Saturday, May 16, 2009

I Have Filled My Heart With Hate

I have had a vague desire to see 300 since I saw trailers for it a couple of years ago; the photoshopped, crazed hyper-realism of it, a fetishism of gloriously bloody violence, all impossible slow motion decapitations and exquisite showers of carefully rendered drops of blood, seemed like it would be ridiculously entertaining. And indeed it was ridiculously entertaining: the sudden pull back to a carefully framed landscape view of the Spartan king, having just gravely intoned that this is not madness, but Sparta, planting his foot on the Persian emissary's chest and flicking him backwards into a perfectly circular large black hole, which lurks in the middle of a courtyard for no obvious reason, is quite beyond the idiotic in a really rather wonderful way.

Of course its politics are barely disguised fascism: anything that enjoyed violence quite that much could only avoid being hateful by placing itself in a world in which only relentless brutality could avoid abject subjection. The problem with Sin City, after all, was that it tried to locate itself in a world not totally distant from ours: where violence's victims are not just effectively nameless soldiers or evil beyond imagining, there is a way of getting along that means perfecting the art of killing is not the only way to live. If there was any other way of living a life, then a life which took all its meaning from the total destruction, the utter crushing, of other lives, would seem, as it is in reality, at best quite hopelessly gratuitous. When we cannot live together, then someone has to die, and their death may as well be glorious, whether that triumph is found in the killing or in the act of dying.

This is a vision of politics as a kind of impossibility, a negative-sum game where compromise means humiliation and if not enslavement, then a kind of betrayal. If political action is always and everywhere either submission or triumph, then that is what we are left with; a politics of rousing speeches and good deaths, of killings stylised out of reality and of honour become vengeance stretched into infinity. Its aesthetics may be wonderful - the glowing embers of the Spartans' cloaks, the sodium lamp sunrises, the snarling monochrome of the Immortals' masks, the sudden stop-motion of bodies flying away from and into sword and shield blows: it's all quite beautiful - but tragedy has always been heartarchingly beautiful from a distance and grindingly awful up close.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Putting Your Hand In The Next Man's Pocket

Fiddling, whilst Rome burns. Which of these is supposed to be more scandalous, that some members of a fairly small group of people took a rather venal attitude to their expenses, or that in a period of economic growth, the real incomes of the poorest 10% of the population fell and those of the wealthiest 10% rose? What do we care more about, the fact that MPs don't fully understand the ins and outs of virtue ethics, or that the 6 million poorest people in the UK on average lost 6% of their real income over the past three years whilst the 6 million richest gained on average 4% more? For all that some philosophers might like to make it so, politics is not a morality play, full of allegory and the opportunity to strike pious poses: it's what we do when we see that sainthood doesn't and couldn't, except at prohibitive cost to those who have to live under it, divide the spoils of not killing each other. So MPs skim a bit off the top; it's not very nice, but it's hardly the failure to arrest the enormous rise in inequality that occurred under Thatcher, or even to reverse the effects of the institutional changes which generated that rise and allow those who benefitted from them to continue to capture the lion's share of the benefits generated by economic growth. But no; we need to make sure, not that we redress the balance of power in the institutions we all live within and support which allows those with the most to systematically accrue more and more at greater and greater cost to those with least, but that everyone understands that what really matters is whether some MPs think they can get away with charging a couple of hundred quid to the taxpayer for broken toilet seats.

Update, 12/05/09: that some MPs were designating the same property as having different purposes under different sets of rules is now equivalent to a system of endemic patronage which had governed everything from the distribution of public works contracts to the formation of governments and whose end required a campaign in which, despite being guarded continually by members of the security forces, several members of the judiciary were assassinated.