Cruelty and vulgarity are being normalised as acceptable forms of entertainment. I accept that entertainment has by its very nature a dark side — which I will admit to enjoying up to a certain point. We have invented collocations and terms like ‘biting wit’ and ‘mordant perspicuity’ to cover this ancient tradition of enjoying a temporary infliction of pain in somebody we would wish to publicly diminish; we also have a tradition that teaches us that good satire only ‘punches upwards’. This is to say that mockery or taunting of a ‘higher’ or more dominant social strata from the position of the dominated is in fact a social good, a progressive act, and thus worthy of critique (in the sense of intellectual attention) whereas mockery of a lower strata from the position of the dominator is worth nothing at all. An indifference towards the social relationship between the victim and the perpetrator of an insult results not in anything of progressive cultural or aesthetic value but in a reinforcement of existing relations of domination, or worse — since we are ultimately dealing with enjoyment — a positive feedback cycle that can tip into outright sexual sadism of a pathological, even paraphiliac, nature. Likewise, when the enjoyment of another party’s sustained suffering becomes the focus of a deep and triumphal enjoyment, it has obviously tipped into pathology.
The internet, by which I mean its interactive and social side, certainly constitutes a place where such sadistic feedback cycles can form. Among the affluent white generation that has grown up alongside the developing internet, it is a standing joke (a meme) that ‘if it exists, there is porn of it’, which acknowledges the adolescent impulse present in the early hobbyists of the internet (like early users of dictionaries) to use its ever-growing comprehensibility to seek out the most prurient texts and the most lurid imagery. An age in which pornography transferred from print media, VHS cassettes and DVDs to websites selling digital videos acknowledges that as culture expanded in new media directions, it brought its accepted private underbelly with it. This is not in any way the issue, and in fact constitutes merely that category that the logonomic order (the order of unstated implicit rules) deems to be ‘acceptable within the bounds of discretion’, i.e. it is a matter for the judgement of the emotionally mature adult individual who has been, it is assumed, properly socialised within a normative culture.1 What has been an issue, however, was unregulated early access to material for which the emotional maturity and socialisation of the viewer was lacking. In a sense, not primarily the first but even more so the second generation of internet users, the so-called digital natives, have been socialised by the internet itself, and especially in cases where the more traditional forms of socialisation (institutions such as family, school, clubs) have been lacking or have been ineffective and unworthy of respect.
As disturbing as it might sound, there is a certain reality to the ‘intergenerational conflict’ and the ‘culture war’ discourse. It isn’t simple, however, and it certainly isn’t reducible to some kind of kulturkampf. The ‘sides’ in such a war do not correspond to sociological categories; for one thing the conflict appears almost entirely internal to the white middle classes and has, accordingly, no genuine account of gender, race and class. With that huge qualification in mind, it is still possible to argue that ‘the UK’ is culturally post-traumatic; its learning curve has been stymied or stunted in the same way as an individual’s emotional development may in some cases (perhaps not many) be arrested by systematic abuse. With many a proviso, we could speak of some kind of cultural autism embedded in our media, which could become at its fringes extremely dangerous; while insidiously lurking in forms of infotainment it can be invisible and innocuous enough, but if left unchecked the positive reinforcement/feedback cycle can result in full-on balls-and-tackle-out catastrophes. Do we need to be reminded, perhaps, of the fallout from unfettered self-reinforcement under Nazism: where, for their own amusement, armed gangs bashed the brains out of Jewish mothers’ babies against brick walls?
We tell ourselves, with no small amount of cognitive dissonance, that no rational, liberal, society could ever find itself in such a place. We reassure ourselves that we are British, and therefore civilized, using the cover of massive cultural amnesia over what this has actually meant historically. This supposed politesse and civility did nothing to prevent Kitchener’s scorched earth interment of the Boer, the British army’s campaign of terror and beheading in Malaya, Thatcher’s support for the falsified account of Hillsborough ran by The Sun, or Churchill’s view on the ‘justifiable homicide’ of striking Liverpool workers.
What is this idea of Britishness as reasonableness — where does it come from? The answer is quite surprising actually. The English literary canon enshrines the work of Chaucer, Milton, Blake and Shakespeare as some of its foremost accomplishments. They epitomise a civilised, urbane wit and a sense of where the boundaries of humanity lie, such that anyone familiar with these literary classics can see how to skirt them with great dexterity without ever breaching them. It is of course in this embedded philosophical anthropology, this sketching out and defining of the moral shape of the human being, that we find a sense of reasonableness entrusted to tradition, to the literary canon. Moreover, it was not some kind of organic, autochthonous eruption that resulted in this implicit humanism.
Geoffrey Chaucer, a learned merchant, literally imported this humanism during his dealings with Florentine bankers.2 From his holidays in Florence he brought home copies of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio — three of the mighty literary pillars upon which renaissance humanism had been built. Since that time until relatively recently (well into the 18th century) it was considered a normal part of a gentleman’s education to have an ‘Italian adventure’. It was necessary, this pedagogy held, for a man to cultivate sprezzatura, a kind of elegant distance or ease with the world. Italian literary influence on the form of English works in this period — noticeable in the new practices of composing and collecting sonnets, and in a proliferation of new usages of rhetorical devices (as in euphuism) — is far outweighed by cultural influence. Tudor courts were deeply influenced by the translated works by Italians such as Machiavelli, Petrarch, Boccaccio, but it is specifically Castiglioni’s Cortegiano — The Courtier — which gave rise to the cultural and social deportment of the ‘gentleman’ figure. The gentleman is courtly in a specific sense — this is not the staunch and staid geometric courtliness of the Absolutist Monarchy of the French regime, arranged around a centralised ground plan like the formal gardens. Italy did not really exist as yet, and its people were governed rather by a plurality of city-states. As such some of the old ideals of the Roman civitas, civility and urbanity, penned by Cicero and refashioned by the above-mentioned Renaissance humanists, made their way to England. A poly-nucleated sense of belonging, of being at home in many cities, ideally any city, was intrinsic to the sense of what it meant to be the gentlemen. A respect for differences — in one sense a self-detachment — is thus inscribed at the core of the ideal. In a completely different conceptual genealogy, Jacques Derrida traced the concept of hospitality, as something co-essential in the best forms of cosmopolitan consciousness, to Stoic thought.
In any case, it is towards the humanism of the late fifteenth century that we have to reach back if we want to find the closest source of a modern identity that is, if not universally comfortable with, then at least prepared for and welcoming towards cultural differences. How much of this translated into English social attitudes on a genuinely pedagogical level and how much remained at the purely performative level of an affectation — a jolly good show — is hard to estimate, but it is absolutely certain that as a figure it was incorporated into the British persona during the time of empire. Indeed empire in all its modern forms has required something like a mission civilisatrice as legitimating discourse, and in which the meaning of ‘civilising’ was completely free to drift into antiphrasis whenever the expropriation of land and resources was at stake. Today the term ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘humanitarian aid’ roam the same paradoxical semantic fields. We have to suppose that at some moment, however, long before all of these empty uses of the idea of humanistic civility, at a point in time wedged between the late middle ages and the early modern period, humanitas and civility really did have socially real referents that could be engaged with. After all, behind the cricket English sense of ‘fair play’ and reasonableness, however ridiculous this sounds in 2020, stood the figure of the gentleman, translated from Castaglioni by Thomas Hoby not for mere sport; there was Jacob Burckhardt’s no less significant, but much later (19th century) figure of the Renaissance Man; and far earlier there were the city-dwellers or civilians of Cicero. But the other side of Cicero’s civilian Rome, of course, is the military just as the other side of the civilising mission of empires is imperialism. If civility, urbanity and civilisation belonged essentially to the urban life in the Civis, then what belonged especially we wonder to the life in the barracks?
We should have a serious talk sometime about barracks humour in contemporary culture. It is not quite the same as gallows humour, although they can sometimes mingle. We should note that the former is always without exception a form of de-sublimation, whereas often the latter can take the form of a sublimation or of an ambiguous and ironic admixture. There is too a mercantile humour — a humour of the marketplace — which Mikhail Bakhtin found distinctive in carnival tradition, being a humour dealing in temporary inversions of social distinction, the porousness of the social body and the relaxation of categories.3 However, today, when educated middle-class people hooked on high culture — or even just BBC period drama — look down their noses at what they call ‘working class’ jokes, it is not the humour of a working class, i.e. a specifically proletarian humour (which has yet to emerge), that they deride, but — and perhaps to some degree justly — the humour of a combat contingent, predominantly males opting or coerced into service during adolescence by savvy marketing as a long-term investment against precarity, lighting their farts and making jokes about masturbation, Muslims, feminists, and lesbians. Their barracks solidarity is a negative solidarity just as their barracks humour is a purely negative humour; they each face the possibility of dying in combat, completely alone, with only their ethnic slurs and dick jokes to remember each other by. This, seemingly, has become the most inflated of all the forms of humour in terms of its popularity today. Perhaps it is an alarming indicator of just how militarised modern societies have become that today the only kind of popular humour on offer is barracks humour.
We must face the fact that ‘to be British’ can mean a lot of things, but historically it has also meant being bloody brutal — all the while projecting its disowned actions onto the figure of the ‘savage’ foreigner (the enemy without) or the feral social ‘mob’ (Thatcher’s famous ‘enemy within’, organised labour). Today, the knee-jerk twitchiness of those who uphold ‘white identity’ in response to claims of racism is a symptom of (what Paul Gilroy calls) postcolonial melancholia.4 Think of this melancholy in terms of an attachment to a faded flag that was, in historical reality, never a scintillating and unsoiled cultural paragon (more an insipid blood-soaked rag). But because this pristine moral artefact never really existed, the only way to have a relationship with it is through the mechanism of loss. As a lost object, it can have the modality not of an absence but of something present — present vicariously in whatever corrupted, tarnished form can be found. As such, Britain needs to mourn, needs to get past this relationship to itself. It needs to Brexit in a different sense than the one everyone is garrulously awaiting: Britain needs to exit Britain itself and discover the vacuum underpinning it. This means confronting the emptiness of all its floating signifiers, and hence experiencing something like existential boredom – having nothing to say, nothing to do, and meaning nothing. Only on this foundational moment of self-destitution could ‘to be British’ ever get over itself and begin with any progressive project.
In the humouralism of the early moderns, which they jealously translated from Aristotle, Galen and Hippocrates, it was an excess of black bile that corresponded to the character of the melancholic. Although it belonged to the element of earth, meaning its qualities were those of the cold and the dry, its actual temperature was thought to be able to fluctuate from one extreme to the other, being like iron either immoderately cold or hot depending on environment.5 As such melancholia, which is usually associated with a near-monastic quietude and a prostrate demeanour, has the capacity for great excitability, described in texts as ‘frenzy’ or ‘mania’. Postcolonial melancholia is much the same. I think what happened recently is that we on the left, especially those of us who had perhaps invested too much in Corbyn and McDonnell and had failed to see the extent of postcolonial melancholia at large in the electorate, got burned by it.
Many on the left felt Corbyn was the best man to lead them — that he could transform the rancorous world of government with a new type of politics. That his muted and tender ‘niceness’ could course-correct us all, back to civility, opening the way to a frank and honest debate over the merits of Socialism as opposed to Barbarism. That this would — could — persuade those wavering with the tide. It turns out that being a nice guy in the age of barracks humour cruelty is tantamount to heresy in a time of religious puritanism. In the hands of the media, Corbyn was mauled and mauled again and finally, with an almost psychotic triumphalism resounding everywhere, crucified on a flame-licked stake. People with St. George’s crosses as their internet avatars were almost falling over themselves rushing to tell us, ‘see, this is what you get for being a poncy leftist’. These are the literal words, and many others very like it, that flooded a YouTube chat window as I watched along with others on the night of the exit poll. You have to wonder if this too is part of what we have to mourn. Not just the overwhelming social forces facing any would-be socialist, but the idea that people want to actually survive as a species, that they want a world where their children eat at least as well as their employers’ dogs, that they have a sense of something like humanity left in them. That our children are on the streets protesting their right not to be made extinct, and that their action has recently been classified as extremist and terrorism: these things ought to stir something in us, should they not? Maybe we have to put away any notion that being human, let alone being a good human, is still a desirable thing. Instead the world seems to find more pleasure in waiting quietly, heads tilted every day for the arrival of something monstrous. But then who would know the difference when it comes?
- Hodge, & R., Kress, G., 1988, Social Semiotics, Cornell University Press
- Praz, M., The Flaming Heart, Norton Library, New York, pp.4-15
- Bakhtin, M., 1984 (1965), Rabelais and his World, Midland Books, trans. Iswolsky, H.
- Gilroy, P., 2005, Postcolonial Melancholy, Columbia University Press, New York
- Klibansky, R., Panofsky, E., & Saxl, F., 2019 (1964), Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art, New Ed., McGill-Queens University Press, London, p.31