the m john harrison blog

Month: December, 2010

breaking the soft kettle

“…we contest the supposed end of history – the idea that human progress is now and for ever linked to free markets and corporate interests.”

Michael Chessum, today.


There is nothing like a shop-bought sandwich to celebrate solving a major structural problem. Is it a really rather nice Provencale cheese ? It is not. Is it between two slices of a decent little local artisan sourdough ? It is not. It is crap chicken, ham & mayonnaise on white sliced, and it is packed in one of those complicated triangular boxes which demonstrate just how far our culture has left behind its pathetic late 1940s forbears, who had nothing worth having in their life experience of total disentitlement & the raw misery of not being able to own three cars & a really serious phone. It is, in short, a proper 1980s sandwich. It is a pivotal index of choice in action. It is deep fill. It makes no nutritional sense, it makes no aesthetic sense, it makes no environmental sense, it makes no political sense; but you could eat it all day with a mug of tea. Are you going to follow it with a Sainsbury’s chocolate flavoured caramel slice (another clear measure of how far we’ve come & what we stand to lose should Bevanism chance to re-emerge & force us into a terrifying negative growth Anne Widdicombe dance parody of East Germany in 1947) ?

You are.

Listening to: The Go!Team, Thunder, Lightning, Strike –especially “Get it together” & “Everyone’s a VIP to someone”. Sending: best wishes & support to everyone in the UCL occupation, & indeed all those other undersung occupations everywhere, & especially, very, very good luck tomorrow.

a prayer for the Tolkienisation of Oldham

At last. With The Trip, middle management have a Last of the Summer Wine Land all their own, & a bit more wastefully under-postmodernised scenery gets its chance to do some business. Note the reference–like a prayer, really–to New Zealand, benchmark & wet dream of landscape as product, the industrial light & magic that can turn your local economy around.

an imaginary review (7)

In this novel of alternate history, Thatcherism inadvertently drove the Left into the tertiary education system, where it became a permanent nuisance. In a world separated only by the thickness of a cigarette paper from our own, the ruling Right Wing coalition’s economic measures are aimed at driving it out again, a program which will fail to the precise extent that it succeeds: indeed at the outset of the novel, the Left, disoriented & under pressure, is already regaining its lost enthusiasm for actual Leftism; while the associated mayhem is as good as a brand launch. Even as student action weakens the walls of the ideological kettle from one side (reminding the Left that it can still act despite long term bans on unregistered strikes & street demonstrations), the collapse of the aspirational model for the majority of the population erodes it from the other. The middle aged (portrayed with amusing accuracy as the stodgy default constituency of the UK Right–established yet for psychological reasons still insecure, embittered in a curiously comfortable way by the life-defeats they’re required to call “realism”) begin to lose control of the people who most frighten & enrage them: the young who will replace them & the old who know more than they do. A purge of the universities, one of the central characters remarks at a candle-lit dinner in the brownout, is one of the first & most satisfying revenges the business-culture imagines for itself; but when you succumb to that temptation, you deal yourself a whole new hand of nightmares.

the soft kettle

What we experience when we try to push against things is a flabby absorptivity. Everyone, from the government to business to the media, soft kettles us; we soft kettle ourselves.

Hard kettling is the sadistically ironic punishment of people who felt trapped enough to demonstrate in the first place; it says, “If you complain that you are restrained by our wonderful democracy here, we will only restrain you more & harder. That will teach you.” It makes material the soft boundaries by which the demonstrator has already been traumatised.

Soft kettling is really quite hard to fight. It comes from the left (or what’s left of it) as well as from the right and centre. Writers like Benjamin Barber sold a core message which went, essentially: “Things are fucked but when we say that we must be careful not to offend anybody, or actually catch their attention.” Any pushing anyone does now is always going to be described, by someone in the soft kettle walls, as a “thoughtless”, “juvenile” or “irresponsible” step.

That’s the beauty of the guilt & confusion they make you feel as they encourage you to stand here, day after day, for the rest of your life, ringed by legal, fiscal, moral & media instruments, crushed up against the next person, who’s as desperate for a piss–as desperate for a life–as you.

You have to get out of the soft kettle before you can do anything at all, even speak about this stuff.

Neocons, neoliberals, Reaganites & Thatcherites stole the concept of radicalism and attached it to their own retrospective program. That enabled them to call actual radicalism “backward-looking”. They think they got away with this linguistic theft & accompanying concept-shift, & until now, they did.

One of the strongest parts of the soft kettle wall is the whispering neoliberal voice, “Don’t you know that the world has changed ? Don’t you know that change is always final and after it nothing can change again, so that if you don’t live in the new world you can only revert to the bad old ways ? Do you really want that ? Is that what you really want ? The bad old ways ?”

As if the thirty-year attempt to get revenge on the New Deal & reinstate the labour practices of the 1920s wasn’t in itself a return to some genuinely bad old ways.

By describing any action (except the action of willingly standing in a hard kettle for eight hours then being allowed to go home) as a kind of violence, they swaddle the possibility of change.

But nothing is ever fixed. Care enough, push hard enough, laugh hard enough, get your arse in gear, & you can cause as much further change as you want. Cultural kettling, soft kettling–along with the odd bit of hard kettling when necessary–is designed to make sure you never understand that.

review: Look at the Birdie


& from my review of David Constantine’s The Shieling: “We are all we have. But beware: this understanding, and Constantine’s way with it, can leave some other kinds of contemporary fiction feeling brittle and empty.”

mercedes ladder, le foulon