When people come back from holiday, other people, they force you to worship at the altar of their holiday. You are obliged to listen to their litany, touch the relics that they bring back with them, pay hommage to their fetiches (photos on the ipad). You have no participation in the litany; your responses are limited to isolated Amens for you were not there; you cannot contradict and it would be blasphemy to tell of your own life in its unsanctified, mundane surroundings. The time period for worship is a week or two and then the holiness dies away. Sometimes, many years later, stories arise that the pilgramage was not as sacred as it had been portrayed; they actually hated it, or had a shit time, but then it is too late. You have already been tricked into unfair worship.
As I was walking along Harleyford road on the way to the tube this morning I witnessed another irate exchange between drivers, a dialogue of expletive and honk. This cacophony of fury is a rush hour network as active and passionate as any instagram or twitter but one that goes on in the enclosed spaces of so many thousands of motors. The manly world of the car is a world I do not participate in. Lost to me are the pleasures of numerical nomenclature, that turning on the A4831 between junction 3 and junction 4; the secret delights of peering beneath a curvaceous bonnet; the carefree iniquity of gratuitous revving; the devil-may-care of drive texting or drexting; the plush erotics of leather seating, so lovingly rendered by Ballard in his masterpiece ‘Crash’; the secluded, air-conditioned interior as boy play room, a micro universe with everything at the touch of a button. Car world. As a no driver I can only dream of this. I cross at the lights and trip down into the underground. How nice to just opt out.
Buses have cameras now. Loads of them. They have a screen downstairs and you can spend your time checking the different views and looking round to see who is where. Then you see some bloke from some angle you can’t quite work out craning his neck for some reason. Just a minute. It’s not me, is it, that bloke? Ouch. It is. It’s me.
That’s the way it is when you see yourself. It’s never really you. Photographs freeze you in unnatural poses. You see, I’m not photogenic, me. My charm only reveals itself in motion. You need to see me in action to get the full flavour.
With recordings it’s even worse. You hear your own voice. Who is that pompous twit? I remember hearing myself on a recording once pronouncing the word ‘self’ over-emphasizing the ‘l’ as though I were John Gielgud in a 1930s production of ‘Much Ado about Nothing’. Is that me?
When you look at yourself in a mirror you are never really seeing yourself. You see yourself as you once were, that time that you have fixed in your mind as being how you are, which may date from ten years ago. And when you look, you scan for specific details, the details you always check about yourself. My posture; my hair; that funny bump in my nose that I once saw years ago and that I always check for. With the result being that you never see the whole. How do others see me? This is an eternal question. Who in this gym or on this bus am I the equivalent of? I mean, that bloke on the bus, he looks pretty cool, doesn’t he?
In recent months I have been boring people with my latest lament about the American cinema. What does it tell us, I ask, that half the mainstream American films that seem to come out these days are superhero films? What does it reflect about the modern American psyche? Does it say something to us about the over-weight, disempowered American populatiion that they need to see their escape in the form of the impossibly megacharged superhero and superheroine? It’s just escapism, they tell me. But when the escape mechaism is on the other side of the universe from the consumer, when the gap between the man and his fantasy is light years, there is a problem. The escape vehicle needs to be within shouting distance. The culture needs to rub close to the man. When you see Mr Universe or Mr Tornado or Ms Whirlpool or whatever they are called avoiding death from one thousand bullets and ten thousand assailants, anyone but a dim kid surely just turns off. Is it American society that creates the fictions it deserves or does the culture rub off on American society? It works both ways. Society feeds off its entertainment and entertainment feeds off society.
Enter Trump. The monster they have created. The superhero of their own construction. They ended up believing their own nonsense.
Whatever we might think, culture, entertainment is never mindless. It springs from needs and requiremnets in society, and it creates its own people, its own protagonists. Nothing is harmless.
‘L’homme est ne libre et partout il est dans les fers’* says Rousseau in Du Contrat Social. At the time in the mid-eighteenth century the nature of that enslavement was through militaristic education, the tyranny of religion and high nationalism. Now the nature of our chains has changed. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple. Our chains are of our own choosing and exist in the world of entertainment. On the train you look round and see a million reflected screens, people lost in the labyrinth of their smartworld. Algorithms make sure you are locked into your own private purgatory. The world of critical culture is disappearing down the plughole: literary fiction; Classical musical experiences (a space of reflection); opera, ballet and theatre (because in performance they can represent a critical/analtyical view onto experience); complex film. These genres are forever characterised as elitist, even though they are cheaper to consume, much cheaper, than a Beyonce concert, and more significantly, they are marginalised by the hegemony of ‘popular’ culture, which is where real power lives. This popular cultural realm exists in a self-nourishing circle where the unwitting rat in the maze (us) is fed from one business model to another. The algorithms are the new chains that Rousseau was talking about. This cultural circuit is so self-serving that there is no room for oblique or critical views. Choice is the buzz work that keeps us enslaved. When choice is so available you can live in the world of your own algorithm produced ‘tastes’. You can live in the world of cartoon network. You chew the cud of your own taste. The world you live in is the vomit you have yourself produced.
This is a difficult view to have. It looks like all dissent towards this cultural closed circuit is a plea for authoritarian enslavement of another variety (paternalistic, condescending, ‘we know what’s best for you’; the high cultural model of Shakespeare and the Booker Prize). And this is not what we want either.
This is why, perhaps now more than ever, we need to create an education system that instils proper critical faculties in its users, helps them to try to see the world as dystopia. A view of things from altitude. Or we can just candy-crush our way through life.
When I pop into Greggs to buy my cheese and ham baguette and treat myself to a bag of quavers as an hors d’oeuvre and an apple danish for afters, I’m very helpful to the vendor. I say ‘take-away’ before they even ask me if it’s for in or out. Sometimes I even say ‘to go’ because I know thet like that. And then they say ‘do you want a drink with that?’ I refrain from saying ‘if I’d wanted a drink I would have asked for one because I know they are just doing their job. But, I think to myself, that isn’t customer service, boring a customer with a superfluous, robotic question. Maybe one day a customer will say ‘oh thanks for jogging my memory, i will have a fanta with that, good job you repeat that phrase for every customer’, but I haven’t heard it yet.
In Cafe Nero the way with service is that they get a few orders in advance so that they can forget them. I’m helpful as always, ready with the order. ‘Small black americano for in. And an apricot croissant’, I say. They turn away and get the other orders and then come back to me. ‘Is Capucino, no?’ she says, the Spanish barista. ‘No’ I say. I repeat the order as concisely and helpfully as I can. ‘Small black americano for in, and an apricot croissant.’ They don’t like this order. The idea of a small drink is one of the things that gets their goat. Sometimes they show me a small cup and pull a face. ‘Small?’ they say, mouth contorted in a grimace. ‘Yes’, I say. ‘Small’, unrelenting.I use the word smallthough it has no currency for them. Small for them, I think, is ‘regular’, or is ‘regular’ medium? I’m not sure. Then they say: ‘you want milk with that?’ I just repeat my mantra: ‘small black americano for in’. Then they say: ‘Is to go?’
Really, all I want is just for someone to hear my words, and someone who doesn’t talk like a robot.