Let England Shake : Rats and other Vermin, the Pathological Other

As Guy Debord explained in the late 1960s, we live in the society of the spectacle. Later, Jean Baudrillard taught us that we occupy a kind of hyper-reality. Both of these theories are relevant to understanding the August riots. First, Debord’s thesis illustrates the way the riots and looting were transformed into a kind of media event that we greedily consumed in much the same way that the looters greedily consumed the English high street. Second, Baudrillard’s work can explain how this spectacle was elevated to a level which seemed to be somehow beyond reality. The riots seemed almost cinematic in their apocalyptic scope to the extent that they recalled the horror of recent zombie films, such as 28 Days Later, where society collapses into a carnival of violence and consumption.

Indeed, 28 Days Later, and its sequel 28 Weeks Later, are particularly relevant for thinking about the media construction of the riots. In both films the transformation of normal people into flesh eating zombies is explained through viral infection. In the first film a secret government laboratory is raided by animal rights activists leading to the chemical weapon rage, which is transmitted from person to person through bodily fluids much like an STD, finding its way into the British population where it quickly takes on epidemic proportions and destroys society. Beyond the links between the fictional chemical weapon rage, and the meaningless apolitical rage of the August rioters, the other key connection between 28 Days Later and the riots resides in the way in which the other becomes a pathological subject. In both 28 Days Later and the popular construction of the August riots the other is pathological by virtue of their rage, which defined their inability to fit into normal society, and articulate their emotions in a rational manner which could then be safely managed and defused by expert assessment. Unfortunately, there is no rational management of raw emotion which always refuses rationality. It can only be opposed emotionally. At this point rational debate, or management breaks down, and conflict ensues. This is the state of enmity that has in many respects come to define English society in its post political phase, was so clearly reflected in the riots which pitted the young and excluded against the normal and included, and has led to the desperate need to construct the image of the pathological other who is constantly ‘out of order’.

Of course, in the science fiction horror of 28 Days Later the other is completely abandoned to inhumanity, and the only way to survive is to kill her. This is enmity in its pure form – Platonic hate or Hobbesian warre stripped down for the 21st century horror fan. Although we have not quite reached this point with the other in British society, her construction as contaminant in the sick society has simultaneously depoliticised the problem of unequal social relations, and created a situation where she can be treated like a kind of viral infection.

Given Cameron’s language of the sick society, and the way the other has been constructed over the course of the riots and their aftermath, it is clear that the theoretical frame for understanding events must involve a fusion of Debord’s notion of the society of the spectacle, Baudrillard’s work on the hyper-real, Canguilhem’s theory of the normal and the pathological, and Foucault’s discussions of discipline and governmentality.

Consider the figure of the hoodie. The hoodie is the spectacular condensation of everything abnormal about English society and a hyper-real embodiment of the notion of social pathology which simultaneously justifies the state of normality and practices of disciplinarity and governmentality.

In the wake of the August riots the easy transformation of England into an ultra disciplinary society has been truly shocking. While the courts have found it easy to hand out long sentences, including a four year stretch for one youth convicted of trying to incite riots on Facebook, the population of middle England has found it easy to focus its hatred on the monstrous other. As events unfolded, and debate followed the tracks of the criminological- pathological discourse, the identity of the other changed – youth, the underclass, the chav, the hoodie, the single mother responsible for raising undisciplined children – but discussion never moved away from the problem of the abnormal individual.

The effort involved in evading wider social and political issues in both mass media and political debate was, and remains to this day, monumental. The popular TV historian David Starkey even went as far as to explain that the problem of all youth today was that they had been infected with black culture which encourages violent, lawless, behaviour. In Starkey’s view, the other is thus a racial other, a position which was supported by the middle English newspaper, The Daily Mail.

That all of this madness was necessary to evade the obvious conclusion that Thatcher’s neo-liberal experiment, which had run its course through the 1980s and 1990s and been patched up by New Labour for the last ten years, had finally crashed in Cameron’s Coalition government which had taken the view that the poor should shoulder the burden of the irresponsibility of the rich, is terrible evidence of the wilful myopia of a society heading for complete social breakdown some time in the future. Imagine, 28 Days Later – a kind of social and political allegory !

That we are talking about wilful myopia seems clear. In English society economy is everything. This view is, of course, supported by neo-liberal ideology where every aspect of life and death is dependent on economic calculation. However, in the instance of the riots, economy was barely mentioned. Neo-liberal economic policy and three decades of systematic social exclusion were effectively repressed by the construction of the faceless, demonic, other so perfectly captured by Banksy. The correct conclusion, which in light of the English obsession with economics should have been easy to reach, is that it is not possible to impoverish massive numbers of people and not cause social unrest, riots, and other problems. Indeed, any undergraduate sociology student would have been able to tell the government that there is nothing intrinsically demonic about the other. Instead, she is an effect of social and political conditions.

As Simon Charlesworth explains in his book on working class culture, the result of the Thatcherite revolution in economics has been community, family, and personal breakdown.

Under these conditions life becomes about the basic satisfaction of desire in the shadow of omnipresent feelings of disappointment, defeat, and despair. As a result a pervasive sense of doom, and a similarly insidious feeling of rage, characterises everything about working class life. Violence is everywhere. Even sex, the most basic way we have of expressing our desire for the other, is coloured by rage, violence, and a complete lack of love. Indeed, working class sex is often careless, either in dead marriages or desperate attempts to find love in the dead soul of some stranger picked up at the local cattle market, where the poor debase themselves in search of love and affection every weekend.

Consider working class language. Everybody swears, but as Charlesworth tell us, working class swearing takes on a phenomenological depth not present in middle class profanity. First, working class profanity conveys a sense of rage, violence, and despair absent in middle class swearing that gives it a kind of presence or body. Second, this violent body stands in for the lack of expression and articulation which is the result of an inability to confront or speak before the horror of life lived in a permanent ruined present.

This is how life is for the English other, but it would be a mistake to imagine that she is somehow pathological because of this situation. Indeed, her reaction to her situation is perfectly human. As such, we can say that her despair, violence, and criminality is evidence of her humanity. Any other kind of reaction would be inhuman.

(Manchester, 2011, october 7th)

Texte © Mark Featherstone – Photos © 1 : DR – © 2 : Raoul Vaneigem &  André Bertrand – © 3 : Banksy

Inédit : Bloody Winter / L’Hiver sanglant

Workshop proposé par D-Fiction sur le thème de l’émeute, tiré du journal de travail de Mark Featherstone :

Part 1 : Let England shake : The politics of the August Riots
Part 2 & 3 : Let England shake : Reasoning Riots in the English Context
Part 4 : Let England shake : The Rioter as Lumpenproletarian
Part 5 : Let england shake : The Looter as Desiring Machine
Part 6 : Let england shake : The Sick Society
Part 7 : Humanité de l’insurrection : Paris (germinal – prairial, an III), Londres (août 2011)
Part 8 : Let England Shake : Rats and other Vermin, the Pathological Other
Part 9 : Let England shake : Une émeute de rêve
Part 10 : Let england shake : The Normality of Crime

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