Monday, July 16, 2012

The Second Time as Soap Opera

Like a retired colonial official living out his twilight senescence in a nursing home, the British ruling class has no new glories or power to conjure. Instead, in its shuffling, piss-ridden decay, it is forced more and more to turn back to its glorious past, to create a bri-nylon copy of its former landed brilliance. The Olympics offers another opportunity for the post-tumescent ruling class to fantasise once again about its country houses and land enclosures. This hackneyed and fictional vision hardly met widespread enthusiasm first time round, so in its period of decline the ruling class needs some help.

Step forward the World of Art™, corporatist champions par excellence.

Step forward those hacks willing to make a few bob passing their nationalistic bullshit off as an oh-so-ironic comment on the state of Britain. Possibly the most insulting part of the window-dressing for Cameron’s car boot sale being put in place by the likes of Danny Boyle and Simon Armitage is that it invokes something of Romanticism, whether in the faux arcadia of the Olympic ceremony, with its astro-turf grandeur, or in an ostensible criticism of imperialist onslaught that only reasserts Britain’s credentials as the reasonable voice of neo-colonial plunder.

This shouldn’t be so surprising. Romanticism, the great spirit of revolt, has long been prey to recuperation and co-opting in the service of the nation state. There is a long arc in Romanticism, from Hegel to Heidegger, Goethe to Riefenstahl, Blake to Boyle. From an analysis of the world’s changes and their revolutionary sustenance to the most vacuous and vicious support for the brutal suppression of any further revolutionary change, Romanticism has been pressed into the service of everything it arose against.

This recuperation of Romanticism has not happened without a struggle, without a denunciation of such acquiescence. Shelley, a revolutionary to the end, wrote to Wordsworth that by abandoning his poems of truth and liberty ‘thou leavest me to grieve, Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be’. Armitage may once have followed the Auden and MacNeice trail across Iceland, but when push comes to shove he’ll still be a probation officer.

But the triumph of these forces is not inevitable. Romanticism, for all the problems and pressures, has continued to encourage the awkward and the furious: Sade, Blake, Lautréamont. The only possible revolt against co-opted state Romanticism today rests with those awkward and furious revolutionary Romantics of Surrealism, the apogee and negation of Romanticism. ‘Surrealism does not accept all that shines in Romanticism, but only those aspects of it whose lighting terrifies. And it has a lot to reproach Romanticism for’ (Nicolas Calas).

Today the recuperation of Romanticism takes the form of a layer of ‘professional radicals’. Safely ensconced in the bosom of the establishment, such figures claim that their comments and criticisms are subversion from within while they can barely make an effort to conceal their adaptation to the existing order. They also find a willing audience amongst people one would have thought would know better.

A lot of bloody sheep

Their attempts to cover for the complete erosion of all revolutionary potential involve a cheap copy of earlier manifestations of Romanticism in new conditions. As one of the great heroes of revolutionary Romanticism (Marx), writing of another (Hegel), noted, ‘all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ Such is the degenerative pressure on these recuperated self-styled radicals that the farce has become ever broader and less funny. The repetition is now taking on the character of a domestic soap opera.

Which brings us to Danny Boyle, whose whole career has involved presenting apparently gritty facts of social reality as a way of satisfying the desires of a complacent middle class to feel radical without having to change anything. Ooh, heroin! Ooh, Indian street urchins! Open another Pinot Grigio so we can discuss that over dessert, like a gritty storyline from The Archers.

It’s The Archers, but without even the connection to reality of that show’s agricultural advisers. Boyle’s cretinous tableau for the Olympics of a rural idyll with real sheep is the degenerated view of pastoral bliss as the foundation of Englishness, the most backward echo of early Romantic visions. Not since John Major fantasised about old ladies with warm beer cycling across village cricket pitches has such a rank proto-fascist vision of national life been advanced, but such is the recuperation of figures like Boyle that the only public response to his vision was concern for the welfare of the sheep.

Fuck the sheep.

Eat the sheep.

Let the sheep go.

Where is the outrage? Not about the sheep, but about the vacuous invocation of a pastoral Englishness being passed off as a subversive Romantic statement? These people have not only given up on the possibility of transformation, they have turned instead to a superficial parody of Romanticism that can only fuel and succour a rabid reaction. Turns to the rural, to fanciful notions of a peasantry at the heart of the nation-state, were limited enough even when they had some progressive content. Now, even in the name of anti-globalisation or some such radical-sounding idea, they’re just backward rubbish to prevent change.

It’s this that makes Boyle’s shop-window mannequin arrangement so contemptible – not that it vacuously champions the landed gentry’s own idealised views of home, but that it does so under the pretence of a knowing and detached comment on them. Danny Boyle is just another Artist who has bought a vision and now expects us to pay for it. Boyle’s maquette, hilariously, looked like the entire careers of the Chapman brothers produced in 1/12 scale by Airfix.

No, damn you, no countries! No accepting the strictures of capitalism under the pretence of local progress! Enough parodies of a nature tamed and harmless! With Sade we insist that ‘Destruction … like creation is one of Nature’s mandates’. The view of Romanticism peddled here is one that condemns people forever to the prison of a Romanticised national past rather than offering them the way to break out of that into a new and different future.

‘A romantic stance towards Romanticism is today conceivable only through Surrealism’ (Calas). We’re not recreating the English country estate, the German peasantry, the slave-owning Greek democracy – we’re striving to overcome them, to be their negation. It is not good enough to make some clever-sounding detached comment about it: we have to take it all out of their hands stone by stone and build something new on their bones.

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