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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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