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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era