17 Mar 2018

A Liquid History: On the Death and Resurrection of the River Thames

Mercedes Leon: 'River Thames' (from her
2012 print collection London and You)

It's important when considering the natural environment not to view the subject through rosy-green tinted spectacles and imagine that things were always better in the past, because, as a matter of fact, they were very often worse - much, much worse.

Take the River Thames, for example ...

As early as the 14th century, London's dark river was effectively functioning as an open sewer. An ever-expanding population greatly increased the amount of human and animal waste deposited in the water and, in 1357, even the royal nose of Edward III had detected the abominable stench that resulted from the dung and other filth accumulated along the banks.

Five hundred years later and things hadn't improved. Indeed, the condition of the Thames had significantly deteriorated. For not only was raw sewage still being cheerfully dumped into the River, but the many new factories built alongside were now discharging industrial waste products, including ammonia, cyanide, and carbolic acid.

These and other lethal elements eventually poisoned whatever wildlife remained. And, perhaps not surprisingly, between 1832 and 1865 tens of thousands of Londoners died due to outbreaks of cholera; some historians have also attributed Prince Albert's death in 1861 to typhoid, caused by the disease-ridden waters around Windsor Castle.   

If Edward III found things intolerable in his day, one wonders what he would have made of the so-called Great Stink of 1858 when the stench of the River became so overpowering that proceedings in the House of Commons were suspended; this despite the fact that chlorine-soaked curtains had been hung in the windows of Parliament in an attempt to neutralise the odour. 

Although the decline of heavy industry and the closing of the docks during the twentieth century led to improved water quality, nevertheless the River still sweated oil and tar and still bubbled with methane gas. Finally, in 1957, the Thames was officially declared to be biologically dead; there was insufficient oxygen to support any life bigger than shit-eating bacteria.

Today, however, things are better - much, much better and the River lives once more! Thanks to a raised level of concern for the natural environment, there are now much tighter regulations governing what can and cannot be dumped in UK rivers and waterways and sewage systems have gradually been either repaired or replaced.

It's believed there are 125 species of fish - including salmon - once more inhabiting the Thames and a wide variety of other creatures have also remade a home in (or on) the river; including eels, birds and marine mammals such as seals and porpoises. 

But of course, it's important not to get carried away; if the River is cleaner and healthier than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, one still wouldn't want to go swimming in it. For one thing, the sewage problem hasn't been completely solved. Not only does treated waste matter from the towns and villages in the region continue to flow into the Thames, but heavy rainfall typically overburdens London's ancient sewers and the excess rainwater mixed with untreated effluence is released into the River to prevent flooding.

Such discharge events - which happen once a week on average - obviously have a negative impact. However, the Thames Tideway Scheme - currently under construction at a projected cost of £4.2 billion - aims to collect the raw sewage before it overflows and it is hoped that the project will ultimately result in a 90% reduction of shit entering the River. Again, that's good news. But the real problem, however, remains a very modern form of waste - plastic ...

Despite a recent campaign to raise public awareness of the issue, there's still a huge amount of plastic waste material floating in the Thames, putting animals large and small at risk not only of becoming trapped in it, but of digesting it too (next time you apply your facial scrub with microbeads you might want to think about this).

Thames Water claims to remove 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste from their sewage system every year. Unfortunately, tiny pieces of plastic routinely pass through the filters and screens in treatment plants, thus entering the River (and the food chain) where they take decades to decompose.        

Still, despite this, the fact remains that the Thames is in a better condition now than it was when D. H. Lawrence went for a riverside walk in the village of Pangbourne, on a monstrous hot day in August 1919, and complained afterwards in a letter to a friend about the repulsive smell of the water. So cheer up David Brock!  

See: The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Volume 3, October 1916 - June 1921, ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson, (Cambridge University Press, 1984).

15 Mar 2018

In Sickness and in Greater Health (Or Something I Need to Get Off My Chest)

First I had a flu-like virus that left me with a dry ticklish cough and a dry stuffy nose. This mutated into a chest infection, for which I was prescribed anti-biotics. This left my bronchial system so inflamed and hypersensitive, that it triggered some form of asthmatic reaction. 

So now I've been told to suck on an inhaler and puff away up to four times a day, like a real fucking invalid. Masculine pride (or what women often term stubborn stupidity) dictates that I ignore medical advice. But a tight chest and inability to breathe properly gradually erodes all virtue; indeed, what else is sickness ultimately other than a loss of dignity?  

On a positive note, the dry ticklish cough has gone. Unfortunately, the nasal congestion continues; this despite repeatedly shoving a Vicks inhaler up my nose. If Nietzsche is right and human genius resides in the nostrils, then I've subjected my creative intelligence to a huge quantity of menthol, camphor and Siberian pine needle oil during the last weeks.

Hopefully, this might make my thinking clear and cool (though I doubt it). What it has done is make me much more sympathetic to D. H. Lawrence and Gilles Deleuze who suffered terribly with their chests and often experienced breathing difficulties (not that I'm equating my condition with theirs, both of whom had tuberculosis).        

It's no wonder that both authors seemed to be so obsessed with fresh air and subscribed to a vitalist philosophy built upon the Nietzschean notion of die große Gesundheit - "a new health, stronger, more seasoned, tougher, more audacious, and gayer than any previous health".

This sounds nice. But it's important to know that such a health grows out of sickness and is in fact an affirmation of the latter.  

See: Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann, (Vintage Books, 1974), Section 382. 

Note: Lawrence eventually coughed and spat his way out of this mortal life on 2 March, 1930, aged just 44. Deleuze committed suicide on 4 November 1995 after his chronic respiratory condition(s) became increasingly severe and even writing became difficult.  

14 Mar 2018

Release the Bats: Notes on the Genre Distinction between Poetry and Pop

Release the Bats (4AD, 1981)
Click here to play on YouTube

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a real penchant for poems about bats and have previously written about D. H. Lawrence's work in this area, as well as Theodore Roethke's (see links below). 

However - push comes to shove - I think my favourite lines on these fascinating creatures are found in a song written by Nick Cave and Mick Harvey as members of the seminal post-punk band The Birthday Party and released as a single in the summer of 1981:

Release the Bats

Whoooahh! Bite! Whoooah! Bite!
Release the bats! Release the bats!
Don't tell me that it doesn't hurt
A hundred fluttering in your skirt
Don't tell me that it doesn't hurt

My baby is alright
She doesn't mind a bit of dirt
She says horror vampire bat bite
She says horror vampire
How I wish those bats would bite
Whoooah! Bite! Whoooah! Bite!

Release the bats! Release the bats!
Pump them up and explode the things
Her legs are chafed by sticky wings
Sticky sticky little things

My baby is a cool machine
She moves to the pace of her generator
Says damn that sex supreme
She says damn that horror bat
Sex vampire, cool machine

Release the bats! Release the bats!
Release them!

Baby is a cool machine
She moves to the pulse of a generator
She says damn that sex supreme
She says, she says damn that horror bat
Sex horror sex bat sex horror sex vampire
Sex bat horror vampire sex
Cool machine
Horror bat. Bite!
Cool Machine. Bite!
Sex vampire. Bite!

Lyrically, things just don't get much better than this - even if, ironically, the song was written by Cave's own admission as a gigantic piss-take of those who reduced the queer and complex splendour of gothic horror (in art, literature, film and fashion) down to a few lazy stereotypes and tropes.

I could - and one day might - critically analyse these lines at length. But what I want to discuss here is a question that often arises in relation to the wider topic of genre distinction: What's the difference between poetry and a finely composed pop lyric?

It certainly seems to be the case that many people accept this distinction as a given and believe that the former, poetry, is not only more serious, but also inherently superior to any pop song. To me, however, this distinction is as dubious and as problematic as the one that others within the Academy would maintain between philosophy and literature.

It's patently absurd, is it not, to think that even a poorly written poem - and heaven knows there are many such in existence - is essentially more valuable in an ideal and rarefied cultural sense than even the greatest of pop songs. In the end, we are more often than not simply dealing with a form of snobbery that does a disservice to both poetry and pop.

Having said that, I agree with the American poet Matthew Zapruder that whereas the poem is born of (and aspires to) silence, the pop lyric is designed to unfold and communicate within a context of sound (i.e. it comes with a musical accompaniment or backing track). That's a real difference and an important difference. But it doesn't justify establishing a hierarchy of forms in which one is privileged over the other. 

In brief - and as we used to say in the old days: Fuck art - let's dance!


Matthew Zapruder 'The Difference Beween Poetry and Song Lyrics', Boston Review (06 Dec 2012): click here to read online.

Those who are particularly interested in this topic might also like to see Zapruder's book Why Poetry (Ecco Press, 2017) and/or Adam Bradley's The Poetry of Pop (Yale University Press, 2017). 

Related posts: D. H. Lawrence's Becoming Bat (click here); Reflections on the Bat 1 (click here); Reflections on the Bat 2 (click here); Roethke and the Bat Boy (click here).   

13 Mar 2018

The Vamp: In Memory of Theda Bara

I am a vamp, I am a vamp
Half woman, half beast
I bite my men and suck them dry
And then I bake them in a pie


When young, I used to have a hand-painted t-shirt with a picture of an insanely beautiful and beautifully insane-looking woman dressed like Cleopatra. Reinforcing the idea of an ancient Egyptian queen whose name spelt trouble for many a man, were the words Death Arab.

I had no idea who she was; nor that Death Arab was, in fact, an anagram ...


With her heavily kohl-lined eyes and outrageously revealing costumes, Theda Bara was one of Hollywood’s greatest silent film stars who first came to prominence as a seductress in the risqué 1915 production A Fool There Was (dir. Frank Powell); a movie that was refused a cinematic release in the UK by the British Board of Film Censors due to its illicit sexual theme.

In the above, Edward José plays a wealthy Wall Street lawyer and devoted family man, who, upon meeting Bara's vampish femme fatale on board a ship bound for England, falls completely under her spell.

All attempts by friends to persuade him to return to the straight and narrow are in vain and he plunges ever further into vice and blissful degradation: she ruins his career, wrecks his marriage and slowly drains him of his spunk; that vital mixture of masculine virtue and courage.


Despite her exotic image, Theodosia Burr Goodman was not born in the shadow of the Sphinx, but, rather, in the American Midwest. Contrary also to what her publicists would have us believe, her father was not an Italian sculptor with an obsessive love of the female form, but a Jewish tailor originally from Poland.

After moving to NYC in 1908, Bara took up acting and between 1915 and 1919 she was the Fox studio's biggest star - even whilst she grew increasingly tired of being typecast. Sadly, however, an attempt to find a new role for herself in the theatre didn't pan out after her Broadway performance in The Blue Flame (1920) was savaged by the critics.

She made her final film, Madame Mystery, a short comedy for Hal Roach, directed by Stan Laurel, in 1926. In it, she parodied her own image as an occult-fixated vampire-woman, but by this stage the joke was over and if audiences laughed at all they were laughing at, rather than with Miss Bara.

The golden rule of showbiz is a simple one: Always give the public what they want. And, ideally, give it to them when they want it in a recognisable format. Then they'll keep on cheering and keep on buying tickets. But start to take yourself and your craft too seriously, and nine times out of ten you can look forward to a long retirement living in obscurity: To be good is to be forgotten, as Theda herself acknowledged.


A planned return to the movies in the mid-1930s, came to nothing. And a proposed biopic, starring Betty Hutton, that producers expressed an interest in making in 1949, also never materialized. Bara died six years later.

She was posthumously rewarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. But, by this date, most of her work on film was either lost or destroyed; of the 40+ movies she made between 1914 and 1926, complete prints of only six still exist.

Nevertheless, her image is forever ingrained within the cultural imagination and her influence on cinema - particularly its enduring obsession with the femme fatale - cannot be overestimated.


Lyrics quoted beneath the photo of Theda Bara (and friend) are from the song I Am a Vamp (1998), by Ute Lemper: click here to listen on YouTube. 

Anyone interested in watching a makeup tutorial presented by Talia Felix, in which she instructs viewers exactly how to achieve the Theda Bara look in all its horror sex vampire bat bite perfection, should click here.

10 Mar 2018

Graham Harman: The Third Table (Synopsis and Critique)

Picasso: La Table (1919)

I. Synopsis

The Third Table (2012) is a fascinating short piece by the object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman. Whilst providing a convenient summary of the four principles of OOO, the author primarily wishes to offer us his reading of A. S. Eddington's well-known parable of the two tables; the first of which is the familiar table of everyday life; the second of which is the quantum table as understood by physicists.

For Eddington, the latter table is more real than the former, which, although visible and tangible, is essentially a 'strange compound of external nature, mental imagery and inherited prejudice'. You might be able to eat your supper off this first table, but that proves nothing to those who subscribe to the remorseless logic of modern science.    

For Harman, however, both humanists who insist on the everday thing and physicists who care only for quantum reality, are equally mistaken - and for precisely the same reason. For both are engaged in reductionism, even though they reduce the object in opposite directions: 

"The scientist reduces the table downward to tiny particles invisible to the eye; the humanist reduces it upward to a series of effects on people and other things. To put it bluntly, both of Eddington's tables are utter shams that confuse the table with its internal and external environments, respectively. The real table is in fact a third table lying between these two others."

Interestingly, it's not traditional philosophers who are best placed to understand this, in Harman's view, but artists: for artists aren't obsessed with reducing tables "either to quarks and electrons or to table-effects on humans". They are concerned, rather, with tables and other objects - sunflowers, nude women, pickled sharks, etc. - as things in themselves with their own autonomous and inexhaustible reality. And they know that the real table "is a genuine [substantial] reality deeper than any theoretical or practical encounter with it". 

That is to say, the third table "emerges as something distinct from its own components and also withdraws behind all its external effects". If this sounds vaguely Aristotelian, that's because it is; although Harman assures us that it's Aristotle with knobs on (i.e., given a "properly weird interpretation" - weird being one of the privileged terms within Harman's vocabulary).       

The problem that some will immediately identify, is that by locating der dritte Tisch in a space between the first and second types of table, Harman posits an object that lies forever outside the scope of human access; "a table that can be verified in no way at all", as he cheerfully concedes. Indeed, Harman suggests that practitioners of OOO should pride themselves on this fact:

"Any philosophy is unworthy of the name if it attempts to convert objects into the conditions by which they can be known or verified. The term philosophia ... famously means not 'wisdom' but 'love of wisdom'. The real is something that cannot be known, only loved."

Object-oriented philosophers - inasmuch as they remain lovers, not knowers - are thus old school philosophers. In a lovely passage, Harman continues:

"This does not mean that access to the table is impossible, only that it must be indirect. Just as erotic speech works when composed of hint, allusion, and innuendo rather than of declarative statements and clearly articulated propositions ... thinking is not thinking unless it realizes that its approach to objects can only be oblique."

Weird (or speculative) realists cannot be downward scientific reducers, nor upward humanistic reducers - they can only be hunters, forever chasing "ghostly objects withdrawing from all human and inhuman access, accessible only by allusion and seducing us by means of allure".

As suggested earlier, it may be artists who best fit this description:

"For on the one hand art does not function by dissolving ... [things] into their subatomic underpinnings. Quite obviously, artists do not provide a theory of physical reality, and Eddington's second table is the last thing they seek. But on the other hand they also do not seek the first table, as if the arts merely replicated the objects of everyday life or sought to create effects on us."

Art does something else, something more; it both establishes the existence of objects as things in themselves and alludes to objects that can never be made fully present. And philosophy, concludes Harman, would be wise if it gave up its pretensions of being a rigorous science and transformed itself into a uniquely vigorous art, thereby regaining its original character as a form of Eros:

"In some ways this erotic model is the basic aspiration of object-oriented philosophy: the only way, in the present philosophical climate, to do justice to the love of wisdom that makes no claim to be an actual wisdom."

Despite the obvious criticisms that can be made, I have to admit to finding Harman's thought very enticing and would happily pull up a chair at his third table in order to share a bottle of wine or eat some figs. Having said that, I do have a couple of concerns ...

II. Critique

Firstly, Harman rather overdoes the praise of artists - though he's by no means the first philosopher to do so and his flattery has earned him recognition as one of the hundred most influential figures on the international art scene; something he seems inordinately proud of, compensating as it does perhaps for the fact that many philosophers choose to ignore or dismiss his work entirely.

Still more problematic is the star-struck nature of Harman's boast in the introduction to his latest book that object-oriented ontology has attracted not only the interest of artists and architects, but also entertainers and actors. The charismatic nature of OOO, he claims, "has even captured the notice of celebrities ... with the popular musician Björk having engaged in correspondence with OOO author Timothy Morton, and the actor Benedict Cumberbatch having listened attentively to one of my lectures at a private residence in London".        

This could possibly be the most embarrassing (and shameful) line ever written by a philosopher.  For as Nick Land once said: Nothing is more absurd than a philosopher seeking to be liked. I would therefore encourage Professor Harman to worry less about sucking-up to a pretentious singer-songwriter and a big posh sod with plums in his mouth, and concentrate instead on persuading colleagues within the world of philosophy to take his writing more seriously.

Secondly, whilst I agree that philosophy should always be conceived in terms of Eros, I see it as a far more perverse and transgressive form of love than Harman; one born of disease and the madness of unconditional desire, or what Land terms libidinal materialism

Thus, whereas he thinks of objects as rather shy and retiring - almost coy - and insists we must talk about them with poetic metaphors and maybe a dash of saucy innuendo (OOO-er missus), I think of objects as promiscuous and obscene; things that don't just seek to seduce us from the shadows, but which indecently expose themselves and seek to ravish us in broad daylight if given the opportunity.

However, as I'm not one of the top hundred thinkers on anybody's list and have never had Sherlock listening attentively to one of my lectures, there's really no reason why readers should favour my (equally unverifiable) view over Harman's - unless, of course, it pleases them to do so ...    

A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, (MacMillan, 1929).

Graham Harman, The Third Table / Der Dritte Tisch, Number 085 in the dOCUMENTA (13) series '100 Notes - 100 Thoughts / 100 Notizen - 100 Gedanken', (Hatje Cantz, 2012). Lines quoted are from pp. 6-15.

Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything, (Pelican Books, 2018), p. 8. 

Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, (Routledge, 1992).

9 Mar 2018

Indecent Exposure: Further Thoughts on Male Sexual Display

A male peacock spider putting on an 
impressively iridescent courtship display

I. He Took It Out (Again)

Several days on, I'm still thinking about the case of Louis CK which I discussed at the prompting of (and in collaboration with) the poet and critic Simon Solomon in an earlier post [click here]. In other words, the question of why a man should wish to strip naked and masturbate in front of a clothed woman or group of women, continues to intrigue. 

As I said, I'm prone to see this behaviour as an illicit form of erotic performance - a transgressive but joyful expression of male libido - rather than frame it in moral-legal terms as slightly sad, somewhat sinister sexual misconduct. Nor do I buy into the psycho-political reading advanced by some feminist commentators which regards male exhibitionism as a phallocratic act of terrorism, intended to humiliate, intimidate, or outrage female spectators who maintain their right not to be subject to such displays without prior consent.         

It's mistaken - and possibly dangerous - to demonise men and pathologise their sexuality. And, as Simon Solomon wrote, it's far from clear why being afforded the opportunity to witness somebody pleasure themselves should be construed as inherently traumatogenic.  

II. Homo erectus*

Within the animal world, masturbation and courtship behaviour involving overt sexual display is a given; birds do it, bees do it - even eight-legged critters like the spider shown above do it. All male creatures like to show off and attempt to appear virile and attractive in the eyes of the female; to exhibit their desire and ability to fuck.

Some males do it with song; some males do it with dance. Some males put on bright colours; some engage in mortal combat with other males. But some males get right to the point and expose their genitalia - and there's evolutionary evidence to indicate that the most successful human males have long favoured this tactic.   

Indeed, according to the American anthropologist Nancy Makepeace Tanner, the sexual selection of mates by females on the basis of phallic display was a major factor in the evolution of hominid bipedalism. In other words, men first stood upright in order that the women might better be able to admire their sexual organs. The more visible they could make their penises - and the better endowed they were - the more likely they were to get laid.

For unlike chimps and bonobos that walk on all fours and thus have their (relatively small) genitalia obscured from view, a naked man on two legs has everything out in the open for inspection by potential lovers (and/or potential opponents) and that seems to have been a turn on for ape-women.

Tanner writes:

"Such an image might appear amusing and improbable, but let us remember that these ancient forebears living in the warm African savannas had not yet invented clothing. As the female hormonal cycle and ovulation came to contribute less to timing of her arousal, it is not illogical that visual cues could become increasingly significant. If so, sexual selection for bipedalism would be yet another instance of natural and sexual selection together advancing the species adaptation farther along the same path for both females and males."

Of course, females also valued males with good social skills and intelligence; Tanner isn't denying that. But the ability to stand erect - to exhibit bipedalism and an impressive hard on - significantly increased a male's chances of passing on his genes.   

III. Die großen Ökonomie des Ganzen

Now, none of this is to excuse the behaviour of Louis CK or other men who have indecently exposed themselves and/or masturbated in front women. It's simply an attempt to expand the terms of debate and help provide a new narrative in which we consider the Blakean possibility that just as "The pride of the peacock is the glory of God" and "The Lust of the goat is the bounty of God", so the nakedness of man is divine in origin.

The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the ejaculating phallus all belong to a Nietzschean grand economy of the whole and must ultimately be affirmed as such if we are to ever think beyond good and evil (i.e. beyond the standpoint of fixed and absolute moral judgement).

Of course, many - perhaps most - people will find such a general economy of life abhorrent. But I'm hoping that at least some readers of this blog (those whom I term torpedophiles) will recognise a vital philosophical insight when they're offered one ...


William Blake, 'Proverbs from Hell', The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93)

Nancy Makepeace Tanner, On Becoming Human, (Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 165-66. 

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1990), section 23. Nietzsche returns to this idea in his final work, Ecce Homo, and suggests that even the most terrible aspects of reality are more necessary for man as a species than the cherished ideals of humanism. 

*Note: I'm aware, of course, that the earliest bipedal ape-men were around long before Homo erectus; I'm using this designation simply for comic purposes.          

7 Mar 2018

On Socrates and the Electric Ray (Or How Philosophy Begins in Stunned Silence)

Socrates (Homo philosophicus) and the common torpedo fish (Torpedo torpedo)

As most people know, the term torpedo - in the modern sense of the word - refers to a self-propelled underwater weapon with an explosive warhead, designed to detonate either on contact with its target, or in close proximity to it.   

But what many people don't know, however, is that the word comes from the name of a genus of electric rays in the order Torpediniformes (which, in turn, comes from the Latin torpere - to be numb or stiff).

And what hardly anyone knows - apart from those rare few who have been infected with the love of wisdom (what the ancient Greeks termed φιλοσοφία) - is that Socrates was on one occasion called a torpedo fish ...

In one of Plato's dialogues, a student by the name of Meno visits Athens in order to discuss with Socrates the nature of virtue. Before long, however, the latter starts to irritate and perplex the younger man (as he did a great many others) with his dialectical (and diabolical) method.

Meno says:

I was told before meeting you, Socrates, that you delighted in self-doubt and in making others feel unsure of themselves. No surprise then, that you should seek to beguile me with your magic tricks and incantations, reducing me to a state of utter confusion. You appear to be in all respects - if I may lightheartedly say so - like the flat torpedo fish; a deep-sea creature which anaesthetizes anyone who comes into contact with it. Certainly you have done something of this sort to me. For in truth, I feel my soul and my tongue both numb and I'm incapable of answering you. [79e-80b]     

This important passage tells us something vital about the origin of philosophy; it doesn't just begin in amazement and curiosity, or awe and admiration, but in stunned silence.

Before you can begin to wonder, that is to say, you have first to be rendered speechless before the world; something that the sophists - believing human language to be the key to everything - would find difficult to accept and Meno, it will be recalled, was a student of Gorgias.

Who knows, when people learn to shut the fuck up for a minute, perhaps even virtue becomes a possibility. And even if not, the electrifying truth of philosophy is shocking.  


The passage quoted from Plato's Meno is a new translation by Dr Maria Thanassa, based on the Greek text (in consultation with the English translation by W. R. M. Lamb), in the Loeb Classical Library edition, (Harvard University Press, 1977). 

For information on a fantastic project called the Torpedo Fish, by Diego Agulló, that involves art, dance and philosophy and attempts to investigate the affinity between the Body and Event, click here. 

6 Mar 2018

Torpedo the Ark: Thoughts on the Occasion of a 1000th Post

Orizuru (origami cranes)

Those who love stats or genuinely believe that numbers have occult significance, will be interested to learn that this happens to be the 1000th post on Torpedo the Ark. But whilst this may provide a convenient opportunity to reflect back and look forward, I'm neither nerdy nor superstitious enough to get unduly excited about this conventional milestone.

As for the suggestion that this might be not only a good time to stop writing the blog, but delete it entirely - leaving no trace behind, in order that I may begin a new cycle of work and a new phase in my creative life ... Well, I have to admit, the first (nihilistic) part of this millenarian fantasy rather appeals. But the second part - the hope of a new beginning - strikes me as laughable; the kind of thing subscribed to by those happy-clappy idiots who think the universe rewards optimism and enthusiasm, or that the future is full of promise.

And so, Torpedo the Ark will continue firing on all fronts and I will keep writing posts and stringing sentences together in the same way that Sadako Sasaki liked to fold and tie paper cranes - though not in the expectation of being granted a wish by the gods, obviously.

As for dreams of good luck and rude good health ... The first of these things, says Lawrence, is desired only by the vulgar and the desperate; whilst the latter - understood in its reactive sense as the absence of suffering - is less honourable than death, according to Deleuze.    

In sum: torpedo the ark means cultivate pessimism, curb enthusiasm, affirm misfortune, and seek out that strangely fragile greater health which allows Dasein to face up to its own mortality with angst, but also with courage and with joy.  

4 Mar 2018

He Took It Out: Thoughts on the Case of Louis CK

Elaine's date with Phil Totola takes an unexpected turn

I. He Took It Out 
When asked by a friend to comment on recent cases of sexual misconduct involving male celebrities, including that of the comedian Louis CK who admitted to masturbating (or asking to masturbate) in front of various women on several occasions, I have to admit that my first thought was of a famous scene in an episode of Seinfeld entitled 'The Stand-In' (S5/E16).

In the episode, written by Larry David, Jerry sets Elaine up on a date with one of his friends, Phil Totola, who, at the end of the evening, instead of simply accepting a goodnight kiss, indecently exposes himself. The next day, Elaine - played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus with perfect comic timing and delivery - tells Jerry what happened: "He took it out." 

Jerry is perplexed and somewhat disbelieving: "How can this be?" Kramer, however, after his initial shock reaction, offers a possible explanation (and justification): "Maybe it needed some air." Whilst for George, told by Jerry of the incident later at the coffee shop, it's a moment of revelation: "Wow! I spend so much time trying to get their clothes off, I never thought of taking mine off." 

No one - including Elaine - thinks of the incident as a form of sexual assault or harassment; it's inappropriate and unexpected behaviour, but it's not criminal, or worth getting particularly upset over. She isn't thinking of reporting the incident to the police and she's not going to require counselling. Ms Benes has no idea of herself as being a victim and she's not going to start an internet campaign, because such a thing would have been #inconceivable in 1994, a very different time and a very different world, to the one we live in today ...          

II. The Case of Louis CK

In November 2017, five women told The New York Times that Louis CK was guilty of gross acts of sexual misconduct. In a statement released 24-hours after the story broke, the comedian admitted that the allegations were true and he apologised at length to all parties concerned. 

Despite this public confession and heartfelt expression of regret, a predictable storm of moral outrage and feminist fury followed, seriously damaging his reputation and threatening to permanently derail his career (which was largely built upon his willingness to joke about taboo subjects, including masturbation, for which he clearly has a particular penchant).

Asked to comment on the case of his friend Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld amusingly seemed just as perplexed as when his fictional self heard about Phil Totola: How can this be? For him, such aberrant sexual behaviour doesn't even make sense; he can't understand why a man would want to strip naked and masturbate in front of a woman - even though, within the pornographic imagination, CFNM is a well-established (if somewhat niche) genre. 

Naturally, the media has also called upon various psychologists and therapists to help explain Louis CK's behaviour ...

III. Reflections on Male Sexuality

According to the experts, such behaviour is not simply exhibitionism; masturbating in front of another person without their consent is far more complex than erotic display. Ultimately, they say, it's not even about gaining sexual pleasure so much as it's about exercising power and control and should be seen, therefore, as a form of aggression; specifically, a form of violence against women.

Well, maybe ... but maybe not.

One might alternatively suggest that rather than see this as a sort of high-end form of gunning intended to embarrass, humiliate, or terrify women, maybe we can view it as a joyful and innocent expression of male libido once the latter has been freed from all the usual constraints placed upon it due to the privileged position enjoyed by these very successful and talented men.

Push comes to shove, I tend to agree with the poet and cultural critic Simon Solomon, who calls for a new narrative "if only to break this dangerous and disturbing cycle of women publicly recounting tales of fleeting sexual encounters months - or even years - after the alleged incidents took place, and of men accused of conduct deemed to be improper being obliged to enter therapy where they're taught to feel ashamed of their actions, desires, and fantasies."

The attempt to demonise and pathologise male sexuality is, Solomon continues, "not only detrimental to the psychic health and physical well-being of men, but it has negative consequences also for those women who love them." For as Marcuse points out, the continual repression of man's instinctual life and the frustration of his most active forces - what Nietzsche terms the taming of man - ultimately has the effect of weakening the latter and thus ensuring their becoming-reactive.

As William Blake wrote: He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence ...


Click here to watch a clip from the Seinfeld episode discussed above.

Click here to watch Jerry Seinfeld asked by Dana Weiss for his view of the Louis CK case. 

The lines attributed to Simon Solomon are paraphrased (with the author's permission) from an email sent on 2 March, 2018. 

See: William Blake, 'Proverbs from Hell', The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93). 

For a follow-up post to this one, with further thoughts on male sexual display etc., click here.

2 Mar 2018

Mindfuck: Lawrence, Foucault, and Sapiosexuality

Sex isn't sin, says D. H. Lawrence, not until the conscious mind creeps in and sheer physical intensity is exchanged for pornographic representation. In other words, for Lawrence, the fall of man is always a fall into idealism; an ontological crisis that prevents sex from ebbing and flowing according to its own natural rhythm within the mysterious depths of the body and results in the mental exploitation of Dasein's mortal reserves of being.  

Thus, I'm pretty sure that Lawrence wouldn't be very amused by the idea of sapiosexuality - a term increasingly popular on social networking sites - although it's interesting to recall that in his late work he did call for the full conscious realisation of sex, claiming that this was, today, even more important than fucking itself.

This wasn't, however, a dramatic and surprising U-turn on his part. Rather, it indicates how, in the Chatterley writings, Lawrence came to the conclusion that in order to save sex from the rape of the itching mind we had first to discover the vital truth that there are some things it's best not to know; that too much knowledge can in fact be fatal.     

But, of course, what does any of this matter to anyone who isn't a Lawrentian?

I very much doubt that the writings of a poet and novelist who died 88 years ago today have much hold over the thinking of non-binary millennials, keen to explore and proliferate models of queer sexuality and challenge the dualism inherent in out-dated thinking on the mind/body question, as if these two things were categorically separate and, indeed, forever locked in metaphysical opposition.

I can perfectly understand why some people might find grey matter sexy and be aroused by the intelligence of others. Having said that, I'm extremely wary of nymphobrainiacs who claim to have no concern with looks and puritanically dismiss those who still maintain a fondness for aesthetically pleasing gendered bodies as superficial heterosexist meat lovers.

Why is it that so many people who subscribe to alternative lifestyles and/or neo-sexualities act so smug and morally superior?

So what if some people are attracted to the appearance of intelligence, rather than individuals who genuinely possess high IQs and Ph.Ds? Are those turned on by models or actors posing as geeks in glasses, for example, in someway inferior to those who get excited discussing real books and complex ideas with actual librarians, teachers, or science graduates?  

Ultimately, as a philosopher, I suspect that sapiosexuality is just another form of ascetic idealism and just another ruse that keeps us subject to what Foucault terms the austere monarchy of sex, so that we spend our lives constructing identities and various rights upon a ridiculous (and nostalgic) fiction.

The dispersion of sexualities and implantation of perversions that began in the 19th century, ran throughout the 20th, continues still, today, in the 21st. Soon, sapiosexuals will be as familiar and as acceptable as homosexuals, for example, and sapiosexuality will be conceived not in Lawrentian terms as a form of sinful sex-in-the-head - nor simply as a slightly unusual basis on which to select a partner - but expressive of a singular nature or essential self.

Perhaps one day, as Foucault says, when we live within a different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will wonder at such stupidity and smile at our belief that in this most sacred of all things - sex - lay a truth every bit as precious as those we have already extracted from the material universe and the purest forms of our thought.

We're a long way from Wuthering Heights  - but we still have a long way to go ...


D. H. Lawrence, 'Sex Isn't Sin', The Poems, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

D. H. Lawrence, A Propos of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' and Other Essays, (Penguin Books, 1962).

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. Robert Hurley, (Penguin Books, 1998). 

Thanks to Kiranjit Kaur for inspiring this post.