Among the Axolotls

Glen Newey

The philosophers ‘will need to use a lot of drugs’, Plato says in the Republic, talking of the guardians’ need to con the banausics into thinking that their destiny is to keep their betters pondering. It’s one of my favourite Plato lines – ‘No pun intended, man!’ as Russell Brand might say. The other night, I speed-read – or, if you like, e-read, crack-read, acid-read – Brand’s shlockbuster Revolution, and had the strange feeling of having read it faster than I had.

Pink axolotls floated before my eyes as the small hours sprawled into a timeless never-never land. Love and green-lite revolution is nigh, in a perpetual present of the hard-to-amuse. Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, Brand’s on the pavement – or kerb-hugging, at least, in his chauffeured Merc – thinking about the government. Queries come a-nagging like querulous pixies through the caliginous haze. Brand: neo-Rawlsian shaman-sage or childish knob-jockey? Who’s asking? Who’s asking who’s asking? Where’s my next shot of soma?

Like axolotls, whose neotony he shares, Brand’s development is not so much arrested as truncheoned, banged up and sent down with a bogus confession. It looks like he’s in for a life stretch. He’s self-aware enough to realise some people think he’s a pillock, but he can disown the criticism because for him crass narcissism is just another skin to be donned and sloughed as whim dictates. Brand strains manfully to show that he knows a platypus from a wombat and, more generally, digs what’s what in grown-up land. There’s the so-called ‘economy’ (mere coincidence that that’s got ‘con’ in the middle? Brand thinks not). And capitalism, the environment, God and stuff is serious shit.

Happily, Revolution comes ballasted by such intellectual bricks as ‘cherry-lipped clever clogs’ flâneur-philosophe Alain de Botton, and ‘tireless, brilliant’ Johann Hari, who quit the Independent three years ago for plagiarising other hacks and pseudonymously bollocking his critics on their Wikipedia pages, and now produces Brand’s YouTube show The Trews. Revolution’s flapdoodle shmoozes on about ‘a fairer, sexier society that’s fun and inclusive’. That sounds nice, though Brand loses his sense of fun when he’s accused of hypocrisy, which he sources to ‘a bunch of cunts’ – but then he is talking about journalists.

Some bits of Revolution vie to outdo one of those online New Age bullshit generators. Brand reports that careful observation has shown that it’s ‘the divine realm of quantum interconnection to be manifest on this material plane’. I’m not saying it isn’t profound. But stuff like this is boringer than watching Jeremy Clarkson cream phallogocentrically over the valvetrain on the new 7.8 litre Lotus Terpsichore Vroomvroom Corniche. Even the axolotls are betraying a certain ennui. But why settle for this vanilla, Sunday-league boredom? Why not go the whole bristle-backed, basted-in-its-juices, coma-friendly hog? Say, something supercharged with boringness like Rawls, or sufficientarianism, the theory that inequality doesn’t matter much as long as everyone gets enough? Russell can’t be doing with that, man. That’s fucking graphs and shit. It’s all as boring as Belgium.

Never mind reading Revolution. Imagine what it must have been like to write it. Actually, to paraphrase (I guess I should say ‘channel’) Truman Capote on Kerouac, Revolution isn’t written, or even typed: it’s mainlined via id-dictation software directly from Russell’s limbic system to a grateful cybersphere, mediated only by the publisher’s paywall.

In Word and Object, Quine imagined a tribe, the Arunta, visited by anthropologists from civilisation, which for these purposes we can take as Cambridge, Massachusetts. The pith-helmets furrow their brows when the natives murmur ‘Gavagai’ as a rabbit scuttles by. What do the Arunta mean? As Quine argues, it can mean just about anything, from ‘Lo, a rabbit’ to ‘There is rabbiting going on’ or ‘I can’t read Revolution because my Kindle’s on the blink.’ Reading Brand, one comes to sympathise with the white man’s burden. ‘Gavagai,’ he seems to say. There’s certainly rabbiting going on, but to what purpose?

There’s the negation of the negativity that is the modern world. It’s the system that’s to blame. ‘We all know the system isn't working. Our governments are corrupt and the opposing parties pointlessly similar. Our culture is filled with vacuity and pap, and we are told there's nothing we can do – “it's just the way things are”,’ gushes Revolution’s shmblurb. Its publisher, Century, is owned by Random House, a division of Random House Penguin, itself a pouch of the German behemoth Bertelsmann, which in 2012 turned over $16 billion. No matter. A graduate cum laude of the high-testosterone capitalist soft-play area of modern celebrity, Brand, gazing through the smoked-glass limo windows, has come to see the vanity of earthly glory. Beyond the pink axolotls, all is blood and ash.

Apart from more fun and fewer journos, what is Brand after? Lurve and feng shui, for starters. As the book’s jacket artfully discloses, ‘revolution’ has got ‘love’ spelt backwards in it. Coincidence? One can only answer: ‘Gavagai.’ OK, warm feelings and ergonomic furniture, granted – what else does the swami of Grays want? To boss it like a boss, but with a more democratic kind of a vibe. Think a Kropotkinesque Nigel Farage in a kaftan. Brand is well known for telling people to vote with their arses. He says that the Suffragettes would now be ‘urging people to riot’ rather than vote. So did Emily Davison waste her time, indeed her life, pointlessly seeing to it that you don’t need a scrotum to vote? That depends whether you're in Chapter 7, where Brand implies that votes for women are 'irrelevant', or Chapter 31, where he comes out in support of representative democracy. Still, there are more than two hundred pages in between, and after doing just a few short lines (yup! The ol’ Bolivian drill dust again) of ‘what we perceive as reality is increasingly negating what we understood to be objectivity,’ blah blah, I’m just, like, whatever.

 Revolution’s index is Brand’s chef d’oeuvre. It takes about six page references to fill each line (house!). Marx gets half a line, Chomsky manages a whole one. Charlton Heston, Prince Charles, Robespierre, Philip Roth, Saddam Hussein, Rasputin and Hendon Police College get one name-check each. Brand himself bags 21 lines, covering his onanism, his attention-seeking, ‘hypocrisy’ and much else. The email the publicists sent me with instructions for downloading the e-booky (no MDMA! Shome mishtake!) referred to a ‘Revolution widget’. It proved to be so much less exciting than it sounded. ‘In this book, Russell Brand hilariously lacerates the straw men and paper tigers of our conformist times,’ the blurb says. ‘Embodies’ might have worked better than ‘hilariously lacerates’ there.


  • 8 November 2014 at 11:48am
    Allbarone says:
    'Neotony' is a pun too far.

  • 8 November 2014 at 3:29pm
    Callum Hackett says:
    I enjoyed Newey's sense of humour in this post but I have to wonder about one piece of language:

    "Brand: neo-Rawlsian shaman-sage or childish knob-jockey?"

    Perhaps each of our brains has tagged "knob-jockey" with different connotations but, to my ears, that's a homophobic slur by clear definition and use, so I wonder why Newey uses it here.

    Would it have been appropriate to ask: "Brand: neo-Rawlsian shaman-sage or childish faggot?" Perhaps that question has a more obviously malicious bite to it but the other gnashes just as hard for those who read it to mean what it says.

    I can think of many more insults for Brand that wouldn't have the same nasty undertones.

    • 10 November 2014 at 9:48am
      Glen Newey says: @ Callum Hackett
      Thanks to Mr Hackett for his comment. I certainly had no intention of causing offence to homosexuals. When the LRB asked me to do the review of Brand's book I put out a bleg on Facebook inviting people to suggest guest words for inclusion in the piece. I got around thirty responses, of which 'knob-jockey' was one, and duly worked them in. The term was new to me – obviously I should have checked it. I assumed that it alluded to Brand's priapism, in response to his well-advertised and boasted (hetero-) sexual Olympianism, which also features in Revolution. Had I known it had the overtones it does, I wouldn't have used it. I'm not in the business of knowingly disseminating homophobic abuse. But I have to take responsibility for what goes under my byline. Apologies.

  • 8 November 2014 at 5:45pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    This is a very entertaining “book” (“pop cultural artifact”?) review, but I am wondering how many folks over here in the USA know anything about Brand. I myself am just hearing of him due to his book and the internet commentary about it, but I have a good excuse – I’m old, stodgy, and housebound for long stretches of time. For all I know he may be on American television, but it’s probably past my bed-time if and when he exudes his apparently icky personality through the Boob-ether. It looks like I may have missed some unintentional satire (Brand being Brand himself, id est). Upon looking him up on Wikipedia, I noted that the little capsule-informational banner to the right of the article has a poster-style portrait of his head that is suspiciously reminiscent of the famous “Saint Che Guevara” poster that was popular many decades ago. Perhaps Brand should make a similar junket to the realm where the jungle meets the Andes to see if his brand of comedy-philosophy might end in a similar final act, with audience participation leading to a real thumbs-down verdict – “Gavagai!” (Shoot the rabbit!). If there is a deity, I wish to thank him/her/it that he’s one or yours and not one of ours. I wish you all luck in dealing with this infestation.

  • 9 November 2014 at 11:12am
    Simon Wood says:
    Russell's book should have been published as a Penguin Classic.

  • 10 November 2014 at 4:28pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Regarding Mr. Hackett's mild dissatisfaction with that particular phrase, the subsequent discussion is informative for those of us who do not live in the UK and are not up to snuff on British/English slang. The first time I heard "knob" used with this meaning was on the Gervais-Merchant-Pilkington cartoon show that was popular here a few years ago, wherein "knob-polisher" popped up (!) often. Based on this I assumed that "knob-jockey" meant frequent "self-abuser" (a nice, guilt-inducing Victorian-era phrase) or "chronic wanker" (if I've got that one right). I also assumed that Mr. Newey used it in this jocular fashion to indicate Brand's conspicuous self-involvement. Was I completely mistaken here? Help us former colonials out on this one.

  • 11 November 2014 at 2:08pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    Wikipedia does list it as having the meaning ascribed above (as does Wiktionary), but interestingly has it (pejoratively) meaning a female jockeying for position instead. Confused? I am.

    But for those of you who remain unoffended, has a delightful range of knob-jockey-themed products, including a lapel badge, birthday card, fridge magnet, wrapping paper and key fob.

    Ah, the wonders of private enterprise...

    P.S. On reflection, perhaps just 'knob' was sufficient, anyway.

  • 11 November 2014 at 6:18pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Adjusting my own mental knob, as it were, I offer one more meditation on slang. Upon re-reading Glen Newey’s piece I notice the infiltration of Yiddish slang words/phrases that are very widely used where I live (the New York metropolitan area) and are also widely used in US television comedy and even news-commentary shows. This obviously stems from the large number of Jewish performers/entertainers/script-writers etc., whose parents or grandparents spoke Yiddish when they arrived on our balmy (or corrosive) shores eons ago. I use them all the time without second thought, assuming my listener is on the same-wave length, though, having grown up in Maryland, I heard very few of them as a child. But my exposure to their conversational frequency increased after my wife and I moved into the NY area forty-five years ago.

    Some people hate them. I’m very comfortable with them and share the opinion of them (ahem!) that Kafka expressed almost a hundred years ago. Somewhere in either his diaries or a letter he wrote about the difficult intellectual and cultural position of Jewish writers whose first language (or at least whose literary language) was German – this would have covered a large number of writers from both the vanished Austria-Hungary and Germany proper. (I think he was writing to Max Brod, but my memory on this point might be off.) Kafka noted that the Viennese scold and language-purist, Karl Kraus, had demeaning things to say about Jewish-German writers in general and mocked the introduction of “Yiddishisms” into German writing (either in the form of words or sentence inflections; among others he went after Felix Salten and Franz Werfel on this account). While his favorite targets were the crew of talented and garrulous Viennese feuilleton writers, Kraus came up with a funny line about a group of the Prague German-writers (all Jewish), whom he called “the Arconauts” (because they often met at the Café Arco). His line was: “Es kafkat, werfelt, brodelt, und kischt.” (I may not have these names in his exact order, but these are the four he attacked.) His pun depends on the ability of each of the writers’ last names to be turned into a verb – so that it means “It [the Prague group] crows, tosses, seethes, and giggles,” or something like that. I may be off here too, because Kraus used some Austrian slang or colloquial terms I’m unfamiliar with. The references are to Kafka, Werfel, Brod, and the famous journalist E.E.Kisch.

    Kafka, who went through a phase of infatuation with an Ost-Juden traveling Yiddish theater troop, thought that such words and phrases might actually be invigorating for the German language, though he seldom used them himself. He also understood Kraus as another Jewish intellectual undergoing a life-long identity crises, so his comments about him were neither bitter nor sarcastic. In other words, in this instance, Kafka was being a real Mensch. (Newey’s Y-words are “shlock” in his coinage – which I like – “shlockbuster” and shmooze; he may have invented another Yiddishism – “shmblurb”, a bit of a tongue-twister or tsuris-macher.) And, finally, I am curious about how often Yiddish words pop up in conversation and writing in the UK, especially in London.

    • 11 November 2014 at 11:57pm
      Simon Wood says: @ Timothy Rogers
      What’s not to like? Russell Brand, maybe. Like Jeremy Clarkson and Stephen Fry, he’s tired his own brand out. You were on for 15 minutes, Russell, like the man said, not 15 years.

    • 13 November 2014 at 12:32pm
      Allbarone says: @ Timothy Rogers
      No, they only mean what they mean except 'brodelt' (bubbles, boils) which was probably too good to resist and turn into the 'brodet' the sequence demands. But you're right that they suggest something along those lines, bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

    • 13 November 2014 at 4:05pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Allbarone
      Thanks for the enlightenment - I thought that maybe the original quote was "brodet", but I can't find it right now. Then I thought "brodet" might mean something along the lines of leaving bread-crumbs, but that was a wild guess. In any event Kraus went out his way to knock the the Prague writers, but this was consistent his low opinion of almost all of his contemporaries - his personal 'short list' of approved writers was very short indeed, including Goethe and Schiller as 'classical' and Nestroy as a 'vernacularist' among the dead white males, and expressing some admiration for Altenberg (a real bohemian whom he supported at times), Speidel, and Frank Wedekind. His special target was Heine, whom he indicted as the font and origin of everything he disliked about feuilletonism.

    • 13 November 2014 at 4:47pm
      Allbarone says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Yes, Michael Hoffmann wrote something here in his horrible partisan Germanic way, but I reckon he doesn't understand how exaggeration and invective work in Karl Kraus (or Bernhard, or anyone), even as he 'partakes of' the same ancient Mitteleuropean impulse. Maybe you wouldn't want to translate it into practical politics; is that where Hitler went wrong, do you think?

    • 14 November 2014 at 4:03pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Allbarone
      I doubt that Hitler’s biases, murderous acts, and spectacular misjudgments can really be assigned to some peculiar misuse or abuse of the received or contentious ideas presented and discussed by many of the intellectuals of his era (e.g., Spencer, Spengler, Nietzsche, etc.). But, who knows? As an autodidact when it came to art and culture, Hitler latched onto anything that seemed to shore up his own beliefs about “race and destiny”.

      Hofmann is a good translator of and commentator on a lot of German writing. He’s an advocate of Joseph Roth in such an extreme way that I think he misrepresents Roth as a heroic counterexample of everything he despises (not too strong a word in Hofmann’s case) about Stefan Zweig and his writing. This, to me, seems like an entirely polemically manufactured affair, and I don’t really know what to make of it. People have very idiosyncratic bees in their bonnets.

      As to Kraus, one of the best books about him and how to view his “paradoxical” presentation of himself to the world is Paul Reitter’s book “The Anti-Journalist. Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe”. And perhaps the best – in the sense of being on-point and also very funny – critique of Kraus (more so of Kraus’s devotees and Viennese followers) is Anton Kuh’s “The Ape of Zarathustra”, which is available in a good English translation by Harold Segel in his book about the Viennese coffee-house writers (all of whom, except Altenberg, were attacked by Kraus). Kraus’s writing is so allusive and syntactically difficult, that a German-reading duffer like me needs a really good translator (e.g., Segel, Harry Zohn, who translated a collection of K’s aphorisms and parts of “The Last Days of Mankind”, Kraus’s monster ‘collage-play”, and the combination of J. Franzen, P. Reitter, and D. Kehlmann for “Heine and the Consequences” and “Nestroy and Posterity”, both part of a heavily footnoted work by those three a couple of years ago).

      Allbarone’s note to a link concerns Hofmann’s negative NYRB review of this last book, “J. Franzen’s Kraus Project”. I have to agree with Hofmann here, because what might have been a better book discussing Kraus and his era was led off-track by too much Franzen navel-gazing. Franzen’s long meandering footnotes about how he came to Kraus and what this meant to him as an unhappy young man drifted too far away from the discussion of Kraus (Reitter and Kehlmann avoided these vagaries of self-analysis and stuck to analyzing Kraus). Allbarone’s bringing in Bernhard is nice here, because, if anyone was heir to Kraus’s mantle of despising the majority of his fellow Austrians, it was definitely Bernhard, whose special skill was expressing this hatred in a very blackly-comical way, though his approach of using multi-paged sentences is quite different from Kraus’s best aphoristic style.

      Going back to Hitler, it has been noted that he and some of his Nazi cronies would sometimes point to Otto Weininger as “their favorite Jew” among the numerous Jewish-German writers and intellectuals they detested on principle. He was this because of his bizarre critique of “Judaism as a way of thinking” in “Sex and Character”, a strange mélange of pseudoscience and heated rhetoric. The Nazis would make the argument that because Weininger understood the dreadful nature of “Judaism in art and thought” (Heine, for example) and the beauties of “Aryanism in art and thought” (Wagner, above all), he was merely adhering to the logic of his ideas when he took his own life. Kraus was a partisan of Weininger, and it’s difficult to square this with Kraus’s animadversions about sloppy thinking and writing. Did Kraus actually believe that Weininger’s misogynistic and ethnic generalizations had any validity? Once again, who knows? Maybe it was all just part of Kraus’s continuous performance as the era’s leading contrarian (at least in the German-speaking world).

      However, in this chain, we are drifting far away from Newey’s piece about Brand, who, unlike some of the ancient heavyweights mentioned here, will no doubt be viewed as a very minor blip on the broad screen of our era’s popular culture. Having been brought to my attention by N’s piece, Brand is already fading into insignificance in my own old, tranquil mind.

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