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 (http://www.libdemvoice.org/ed-milibands-wonky-pmqs-maths-26054.html). 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.













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