The cupcake is a perfect fascist object. It is neat and smooth, often large but somehow insubstantial. Its segments are definite and its colours are bold and distinct. It exhibits principles of design just as Nazi architecture did, but they are unimaginative principles that only limit. If we think to what cake should be, I mean in terms of the ideal form of cake, or what the sort of cake one wants to devour looks like, it is overflowing with creamy icing, moist and falling apart. The cupcake is none of those things. It is cake without cake. It is cake for the sort of flat-stomached people who might think that eating sweet pattisserie is some sort of illicit desire, but even then for these damaged individuals the urge to eat something that might resemble food is sublimated into these merely food-like objects. There is nothing excessive about the cupcake; it is imprisoned in its cake-cup.
The rise of the cupcake as object is linked with the phenomenon that has been called ‘twee fascism’ but might just as well be labelled ‘cupcake fascism’. I first dissected this phenomenon in 2011 (on my old blog, here) after the response to the summer riots that came to be encapsulated by the hashtag #OperationCupOfTea. More recently, it might be seen to have reared its head in the guise of those people who threw a teaparty for the EDL, or with that guy in Brighton who tried to organise a ‘clean-up effort’ which served to undermine the striking city refuse workers. The cupcake is one symbol of it but the other prominent symbol of it is of course those awful ‘Keep Calm and X’ bags, posters, mugs, teatowels, etc. The general idea is that there is a constellation of cosy old-fashioned type and ‘sustainable’ things that are used to, or perhaps more accurately have the effect of, restricting new possibilities and maintaining, as fascism always traditionally has done, petty-bourgeois values against the progressive forces in history. As I unpacked it in that original post, this constellation includes “tea-drinking, knitting, cycling, sorting out one’s recycling properly, organic food, free-range eggs and local produce, gin, real ale, Cath Kidston bags, throws on the couches, making your own chutney, and Rugby Union.” (1)
The fascism is not of course in the objects or actions themselves. And indeed although I am not really all that bothered about hypocrisy, I myself, for instance, cycle to work, drink tea, gin and real ale, and I sometimes even watch Rugby Union. It is rather in what these things come to symbolise. They are all ‘nice’ things and they are used as expressions of how it is nice to be nice and how life would be better, perfect indeed, if people were just a little bit nicer. The possibility of ethical life comes to be contained, for people, in these objects, which means that for people who enjoy them the possibility of the world functioning well comes to end up looking like: if everyone behaved a little bit more like, and enjoyed the same things as, me, a nice middle-class boy or girl. But there is never any recognition of (a) the fact that this possibility is an illusion, (b) the violence towards people who aren’t nice middle class boys and girls contained within this illusion. And this is where the ‘fascist tendencies’ are. And as with all fascist tendencies they are ones easily instrumentalised by, or intimately intertwined with, capitalism. This is why cutesy mumbling with ukuleles is used to sell mobile phones, or why the idea of ‘everyone just sitting down and having a nice cup of tea’ comes to seem like a viable alternative protest to rioting, or why these people can be made to spontaneously decide to scab for free.
Yesterday myself and my friend Jim, a journalist and unlike almost everyone else I know something of a swaggering libertarian, were discussing the phenomenon of ‘cupcake fascism’ as we strolled down the South Bank towards the Hayward Gallery, where we were going to see the ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe‘ exhibition that is currently on there. The exhibition is wonderful, I think, and well worth going to, but it is basically in conflict with itself, because unfortunately the way it is curated, it can’t quite decide if it’s an outsider art show or something more than that. At the exhibition’s core is a bunch of unhinged, revolutionary architects and scientists who are working to re-shape the world in their own private universe, but around them are more traditional outsidery types whose work, for instance, is lots of pictures of them dressed up as movie starlets, or creepy child-like dolls. These latter are really fairly straightforwardly eccentrics doing something singular and a bit weird, and it’s I guess interesting sure, but not that novel. The architecture and science stuff in the exhibition, though, is totally fascinating and, moreover, probably done a disservice by the suggestion (in part achieved through juxtaposition with the outsider stuff) that its creators might be mad.
Highlights include A.G. Rizzoli, an eccentric who ‘symbolically sketched’ his mother and various neighbourhood girls as vast, impossibly ornate and imaginative, buildings; Marcel Storr, a deaf and illiterate Parisian street sweeper whose pen-and-ink creations resemble the Sagrada Familia and the Angkor Wat; Jean Perdrizet, an engineer who developed a 92-character universal language called ‘sidereal Esperanto’ based on the shapes of the characters of a typewriter keyboard (he sent his plans to NASA and believed he might win the Nobel Prize, despite this very limited language having two different words for ‘hook’); sometime graffiti artist and MC Rammellzee, who believed that the 26 letters of the alphabet must break out from the shackles of language and become weaponised; Paul Laffoley, a philosopher-scientist with plans to solve the environmental crisis by growing houses from a plant he has identified in China, and create a machine to effect time travel by altering not time itself, but the consciousness of the operator (thus, conceptually, “avoiding the ‘now’ of the present”); and James Carter, whose alternative physical theory, in which matter is always expanding, must reject the existence of gravity.
Of course, one of the interesting things about these people is that because they genuinely do envisage different possibilities for the world, they must to your average man bleeding internally from exhaustion on the Clapham Omnibus, seem mad. And yes of course, a lot of these people have spent times in mental institutions, a lot of them have their UFO stories, but we must be impressed by the possibility that, given the logic of our own world, the world of wage-labour and late capitalism, is totally irrational and evil, we might not be more rational by pursuing some of these projects.
In particular James Carter’s theories are notable here, given that, as is well-rehearsed, Newton’s theories empty the universe of life, reducing it to dead matter. The universe now expands, sure, but into bleak emptiness, and since everything tends towards entropy, it will eventually collapse and die. But for Carter, the universe is in a very full sense alive, thus will always be changing and growing. To be optimists, we must reject gravity. But also, people like Paul Laffoley, or Marcel Storr (who believed that Paris would be destroyed and that the President of the United States would come in person to borrow his designs and rebuild the capital exactly to his plans), have or had visions that would or would have transformed the world (or the world around them) utterly, indeed perhaps for the better. Meanwhile the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s creations, designs for a Utopian Kinshasha, are not even that impossible (although they might be said to be impossible ‘financially’), but display far more vision than most actual architects working today.
Outside of the Hayward Gallery, having absorbed these new possibilities and really in fact become very excited and overstimulated by them, stepping back onto the South Bank just underscored how impossible it would be to realise anything like the sort of vision the artists in the show have, in the real world. The South Bank in the summer is always a disaster of cupcake fascism. Just outside the gallery there were a bunch of chairs set up made out of wheelbarrows. Pop-up cafes, a sandpit, and everywhere these awful yellow banners with bold blue letters on stating things like: ‘Relax’ or ‘Go To The Pub’ or ‘Ride A Bike’ or ‘Learn an Instrument’ or something like that, which seemed to be connected with some sort of drive to “Set Your Ideas Free” or something like this, there was a flag flying and a bunch of chuggers trying to get people to state an idea. And this, when the denial of gravity was so near by, this was the sort of thing they came up with. Such shellshocked jaded office workers and new parents that going to the pub seemed like the most voluptuous delights of paradise.
I take it that with the sort of people who buy cupcakes, they are something seemingly special (I mean they cost enough), something which is an exciting possibility for these people, an exciting possibility actualised, and yet they are nevertheless, for all that, really a sensible choice, insofar as it is a possibility that no one is remotely likely to call you mad for wanting to actualise, or, more strongly than that: that it is a possibility that, the actualisation of would not even mean your being admonished for spending too extravagantly or doing anything particularly unhealthy or buying something unethical or hurting the environment. It is something that seems like a treat but it is a treat like someone might give a dog for performing a trick, since it exists to enforce an order of absolute necessity. The order of necessity is in part one that is shaped along the lines of a scientific law, it is Newtonian in this sense. Once we realise this then the ethical force of denying gravity really gets in view for us, since the way Carter does this, it means new possibilities will always exist, whereas for Newton they never can. The cupcake fascist is someone who is blind to new possibilities, or at least not interested in them. In the citizens of the world as we find it at present, possibility has largely died. If you didn’t like your life you used to just be able to skip town and pretend to be someone else, or maybe even in the high days of Empire move halfway across the globe and make your fortune. Now, with facebook and identity tracking, maybe even beginning with the National Insurance Number, you follow yourself everywhere (2). Possibility is adventure, but there are no more adventures. This is why the Tintin books seem like, everything problematic about them aside, messages from the right form of life.
The death of possibility is related to austerity in a very real way. We cannot do it, the politicians say, we must adjust to a restricted economy, these new harsh times. There is nothing we can do, even Labour proclaim. We must cut. What is most awful about this is of course the havoc it unleashes on the lives of the people who rely on, for example, the welfare state to sustain them (or even public money of any sort for their jobs, I myself fall into this latter camp). But what is most frustrating about it is the blind idiocy of it all, the deliberate self-blindedness on the behalf of these politicians to possibility. The economy is a composite of whatever people make of it. If they had the vision to re-shape our ideas about it, then we wouldn’t have to collectively atrophy. But we are run by people who have accepted necessity.
We see the effects of this everywhere, not least in our buildings. Again along the South Bank yesterday, looking down the river to the ‘new’ skyscrapers, this was present in my mind. What is most hateful about these buildings is not just their aesthetics as buildings but their names, which reflect the way they are seen by the populace. The Gherkin, The Walky-Talky, The Cheesegrater. We look at these buildings and we only see banal, domestic objects. Despite being a giant fucking tower, they only serve to make the world a smaller place.
The contrast to this image by A.G. Rizzoli is astounding:
This is something that Rizzoli, a life-long celibate and bachelor, drew after, at the age of forty, seeing female genitalia for the first time (actually on a three year-old, and there is a rather creepy undercurrent of that sort of to a lot of Rizzoli’s art, but leaving that aside). He believed that the incomparable sensations stirred in him at that moment required a whole new type of architecture to do justice to it, and as you can see his image is labelled: ‘That You Too May See Something You’ve Not Seen Before’. But when we look at, for example, the Cheesegrater, we only see something that we see every day. Trapped in a world of absolute necessity, and with no new possibilities on the horizon. What I have called ‘Cupcake Fascism’ here is, I suppose, a celebration of that world, an expression of feeling at home within it (keeping calm, and carrying on, despite everything). We must reject that, or austerity will choke us to death.
1. Shortly after posting this piece online, @databaseanimal pointed out to me, I think very insightfully, that whenever ‘spontaneous actions’ like #OperationCupOfTea emerge, they tend to have faux-military names.
2. Actually I think this is really the justification for featuring what I understood above as the more traditional outsider-type artists in the Hayward show. These were all, supposedly, people who remodelled their own selves. But unfortunately, none of the examples were particularly compelling, so this fails to come across properly in the show.