Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Trump, The Emptying Of Meaning And The Degradation Of Language

Progressive/Left politics is in retreat. Not only has it ceded power in government, it is getting its collective behind kicked by the AltRight or harder line Conservatives, gleefully deriding every sacred cow of progressive/Liberal societies.  The Left is unable to muster any kind of debunking of the AltRight’s declamations and lacks for the fundaments of any coherent political ideology or policies to offer an alternative vision of government.

The Left simply cannot understand the rise of the AltRight and struggles to engage against any of their tactics. As a writer I would like to point out to them how some of these tactics work, coming from my own perspective of language. For language is under attack as never before in this blustering post-truth, post-expert era. Language, like truth, is being emptied of any consequence and meaning. Deliberately so.

1       Like any politician, Trump uses words to stir the emotions, to rally people to his side. But Trump attaches nothing of substance to his words. There is no policy, no ideas linked to his declamations. Instead he slates something as being wrong or he doesn’t like it and that is enough to have his supporters agreeing with him, punching the air and shouting ‘Hell yeah!’. It doesn’t matter if he does anything about the issue, the mere fact he has highlighted it is sufficient to secure allegiance to him the man, not him a man of ideas or action. But surely it will matter when he fails to deliver anything of substance? Well apparently not, merely stating that something is anathema in a way that it has never been quite so openly derided before, is enough. He has already backed away from building a wall with Mexico, yet no one is really calling him on the backtracking, trying to hold him to his word. They can’t since the word was as empty as the promise, it was only ever just raw, undiluted emotionalism. To distance from the suggestion of an actual brick and concrete wall being erected, it is now being said that the wall was only ever a metaphorical one. Look back on his speeches and there is no indication of it being metaphorical, but it doesn’t matter, it got the message across, job done.
      Trump annunciates his litany of dislikes and things that need changing, but he is only really a figurehead and will leave it to others to bring about these changes. He provides the headline ideas, without any steer and his minions will go about trying to expedite these headline actions in whatever way they see fit, since they are given carte blanche, the only proviso being to please their lord and master for whose favour there are competing with others in his cabinet. This is exactly how the Nazis operated, Hitler would throw out the top line aim and then leave it to his henchmen to fight it out to bring the details and the practicalities to make his desire come true. And since those henchmen in their various departments were all competing with one another for favour and status within the regime, it only encouraged for more and more extreme actions on their behalves to out-trump their rivals. Trump is not a Nazi or even a Fascist, though he shares some of the cult of the personality traits of a Hitler or a Stalin, but looking at several of the names of the people he has brought into government, this could get very nasty indeed. There will be promotions and demotions of individuals throughout his Presidency, as the competition to realise Trump’s ill-specified vision gets very cut-throat indeed. Delivery is all, more than the actual politics of it all. Trump is a businessman first and foremost. It’s all about sealing the deals and not losing a battle or losing face.

3       Trump will sideline the mainstream media. He has no need to address them and permit them to mediate his words to their viewers/readers. Which is just as well since they are empty words anyway. He can go directly to his support base, through his own access to broadcasting (currently situated in Trump Tower – will he even bother to move it to the Whitehouse?) and of course social media. Both allow him to speak and therefore be represented entirely as he chooses. His postings on social media already are completely without fear of being taken to task for them. He defends VP Pence over the “Hamilton” theatre booing. Already the counter-feeling is that this was a diversionary tactic to sprinkle smoke in the electorate’s eyes to cover up claims of election fraud, fake news stories, voter disenfranchisement (the new Jim Crow Laws) and possible foreign power hacking of vote machines. Again the mechanism of an inflammatory tweet or FB video is that Trump doesn’t have to hang around to debate the outraged ripostes in the under the line comments. He has made his proclamation, let the outcome fall where it will. He spent an entire campaign making outlandish threats and the more he was attacked for them, the more it solidified the notion that he was an outsider from the political elite, didn’t play the game they all did and told it like it really was. Only without any sincerity behind the outbursts, he wasn’t telling it at all.

      Much of this emptying of meaning from our language chimes with the approach of the AltRight  (even that appellation is an emptying of the substance of meaning, since elements of the AltRight are White Supremacist). The AltRight delight in taking to task political correctness in deed and in word. They do it with a cheery countenance that they say is the opposite of the serious minded nature of politics everyone is so fed up with. It’s fun, it’s a laugh, it’s what we need in politics and it’s what people like. It is what we Brits call banter (bantz) and again dovetails effortlessly with the mien of social media. Sawn off name-calling and jibing rather than more developed and extensive debate and argument. But this is the clown make up of John Wayne Gacy, because in appealing for it as a bit of a laugh, when it is in actuality violent, hateful language directed at non-white males; that is people of colour, non-heterosexuals, or women who put forward arguments about empowerment or inequality. Hate-filled language may be legal in the US, but it can never be light-hearted. They would counter that their targets need to grow a thicker skin, or some greater genitalia. And because there are sections of society who lap all this stuff up, who regard it as both knockabout comedy and expressing the previously inexpressible (and of course buttressed by the 1st amendment for free speech), to them the language can be parroted because it is just having a laugh, it doesn’t mean anything – they may hate you, but they won’t go on to kill you for your otherness. Even if that last mental calculation were true, it still makes for a divisive, hate-filled society, now given air to breathe. Again, a specious argument that they are merely words emptied of substance and consequence, that they are ‘just words’.

The progressive Left as yet has not been able to muster arguments against this approach. Hard to muster arguments when the value of words (let alone truth, fact and reasoned argument) has been denuded. Anytime a progressive chances to open their mouth to defeat an AltRight opinion, they can be immediately derided for taking it all too seriously. These are two points of view which operate on different levels which cannot possibly meet head on and deal within the same terms of reference.; serious mindedness versus having a bit of a laugh. So is the solution to get equally comedic and irreverent with counter-arguments to the AltRight? Then you lose your claims to moral authority. The winner is not the person with a clinching argument, but who is the funniest (or the shoutiest). TV Reality world, phone in your vote. Words mean nothing in the new America. Promises, if even made, mean nothing, but no one seems to mind (although in 4 years time if the specific grievances of Trump voters haven’t been met, then perhaps then failed promises or lack of commitment to anything of substance) might actually come home to roost. With its First Amendment, America currently has many more outlets for views to be expressed. But don’t be surprised that in a world where the word is devalued, no one is actually listening to any one else expressing their opinion. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Occam's Wet Razor - Flash Fiction

                                                                                                                 Image from Maggie Chang

You stand at the precipice. Albeit at sea level. Beached. A tsunami of anxiety elevated at your back. An overwhelming welter of nausea bearing down dorsally. A monstrous water-breathing dragon astern. Poised with bated froth for your embrace. The spume laps at your quivering neck. Or maybe it’s a runnel of your own sweat. Salt kissing salt. Siren summons into the bosom of the brine. You can’t bear to turn and face your leviathan. Scylla or Charybdis, one or other has calamitous claim on you. A miasmic ménage à trois. Tears walk the plank from your lacrimal channels. Else it’s artfully piloted spindrift. Bombardier and navigator the twain. Co-piloting your life towards crash-landing in the drink. Charter a gallant on white winged seahorse to come sweep you up off your feet and away to safety. Yet that’s precisely what plunged you into these straits in the first place.  

That older ensign long consigned to the Davy Jones locket at your throat, semaphores how the terror is always more colossal than the reality. You need to clear the opacity of your vision. Conceive of your fear not as a cataract but as a fountain. One you can cup your hand through the spurt and bring some cool refreshing drops up to your lips. -  A font you say? Like a modest spout of mechanically mannered spray? You’re fooling yourself with such a conceit. Just take a look at the dimensions of the roiling qualm. It’s not going to merely drench but drown. No King Canute act is going to hold that at bay. It’s not going to be allayed by three coins in a fountain. It’s a hateful spate effacing all before it. Including the balm of the memory of you. - Mayhap, but you know there is always a place to stand behind a cascade. Safe from the surge. Then you just walk back through. That’s what you have to conjure up in your mind. Where the gush can’t get you. - There is no such haven. A fountain is not a waterfall is not the ocean. - You do realise you yourself are mainly composed of water? So what is there to fear from becoming one with the main? There’s your ballast for you. Air-breathing is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you are suffocating inside. From stale, putrid, corrosive air. The second-hand oxygen respired by your lovers. Altitude sickness. They induced this Fata Morgana afore you. Blood is supposed to be thicker than water, but your blood is being curdled and poisoned by those closest to you who would transfuse you their corruption. No no, you don’t have to tell me again. You are in love with both of them. And yet here you stand stranded solitary amidst this quicksand.

King Canute. Damocles’ sword. With something something comes responsibility. Only you do not possess the authority and level of control conferred by a throne. Supposedly conferred. You do not even hold the security clearance to dub yourself “I”. As in, ‘I need the waves to recede’. It currently (!) remains in suspense hindmost over your head. Planar. Primed. It is not a mere parting of the Red Sea ways you supplicate. It’s more elementally primordial than that. You are seeking a recrudescence of the Antediluvian. The Prelapsarian. A period before the ego of I. A time before forces acting on the body, whether at god’s behest or non-denominational gravity’s. Until appetence’s apple sunk them both. Which is where you find yourself today. Here and now. Carnally compromised. You cannot return to the rockpool of your mother’s womb. Even if tiddler you could go back and begin again, higgler you would end up here in this very same place anyway. On the brink of being deluged. Marooned on an isle fast being sepulchered with the tide. Cupidity is your very nature. You’re like the fish that hooks itself twice on the same line. - Greedy you mean? - More… instinctive. All creation seeks after nourishment in order to survive after all. - Oh, hungry… for love. You got that right. - Not, trichotomous love however. You cannot devote the entirety of yourself across a brace of separate swains. - Why, is Poseidon’s own trident not three-spoked? A divine with a pair of consorts of his own. - So just like he, you are not feeling discomposed by the menace of the water then? There can be no ‘we’ betwixt three. And with no ‘we’, the ‘I’ is also submerged. The wave of your fluctuation will break over you. You made your seabed, now lie in it. Take me from your throat and cast me into the deep. - But you are the only one I have ever truly loved. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Mid-Life Crisis = Standup Comedy Routine

So in September my twin boys went off to University and suddenly my wife and I had the house to ourselves again for the first time in eighteen years. Empty nest syndrome? Not on your nelly. Mid-life crisis (my parents divorced after 25 years once their only child disappeared off up to uni), no, not on your life. I don't just seem to have a richness of free time, I seem possessed of more focus and energy with them gone. After not a single live reading through until the start of September, by Christmas I would have hit double figures. I've written a lot, including starting a new project and coincidently landed a first publishing deal for one of my novels with a small independent publisher (more of which in future). So I guess I'll be busy with preparing a marketing and promotion campaign for the book in the new year.

So business as usual for me, except maybe more so. Only... a couple of nights I performed my first ever stand up comedy routine. Now that surely is a symptom of mid-life crisis, bursting out into new territory, trying something completely different from what has gone before? Except writing and performing a comedy routine really wasn't that much different from writing and reading live. Unless you're one of those comedians like Tim Vine who just gets up on stage and tells joke after joke without much in the way of narrative, comedians are story tellers. More often than not, their stories are based around the character of themselves that they project on stage. So in many ways little different from a protagonist created by an author in any novel. Except that there is this tension between the character they present on stage and the true life person, as the audience try and figure out how much of the act is an act and how much they are really like the persona coming through the mic. I make the same calculations as a writer, because I believe no matter how far seemingly removed from yourself a fictional character may be, it still represents some part of your psyche. So for my routine, I did draw on my own life and then had great fun playing and distorting it into, well a fiction. The character is a 50+ year old geezer (that'll be moi) looking back to his youth and the influence of punk rock. That much is true, as is maybe the character taking a slightly sad hypocritical, non-dewey eyed look at what he is now compared with the ideals of punk. But in doing so I exaggerate for comic effect a lot of that tension between then and now, (for example this character talks about no longer being able to pogo on account of a skiing accident, when in fact I have never been skiing in my life). I also bring punk ideals up to date in a way that is probably completely specious, in talking about them in the context of Trump's election and the influence of social media. The Jam get a hammering in the routine but at the time they were the band I saw play live more than any. Sham 69 getting a pasting is in fact representative of my true feelings about them.

In terms of the genesis of the routine, I was watching a live show by my favourite standup comedian Stewart Lee, who deconstructs his comedy even as he performs it (echoes with plenty of my own fiction writing). And in the middle of it - I can't remember the exact prompt - I started composing a routine about punk lyrics (I know, heresy to be writing material of your own when watching your favourite standup performing his act). I mean these were songs I've been listening to and occasionally singing aloud for the past 40 years, so I was able to put my hand on to their lyrical content and started imagining performing a running commentary on some of them. Added into the mix was a couple of twitter hashtag puns I'd made in the past when the hashtag is band or lyric themed and suddenly a whole routine was coming together. Was I really going to try and perform this myself, live in front of an audience? Well if it stood up to the test of me writing it out and it still seeming like a good thing then I already had the perfect open mic night for trying it out. So on my tube journey home from Stewart Lee I wrote out in my notebook what had been in my head in the course of that Thursday evening. On the Saturday I sat down to transcribe those notes and write a full version. Since that was completed by Sunday, I felt this thing was a goer. Now the only thing was to memorise it.

That is the main difference between performing comedy and reading prose live. You don't have the book/script in your hand. Now I'm used to acting out my own stories with gesture and expression, so that aspect didn't pose me an issue. But here I'd had to learn 1500 words perfectly, because as all good comics show, the exact word choice can be very important and funny in itself. So I rehearsed all week. At night with my head on my pillow, I went through the routine in my mind. Didn't get much sleep last week. But I managed to memorise it all and at the show last Friday was pretty much word perfect and raised a few sniggers and snorts from the audience. A couple of people came up afterwards and said they enjoyed the set. I don't think this represents a career change, but was both a really useful thing to do from a writing point of view and though I don't have a bucket list, I think it was something I'd always had a sneaking desire to do at least once.

One final point, I knew that if I was going to perform it live, I would also record a version back home to put on YouTube. Yet there is a huge difference between performing into a microphone where you only get one shot at it in real time and recording to camera where just a few hours after I'd been word perfect in front of an audience, it took about 15 takes just to get through the first 2 of 7 sections. There's is nothing quite like the prod of a microphone and an audience to keep you tightly focused.

So here is the probably one-off standup routine for your delectation and pleasure.

The songs referenced in the routine:

Sex Pistols "God Save The Queen"

The Clash "White Man In Hammersmith Palais"

Talking Heads "Psychokiller"

Ramones "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker"

The Adverts "Gary Gilmore's Eyes"

The Jam "Down In the Tubestation At Midnight"

Gang Of Four "Guns For Butter"

Art And Iconoclasm

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, giant carvings out of cliff sandstone. Monumental art, reduced to rubble by Taliban dynamite. Zealots who could not permit the existence of images from apostate religions. Their minds utterly certain, they felt not a pang of regret. They recorded it as an instance of religion crushing and reasserting its authority over art and expression.

Two men, musicians and dedicated trickster artists of chaos, travel up to a remote Scottish island to burn one million pounds of banknotes they had earned. The act was intended as an artistic statement and was filmed, but otherwise there were few witnesses. Though they proceeded with their act, the men have since expressed that they were racked with doubt. Such an act was hardly blasphemous, but it did still seem to be an abomination. The film testimony only had a sporadic release and rarely sees the light of day. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Gathering - Friday Flash

No one at this party sported name badges. More’s the pity. They all appeared tightly bonded, hierarchically indentured, Jacob's social ladder to employment heaven, though with all feet firmly planted on the ground. Me, I felt adrift amongst the tide, these children of the Promised Land where I am the lone one of Pharaoh’s cavaliers not swept up in the swirling waters of the Red Sea. Amidst these entrepreneurial elect, I feel I have drowned anyway. I would rather once again cross the Red Sea than cross the floor of this room. 

So who do I make for? Which one of these cynosures of the chosen people holds my fate in his hands? One of them possesses the arcanum that will unlock my future. Could it be him, with the burst blood vessels in his nose, surely he is too much yoked to the fruit of the vine to be entrusted with such salutary wisdom? Or how about him, though to hear him pontificate he appears as mad as a plague of frogs? This third has no morals as his financial locusts descend on an enterprise and asset strip every last spike clean. While the chap next to him I see wincing and shrinking, presumably as a farmer who suffered at the likes of just one such at his hands. Though his uncallused digits suggest his loss was less of reaped wheat and more of murrained livestock. I feel his pain, not of his absented herds and flocks, but as to how he can best remove himself from this social cartel. How to shuffle and sidle away without appearing peremptorily impolite. The trick being to seem endlessly hanging on every word of the pack alpha so that you curry flavoursome favour. A clarified buttering up of the Pharoah who grants such favours, morsels from the top table. Top tips tantalisingly hovering just at the extremes of range of your fingertips. Don’t reach too importunately for the parings or the bait will be pulled away, for what can I but offer him in return? The Prisoner’s Dilemma pertains here. I don’t know the pecking order, whether I am asking for too much or too little. Whether it is even in the grant of this potentate or another. For none bear the mark of the Paschal to enable me to effortlessly passover them. But then it’s hard to credit that any of them could be lambs at all. A plague on the rest of them’s houses.

But who am I to be so exacting on those in the room? They may display the ten pestilences of Exodus, but I embody the deadly sins of the hindmost Testament. The venal weaknesses of my own anxieties. Sloth, need one say more? I am not so much out of practise at networking as virginal. I envy the sleek, slick professionalism of all here, even as I vaingloriously congratulate myself for remaining unsullied by their materially tainted mores and jealously resolve to preserve my own imagined purity. I know my vulnerability, that if I expose myself to the magnetism of these semi-divinities, I hazard unbuckling my lust and falling wholly under their orbit. And avarice and gluttony? This is where I lose my confidence since such features are the preserve of my interlocutors and circumnavigators in the room. As Old merges and acquiesces into New, a hostile takeover. Sins and plagues blend immaculate and smear us all. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Knife Fork Spoon

My spoon a shank. My shank a spoon. Sharpened. Honed sweet honed. Spoon as knife. Feel protected now. Able to cut any lairy fucker who tries it on. Funny how something that feeds you becomes a deliverer of death. I am nourished on into further life by striking blood. Stick 'em good to their guts. Yank it back out still with organs attached, then spoon-knife becomes a fork also. The full set. Prison wares. For eating your porridge. No honey or sugar to sweeten it. No salt to season. Just a blood glaze. For eating in the trough.