Let england shake : The Sick Society

In order to ensure that the criminological position held firm, and politics were kept off the table, symbolism and mass media construction played an essential part in way the August riots have been popularly understood. As thinkers such as Henry Giroux have observed, the monstrous youth is a popular trope in contemporary society, but in the British context the socially excluded ‘hoodie’ has become a kind of national obsession.

The evil of the hoodie is difficult to discern in the first instance. Although her natural habitat is the council estate, this is not the area which concerns the moral majority, precisely because her criminality is contained in this peripheral environment. On the contrary, the evil of the hoodie is most dangerous in the middle English suburbs. Why?

The English suburbs are, like all suburbs, monstrous non-places. But unlike in France, the English suburbs are essentially middle class. Unfortunately nobody really lives in the suburbs, but instead endlessly passes through them. The commuter sleeps in the suburb and perhaps spends some of their days working from home, but there is no life there. The suburb is characterised by a kind of a lunar landscape. One could walk around it all day and not see a soul. It is weightless. There is no gravity – there is no sense of belonging and people float away all the time. They float away from their families, their friends, and themselves and live out strange empty lives in miserable silence.

For the most part the suburb is space defined by routine trajectories which become mind numbingly mundane and condition the worker for the kind of life she feels she must lead. One leaves for work, works, returns home, sleeps, leaves for work, works, returns home and so on ad nauseaum. The only other function of the suburban worker is the maintenance of suburban life – the need to keep the endless merry-go-round on the rails.

Given its function as a non-place defined by trajectory, which is in reality no more than a kind of natural metabolism, it is hard to see the suburb as a living space. Heidegger would not have liked the suburbs – one cannot dwell there. In this respect large swathes of middle England are a kind of sanitised reflection of the council estate. The council estate is a dead space because there is nothing there and nowhere to go, whereas the suburb is a waste land because it is empty and everybody is permanently going somewhere else. One must struggle to survive on the council estate. It is hard to make ends meet. But making ends meet is all that suburbanite does. She is obsessed with keeping the endless repetitious cycle – the endless metabolism of middle class life – moving.

Experientially there is no real difference between the two places – the middle class suburb and the council estate – save for the socio-economic condition of the inhabitants. Although socio-economic status has become the barometer for success and well being in British society, middle class misery is much the same as working class misery, with an added sense of self-righteousness and hatred of the working class other who is seen as a scrounger by virtue of their workless consumption. The middle class misery feels affront at their situation. ‘What did I do to deserve this’. By contrast, the working class misery is made to feel that they deserve everything they get. ‘This is who I am and I will never be anything else’.

Herein resides the origin of the contemporary society of spite and hatred and the English obsession with the over-dog. Middle England hates its own misery in the working class other and aspires to escape this situation by aspiring to be like the rich, and especially the celebrity who has it all. Of course, even celebrity culture is class based in England, and the middle class ego ideal is of a very particular kind. Whereas the working class celebrity is brash and enjoys, the middle class celebrity encourages or inspires the fearful aspiration to normality. In this respect she is not even considered a celebrity – the very idea of celebrity being vulgar because of the ways in which in breaks with normality by asserting a form of individual identity that is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. Against this structure, the middle class celebrity denies the facet of difference – the extraordinary – that defines what it is to be a celebrity in favour of the claustrophobia of the norm, which is why so many middle class celebrities insist on the refusal of their difference through the mass media. This is one side of the horrible spectacle of normalisation where everything – every aspect of life – is controlled.

English Society as a control system: everything must be controlled and contained by social structures, such as the loveless careless bourgeois family that consumes in order to evade its affective poverty. But control is never complete – humanity is defined by lack and we are not robots. As a result the social control system projects its lack onto particular people who become containers for the evil noise of humanity. In order to achieve complete control the horror of noise has to be effectively located in the form of the other. The other is a container for affect that cannot be recognised in the context of middle class life.

The effect of this procedure of projection and containment on social relations is devastating. It corrupts the basic conditions of sociability. Desire is transformed into hatred and the need for care and affection turns into repulsion and the blind compulsion to put distance between self and others. This is how middle class life turns into a hateful psycho-social position.

But what happens if you refuse this situation ? What happens if you are not normal ? What happens if you refuse to accept the rules and regulations of bourgeois life devoid of love, care, and affection ? The answer is that you descend into the hell of the scum, the underclass, the chav, the hoodie. You lack self control and are thus coded as monstrous.

From the middle class point of view, the hell of the other resides in her lack of morality, her lack of discipline, her irresponsible attitude to consumption, her lack of style, her inability to maintain family structure, and her refusal of boredom. If there is one academic term that defines the way the other is perceived in contemporary Britain it is anomie – normlessness. The other is not normal.

Despite Durkheim’s view of the importance of the norm in ensuring social cohesion, I think that we should adopt a Foucauldian view of normality and save ourselves a slow, banal, death. Fuck the norm.

According to David Cameron, English society is sick because underneath its morality, discipline, responsible consumerism, loveless family order, and general boredom, there is a rebellious heart that refuses all of this and has no concern for the principles of normality. Given the choice between normality and pathology, I would rather be sick.

Returning to our central question, then, what is it about the hoodie that threatens the suburb ? If the suburb is a space of endless repetitious movement – move so that you endlessly defer the horror of metabolic life – what the hoodie symbolises is the virus of immobility, the possibility that we may not be able to move forever, and that at some point the truth of boredom may catch up with us. But this truth, the truth of a group of bored kids hanging around outside a parade of shops, is too much to take for middle England. It does not want to feel.

In New Labour language the threat of affect is othered in the notion of anti-social behaviour – the idea of a group of kids searching for some sense of belonging in the middle of the barren space of the suburb is defined by anti-social behaviour. By contrast, the atomised suburbanite who lives inside herself and cannot communicate with others is somehow social. The irony is impossible to miss. However, it is precisely because all of this is impossible to miss that the spectacle of the riots was so important in the early days of August 2011. The spectacle was absolutely necessary to the maintenance of social order.

(Manchester, 2011, september 22th)

Texte © Mark Featherstone – Photos © 1 : Martin Franck – © 2 : Arcade Fire – © 3 : DR

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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