These Old Ears (Part 2)

The day I posted the previous blog I watched The One Show on BBC1. I love and hate The One Show - it is a Patridgesque calamity, a slo-mo awkwardness of fudged links and vacuous enthusiasm. For me it is a very British show. Much of The One Show is made up of idle banter and chit-chat. Nothing much is touched upon in any depth. Often stand-up comedians, offering lackluster promotions of their latest arena tour, provide sofa-side opinion on social topics touched upon in regular cutaway sections. For the most part these focus on food labelling, parking charges or scams. They tap into the consumer anxieties of middle england - the lacunae of legistlation for vehicle clamping, for example. The presenters often add 'we'll keep you updated on that' but I've never seen any update or reference to previous content. It is groundhog day, back-of-a-beer mat, lolloping car crash TV.

On that day, Richard Madeley (of Richard and Judy fame) was on the sofa. I can't remember why. But out of the blue he made a joke, harmless bantering. It was about politicians. He said that when a politician enters the room you can tell immediately. 'They walk differently to us' he said, everyone laughed, he was exaggerating a point about how out of touch politicians are. Then he pressed on 'no, you can always tell, if you're in the green room, as soon as they come in, they have a different way of walking.' The point of politicians being somehow different from us was being exaggerated to absurdity. But Madeley went further still, 'they have different DNA to us' he said. Everyone laughed, he was being preposterous, the presenters pointed out that this was not the view of the BBC. Judy, his wife, added that it was not her view either. For me this is an example of how banter reveals the essence of the subject and, to some degree, the strange disjunct between desire and conscious level wants, needs or demands. Recall Salecl's marvellous dissection of the hidden desire qua mask in the character of Mr. Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains Of The Day. “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.” (Salecl, 1996, p.185). Madeley's point, pushed to extreme absurdity was politicians are too different from us and that this is a problem, politicians are not normal enough. But there is another revelation here. It is a revelation about hidden desires and the essence of the subject. Because, in complaining about how politicians are too different and detached, Madeley gave slip to the prole-desire I explored in These Old Ears Part 1. His way of joking and bantering his criticism to absurdity, his mask of not being too political or overtly critical on a light hearted show like The One Show, was the veil -  the mask - that reveals his true subjective essence and his desire. In demanding that politicians should be more like us, or in saying that politicians are too out of touch desire was glimpsed. This is the strange difference between desire and demand. “Although it always shows through in demand, as we see here, desire is nevertheless beyond demand” (Lacan, Ecrits, p.634).

To push the point further, Madeley's comments are akin to the folksy saying that aristocracy 'have blue blood in their veins' or the smirking question of 'if the queen goes to the toilet'. It is a comment riddled with desire recognition. Recognition of the other. Desire does not want or need in any literal sense but it does insist, so to speak, on two particular things: recognition and reproduction. In positing that a ruling class is of a different biology, (blue blood, different DNA) or by failing to imagine their excretory processes being similar to our own recognition is inscribed. It is inscribed because it is always recognition from the Other. Madeley's comment does not call for a recognition of  differences but insists on absurd differences in order to allow recognition - to make the ruling Other in more (m)Otherly, and thus satisfying recognition as structured position within a social language.

“The necessary and sufficient reason for the repetitive insistence of these desires in the transference and their permanent remembrance in a signifier that repression has appropriated – that is, in which the repressed returns – is found if one accepts the idea that in these determinations the desire for recognition dominates the desire that is to be recognised, preserving it as such until it is recognised” (Ecrits, 431).

But there is a second aspect to this absurd comment about how politicians have different DNA to the rest of us. It is because it reflects what the subject presumes the Other to desire. In terms of class difference this is precisely that, a difference of some sort.

“To return psychoanalysis to a veridical path, it is worth recalling that analysis managed to go so far in the revelation of man’s desires only by following, in the veins of neurosis and the marginal subjectivity of the individual, the structure proper to a desire that thus proves to model it at an unexpected depth – namely, the desire to have his desire recognised. This desire, in which it is literally verified that man’s desire is alienated in the other’s desire, in effect structures the drives discovered in analysis, in accordance with all the vicissitudes of the logical substitutions in their source, aim, and object” (Ecrits, 343).
Thus, Madeley's comment played out a verification of desire for the Other, that is the desire of the Other, via his bantering mask of suggesting they are fundamentally different. The presumption that the Other's desire is to be seen as different constitutes our desires. It is the essence of these desires that slip every now and then (parading as masks, veils and costumes, cloaked in banter, joking like grotesque court jesters) in the inane and mundane surface of language. Our prole-desire leaks out as a veil at every turn - like when, one the first day of a job or at an interview we are too quick to snap out how much we are looking forward to the work, or that we feel enthusiastic for the job. On the one hand these are psychopathic facades of conscious level insincerity (a prerequisite skill for modern life) but they are also telling registers of our desire. It is desire as desire for desire of the Other. Madeley's demand that politicians should not be so different, cloaked in the veil of jest, is a demand - it is a demand that is very different from desire but still absolutely driven by desire. The desire is, of course, the desire for the recognition of the other. It is a recognition presumed, by the subject, to be achievable by satiating the Other's absurd desire for a difference to be acknowledged by the subject, the prole. I wonder if Madeley thought Cameron was watching. I bet on some level he hoped he was.

The positive to take from this is that even though desire drives demand and want, and even though desire is in a sense the desire of the Other, that Other can be change. Change will come when recognition is desired from a different place. The putting to language of this desire, via free association, dialogue, jokes and banter is the process of moving the dialectic of demands and wants on from the drives of desire. Desire and its dynamic with the Other will remain - but we can change what and how desire drives our wants and demands. This is possible. The Other, too, can be taken in different forms, the precise political shape of the Other is not fixed. By bantering into awkward significance the dynamic of our demands and desire we may begin to move from the politico-desire stasis of today.

These Old Ears

Over the past few weeks the British media has been a blizzard of speculation, analysis and opinion about the UK General Election. On the BBC there were some striking graphics, the likes of which not seen since the Commodore 64. On the election night live coverage there was a bounty of stilted segues and awkwardly juddering transfers, interruptions and announcements. The back-of-a-beer-mat ‘monkey tennis’ of The One Show looked effortlessly slick by comparison. Nothing provides slow-motion tragedy with such quintessentially grating inertia as the BBC in full-on national-event mode. There was a lot of talk about hung parliaments (not literally). Various possible permutations of coalition were suggested and proposed. These dialogues were overtly metaphorical, mostly playing on the premise of likening political partnerships to some notion of sub-dom heteronormative marriage. 'Who will get into bed with who?' they winked and nudged like it wasn’t a joke fit for retirement before the last election five years previously. Many politicians were pestered by some careerist hack mistakenly caught up in the fervour of national interest. ‘No, but, would you, perhaps, if that was the case, consider getting into bed with X?’ barked relentlessly from all channels. The politicians did well here – admirably stoic. Each party leader mustered a mix of flummoxed exasperation and statesman like ignorance. No party committed to any coalition promise. Instead there was a din of politicians fighting back with robust Oxbridge stutters. Speculations were strafed. Questions fought with questions. Often a question about the future government was met with statesman-like refusals. It seemed that any commitment or promise about the country a few weeks later was irresponsible… So between telling the electorate about the minutiae of how the economy, subject to global economic forces, will be micro-managed to ultra-productivity-cum-utopian-meritocracy the politicians said things like: ‘Now, look here now, let me be clear here, I'll tell you simply now that, frankly, I couldn't possibly comment.’... However, despite all this and the accompanying journalistic treading of water there was one clear consensus. It was a presupposition, a given, a sure thing. It was that there would be no clear winner, no majority. The chanted mantra was ‘that it was the most unpredictable election for decades’. ‘Too close to call!’ ‘Neck and neck!’ The only thing we can be sure about, exclaimed the slightly different models of journo Replicants, is that there will be no majority. Then, on Friday, the Conservative Party won a majority.

The thoughts I want to put forward today are not comforting. They offer no clear path of escape. They offer little hope. But I feel the task at hand is always to get a grip on the root of the problems we face. The problem with little Hans was not his repetition. That was the symptom of some deeper problem. His incessant throwing and hiding of the spool was a facet of the symptom too. No, the problem for Hans was the absence. He was coming to terms with absence via the action of playing the fort/da game. Hans had a problem, an absence. To resolve this, to understand and come to terms with the absence he played the problem out via the symbolic order - by hiding the spool, a symbolic gesture, and creating an absence, and repeating the action.

My main argument is that people desire peasantry, prole-dom and exploitation. We love the hell of culture diminishing to little more that retro-manic cover bands. Pop retro cubed! We adore the Kasabian mimicry of pop culture (Kasabian, mimicking Oasis mimicking The Beatles). We love the third-rate reality TV talent show soul singers, mimicking recently dead rich soul star wannabes who themselves, six or so years previously, copied soul singers from 60 years ago. Pop is now a grotesque sonic taxidermy - all form and facade without a trace of vitality. Pop is lifeless. There is something undead, zombied and uncanny about the smoothness of One Direction and the eerily asexualized toff-ee sweetness of Ed Sheeran...

We dote on our flickering iPhone alerts and hunch over our generic (through market monopoly) state issue MacBook Pros or private enterprise Dell workhorses at 1am, nurturing spreadsheets and pointless, powerless, Powerpoint presentations. The paradoxical frenzy of quantification (I thought we had computers for this) is dear to our hearts. We nurture these pointless exercises and tasks like they are a newborn human...

We need our coffee too – that fashionable stimulant of choice for the productive culture. Drink it when working, drink it when shopping, dating, waiting or travelling. You can do everything faster. It is a telling register of our yearn for greater exploitation and pillaging - of social values and an acceleration of global capital - that in times of economic recession the coffee industry experienced its highest growth rates… The English proletariat still yearn for a foreman to whip up production, harder, better, faster, stronger… Fuck it; we’ll manifest the role for ourselves. We’ll do it to ourselves clutching our little red corrugated cardboard buckets of dirtied milk… Come on, don’t delay, keep calm and carry on - that mid-season-up-to-15%-off marked-items-only sale won’t last forever now will it? Forget the tilling of yesteryear, now we shop till we drop. The coffee doesn’t have to be good, just consistent, recognisable, ubiquitous and vague. Anything of indistinct origin coupled with some opaque claim of ethicality will suffice.

We don't know our true desire. We only know our deferred objects of desire. Hans wasn’t interested in his spool, or the game of hiding and finding it. He was, at an unconscious level, interested in coming to terms with absence and loss. We may seem to want jewels and fine chariots. We may tell ourselves we want the everlasting holidays and private jets. But we only want these things because they are the deferred objects of our real desire - our peasantry.

There are slippages of our real desires. What happens when we do depart from the grimness clogged motorways? What happens when we leave the cloying bitterness of our damp, creaking and delayed carriages? Outside of the demands of the anonymous serviced office blocks, those monoliths of exploited prole-dom, what do we do? What do we do in that fortnight of respite from cognitive and attentional repression and exploitation? What happens when, half way around the world at some McParadise resort, all glistening paved over jungle or sand, we actually do have the opportunity to relax and be at peace? Why, we log on of course! Just 'catching up' with a few emails. Is not enough to be exploited at the market rate? No no no, that is still not enough for desire! We want more! We want to be exploited more! It is as if, after clocking out of the factory, we nip back in to operate the lathe for a couple hours more. For no reason, certainly not for pay, other than to satisfy our gnashing peasant desires. With each digitalized crack of our self generated spectral foreman’s whip we feel more complete. 'the English employed do not persist in working to somehow survive or escape from the rat race, we - hang on tight and spit on me - enjoy the hysterical, masochistic exhaustion of squabbling it out in the declining economy of this wretched European island, in the serviced offices, the call centres, in hell, our unconscious enjoys it, enjoys the mad destruction of attention, creativity and social life…. we enjoy the decomposition of personal identity, the dissolution of families and villages, and enjoy the monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in the morning and the evening.'

Of course, many talk about equality, exploitation and meritocracy but these are just conscious level symbolic order avatars that conceal the real desire. Our gnashing gimp of desire is order, control, repression and exploitation. We want to know our place in the world. Do not think the left are in any way exempt from this. Artists, curators and musicians are independent entrepreneurs. Hans-Ulrich Obrist is just Alan Sugar wrapped in Jill Sander. We’d go mad if there were no fields for tilling. The curators and their 24/7 poly-tasking social networking are in no way different to the LinkdIn project manager. Our immoral and sado-masochistic unconscious does not want change. It wants domination, struggle and exploitation. A register of this can be seen in the juxtaposition between the two major party leaders and how particular facets of their personalities and campaigns were received.

We can look at Ed Miliband first - in particular his speech. Of course, he has a conspicuous tendency for fluffing his lines. He mixes his syllables like a child (like when young children say yellow as lellolow) he tells his jokes backwards, accidentally blurting out the punch line in the midst of stumbling through the opener ( His infamous own goal with Paxman, ‘Am I tuss enough, hell yes I’m tussenuff’ was met with much right wing media sneering. Other than negative electioneering from The Conservatives, these aspects of personality seemed to hurt Labour’s campaign. Why?

Often, in the run up to the election, various ‘workers’ were interviewed, various manufacturing plants gave the impression the UK economy was a booming industrial country. It was almost convincing. The workers were often asked about their reservations for Miliband. Many said that he was not as strong as Cameron - that he was not a strong leader. Others were more blunt and shrugged that Miliband was simply not strong enough. It is strange how revealing this adjective is. Strong – perhaps we were hoping for someone more traditionally authoritative? Someone closer to our vague stereotype of what a dictator should be? Someone who can bawl and snort down an opponent with all the gravelly gravitas that only a brandied privileged neck can offer? Or perhaps there was some suspicion that, should a European leader be required to arm-wrestle Putin for oil, it may be best to have someone with at least a fighting chance?

However, by contrast Cameron’s displays of strength ‘getting pumped up’ were, I argue, his lowest moments in the campaign. He looked foolish, like he’d been told to do so. Worse still, he looked like he half meant it – meaning he almost looked like he thought he needed to try. It was off-putting. I can guess why. We don’t want our leaders to want to lead. We just want some silhouette of a leader for our desire. The moment this mask slips, the moment personality slips into view, or their own emotions, hopes or weaknesses leak through the cracks it seems that our unconscious looks around for a more suitably anonymous object of our true desire… The moment Cameron defaced his veneer of a right to govern along came baby Charlotte, just in time. It seems that like our pop music, our sonic taxidermy, our desire are stuck, the needle skipping, in a bygone era – an era when workers worked and leaders, well, were always there – not absent, like Hans’ predicament.

There is another register of this peculiar desire I would like to focus on. Ed Miliband’s glottal stop. A glottal stop is when a ‘T’ sound is made by halting airflow within the glottis, so a sound is ‘cut’ in the glottis rather than in the oral cavity. In the case of ‘T’ this would be when you push your tongue against your front teeth at the end of ‘post’. David Shariatmadari states that ‘(t)he basic insight of sociolinguistics was that social relationships affect the way we speak. The dynamics of human interaction – hierarchy, solidarity, disdain or admiration – can turn a high vowel into a low one, replace one consonant with another, and make would-be prime ministers sound like comedians.’ Accent and class are powerful, evocative and divisive themes. But in regards to the general reaction to Ed Miliband’s glottal stop there seems to be something at play. I suggest that the reaction stemmed from how this slight phonetic component of his speech seemed to be at odds with the symbolic object of deferred desire: the traditional, clipped queens English speaking, authority figure (as did his slip on the Question Time ElectionSpecial). I am not suggesting that a way of speaking can lose or win an election. I am suggesting that it is often in the ways in which we hear a voice and the types of role, background, history or politics we assign to it that reveal our desires to some degree. The accoutrements we add to voice, upon audition, are registers of our desire. Isn’t it a shame we cannot close our ears like we can our modern eyes, those eyes fixed at deathly cyan glares? Or wear shades and spectacles to allow a truer audition? But, I suppose, our ears are still stuck in a bygone era. The way we hear a voice is still stuck in a bygone era. The same bygone era as our submissive prole desires: a time when there were no off and on switches - just labouring bodies in the shadow of the castle.