Another thing I enjoy from time to time is to pretend that I’m being interviewed about stuff I (transiently) have a bee in my bonnet about—perhaps for a terribly prestigious cultural magazine with a minuscule circulation.
This type of elaborate fantasy performance seems to set itself in motion all on its own whenever I’m putting on make-up, or sitting in the bathroom, or waiting for the kettle to boil, and it typically hovers between the comic burlesque and the earnest (if at times erratic) intellectual exercise.
For some reason (but mostly because it’s so much fun!), I tend to end up sounding like a boozy, verbose, la-di-da caricature of Diana Rigg:
Wait, I can never find the ashtray… Would you, darling? Ta. This couch is utterly unforgiving once you’ve flopped down in it. So what was I saying? Oh right: yes—no gothic flourish helpfully entreating the beholder to “trust no one”; no “live, love, laugh” in varicolored Edwardian script; no “Om” sign on my ankle, no heart on the inside of my wrist, no pleasant lumbar curlicue in the Irish geometric style to capture the jaded male gaze and guide it the way to the orbicular solace of my bum… Not even the lone Chinese character on the nape of my neck to definitively qualify my mood (“happy!”). I fear commitment, I suppose. But, before we go on, I think I need a refill… Ahhhh.
[…] I mean: the whole business just seems so gratuitous and casually drastic. I don’t intend to criticize, you know, whatever this or that indigenous group does in the context of its coming of age rituals, or what you like. But I disapprove of this rather puzzling contemporary—er—ecumenical expansion of what used to be, in the developed world, you know, a marginal and—ha!—socially disqualifying practice, for the most part. You know: sailors and jailbirds, gang members, and so on. That sort of thing.
I feel it must be some kind of symptom.
That such an extravagant and, and, and… morbid fashion could have been so broadly embraced must mean something. Ça c’est sûr!
Yes, but what?
Most tattoos I’ve seen, considered purely as graphic art, are—well, simply terrible. I mean clumsy, vulgar, banal, garish, kitsch, dreary, obscene, inferior, and… arbitrary—just so arbitrary.
I get that this may, at times, be the whole point. You know, darling: aggressive ugliness as an esthetic statement. Like punk fashion, like “underground” comics, like Brutalist architecture, like a dentist’s waiting room, and so on and so forth. But I can’t imagine that this is the reason most people get “inked up.”
The original punk posture had to do with “no future,” of course—and maybe, in a world like ours, which seems to be going down the bog… Pardon! I meant: which seems to be heading in such a parlous and uncertain direction. People are bound to become more impulsive. They don’t think beyond the moment. And not in a good way. I mean, not like in Buddhist meditation, say: “be here now” and all that. On the contrary, they keep desperately trying to distract themselves, to run away. The future, our future seems so nebulous, so scarcely conceivable. They get drunk on a whirl of diversion and consumption and denial, just so they don’t have to think about it.
And that’s how they get stuck with this god-awful pop-cultural jetsam on their hide.
Or maybe it’s masochism? I don’t know: the pain is coming anyway, but it’s not so bad if you mete it out yourself? Because then at least you’re in control, or anyway you can fool yourself into thinking that you are?
Oh I’m sorry about the phone! I thought I’d taken it off the hook… It will stop: I can’t imagine anybody calling here could be that motivated. There. Schluss. But now, of course, I’ve lost my train of thought.
But so… Do you know about Adam Curtis? He’s my hero. He makes those terribly clever and cheeky documentary collage things about how the world actually works today, and how it got to be this way. I listened to one the other day while I was doing my yoga. Just brilliant! It was about—well everything really. But there’s this part where he talks about self-expression, and what a dead-end it’s become. I mean, from a political standpoint. Because today we’re all so stuck in this, this, this… hyper individualistic culture that we don’t, most of us, believe in doing anything collectively anymore. We don’t want to give ourselves up for a common cause—you know, like civil rights campaigners used to do, or, whatever, Marxists. We’re only looking out for number one. We’re only concerned with being able to express our own little freewheeling self separately from everyone else.
But on our own, atomized, if you like, we can’t get very much done at all. So everybody ends up feeling completely powerless to change the world, or at least not for the better… So instead, people settle for changing themselves. Anyway, they try, on the surface: ergo tattoos everywhere. They—we—become very focused on “making a statement” on a personal level, as individuals. We get mired in that, because we’re so desperate to take refuge from the strife—the irreducible conflictuality of the social world. You see, we’re all pretending, to disastrous effect, that we can just ignore politics as irrelevant. And we retreat into esthetic posturing. As if we could all be Baudelaire or Oscar Wilde or somebody. I think that’s right on the money.
So now, all that’s left for you to do is to listen to repetitive and simple-minded love songs; or furiously endeavor to get super fit at the gym; or send strangers pictures of your penis (or your tits); or “curate” a whole new, a whole better you on Instagram; or work yourself up to a tantrum about the latest gratifyingly apocalyptic conspiracy theory; or “share” your dispiriting homemade porno masterpieces; or indulge your penchant for hectic bloody mayhem in a video game; or go on yet another bizarre diet to curtail your creeping obesity; or seriously consider the pros and cons of settling on Mars, to escape the final ecological cataclysm here on Earth; or,—and why not?—, have unlovely pictures that cry out “I AM ME” indelibly etched onto your anatomy. Like wanking, these are all things you can do privately, more or less, on your own: the rest of society, at most, need only play the role of the audience and the enabler—a sort of passive, willing receptacle for your oozing expressive discharge. Literally worlds away from creating a union, or forming a political party, or setting up a cooperative, or what have you—agreed?
[…] There was this American sociologist who wrote a great book I have somewhere—what was his name again? It wasn’t Humpty-Dumpty… Although I do think he was bald. It was, it was… Let me see if I can find it. (I remember the cover.) Wait, I’ll show you… No, I must have lent it to someone. I can never find anything in this mess. Oh, Sennett! His name was Richard Sennett! (Good girl! I definitely deserve another refill.)
In any case, he wrote this book—well, not about tattoos exactly, but about what was undermining our sense of being able to do things together. You know, big things. It seems we’re all hopelessly stuck somehow as far as that goes. So to compensate, we’ve become really fixated on piddling things linked with consumption and self-expression.
He talked about how nowadays (well, he meant in the 1970’s, but whatever, it still holds…) people seem to wall themselves up in this kind of insulating narcissism. About how they become disinterested with the outside world because it’s not reflecting their own image to them, except to try to sell them things… So a lot of them turn away. They become very self-absorbed. They grow prodigiously concerned with “exploring who they are.” And they get bogged down in mindless, escapist consumerism. All this at the expense of actually getting anything, anything… worthwhile done—especially anything that might require impersonal collective action. Sennett, he was talking about hippies of course. You know: long hair, bell-bottoms, patchouli… But I feel it applies to their descendants—our little contemporary hipster tribes.
He feared that in these conditions, more and more people would end up living in what he called “destructive communities.” He meant environments where people who think alike or share values—people who have particular affinities—set up exclusive communities just for themselves, and systematically reject everybody else. And that was before everybody lived online! Today just look at those Facebook bubble things. You know, the algorithms that make sure you only see “content” meant for your specific marketing or political demographic niche—so you don’t have to interact with or even know about people not of your own kind.
And I forget what he called it precisely, but also he went on about something else that was related. It was something like “the tyranny of intimacy” maybe. About how close, cozy personal relations are considered the only “true” or authentic relations anymore, so that now people value intimacy over all other forms of social contact. And that’s another reason why we’re isolated: we’ve hidden ourselves away in these small socially corrosive pockets of restricted familiarity. Because the, you know… The wider social world, the political world: we’ve lost sight of it. We’ve been reduced to understanding it exclusively—or rather misunderstanding it—in terms of categories that are merely psychological, appropriate to describe individuals perhaps, but not the broader social realities.
So: loneliness, exclusion, alienation… stupid tattoos.
We’re all grasping at straws, you know. We’re about to go under.
Ramble, ramble—eh? What a windbag!
I’m a bit sloshed actually; I think you’d better leave. But I was about to say… Something… super profound. It’s on the tip of my tongue—but I need to lie down. It’s gone now. It’s gone.