The metaphysic of dunces

We had something when there was the terrorist driving along on the bridge recently, we were supposed to be on that bridge at that time, myself and [husband] Jack.

We had a meeting in London with a PR company and we were driving on the A3 in Surrey. We normally always go the Wandsworth way, south and then back over the bridge.

Anyway we were talking about it and he went ‘We’re gonna go this way, we’re gonna go Putney way’ and I went ‘Oh alright then, we’ll see what happens’.

Thank God we did because we were literally the other side of the bridge when mayhem just went off. We would have been just off that bridge, on the other side of it, just coming off at that moment.

[nods when suggested to her that she had responded to a feeling that something was off, and a “flutter”]

…I did think, ‘Oh my God, what was that about?’ We never go the other way – never.

Thank God we weren’t there for what we might have seen, or what might have happened to us. As it was everyone was ringing us checking we were OK.

The sat nav was saying to go the other way and we always put the same thing in and it always says to go the way we go and Jack said, ‘Oh maybe we should just go Putney way’ and I said, ‘no, Putney’s always really busy’

– Martine McCutcheon, Loose Women

Adorno considered modern occultism as the counterpart to fascism. Both are symptoms of the tendency of rational thought to regress to an irrational form of rationalism under late capitalism, demonstrating the central hypothesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment: enlightenment reverts to mythology.

The ‘power of occultism, as of Fascism …lies in the fact that …consciousness famished for truth imagines it is grasping a dimly present knowledge diligently denied to it by official progress in all its forms. It is the knowledge that society, by virtually excluding the possibility of spontaneous change, is gravitating towards total catastrophe’ (Adorno, ‘Theses Against Occultism,’ 174-175). For those living under the administered society of late capitalism, the system is a net of relations in which they are caught, in which ‘everything is linked up with everything else and that they have no way out, but at the same time the whole mechanism is so complicated that they fail to understand its raison d’être and even more, they suspect that this closed and systematic organization of society does not really serve their wants and needs…’. And this system, ‘in spite of its closedness and the ingenuity of its technological functioning, seems actually to move towards self-destruction.’

The Sat-Nav

When the individual subject becomes the ‘object of large-scale organization and coordination,’ Marcuse had argued a decade earlier, individualistic rationality becomes transformed into the standardardized efficiency of a technological rationality, primarily ‘characterized by the fact that the individual’s performance is motivated, guided and measured by standards external to him, standards pertaining to predetermined tasks and functions’ (Marcuse, ‘Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,’ 65). Marcuse’s example, from 1941, makes it clear how technology indicates not the technical apparatus per se but a ‘social process …a mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships’ (Marcuse, 63):

Let us take a simple example. A man who travels by automobile to a distant place chooses his route from the highway maps. Towns, lakes and mountains appear as obstacles to be bypassed. The countryside is shaped and organized by the highway. Numerous signs and posters tell the traveler what to do and think; they even request his attention to the beauties of nature or the hallmarks of history. Others have done the thinking for him, and perhaps for the better …He will fare best who follows its directions, subordinating his spontaneity to the anonymous wisdom which ordered everything for him. The decisive point is that this attitude – which dissolves all actions into a sequence of semi-spontaneous reactions to prescribed mechanical norms – is not only perfectly rational but also perfectly reasonable. All protest is senseless, and the individual who would insist on his freedom of action would become a crank. There is no personal escape from the apparatus which has mechanized and standardized the world. It is a rational apparatus, combining utmost expediency with utmost convenience, saving time and energy, removing waste, adapting all means to the end, anticipating consequences, sustaining calculability and security (Marcuse, 66)

The development and apotheosis of such technological rationality today has, however, become objectified in the technical apparatus itself, in the sat-nav that now continually selects for us a route shaped and organized by others. “Go Putney way.”

Grasping a dimly present knowledge of the closed and systematic organization of society, in which the possibility of spontaneous change – “we never go the other way, never” – is seemingly excluded, an irrational belief in the occult provides a ‘desperate short-cut’ for a rational understanding of the ‘opaque and reified world’ of late capitalism, ‘offering both spurious understanding and flight into a supposedly higher realm.’ A belief in the occult grants such a feeling a comforting, common-sensical and pseudo-rational form, ‘making the senseless appear as though it had some hidden and grandiose sense while at the same time corroborating that this sense can neither be sought in the realm of the human nor can properly be grasped by humans’ (Adorno, ‘The Stars Down to Earth’, 157).”Oh my God, what was that about?”

Occultism gives perverse expression to a sense of the absolutely interconnected nature of all people and things, a sense that is, in the era of technological rationality, neither anachronistically theological nor fully irrational. A belief in the occult replaces the belief in God, monotheism decomposes into a mythology of spirits and ‘the unconditional becomes fact, the conditional an immediate essence’ (Adorno, ‘Theses Against Occultism,’ 172). A rented grey Hyundai Tucson, driven by a 52-untitledyear old British man once called “black Ade,” with a history of racist experiences, a series of convictions for violent offenses and a late conversion to Islam, speeds along a London bridge before crashing into railings outside the Palace of Westminster. Nearby cars and buses jam the surrounding roads, while emergency vehicles converge on the scene. Satellites orbiting the earth at 20,000 km beam radio-waves at the speed of light to be received by sat-nav devices in travelling vehicles used to triangulate locations accurate to a few metres. Computing systems combine live and historic traffic data from other sat-nav systems, mobile phone networks, and private and public traffic information services and transmit alternative route suggestions to individual sat-nav devices. A minute and a half later, six people lay dead or mortally wounded.

The Flutter

Occultism simultaneously provides a comfortingly hyper-individualized belief in personal exceptionalism: “we were supposed to be on that bridge at that time… We had a meeting in London with a PR company …We would have been just off that bridge, on the other side of it, just coming off at that moment …Thank God we weren’t there for what we might have seen, or what might have happened to us.” Occult belief is part of and mirrors the ideology of the culture industry: ‘its message appears as something metaphysically meaningful, something where the spontaneity of life is being restored while actually reflecting the very same reified conditions which seem to be dispensed with through an appeal to the “absolute”’ (Adorno, ‘The Stars Down to Earth,’ 158-9). Such a message now assumes as great a motive as the pursuit of profit itself and, as ‘the culture industry turns into public relations, the manufacturing of “goodwill” per se …a general uncritical consensus’ is communicated ‘independent of the compulsion to sell the cultural commodities which must be swallowed anyway’ (Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered,’ 100).

O’Kane argues that today ‘both capitalism and occultism are [even] more pronounced,’ with, on the one hand, ‘the neo-liberal privatization and fetishization of the market’ and, on the other, the dissemination of the “new age” movement, accompanied by the rise of “positive psychology,” into a popular culture now ‘rife with products that resemble the Adornian occult’ (O’Kane, ‘Theses Against Occultism Today: Towards Capitalism as Occultism?,‘ 59). In Richard Curtis’s 2003 Love Actually, McCutcheon plays the down-to-earth, working-class love interest of Hugh Grant’s newly elected, post-Blair Prime Minister, David. While some (here and here) see Grant’s blue-tied, Thatcher-loving character as a version of the then-PM Tony Blair (and Curtis’s own politics as ‘soggy leftism’), this is virtually the same as saying he is an creepily prescient prophecy of the first half of David Cameron’s premiership (with Curtis only failing to anticipate Brown’s brokered deal to replace Blair in 2007), right down to Grant’s own hammy rehearsal of Cameron’s “Britain may be a small island” speech. This would be genuinely prescient if the political victory of Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism” wasn’t in part the very product of Curtis’s cinematic vision.

Tim Adams has described “Curtisland” as ‘an apolitical place, full of can-do possibility, obsessed with the educated middle class, perfectly relaxed about the filthy rich, much more in love with sentiment than ideas, and insatiable in its optimism.’ Cameron’s upbringing (son of a stockbroker, privately educated at Heatherdown School near Ascot and Eton, read PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford) is close enough to that of Curtis (son of a Unilever executive, privately educated at Pappelwick School near Ascot, head boy at Harrow, and read Literature and Language at Christ Church, Oxford) to makes him the ideal political leader of Curtisland; this is simply to say, as William Davies does, that because all Curtis’s films ‘are implicitly or explicitly about Richard Curtis …Love Actually …is basically 12 different plots, centred around Richard Curtis falling in love …In some of them Richard Curtis is gay or Prime Minister or a porn actor, just to prove how transferable his dreary middle class foppishness is from one scenario to the next’.

The cynicism of Bill Nighy’s rock star Billy Mack’s “festering turd of a record,” Christmas is All Around, provides the hyper-commercialized, ultra-commodified foil against which the real brands placed in Curtis’s film appear less as fetishized commodities and more as the backdrop to Curtis’s public relations exercise for a middle-class, gentrified London itself: ‘Hertz and Europcar simply appear onscreen in …Love Actually‘ (Lehu, ‘Branded Entertainment: Product Placement and Brand Strategy in the Entertainment Business,’ 5), just as the London restaurant Dans le Noir appears in About Time (2013). Similar to Curtis’s political public relations exercises in the Comic Relief and Make Poverty History campaigns, which are characterized by a revolution in cultural consumption rather than economic production, here the fetish character of the commodity is transferred to London and Britain themselves as cultural commodities. The manufacturing of good will, in Curtis’s films, becomes the commodification of love, happiness and British values; with the regression from religion to occultism, the ‘social quality that now animates’ such products is ‘given an independent existence both natural and supernatural, a thing among things’ (Adorno, ‘Theses Against Occultism,’ 173).

File:Love Actually (2003) Interconnections.svg

Love Actually‘s tightly triangulated net of social relations presents both the objectified spectacle of an interconnected society and the comforting metaphysics of fleeting but fatalistic encounters for a liberal and secular world: “perfect moments,” in the words of McCutcheon’s 1999 single, that offer the consolation that “if love never comes again; I can always say I’ve been; To paradise skies in your eyes.” As Grant’s PM David intones over the opening visuals:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the Arrivals Gate at Heathrow airport. General opinion’s starting  makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed but I don’t see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified, or newsworthy – but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Before  the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate and revenge – they were all messages of love. lf you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you’ll find that love actually is all around. (Love Actually)

The Terror

For Adorno, the occult exercises a hynoptic power that, in merging with the acceptance of an authoritarian society, also mingles ‘sardonic laughter’ with a sense of the ‘hostile and conspiratorial’ forces that terrorize us (Adorno, ‘Theses on Occultism,’ The Stars Down to Earth, 173-175). In a world without accidents, Love Actually‘s reference to 9-11 is more than fortuitous. Similarly, Comic Relief’s Love Actually sequel, in which Grant’s re-elected PM gives another impassioned speech about love and humanity (‘Obviously, times have got harder, and people are nervous and fearful …Love is all around, most people still every day have enough love in their heart to help human beings in trouble. Good is going to win, I’m actually sure of it’), it also has been said, ‘presumably by serendipity, seemed to defy this week’s Westminster terror attacker.’

In this context, futile and senseless acts of random violence can assume the spectacle of political terror, providing succour for the way of life – the interconnected social relations – of those who rush to extract comforting meaning from them. According to Metropolitan police, the Westminster attacker is now believed to have ‘acted alone,’ with no certainty whether he had been inspired by terrorist propaganda and a ‘possibility we will never understand why he did this.’ Most news reports and politicians’ responses, however, emphasized the violence committed as an attack on the city, on the country, on the rule of law, on democracy, on abstract values of liberty, freedom, justice, tolerance, freedom of speech and human rights, on national spirit or on a whole way of life:

This was not only an attack on our city and our country but on the values we cherish most: democracy, freedom, justice and tolerance… We Londoners have experienced horrific attacks and tragedy before… Every time, without fail, those seeking to destroy our way of life have failed. (Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London)

The terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech. These streets of Westminster, home to the world’s oldest parliament are ingrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe. And the values our Parliament represents – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law, command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere. That is why it is a target for those who reject those values. (Theresa May, Prime Minister)

We may never know if it was also an attack on “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot, David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.”

In contrast to this, the media and political responses to the politically-motivated killing of MP Jo Cox were more cautious, muted and reserved, remaining focused on the personal, specific and concrete (here and here, for example, where only at the end does the PM describe ‘the democracy and freedoms Jo stood for’ as ‘unbreakable’). This despite the evidence that her 52-yeard old male killer self-identified as a ‘political activist,’ was inspired by the fascist terrorism of David Copeland and Anders Breivik, and sought to advance the cause of white supremacism and nationalism by bringing “Death to traitors,” declaring: “Britain first, keep Britain independent, Britain will always come first. This is for Britain.” There was, it seems, no terrorist attack against British values the day Jo Cox was assassinated. No one reported a flutter that afternoon. Occultism meets its match in fascism.

One thought on “The metaphysic of dunces

  1. Pingback: Some Notes on Jungian Archetypes: Symbolism and the Politics of History | Pedagogy & the Inhumanities

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