Last night, I dreamt
of a tuna sandwich.
It looked good at first, but,
when I held it up to my mouth, I saw
the bread was run through with mould,
so I stripped it off
but found more beneath,
so I kept peeling away the layers,
revealing each one just as destroyed,
just as ruined,
until nothing remained
but the tuna.
The spoiled and useless
It never had a damned chance.
No matter how good
it really was,
it would always end up in that
Last night, I dreamt
God knows the world spends too much time thinking about Batman, but I need to write about what I consider one of the most compelling love stories in the history of fiction. Not a romance, but definitely a love story.
The Joker is an argument about the nature of the world. He is a product of the rational horror of life, and he inflicts that horror on society as a response. Now, I’m not necessarily claiming that’s his intention. First of all, because speaking of intentions in relation to a mind like The Joker is a pretty moot point. Second of all, because it doesn’t matter if that’s his intention, it’s still the effect of his actions regardless. That said, he generally seems aware of what his crimes signify, and it is his intention in some portrayals, such as The Dark Knight.
You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”.
You see, The Joker doesn’t think the world is broken. In fact, he knows the world isn’t broken, because the world is rigged to work a certain way. If the system is a machine, it is fit to purpose. The problem isn’t that the machine grinds up those caught in its wake, the problem is that the machine is accepted as normal. If we all worked together to turn off the machine, the slaughter would end, but then where do we get our soylent green?
The Joker shows us that the system is both rational and horrifying. He disrupts the status quo with spectacular acts of terror and death, then asks why we react with disgust to his crimes, but not the crimes of the system. Why do we quietly accept the violent maintenance of an economic underclass? Why are we fine with stealing wealth from those who are weaker by force?
Why don’t we panic? Because it’s all part of the plan.
Batman is the counterargument. Yes, he works outside the system, but he works outside the system to uphold the system. Further, while he is a product of the system, he also profits from the system. The Joker asks why we’re okay with exploiting farmers in the Third World and calls us to destroy the capitalist classes. Batman asks why we can’t just buy more Fairtrade.
Joker says the system needs to die, a radical politic. Batman says the system needs to improve, a progressive politic.
Behold, the axis of Joker’s love for Batman.
This love is not romantic or sexual or even platonic. I don’t know if there’s a name for the kind of love that Joker feels towards Batman, but the love exists nonetheless. Joker exists only as an argument, but argument cannot exist without counterargument (though arguably, Batman is the argument, since he represents the status quo, and Joker is the counterargument, since he represents an alternative, but that’s splitting hairs somewhat).
Let’s call it a dialectic love. Joker knows that Batman just needs a sufficiently persuasive explanation of how fucked up the world is to realise that Joker was right all along.
All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. […] My point is, I went crazy. When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it! Why can’t you? I mean, you’re not unintelligent! You must see the reality of the situation. […] Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… it’s all a monstrous, demented gag! So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?
So Joker keeps committing horrifying crimes to bring the gravity of the world’s darkness to Batman’s attention. But this creates a problem for Joker, because he ceases to exist if he wins the argument. Batman gives Joker reason to live, but only because he represents everything the Joker exists to oppose. Joker reached a point of absolute despair at the cruel absurdity of the world, and kept on living purely to explain his revelation to the world. Batman stops him winning that argument.
So on the one hand, he hates Batman because of what he represents.
On the other, he loves Batman, because he lives for Batman.
But this creates a whole other problem, because his love of Batman gives him another reason to not want to win the argument. How could he hurt someone who gives his life meaning? Yet, at the same time, the meaning of his life is to hurt this person. Joker exists because Batman exists, and Joker loves him for that, but he exists only to destroy Batman, even though his existence is contingent on Batman’s, and destroying Batman requires destroying the only person he loves.
Ultimately, Joker just wants to not be alone in a world with the facade stripped back. But to do so, he’d have to bring Batman into his world. How can he do that to someone he loves? Especially since he’d cease to exist. How can he bring his one true love down to his level, then abandon him?
Well, because that would win the argument. No wonder Joker and Batman are caught in an endless loop – Joker doesn’t want to win. But he won’t lose either, because Batman refuses to kill him, just as he refuses to kill the system. Joker hates Batman for representing the argument for the system, but he hates himself for representing its rational horror in flesh. The only end to the argument that doesn’t see Joker win sees Batman win by conceding the argument and killing to destroy a machine of endless slaughter, the progressive become the radical. The only way for Batman to win is for Joker to win.
But Batman won’t do that. And Joker loves him for it.
My fingers stroke the rough, tattooed
flesh of the word, a lung that breathes,
child of a mind without a mind;
this is a work of mad science.
Guided by the streetlamp’s glow,
I sit in my bedroom’s box window,
clutching a whole universe in my childish hand.
I know not of the poison that seeps
inside me as I let this creature
feed; a fair exchange, for I
will know of strange and distant worlds
that few have seen and fewer have trodden,
and I will find the secrets there
of the world-builders, of those who dare
to make their own gods and be them too.
Things have changed now, changed utterly.
I have opened this paper box too far.
This is a work of mad science.
The state is a giant sharpie that delineates what is and isn’t legitimate violence, what is and isn’t good or real or acceptable. No wonder the pen is mightier than the sword when the pen signs off on its wielding.
The world, we say, is built for humans. But when the world is actually built for a specific group of humans, for wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, western white men, then what of the rest of us? If I told you that the further we journeyed from this “ideal” or “default”, the less human society considered us to be, that would seem pretentious academic nonsense, were Muslims not faced with genocide in Palestine and Myanmar, were 40% of homeless youth not queer/trans youth, were black people not still suffering the effects of wealth and dignity stolen from them consistently for the hundreds of years, were people with disabilities not routinely victimised by police, were wealth inequality not reaching nauseating new levels, were autistic people not endlessly pathologised and designated abhuman, were women not considered purely receptacles of male desire, were people with mental illnesses not stigmatised and feared and ignored.
Any good system is designed to self-obsolete. There is a problem, it fixes the problem, then it ceases to exist. When affirmative action policies become unnecessary, they will simply stop. When gender quotas become unnecessary, they will be no more. When wealth redistribution programs finish paving over the cracks in our moral reality, they will die a happy death.
If I am an anarchist, it is because I believe the state can be that kind of institution.
Not like prisons. Prisons can never obsolete themselves because their very design creates more of the problem they seek to solve. Mariame Kaba at Prison Culture posits mass incarceration is actually the reformed version of the supposedly unreformable institution of slavery, and I buy it, because as her own work proves time and time again, the prison-industrial complex maintains a permanent underclass that capitalism needs to survive. Prison abolition can never come from the work of prisons, because capitalism creates the conditions that make prison seem necessary, and capitalism is itself maintained by the prison system.
By contrast, we can imagine a state that doesn’t presuppose its own existence and works towards its own destruction. The legitimate use of violence is the protection of weak from strong. While obviously the state consistently fails at this goal, due to its control by the strong, what’s important is we can imagine a state of the dispossessed and disprivileged. In fact, we’re working towards that goal every single day, and if it seems like we’re not getting anywhere, it’s only because the most radical goals are forced onto the longest timelines by empires that tremble at the roots of their own demise. They lie and say these goals are unachievable and unrealistic, but only their resistance lengthens the process. More than that, their resistance only lengthens the process, it cannot and will not prevent our success.
If I am an anarchist, it’s because I am optimistic about what humans can do. I believe we can learn to recenter our politic on blackness and indigeneity, transwomanhood and queerness, poverty and the south. I believe we can topple the pillars of white supremacy, I believe we can make states that are democratic for all, and not just for some, I believe we can bring an end to allism, I believe we can achieve excellence.
I don’t believe in a human nature holding us back, because the darkness of “human nature” is the product of living in a culture that socialises incentives for greed and power since literally the moment that the first human experienced what we would now call self-awareness, rational thought and the ability to critique and question and I believe we can reject that indoctrination. I don’t believe the lines we draw between people are insurmountable, because even though the aggregates of every line of is and isn’t means we live in a world where people are deemed inhuman, savage and unreal for not conforming to an ideal of the perfect white man, I believe we can erase those lines, not by ignoring them but by moving the centre of our world to the weakest instead of the strongest.
I don’t believe in god, but I believe in love.
If I am an anarchist, and I am, I am not an anarchist right now. The state has the capacity to be either the greatest justice or injustice to human life, depending on whether it works toward its own infinity or its own annihilation. I am an anarchist for a future of justice and peace. And the sooner we listen to those who know the sting of oppression best, the sooner we can let them set their own timeline for utopia, instead of forcing them onto ours. Maybe we won’t get there in our lifetimes, but for our children, and our children’s children, and their children’s children, we need to start working now. Abdicating that responsibility because we’ll never see its benefits is the purest selfishness, and I denounce it.
I believe in the possibility of perfection. And even if I’m wrong, we can’t stop striving towards it. People are dying, and living in fear and pain, and they’ve lived that way for too long. Whatever we can do to limit the extension of that violence into the future, we absolutely must.
He only drinks for bottles and cans
to store the scattered
pieces of his insides. He only weeps
for a drop of fresh saltwater
to keep them whole & hard. He only cuts
for a little blood
to feed them young again. He only rages
for a few minutes
til he finds them smashed
& the pieces stuck to the carpet.
And he only drinks…
for Anthony Stallard
Some of us’d rather take the long way
round the curve of the universe
than stand in its aftermath, its cracks
and shrapnel, and even those
who grasp at it are stringed to a cross
up above, but this man, he
clutched at spheres no mortal known,
and took all of the power,
but none of the consequences,
and hid behind a grave, waving his hands
and saying wooooooooooooo.
Once, I lit a book on fire.
The book was a copy of Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites. I’d bought it earlier that day at a book sale, mistaking it for Wyrd Sisters by the same author. When I discovered my error, my first reaction was annoyance, as I already had a copy. Then, I thought, “oh well, I can just give it to someone else”. And then, I had another thought.
I could burn it.
Understand, I find the idea of burning books repulsive. I shouldn’t need to tell you that a book is more than just paper and ink, but the exact scale of just what a book stands isn’t apparent many people. It is an entire universe, it is an emotional experience, it is an intellectual statement, it is friends and family and enemies, it is moral truth, it is escape, it is freedom. It is another existence unto itself. So, when I decided to burn this book, I wasn’t motivated by an actual desire to burn it. I did it because I wanted to learn. I wanted to know what it felt like, not for the sake of it, but because I wanted to try and understand those who burn books. I wanted to go through that process of book-burning, and feel what it is to be a book-burner, because only then could I fathom the depth of feeling that motivates those who burn books. I couldn’t understand their passion, I thought, until I knew how far that passion could go.
Burning a book is hard. It is, in the first place, pretty much impossible to convince oneself to do it, if one cares anything for books. And then, once convinced, it’s actually just really difficult to light a book on fire if you don’t have an accelerant. I committed my sin on the patio of my back garden. I nicked my mother’s lighter and locked the gate to keep the dog out. My fingers trembled as I tried to ignite the cover. I failed so many times, I started wondering if there wasn’t some divine intervention afoot. At last, I managed to light it, but it petered out after a few seconds, barely singed.
Changing tack, I opened it up and put a clutch of pages from the middle to flames. This time, success: terrible, terrible success. As it took hold, the fire crinkled the paper and sucked it into its dark epicentre, such that, at first, it assumed the shape of a terrible flower, its faceted petals twisting in upon themselves, and then, gradually, became a monstrous range of black obsidian mountains. Each mountain range collapsed and came away from the book, with lighter flakes catching the rising pillar of hot air and escaping as ashen moths on the breeze, while the larger chunks fell to the side and slouched like dead anemones. Yet, even as the fire metamorphosed the next ream of pages, those desultory fragments were still alight and smouldering. Soon, they were robbed of even their blackness, blasted into a grey so lifeless, it was a great mercy when the whole lot was vanquished by the wind.
I would lie if I said there was no beauty in it, but it was the beauty of a blighted wasteland or a flooded cityscape. Neither the destruction itself, nor the debris, was beautiful. Yet, the scale of it, the completeness of it, was breathtaking, and I’ll admit to a certain smug post-modern satisfaction with the undoing of the works of man. But the burning of the book did something at once obvious and peculiar. As the book burned, it became easier to burn. Not just in the physical sense, or in the sense that it became less and less worth saving, but because it became less and less a book and more and more ashes. The book as a physical object is tied up in the cultural and conceptual idea of the book, and when the object of the book, the fact of the book, is destroyed, the idea of the book dies with it. Everything that made me not want to burn the book burned with the book. The fire started as something utterly nauseating, but ended with me as a neutral observer, hardly moved by what remained. Just as ink and paper underwent apotheosis to become the book, the divinity of the book broke down in the flames, until all was nothing.
I don’t exaggerate when I say I took months to come to terms with what I’d done. Even now, my stomach quivers at the thought of those charcoal fronds falling apart like a post-apocalyptic ruin. Looking back, I still struggle to convince myself it was worth it. Apart from anything else, my premises were flawed, since I assumed anyone burning a book would feel the same reverence for the book that I do. But I could barely bring myself to burn a single book, even with such a strict and specific rationalisation. How then could anyone who accepts, let alone advocates or enjoys, the burning of books feel true love for the book? I committed this sin to learn and to empathise, but standing in the shoes of a book-burner just showed me how little such people really care for books. If they knew the book as bibliophiles do, it would hurt them more to burn a book than it would to plunge their arms into a bonfire.
And that, more than anything, is why those who don’t love books can never be the arbiters of the fate of books. They will always be wrong, because they can’t see the book in its entirety, as something that makes the human mind bulge at the sides when we try to conceive of its multiplicity of facets and layers. They will always be wrong, because they don’t see a book, they just see a tool. Books to them are a weapon, an instrument of forcing and foisting, an ethical violence. They want books to dictate their way of life to others, whereas books are, and should be, an arena where individuals can find their own moral truths. Ultimately, the reason book-burners are terrified of books is because they know their ideologies will die if they’re not imposed, and books provide a powerful counterbalance to the machinery of indoctrination. They are a playground for the mind, and how do children learn and discover if not through play?
Let’s not undersell the importance of books. They’re more than just escape, or an aesthetic adventure. If we allow books to be burned, either literally or figuratively, we might as well burn everything else. Books represent an indispensable moral freedom, and we can’t just keep an eye out for bonfires anymore. They’re far too fucking clever for that. What we need to fear are people who burn books before they’re born, who make sure books are never written. The more career-minded writer often bemoans the oversaturation of the writing market, because it has such low barriers to entry. Bullshit. There are low barriers to the act of writing sure, compared to say, music or sculpture. But the barriers to that writing being read and read widely are very real, and very high for the most disprivileged people, who are exactly the people whose voices we need to hear most if we’re to recenter the social conversation and grasp most convincingly at the hot heart of moral truth.
Society is a poem. But when only a handful of people are permitted to write the collective destiny of everyone, it’s a really shitty poem. Especially since the most privileged among us have only the least important and insightful things to say. What we really need to do is shut up and listen. But we can’t do that if we don’t let those who know what’s up speak in the first place. Extinguish the wall of fire and let them write.