DISPATCHES FROM THE OFFICE
Do you read articles in the paper? Columns and that? I do. One thing that often surprises me is how plausible everyone seems, all the opinion people. I never get the sense that they’re thinking ‘Gosh, am I going to look a plonker if I publish this? Will they all be laughing at me? Will my hidden fears and insecurities be visible? Will I be naked, before the world?’ Maybe they do think this, around 3am, but I’m talking about the vibe, a solid sense that their world is dependable, substantial, normal.
I feel, reading the newspapers, like I’m… what is that dreamlike feeling? where everyone seems so calm and certain, talking about what’s going on and what must be done and so on while I’m thinking, ‘but none of this actually matters’, or I’m feeling some vast horrible-wonderful truth is being ignored, or I’m sensing that nobody believes or even cares about what they’re doing or saying? What is that feeling…?
Oh yes, it’s the feeling of being at work. All these writers are at work. I sometimes forget that they’re bored, harried, pressured, compromised to their core, uncomfortable, unable to do what they really want, punished for honesty and so on. Not because they’re good at concealing it, but because those who do well at media work (like any other work), who reach the point where they can speak to thousands and thousands of people, are those that don’t mind this torture. If they did they’d never even get a letter printed, let alone a regular column.
So here we are, we all go to work — where, of course, we feel like we’re at work — and then we come home or take a break, open a newspaper or turn on the television — in order to feel like we’re at work.
But no, it’s worse than that; to feel like we’re in the mind of someone who doesn’t mind being at work!
And nothing seems strange about this. It all blends seamlessly together; work in the office blends into news from the office; just as the adverts blend into the news, and Celebrity Big Brother blends into ‘the wine show’, and first-person-shooter video games blend into fantastic pornographic tableaux, and the office banter blends into the pub banter; ‘I need a holiday to get over my holiday!’ blends into ‘someone should write a book about this place!’ blends into ‘oh, you know, can’t complain!’
Generally something worth hearing sticks out from all this in a way nothing else does.
It sounds implausible.
THE WATCH WATCH WATCH MODE
Remember that thing last year where they thought they caught Jeremy Corbyn pretending to sit on the floor of the train because he couldn’t get a seat? Maximum attention. A few days ago Noam Chomsky said that people in swing states should have voted Clinton. Maximum attention. And a bit before that Julian Assange said he thought that some unexpected good could come of Trump’s presidency. Maximum attention. In all three cases critics of the system were presented as having been ‘outed’. ‘Finally!’ cries the media, ‘we can see how fraudulent they really are!’
In each case it was a distortion — Corbyn didn’t lie, Chomsky isn’t really a Clinton supporter (although he’s certainly not an anarchist) and Assange in no sense whatsoever supports Trump — but the point is, even if Corbyn had pulled a crafty PR stunt, or even if Chomsky had, in his dotage, thought, ‘well, Clinton isn’t really so bad’, or even if Putin had told Assange he could come and live in a Black Sea mansion if he released Clinton’s emails — none of these things would alter the fact that the entire corporate media (meaning everyone in it) are hovering over prominent critics like a dog at a rabbit hole, waiting for a slip up.
It’s not just the media who do this of course. Teachers do, lovers, people having arguments; anyone determined to win sets themselves into the watch watch watch mode, waiting for an idea which by itself, seems inconsistent, ludicrous or out of place. And sooner or later one turns up; not because people make mistakes (although we do), but because watching as a combatant transforms the flow of speech into a succession of point-free or context-isolated ideas by themselves.
By watching for error, by focusing hawk-like on meaning, by concentrating on coming out on top you automatically generate purely formal communication, comprised not of tone of voice, gesture, nuance, depth, meaning, the whole story and all those other blended imponderables, but solely of isolated and graspable ideas, rational facts and isolated things which, by their isolated and graspable nature, become contradictory (‘you hypocrite — you’re saying this now, but before you said that’), questionable (‘what do you mean love is not an emotion? / atheism and theism are the same? / Žižek is right wing?’), trivial (as isolated examples always do seem trivial) or absurd (‘The universe is conscious! Abolish all laws! Schools make the children stupid! ah ha ha!’).
It is only by isolating reasonable or truthful statements in this way that they can be objectionable. Words, ideas, facts and examples by themselves, removed from the context, from the flow of speech or of time, are always silly, contradictory and besides the point. They are always objectionable — because they are always objects.
Have you noticed your own watch, watch, watch mind in an argument pounce — with perfect rational accuracy — upon a reason to win (which you later realised was pure illusion)? Do you remember why you were so intent, in that moment, upon victory? Do you remember what you ended up being afraid of admitting, what it really was that was irritating you? Do you remember how rapidly and expertly your mind worked to dismiss this suppressed reality, to head criticism off at the pass or to justify itself?
Above all, do you remember how you felt at that hyper-focused point?
You felt by yourself.
Now imagine having that feeling all the time.