Psycho-geographies of violence

0747590338Will Self‘s series of columns for the Independent on ‘psycho-geography’ attracted considerable attention (they were published between 2003 and 2007 and then collected in the book shown on the left).  In its original form, of course, psychogeography can be traced back to the Lettrist International and the Situationists, and David Pinder‘s Visions of the city: utopianism, power and politics remains one of the most eye-opening introductions to these and similar experiments.

But in today’s Guardian Self turns to a far from utopian prospect to consider what in less avant-garde and more demotic terms would probably also count as a ‘psycho-geography’ of sorts:  ‘We are passive consumers of the pornography of violence‘.

He begins with a devastating imaginative reconstruction of one of the executions carried out by IS/IS/IL: seen not from the point of view of the video-viewing (or not-viewing) public, or even the executioner, but the victim.  He’s aware of the objections:

Surely, at the end of a year in which the public arena has been fully booked for grand guignol, the last thing anyone needs is such an intrusive – and arguably insensitive – speculation? May we not take this opportunity, on the verge of a new year, to sit back, relax, and turn away from the theatre of horrors – not, of course, because we don’t care about all this suffering, all this hideously violent discorporation, but because at least we know this much about ourselves: we may not be the most ethically motivated, caring, community-minded people around; however, we aren’t like them – we aren’t like those men in Raqqa who beat and burn and stone and rape and enslave and shoot and chop and cut: we aren’t evil. And surely, in the opinionated maelstrom we can all at least agree with David Cameron and Barack Obama on this: to cut off someone’s head is an act of such maleficence that it necessarily, in and of itself, renders those who do it evil; if by evil is understood a will-to-absolute-negation, a nihilism that metastasises through the failing body politic, leaving in its necrotic wake only dead-eyed zombies incapable of any authentic feeling.

And yet I wonder: what I wrote above was an active attempt on my part to sympathise with Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, Alan Henning, Steven Sotloff, James Foley and David Haines in the last moments of their lives. It was painful to write because I needed to try and put myself in their heads – possibly it was uncomfortable to read for the same reason; yet reading it was also an activity, requiring the translation of marks on page or screen into ideas, images and sensations. Some attempts to understand these perverse and evil actions are similarly engaged, but for the most part our response to the hostage crisis that unfolded over 2014 was necessarily passive. Passive in part because our government wishes to retain its monopoly both on what it sees as the legitimate exercise of violence, and on the prerogative of mercy as well: there will be no ransoms paid for British hostages, while the knife wielded by the man who has been called Jihadi John will be parried – or so they assure us – by targeted air strikes against Islamic State forces, while our “commitment to the region” is re-emphasised in other ways.

So, our passivity – the passivity of civilians who depend on a professional army to assert our moral will, and the passivity in my case – and quite possibly yours – of citizens who have long since recoiled from the spectacle of this interminable conflict worthy of Orwell’s 1984: the so-called “war on terror”.

There’s more – much more – that takes in themes that will be familiar to many readers but here given new urgency by the torsions of Self’s imagination and the sharpness his prose.  It’s an extraordinary ride, and it grips intellectually, politically and ethically.  One of Self’s central arguments is that even as we are reduced to the status of ‘passive consumers’ of this execrable violence (one that is, as he shows, far from absent from our own history) we are – those of us that live in the United States, Canada, the UK, France and elsewhere – also profoundly implicated not only in what is being staged by IS but also in the administration of military violence by the states that make up the latest ‘coalition’.

‘… we are all kneeling in the desert, staring at the serrations on that knife; the very personal and intimate nature of these murderous beheadings calls to our attention – try as we might to repress it – the cold impersonality of the murders committed in our name; for, just as in recent decades the west found it profitable to outsource manufacturing production to low-wage economies, so our own moral accounting has in the short term benefited from a form of outsourcing: western governments no longer find it expedient to perpetrate violence closer to home (it makes for bad PR and restive electorates); yet in a globalised world the exercise of “legitimate” violence is the one monopoly they continue to operate. Perhaps one way of looking at the Middle East is that it’s one of the most productive “bloodshops” we have, a reliable supplier of conflicts that give the west a showroom within which to demonstrate its overwhelming firepower.’

As I say, there’s much, much more, and Self’s reflections on the braiding threads between imagery, passivity , disembodiment and military and paramilitary violence make this the one essay I’d urge everyone to read and reflect on this week, even this month.  And probably all next year.