From the moment of May’s circular tautology, telling us in the most precise and honest terms what Brexit meant, it has been just too damn noisy out there to find out what ‘Brexit’, an obvious signifier-without-a-signified, was for.
It became somewhat clearer only during the recent election campaign. Brexit is an unusual and active linguisitc instrument designed with the specific intention to reduce discursive coherence:
Destroy meaning. Flood the zone. Fuck shit up.
(Identifying Brexit-the-word’s implied designer is not the point of this post, as the words ‘Deep Private motherfucker’ should do. While early on he said it would become ‘a byword for decline‘, we get closer to a current, useful truth if we tweak that to ‘a byword for dispersal’.)
During the campaign it didn’t matter what kind of straightforwardly popular policy announcements, planted headlines or fully-costed manifestos were deployed by the opposition. Derailing any of these quaint propositions was as easy as uttering the curse.
Talking about it isn’t really the done thing, but to borrow a phrase*, language is susceptible to diseases like Brexit. They can trigger unpredictable non-linear dynamic effects in large carrier populations. Similar examples from the recent history of the USA include symbolic clusters like MAGA, Q, kek. These ugly pseudo-surfaces stretch across the social imaginary, inviting mass projection and identification. At scale, they are commonly used to influence or direct simple emotional responses – tribe-building, purchasing decisions.
These are the well-tested, everyday ‘dark arts’ of advertising and propaganda. Mind control technology as plain as anything from a 1950s sci-fi serial, transposed to our still-new terrain of digitally mediated politics.
What infestations like Brexit lack in signal clarity you can sometimes infer from the shape of the word itself: A big brutal bulwark at the front; flowing into the central X-target, built to channel determining queries or criticisms off into empty space; with that self-contained pronoun at the end, the IT which means anything, for as long as you don’t think about something else.
Any semantic object so potent but weakly defined is necessarily volatile. Many-edged and sharper yet than the freedom it promises and demands.
Managing the Brexit-spell’s deadly absences and contradictions was too much for May, and too much for Corbyn (although he was managing, until the united industrielleneingabe efforts of the various hard-/continuity-/alt.Remain factions forced a change of position).
Johnson, not exactly encumbered by fixed signifieds himself, knows how to use Brexit for the purpose it was built. He knew that invoking it was more than enough to let him dodge a mere boy with pneumonia, sprawled on a bed of coats. Calling on Brexit is enough to unstick you from the wrong side of a Royal pedophile scandal. Saying its nameless name creates a fat empty fact far bigger and stronger than 88% of your adverts caught with their pants on fire.
With Johnson’s understanding comes a sensible caution. Brexit knows no masters but itself. And what was done by him can be done to him.
Look at how it treated its loyal, nurturing Farage – now reduced to a water-treading, talk-radio shitbird, spreading honours list rumours like a fascist Partridge awaiting a cerebrovascular accident.
Thanks to the government’s now cemented union with both press and broadcasters, the removal of Brexit from the linguistic sphere will not be as difficult as its recent ubiquity suggests. Once-powerful force multipliers (a goddam democratic referendum mandate in this case) are secondary to the continued presence of transmission vectors, and the newly empowered ruling class knows Brexit is too risky to keep around. Too unstable to sit beside their new priorities as they hastily erect the post-European regulatory and financial architecture.
It’s got to go. Prepare to be surprised at just how short short-term collective memory can be without constant reinforcement.
(As Brexit is forcibly redacted, ‘Roaring 20s’ is being set up as a so-so replacement for the missing column inches. Watch for conspicuous consumption with methamphetamine characteristics; neo-yuppies waving conspicuous working class credentials booting out the hoedowning posh kids who ruled the early ’10s; all accompanied, if I had to bet, by ‘Regency-era extravagance’ to replace the already exhausted Downton/Gatsby jazz age set dressing.)
This would also be a good time for the Tories’ opponents to start talking about Brexit.
Hijacking it. Owning it, even.
This will be hard, not least because we have leverage remaining in so few channels, beyond some increasingly bubbled Twitter territory. The intensities of the last few years have for so many melted tactics into identity, as if anti-Brexit was the point all along, rather than a socialism fit for this suddenly not-so-new century.
Generating those cognitive slippages and the empty residues left behind is what Brexit was all about, all along.
And its effectiveness as a weapon is undiminished, otherwise Johnson-Cummings wouldn’t be trying to suppress it.
Here are three splinters which would stick where they are still vulnerable, if you can ignore the bitterness in the mouth:
This isn’t Brexit. This is a fat-cat takeover.
We were promised Brexit, not an American invasion.
We voted for Brexit freedom. So why are we paying so much more for vital medicine?
Stakes in this struggle over the next five years are so high, and practical weapons so few, that some distasteful tactics should be permitted.
*The two halves of the last century hosted an interesting debate about the relation of language, the human linguistic facility and its unpredictable or simply weird effects – its odd capacity to change minds, as well as the the material coordinates those minds appear in. The early phrase ‘a disease of language’ was refined into ‘language is a virus’, making ‘Brexit’ more like a symptom of the virus upon the social body, rather than the pathogen itself. The subjective experience of the symptom, the itch of this boil, is lassitude, confusion, paralysis.