Tuesday, 9 August 2011
Thoughts on the London riots
Sometimes I wonder if I should be on Facebook at all. A few days ago I earned a measure of unpopularity for joking on the death of Amy Winehouse, the poor little lamb who was young, rich, famous and beautiful and decided to kill herself with drugs (and apparently it's not funny that her most famous song is "Rehab"... we all know how that goes). Now, I'm fighting against myself not to put up sardonic responses to all the Facebook updates on London riots (and oh, there's plenty... it seems that all of England has gone on a Facebook marathon since the riots began). Possibly the only thing that really holds me back is the fact that I'm not there in person.
The two most popular types of comments are a.) "The situation is awful! [and/or] These rioters are EVIL!!!", and b.) the understanding, liberal, left-wing position, saying that these people are themselves the victims of society, and that we should consider how our governmental system has excluded the very people who are now threatening the rest of us.
For a change, I can't bring myself to like either position. As for the first, to say that rioters are "evil" simply mirrors the action of the rioters, but from the other side. They 'condemn' the shooting of that kid by burning up cars, as we'd expect from people of their social class, and other strata of society 'condemn' the rioting by writing angry status updates on facebook and moralising on newspapers, also as we'd expect from people of their social class. Each to his appropriate means of expression, each feeling self-righteous from their club. Ho-hum. (Furthermore, there *is* the irony of the situation... "Senseless violence puts me in such a rage!" For serious, every time I see those images on TV I want to go out and break stuff...)
I empathise with the 'understanding' position no more than I do with the first, but for different reasons. I simply don't think that this situation is amenable to political readings. While the Conservative government (and most governments in general) is formed of racist bastards who'd willingly drive their societies into such a crock of shit that it would be worth burning the whole thing down, it's not directly related to these riots.
This is not to say that the riots express no political sentiments, much less that they will have no political repercussions. But the way an event such as these riots occurs is determined by a conflation of variables which find their roots all over the place, not just in society but also in individuals and in the environment. More importantly, the way these variables interact is not something we can interpret, determine or control; it is inherently unpredictable. And for this reason it cannot be linked directly to any governnment or political party, present or past.
I know this view will be unpopular, because it's the kind of thing that politicians can so readily use to cop out. Unfortunately, there's no other view that rationally accounts for these events. If there were, these views would also be able to make reliable predictions; instead, all they can do is backwards-rationalise. And that's useless, because it can be done both ways - it's just as easy to say that this happened because the police were never allowed to use force properly, and that if they could shoot on the protesters it would solve it much more quickly, as it is to say that the rioters are the victims of a sick system.
These concerns are exactly what led me to go back and study some mathematics, with the distant hope of getting a degree in the discipline someday. There is a branch that describes precisely these phenomena, and it is called chaos theory. It's connected to the riots for reasons well beyond the fancy name.
Chaos theory deals with systems where (apparent) disorder reigns (in mathematical terms, it's called nonlinearity). It sketches a few ideas, including the collapse of a linear system into nonlinearity, which is what just happened in London, and something else called "sensitivity to initial conditions." The latter principle perhaps best explains why the events in London cannot be traced purely to a political metanarrative.
If a system possesses sensitivity to initial conditions, then micro-changes in the initial settings will translate into macro-changes later down the line. This means that even a small event has the potential to have enormous effects, changing everything in the way we expected things to go. Since it's obvious that interpersonal relations of all kinds (including society itself) make for a nonlinear system, because otherwise they could be predicted and understood very easily, it means that you can't possibly control the direction of history, even on the short-term. This is simply because there will always be some small event that escapes your control and ends up having gigantic consequences.
The murder of Mark Duggan is just such an example of a micro-event (all due respect to the Duggans) leading unpredictably to macro-consequences. There is no linear connection between the murder and the riots; if you repeated the event in similar conditions, it would never lead to the same consequences, nor would these riots ever repeat themselves in this form for an analogous murder (or for any other reason). It is no exaggeration to say that without Duggan's murder, today we would not be having all this mess and all these status updates. Nor these disputes and vitriol neither. Nor is there any point in blaming anyone - the police, the government, the culture - for the fact that Duggan was shot. It was itself an unpredictable event determined by a combination of variables which could never have been accounted for and will never repeat themselves (that said, the cop still has to be sent to jail).
And so for all of the good reasons there may be for hating the Torys, these riots aren't one. No-one could have controlled this. No-one could have predicted this. No-one could make it happen again. Some events are just beyond our control. Some systems will just unavoidably collapse, and there will be nothing left for us to do except picking up the pieces.
Past all these questions of linearity, there's another reason why I can't take the Facebook updates seriously, and am instead impelled to make cruel jokes about them. You see, the fact is that I don't respect the media by which the news of them are being reported. This is the reason why I allowed myself to joke on Winehouse's death: because it's no-one's death. No-one knew this girl. No-one had ever even seen her. And yet there is a general expectancy that we should express sympathy, even show reverence. Sympathy to what? To a television monitor? (Think Lady Diana, but with a prettier voice). This is what the media do, and it makes me ill. We live in a world where we know more about the lives of rich people living in other countries than we do about our own immediate neighbours. We sometimes fight and compromise real friendships with real people over our opinions on these electronic ghosts or on their films or on their football teams.
The point that I'm not-so-subtly getting at is that the real bad guys in all this thing are not the hoodies, nor the government, nor Cameron, but the media. When I say the media, I'm referring to the entire culture of virtual communications that was born in the mid-Twentieth Century and exploded in the last thirty years. It is for the media that all of this circus is rolling. It is for the media that these people riot, and for whom we update our Facebooks (which is of course a medium). It's not just that they're most directly responsible for creating the culture and conditions in which these riots evolve (however unpredictably), it's more the fact that they *thrive* on them. The media are LOVING these riots. They love wars, terrorist attacks, serial killers, disasters. They even create them, when they can. And all the coverage they're giving to these riots now are having no effect other than to multiply them exponentially. How do you think they spread to Birmingham and Liverpool and Leeds?
Without the media's (slanted) coverage of Duggan's murder, how would it all have kicked off in the first place? Without the coverage, how could the rioters have felt backed by a political (or anti-political) agenda? Where are they looking for recognition if not in the media, since politics is currently no more than diplomacy with the media? Another Fb status contemned two girls who bragged about "showing the police" that they could "do what they want[ed]". But what and who are they putting up the show for, if not for the media?
But what the media have to do with the riots isn't really the important bit (though seeing the glee of the reporters as they 'condemn' these actions is enough to nauseate anyone). After all, there would be riots even without them, and it's not like they can be predicted anyway. What's worrying is what the media do with us. The way they lead us to interact with things which don't exist and build our relationships with/through virtual avatars instead of real people. Jean Baudrillard, a thinker who was very influential to me and one of the greatest critics of the media-world, once wrote a book entitled The Gulf War did not happen. Of course it enraged everyone, and he responded "Yes - but how many of the people criticising me have had an experience of the Gulf War any different from mine, that is to say, just an experience of media?" I'm not going to go so far as to write that the London riots did not happen, because there's going to be the odd contact on facebook who had a man shouting at him/her from a bike while walking through the park, or someone who heard a siren going through the road or saw a few broken glasses. And as I said at the outset, that's my problem with writing about something when I haven't been there in person. But most of the people who will read this text, including those in London, will have seen zero or almost zero of the riots. Their experience will be of the media - they will have seen the riots on TV, they will have spent hours discussing them on mobile phones, they will have written about it on facebook, they will have followed the news, and now you're reading of them on this blog (heh). These riots are happening on the media - and therefore they're not riots at all. They may take some resources, but they don't damage the system that truly generates and supports them, and that is now gluttonously absorbing their narrative (Live coverage too, baby!).
Above it all, I don't want my opinion and view of these riots to be shaped by the media. I don't want them to present me what they have on offer ('condemnation,' 'compassion,' 'full force of the law') and then make my choice, as though reason were a digital menu to be leafed through with your remote. I know it doesn't take the media's susurration to condemn vandalism, but think of it - without the media to show you the images, what would you condemn at all? Without Facebook, what expression would your indignation find outside of real confrontation with real people?
I realise this view is not a very attractive one, because it leads to some pretty sad conclusions. One of these, in my case, has been an almost total disenchantment with the political and communication system. I don't read newspapers or follow the news anymore, I never watch TV except for the odd football match, and I don't even feel particularly impelled to vote. This isn't just due to the fact that I can't find a political party that actually represents me (you know... one that believes sincerity is an important value?), not in England nor anywhere else, and especially not in the fen that goes by the name of Italian politics. It's an actual disgust with the institution itself. And yes, I agree that we have a moral obligation to be involved in politics - but that is exactly the point. That's what they have taken away from us. There is no involvement or engagement with politics anymore; there's only engagement with the media. To say that 'we follow politics' only describes your way of interacting with the chosen combination of media. Even when you vote, what are you voting for if not a group of specialised actors performing together for the media? There's only an economy of signs left, truths and words prostituted to the service of indifferent stage-lights that chew people up with their dreams and feelings, and then refuse even to spit them out. Thank you, but I'd sooner take exile.