Why ‘Do One 2016’ Isn’t Enough & We Need Aesthetic Dissent

In the latest Quietus Wreath Lecture, Joe Kennedy argues that in the age of Brexit and Trump we need to sharpen and weaponise our approach to consuming culture

If anyone from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is trying to find an apercu to emblematise the year currently closing greyly over our heads, the philologists and lexicographers could do worse than ‘Do one, 2016’. To be honest, I despise this calendarial meme for its droopy passivity, its assumption than time itself, whatever that would mean, elected Donald Trump and caused Brexit and did away with half the people responsible for our record collections. It tethers the preventably political and the unpreventably mortal under a single malign cause; it defers hope to mere chronology – next year simply must be better – and washes liberal hands of a culpability with which those hands are surely stained. And yet I’ll always think not of 2016, but of ‘Do one, 2016’, in that this was the year that despair became not just a culture’s darkening fringe, but its looming preoccupation.

But, of course: what now? For so long so many of us have responded to feeling beaten by disengaging. Knackered at the end of the week, getting home in the dark, guiltily combing the unopened bills together to the end of the kitchen work surface to make room to knock something together for tea, we’re hurrying for our easily accessible distractions. This, we feel, is what we’ve earned as recompense. ‘I just want to turn my brain off. I just want not to think.’ The telly’s on, the Weekend Supplements and their allegedly relatable life stories and allegedly transformative life hacks are browsed, our finger-joints are exercised in their almost frictionless grace across the touchscreen.

Pause, though. At this point, I’m seemingly hurtling towards what is, in itself, the exact latitude of distraction: the hot-take mandarinism which instructs us to, say, turn off Twitter and do something else – but what, exactly? – or that reading whatever is being adapted for television this year is ultimately a more personally enriching experience than watching that adaptation. We’ve heard the theories of popular culture which presents it as an instrument of power and us as that instrument’s dupes, the television (or the newspaper, or the PlayStation, or the strangely homogenised ‘internet’) as a colossal con, and we’ve taken them on board, and decided that, on balance, we’ll just proceed with caution rather than switch off.

There’s a different way of approaching this however. The relationship between attention and distraction remains intrinsically political despite the above, and, moreover, that the commitment of attention, including and even particularly aesthetic attention, needs to be regarded as a form of resistance or dissent. The argument against distraction needs to be salvaged from its own tendency towards clickbait banality, and requires caveats which take into account the fact that the capacity to commit attention in its various forms is hitched to particular social privileges, meaning that we can (or should) no longer attempt to advocate a homogeneous form of attention as though it were an uncomplicated moral choice.

Most significantly, though, I want to consider these ideas in relation to what we might call the ‘critique of the critique of distraction’. Various modernist thinkers of the twentieth century, perhaps most notably Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno, outlined the dangers of succumbing to the temptation to consume culture passively. For them, (serious) art’s value as a catalyst for critical thought was an article of faith, but they in turn became subject to a sceptical postmodernist analysis which dismissed such ideas as elitist. While this often came from the left, it has proved to be awfully harmonious with a right-wing populism which declares that ‘critics’ shouldn’t be allowed to ‘dictate’ what we think. While returning to an extreme modernist asceticism would be chimerical or counterproductive, or both, there is a case to be made for re-arming the principle of discernment to face up to the challenges of a historical moment in which the notion of the popular as an unproblematic good has been exploded.

It’s not as if we weren’t warned a long time ago that fascism, or authoritarian populism, would, in certain guises, try to fortify itself within a petty and arguably performative philistinism. Hitler’s 1930s campaign against ‘degenerate art’ is probably too extreme to be cited here as evidence; it’s the kind of thing which typically gets subsumed to a more generalised argument ‘against totalitarianism’. Instead, I want to turn to Patrick Hamilton’s 1947 novel The Slaves Of Solitude to show how we’ve long been vaguely aware of how reactionary politics depend to some extent on the gradual denigration of the worthwhile. In Hamilton’s largely uneventful story, a sympathetically lonely woman of vaguely left-wing sympathies, Miss Roach, is waiting out the last years of World War II in a chintzy boarding-house in a Thames Valley regatta town. Hell, here, as was so often the case in the fiction of the late 1940s, is other people, notably Mr Thwaites, an armchair ‘tyrant’ and proto-Faragian whose political activities take the form of attempts to grind Miss Roach down without anyone else noticing. With frequent arched-eyebrow references to ‘[her] friends, the Russians’, he is able to drive her to distraction, but Hamilton is careful to show that this subliminal, uninvited warfare also has an aesthetic dimension.

One day amidst this ‘orgy of ennui’, a fellow lodger politely and off-handedly asks Mr Thwaites what he is reading. His response, worth quoting at some length, is representative of how Hamilton could at times create characters so powerful that, like Dickens’, their uniqueness bulges in the direction of archetypicality:

‘This?’ said Mr Thwaites in a slightly shamefaced way. ‘Oh – only something I picked up at the library. What is known, in vulgar parlance, as a “thriller" or “blood-curdler", I believe. It serves pour passer le temps […] It may not be Dickens or Thackeray […] mais il serve pour passer le temps […] I’m not going to say it’s Dickens […] I’m not going to say it’s Thackeray. I’m not even going to say it’s Walter Scott. But we’ve got to pass time somehow.’

It’s important not to mistake the satire here as simply a riff on a particular English bumptiousness: Hamilton is very clear to make this unsolicited literary expatiation part of Thwaites’ broader armoury of political demoralisation. His point, I think, is that fascism, in its parochial form, would always depend substantially on efforts to reign in the world’s horizons, in this case via a reductio which makes all art into nothing more than something ‘to pass time’. Thwaites’ book, as he, in a cunning masquerade of embarrassment, ‘admits’, is not Dickens or Thackeray or ‘even […] Walter Scott’, but – by implication – it might as well be, because art is just something to turn down the ticking clock’s volume. By extension, anything which pretends to do more than this is ‘pretentious’. Now, think back to every single article on Joyce, or Woolf, or Rothko, or Maya Deren, or Schoenberg, or Burial that has ever been published online this century with an open comments section beneath it, and consider the tone of a good portion of what is inscribed there in digital ink. Everything is ‘pretentious crap’, headed off towards ‘Pseud’s Corner’, ‘tldr’, put aside ‘after the first page’ or switched off and ‘thrown across the room’ or ‘used as an ashtray’ ‘because they sounded like they were still tuning up’. One might explain the policing of supposed indulgence with recourse to a story about people being defensive in the face of difficult artworks, but something else is taking place here.

In the 1980s, most notably in America, but also in Britain as embodied by Mary Whitehouse, a figure now regarded across the political spectrum as absurd and even pitiable, there was a clear link between right-wing politics and a desire to censor offensive art. However, this situation no longer holds as such. With, on one hand, a liberalisation of many social attitudes and, on the other, a triumph-through-ubiquity on the part of the shocking – culture has been saturated boringly with sex and violence – the right can no longer count on the support of a ‘moral’ majority. Instead, it must construct an idea around authenticity: that ‘real’ people want art to give them unfettered ‘reality’, rather than formal or textural difficulty. Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness, a slim volume published at the beginning of this year, was a timely defence of aesthetic overreach and its usefulness as a catalyst for social mobility at a moment in history when the idea that ‘the people’ just want to be ‘entertained’ has played an important role in the construction of populism’s everyman. The invocation by UKIP and its analogues across Europe and the Anglosphere of a constituency who, as the unfortunate Yorkshire saying goes, ‘know what they like and like what they know’, has tied hostility towards this overreach into an isomorphic relationship with a politics grounded in nativism.

The last week has, of course, furnished us with an excellent example of this relationship. Michael Gove, that hellish glimpse into the usually closed reality of pustulent boys’ school debate-soc contrarianism, wormed up on Twitter to share his aesthetic insight in response to Helen Marten’s Turner Prize victory. Now, i don’t think it really matters what you think of Marten’s work (which, for the record, I was reasonably impressed by) or of the Turner Prize in general. To be honest, anything which won whilst resembling anything more modern than one of Gove’s recommendations, William Holman Hunt – a painter in his own way as lurid as any Turner winner – would have been shot down. Never mind that Gove would probably have hated the experimentalism of the late Turner had he been around to see it in the early Victorian years, his intervention argued implicitly that art isn’t there to challenge, it’s there to, at most, soothe and pass the time. I would not expect the erstwhile Education Secretary to be able to launch any kind of informed defence of the intrinsic goodness of Holman Hunt or Turner, and particularly not of John Ruskin, the art theorist and mediocre sketcher whose superiority was confusingly offered as another example of painterly achievement to pillory Marten against. But that was never really the point, which was, really, to annoy.

The cultural worldview of the new right, then, abhors whatever usefully absorbs our time and critical attention. It needs to produce not contemplativeness, but agitation, channel-skipping divertedness that corrodes the ability to focus. In considering this, I’m drawn once again to an analogy drawn from fiction, in this case Ben Marcus’ 2012 novel The Flame Alphabet. One of the most queasily disturbing pieces of experimental fiction published so far this century, it tells of a catastrophic near future or alternate present in which the speech of children has become toxic to adults. It does not kill immediately, but gradually withers and weakens. Marcus declines to provide a epidemiology for his ‘speech plague’, and also – wisely – resists making it into something which is obviously allegorical, leaving space in which one can consider the implications of the idea.

It’s just too easy to say that ‘reality TV’ or ‘Twitter’ or ‘Michael Bay’ are uniquely to blame for the apparent wilting of thought so apparent in the triumphs of Trump or Brexit. To finger any of these individually would be to fall into the grossest of oversimplifications, not least because we would, in doing so, be avoiding any discussion of the failure of our supposed intelligentsia to offer anything beyond a complacent belief in their own sagacity. When I look, for example, at a typical specimen of 2016’s culture-supplement ‘culture’ like Ian McEwan’s truly appalling Nutshell, I see little more than a generation of writers trying to dine out on the same commonsense liberalism – or hackneyed humanism – that elevated them to prominence in the 70s and 80s. Martin Amis trying to execrate Jeremy Corbyn in the Times magazine belongs on exactly the same level of idiot distraction as a troupe of shiny-suited ‘entrepreneurs’ trying to get forty pence off a job lot of fruit cake while Karren Brady raises her eyebrow in The Apprentice. Broadsheet intellectualism, in its get-to-the-point reductionism, belongs also to what theorist Sianne Ngai calls the ‘stupid sublime’ or ‘stuplime’, cultural production so senseless it stupefies our capacity for response. This is our lived equivalent of Marcus’ caustic speech: we don’t have time to stop and think, or read, or listen before the next piece of knowingly ‘provocative’ commentary in the New Statesman, or the next new reality show, or the next tossed-off, tritely ‘topical’ novel from a Booker-winning éminence grise hits us. All of these things eat, rather than deepen, our time.

Of course, it isn’t reasonable to assume that everyone can simply stop watching Homes Under The Hammer, or reading McEwan, and start reading Virginia Woolf for breakfast. To do so would involve an unexamined flexing of cultural capital which takes little to no account of the educational and social privileges which are involved in committing to demanding art. However, it seems to me that there is presently a choice, of sorts, to make between taking a gamble on the ‘reaching out’ Fox argues is key to pretentiousness and acquiescing to the idea that you’re some kind of intolerable snob if you question the idea that art is simply entertainment ‘pour passer le temps’. This doesn’t mean falling for the fallacy of digital dualism and disavowing social media, or never watching television again, but it does involve putting a check on one’s own bad faith around the idea that time is something we ‘deserve’ to squander because we’ve worked so hard and we’re tired.

To restate an important point, whether we watch Bergman film or Come Dine With Me isn’t a moral choice, but to pretend that doing the latter is somehow a reward for our labours is ultimately a politicised decision which, as Alfie Bown pointed out in his recent book on enjoyment, divides our time between ‘important’ work and passive leisure. Bown’s argument is that such a division favours a late capitalist ideology which wants us to experience ourselves primarily as productive employees, but I’d argue that the separation of life into ‘serious’ and ‘non-serious’ time has also played a fundamental role in the unfolding of the populist moment. In the ascendancy of Donald Trump, or Godfrey Bloom, or Marine le Pen, we’re seeing the triumph not of what liberals smugly dismiss as ‘post-truth politics’ – I don’t recall much ‘truth’ from New Labour – but of Ngai’s ‘stuplime’, a pulse-wave of targeted idiocy designed to exhaust those who would resist it. If we can do one thing right now to redeem ‘Do one, 2016’, perhaps it’s realising that our time away from work deserves to be more than simply ‘passed’: that it is in ‘spare’ time where we have the greatest deal of agency to at least think differently.

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