Performance Publishing
Header

Poppycock

November 9th, 2009 | Posted by David in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

The tale is told of a propaganda film where Stalin, wandering along a country lane enjoying the sunshine, comes across a peasant with a broken down tractor. Bizarrely he rolls up his sleeves, inspects the engine and soon it is up and running again. The intention of the propagandist is clear but, as Zizek has pointed out, what the film ends up provoking us to wonder is what kind of system is this that is so broken that the head of state needs to roam the countryside replacing spark plugs and getting cats out of trees.

I recall this story today hearing the news about ‘the Brown blur’, our PM, who has failed to get the facts straight in a hand-written note of condolence to a mother whose son was killed in Afghanistan. But of course the story as reported misses the point, merely describing his ineptitude and provoking a debate over whether he really cares or not. What we should be asking is how a PM should demonstrate his care. He should certainly not be writing little notes. How about forming a war cabinet? Or describing more specific and achievable war aims? How about withdrawing from the process of corrupt ‘State Building’? More troops and equipment would go down well with all service families.

What the row does successfully suggest, though, is that Brown’s focus is on scoring political points with the war instead of winning it. Each decision is weighed against electoral concerns rather than facing up to the cost of securing one’s borders. What enrages me on another Remembrance Day is that we persist in the nineteenth century practice of recruiting the economically disadvantaged, preferably from the North, so Middle Class w***ers can get on with selling houses to each other blissfully ignorant of the process by which we remain safe in our beds. This leads to a situation where war aims are not realised because they make the voters uncomfortable. The (next)  PM must redefine war aims immediately, decide if we can afford to pull out on the basis of the international risks, and then put in place the resources to win.

The poppy has become an increasingly ironic symbol. A reminder of the waste of a generation in the trenches, it has now come full circle to Afghanistan, where, as in India, the British government in collaboration with the East India Co. cultivated an illegal Opium Trade designed to bypass Chinese sovereignty and make lots of money. The poppy fields there were part of the deliberate destabilisation of the region for profit. And indeed the country was also the buffer zone between the Raj and the Russian Empire. May the poppy serve not only as a reminder of the government’s failure to remember not to waste young lives for the sake of votes, but also a reminder that we are are literally and metaphorically reaping what they sowed over a hundred years ago.

‘If you walk with Jesus
he’s going to save your soul.
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole’.

As the whole of the chattering classes emerges bereft from the last series of the American police drama The Wire (screened on BBC2 years after the original series ran in the States), it’s worth asking what, if anything, the series’ message was. The lines quoted above are from its theme tune, the Tom Waits song ‘Down in the Hole’.

‘Down in the Hole’ itself is taken from Waits’ album Frank’s Wild Years, a work that reflects musical influences such as cabaret and Kurt Weill’s musical theatre. As such, ‘Down in the Hole’ is performed in the persona of a crazed preacher, one of many ‘voices’ that Waits adopts on the album. In this sense, the song appears to ‘perform’ belief, the lyrics a theatricalisation of faith. Waits seems to perform what it is like to believe in Jesus (and the devil) rather than actually believing in them.

So we might think of Waits’ song, and The Wire, as exercising a sort of ironic distancing. In the ‘real world’, simplistic beliefs about morality, good and evil, and God are naïve and as such can only be ‘performed’. Going down this route, The Wire’s world of cycles of drug addiction, narcotics dealing, police and political corruption is left untouched by its ironic preface. In other words, we may want to be able to ‘keep the devil down in the hole’, but it ‘ain’t gonna happen’.
But here is the problem. For The Wire seems to strive to find moral and ethical solutions to the problems it describes. Its cynicism has a limit; it still allows the viewer to hope. Indeed its very anger at the world is also a longing for things to be different, to be right. So perhaps could the song’s role be not to shrug off the certainties of faith but rather to kindle a nostalgia for faith?

Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian psychoanalyst, Marxist and ubiquitous cultural commentator is one of the most prominent intellectuals to articulate this nostalgia for Christianity. Except, for Žižek, it isn’t really nostalgia; on the contrary, the ethical core of Christianity allows this radical Marxist to critique the vapid spirituality of late capitalism, embodied in fads for the New Age and pseudo-buddhism.

Instead, he argues for the radical-revolutionary heart of Christianity to be rediscovered. In contrast to modernity’s insistence on keeping faith as a private ‘obscene secret’, he follows his master G.K. Chesterton in recommending the topsy-turvy public values of Christianity. Here, strong moral boundaries are the way to true pleasure, belief in mystery the only way to really rational thinking.

Following this thread, The Wire’s ‘nostalgia for faith’ becomes more than misty-eyed. It is real; churches (black ones especially) are some of the few places in the series where real good can be accomplished. Individuals are redeemed. The heroin addict Bubbles’ speeches at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Series Five are framed beneath a central crucifix. In the third series the rogue detective Jimmy McNulty is told by his colleague Lester Freamon that ‘the job won’t save you’. But what will?

It is in this space that the radical, redemptive message of Christianity can step in. In breaking the cycles of corruption and violence what may be needed is the kind of regeneration that can’t be dreamt up by property developers and politicians. I mean by this not to urge a bland ‘let’s all understand faith’, à la Tony Blair. The core of Christianity is much more radical and world-changing than that, and the flattening of all religions into one-size-fits-all does none of them any favours.

I acknowledge this reading of The Wire as my own, and partial. But is the space between The Wire’s keeping ‘the devil down in the hole’ and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s ‘beating down Satan under our feet’ so big?

June last year many of you will remember the show we did with Half-handed Cloud in the Foundry, where the basement was adapted to be a giant record player. The poster we released at that show has followed us ever since – at dinner with friends and at  parties we are occassionally greeted by one of the edition as we enter their home.

Now fans of H-hC in the USA can buy the poster through the Asthmatic Kitty record label. And a new release compiling the dispirate and sometimes ephemeral H-hC releases is also just out.

Apparently there are moves to expel Italy from the G8 group following its disastrous handling of the recent conference in L’Aquila. The story has run in parallel with the lurid pyramid of revelations around the sexual shenanigans of Silvio Berlusconi, a story which has eclipsed all other Italian news. For most commentators, such is the logical endgame of seven years of Berlusconian buffoonery played out in the world press. But behind this lies an older attitude – the old refusal to take Italy seriously. The country is all show – or rather all showbusiness, behind which nothing of substance rests.

Similar feelings were expressed in the 1920s in foreign reactions to the rise of another northern Italian strongman. Berlusconi is no Benito Mussolini, but the political lessons remain. Within 13 years of the Fascist rise to power, Italy had illegally invaded Abyssinia, gassed thousands of Africans and was under League of Nations sanctions. But outside commentary in the early years of what the Fascists portentously called the New Era more or less restricted itself to poking fun at its inflated rhetoric and delusions of grandeur.

A 1920s French cartoon, typical for its time, showed the Fascists as Romulus and Remus blowing on the udders of a she-wolf, grotesquely blown up like a balloon. Talk from the Duce about a new Roman empire was treated with ridicule, as hot air. Whilst the political cant was laughed off, British newspapers, magazines and travel guides were often heartily enthusiastic about the improved conditions of Italy: tourist sites restored, transport made efficient, bureaucracy cut.

Nowadays what we ignore when we snigger at Italy is an increasingly dramatic turn towards racism and insularity. In visits to Berlusconi’s Italy over the last eight years I have seen swastikas daubed on walls, graffiti urging the expulsion of Romanians, and most chillingly, the simple words ‘Muslims in the ovens’ scrawled on a twenty euro note. Berlusconi says he doesn’t like the idea of a ‘multi-ethnic’ Italy; and his alliance with the post-Fascist National Alliance and the increasingly anti-immigrant Northern League suggest he won’t be changing his tune any time soon. Laughing at Berlusconi won’t make any difference. His bluff, ‘man on the street’ crassness is also the core of his support.

The Italian Left respond with soporific, academic lectures that have little broad-base appeal. Whilst Berlusconi is known as the ‘cavaliere’, ‘the knight’, the centre-left leader Romano Prodi (whose spell in power briefly broke Berlusconi’s reign in 2006 to 2008) has always been referred to as the ‘Professor’. On the left, bookish owlishness; on the right, theatrical clowning interpreted as ‘man of action’ valour. On the sidelines, the world laughs. When travellers like Goethe, Byron and Shelley came to Italy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they tended to imagine that no-one lived there – that Italy was a country of ruins. The ruins remain, but a potentially explosive mixture of xenophobia and rightist politics is brewing behind the palazzo façades. If we and the leaders of the EU treated the clown king Berlusconi with less indulgence, we might find his antics rather less amusing.

David Barnes is a poet, prose writer, and academic who recently completed his PhD on portrayals of Venice. He has delivered papers on Ezra Pound internationally, and is a contributor to our ‘Erroneous Disposition of the People’ publication.

The most expensive expenses

May 16th, 2009 | Posted by David in Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

People are now calling for a general election, new systems and prosecutions in the light of MPs expenses scandals. This is appropriate, but I think it is worth looking at the speck in our eye as we look at the plank in theirs. If you look at the recent scandals of the Commons, why didn’t we provide a chorus demand fundamental changes when MPs led us into war, for example? When the protest was unsuccessful we sort of said a collective ‘sod-it’ and forgot about it. Still no WMDs and Blair now has an inappropriate Foundation to his name. Does it only take misuse of our MONEY before we demand fundamental changes to the system?

Visit our sister site Dalston Bloc

Why is it all you read about the European Union election on June 4th is how you must use your vote lest the Nazis get enough of a vote to get a seat? Is that really the most compelling reason that can be found for us to go out and vote?

Two points worthy of comment spring to mind, the first being the illogic of what the general public appear to be afraid of, and the second is the underlying structural problem we are not addressing.

Firstly, this call to voters to go out and vote primarily to block the BNP threatens to backfire in a couple of important ways. This will be seen by proponents of authoritarianism as an open admission that democracy is dangerous, i.e. extremist elements like the BNP can get an influence. The same quarter will also take this as an open admission that democracy is failing because nobody actually goes out to vote. What I think is really happening is a knee-jerk reaction against proportional representation. We are not used to the idea of extreme elements getting a seat because of our first-past-the-post system. The real problem to address is voter apathy. 

Voter apathy is caused by having no genuine choice in the election because ‘politicians are all the same’ and the system appears to most voters to be designed to prevent change, especially on a local level where they might be tempted to engage. Ironically this is an indictment of our particular first past the post system. If we were to have greater influence as voters by having a proportional representation, the BNP would have less chance of being elected because of wide participation. As it is we are now being asked to simulate an enthusiastic electorate to keep them out for the period of european involvement. This is merely British paranoia about coalition government. Other countries end up incorporating a lunatic fringe because their system is more representational, but keep them in check by actually voting with real hopes in mind. If we want to slam the BNP then we cannot afford to add to their sense of victimhood by openly marginalising them. We need to defeat them in the open by having a fair system wherin they have a chance of inclusion and yet it fails to become manifest through their own unpopularity. Our current system inflates their threat and increases their influence by conspiring to deny them a seat. This demands a proportional system, education against racism and national insecurity, legal action against the red-top press when it distorts issues like immigration, and pallatable alternatives to the BNP in mainstream parties.

This brings me to the second point, which is escaping public attention. Our system is designed to create a semi-authoriatarian governing body, effectively a wartime government, probably because of needing to control a massive empire in the past. We no longer have this empire, and a strong side of the house with a bent towards accomodating perpetual struggle, possibly armed, is very similar to a Nazi philosophy of government. There’s the irony. The dominant party is almost able to bring in things like ID cards, start war with impunity, indulge in biopolitics… Looks like the nazis already have a pretty big share of the vote!

If we want to prevent the slide into totalitarianism, as we obviously must, we should remember history clearly. The Nazis in Germany got influence because they had a lot of public support and were able to exclude the Communists through underhand scheming. We are not going to become a racist state by the BNP getting one seat and 8%. If we are up to 8% racist we need to address the root causes and not try and ameliorate this at the ballot box by half-heartedly excluding 8% of our population who are racists. We must not confuse the BNP, who are racists, with the Nazis, who were biopolitical and totalitarian in addition to being racists.  The truth is that it is the mainstream parties who are utilising all the old Nazi tricks and conflating biological and political motives, and part of the reason they get away with it is pointing to the racist fringe and calling them the Nazis.

Jake Thackray

April 16th, 2009 | Posted by David in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

I spent some time with friend of the family Eddie Farrell in Berlin and, like two Englishman are prone to do in Berlin, we spent too much time talking about the Wars. But it reminded us of this documentary about Jake Thackray, which ended on this wonderful understated song. It’s peculiar, but I realise now that all through my life I’ve had a kind of clock in my imagination measuring my age against possible conscription. When I heard about the Gulf War I thought, oh damn, I’ll be called up, and I remember my best mate Gav thought the same, and I thought we’d die together and they’d bury us with our arms linked like they used to. And when I crippled my arch I thought at least they’s have to think twice about putting me in jungle footwear. And when I married that put me further away, and at some point recently I felt relief that I was now too old. I think it was one of the most useful impressions my Dad {similar in age and appearance to Jake} left on me; that there was this absurd circumstance beyond our control where they would line up thousands of young men on two sides, and that we would advance on each other and somehow everything would disappear.

Whilst travelling we noticed some interesting social commentary going on in the various approaches different nations have towards crossing the road. In Berlin and Leipzig people always wait for the illumination of the Green Man. Our friend was prevented from crossing the road by a 20 yr old anarchist who explained that it sets a bad example to children to cross on red (note that this is a correct example of anarchism). Nobody ever crosses on red. This was taken further in Norway, where those who obviously were considered outcasts by themselves and others were taking the Red Man as an opportunity to publically express their standing by waiting for the Green Man to go away before commencing their crossing. And of course in England we have a button whose function it is to illuminate the word WAIT, which most other peoples seem to overlook. It took me ages to realise that they probably communicate nothing to the traffic lights unless you’re in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps it merely replicates the British approach to law; a button we elect to push that tells us to do something we wouldn’t do if we hadn’t chosen to be told to do it, and then promptly ignore.

Atheist Bus Fun

February 9th, 2009 | Posted by David in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

You know what buses are like, you wait ages for one and then two come at once

Ping*s Bus