The Stuplime Object of Ideology

by Joe Kennedy

One of the most disconcerting things about the wake of the election result has been the steady flow of people we have come to think of as staunch critics of Corbyn and/or Corbynism making statements to the effect that they are now prepared to acknowledge, at the very least, the quality of his campaigning, and perhaps even the more general legitimacy of his project. It’s not really for me to say whether or not those who maintained belief in the viability of Corbynism should be willing to offer general conciliation immediately, but I do think it’s worth exploring precisely why there is, and will continue to be, a lingering anxiety about the trustworthiness of centrist détente. Some of the notes struck have been convincing – the oft-maligned Owen Smith’s, for one – but others have allowed themselves the privilege of vapid-sounding caveats. Here, it isn’t the fact of the caveat I want to call into question, but a growing tradition of strategic vapidity visible in the opposition to Corbyn.

Anger motivates, annoyance enervates

In 2007, the American literary critic and cultural theorist Sianne Ngai published a book called Ugly Feelings, which set out to explore ‘unprestigious negative affects such as irritation, envy and disgust.’[1] Such emotions, Ngai claims, are relatively unexplored theoretically because – unlike anger, love, or terror – they are inconclusive, building up a head of ‘minor’ feeling which has nowhere to go and allows for no expression as action. Irritation, for example, lacks the epic or tragic quality of anger: there’s a reason Homer does not ‘sing of the annoyance of Achilles’. Disgust, too, lacks an obvious catharsis. Because of their lack of outflow, such affects are deprived of correlating political praxis and thus, paradoxically, offer themselves promiscuously as political instruments insofar as they can be used to stall counter-hegemonic organisation. Anger motivates, annoyance enervates.

Of the affects Ngai covers, it is her discussion of stupidity that demands the most attention. Stupidity, she demonstrates, can be thought of as an unresolved and perhaps unresolvable experience that can be understood if we ‘invoke the sublime – albeit negatively’.[2] Whereas the wavering between terror and beauty that constitutes the Romantic sublime is ultimately synthesised by aesthetic work as a coherent emotion, stupidity has an incalculability which contradicts any redemptive ministrations. It holds its own inanity together with a witnessing incomprehension, but does not mediate the two. Art can mobilise this ‘stuplime’ – Ngai puts forward Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett as examples here – but, in doing so, it only exacerbates the problem of meaninglessness rather than taming it for cultured delectation. In the political sphere, meanwhile, the stuplime represents a hegemonic overloading in which capitalism renders itself opaque, its hypercomplex set of relatively autonomous processes denying all attempts at objective rationalisation.

Ngai has clarified her argument usefully by stating that stuplimity should not be fetishized as an excuse for political withdrawal, regardless of its capacity to stymie action. To fail to counter it is to fall into accelerationism’s trap, wildly surfing the what-is in the ludicrous trust that capitalism will simply eat itself. Put more simply, it’s a species of hedonism: the bad-faith consumption of all the trash late capitalism throws at us as though there’s no space left for alternatives. Ideology no longer fools us, as Slavoj Žižek – on this occasion, I think rightly – would have it, but inculcates a knowing indolence when it comes to challenging it.[3] For Ngai, then, the first step to a counter-stuplime would constitute being able to recognise stuplimity when one sees it, and to isolate it as a tool of obfuscation.

The Age of Obfuscation

This is very likely the age of obfuscation, and it’s shocking how frequently nominally ‘left’ commentators are sucked into its traps. Boris Johnson has been playing this game in the UK for well over a decade now: making inflatedly idiotic remarks which invite engagement with his putative personal crassness rather than his politics. Trump, obviously, is this to the nth degree, and I doubt I’m the only one of us who saw the ‘covfefe’ tweet and immediately winced at the thought of the inevitable, pointless ‘excoriations’ and ‘eviscerations’ from Trevor Noah and various talk-show hosts called Jon. Clintonite centrists and their wan UK analogues make hay of Trump’s connections to Russia, but the one thing they never discuss – largely because it challenges their founding principle of reasonableness – is that excremental Republicanism[4] seems intellectually influenced by Putinism, a political philosophy which balances its uses of hard power with a widespread manipulation of Ngai’s ‘ugly feelings’.

Perhaps it’s risky to follow Adam Curtis in placing too much emphasis on Vladislav Surkov, one of Putinism’s evanescent geniuses,[5] but it’s worth flirting with that level of paranoia to think about the development of ‘non-linear warfare’. Allegedly influenced by contemporary art theory,[6] Surkov’s doctrine holds, or seems to hold, that implausible deniability is, in an era of theoretically high, internet-driven political transparency, better than plausible deniability because it turns transparency against itself. If we see it, this kinked belief system seems to announce, it can’t be happening, so, make everything visible and your opponents simply have too much to process: weaponise obviousness.[7] Here, we’re not just talking about the level of quite manifestly sending rocket launchers into Ukraine, then indefensibly claiming otherwise, but of bringing dogs to meetings with Angela Merkel (she allegedly doesn’t like them). It’s not just that Merkel ends up scared of the dog, she also has to deal with the question of whether the dog has been brought aggressively or accidentally, of what is to be gained by an aggressive gesture, of quite why it matters so little to Putin that he is perceived as purposely insensitive and cruel. Non-linear warfare is radical obfuscation, and you can see many aspects of it in Trump’s lunkheaded syntax and hyperbolised ignorance. In reality, liberalism is blindsided by the American president’s total disregard for the game of nicety.

Anti-Corbynism as Wind-up

Yet it isn’t, necessarily, only the political right who are mobilising stupidity – in the sense of statements which are incalculably empty – in the service of political ends. Where once the Blairite spin machine was about slickness and ingratiation – and, of course, these are still the values centrist politicians openly profess to admire, hence their rhetoric of Axelrodian ‘electability’ – we now seem to have entered a post-Mandelson, post-Campbell age, or else Mandelson, Campbell and their acolytes have deliberately Surkovised themselves. Fooling or ‘convincing’ people are no longer reliable communicative approaches in an age where literally everything is conceived of as spin. For several years now, anti-Corbynism has taken the form of a chain-linked deployment of bad faith remarks which seem designed to immobilise the left precisely because of its lack of desire to convince. Whether it’s from New Labour-affiliated commentators like Dan Hodges and Nick Cohen (or Jonathan Freedland, or Suzanne Moore, and so on, ad infinitum) or from the Blair – Brown PLP rump, the wind-up has replaced the sexed-up truth claim as the hegemonic instrument of choice.

There are genuinely far, far too many examples to choose from, because this dumb show, which typically throws in a salting of authentocracy[8] for good measure, has become a reflex for anti-Corbynites. Let’s take one example, though: Blairite Labour MP Wes Streeting’s 2016 claim that it was unconscionable bourgeois snobbery to criticise McDonald’s, an assertion made in response to the prohibition of the company from having an exhibition space at that year’s party conference. Writing in the New Statesman, Streeting called the anti-McDonald’s position ‘virtue-signalling of the worst kind’[9] which smacked of a kind of middle-class dilettantism. Did Streeting really mean this? Almost certainly not, but the nakedness and childishness of his opportunism was what I suspect we were really supposed to observe. And how does one combat such an attitude? While the anti-Corbynites were very quick to assert proprietorship over the use of the word ‘troll’ as an insult, this was sophisticated and systematic trolling. As the late Mark Fisher pointed out in 2009, trolling is designed above all to waste time, to divert and consume energy that could be directed towards constructive activity.

Trolling is stuplime: it both demands response and maintains, in its banally contentless nature,[10] a shit-eating unanswerability. The former intensifies the latter, something particularly obvious if we look at the use of Twitter by anti-Corbynites. A routine became clear very quickly: make an intellectually indefensible remark, leave open the possibility of debate, but either refuse to reply to replies or respond with an extravagantly deliberate misunderstanding. After twelve hours or so, claim that you’re being ‘targeted’ by ‘trolls’ who are invariably also ‘Momentum thugs’, and retweet the sympathetic comments of your political allies as a kind of second wave of attack. I suppose the pop-psychological term for the approach is ‘passive-aggressive’.

Towards the election, Corbynism seemed most confident once it had seemingly laid its own claim on the meme-y aspects of the stuplime. In 2016, quite a few of us were discussing the sheer exhaustion we felt at being confronted with an opponent who swerved all debate while eulogising the principle of rational discussion.[11] We were concerned about the consumption of energy by the species of performative ridiculousness I’ve tried to outline here. Perhaps this explains 2017’s backlash, the rhetoric of ‘slugs’ and ‘melts’, a stylised, memeable puerility perhaps set up to suggest that there’s no longer any point in attempting meaningful dialogue. Personally, I’m not entirely comfortable with this turn: it seems short-termist and burns bridges. Yet its existence, I think, is understandable if not entirely welcome, and should perhaps remind us of the scale of the rift that has opened up, and of the difficulty of attempting any simple closure when such a lack of trust about the meaning, or non-meaning, of words exists.

Photo: M.Minderhoud

  1. Description from Harvard University Press’ website - ↩︎

  2. Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 271. ↩︎

  3. This is an endlessly recycled Žižekian theme, but is perhaps best expressed by the glosses on Peter Sloterdijk’s ideas about contemporary cynicism in The Sublime Object of Ideology. ↩︎

  4. I owe the notion of ‘excremental’ Republicanism to Timothy Bewes’s keynote speech ‘Some Recent Experiments in American Fiction’ at the Reading and its Objects conference at the University of Sussex on May 8th 2017. ↩︎

  5. See, of course, Curtis’ 2016 BBC film HyperNormalisation. There are also a clutch of varyingly inflatory takes on the Surkov myth, such as this 2014 article by Peter Pomerantsev in The Atlantic ↩︎

  6. Speculation regarding the extent to which this is a basically Westerne xaggeration of the political relevance and/ or efficacy of postmodernist aesthetics seems in some ways, again depending on how paranoid one feels, an outcome of non-linear warfare! ↩︎

  7. This isn’t a stunningly new idea, but it’s one liberal culture seems in general resistant towards. See Jacques Lacan’s seventh seminar On the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, on the right-wing intellectual’s willingness to ‘admit he’s a knave’ because, well, how do you answer back against someone who openly confesses they’re morally bankrupt? Not on moral grounds, for certain. ↩︎

  8. Maybe this term needs pragmatically defining here, although its nuances turn out to require a book-length treatment. Let’s say for now that ‘authentocracy’ is what happens when a (often centrist, but also conservative) politics gives up on immanently defensible truth-claims and insists on an assertion’s rightness on the basis of the (supposed) authenticity on the claim-maker. A vintage, and typically non-sequiturial, example: ‘I came from a council estate and left school with no GCSEs and built up a business, so I can say with certainty that Blair was right to prosecute the Iraq War’. Perhaps even more commonly, it projects a position onto someone allegedly more authentic than the speaker, i.e. ‘progressive’ anti-Brexit journalists and MPs talking about the ‘legitimate concerns about immigration’ of people in Stoke, or Walsall, or Hartlepool. Authentocracy and stuplimity meet somewhere, arguably in their non-answerability. ↩︎

  9. If you really want to read Streeting’s article again, it’s here. ↩︎

  10. Trolling as Fisher identifies it is pure form, its method derived from academia’s devotion to quibbling pedantry. Its disagreements are not principled, but grounded in the formal possibility of disagreement. ↩︎

  11. This piece is an expansion of ideas I first wrote about last year here: ↩︎

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