the cultural and religious differences of residents, and that it seemed as if no consideration was made for such factors when dispersing people to individual properties.” (p126)
The research also points to a need to consider the conditions of housing provided to asylum seekers- and Jomast are not the only firm to be concerned about. One interviewee for instance, described the service provided by Orchard and Shipman, a subcontractor for Serco:
“Daya, a resident in an Orchard and Shipman property in Glasgow explained that when she was initially moved into the property following the transition to COMPASS, it was very clean and she considered it to be habitable. However, one night while she was sleeping, the ceiling over her bed collapsed. She exclaimed: ‘I had to jump on the bed and was screaming! I thought somebody had [broken] into the house.’ Daya called Orchard and Shipman the same night to report the incident and was told that no one was available at that hour and that someone would come by the property in the morning. According to Daya, no one arrived the next morning. She made continuous efforts to get somebody to come to the house – ‘I phoned, and I phoned and I phoned, and nobody came.’ It was only after she went to the Unity Centre, an agency providing support for asylum seekers in Glasgow, that she felt that her situation was being adequately considered.” (pp192-193)
“Tony has lost the sight in one eye and is losing the sight in the other one. He was living in Bristol and undergoing treatment for kidney trouble at Bristol Royal Infirmary when he got the Home Office order: “I got the letter that I was moving again. They didn’t tell me where I was going.” G4S staff brought him 180 miles north to Sheffield to a filthy back street terrace house. “This house is the worst they have given me in all those years,” Tony said.
G4S is obliged to help Tony to travel for essential medical treatment and registration with a local GP, but that hasn’t happened…Tony told me that in the week he had been in Sheffield, “I was given a map to find advice places and I walked into the city – I had no cash for the bus”. He had to walk four miles into the city centre to a drop-in advice centre and then another four miles back to his house.
Tony had no cash, only his government-issued Azure card allowing him a little over £5 a day and only useable at specified supermarkets.
How was his new home? “The carpets were dirty, there was rubbish dumped outside at the back, the bathroom was filthy and I was given a room with the furniture broken. They said they wouldn’t take me back to Bristol, I had to stay in the house.”
These reports by tenants in the COMPASS program suggest that dangerous housing, forcible relocation, and physical and psychological pain are commonplace. If so, it is hard to conclude that this is not also the practical outcome of racialised and racist public debate, policies, and practices which treat migrants, let alone refugees or those from outside the ‘global north’ as untrustworthy, suspect or dangerous. In the context of controversies around deaths such as that of Jimmy Mubenga, claims of sexual abuse at detention centres, to the ‘softer end’ like Cameron’s recent call to force immigrants to learn English within two years while cutting ESOL classes, painting the doors of asylum seekers red is just another drastic symptom of a persecuting society.
3) Asylum Seeker Housing is Just The Beginning
Firms like G4S and Serco may have a stake in managing asylum seeker housing, but they have little intention of stopping there. G4S had no prior experience as a provider of asylum seeker housing before they were awarded the government contract, which they gained on the grounds of their competitive bidding; “Stephen Small, the Managing Director of Immigration and Borders at G4S, explained that the corporate vision for asylum housing was the expansion of a new ‘asylum market’” (Hirschler p9). These contractors are not experts in the provision of services (this is part of why they used subcontractors) but they are experts in bidding for contracts and lobbying for legal changes in order to open up new markets. Jeremy Stafford, former Serco CEO made an interesting comment when quizzed about the motivation for their bid:
We are very focused on building an accommodation business, and we believe that by taking on regions of the COMPASS service, we could establish the right team to do that and we felt that we could establish the platform that we felt was scalable … and take [it] to other geographies. (ibid, p88)
This suggests that Serco are interested in using COMPASS as a base from which to develop skills to expand both overseas, and possibly into other sectors of the UK housing market, including social housing.
“The standard of the accommodation provided has often been unacceptably poor for a very fragile group of individuals and families. The companies failed to improve quality in a timely manner. None of this was helped by the Department’s failure to impose penalties on contractors in the transition period. It is disturbing that over a year into the contract the accommodation is still not of the required standard and the Department has only chalked up £8 million in savings.”
With the most recent government housing reforms stripping away security of tenure, MPs voting down provisions for liveable housing, and policies like ‘Right To Rent’ which demand checks from landlords of tenants’ immigration status, the conditions in asylum seeker housing serve as a precursor to the future of social housing: precarious, dangerous, and marginal.
This short essay explores the linkages between cannibalism and sovereign power. Much is updated but it remains based on what was originally a piece of MA coursework back in 2010. It emerged out of a close reading of the work of Giorgio Agamben on sovereignty, and a style of theoretical work which I find myself less engaged by today. There are many adjustments, things that would have been done differently: Ecology should have taken a more prominent role, and in particular I would like to have explored anthropological literatures more. The Eurocentricity of parts the narrative could also have been challenged. It’s clear I will never probably achieve such a rewrite, so I offer this piece here simply because it might be better in the light of day than sitting on a hard drive, and it brings up what I think are still interesting linkages. I welcome comments, thoughts, and suggestions.
Demoboros Basileus: Of Cannibals and Sovereignty
In Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring his Children we see an elderly man devouring a naked and dismembered body. Famously, and running counter to the mythology from which the scene is drawn, the body is that of an adult, but beyond this it is androgynous enough to deny any speculation on intended gender or identity. The old man is several scales larger than the body; the only thing indicating any element of the mythological in the scene apart from the title. Goya’s work emerged only after his death, produced in isolation sometime after the end of the Napoleonic wars, a reflection on two decades of nationalist violence, personal isolation, and encroaching silence.
The familiar frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan shows an image of the defining form of sovereignty; a body made of a multitude of other bodies. The framework laid out by Hobbes and Rousseau defines the start of ‘modern’ political thought; sovereign will is the accumulation of peoples into a “form and association of which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all” (Rousseau p60). This is a line of reasoning that emerges at the point of what Michel Foucault called Raison d’Etat; “a practice, or rather the rationalization of a practice, which places itself between a state presented as given and a state presented as having to be constructed and built” (2008, p4). This echoes Foucault’s work elsewhere, especially in Discipline and Punish, in which the aim of disciplinary power is postulated to be the normalisation of a social construct through the arrangement and inscription of human bodies. Saturn Devouring his Children, and Hobbes’ frontispiece share the same subject matter – the consumption of the lesser body by the greater body. There is, then, a conceptual and material linkage between the sovereign and the cannibal: the human body that is made of human bodies.
“You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second.” – Machiavelli
Until the emergence of such Raison d’Etat, in the discourse of Western Christendom the cannibal had primarily occupied the space of the monstrous on the outside of the political world. The Cynocephali, dog-headed humans, described as back as a far as Pliny, and who feasted on human flesh, were common in European medieval mythology, persisting even beyond 1492. They appear on the maps of the middle ages, prowling the borderlands of the near east, sub-saharan Africa, and islands just across the world ocean; The Byzantine confusion over the identity of Saint Christopher the Canaanite/Canineite supposedly led to his depiction in Orthodox iconography as such a dog-headed monster. ‘Modern’ scientific treatises were still troubling themselves over the dog-humans at least as late as 1699, notably Edward Tyson’s work of early racist anthropology Orang- Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. To which is added, a Philological Essay Concerning the Pygmies, the Cynocephali, the Satyrs, and Sphinges of the Ancients. Wherein it Will Appear that They are all Either Apes or Monkeys, and not Men, as Formerly Pretended. But after the realignment of European geographical imaginaries following from the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the formation of European colonial capitalism, some kind of shifting from the curious monstrosities made by God upon creation to question humanity, to the human itself as the source of it’s own inhumanity, took place.
Such a shift parallels the realignment of the state from the divine mandate to the conscious product of a constitutional process. Montaigne’s famous encounter with ‘cannibals’ from the ‘New World’ led him to opine on their habituated consumption of the flesh of their enemies:
They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the Portuguese, who were in league with their enemies, to inflict another sort of death upon any of them they took prisoners, which was to set them up to the girdle in the earth, to shoot at the remaining part till it was stuck full of arrows, and then to hang them, they thought those people of the other world (as being men who had sown the knowledge of a great many vices amongst their neighbours, and who were much greater masters in all sorts of mischief than they) did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this.
Montaigne’s eyes, like those of the great philosophers of early colonialism, looked at the distinct cultural practices of the indigenous people of the New World and saw European man in a more primitive state, sharing in an infantile sense of vengeance in the defence of the honour of primeval sovereignty. The Europeans read their own crude drive for violent accumulation onto the cannibal, both condemning the barbarity of the colonial settler but at the same time justifying such actions as grounded in universal human conditions. While for Hobbesians the greater body consumed the lesser for the good of security and safety to guard against such barbarity, in the First of his Treatises on Government, John Locke argued:
“ But if the example of what hath been done be the rule of what ought to be, history would have furnished our author with instances of this absolute fatherly power in its height and perfection, and he might have showed us in Peru people that begot children on purpose to fatten and eat them. The story is so remarkable, that I cannot but set it down in the author’s words: “In some provinces, says he, they were so liquorish after man’s flesh, that they would not have the patience to stay till the breath was out of the body, but would suck the blood as it ran from the wounds of the dying man; they had public shambles of man’s flesh, and their madness herein was to that degree, that they spared not their own children, which they had begot on strangers taken in war: for they made their captives their mistresses, and choicely nourished the children they lead by them, till about thirteen years old they butchered and eat them; and they served the mothers after the same fashion, when they grew past child-bearing, and ceased to bring them any more roasters.” Garcilasso de la Vega, Hist. des Yncas de Peru, 1. i. c. 12.” (§55)
The cannibal native was degenerate on both counts: either as justification for originally authority that needed to be refined into pure sovereign will (Hobbes), or the cannibal was a dangerous warning about relying upon the state of nature as the basis for a new political system (Locke). The cannibal remained the go-to figure throughout the ‘bourgeois revolutions’ of Europe as the symbol of power let slip from constitutional convention, but also anomic vengeance: “A l’exemple du Saturne, la révolution dévore ses infants” (‘Like Saturn, revolution devours it’s children’), said French reactionary Jacques Mallet du Pan, while Jean-Paul Marat supposedly held that “men” had the right “to deal with their oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts” (ironically the mummified heart of Louis XIV, beacon of the ancien regime, is supposed to have been accidentally ingested in 1848 by the Reverend William Buckland). As recent moral panics around Islamic State fighters in Syria eating the body parts of their enemies has shown, the anxiety is still a live one. The coinage, however, is ancient: as the anthropologist Frank Lestringant notes, the ancient Greeks used to call tyrants demoboros basileus – eaters of people (p8).
“The exception” Giorgio Agamben claimed in Homo Sacer “is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a member and cannot be a member of the whole in which it is included”(emphasis in original, 1998 p25). The demoboros, the ‘European’ cannibal, in consuming another, makes a decision based in this circumstance – to simultaneously deny the body of the eaten and incorporate it into the body of the eater – in one understanding of the ritual form of cannibalism the Freudian Eli Sagan suggests that the cannibal “eats the person who, by dying, has abandoned him” (Sanday, 1998, p11). Cannibalism is an act that occurs at what, using Agamben’s (1998, p27) words, is “a threshold in which life is both inside and outside” the consuming body of the juridical order. In order to exclude his children from supplanting him as sovereign of the gods, Saturn ingests them into his own body (in such an ultimately unsuccessful manner that his children are reborn whole after he is fed a boulder by subterfuge). The Sovereign, as Agamben understands it in Homo Sacer-that which decides upon exceptions, excludes by including, acts as the demoboros does.
Following Agamben’s framework as laid out in Homo Sacer, it is necessary to interrogate the previous claim through the concept of ‘bare life’. Agamben distinguishes between bios “a qualified life” and zoē is defined as“the simple fact of living” (1998, p1), later rephrased as bare life “life exposed to death…the originary political element” (emphasis in original 1998. p88). Bare life is created by the act of sovereign exception- Homo Sacer, the exemplary figure of bare life in Roman law is rendered “sacred insofar as it is taken into the exception”. As the sacred entity that cannot be sacrificed, Homo Sacer occupies a space that is the preserve of the mythological and mystical, the wargus, the wolf-man, or the cynocephalus.
These figures resonate in the passages from Plato which Agamben cites, recalling a trick played by priests at the Tomb of the Lykaon Zeus; “whoever tastes one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf…[likewise] a leader of the mob [dēmos], seeing the multitude devoted to his orders, does not know how to abstain from the blood of his tribe” (1998, p108). Here the demoboros erupts and consumes the multitude, at the point in at which the figure of Homo Sacer and the Sovereign meet and become indistinct, occupying a shared space of internal externality. Within this space within and outside the law, the contrasting status of the Eucharist as a sacred act of flesh-eating, and the taboo status of Cannibalism also enter; the king is both sacred and foul, and the act of consuming the human body is both cleansing and abominable. It is important to note, however, that for Agamben this indistinction only reaches the form of the permanent State of Exception in the modern era- while the medievals saw the Cannibal as an occasional and contingent exception that confound distinction; for Agamben it is in the formation of a State of Exception that an exceptional cannibalism becomes the norm. The Cannibal is a tool for an understanding of the concept of Sovereignty, suitable not only because it is a recurring form in the Official Canon of European thinkers, but because it relates the philosophy of sovereignty to a continuum of philosophies of power centred on the body comprised of other bodies; the state-machine, the cyborg, the many-headed hydra, the multitude.
Is this then pure metaphor? The historian Mike Davis has found that during the 1877 famine in British India a “a self-proclaimed Benthamite ‘Experiment’” was conducted in the relief camps offered to famine stricken Indians, where only the minimum rations necessary to conduct hard labour were provided, a regime which “provided less sustenance for hard labor than the diet inside the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp”(p38). All the while ships loaded with grain left India for the mills of England. Here the connection between the logic of modernism and the camp – the concept of the camp as the ‘paradigm of the modern’ in Agamben’s terms- is clearly apparent. Agamben notes that the basis of experimentation on the human body by “voluntary consent” is “simply meaningless for someone interned at Dachau” (p158); how can one truly agree to submit to such a regimen, when the choice is between two kinds of dying? In the Indian context a cycle of “decay and dislocation” (Davis, p47) appears combined with a famine cannibalism occurring outside the camps; “India, like Ireland before it had become a Utilitarian laboratory” (p31) argued Davis: what Swift had satirised with his Modest Proposal was, in the space of a generation, practical policy. An external cannibalism of necessity in the villages and farmland, was counterposed to a manifestation of a Liberal Utilitarian bios which acted to consume bodies through an explicit project of calculating bare life in the camps. An explicit turn to a Marx here reveals a confluence of sovereignty and capital, and the endgame of ‘European’ thought; the dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, is facilitated through the bio-political logistics at work in the formation of colonial sovereignty.
In an essential essay on colonial power, Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe writes:
contemporary experiences of human destruction suggest that it is possible to develop a reading of politics, sovereignty, and the subject different from the one we inherited from the philosophical discourse of modernity. Instead of considering reason as the truth of the subject, we can look to other foundational categories that are less abstract and more tactile, such as life and death.
The European imaginary of the cannibal as both the core and the periphery of the sovereign project is the fusion of these categories. It is the project of the ‘human’ in it’s absolute form: the living made of the dead. In The Open Agamben points in the direction of a medieval puzzle concerning the anthropophagus whose fate upon the ressurrection and final judgement is unclear; will the bodies of their victims be resurrected, thereby denying the cannibal the molecular substance needed for resurrection and judgement? Surely there can be no future for the sovereign power that operates in such a manner, but in a cruel turn, it certainly also escapes judgement: it must be dismantled in order that the very substance it is made of might bear witness against it.
Agamben, G. The Open translated by Kevin Attell (Stanford University Press, California: 1994)
– Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen ( California: Stanford University Press 1998)
– State Of Exception trans. Kevin Attell (University of Chicago Press 2005)
Davis, M. Late Victorian Holocausts; El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London:Verso 2001)
Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish trans. A. Sheridan Penguin, (London: Penguin 1998)
-The Birth of Biopolitics trans. Graham Burchill (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2008)
–The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality volume1 (London: Penguin 1998)
Hobbes, Leviathan Oxford World’s Classics
John Locke, Two Treatises on Government Cambridge University Press
Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropolitics
Montaigne, Of Cannibals
Phillips, J. ‘Cannibalism qua Capitalism’ in Cannibalism and The Colonial World eds. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iversen (Cambridge University Press 1998)
Reeves Sanday, P. Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (Cambridge University Press 1998)
Rousseau, J-J. The Social Contract trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin 1968)
A statistical geographer I know is fond of reminding me “the statistic is a social relation”: Now, this is one of those weaselly catch-all phrases that academics are fond of using to encapsulate a number of different sins. But while it’s frustratingly vague, It does work as a watchword for an age where ‘big data’ is presented as the solution to a multitude of problems. So when the latest ONS release on happiness was mixed with house prices to create the conclusion that (a bit of) the North of England is the happiest place in the country, It raised some suspicions.
The ONS data was based on a simple question: “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday? Where 0 is ‘not at all happy and 10 is ‘completely happy’”, and can be seen here in its thrilling spreadsheet glory. The combination made by Hamptons with house price-to-income ratios, led the Hamptons researchers to declare areas of the North of England the happiest places in the country. The guardian has singled out one of the best-scoring areas, Allerdale in Cumbria, for special attention: “Though boasting more than its fair share of beaches, lakes and mountains, it is not necessarily the most obvious utopia, containing towns such as Maryport and Workington, home to some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain”.
The linking of house prices by an estate agents as an indicator of social wellbeing and should surely be met with a degree of skepticism right out of the gates: surely an estate agent is the last person you’d trust to give you an accurate picture of how pleasant a place is to live? The ONS data is relatively independent of this kind of obvious bias. But of course, happiness is not an easily quantifiable thing. As Will Davies, one of a growing number of critical voices on Happiness economics, has argued, ‘By reducing the relationship between mind and world to a quantitative ratio, wellbeing metrics offers a simple choice of how to pursue progress: do you seek to change the world or to change the mind? The philosophical relationship between critical subjectivity and objective circumstances comes to appear like a set of scales to be balanced, in which the weight on either side can be adjusted’. As a feeling, how we personally define ‘happiness’ isn’t independent of a web of other messy stuff in which we’re entangled; income, work, and relationships all play a factor but, then, so do all the other feelings we have.
This is because feelings have a history. The times, places and actions we associate with happiness all shape how we think about it, and how likely we are to experience or recognise it again. How the serf of the 14th century felt at the end of harvest was probably very different to how a factory worker coming off shift in the 1890s felt; though this is not to say that the two would not use the same word for both emotions, they had a very different sense of how time was linked to feeling. The cultural philosopher Lauren Berlant connects feelings and history as part of the process of making intuition. What we think of as near-instinctual intuitive reaction is shaped by our historical experience of feelings in the past and the ways our social routines have been destroyed and reshaped both in our personal and social histories.
The problem is that British social context and history are hardly plain sailing with the spirit of justice guiding us. British social history is marked by massive class and gender inequalities, and not a small smattering of racism and imperialism. While it’s not conclusive, putting the Hamptons Map next to a ‘Map of Whiteness’ based on other ONS data reveals that many of the highest-scoring areas for Happiness, including Allerdale (the English border region on the Irish sea) are also some of the whitest.
When the comedian John Cleese announced he was moving to Bath in 2011, because London was no longer an ‘English’ City, he encapsulated a sensibility that associates urban ‘cosmopolitanism’ with social decline, and parochial white homogeneity with stability and continuity. Media representations of black and minority ethnic groups and the social anxieties created about urban decay are inextricably linked in the way European and North American culture thinks about cities. In the US and UK, ’The Urban Market’ is known as a byword in media marketing for the black demographic. The association of rural idylls, whiteness, and happiness is a long standing connection in mass media; and this association has an impact on how we feel about the places we live. If cities are constantly depicted as an urban frontier full of dark and dangerous risks, white people will inevitably feel anxious about them and the social groups connected to them.
The idea of local happiness is already weighted to exclude particular kinds of people from the narrative. Reflecting on her own experiences as a queer scholar of colour in white-dominated academia, Sara Ahmed connects this process of exclusion to the production of ‘happy atmospheres’ threatened by emotional outsiders, feelings of conviviality threatened by critical voices or unwelcome faces: when we see happiness, Ahmed argues, we also have to look at the exclusions that happiness may be predicated on. Allerdale may well be happier because of clean streams, low crime, and cheap houses. However when we look at statistical data on happiness, we can’t just think about the classic problems of who the data excludes and what it hasn’t measured. We also need to question the exclusions that went into producing the particular statistic in the first place, the thing it cannot measure, because the statistic is a social relation.
Skinheads, hairy bikers, street violence and male youth boredom in 1971. Everyone straight out of a David Peace novel; Patches and gangs, orange buses, sideburns, racism, bikes, boots, awful interior decor, and the background of the rangy and decaying bits of early 70s Newcastle. In the midst of it all, Stan Cohen – sociologist of Moral Panics fame – trying sense of things (while having a distractingly khaki outfit). It was around this time that the Anthropologist Malcolm Young – author of a revealing ethnography of the police ‘from the inside’ (his Durham PhD thesis, completed in 1986, can be found here) – was working in the Newcastle Police force, if I remember rightly. Remarkable viewing and a must watch for anyone interested in local Tyneside history, youth culture studies and the history of planning.
Content note: contains some descriptions of domestic violence/street harassment
From out of the murk of the BBC Archive, Adam Curtis’ new film/project Bitter Lake (BL) shines forth. I won’t comment on too much of the general phenomenon of Curtis work and what he has done elsewhere (though I will say I like some, if not much of it). Nor can I attempt to beat this savage critique of Curtis’ later style. What I want to do here is take BL on its own, and try to show some of the flawed logic in its own thinking through some notes. Bitter Lake is a rhetorical Klein Bottle, always returning to its own surface analysis, a remarkable object, yes, but also useless.
We are told that politicians once believed in the divide between good and evil.
But now the simple narratives of good and evil have fallen apart.
Nothing Makes Sense any more.
Not even the archive footage.
Curtis The Prophet: Society has become corrupted. Or rather, specific societies have been made corrupt. Corruption in BL is treated almost as if it were a quantum that can be indexed, catalogued, and introduced. It is a contagion that infests societies and humans and reduces them to the state of squabbling manipulative apes fighting over the oil and heroin trade. It is carried by ‘money’ and has no vaccine. Afghanistan is the perfect example of “a completely corrupted society” that acts as a siphon for all of our failings. To think about a society in this way is troubling indeed, bearing with it the spectre of oriental despotism (more about that below), and the logic of ‘failed states’.
Curtis the Tragedian: Those with noble intentions always must face up to the flawed nature of those noble intentions or become corrupted and exploited. One must not battle monsters lest one end up becoming one, my edition of Every Boy’s Nietzsche tells me. The white liberal democracies of the world entered Afghanistan with liberating and civilising intentions we are told. Yet they were doomed by fates they long ago invoked through previous transgressions. Who are we to doubt the sincerity of their motives?
Curtis the Orientalist: His particular version of ‘the orient’ is the dwelling place of Wahhabism, corruption, political despotism and ‘tribal divisions’. Though these ideas may have been unwittingly spread by “The West” in it’s pact with the Saudis, or by the Communist bloc with botched military occupations, they did not know what we were unleashing. Like the planet in Lem and Tarkovsky’s Solaris ( or rather, a version of it that only exists in Bitter Lake), deceiving and warping the the minds of the astronauts, the battlefields of Afghanistan exert a strange energy upon our own society, corrupting it, in some colonial nightmare from which we can (almost) never awake.
Adam Curtis Did Not Take Place: It is vitally important that to illustrate this point we are shown decontextualised, mostly unattributed, and largely untranslated, snippets of frontline war reportage from the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by coalition forces. One sequence has an extended shot of a soldier stroking a bird, another shows British troops arranging some kind of photocopying contract; in the fog of war, who will do reprography? Excessively literal translation or mistranslation of speakers, and zero translation of others is rife. At least we are spared the Curtis narration for these segments. Watch Bitter Lake with subtitles on, and it’s apparent the most common subtitles used are those which indicate untranslated speech (usually the inelegant ‘MAN SPEAKS IN HIS OWN LANGUAGE’). The dominant voices still speak in English. I am no expert on Afghanistan, but it’s clear the vast mass of humanity that actually suffers as a result of wars, colonialism, religious persecution, and poverty, is poorly represented.
A side effect of this means that humorous comparison and juxtaposition, between the racist caricatures found in bawdy 1970s comedy films, and Afghan political leaders (Karzai), is perfectly acceptable in Curtis’ eyes. This wretched comparison is offered without further comment by Curtis, not even a wry nod or wink.
Equally The Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS/IS) is a mystery of confusion and no one knows quite what it is, and the implication is we may as well not bother. We know it has a leader and a location but aside from that: It is shapeless, formless, and most definitely coming to GET you. What is ISIS? One might ask the same about birds; what are birds?
Indeed, the easy thing about believing in the end of clear narratives is that you never actually have to present one yourself. This might not make for brilliant political analysis, but it does make for good pop art.
Curtis Condemns: Bitter Lake tells us ‘We’ only have ourselves to blame for the demons at our door. Through the failings of our political leaders, a concatenation of crises always apparently following sequentially from one another (Bitter Lake agreement causing the Arab Israeli Conflict causing OPEC causing Petrodollars causing Financialisation causing Reaganomics causing Al-Yamamah arms deal causing Al Qaeda causing 9/11 causing Afghanistan 2001 causing ISIS) not from some structural systemic failing, but from the collective personal failings of our political leaders, who, if you remember, believe in great things until it is too late.
But these were all fantasies, repeatedly, over and over and over and over again. Curtis establishes a myth, then knocks it down, another, knocks it down. From a purely stylistic point, it’s tiresome. From an intellectual viewpoint, akin to a straw man critique performed through the arrogance of hindsight. Great ideas BUT political failure. But, but, but.
Curtis Regained: Bitter Lake’s narrative, such as it is, flows thus;
The world has become corrupted and debased. Our greed for oil and money has betrayed our society, we have cast aside our social narratives in pursuit of power and wealth, and in doing so we have secretly nurtured the shadowy forces of an international extremist religious movement that spreads corruption and terror through foreign societies and ultimately our own. The ideas we once believed in no longer hold power over us or this new threat. We need to make a new political story, and thereby restore dignity, to our corrupt and debased society.
Such narratives have ominous historical resonances.
Curtis is well aware that he is embracing the very rhetorical and intellectual manoeuvres he seems to be critiquing, perhaps because he is not critiquing them at all. Curtis’ greatest advantage is his radical ambiguity and his plausible deniability. It allows his analysis to move frictionless through the topography of politics. Bitter Lake intends to be a horoscope to intellectuals, a rorschach to film makers and TV historians, and a curate’s egg to activists. It’s wrong to read Bitter Lake as a simple documentary, it exists more at the seamless border between art and propaganda (doubtless in homage to Marshall Mcluhan’s recordings, which are great). Indeed, to read the comments on a recent article critical of Curtis’ work, is to remind oneself of the role propaganda plays in consolidating social groups against criticisms; this is the cause for worry in this kind of work.
You might well have some criticisms of what I have done here. You might argue I have taken a series of images out of context and spun a confident and authoritative-sounding critique around them; I couldn’t possibly comment on such an accusation. So, I do not aim to convince you that Curtis is wrong about his subject. I merely wish to encourage those reading this far to reflect on which traditions, both political and aesthetic, the face value narrative Curtis offers emerges from, and where such a particular mode of political nihilism might lead.