We may titter, but YouTube dance crazes point to the deeper nature of our zombie economy

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

A while ago, a regular round-robin emailer, Hassan (big-up to him), sent me a link to a Palestinian “Gangnam Style” video on YouTube. In this, a group of young men living in the Gaza Strip do all of the things that the South Korean rich kids do in the original Psy pop promo. That they’re confined in what is – to all intents and purposes – a giant concentration camp soon becomes painfully clear: they have to push their car in to the petrol station; they have no money to hang out in stylish bars – and there are no stylish bars anyway; nor, for selfevident reasons, are there a lot of scantily clad young women around agitating their booties, so instead our posse is reduced to single-sex dancing on the scabrous strip that passes for a beach.
Superficially, internet memes are an obvious subject for this column: they are examples of collective hysteria causing people to do nonsensical things. When “Harlem Shake” got going in February, I, like thousands of others, spent many happy moments watching groups of office workers and army officers dressed up in idiotic costumes (or often nearly naked) and dancing to Baauer’s absurdly catchy electro ditty.
Most commentators on “Harlem Shake” and “Gangnam Style” emphasise the creativity of the meme video makers: how, within a preconceived format, individuals are free to express themselves and command a vast audience for their gyrations. The satiric subtext of the videos is also pretty apparent. In the case of a typical “Harlem Shake”, first, a bored office worker begins to dance while others go about their mundane business. It’s as if the dancer were listening to Baauer on earphones and attempting to transport himself from hateful, openplan imprisonment as a Sufi might spin his way out of reality altogether. Then, when the bass line suddenly drops and the single, locked-on frame jump-cuts to the entire workforce jigging and dipping while the beat pounds out triumphantly, the message is clear – the lunatics have taken over the asylum; you can put our minds on the payroll but our bodies remain free.
Or are they? A rather more bitter take on “Harlem Shake” and “Gangnam Style” is that, far from expressing the will to freedom of the wage slave under late capitalism, they are straightforward reportage. Anyone who has worked in a large organisation for any length of time knows this: that only a small percentage of the workforce is engaged in productive labour at all; another, slightly larger moiety is politicking for all it’s worth; and a third part is doing little more than stylishly shaking pieces of paper – analogue or electronic – from “In” to “Pending” to “Out”.
Since the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, the zombie-like quality of the economy has become still more pronounced. Now, as Danny Dorling’s excellent piece on European youth unemployment in the last issue of the New Statesman spelled out, there are some six million 18-to-24-year-olds across Europe who would kill for an opportunity to become stylish paper-shakers.
Instead, if they come from affluent enough families, their wealthy parents fund internships for them and, if they don’t, they may be lucky enough to be enrolled on government schemes that offer the same opportunity to be uselessly occupied. Looked at in this way, the production of these internet memes is the purest expression of the pseudonymous character of “production”, in an economy where consumption is universally understood to be the true desideratum and the prime engine of “growth”.
What the memes thus show us is a system in which a few bored jigglers can entertain millions at no apparent cost to anyone. One self-starter shakes; a few others ape that shake and many millions more look on tittering as they pop open another bag of nachos. Meanwhile, in another, wealthier suburb of the global village, the bourgeois young while away their time filming each other dancing through various acts of conspicuous consumption and, in due course, these ephemera acquire a strange, marketable durability.
Pity, then, the poor Palestinians, for not only is their version of “Gangnam Style” not in the least satiric; it articulates perhaps better than any documentary film about Gaza the terms of their economic existence as a subject population, dependent on food aid from UNRWA, subsidies from the EU and the US, and Qatari “investment”.
Psy, performing "Gangnam Style". Photo: Getty

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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The unsung heroes of Aberfan

How volunteer embalmers helped to handle the Welsh village’s tragedy.

Fifty years ago, on 22 October 1966, the Midland Division of the Institute of Embalmers gathered, bow-tied and ballgowned, in Nottingham, for the high point of the social calendar – the annual ladies’ night. The banquet was interrupted by a telegram requesting urgent help. In Aberfan, a Welsh village near Merthyr Tydfil, a 40-foot wall of coal waste had slid down a mountain at over 100mph and hit the Pantglas Junior School, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Leaving their partners, the volunteer embalmers returned home to collect equipment, embalming fluid and coffins. Travelling through the night, they arrived in Aberfan to join colleagues from across the UK. Some had flown from Northern Ireland on a plane with the seats removed to accommodate stacks of child-size coffins. Billy Doggart was one of them, and it was he who co-ordinated their extraordinary efforts. 

Some of the bodies recovered from the school were already wrapped in blankets and laid on the pews of the Bethania Chapel. Makeshift mortuary stations were quickly established. Working without electricity or running water, the embalmers took over from the police and performed their first task: cleaning the bodies for identification. The viscous slurry that had swallowed the school also covered the bodies. One embalmer, fresh from his honeymoon, told me that his first job was to remove a boy’s shirt and take it outside to the waiting parents. He had to hold it aloft and ask whose little boy had been wearing it. Usually in disaster situations such as plane crashes or explosions, identification is a big problem. Not so at Aberfan, where every parent was waiting outside, distraught and eagle-eyed for evidence of their child.

Once identified, each body was further cleaned and embalmed, ready to be placed in a coffin. In the Calvinistic chapel nearby, five embalming units were established in the vestry and a further two in the foyer. Dead bodies deteriorate rapidly, so embalming was an urgent task to save the bereaved from further distress. With nothing but rudimentary equipment and buckets of water that were carried back and forth by volunteers, the embalmers worked quickly and efficiently. Ever mindful of the parents waiting patiently outside, they tried to hide the worst of the damage wrought by the brutal impact.

Many men returned to their day jobs on the Monday after the disaster, having worked non-stop through the weekend in Wales. By the evening, all of the recovered bodies had been treated, and just six volunteers remained, waiting on call all night in case further recoveries were made. From Tuesday to Friday, it was just Billy Doggart, on sentinel watch at the school site, aware that the longer the bodies had lain under the wreckage, the quicker the decomposition would be once they were exposed to air.

Half a century later, disaster rescue work looks different to this. The privately owned disaster management company Kenyon International Emergency Services maintains three deployment-ready, disaster-scale morgues, ready for shipment anywhere in the world.

Yet, however advanced and efficient rescue operations have become, it will always require one human being willing to stand next to the mutilated body of another and treat it with respect and dignity. The aim is the same is it was that day in Aberfan: to give practical help at moments of shock and disaster.

With formaldehyde classified as a human carcinogen, and the whole process certainly not environmentally friendly, (although there are now organic embalming chemicals made with plant oils approved by the Green Burial Council), some argue that the main benefits of embalming are financial. There is a valid debate to be had over how we do it, but in disaster situations there can be no doubt embalming is a compassionate act.

For the past year I’ve been writing a novel about a fictitious embalmer at Aberfan, and have been privileged to interview some of those who were there at the time of the disaster, including Doggart. I’ve spent time with local embalmers and once I even watched one at work. What impressed me, during a shockingly intimate and invasive process, was the care and profound attitude of service with which it was done.

“Most of us are on anti-depressants,” one embalmer said to me matter-of-factly, “and most of us have lost and found, or found and lost our faith at least once”. Inevitably, there is a price to pay for those who go against the grain of human nature and confront our mortality on a daily basis.

The Queen visited Aberfan a week after the disaster, and Doggart was presented to her on behalf of his embalming team. I went there in September, and looked through the book of press cuttings collated for the anniversary. I found no mention of the embalmers, who had quietly arrived to serve a community at the very extremity of human distress and then quietly left again. Heroic by anyone’s standards, these men returned home with a sense of a testing job well done and unspeakable memories seared into their psyches.

A police officer who worked alongside the embalmers later wrote to Billy: “I shall always remember the expressions of relief on the faces of the bereaved who were able to view their children at the Chapel of Rest. . . They will never know the wonderful work that you and your colleagues performed to make this possible.”

Maybe that’s the point. Some heroes, by the very nature of their work, remain unsung.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage