Zombies believe in Ghosts but not Toasters

Ever since I attended Haunters and theHaunted I have been dwelling on the concept of ghost labor and ghost desires. This post will explore the concepts of ghost labor and ghost desires – or, to be more precise, according some thoughts I put HERE, phantom labor and phantom desires.

In this article The Guardian does what it does best. It criticises the ‘government’, an admirable endeavour, but forgets to make any substantial point in doing so. Indeed, The Guardian has perfected the fine art of hand wringing and brow furrowing – so much so one could be forgiven for thinking it is the end of its work and not the means to say or demonstrate anything else.

The article is concerned with zero hours contracts. It details the plight of people who wake up each morning not knowing if they are going to work or not. Such stuff is standard fare and nothing new. Of course, for the people trapped in such a predicament, it is awful – but this is where my agreement with the article end. It is largely where the articles opinion ends too. Nobody needs a smug Oxford grad’s gleefully tutting reportage to know that a father of young children would find life hard if he had to wake up each morning not knowing if he is going to get paid that day. It is a fretful piece of click-bait, but no doubt many will read it in their parlours and exclaim how frightful it all is.

Chakrabortty writes “that something in the jobs market is fundamentally broken”. What I want to argue here is that it is not the nature of jobs that are broken. It is the market itself. I do not want an end to zero hour contracts. I want an end to the necessities of work for humans. The toasters can deal with precarity. I want an end to the sellers of labor, the workers, who feel they have a right to sell, to exchange their time and efforts for money. Admittedly this is, at first glance, an offensive sentiment. Let me explain. Presently people have to work to live. So people have to work. It is perhaps because of this that the phantom right – the right to work rears its Thatcherite hood. No one should have a right to work. If you feel you have a right to provide some sort of service in exchange for money you are, like the many presuppositions in the media, missing the point entirely. One doesn’t and should never have a right to work. One should have a right to life – a life that includes a reasonable amount of means. Means to eat and live in some form of comfort. The right to work is a phantom belief. It is caused by a similar process of denial and deferral as I detailed in my blog on BMW cars. The right to work cloaks the fact that people need work in order to sustain a life. The belief in the right to work or the right to be able to find a job is the mask of the belief that humans have no right to continue living in any meaningful way. The right to work only gains political purchase at the moment that the right to lead a meaningful life in and of itself diminishes. If one takes the position that a person has no right to a meaningful life then you presuppose that that person should somehow earn it. This is the dominant belief today. If you are lucky enough to toil away for some vague but precarious remuneration then splendid – enjoy your hard won milky coffee.

However, as I said, I do not believe that people have any right to earn anything. Instead I believe people have a right to some sort of life with means to do various things. This belief is not at all radical. It is, and this may sound absurd at first, a belief that is more inline with the job market trajectory of late capitalism than the belief that people have a right to work. Here is why.

We all know most cognitive labour is pointless. Pointless in that the majority of cognitive labour is essentially quantification – aside from the fringes of innovation and creativity the contagion of counting and collating dominates. The trend in almost all work is quantification. “Lets get busy with our abaci and tot stuff up!” is the unspoken mantra of today. It extends to Doctors, who, fresh from taking the Hippocratic oath, are tasked with budgeting for the life and health of their patients. It extends to teachers who find themselves trapped in an administrative maze of confidence eroding self-evaluation and anxiety inducing peer review processes. School corridors are like private businesses operating ni a nature somewhere between Kafkian labyrinth and institutional Panopticon. Private businesses too are dogged by the frenzy of quantification. My first job was with a small company that visibly displayed this. The company employed more people to count the sales and profit margins of our product than people to sell and fit the product.

Of course, any form of quantification is essentially work that can be done by computers. Today some aspects of it still require fleshy little things in dull suits to help out but in the future I have no doubt that it will be possible for all aspects of any quantifiable work tobe fully automated. Of course, not all work is quantifiable work. But much work is. Postmen, factory workers, warehouse workers, taxi-drivers, payroll administrators, lifeguard etc are the types of jobs that are easy to imagine being farmed out to machines. After all, I would rather Sonny watched over me than an volatile, illogical and emotionally driven human like me. I expect that in my lifetime the manually operated car will die once insurance companies price up the less reliable driver and private companies insist on increasing amounts of out of office engagement. The jobs of today are tomorrow’s algorithms.

In William Gibson’s The Peripheral Flynne Fisher works online in a virtual London. She is employed to swat flying dragonfly-like paparazzi drones away from a location. “They were interested in the building. Like AI emulating bugs, but she knew how to do that herself.” This is what work is today. The circus of collation, quantification and evaluation is little more than bald mammals emulating the AI that will soon usurp them. This may seem hyperbolic but even the medium of work is now better tailored to machines than our rickety bi-pedal operating system. Modern work is conducted more often than not in digital worlds or via communication networks. We have automated our signatures, our authenticating mark of absent presence, on work communiqué. Isn’t the out of office signature a sign of things to come? The thin end of the wedge? So why not automated the rest of ourselves? Why should we toil away in zombied ruts of familiarity doing repetitive work that can be better done by a computer?

Automation of work will not cease and nor should it. I do not ever want a human doing work a machine could do. The combine harvester was a good thing. But this is where I come back to zero hour contracts. What is the ultimate appeal of such contracts to employers? Flexibility. As anyone can appreciate, an employer (especially a profit making business), would rather pay over the odds for short term workers than pay less for workers who will may require redundancy payouts, sick pay, maternity pay and various other entitlements of permanent workers. From a balancing the books perspective, from a dynamic-and-fast-paced (read precarious) business perspective it makes sense. It makes sense in a particularly economic way. Profit making companies need to constantly discover and introduce efficiencies so that they can survive. They may do so for a variety of reasons. I except that such a variety would include increased profits for shareholders or so they can undercut their competitors and grow. Nonetheless, if a company cannot continue to compete in its market it would not survive. Mechanise or die. The zero hour contract is the limit point of human work. It is the bleeding edge of mechanisation and human labour. It is a space where humans are still needed for things machines cannot quite do yet – but not needed quite so much a whole permanent workforce is needed. Zero hour contract workers are needed in the most disposable and myopic fashion. Modern companies commit more to property, equipment and infrastructure than they do to people.

But, unlike Chakrabortty, I do not think that the solution lies in discovering secure jobs for everyone. Rather, I think that it is time to face up to the fact that jobs for all (humans) is a fantasy. The cloaked denial of a decent life for everyone that masquerades as the right to work is what holds late Capitalism back from more automation and efficiencies. To believe in the giveness of the necessity of work and engage with zeal in tasks that could be done by a machine is to become zombie careerist. Today most people (especially in the private sector) will move through three consecutive careers. Self-employed consultation is at an all time high in the UK. How many more registers of the flat-lining ‘job for life’ does one need? More it seems. Because zombie workers engaged in phantom work seem not to accept this but push more and more in the face of eroded security, employment rights and conditions people keep at it. Presumably in the hope that if they can just give that extra pound of flesh then stability and wealth will follow. Sadly, for so many, I doubt this will happen.

So, the end question is what happens to the people who don’t work. Once the right to work is dismantled a right to live must be secured. The solution is surprisingly compatible with our Capitalist value system: universal basic income (UBI). Under UBI, the fallacy of the right to work would perish and the recurring benefits media headache would be appeased. In the UK an increasingly large chunk of benefits spending goes to people who are already working. Also, for the ‘government’, pension spending is over ten times that of jobseekers allowance. UBI could solve both of these. The first question put UBI is often: how will it be afforded? A corporate Robot tax that lands somewhere between human tax threshold and the current average human worker income, perhaps in the region of five or six thousand per annum is an obvious opportunity. There are more promising prospects for affording UBI if Capitalism is allowed to run its course. Capitalism needs punters. High-finance algorithms trading between ‘one another’ aside, machines alone don’t turn a profit. So for Capitalism to continue people need to continue to be engaged in various stratum of consumerism, be it necessity or frivolity. But more importantly the refinement of Capitalist business, the very competition driven practice of automation for efficiency, will allow for cheaper and cheaper products on condition of a free-market (so of course it wouldn’t work for things like trains). As businesses force one another into increasing states of efficiency, as people chose not to work because they simply do have to and make choices about their own buying the old utopian fantasy of better products and less work comes into possibility. It is a strange thought. It is strange to think that for Capitalism to continue it needs less human workers and a trajectory including universal basic income. UBI is often talked of under the shadow of Marx or Communism but I feel it may gain traction in my lifetime as a means to maintain Capitalism.

In Postcapitalist Desire Fisher bats Jamesons dialectic of Wal-Mart back at Louise Mensch’s comments about Occupy London Stock Exchange causing nothing more than Starbucks biggest ever queues. Mensch made the tired connection between anti-capitalist protestors and their use of capitalist products. In Utopia as Replication Jameson detailed how Wal-Mart is an oddly dialectical enterprise. It is utter capitalism thus it operates in the most uncapitalistic fashion. It is the beating heart of Capitalism, and thus, has killed capitalism – as one anonymous CEO once said: ‘Wal-Mart killed free-market capitalism.’ In Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire this dialectic is extended to brands like Starbucks and Apple. Starbucks and Apple embody all the typical and worn criticisms of communism; they are generic, homogenous, crush individuality or enterprise. But they are also massively efficient and highly automated networks. Fisher cites Jameson’s sense of dialectic within capitalism and suggests that the ‘dialectical ambivalence’ of ‘admiration and positive judgment…accompanied by…absolute condemnation’ is found in all the loyally hateful patrons of so many ubiquitous and anonymous corporations. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Apple who are, in all their monopolistic blandness, simultaneously capitalist to the point of being communist.

Fisher, asks: ‘can’t we conceive of consumer capitalism’s culture of ready-meals, fast food outlets, anonymous hotels and disintegrating family life as a dim pre-echo of precisely the social field imagined by early soviet planners’. Absolutely. Our fetishization of the latest anonymous iPhone, or vaguely differentiated car, is little else than a collective enthusiasm of the homogeneity of state communism. Everything you think is Capitalist, the coffee, the laptops, the anonymous suburbs and panelled non-spaces of hotel foyers is strangely communist. But this is where I want to come back to UBI. Isn’t UBI the only conceivable way to maintain our current form of capitalism and the trajectories of automation? Is UBI the spectre of capitalism? Far from being a quite communist or socialist drive, UBI could be regarded as a drive to maintain the political structure of global laissez-faire capitalism? Is UBI the only possible solution to keeping the capitalism of market driven efficiencies? After returning from the job centre, now staffed entirely with robots, UBI would be our last resort. The phantom of the right to work must give way to the spectre of how to maintain capitalism. UBI would also be the only way for companies to survive, to maintain their consumer markets. Our only way to keep Kraft, P&G, Nestle et al in business and afford a little life for ourselves as well is UBI. UBI could save us from having to work to live, but only by maintaining the current trajectory of capitalism.  

Terminator vs. Ghostbusters

On Wednesday I went to Tate Britain to hear Amy Ireland, Mark Fisher and Luke Pendrell speak at Haunters and the Haunted, the last in the Speculative Tate series. I hadn’t been to any of the other talks but I must say this part did what panel talks should do: stimulate thought. It is this thought I would like to explore here. My thoughts are not fully formed yet, they are more questioning and exploratory. Hence, they are here on my blog!

Ireland’s talk concerned itself at times with Land’s concept of Teleoplexy and its end point for us. The Landian accelerationist moment of transformation, for us, as we understand ourselves today, is an end point. The faceless machines coming to Bethlehem was one of the themes put forward. In a way Land’s project was contextualized within a continuum of particular formulations of a modernist aesthetic. It is a continuum that does not look for our own new solution, but imagines a change brought about by an AI driven dawn of non-knowledge. I won’t try to outline Ireland’s particular narrative content in any critical detail; instead I wish to focus on Teleoplexy in isolation. The following is my take on the of Teleoplexic end-point of Landian Accelerationism.

Teleoplexy is the trajectory of machines, faceless machines that seek efficiency. It is a seeking indifferent to the human. It correlates with many things (Land, 2014, p.514) but the crucial aspect for me here is twofold. Firstly that it organizes the fleshy things around it, the humans. It also organizes our little coins and creaking communication networks. Secondly that the concept of Teleoplexy, its mode or operation if you will, is based on the most fundamental of circuitry theories – cybernetic intensification. Thus, although Teleoplexy is a vast prospect, its basis has unnervingly simple groundings: technological modulation of humans and cybernetic intensification. But this is not the end of the story, because supposedly as Teleoplexy blossoms many things occur. The most important facts of its blossoming for me are that the machines gain consciousness and are able to quantify the world – a vaguely techo-gaia or cybernetic singularity type prospect that Land (along with Sadie Plant and Iain Hamilton Grant) would term ‘anorganic convergence’. This is Skynet as fate: ‘technics is increasingly thinking about itself. It might still be a few decades before artificial intelligences surpass the horizon of biological ones, but it is utterly superstitious to imagine that the human dominion of terrestrial culture is still marked out in centuries, let alone some metaphysical perpetuity.’ (Land, 2011, p.293)

If you consider Teleoplexy as a massive sprawling intensifying machine, a machine that inhabits any non-human object in the world, then that circuit’s consciousness is an unthinkable and horrific prospect (unthinkable in the proper Thackerian horror sense – see Thacker, Clouds of Unknowing, 2011, pp.1-9). Teleoplexy also ‘names historical process in time’ (Ireland) It collapses the past and future, or time running forwards or backwards. Because such folksy linearity, the spasm of humanoid time must cease – or rather, already has! Teleo-plexy is the end to the seizure of history as linear time.

But further to this horrific prospect there is another. It is that such an immense and world sprawling network may come to ask itself: ‘what is the value of this earth?’ It is at this point that catastrophe (as indistinguishable from confluence) comes. Of course, it may well be a catastrophe of the human as we know it, but crucially, and most importantly it is an end to the technonomic currency. Capitalism or any value system that is hierarchical, inefficient and unequal is able to be, for the first time stripped of its values and potencies: denominated. (Land, 2014, p.520) For Land this is not a case of if but of when we will experience what has already happened in the future.

This is a powerful and bombastic notion with a streak of shiny booted indifference threaded through it. But do not get it wrong, Land is not arguing for more machines and more Capitalism as we know it today. As Ireland was sure to point out, Land is not wishing to accelerate the domestic trappings of the bourgeoisie and their political accessories. Quite the contrary: “The deep secret of capital-as-process is its incommensurability with the preservation of bourgeois civilization, which clings to it like a dwarf riding a dragon.” (Land, 2011, p.265) More shops are not the answer. An intensifying economy isn’t the answer. Rather, an AI afforded catastrophy that renders all economies (libidinal, nominal, oedipal, temporal) dethroned is. Such a notion is, at best, indifferent to our current humanism but it does have, at its core, a sort of strange inhuman positivity. It is of course, so inhuman in its nature that to call it positive chimes oddly. To call it nihilistic would be more correct under local frameworks. But for me it is positive in a nihilistic way because it outlines how a massive change will happen – not could happen. For me this is what is significant. It seems that in the paralyzing impasse of today, a world that is easier to imagine ending in fire and brimstone than emancipated from Capitalism, Lands texts are still conspicuous by virtue of their ambition to set out a trajectory of future change (albeit relinquished to autonomous technics and machines). Maybe not any time soon, and maybe not without some form of planetary cataclysm – but it will one day. It is a Teleoplexic Spectre – a fate haunting the present.

The obvious criticism here is the difficult question. Is the end of Capitalism worth the destruction of our familiar libidinal, technonomic, oedipal and temporal castles? However, and this elucidates how easy it can be to criticism Land too quickly, such a question is flawed. It is a doomed question because it accepts one part of Teleoplexy, the end of Capitalism, but forgets the other: the fact that it has already happened – we just haven’t tottered to it yet in our quaint linear time. Such a question is a false luxury, a mirage, a phantom that haunts us because we are dumb and weak – so dumb and weak we can only navigate space and not time. In Land’s project the luxury of such a question is impossible, it has never existed. Our faceless fate is sealed.

Fisher’s and Pendrell’s talks were quite different from Ireland’s. Like Ireland’s I cannot recall in fine detail the narratives of each but there was a dominant theme of hauntings, ghosts and spectres. It is this that I will focus on here. In the discussion afterwards a few dominant themes emerged. One was a lack of creativity (or as Fisher would suggest a marked absence of future-shock in the last twenty years). Another was the Sisyphean absurdity of being forced to continue in pointless, endless work. It is on these points that I want to raise a definition that I tried to highlight then. It is lifted directly from Davis’ essay ‘Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms’. Davis’ essay explores how Derrida, in Spectres of Marx, took his very particular notion of the ghost or spectre. The ghost that informed hauntology was a very specific type of ghost – a ghost that is distinctly different from a phantom. Davis’ circles the different geneses of hauntologies in more detail than I can do justice to here but I feel that the crux of the argument is the definition between a spectre and a phantom. We can say that the phantom lies with Abraham and Torok whereas the spectre remains Derrida's secret.

Lets look at the differences between the phantom and the spectre. On an epistemological level one can take the spectre to be something unknowable, a liminal thing, a limit, a lacunae whereas a phantom is knowable by its falsity. The phantom is in our narrative, it is known whereas the spectre always remains to a large degree outside our knowledge and narrative. Keeping this in mind we must see each as a form or type of secret. Phantoms lie to us, they do not tell the truth, but such a deceit is within our world. Spectres are secrets because they themselves are never fully known. Phantoms are liars that we must uncover to be so in order to banish them. Spectres on the other hand cannot really be banished in the same operation as the phantom because they were never in our world or our narrative framework to begin with. The phantom is a domesticated ghost secret we can solve (often returning from the past) whereas a spectre is a secret to our knowledge – something we may be able to know in the future. As Davis states:

“The crucial difference between the two strands of hauntology, deriving from Abraham and Torok and from Derrida respectively, is to be found in the status of the secret. The secrets of Abraham’s and Torok’s lying phantoms are unspeakable in the restricted sense of being a subject of shame and prohibition. It is not at all that they cannot be spoken; on the contrary, they can and should be put into words so that the phantom and its noxious effects on the living can be exorcized. For Derrida, the ghost and its secrets are unspeakable in a quite different sense. Abraham and Torok seek to return the ghost to the order of knowledge; Derrida wants to avoid any such restoration and to encounter what is strange, unheard, otherly, about the ghost. For Derrida, the ghost’s secret is not a puzzle to be solved; it is the structural openness or address directed towards the living by the voices of the past or the not yet formulated possibilities of the future. The secret is not unspeakable because it is taboo, but because it cannot not (yet) be articulated in the languages available to us. The ghost pushes at the boundaries of language and thought.” (Davis, 2005, pp.378-379)

Phatomic lies from past or spectral future possibilities of a future. This is a key question that I want to turn towards. For example, I feel it is safe to say that the cultural stasis, the marked lack of future shock in pop music or fashion, is a phantom. We have phantom bands and phantom brands selling us nostalgic lies from yesteryear (this is a also a growing domestic political trend, registering as conservatism and retro-fetishistic fervor). We also do phantom work. Most of the work we are engaged in is utterly pointless. For example, we have more powerful machines than every before for quantifying and calculating our work but human workers now spend more time than ever doing the same. Even our reasons and justification for working appear phantomic. Cars, for example. I suggest cars for three reasons. Firstly because they are often luxuries (unlike property) that people buy on credit or payment plans. Secondly, because of the odd premium attached to particular types of cars that are no superior to what are seen as lesser machines. And Thirdly because, like our iPhones, cars are always undergoing phantom upgrades. But, unlike an OS update, a personal vehicular upgrade has massive financial implications. But the comparison here is precisely that both Cars and Smart Phones promise to get better and better but in functional terms remain the same. (For a good examination of BMWs progress see Robert Kelly and Robert McNamara: Extended Narrative versus Data Mining by Liam Gillick).

Apart from impractical supercars that only the super-rich non workers can afford the middle range luxury cars seem to be a register of how people, at some level, conjure up meaning for from work rather seek the ends of work. People want phantomic reasons to work more than they want things from work. I say this because things like BMW's or Mercedes are really no different to other cars (in essence) they are not massively quicker, or quieter or safer. Yet many people still buy them, why? The answer lies in the way in which such cars are bought. For example, most BMW's are bought by working people on credit or payment plans. Middle-class, wealthier than average, workers - sure - but worker's nonetheless. To make a generalisation, I think it is safe to say that the target German car demographic is not the private island owning jet set billionaire but the 40k suburban toiler. Unlike Ferraris the BMW's or Audi's are likely to be bought on credit. Here I see the creation of works meaning. It is a way to solve the running out of ends, if you have a certain amount of things you need (roof, food, heat) then very soon you need to find other ends to maintain your work as a means to. You have to find reasons to work – albeit phantom reasons. The rise of luxury cars on credit is a register of people's yearning to maintain their focus on the means and not the ends and conjuring phantoms in the process. The rise of luxury phantom goods is a register of peoples unimaginative clinging to work as the prospects of their ends run dry. My luxury car suspicion is not negative, it's not to say that people are dumb and will buy anything and wind up trapped in a job. It's actually the opposite. People, at some level, know full well that things are pointless luxuries but want them anyway for obscure, counterintuitive and phantomic reasons. The car defers the expose of phantom work, or meaningless work, by providing a material justification for such Sisyphean drudgery. An anxiety, a denial of meaninglessness, is deferred from the phantom job into a justificatory object of desire.

The immediate criticism to my flash-cars-as-deferred-phantoms-de-phantomising-meaningless-work would be that it is just a register of consumerism. This is true. It is a register of consumerism, but it’s important to parse out how consumerism works. Because, I have attempted to demonstrate, by doing so with a good tinge of Lacanian structure one can begin locating the passages of phantoms in contemporary life. Phantoms of the past, or denial fuelled lying phantoms must be located if only so that the Spectre can be sensed, felt or suspected. Rather than being chased around the non-space maze of late Capitalism by lying phantoms of the past we should seek the Spectre even though we may never fully know it.

I would like to return to Teleoplexy for a moment. Teleoplexy, and Land’s project generally, is desirable in that it maps out, with striking authority, a path to change. For all its inhuman predictions it is heart-warming in its sheer clarity of prescription, even if such a prescription is the fateful end for us! The collapse of human time is another obstacle. To relinquish history is, as I see it, a strategy to usurp any platform for engagement or discussion. It is a pawn in the dethroning of human agency. But who just wants to be around for the ride? The attraction of Land’s texts lies in the drive for change, seeking change or asking for change – not in the reservation that our fate has already been sealed. I am sure I am not alone in coming to Land’s texts at a point of hopeless political exasperation yet I feel now that my approach was futile. I, like many others I expect, wanted a manual for today not a verdict on the fate of tomorrow.

Of course, Land’s text doesn’t totally avoid human time. Quite the opposite, it insists on placing our inevitable trajectory within a sci-fi narrative framework (this is one aesthetic aspect of his text I adore). Things of the future visit the present and things of the past are addressed. It would be impossible for Land to communicate Teleoplexy in any other way in textual language. A good example of this, pandering to our historical temporal linearity bent, is found in his concept of the schizophrenic and its relation to our oedipal castles of social control:

“With those who bow down to Oedipus we can do business, even make a little money, but schizophrenics refuse transference, won't play daddy and mummy, operate on a cosmic-religious plane, the only thing we can do is lock them up (cut up their brains, fry them with ect, straightjacket them in Thorazine ... ). Behind the social workers are the police, and behind the psychoanalysts are the psychopolice. Deleuze-Guattari remark that 'madness is called madness and appears as such only because it finds itself reduced to testifying all alone for de territorialization as a universalprocess'.23 The vanishing sandbank of Oedipus wages its futile war against the tide. 'There are still not enoughpsychotics'24 writes Artaud the insurrectionist. Clinical schizophrenics are pows from the future.” (Land, 2011, pp.306-307)

We could suggest that the schizophrenic P.o.W. from the future is a type of spectre in temporeal terms – it comes from the future. But, such a reading is false. It is false because despite arriving from the future, the schizophrenic as spectre is not a potential horizon of knowledge and change (as the Derridean spectre is). The schizophrenic P.o.W. from the future is a spectre of inevitability, not opportunity. Let’s imagine the clichéd scenario of a visitor from the future. In many instances of this in fiction there comes a moment when the visitor fades from the screen as a result actions taken in the present. More often than not the visitor only travels back in time to urge the characters of the present to take action so that an undesirable future may be averted. If the schizophrenic P.o.W. was to visit us, Terminator style, then there would be nothing we could do to change the future they arrive from. Even the spectres that Land employs to elucidate his project are autonomous from human agency and hold no potential for us.

After such a prospect I still want to ask what can be done. I don’t buy Land’s project of the inevitable just yet. It is because of this that I feel the phantoms of today are what need to be addressed. Like I have sought to do with cars and labour, exocising contemporary phantoms is something that can be done. It needs a close examination of subjectivities and the libidinal machinations of Capitalism - but it is a productive task. It is productive because, following Davis’ distinction, the Derridean version of the spectre offers potential. We won’t have a chance to glimpse such a spectre (whatever it is, be it metallic gnashing ‘anorganic convergence’ or utopic humanism) if we remain mired amidst lying phantoms of the past framed within the domestic narratives of late Capitalism. Thus, in order to reveal clues for our future, we must start by ghostbusting the phantom pasts that haunt today.

Land, N. 2011. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Urbanomic / Sequence Press.

Thacker, E. 2011. In The Dust Of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. Winchester UK: Zero Books.

Land, N. 2014. Teleoplexy; in #Accelerate, eds. Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014)

Davis, C. 2005. États présents: Colin Davis. Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms in French Studies (July 2005) 59 (3): 373-379

Gillick, L. 2012. Robert Kelly and Robert McNamara: Extended Narrative versus Data Mining in Afterall Journal. Spring 2012.

Capitalism - Never Let Me Go.

After reading Ishiguro’s fantastic Remains Of The Day (and posting this) I immediately moved on to Never Let Me Go. Admittedly I found the book a touch disappointing at first because one aspect of it pushed me back into a too critical distance. It was a distance that never quite allowed me to fall in love with the characters in the same way I did with Mr Stevens in Remains of the Day. My gripe was that the protagonist’s voice felt a touch too instructive at times.  The vague, Sebaldian, meanderings of memory through time were, as I say, looking back now, and thinking about it after all this time, a touch too author’s handy and unconvincing – or so it seemed, back then. I feel that tone suited Mr Stevens (the narrator of Remains of the Day) so much better than Kathy H (the narrator of Never Let Me Go). However, the concepts, themes and questions raised by the story are fascinating and so it is these that I will focus on here.

The story is about an alternative 90’s England that has found a solution to all disease. It is cloning, and rearing, whole human beings so that their organs can be harvested at adulthood. The protagonist, Kathy H, is one of these clones and tells the story about how she grew up at a school called Hailsham, moved away, and became a carer for her fellow friends who ‘donate’ their organs like she, too, will do so one day. It is the story of a love triangle intensified under the inevitability of death. It is also a coming of age story, Kathy H, moves from the idyllic Hailsham into the wider world, and as she tells the story, soaked with hindsight and nostalgia, the reader is led through the distinctly fateful lives of her friends (Ruth and Tommy). The major themes of the book, death, love, memory and class, are quite universal concepts that many can relate to. I would like to take a few of these and, alongside some specific examples, frame them in a particularly psychoanalytical way.

To begin with I must outline some telling terminology. To ‘complete’ is to die after too many organs have been ‘donated’. To ‘defer’ is to suspend the inevitability of having to ‘donate’. All three of these terms point towards a meta-inevitability controlled by a social world. It is a world where things are determined right from the start. Even before birth, the major contributions one can make to society (‘donations’), most fantastic dreams (‘deferral’) and form of end/death (‘completion’) are pre-determined to fall within the temporal and physical, and political structures allotted. All three of these terms allude to a crushing inevitability. The three main characters of the love triangle all talk about these things, and once again, it is the devastating truth cloaked in plain sight on every page. I will outline the three inevitable terms now. First, to die at the hands of a surgeon harvesting your organs for an upper class is called ‘completion’ – one is only completed, made whole or defined, by ‘completion’. It is a ‘completion’ enforced by the state apparatus. Or, to put it another way, one’s very identity being granted, in political terms (language) is contingent to the state’s utter destruction of one’s mind and body. Secondly, ‘Donation’ reveals that the ‘donor’ will always choose to ‘donate’ – as if allowing one’s liver to be taken will, if not at present, always come to be something one would accept, grant and go along with – maybe even come to hope for. And why not if it defines the ‘donor’s’ existence by rendering them ‘complete’. Thirdly, ‘deferral’ is most telling, because to defer - to post-pone, hold off, exempt temporarily - is not to stop the inevitable ‘donation’ or ‘completion’: it is just pushing them away from the present into future. ‘Deferral’ does nothing to the inevitability of ‘donation’, ‘deferral’ is by no means a cancellation, it merely puts the bloody ‘donation’ on ice, for the time being.

Water, tides, rivers, currents and flows are a subtle theme in the book. Ruth, Tommy and Kathy live through a social and political current, but the real force, as strong and inevitable as the tide, is the fate allotted to them by society: donation and completion. Tommy in particular speaks of rivers, tides and unseen forces:

“’I suppose you’re right, Kath. You are a really good carer. You’d be the perfect one for me too if you weren’t you.’ He did a laugh and put his arm round me, though we kept sitting side by side. Then he said: ‘I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.277)

“’You know, Kath, when I used to play football back at Hailsham. I had this secret thing I did. When I scored a goal, I’d run around like this’ – he raised both his arms in triumph – ‘and I’d run back to my mates. I never went mad or anything, just ran back with my arms up, like this.’ He paused for a moment, his arms still in the air. Then he lowered them and smiled. ‘In my head, Kath, when I was running back, I always imagined I was splashing through water. Nothing deep, just up to the ankles at most. That’s what I used to imagine, every time. Splash, splash, splash.’ He looked at me and did a little laugh. ‘All this time I never told a single soul.’ (Ishiguro, 2005, pp.279-280)

The first instance can obviously be read as a, perhaps, slightly saccharine metaphor for the impossibility of their love surviving. But it can also be read in light of their fates: ‘donations’ and ‘completions’. These are the currents that their love cannot survive – their love cannot survive their separate fates because one will, inevitably, ‘complete’ leaving the other. The second instance I’ve quoted above is slightly more curious. Tommy’s imaginary splashing is a metaphor for how the fates and forces that will shape their lives were there all along, even in the halcyon days of football on the Hailsham School playing field, when they were children, that force was always present. But the fates and forces, the tide and currents that rip Ruth, Tommy and Kathy apart are dynamic. Dynamic in that the force of an inevitable fate, of being expendable, being spare bodies for an upper class, is cemented and born in their deepest imagination as much as in any stuffy assembly or dusty classroom. The deep, thoughts of the Hailsham students, their imaginations, are absolutely necessary for creating and maintaining their ideological incarceration. They are not responsible, but their unconscious drives and fantastic subjectivities are vital machinations for the proliferation of an exploited and infinitely expendable stratum of society.

Hailsham was a crucible of imagination. The caricatured idealogical state apparatus of Hailsham, with its hazy meadows, red brick and draughty, creaking, hallways first and foremost task was to insist on imagination. The children were urged to draw, paint, write poems etc. These efforts of creativity were submitted to an unseen gallery, the Big Other… The first third of the book, set during the three character’s childhood days at Hailsham, relentlessly insists on how much creativity was pursued. Indeed, at first this seems to be heavenly and privileged, perhaps some sort of consolation for the terrible fate that is slowly revealed in this section. Imagination is of such importance to the Hailsham ideology that it is even reflected in the cliques and spiteful power struggles of the children. Ruth, is aggressively imaginative. She schemes and lies her ways into dominance. Kathy, being more realistic than Ruth, often point’s out reality to Ruth (the truth behind the lies or fantasies of play), but soon learns to play along with Ruth’s fantasies for fear of social exclusion.

But it is Tommy that best exemplifies the sheer necessity of imagination. At Hailsham Tommy’s peers play a series of tricks on him. The bullying starts because he is bad at art. The tricks and pranks all take a particular format. A fib is posed, or a lie is posited, or Tommy guesses something incorrectly or suggests something that is, unknowingly, false – and the children all play along. They all contribute to egging the fantasy on or playing along with it. Everyone is in on it, everyone knows, apart from Tommy. Until, of course, he finds out, and, realising that he has been at the centre of a longstanding and sustained conspiracy against him, he flies into ‘one of his rages’ and 'goes bonkers'. This cruelty effectively strips Tommy of any foothold on a cozily secure subjectivity, he is denied his world, disillusioned over and over again. His language of life is shattered, time and time again, he is reduced, in his rages to a pre-language, pre-social being – he moves his limbs uncontrollably, he becomes unaware of the presence of others, he is unable to speak and gibbers and shouts nonsense. But the most profound upset to Tommy’s subjectivity, his language and imagination comes from a teacher who does not subscribe to the Hailsham methodology. Of course this teacher, Miss Lucy, as a result of differing from the methodology of the ideological state apparatus, soon disappears. So, what did she say to Tommy? She said to Tommy that he had been taught but not taught about his future and that creativity, the pictures and poems, didn’t matter. (See Ishiguro, 2005, p.30) As Tommy recounts this instance to Kathy they both speculate about the connection of creativity to their futures. What does art have to do with ‘donating’? Imagination, in Never Let Me Go, is a stand in for the building of a subjectivity – taking grains of inspiration from the outside world, a sunset, a flower, and constructing a secure haven of denial from it. Hailsham plays out the Lacanian model of subject creation. But Tommy, being hopeless at art, being unimaginative, does not take the task up, not quite fully; he always seems half present. Tommy never becomes a vivid person, not like Ruth and Kathy, instead for the majority of the book he resembles a prisoner worn down by some inner weight – trapped and burdened by the suffocating incarceration of the big wide world. Tommy almost seems bereft of his own desires and fears, he is washed along by Ruth for the most part.

Years later Tommy falls into a cruel disillusionment that triggers ‘one of his rages’. It is telling that, in the brief period of his active imagineering (based on a hope and myth) he becomes a more definitive character than previously. Ruth, in her last play of creativity and make believe, supplies Kathy and Tommy with the address of Madam so that they can go there and ask for a ‘deferral’. Tommy places all his hopes on ‘deferring’ - it sparks a renewed creativity in him. He spends his days drawing mechanical animals, going for walks, and making love to Kathy. The myth of ‘deferral’ is that the pictures from their days at Hailsham went to The Gallery as evidence of their souls. This evidence was required for determining if couples are truly in love. If they are truly in love then a ‘deferral’ could be granted. When Tommy and Kathy eventually arrive at Madam’s house they are told, in no uncertain terms that this was a myth, a rumour with no basis. Tommy’s reaction to the disillusionment erupts as Kathy drives him back to the ‘donor’ centre where he stays. He leaves the car and makes his was into a field where his rage erupts. His limbs flail about and he screams and screams. The first scream is so dramatic that Kathy does not even recognise it as Tommy’s. (Ishiguro, 2005, p.268) Kathy, looking through the darkness of the countryside, soon finds him raging. His rage is so severe his loses all verbal coherence, he screams and screams - Kathy remarks how “jumbled up swear-words continued to erupt” and his face was “caked in mud and distorted with fury” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.269). This final disillusionment of Tommy renders him de-subjected in many ways, his voice doesn’t sound like his, he loses his capacity for language, his appearance shifts, he loses bodily control, his face becomes unrecognisable, distorted with fury and masked with mud. After this episode Tommy returns to his shadowy and vague self, less vibrant, more like Tommy in many ways, the Tommy that was debilitated by being aware of an unseen force, a current, an unspoken fate. It is as they drive home after the incident that Tommy’s ‘going bonkers’ is attributed to him knowing the truth, something he always knew:

“’I’m sorry about just now, Kath. I really am. I’m a real idiot.’ Then he added: ‘What are you thinking Kath?’
            ‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘about back then, at Hailsham, when you used to go bonkers like that, and we couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t understand how you could ever get like that. And I was just having this idea, just a thought really. I was thinking maybe the reason you used to get like that was because at some level you always knew.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.270)

For all the Hailsham pupils, imagination, building ones thick crust of a subjective world to such a degree that not even the horror of ‘completing’ can pierce it’s barricade, is essential. It is essential for the state that exploits them. This is why Tommy was always such a ‘bad’ student and a loner at Hailsham – he never, cultivated the correct subjectivity, he never worked on being creative or nourished his daydreaming denial. Tommy stands in stark contrast to Ruth. Ruth is the ultimate form of the Hailsham ideology, she creates worlds for herself, distractions. Ruth doesn’t want to know the truth – she is super-social, popular, eloquent, adept at creating fictions for herself and those around her, she even mimics TV shows (the object taken into the subject, and expressed as subjectivity) without consciously knowing. Tommy comments how he is glad that Ruth died oblivious to the harrowing truth:

“Just once, though, after I’d been wandering aimlessly around his room for a while, I did ask him:
            ‘Tommy, are you glad Ruth completed before finding out everything we did in the end?’
            He was lying on the bed, and went on staring at the ceiling for a while before saying: ‘Funny, because I was thinking about the same thing the other day. What you’ve got to remember about Ruth, when it comes to things like that, she was always different to us. You and me, right from the start, even when we were little, we were always trying to find things out. Remember, Kath, all those secret talks we used to have? But Ruth wasn’t like that. She always wanted to believe in things. That was Ruth. So, yeah, in a way, I think it’s best the way it happened.’” (Ishiguro, 2005, p.279)

The difference between Tommy and Ruth in Never Let Me Go, in regards to subjectivities of belief, denial, and imagination, is an example of how the ideological state apparatus (Hailsham) needs our own subjectivities to achieve its ends. Hailsham is the state apparatus that provides a space for a fantasy of denial to blossom, but the denial actively serves the state, the imagination and fantasy of the Hailsham children allows the coming-quietly into genocide. Hailsham needs to produce a paradoxical imagination, ensuring that a little childhood fantasy, a little fanciful escapism, would ensnare the pupils in a world of crushing inevitability. Like class barriers today (that access to educational and vocational opportunities are spared for the upper echelons of the populace) the inevitability of utter exploitation, of harvesting a ‘bumper crop’ for the rich, is a horrific truth buried beneath seas of denial, hopes, dreams and myths. If things are to change, then we must all ‘go bonkers’. One must lose one’s self, you simply cannot take your cosy beliefs and subjectivities with you to freedom. Hailsham, may even be read as a portmanteau pertaining to the truth of its purpose and methodology. ‘Hail’: (of a large number of objects) fall or be hurled forcefully. The children are merely things to harvest, a ‘bumper crop’ – they are even told they do not have souls in the final disillusionment. + ‘Sham’: a thing that is not what it is purported to be. Never Let Me Go elaborates how effective the ideological state apparatus is. It is so good at dream formatting and subject moulding that even the wildest dreams of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are dreams of 'deferring' their prescribed fate - not changing their fate. In Never Let Me Go, the fate of having ones organs exploited and harvested to support an upper class is as inevitable and inescapable as the passage of time and the coming and going of the tides. 

There is one last detail I would like to draw to attention in order to further emphasise the similarities between the alternative England in Never Let Me Go and the England of today: a sinking isle of state enforced inequalities and exploitation which actively engineers collective denial. After Hailsham the students arrive at The Cottages, a half-way house between either becoming a ‘carer’ or a ‘donor’. Here they either cling to their old life, their beliefs and myths, or they become withdrawn. The existence is austere and it is always cold. They are supposed to finish their final essays, but no one ever does because, outside of Hailsham, it pails into an insignificance. In the book, the excursions from The Cottages into the outside world hint at how the clones are second rate citizens. After a certain point, the clones can elect to become a ‘carer’. The ‘carer’ is analogous to the manager today, smoothing the process of exploitation along, yielding, perhaps one more ‘donation’ than would otherwise be gained. They do not contribute directly, but offer emotional support. Eva Illouz, in Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, argues that capitalism imported therapeutic strategies and emotion into the work place. (see the first chapter, 'The Rise of Homo Sentimentalis', Illouz, 2007, pp.1-36.) Kathy is an exemplar of the utilisation of emotional managerial strategies within ‘Caring’. Driving across the country, visiting donators, bringing gifts, using empathy to smooth the process over, increasing efficiency, productivity. She cares, she finds it tiring, but she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. She becomes emotionally invested in aiding the state to butcher it’s young for an elite class. The morbid inevitability of the states control is in her acceptance and support of the pre-determined fates of her friends and lovers. Kathy wants to be the ‘carer’ for Ruth, her best friend. Kathy also wants to be the ‘carer’ for Tommy, the love of her life. This is testament to how Hailsham, the ideological state apparatus, did a good job with Kathy’s subjectivity. She even states, in the opening pages of the book, how she is pleased at being a good ‘carer’ and considers herself ‘lucky’ to have gone to Hailsham. Kathy exemplifies our relationship to state control, repression and exploitation: it is so much a part our who we are that if we could ask one thing it would be to Never Let Me Go.


Eva Illouz, 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Polity.

Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005. Never Let Me Go. Faber and Faber.

The Residues of Libidinal Capitalism: The Significance of Banter

The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and the Merchant Ivory Productions film adaptation has been a pre-occupation of mine for some time now. At first I fell in love of Mr Stevens’ meandering conceptualization of dignity, his coil-sprung fastidiousness and his quaintly clipped passive-aggressive dialogues with Miss Kenton. The book in particular also threads an intriguing juxtaposition of manners, sense of honor, class and responsibilities in the looming shadows (looming up and looming away) of/from WWII. But for me Mr Stevens is about work. On many levels Mr Stevens embodies the predicaments of contemporary workers. I see Mr Stevens to be a vivid and exemplary locus of how the dynamics of control (the subconscious and socio-economic codes) operate. This blog addresses just a couple aspects: the desire to work and the significance of banter.
When one first reads the book or views the film one is left with an acute sense of loss – Stevens lost the love of his life due to his self imposed shackles to the responsibilities ‘his position’ – butler at Darlington Hall. Mr Stevens looks back on regret; regrets of honoring his Lord, of following his orders and executing them with a level of dignity befitting his position. But perhaps most of all, Stevens has regrets of becoming his role and position to such a degree that it acted as a shield against the passions he felt for Miss Kenton. However, for Renata Salecl, this is not the case – or rather, Mr Stevens love for Miss Kenton, however hidden, unrequited, denied or obfuscated by the responsibilities, dignities and politeness of a man in his position - must be seen as contingent to the subconscious and the social structures it is formatted by. Salecl states how:

"Freud observed that with the obsessive the thought process itself becomes sexualized, "for the pleasure which is normally attached to the content of thought becomes shifted onto the act of thinking itself, and the satisfaction derived from reaching the conclusion of a line of thought is experienced as a sexual satisfaction." Stevens thus gets sexual satisfaction from the plan how to solve the staff problem by taking the trip to visit Miss Kenton, not out of thoughts about Miss Kenton herself. (...) "What the subject dissimulates and the means by which he dissimulates, is also the very form of its disclosure." There is nothing behind the mask: it is in the mask, in the veil that seemingly covers the essence of the subject, that we have to search for this essence. In the case of Stevens there is no "beyond," no suppressed world of passions hidden behind his mask of proper Englishness. It is useless to search in Stevens for some hidden love that could not come out because of the rigid ritual he engaged himself in—all of his love is in the rituals. Inasmuch as it can be said that he loves Miss Kenton, he loves her from the perspective of submission to the codes of their profession." (Salecl, 1996, p.183-185)

In the above text, Salecl points out what is so apparent it is invisible: Stevens loves the chores, rigid structures, monotony and obsessive tendencies of his work more than Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton is loved conditionally and contingently. Miss Kenton is the object of Stevens' love only when seen via the kaleidoscope of class, work, responsibilities and obsessive vocational ambition. When viewing the film or reading the book, we presume these are all strategies employed to maintain a denialist subjectivity or sooth the burning urges that have remain unsatisfied – yet looking at the situation in another, perhaps more pragmatic way, one could say that Stevens is presented with a choice between work and Miss Kenton over and over again (in both the film and the book) – only to chose the former, over and over again. When Stevens suggests he visits Miss Kenton to solve the staffing problems at Darlington hall, his new employer, Mr Lewis/Farraday, banters that Stevens may have a lady friend – what we are seeing here is the creation of a hidden truth. We think there must be some burning passion beneath the starched shirt; there must be some ulterior motive. There is a burning passion. It is for work. There is no ulterior motive, Stevens is succumbing to his unconscious desires to obsess and ritualize – he is working. Stevens’ root desire is the ritual of work, Miss Kenton is, for Stevens, a love object only insofar as she slots into a position of impossibility in relation to his rituals and subconscious desires for said rituals.

In the film adaptation, in a scene not found in Ishiguro’s novel, this concept is laid out with sublime concision. It is at the end of the film. After strolling along the pier discussing regrets and hopes Miss Kenton and Mr Stevens sit down on a bench. Miss Kenton asks: "what do you most look forward to Mr Stevens?" For the viewer, this is Stevens’ last chance to admit to Miss Kenton that he had feelings for her, after all, he has been planning and looking forward to meeting Miss Kenton since the film began, and now he is sat with her looking out into the lavender dusk of an English seaside town. Stevens’ response is the Salacl argument spelt out in plain English for the viewer. Stevens says: "Oh! Er... Getting back to Darlington Hall principally… and straightening out our staff problems... always was work, work, work and more work... and will continue to be so I have no doubt." QED I think.

What has this got to do with modern work? Surely we are not like Stevens? We are. We are because (and although the accouterments of subconscious formatting may change) we are all driven by a subconscious that is autonomous from what we know ourselves to be. Consumerism is a convenient and simple example. Everyone knows that once the BMW, MacBook Pro, beach house or designer coat is acquired the desire and want for said objects vanishes. The more one buys the more one wants. The objects (those tangible things in the shop windows or glowing from our laptops) of our love are contingent to our socially and capitalistically formatted subconscious. Stevens root desire was work and his contingent love object, Miss Kenton, was the fall out. Thus, we are not dissimilar, our root desire is to work and want, our contingent love object is money, cars, property – whatever. Always will be want, want, want and more wanting... and will continue to be so I have no doubt. I once worked with someone who was quite like Stevens, she was meticulous in her work and consumerism. She spent half her breaks debating which items to order from online retailers and the other half were spent returning items to post offices and high-street outlets so shopping could continue. Her practice was fastidious, obsessive, ritualistic and relentless. She seemed to always have a love object in her sights, some more perfect pinnacle of luxury, but her actions and ways were really in the service of her subconscious, and her subconscious desired wanting, it did not desire shoes or watches.

The same can be said of work. I believe that most people’s subconscious is in love with work – in the same way that Stevens’ is. Sure, one can stand around complaining about the standards (inequalities, silverware being unclean, staffing challenges, pay rates or ethics) but these are all flimsy, contingent, surface level distractions – the subconscious wants work, planning, rituals. Nowhere is this more explicitly played out than in the crisis of retirement. Many people die soon after retirement and the existential crises of retiring the western white male are well documented in Hollywood. The subconscious is what drives the organism, it must be nourished by what it has been cultivated to subsist upon – if not, a biological as well as existential and conscious collapse ensues… Of course, my argument here is not that the subconscious needs work – I am not arguing that work (or want) is necessary or impossible to give up – I am arguing that generally the subconscious is, as it ought to be, directing the modes of survival and at present these are utterly Capitalistic. For anyone reading this blog, I can well imagine the reaction; “but I don’t want that” of course you don’t, but you are eons and light-years away from the subconscious steering you - that most powerful and intrinsic part of yourself. Alas! Isn’t it a shame the subconscious won’t speak up –it has different ideas to you and I…

Of course, there are methods for scratching at the surface of the subconscious. The voice is one such method. Free-association, in particular, is an excellent method for getting the subconscious to speak – so to speak. I say love, you say mirror. I say father, you say knives… and so on. But there is a hidden key to free association. It is time, or lack of. The respondent must not hesitate, they must respond instantaneously, promptly. By having to respond so promptly the subconscious is presumed to sneak out and speak. The socialized and proper respondent may be left horrified at the alien thoughts they have ventriloquized. It is here that I shall return to The Remains of The Day because I feel such a methodology of accessing the subconscious is prevalent throughout the book and the film. In short, there is a hidden thread of free-association running through The Remains of The Day - it is Bantering. Bantering is peculiar in that it requires a prompt response. More than any other form of communication set upon the vocal rhythm, bantering requires a comedic timing par excellence. It is quite simple: one cannot deliver too late. Imagine some banter being delivered too late, prefixed with some reference to an earlier comment or reference, it would certainly not be seen as banter, it would fall awkwardly, it would not be afforded the jovial acceptance of banter – it would be taken all too seriously. Banter is contingent to time; it lives off the instant. Bantering is also utterly rude, like our immoral and gnashing subconscious is. How many bantering dialogues quickly descend to either blue double entendre or jest-cloaked quips of spite and malice? 

The casual view of Mr Stevens is that he is hopeless at banter, that he is somehow unable to banter. Stevens recalls at one point in the book that in his spare time he practices banter:

“I have devised a simple exercise which I try to perform at least once a day; whenever an odd moment presents itself, I attempt to formulate three witticisms based on my immediate surroundings at that moment. Or, as a variation on this same exercise, I may attempt to think of three witticisms based on the events of the past hour.” (Ishiguro, 2012, p.116)

Of course, such preparations miss the point of banter entirely. Mr Stevens mistakenly presumes he can learn and practice bantering. But such meticulous and obsessive preparation is what Stevens adores most. The suggestion that he ‘practices’ banter and witticisms to improve at these things is not quite the case. Stevens is indulging in the ritualization of work. Bantering has become one of his responsibilities with his new American employer and he takes to ritualizing the work with an obsessive, fetishistic and introspective vigor. But this doesn’t mean that Stevens doesn’t successfully banter, he does, all the time. It’s just that when Stevens banters and his subconscious desires (for work, routine and obedience) reveal themselves the reader/viewer mistakenly assumes that he is avoiding bantering, that he is somehow too uptight or denying for engage in banter. In the film and the book, questions of his desires and wants arise (with both Mr Lewis/Farraday and Miss Kenton) via banter. At each turn, Mr Stevens response is to talk about work, his staff planning, future responsibilities etc. Mr Stevens is revealing his subconscious in these moments, he is, of course avoiding the question of “having a lady friend” or “being flesh and blood after all”. Over and over again, Mr Stevens strafes around the conscious surface level questions of sex, love and emotions only to reveal his deeper desires: work. “There is nothing behind the mask: it is in the mask, in the veil that seemingly covers the essence of the subject, that we have to search for this essence.” (Salacl, 1996, p.185, my emphasis).

In the film, Miss Kenton plays out the mistaken assumption that the essence of the person is not in the veil or mask but somehow exists behind it. After become exasperated that Stevens never shows how he feels, a new, pretty employee takes their tea away. We see Mr Stevens, staring through the window watching the young girl walk away, he smiles. Mr Stevens comments, whilst still smiling, that the young girl he did not wish to employ but did so on the advice of Miss Kenton has come along well. Miss Kenton, mistaking the essence of Mr Stevens to be behind the mask of politeness, begins taunting Mr Stevens and suggesting that he does not like employing pretty girls because they may distract him - “look at that smile on your face, that tells an interesting story in itself.” The viewer and Miss Kenton assume the smile signifies Mr Stevens lust whereas, following Salacl’s analysis, I suggest that his smile actually points to a subconscious satiation. The smile, invisible for its brazen apparentness, spotlights Mr Stevens’ subconscious desires being met through the smooth operating of Darlington Hall; through work.

Banter is one of modern works primary languages. Getting along through a surface level dialogue, accelerated to instantaneous retorts and gushing, is work today. Eva Illouz, in Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism, argues that capitalism imported therapeutic strategies and emotion into the work place. (see the first chapter, 'The Rise of Homo Sentimentalis', Illouz, 2007, pp.1-36.) Today the office is a morass of psychological analysis, bantering free association, trust building relationships and soft-skilled emotional leveraging. The horror of work is that it is a constant psychoanalysis. The contemporary worker is not dissimilar to Mr Stevens, awkwardly trapped in a session of bantering free-association with our colleagues and managers. Of course, the vexation of this is similar to Mr Stevens too. After years of such peculiarly telling communiqué being absent we are faced with a demand for prompt witticisms and banter. Stevens had no experience of such things because he gave his life to serving Lord Darlington in the most impeccable manner, when he was required to serve Mr Lewis/Farraday in a more casual fashion that required bantering he found himself all out at sea – unable to offer anything but the mask which is the essence of his subconscious. The contemporary worker is similar, after a lifetime of capitalism eroding the social sphere we arrive and clock in only to be greeted with the responsibilities of having to quip, banter and jest our ways through the corporation. When the contemporary worker (seemingly disingenuously) banters and jests through the day, the mask of subconscious essence is paraded, invisibly conspicuous and cloaked in plain sight. The depressing revelation that our immoral and gnashing subconscious testifies to between quips and retorts is that our subconscious, like Mr Steven’s, desires work. We may think, consciously, that we are lying, but our disguise, our mask of professionalism is the abhorrent subconscious serenading its desire for ritualized, work, social codes, structure, obsession and Sisyphean drudgery. Always was work, work, work and more work... and will continue to be so I have no doubt.


Eva Illouz, 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. 1 Edition. Polity.

Kazuo Ishiguro, 2012. The Remains of the Day. Everyman's Library.

Salecl, R. 1996. ‘I Can’t Love You Unless I Give You Up’ in Gaze and Voice As Love Objects (Series: SIC 1). Salecl, R., Zizek, S. (Ed.) 1996. Duke University Press Books, pp.90-126.


The Remains of The Day. (1993) Directed by James Ivory. Merchant Ivory Productions.