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

Getty
Show Hide image

Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times