‘But do you know,’ said Andy, ‘how beautiful and delicate a man’s heart is when he is happy for the first time? It is like the thin ice that has imprisoned those beautiful young plants that are released when the ice thaws.’
Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies (1943)
The Bastille was stormed on a summer afternoon. ‘Rien,’ wrote the king in his diary that day.
This story is a vehicle to imagine the king powerless.
When I discuss this idea with an acquaintance, who hopes to hold parliamentary office one day, and thus perceives the world in terms that often conflict with my own, he corrects me. ‘Rien records the number of animals slaughtered, it refers to the Royal Hunt; the king was ten miles away,’ he says. I persist because the distinction seems, to me, unremarkable.
- The king was hunting as the fortress was falling?
- Even the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned for criminal libertinage, was transferred ten days before. The Bastille was just symbolic.
My friend and I differ on the functions of the symbolic. To me, symbols are powerful – supernatural, even. For him, symbols do not possess reality but are assigned to it—they are fundamentally utilitarian in nature. The gravity of the symbolic and the difference between these ways of seeing is considered by Jean Genet in The Criminal Child (1949). He describes the hand-carved tin knives confiscated from inmates inside a youth prison as containers of a kind of metaphysics. While the Director considered them redundant, incapable of inflicting real harm, Genet saw in their need and naivety their true threat: ‘Didn’t he realize that when an object is removed from its practical purpose it becomes a symbol?’
In the weeks that pass, colonial statues are removed joyfully, and what began in South Africa in 2015 with #RhodesMustFall continues to gain momentum internationally. In Sydney, police officers patrol a statue of Captain Cook.
It is a comic scene––officers on horseback, in N95 masks, standing in the nocturnal defence of an inanimate object––and I am reminded of the statue of Olympian Theagenes of Thasos, trialled for murder in Ancient Greece. Theagenes’ likeness fell on top of a former rival, who had come out one night to beat it. The court found the statue liable for the rival’s death: it was thrown into the sea.
Let the statues have their own reckoning. The trial of Cecil Rhodes is long overdue.
‘I greet the year 1968 with serenity,’ proclaimed Charles de Gaulle in his New Years Eve address, months before May’s revolutionary scare would sweep France. ‘In the midst of so many countries shaken by confusion, ours will continue to give an example of order.’ It was not long before the President, fearing civil war or revolution, would silently flee to Germany. What began as a student occupation protest at the University of Paris would spiral into a multiform, spontaneous and popular rebellion. The largest strike ever attempted in France would happen that year, involving an estimated 11 million workers.
Is it a comfort, that every ruling class, in the twilight of its own demise, fails to see its legitimacy melting away, like ice water as spring comes? How feeble our own ruling class appears now, offering us videos and images denouncing the ideology upon which their celebrity nevertheless depends, wrapping themselves in Kente Cloth stoles, dropping to one knee…
In late 2019, I read a poem by Rachel Rabbit White with a couplet that stuck with me: ‘I’d rather die than work, I’d rather die than work, I’d rather die than work.’ I spent a whole day with those five words, like a song in my head, a lullaby. I boarded a train. I went to work at a fashion magazine. I ordered a 3eu falafel. The cook took great care with the proportions of my sandwich, I felt I was underpaying him, that everyone was underpaying him, the whole city. I was home by 8, night fell somewhere between 3 and 4.
Rachel Rabbit Whites poem articulates a refusal, and I lingered within its possibilities. We could call it a strike, and many of us had been striking for years, though alone it simply resembled a depression. There was something liberating in Rabbit White’s threat, and the context of the declaration, far from the great pragmatic halls of literary theatre. For however much social liberalism is draped across their bureaucratic shoulders, it is evident that the dominant power relations are reproduced (and worse, mystified) inside our cultural institutions. The violence of this system is neatly summarised in the case of Warren Kanders, whose company Safariland produced teargas while he sat as vice chair of the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art. With an estimated fortune of $700 million, Kanders was a charitable patron of art—and an assassin of meaning. Treachery is not a unique phenomenon, and petty Kanders’ fill the world, if you look hard enough.
Still—who could have thought, then, that the choice between death and labour would leave the realm of signification? The pandemic has set the conditions for the strikes to come: without work, who could pay rent? The violence of the system was laid bare: what remained of the middle class took to Zoom, while essential workers continued to be overworked, underpaid, and in danger.
On April 3rd a New York City Nurse, Tre Kwon, told the BBC that, despite her 100 day old baby and her maternity leave, she was returning to work out of solidarity. ‘As this pandemic hit, I’ve been at home, anxious, nightmares, waking up thinking about my coworkers, thinking about how this is happening. And I can’t stay home anymore.’
Who could have thought, then, that this way we lived—increasingly behind the screen—would become mandated? Without the allure or the illusion of choice, the conditions appeared intolerable. If there was one thing that appeared to be universally agreed upon, it was this: life was elsewhere.
It came as no surprise when public healthcare became weaponised to further normalise surveillance and intensify racialised policing. In France, working class suburbs reported three times the rate of fines for quarantine breaches––and the unfolding situation in Flemington, Melbourne shows at best the carelessness with which the Premier views the life and dignity of people in public housing, though contempt may be a better word.
In The Implosion of Meaning in the Media (1985), Baudrillard writes about the impossibility of resistance in modern society. The ‘serious’ among us dedicate ourselves to making ‘real’, yet, admittedly insufficient changes to the system––this is evident today as radical cries for police abolition are assimilated by liberal forces, and become calls for reform. It is as Audre Lorde said so succinctly: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house(s). After the surface changes, forms of permissible protests arrive. Baudrillard thought that even anarchic expressions would be subsumed by the state.
He was right but he didn’t take the thought far enough.
How do you play against an undefeatable opposition? In 1996, world chess champion Garry Kasparov was faced with almost certain defeat against the IBM Computer, Deep Blue. He changed his strategy: he played to lose.
Wrote Aimé Césaire: One must begin somewhere.
The only thing in the world worth beginning:
The End of the world of course.