Splinters: May – short essays on the here & now
This month: Truth, with strings attached...
On Love and Loathing... Street Opera...
A qualified welcome to a new Labour leader in the UK...
The Gift of COVID-19.
This month's splinters:
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
Truth, with strings attached
by Christos Tombras
In the last two months, a number of mobile telecommunication masts were destroyed in various fire incidents around the UK. It seemed clear that it was arson; yet no-one seemed to know exactly why. Social media spoke of a possible link with the coronavirus pandemic, but the connections were less than evident. Then we heard about a former Scots drugs baron who was offering “rewards” for anyone attacking 5G masts. He too made the connection with the virus. What was happening?
Apparently, there is a conspiracy theory going around that links 5G technology with the spread of coronavirus. It is difficult to say how. Is it that the 5G frequencies present a fertile ground for the proliferation and survival of SARS-CoV-2? Or perhaps that symptoms of Covid-19 are exacerbated by 5G radiation? Or maybe there was no SARS-CoV-2 virus at all, all observed symptoms having been the results of indirect exposure to 5G radiation?
Details don’t really matter here. What matters is that theories linking 5G with the coronavirus abound. They are endlessly more creative than the most detailed efforts to debunk them. As far as truth is concerned, it is a lost game. People who have decided to believe that such a link exists will just not change their minds. Evidence to the opposite is of no consequence, no matter how detailed and compelling it might be. It appears as if they need the link to be there, and they will have it there whatever the cost. Instead of looking at the facts, they bring up alternative facts.
Mike “Mad” Hughes was an American limousine owner and a dangerous driving records holder. He also had a special interest in steam rockets. Mad Mike was building them himself and using them to perform increasingly dangerous stunts. With his first one, in January 2014, he was able to fly for less than a minute over a distance of almost 500 meters. He then had to spend more than two weeks with a walker to recover. It didn’t matter. Because of his hobby he was becoming famous. In 2017 there was even a documentary about him, bearing the quite appropriate title “Rocketman”.
Mike’s second hobby was more intellectual, so to speak. He was a flat-Earther. Earthers claim “that the Earth is flat, and that Round Earth doctrine is little more than an elaborate hoax”. Mike wanted to use a rocket in order to reach outer space and take a picture that would show that Earth is flat. His fame helped him with fundraising and publicity.
Mike was not able to fulfil this dream. He died in a tragic accident on February 22 this year. During the launch of his latest rocket, the parachute detached early. With nothing to ease its return to Earth, Mike’s rocket crashed, killing him instantly.
Mike’s flat-Earth beliefs might have been a PR stunt, as his publicist claimed after his death. For many of his admirers, however, it was not. At least some of them did indeed hope that Mike’s rocket would provide them with the definite proof that they needed.
Why would anyone want to find a proof that the Earth is flat? Why the effort? A cursory glance at the evidence would be enough to show that the Earth cannot be flat. Or, to return to what we said earlier, why do some people seek to establish a link between 5G and the coronavirus? In the first place, why is it so difficult for them to see the absurdity of the question? Is it ignorance? Is it because of sloppy reasoning?
Early psychoanalysts have spoken of an “epistemophilic instinct ”. In some general sense, it would help explain that “unique” human trait, the desire for knowledge and truth. It would provide us with an understanding of the motive force behind all higher human achievements – philosophy, science, technology, in short, civilization. A comforting hypothesis, to be sure. It gives us some hope for the future. For, if our desire (or need) for knowledge is the product of some instinct, epistemophilic or other, then our quest for truth will never cease. There might be ups and downs, of course, but we will be getting ever so nearer to the truth.
Things are, of course, much more complicated. Take the 5G-coronavirus conspiracy believers for example. Or the flat-Earthers. Or other conspiracy theory fans. They all contend they are searching for truth, but on closer inspection one sees that what they call truth comes always with strings attached. A truth will only be accepted as long as it conforms with a set of prior hypotheses or beliefs. If facts cannot help, they will be ignored, and alternative facts will be sought out.
It’s not because of an instinct then. In fact, it’s not even about truth. It’s rarely – if ever – the case that truth matters; rather, it is upholding a set of pre-accepted beliefs – a paradigm, as Kuhn would have described it.
Which makes one wonder.
On Love and Loathing
by Leonie Rushforth
In the UK it has been a task this week properly taking in the contents of the leaked internal Labour Party investigation, not least because it runs to 850+ pages of evidence confirming many ordinary members’ worst suspicions about the systematic undermining of the Corbyn project from within.
It gives full access to the loathing that permeates the WhatsApp conversations held between Labour Party officials during the early years of Corbyn’s leadership and throughout the 2017 election campaign. There is a hallmark security in everything these voices say – one recognizes the insolent complacency of the establishment flunkey – and the viciousness of the speech reserved for fellow LP members, MPs and officials whose growing popularity, they fear, is salutary reading for anyone thinking about ways forward in the Labour Party. They have no conscience.
Another way of saying that would be that there’s no democratic authority to which they feel accountable. But they are anti-democrats. One extract in which 2 of them – then paid officials in LP head office – discuss Corbyn’s forthcoming speech in response to the Manchester bombing, follows a very positive YouGov poll result and is especially revealing of their contempt for Labour voters and Corbyn supporters, referred to elsewhere straightforwardly as Bastards:
“x. 09:12: … with a bit of luck this speech will show a clear polling decline and we shall all be able to point to how disgusting they truly are (now obviously we know it was never real – but that isnt the point in politics!)
y. 09:13: Yeah I’m sure that’s right…. My fears are that: a) the speech won’t go down as badly as it deserves to thanks to the large groundswell of ill-informed opposition to all western interventions. And b) they will use that poll to claim they were on course to win and then Manchester happened. And whether or not JC goes, lots of the membership will buy that argument.”
The newly popular leadership is “disgusting”, their supporters deluded.
As people were taking in the implications of the report, the existence of Julian Assange’s partner, Stella Morris, and their 2 children was revealed via a YouTube recording. Morris decided to speak out about the relationship at this point because she fears Assange’s life “is coming to an end”. Press reaction to this was predictable and found its least inhibited expression in the tweet of a well-known journalist whose field of expertise includes mental health: “excuse me while i vomit for the forseeable future”, she wrote. For this journalist and others like her, Assange is of the category of person who does not deserve love. More than that, he is in a special group so innately repulsive they are unlovable. The mere thought of this love induces nausea.
There’s a lot of loathing in Eimear McBride’s 2016 novel The Lesser Bohemians, which I’ve just finished reading and whose 2 protagonists struggle to believe they might be worthy of love. Traumatised by abuse in childhood, they direct hatred inwards at themselves. It takes a long novel to trace the many failures of conviction, the exhaustion, the just wanting it to be over, until the writer can bring about the sort of happy ending her characters and readers can trust. It’s hard-won, qualified, contingent rather than transcendent. Through their bodies, which are the theatre of this conflict, each comes to see that they can be loved and that in order to go on they need to go on together – as one says to the other at the end: “I don’t want to make myself learn to live without you. So what do you think about getting on with our life together, whatever that will be like?... come on my love, he says We haven’t got much time.”
On February 29, 2020, the Times of Israel reported on a leaked recording of Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Natan Eshel, talking about Likud campaign strategy and the rise in the premier’s popularity in the polls since his indictment in 3 cases of corruption: “ [people think] if you haven’t stolen, what exactly have you come into politics for? We’ve checked this. And to my shock they [the public] do not understand [this notion] of going into politics to do what’s good for the nation. [they think] you go into politics in order to steal… Now in this public, I’ll call it…non-Ashkenazi… what gets them worked up? Why do they hate the press? They hate everything and we’ve succeeded in whipping up that hatred. Hatred is what unites our camp.”
In her YouTube broadcast Stella Morris says this about the impulse to love: “Just like in war, people fall in love and decide to live their lives in an act of rebellion – I think falling in love is a kind of act of rebellion in a context where there’s a lot of attempts to destroy your life and your reason for doing what you are doing.”
by Iain Galbraith
The murmur of men's voices. The curtain doesn't go up but parts. I'm looking down from ‘house right’, not exactly from the gods but, shall we say, from the second circle.
I recognize the men. They are standing in a circle in the middle of the street fifty yards away. I have exchanged nods with each of them and spoken to two on several occasions. And yet something about their appearance pierces me. Their faces are grey and serious, and perhaps because of my angle of view their circle seems compressed, despite their efforts to self-distance. The two I know are Romanian, but I hear them speaking German. The others, I must suppose, are not Romanian. I do know they all work on building sites. I've heard people say they work long hours for less than the minimum wage, pay no tax, no medical insurance, make too much noise, have no registered place of abode.
I know people who have said this. I also know that the same people know the men in the circle to be among the most vulnerable, in danger of deportation, uninsured work injury, denunciation, physical attack, and that they don't work cheaply for fun. They know all this. But they still say these things. I'm saying them now. All of us, including the men in the circle, are united in realizing something is terribly wrong. But whatever it is appears to belong to silence and the required order of things.
As in England (though not in Scotland) building work in Germany continues during lockdown. Impossible life and danger are the circle's subject.
In the past 20 years or so I have frequently seen circles of men in our street. Whenever there are road works involving a hole dug for access to a pipe, for example, you can bet that by about four o'clock in the afternoon, when people return from work, there will be several men solemnly gathered in a circle around its rim, staring down into the hole. Of course the holes are reminiscent of bomb craters: poignant reminders of injustice, social rupture, loss of life and deprivation. But what do the men talk about? Is it the metonymy of the palpable absence that draws them, its presence a sign of yet greater, as yet inexpressible absence? I once saw a woman join the circle around the hole. She later told me that she had been standing there "ironically". The men had quite simply been talking about different aspects of the hole and its purpose. The old normality.
Is today's circle any different?
In 'The Theatre and the Plague', contained in his series of short essays on the theatre Le théâtre et son double (1938), Antonin Artaud writes among other things of a plague that broke out in his native Marseille exactly 300 years ago this month. He recounts many other examples of plagues and their gruesome effects on populations from earliest times, but he calls the Marseille plague, apparently contained by quarantine, the only one on which we have modern clinical records. Nevertheless, the essay begins with the story of the Sardinian Viceroy Saint-Rémy who acts swiftly to protect the population by preventing a ship carrying the contagion from landing at the harbour of Cagliari. And yet the psychic energy that drove his action (at the time considered insane and despotic) came not from a knowledge of virology or hygiene, of which he had none, but from a nightmare in which he had witnessed the effects of pestilence.
But how can a dream, given the viceroy's lack of experience, be so percipient? And what of our unsettling circle? Artaud, comparing them with theatre, sees such phenomena as "emanations" of the "inner nature" of the plague. I translate:
The plague grasps images that are dormant, a latent disorder, and quickens them as extreme gestures; the theatre too takes gestures and forces them to extremes; like the plague it reforges links between what is there and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and actually embodied nature. It rediscovers the notion of figures and archetypes that act like sudden silences, culminations, capillary arrests, fits of temper, inflammatory images thrust into our unexpectedly alert minds; it restores our dormant conflicts and all their force, giving them names we hail as symbols [...] These symbols, the sign of ripe powers held in bondage and rendered unusable in the real world, now burst forth in the guise of astonishing images that give existence and the freedom of the city to acts naturally inimical to social life.
An exemplary latent image is newly embodied. The group of men, a small circle with its corona of heads, has meanwhile dispersed. The street is empty again but for a potent and distressing memory. The obscene image is broadcast globally.
A qualified welcome to a new Labour leader in the UK
by Rosemary Bechler
All of Labour’s leadership candidates were vocal on the need to end factional organisation and acrimonious divisions in the party. Each reassured anyone who asked that dealing with allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party was top of their agenda. None of them has offered democratic mechanisms for reaching either desirable state. Unfortunately the new leader, promising to get a personal grip on the latter process, seems to favour ‘automatic expulsions’.
This toes the line of the Jewish Board of Deputies, whose 10-point pledge calls for no ‘platform’ for debate, here decried as ‘bigotry’; a literal application without a hearing of the IHRA definition and all its examples (despite the fact that this decontextualized usage has been described as McCarthyite by one of the two people who drafted it); the elevation of their favoured faction in the Labour party to sole trainer on antisemitism; no opportunity for contestation or reform; and no engagement with the Jewish members who disagree, on the basis that these are ‘fringe groups’ and have nothing to say.
Jewish Voice for Labour, of which I am a member, has pointed out that the pledge is a brazen attack on Labour’s inner party democracy. The misapplication of the MacPherson principle which insists that the victim should determine the definition of antisemitism, is here taken to its logical extreme in also dictating how it is applied and punished. More dangerous than this however is the BoD’s construction of a particular kind of symbolic identity formation that they claim to represent, which we might call the unitary ‘Jewish Us’.
This ‘Jewish Us’, I would argue, has central features in common with an aggrieved majoritarianism to which many of the most advanced liberal democracies have succumbed in recent years. Across the world, aggrieved majorities like the Brexit leavers, have been encouraged by their political representatives to perceive themselves as the “Real People”, the ‘National Us’, unfairly victimised by some threatening Other. The identification depends on a sense of superiority that is nevertheless suffering an existential threat.
A proper platform for debate in the Labour Party could properly debate to what extent this ‘Jewish Us’ is or is not reliant on another similar identification, rendered lethal by the punitive legislation and use of force afforded to all state monopolies on violence, that is the Israeli National Us. To what extent is this link an essential underpinning for the ‘Jewish Us’, both in its sense of superiority and its sense of threat? Furthermore, we could explore whether or not both these forms of identification are in their turn significantly strengthened by the rise of strong-men leaders of aggrieved majorities, albeit of very different hues, across much of today’s pandemic-ridden world: from Trump’s US to Modi’s India, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Orban’s Hungary, not to forget Johnson’s Brexit Britain.
If this is true, then one conclusion might follow, that when Jewish and non-Jewish Labour Party members criticise the present Zionist state of Israel, this has little if anything to do with its Jewishness, and everything to do with what we have been learning about the violent formations that inevitably emerge from the unitary and exclusionary nature of the monocultural National Us.
The Labour Party, in treating these accusations of antisemitism with deference, has fed both drivers in this identity formation – the sense of superiority and the sense of threat. In attempting to appease the very powerful forces at work, it has treated its members as a considerable liability – in particular pursuing the fantasy of an independent outside authority solving the problem, rather than empowering members to enter into an open, pluralist, democratic debate.
Crucially, the Labour Party needs to be a deliberative democracy where diverse perspectives are treated as equally important for the outcome of key debates. The Bannonite far right cannot thrive amongst a people who are confident about reaching across the borders between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. One-way, knee-jerk, psychometric digital messaging was always going to be their preserve, since they thrive on enemy images and prejudice.
So consider that other case, scuppered by inner-party factionalism, Labour on Brexit. Ignoring Corbyn’s carefully calibrated stance, a faction-ridden party fatally split between Leavers and Remainers, two monocultural National Us’s, each convinced of their own superiority and the existential threat presented by the Other. This handed Johnson the election by allowing him to tap into the anti-systemic energy of the UK’s UKIPised ’National Us’. He has proceeded to declare war on parliament in the name of defending the Real People, on the civil service, the judiciary, the press and BBC.
Had Labour proudly capitalised on having both articulate leavers and articulate remainers in its ranks, had it called for citizens assemblies to bring both together in every devolving nation of the UK and every English region, Labour could have seized the initiative in showing how “disagreement in a reasonable way”– democracy by (and not just for) the many – can empower us all.
The Gift of Covid-19
by Samir Gandesha
The German word for poison is das Gift. Switching between the German and English denotations brings to mind the close association between the two meanings, also suggesting the Greek word “didonai” (to give) and “dosis” (gift), the root of the English “dose,” signifying something that is given. The Covid-19 virus can be regarded as a dose of poison (das Gift); a kind of an offering or gift.
The pandemic brings into view the relation between the trauma, undoubtedly induced around the world, to individual and public physical and mental health, social relations, forms of governance and the ‘economy’ on the one hand, and the nature of thinking on the other. In his project of engaging in a destruktion (deconstruction) of the history of Western metaphysics in Sein und Zeit, Martin Heidegger proposed to bring thinking back to the primordial Greek experiences of Being – experiences in his view immediately blocked and covered over by metaphysics’ forgetfulness of being (seinsvergessenheit) in its positing of the opposition between Being and Time. (Heidegger can be taken as referring here to Plato’s claim in Theatetus that philosophy begins in thaumazein (θαυμάζειν) or “wonder” at Being in its temporal play of aletheia or simultaneous concealment and disclosure.)
The gift of das Gift is that it gives us another way of thinking about the origins of philosophy. Perhaps philosophy doesn’t begin in the wonder or the “question of Being” (seinsfrage), of “why there is something rather than nothing,” at all. What if all philosophizing, instead, begins in trauma, understood as a tear in the fabric of the symbolic order or the web of meaning that comprises a world (lebenswelt)? Hasn’t Covid-19 shattered our worlds? Trauma, in other words, is as Hal Foster frames it, “the return of the real.”
For Plato, the traumatic as opposed to wondrous origin of his philosophy was the trial and execution by the (democratic) polis of philosophy itself as personified, of course, by Socrates. Plato’s political philosophy is therefore a philosophy against politics. Resulting in a perhaps over-compensatory attempt to make the world safe for philosophy, it is a philosophy against politics masquerading as a political philosophy. Arguably, the quintessential moment of trauma presaging philosophy was, in fact, a pestilence not unlike the one we are currently living through. This mythical, Theban plague inaugurates that quintessential tragedy and provokes the thinking of a figure who has been called the “first philosopher.” Oedipus’ drive to knowledge ends the city’s suffering but begins his own and, of course, belies his (constitutive) lack of self-knowledge.
The young Hegel understood the traumatic origin of philosophy in his early attempt to grapple with the post-Kantian landscape of German philosophy, specifically with the systems of Fichte and Schelling. Philosophy comes on the scene, he argues in the so-called Differenzschrift, as a way of healing the diremptions (zerissenheit) that characterize a world torn asunder in the aftermath of the tumultuous and profoundly dislocating French Revolution – a revolution that Edmund Burke understood as fundamentally Oedipal. While Hegel will later turn such thinking into a theodicy or the “negation of the negativity” of evil in a divinely created world (yet another form of over-compensation), Theodor W. Adorno unearths the traumatic kernel of Hegel’s philosophizing brought to a head in Marx’s Das Kapital as what Adorno calls in Negative Dialektik – the “phenomenology of the anti-Spirit.”
Universal history is, therefore, not the progressive realization of a genuinely human, ethical form of life (sittlichkeit), but just its opposite. Hegel’s theodicy entails a logic whose telos is not the plenitude of Spirit but its abjection as best signified by the post-apocalyptic bunker inhabited, in a proleptic form of social isolationism, by Clov, Hamm, and Hamm’s elderly parents who are, themselves, confined to garbage cans, in Beckett’s Endgame.
Across the globe, now, people are wondering whether Covid-19 is not, in fact, the endgame of universal history in the guise of neo-liberal globalization.
Covid-19 undoubtedly constitutes a crisis and the word “crisis” derives from the Greek krisis (decision) and krinein (to decide). In late Middle English, the word comes to mean the turning point of a disease, that decisive point at which the condition of the patient manifestly improves or deteriorates. Today, we perhaps revert unconsciously to this particular sense of the word when we obsessively swipe our smart phones for reports of current status of the spread: is the curve on the upswing or downswing? In the phrase unknown just two weeks ago, but now ubiquitous and inescapable: are we, by isolating ourselves from one another like Hamm’s unhappy family, “flattening the curve”?
The crisis also has to do with the nature of our neoliberal capitalist social relations. Can we ever go back to the previous normal, the status quo ante? But was that normal ever really normal? “Ah, the good old days,” sighs Hamm’s mother. This was, we must remember, a post-human world in which human beings were quickly becoming posthumous, which is to say: increasingly obsolete. Isn’t the logic of the virus, at some level, simply an extension and deepening of the logic of that world, rather than a qualitative break from it? What, now, must change? Key to understanding this crisis as a crisis, which is to say, as a moment of decision (though, one would hope, without decisionism), is the extent to which our own traumatic present reveals what Adorno called the “primacy of the object” (vorrang des objekts) or, as alluded to above in a Lacanian register, the anxiety-provoking Real.
That the integrity of my finite, abject, possibly infected, though asymptomatic, vulnerable body is inextricable from the integrity of those of others around me, both in my immediate vicinity no less than on continents far away.
Viral pandemics such as Covid-19, and the climate change from which they are inextricable, know no borders. The well-being and indeed thriving of my body is contingent upon that of non-human animal species and the eco-systems they inhabit and constitute. In contrast to the amazement at the existence of why there is something rather than nothing, the gift of das Gift can be regarded, then, as a brutal lesson in universalism. It discloses what could be called a negative humanism grounded not in an ontology or essence of the human – the mystical “sendings of Being,” ego autonomy, or the will to power – but in the inescapable universalism of a trembling fragility and profound vulnerability to suffering, and, ultimately to that final endgame: death itself.
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