By Paul Walsh.
The song comes, with its music, to melt and please the soul. It is like soft mist, that, rising from a lake, pours on the silent vale; the green flowers are filled with dew, but the sun returns in his strength…
—James Macpherson, The Poems of Ossian (1773)
“Buenas tardes,” says the man reading from a piece of paper. Subtitles appear below.
Good Evening. Tonight’s Impact Broadcast contains scenes that are performed by trained and licensed professionals. Please do not attempt any of what you are about to see. Thank you.
Cut. A still pool, mist, minor arpeggios. On the grass a woman plays an upright piano, the stripes of her green-silver dress radiating out in waves; the unfolding mood like those brightly-inked worlds of elves and unicorns—the concept album. But it’s not that. A shadowy figure rows a boat across the pool. The boat arrives at the shore. A man sits in the boat, a dyed white stripe running through his hair. More arpeggio-mist. Perhaps there’s a machine in the pool pumping it out. But then there would probably be bubbles, thinking about it. Cut. A hand fastens a line and tightens bolts—our man from the start, buenas-tardes-man, is raising a wrestling ring. Cut to boat. Cut to ring. A small child walks across the ring. Arpeggios stop. Child looks up at face high on wall—the face of man-in-the-boat—inside that face is a wide-open, dark-black, mist-less mouth. Cut. Meet the face. Meet the face. Meet the man. This is Broken Brilliance. This. Is. ‘Broken’. Matt.
Politics is broken. Politics has become wrestling. It’s that simple.
No one pretends wrestling is real. As with politics, we experience them both as fake. The storylines, the feuds, the chants—empty denials, emptier counter-denials. It’s just the way it is. Best forget about it. Buy a drink. Then drink it, letting your mind go blank—swish—like the blinds of a camera shutter. Political contests are little more than—let’s face it—kangaroo boxing; politicians mere Barnums of Bounce and Denounce. Action takes place in leaps. Lurching, leaning, solemn with gloves raised kangaroos face off, lips pursed, chins raised. They punch. They fall. They flail—the wailing crowd driving everyone to a frenzy. Like wrestlers they destroy reputations; impresarios of an entertainment politics powered by nonchalant vitriol, and the more toxic the river of nonchalant vitriol the more we clap. Brexit—BOP! Crooked Hilary—BOP! Liberals—BOP!
This is one sign of a ‘reaction society’. Reaction societies choose hammer or Band-Aid over the complicated cure. Animals react—only humans respond; therefore reaction societies involve the mass-production of animality; a habitual reaction over response marking empty space where politics used to be—space filled, as Hannah Arendt predicted, with those “who know when power is lying in the street and when they can pick it up.” Revolutionaries, she writes. Revolutionaries guiding the frustration of millions into channels of reaction. A guidance system that works, obviously. Generate chatter and commentary. Talk without speaking. Make noise while stifling debate. Know without knowing. React don’t respond.
We live in ‘post-truth’—because truth has gone, and so has news—now just content; content drawn from the small and smaller pools (or swamps) of Google and Facebook—whose algorithms dwarf old villains, the newspaper monopolies. These silicon barons, whose profits sail undisturbed across national borders, gather the opinions of nations in their servers, to be tweaked in the aggregate—driving participation, or more often non-participation, in our sagging democracies. Any latent engagement, any likes-against-the-machine, is re-geared as capital accumulation—our posts, comments, and tweets creating value and sold to marketing companies, who in turn sell us goods through targeted adverts; a 21st century human-powered profit circuit, and incredibly efficient; because unlike previous profit circuits, digital labour is intensely and deliciously enjoyable.
Our opening revel, the green-silver-arpeggio-mist thriller, forms the intro to Total Nonstop Deletion, a wrestling spectacle crowning 2016 as a shock-and-surprise year. Our man-in-the-boat is wrestler Matt Hardy, who re-invented himself as ‘Broken’ Matt, dropping his Southern drawl, taking a fake English accent and a new catchphrase: “DELETE!” A white stripe runs through his wild hair, he giggles at odd moments and affects psychosis by staring into the distance. Described as “a meme factory, an endless supply of insanity … Never boring, always mad,” he’s excruciating to watch but strangely addictive. Interviewers pretend to be disturbed by his ‘brokenness’, as do his opponents; it’s a forged behaviour circuit; nothing is what it seems apart from the very real circulation of money—which pretty much describes the politics of now, with politics an appendage of economics. (To find truth ask “the markets”.) All in all, it is quite disturbing; the same disturbing feeling you get watching Lars von Trier’s The Idiots—which starts with a group of young people “spazzing”: faking the behaviour of people we once labelled spastics—thereby releasing their “inner idiot”.
Total Nonstop Deletion begins with fake news reports of dangerous volcanic activity, before switching to the pool, the piano, the dress, and our-man-in-the-boat. The arpeggios die down, the boat floats to shore. ‘Broken’ Matt gets out and seconds later bursts into the “dome of deletion”—a warehouse stuffed with fans and family—striding through a mouth, the mouth of his own face. Blast-off. Matt’s nonsense mothership zooms across someone’s brain, your brain—perhaps ‘Broken’ Matt’s dreaming, broken brain—an audio-visual journey somewhat like a Latin Mass, with comparable levels of solemnity, smoke, and silliness. You encounter the ‘volcano’—a low mound of dirt from which explode ten-dollar fireworks, a woman-on-woman ‘catfight’, a wrestling dwarf, and a kangaroo-human boxing match. ‘Broken’ Matt says: “I want to entertain people and let them have fun and be surprised. That is the goal of my broken universe,”—an absurd universe governed by the logic of another absurdist, playwright Eugene Ionescu:
For if the essence of the theatre lay in the enlargement of effects, it was necessary to enlarge them even more, to underline them, to emphasize them as much as possible … What was needed was not to disguise the strings that moved the puppets but to make them even more visible, deliberately apparent, to go right down to the very basis of the grotesque…
‘Broken’ Matt is the nearest wrestling gets to poststructuralist philosophy because there’s no essence underneath—just more and more stuff: another story, feud, or challenge; another broken chapter in a larger broken drama; like a kaleidoscope on repeat. This stuff keeps us watching and our psychic investment in ‘Broken’ Matt accrues value—social media magnifying the stories, feuds, and catchphrases—a psychic investment allowing tributaries of profit to flow at ever-increasing volumes. Wrestling needs stories for this reason. Wrestling is a technology to guide the flow of story—and the flow of money.
Yet he has a point. Professional wrestling went stale—it needed ‘Broken’ Matt, as he claims, to put the fun back into dysfunctionality. “I can DELETE anything. Polarizing Paranormal. Truth Teller. Emotion Evoker. Adjective Advocate,” his Twitter profile informs us—“delete” meaning the removal of someone’s essence; they become obsolete, their soul and personality gone in the swish of a cape. Politics follows this path: vigorous growth, then staleness, senility and deletion—political stories of the Left lose their shine; the stories of the Right become tell-able again. Yet this circuit fails to explain one abject failure. Because if wrestlers can reinvent themselves—if the Right can reinvent itself—why can’t the Left?
One explanation is that the Right solves contradictions through environment creation. And perhaps the genealogy of environments can teach us something about political struggle. So what are environments?
Ezra Pound, Martin Luther King, and Scotland share a history leading us to environments. Martin Luther King led the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965; and Selma (meaning ‘throne’) got its name from a poetry cycle, Poems of Ossian, compiled by Scottish writer James Macpherson. Macpherson discovered the work of Ossian, a 3rd century Celtic bard, the ‘last of his race’ and narrator of passion-filled, melancholy ballads that exploded like a depth charge across Europe, influencing Goethe, Blake, Coleridge, and igniting the Romantic movement. Mendelssohn’s Highland visit inspired his Hebrides Overture (1830). Napoleon – who carried a copy of Ossian into battle – commissioned Ingres to paint The Dream of Ossian (1813).
According to Matthew Arnold, all Europe felt its melancholy power. Ossianic gloom-dust charmed a generation, as with ‘Broken’ Matt, because of its endless stuff: the feuds, the deaths, the dramatic-sublime contrasts, the electric tang of End Times spice. “The romantic awakening dates from the production of Ossian,” wrote Ezra Pound.
Yet Ossian was a dud—the whole thing a hoax. When challenged, Macpherson failed to produce any manuscripts, leading to a fifty-year war of words and pamphlets between defenders and sceptics (including Samuel Johnson and David Hume)—the Ossian controversy. In 2016 scientists concluded the Ossian poems resembled a 12th century Irish story cycle—the ‘social networks of characters’ almost a perfect match. Ossian was invented, according to one scholar, “to suit the aesthetic preoccupations of the late eighteenth century—preoccupations that lie at the heart of the organic understanding of culture that would come to infuse European Romanticism.” Ossian was the vehicle in which Romantic ideas, and our concept of environment arrived—a vehicle pulled by poetry.
German poet Goethe described Ossian’s make-believe world as a place of ‘departed heroes and faded maidens’, and used the word Umgebung to mean the specific natural and spiritual surroundings of a melancholy (male) subject “tortured by unsatisfied passions”—a melancholy subject situated in Ossian’s fake universe. Yet when Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle translated Goethe’s Umgebung to “environment”, he meant man’s general physical environment, all the stuff outside the self. (Environs—a circling, that which surrounds ‘what is’—en meaning ‘in’, viron, a circle or circuit.) The concept took another leap with Herbert Spencer, who in his Principles of Psychology, developed the idea of interaction between life and environment: “all vital phenomena are directly or indirectly in correspondence with phenomena in the environment.” This is the encrusted meaning we inherit: life as a biophysical conversation between man and (his) world.
Words cannot escape origins. The way we think about environment—the way we think with environment—has a Romantic colour and Romantic glow, modified through Carlyle and Spencer. Thinking with environments places man (not woman) at the centre, looking out at the world and attaching qualities: peace, solace, and calm—or danger, threat, and chaos. Environment defines a subject position of man against hostile environment—an ideal concept to use when colonizing the world, subduing enemies out there, and dividing the world into safe packets of space and knowledge. Environment is a settler-word concealing a violent trove. The concept encircles us like a ring of wagons.
And environment arrives just after the consumer (from 1745, “one who uses up goods or articles”). Both have the idea of distance—that you need to be at a distance from an object to admire it (or destroy it), and the idea of being surrounded, enveloped in a totality. Our distance from the commodity is a barrier—like an Orthodox iconostasis, the wall of icons protecting a deeper sanctuary—provoking the desire to uncover the mystery, giving consumption its potency. Consumption itself grows out of the soil of urban life: city or metropolis environments of ever-changing variety; constant change which excites with one hand and jades with the other, resulting in what German sociologist Georg Simmel calls the blasé attitude, an attitude dominated by the “intellectually calculating economic egoisms” of a calculating mind—leading to the “blunting of discrimination”:
This does not mean that the objects are not perceived, as it the case with the half-wit, but rather that the meaning and differing values of things, and thereby the things themselves, are experienced as insubstantial. They appear to the blasé person in an evenly flat and gray tone; no one object deserves preference over any other.
Therefore an urbanised money economy, sweeping away intimate hierarchies of pre-industrial life with the destabilizing, thrilling, anonymity of capitalism, creates a world in which “All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money,”—a world throwing us onto the rocks of melancholy with a gnawing ache in our souls. Environment as a concept soothes our capitalist growing pains and this ache of modernity—an ache telling us something has been lost; something loved and needed, something precious, an ache we inherit from Ossian’s breast. In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Lotte cries out “I fear it is only the impossibility of possessing me that makes this wish so attractive to you.” Perhaps this defines capitalism: a quasi-religious impossible-desire machine. And environment—like a conceptual Forth Bridge—bridges the chasm between you and capitalism’s impossible imperatives. Environment is not outside the machine. Environment is the machine thinking.
Environment retains the idea of ‘ether’. Environments envelop things, surround them like fog. There’s a circuit-like aspect to them. Like smoke, environments penetrate your pores like the miasma in Greek tragedy—itself a word for the environment created by human folly, an environment of smaller and smaller circles, involving the tightening of fetters, the gouging out of tracks in tragedy’s meadows and valleys until inside the circle’s eye—events explode. Because environments beat structures every time: the storm battens the house, the waters wash away certainties, the past floats away in the foam. Structures poke out, they jut, break, pile up, grow up, out, and down, shouting I’M HERE—LOOK! Environments receive structures as a pawnbroker receives jewellery—discreetly.
So we know the complicit genealogy of environments and their function. But what explains our environment—the pervasive, all-inclusive, unescapable, neoliberal-capitalist West?
Architecture theorist Reinhold Martin, in his essay ‘On numbers, more or less’, looks at the complex structures produced by algorithms—like those of British architect Zaha Hadid, the ‘Queen of the Curve’. Martin calls our present-day environment New Capitalist Organicism, one governed by algorithmic logic, by “the glacial stare of number”. But this environment has horizons far beyond architecture, for operating principles of New Capitalist Organicism are, in practical terms, universal. The first principle: this world of globalized capital is the only place to be, and the only world that can ever be; because capitalism has won the wars of ideology and dogma—forever. Second principle: in New Capitalist Organicism (or NECORG) there’s always a place for you TO BE—if only you look hard enough; an intimate hierarchy where everyone has a price and a place; a world that envelops you, just like your own organs fit snugly inside your body—every part a reflection of an organic whole. (What is organicism? It’s when your boss says: We’re just one big family here.)
THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE! and BE POSITIVE! appear across cultural forms; NECORG-ian hymns of psychic immaturity and happy madness that reinforce NECORG reality. In Melanie Klein’s good breast/ bad breast theory a baby sees the breast as two part-object, one part bad, one part good—good when given, bad when taken away: the paranoid-schizoid position unique to a baby’s early development; a precarious condition, a source of pain, a splitting. Yet the baby comes to realise that ‘good breast’ is the same object as ‘bad breast’—things can be good and bad at the same time—a true discovery!—this is the depressive position, the place where ambiguous reality begins, the place of proto-wisdom. There is no Alternative! and Be Positive! keep reality at a distance and tell us to keep sucking—draining the planet dry of resources and each other of life. We are the vampires literature warned us of.
NECORG is kitsch—religiously unashamed of itself and the poverty, waste, and chaos it creates—nonchalant like its political representatives. Why would this mode be ashamed of itself? Is a tree ashamed of its leaves? Much like modern architecture, reduced to a dance of numbers, the world created by NECORG looks like the ‘One State’ in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, where there are no individuals only numbers, where passions have been pacified; a world of mathematical precision; a state where everything is being perfected.
How can we think past this?—Past the angels of NECORG, past the Ossian fraud, past broken politics. Perhaps I give too much weight to our broken political culture, too much weight to the environments pressing down on us; environments which might just be, as one writer described the Ossian poems—a “delicious delusion”. But one thing shines out. If ‘Broken’ Matt can set wrestling afire; if Ossian’s ballads can kindle European Romanticism—then startling environments can be formed. Enveloping, extending and retreating surfaces and spaces; dioramas of moving moons, comets, and possibilities. New anti-capitalist firmaments. No-holds-barred capitalism-wrestling environments with their own internal logic; what Rosmarie Waldrop calls “the unbedding of the always”.
Because environments will beat structures every time: the storm battens the house, the waters wash away certainties, the past floats away in the foam. Europeans thought they were building an environment—they were just casting the brittle technocratic structures of the E.U.—now seized by waves of populism. America thought she had a constitution of stone—a constitution being shattered by the environment of the Authoritarian and his Courtesans. The future is being Totally Nonstop Deleted.
Important things are light things—things that can fly away like birds: democracy, hope, justice. One poet wrote: “Light things take the place of heavy things; there is nothing to take the place of light things.”
Keep light things. Make environments. Wrestle enemies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Walsh is a writer, teacher, and precarious worker. His work has appeared in ROAR magazine, Red Pepper, Hybrid Pedagogy, and others. He writes about neoliberalism, social and grassroots movements, pedagogy, and south-east Europe. He is currently working on a book of essays entitled Wrestling with Neoliberalism.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 1st, 2017.