Lives of quiet surrender, muted despair and limp conformity

Modern man has domesticated himself in bourgeois society and it is a poor fit. Imposing such tight controls, such a sedentary fixed existence, such powerful all-pervasive norms represents a sort of self-mutilation. Bourgeois life generates certain needs that it cannot fulfil; or certain needs predate bourgeois society which it has to adapt to satisfy. Ennui and stagnant safety, a sense of disempowerment before bureaucracy and aggressive anonymisation are the noxious byproducts of bourgeois living and to reabsorb them unproblematically it has to contort itself in bizarre ways.

Fear is a crucial means of recovering a sense of a life of action, excitement, danger, precariousness. We use it to kill excessive comfort and boredom and self-questioning consciousness. Bourgeois fear comes to fulfil the role of a sort of emotional release, a channel into which we can safely release the hysteria which is a sort of sublimated reaction to excessive control, regulation, routine – to doing the same thing again and again, in predictable and uncontroversial sequence, until we die. Just look at the quasi-apocalyptic fear that one sees now vis-à-vis the credit crunch, the global financial crisis, the banking meltdown; and look at the environmentalist scare which we flagellate ourselves with (wastefulness, energy gluttony, cheap chicken as the new sin).

This all grows so naturally out of a sense of the individual’s powerlessness before leviathan-like bureaucracies. Our problems are alienated: our fear expresses the difficulty that we have in dealing with the absence of villains, of the lack of someone to be vindictive towards, of an enemy to execrate. Comfort is discomforting, so we need to construe our lives as threatened, our resistance as heroic, our achievements as precarious: hence fear, with the threat from the environment, the economy, the (violent) criminals, terrorists, immigrants, chavs, corrupt politicians. All of these enemies or forces would destroy our well-appointed, rational bourgeois world with its hardworking families and its human rights and its sense of fair play and its popular culture. They render the banal beleaguered; they make our lives of quiet surrender, muted despair and limp conformity a sort of stance. We have our ‘others’ to tell us who we are and to remind us of the achievement of making order out of chaos, civilization out of barbarism. There is value in such a perspective. And it satisfies our need to feel ourselves better, more powerful than others; but also to torture ourselves with the bad conscience that comes from acting as the authors of our own problems (our profligacy destroys the environment; our rapacious foreign policy and quasi-imperialist cultural arrogance provoke the terrorists; our complicity in poverty and our inebriated consumerism evokes the resentment and envy that breeds criminality).

That’s not enough, though. Bourgeois society needs another prop; it has another ugly underside. We need to live vicariously through publicly-constructed paradigm figures: we need to feed upon celebrities; to make them the foci of our ugly, antisocial drives. As our lives have become increasingly privatized, our circles increasingly restricted, we have gone to the media in search of a sense of proximity to human types that we can’t find anywhere else. In the celebrity (the singer, the sportsman, the Royal: it matters little, the celebrity is constituted by what/how we see, not what they are) the media has created a sort of public good, a freely available emotional utility, a heavily fictionalised individual whom we can collectively appropriate, come to know and exploit. There may be some symbiosis here, but the celebrity’s essential role is to be exploited, penetrated, abused, condemned, exalted in whatever way is needed to anaesthetise our emotional wounds.

In the slave-minds of our twisted collective consciousness they are put to diverse uses: they are our heroes, our ideals, our anti-heroes (and many species thereof). Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse satisfy our need to be close to the darkness, to sin, to bacchanalian excess, to all the violent extravagances of the tyrannical id. They are expressions of libidinous excess, of self-destruction, of self-cruelty, of the complete repudiation of the routines and mores of bourgeois life. Each of them lives the life of the tortured romantic artist, the artist who lives in anguish between the competing, complimentary pulls of genius and madness. Doherty and Winehouse fascinate because they have paradigm lives for vicarious living. They are famous because our lives are lacking. Their unevenness, their lack of balance, the repressions that they demand of us, necessitate such objects of fascination. In a society as individualised as ours, as media beplagued, we get celebrities, these Frankenstein-monsters of the media: not Doherty, not Winehouse – not as they exist in the world, undistorted and unspun: media representations using the raw materials of their lives. Each has a public persona contended over by the magazines and the papers and the TV shows. That persona is what emerges from the battle of representations, the skein of competing stories and narratives and images: whatever is best evolved to satisfy our lust for a supplement to our bourgeois unsatisfactoriness.

Celebrities can fulfil such powerful needs because they are like us, but not us. They are the expressivists par excellence, hedonists par excellence, extreme libidinous, libertinous examples of ourselves; but they exist in the same culture as us, emerge from the same society, occupy the same social classes. They are recognisably us: who we might have been, who we might be, our potentialities, ourselves under different impulsions.

Our fascination with murders and child abductors is part of the same thing. We are morbidly fascinated by them, they are taboo and intriguingly so. They frighten us, lend our lives the excitement of the siege; give us paradigm figures for cruelty; give us individuals upon whom we can focus our anger, sadism, vengeful feelings as a community; and give us an insider-outsider standard so that we can see who is within, and who outwith, the community. They are doing so much work, bearing so much of the weight of the submerged psychic life of the nation. We hate them, we fear them, we define our identities against them, we want to kill them in a collective right of self-assertion and community-building; but at the same time we long to be them, to taste their exquisite lawlessness, to get drunk on the feelings of power and virility and cruelty that animate them.

They are the absolute, perfect instantiation of the anti-social, the misanthropic: in our minds they become our darkest selves, the bearers of drives and urges that we cannot even in our most private, candid moments admit to ourselves. Our fascination with them is the fascination that only evil can command, that only taboo can summon: the fascination with violating a child, with inflicting pain because of the narcosis it gives us, with taking life because it transfigures us into gods. I don’t know whether the semi-latent, half-articulated desire to kill these murderers is stronger, or the never spoken urge to become them.

Then there is Prince Harry: a compelling example of the way in which our self-understanding operates. Harry is the warrior Prince; young, brave, patriotic, self-sacrificing, masculine. And he is that most attractive of types: the extraordinary man who longs only be ordinary. He is the great affirmer of our lives of quiet, uncelebrated banality. He is the living vindication of our obscurity. He is not like us, but he wants to be like us. This makes him the type of the reluctant hero: a man (he has to be a man) motivated not by glory or any private, unseemly motives, but by the desire to serve virtue – to die for virtue – anonymously. Through him we finally came to understand what war was for the ‘ordinary’ soldier; what sacrifice meant; what it was like to live daily in fear of death and yet to fulfil one’s duty to a revered nation and an oppressed third world people.

Clearly, in a remarkable atavism, we still want our Royalty to be warriors, and we want them to sacrifice their very legitimate preferences to be just like everyone else, but that isn’t the most remarkable thing. More remarkable still is that for us to come to any sort of collective understanding of what war involved for British soldiers, we needed a celebrity to go to war. Until we had an individual story, a paradigm account that we could fit into the narrative of a public figure’s life, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t real to us. They were obscure, vaguely conceived tragedies, impinging rarely on our consciousnesses when radio newscasters read the names of dead soldiers elevated momentarily from the ranks of unknown abstractions.

Any attempt to understand British culture and society has to engage with fears, media-manufactured celebrities, and the dramatis personae of child murders (not just the presumptive murderer, but the child and the parents). Concentrated in those three areas are ugly, subterranean truths that we don’t want to admit to ourselves and which insipid liberal analyses are never going to be bold or deep enough to find.

2 Responses to “Lives of quiet surrender, muted despair and limp conformity”

  1. zomg Says:


  2. Will Says:

    Wow, I like. This is a great assessment of the human condition; one who desires to break the very mold that we are all desperate to maintain. While I don’t personally feel many of these things, I think we can all say we like to do something a bit crazy sometimes..

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