The phallus par excellence

EDA Collective, Why Are Animals Funny? Everyday Analysis: Volume 1

Zero Books, 136pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781782793915

reviewed by Jamie Mackay

Research culture in the humanities has always been elitist, but never has it been so cut-throat and drained of vitality. While established thinkers cling to their hard-earned brands a new generation of dialecticians fight tooth and nail over raw morsels of funding, their self-esteem secured only by conservative dreams of more bloody and radical days. The university is a depressing place to do theory. So often friendships are left to a series of ‘what if’s as groups are torn apart by countless forms of exodus, their ideas left to die in the silence of the seminar room. Theories of the multitude may abound but as researchers, what we write and what we do bear little similarity. We are all nomads here.

For its ambition and integrity alone the new book by the Everyday Analysis Collective is a welcome release, an inspiring antidote to the stifling malaise that haunts the glass corridors of neoliberalism’s shiny new cathedrals. The material, collected from the group’s blog, is panoramic in its search for subject matter but remains focused in its attempt to build a critical grammar fully conversant with popular culture. The gaudy title and vomit-inducing cover in themselves constitute an affront to the kind of readers that prefer the comforting authority of the academic colon. Don’t let this fool you, though. In the spirit of Slavoj Žižek, the most obvious influence here, the distancing techniques are all part of the message. Why Are Animals Funny? is a serious book and deserves close consideration by those interested in the possible futures of cultural criticism.

For those unacquainted with the online material, the book’s introductory salvo provides a detailed description of the group’s goals and serves as a makeshift manifesto for their larger project: ‘We [aim] to write from this crowd perspective, not tied to the restrictive idea of a single-subject, a single author whose views are without multiplicity.’ The form of the collection reflects this impulse. The short length of the essays enables the collection to resist the seductive temptations of constitutional identity and each piece stands alone as a provocation. Meanwhile the commitment to collective authorship ensures that assumptions about race, gender, class and personal reputation are kept clear from evaluation of the arguments.

This neat proximity between editorial intention and actual content is refreshing. It is surprising that despite the vast range of topics covered - from Richard Wagner to toasties and smartphones - the style somehow remains consistent. With a few exceptions, the essays follow a strict format: a question is raised, a theory explicated and then related back to (and sometimes warped by) its subject. The introduction provides a justification for this approach: ‘[this] seems to us […] to offer the possibility of further interpretation; readers’ own, of the theory itself, and of its interpretation(s).’ This thoughtfulness and sense of hermeneutic democracy are admirable as a means of breaking down the insularity of more canonical approaches to theory. Just as importantly, however, this unity enables the intersectional influences to go beyond the liberal limitations of ‘balance’ or ‘compromise’ and directly describe a collective life that is formally complex but, more importantly, felt everyday.

Unlike postmodernism with its self-referential jargon and masturbatory collage techniques the authority of this collection comes from its well-tuned ear, its sensitivity to the rhythms of contemporary history. As the book’s introduction and the name of the group make clear: ‘In the everyday there are radical inconsistencies that should spur us into thinking, and reading, analytically and critically, and we defend theory as the inseparable tool by which we can inaugurate this mode of reading and thought.’ The irreverent attitude towards the divisions between high and low culture, then, are less a rejection of ‘high art’ per se than a rejection of its dependence on a narrow tradition of class, race and gender referents. This extends to the collective’s method. While Freud, Lacan and Kristeva all make their appearances the appropriation of their ideas outside of the organic heritage of the university enables the group to take their concepts in unexpected directions.

The scope of these adventures is impossible to reduce to a simple list of highlights. For me, though, the cutting criticisms of parliamentary politics, mainly in the form of sporadic assaults on the 2010 Westminster Coalition, were particularly enjoyable. These moments, which manage to avoid the rehearsed carping of social media, are hilarious and charged with the same devious humanity that made Armando Iannuci’s The Thick of It such a joy to watch. A description of the Liberal Democrats, for example, splendidly portrays their election dilemma as a red-faced drama of Freudian emasculation: ‘For a brief moment Nick Clegg was the phallus par excellence. The most powerful politician in the country and yet bound by being only able to ask himself the one question: who must we choose to render our party impotent?

By treating objects of media spectacle as worthy of a Lacanian frame Why Are Animals Funny? engenders a carnivalesque space in which any identity might turn on their head at any moment, including that of the reader. One of my favorite moments in the collection - and which achieves this feat on at least two levels - is a sarcastic aside about the Prime Minister tucked into what for me at least was a revelatory analysis of the ubiquitous iphone game Angry Birds:

When we play these games (on trains, buses, at work, in waiting rooms), viewed by almost everyone as a tempting distraction from real stuff, we party enjoy doing so on the level that the associated guilt actually re-enforces our sense of being very important people with ‘much more important things to do.’ The distraction supplements that from which we secretly want to be distracted, allowing us to feel that what we ‘should’ be doing is truly ‘worthwhile’. Indeed, David Cameron, a man who must have anxieties about the worthiness of his work, has completed the game…

Here, Cameron is reduced to one of us: bored, phoney and unwittingly trapped by a nebulous logic of social control. This theme of determinism, the social construction of our perceived nature, is the force which holds the pieces together, a base on which its unity is founded. Through a relentless unpicking of our linguistic habits, our quotidian assumptions about nature are revealed in all their constructed glory. The conclusions are simple but run deep. The essay on ‘The Limits of the Infinite’, for example, begins with a sentence that cuts right through the thick skin of capitalist semiology: ‘A current anti-excessive drinking campaign shares a strange quality with the alcohol adverts to which one would expect it to be opposed.’ The argument, which notes the way in which our desire for the unknown is so often mediated through the pre-known values of commodity culture, concludes with a satisfying critique of liberal ideology that would not be out of place in the work of Lacan himself: ‘we cannot see desire as having a natural drive towards some kind of change-as-such, since we have to see that change itself as culturally constructed.’

The EDA collective comes across as young, intelligent, thoughtful and energetic at a time when the university has become exhausted by the reactionary defence of its own suspicious ideals. More importantly, its intellectual assertions are watertight; it would be hard indeed to view the analysis on offer here as a diluted form of a purer form of philosophy. Together, the authors have captured the joy of performance, the energy of protest and embedded this spirit within a theoretical framework that is admirably deliberative. There is not a whiff of desperate careerism, not a trace of greed or networking in these pages. I only hope that this kind of nuanced commentary can find a way to sustain itself financially and creatively in the coming years against the barrage of copy/paste critiques still being peddled by the inflated egos of the mainstream commentariat. It is not often that theory is this fun to read, and less often still that satire is so well versed in the language of its assailants.
Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to VICE, the New Statesman, and Il Manifesto among others, and author of The Invention of Sicily, which is forthcoming from Verso.