There have been bits of the Panto talk on here before. The Aki as Suicide Rapper routine was rehearsed here, while Žižek on the buses is glossed here (for the next Stimulus Respond). So its a little cut and paste getting towards a finalized version (not even close to complete – having just found Raymond Williams comments on Pantomime and class in his book on Television). Anyway, after the Aki section…:
I want to suggest that this suicide rapper event is a part of the culture of terror anniversary syndrome – like clockwork it becomes the norm to raise annual threat-awareness through fabricated events. In 2006 Aki Nawaz, in 2007 the Glasgow Car Bomb hero – John Smeaton, airport baggage handler and Glasgow kisser (Telegraph August 1st 2007). In 2008 it has been the trials of the carry on luggage video surveillance bombers, and Britain’s youngest terrorist, 15 year old schoolboy Hammaad Munshi – Guardian September 20th 2008), the Nottingham University case in 2008 – the theatricalization of everyday life, but as slapstick, absurdity, farce. Similarly around 9-11, a series of circumstantially significant alerts, breakthroughs, trials and incidents. I am not suggesting some of these are not ‘real’, but if you think of the case of Samina Malik, the lyrical terrorist’ given a nine month suspended sentence, after 6 months in detention) in 2007 (Guardian June 18 2008) as a more nuanced attention getter compared to the presence of tanks outside Heathrow in 2003 you might want to do more than repeat the scaremongering mantra of ‘suicide bomber, suicide rapper’ in a allegedly critical broadsheet.
In his 2008 book Defense of Lost Causes, Slavoj Zizek (who has never had a thought that was not published, twice) writes:
“happy are we who live under cynical public opinion manipulators, not under the sincere Muslim fundamentalists [who are] ready to fully engage themselves in their projects” (Zizek 2008:160)
To follow the logic of this provocation, those who lament the decline of principles should probably not support cynical politicians but rather should put their faith in the fundamentalists since they really do believe their ideals. I am not so sure this irony is misplaced, but I prefer Les Back’s warning of the ‘damaging sense of emergency and paranoia that seduces the most principled’ and endorse his ‘challenge’ of ‘how to acknowledge these complicities without giving into phobias produced by the so-called war on terror’ (Back 2007:138).
That, I hope makes the abstract make sense.
THEN (a bit more Walter):
On the eve of the second imperialist world war, the one that he did not live through, Walter Benjamin writes ‘The Storyteller’ (October 1936). In this essay, ostensibly devoted to the works of the writer Nikolai Leskov, but also about fairytales, reading, buying books, magic, Macbeth and Marxism, teaching and tall tales, Benjamin first suggests that the idea of a storyteller seems remote to modern sensibility. The reasons for this are many, but one of them is set out starkly in a way that might give us pause in the context of today’s world of terror, fear, hype and spin. With a foreboding of what is to come, Benjamin writes of war stories:
‘Every glance at a newspaper shows that it [storytelling] has reached a new low … our image not only of the external world but also of the moral world has undergone changes overnight, changes which were previously thought impossible. Beginning with the First World War … wasn’t it noticeable that at the end of the war those who returned from the battlefield had grown silent – not richer but poorer in communicable experience’ (Benjamin 1936/2002:144).
I think maybe storytelling is the mediation, the mechanism in theory which processes and gives form to the patina of ideas, the plethora of interpretation that needs to be negotiated in thought. The storyteller asserts and fights for authority, the passive aggressive late night campfire insistence of ‘listen to me, I’ve a story to tell, a web to spin’. Ideologies of war, children’s morality, Scheherazade, The Guardian, and the international seeking-telling of ethnographic effort, all participate in this mediation. Not immediacy, but retelling, repetition, recitation.
But Walter Benjamin does identify Scheherazade as the emblem of epic memory – able to link up stories, to tell one after the next so as to tell a greater history (Benjamin 1936/2002:154). What she remembers is also the message or the meaning – the point of remembering – of her wider program: i.e., that things were not always like this; that they need not remain like this; that adversity may be overcome. Scheherazade. Scheherezade gambles on storytelling to change the world, to fight the oppressor, to liberate herself and others.
Storytelling is not of course analysis, but it provides a framing for bringing the flux of isolated instances, experiences and events together. It may also have a critical intent – Scheherazade’s gamble is hostile to the audience she will persuade, change, and love – rearranging dangerous desires through patient narrative towards justice. The gamble of storytelling, at least for Scheherazade, is hedged by way of repetition, but it is not simply the next next next of iteration that succeeds, rather the timing is crucial. She must start and end at the appointed hour. Tactics.
What I think is terror/terrible is that the Guardian did not hear out the three verses of Cookbook DIY. Our theorists and critics settle for mute, silent, blind singularity of the event that has no message. They forget that pantomime follows the rule of three. One verse was enough for the Guardian to hop on board and confirm the anxious prejudice, ignore the dark public secrets which they dare not name, the unknown unknowns that stare us in the face – the self-parody paranoid (replacing the authoritarian personality – cf Adorno) curtails the very ‘freedoms’ of which ‘our enemies are so jealous’ (Bush). I do not doubt the arbiters of conformity want to erase any difficult material from the record but I do not think this happens intentionally – it is more or less a conspiracy of decorum – ‘nothing should be moist’ as Adorno once quipped. Habits of civil society are invisible until they are jolted into recognition by the incommensurate, and quick smart resumption of polite service transmission is preferred. But such pathologies cannot be allowed to stand. The focus upon the instant, the trinket, the event, the example without recognising the repetition and remembering the ur-story that holds all this together is insufficient. Look not to narrow questions of meaning, but rather aim for questioning, provide context, transnational literacy, verses two and three as well as the complex interstices. Having jettisoned the grand narrative, we are in danger of a journalism without content, and theory without example.