Thieves and Fascists: the Politics of Abjection in Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming)

by Kate Livett

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Radiohead, the English contemporary rock band whose career currently spans around 18 years, occupy a precise role within popular culture, in and by which they explicitly critique the operations of consumerist capitalism, whilst being aware of their position as highly successful within that economy. At their inception they were an ‘indie pop’ band, but the massive hit single, ‘Creep’, from their first album Pablo Honey (1993), rocketed them into the mainstream, and into stardom. However it was their third full-length album, OK Computer , released in June 1997, that made them famous worldwide and was recently voted by over 100,000 Australians as their third favourite album of all time (Sydney Morning Herald , 3 December 2006). Their popularity in Australia is reflected in their consistent presence in Triple J’s internationally-renowned ‘Hottest 100’-the one hundred most popular songs of the preceding year as voted for by the public. At least one Radiohead song has appeared in the ‘Hottest 100’ for the years 1993, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2003; each year, in fact, that the band have released an album (with the exception of The Bends in 1995) (Triple J Radio Station). Their blend of traditional guitar-driven rock and new electronic music reached a critical popularity in OK Computer. The next two albums, Kid A (2000), and Amnesiac (2001), divided critics and consumers, as they were almost completely electronic, and darkly melancholic. In this context their latest album, Hail to the Thief , with its ‘second’ title: (The Gloaming) , released in June 2003, was celebrated by critics and listeners who felt it marked Radiohead’s return to the guitar-rock of OK Computer.

Their status as an ‘intellectual’, ‘clever’, or ‘thinking’ band, perpetuated by each album since Pablo Honey provides the foundations of Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming), which marks a radical departure from their other albums at the level of subject and theme. This departure was from generic meditations upon the individual’s experience within postmodernity that characterise their earlier albums, to a far more located commentary on subjectivity in the face of contemporary political events. In one sense Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) continues Radiohead’s preoccupation with the dilemma of subjectivity in postmodernity, but at this critical juncture it offers a model for dismantling that very subject that has stood at the centre of their aesthetics and politics until this point, as the possible response to the fascism of the western subject that has been manifested in this particular formation of global politics. The seepage of politics into Radiohead’s music is evident from Amnesiac and Kid A and their live recordings I Might Be Wrong(2001), but by 2003’s Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) that engagement is explicit through both the media’s direct interest in the political aspects of the album, and Yorke’s discussion of those politics. The political situation addressed in Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) was, of course, George W. Bush’s irregular assumption of the American presidency, and the binarisation of East and West into Good and Evil in an atmosphere of imminent conflict. Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) was written during what can retrospectively be seen as the build-up to West-East conflict, what BBC world news described on 19 January 2003 as a “looming US-led war on Iraq” (BBC World News , 19 January 2003). On 20 March 2003 the US bombed Baghdad and that war had become a reality. The temporality of the world political events that influenced Yorke during the writing of the lyrics was not that of an already-occurring war against Iraq , as the lyrics were by then complete. However, by the time Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) was released, the lyrics were read by consumers and the media within the context of a war that had been a reality for three months already. Yorke was asked explicitly about his views on the war on Iraq in most interviews. A cultural nexus exists then, between the ideas of the subject evident in the lyrics of the album, ideas of the subject in war and how the ‘enemy’ relates to the self, and the explicit political situation of the George W. Bush-led war against Iraq.

This essay will argue that Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming), and the broader cultural event of the album-it’s imbrication in Yorke’s discussions of his personal politics and the global political situation-are over-determinedly abject within the terms of Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic theorisation of abjection in Powers of Horror (1982). Yorke’s voice, which, in its range and constant swift movement between extreme lows and highs seems always to be at the point of crossing, on the borderline between singing and noise, wailing or droning, is a liminal, potentially abject voice. Within the scope of this essay however, it is the printed matter of Radiohead-the lyrics of the album and Yorke’s interviews published in music magazines-that constitute the primary and definitive point of this investigation into the album’s potential political intervention. While multiple modes of abjection are evident within Radiohead’s album, the primary site is in the subjects created in and around the album: ‘Thom Yorke’ and ‘George W. Bush’. The profound significance of the historical-political location of these abject subjects-the East-West conflict of 2003-parallels the inextricable relation of real world politics and cultural production in the texts Kristeva uses to explicate her theories of abjection; the novels and political pamphlets of French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline, texts that are about World Wars I and II, such as Journey to the End of the Night (1932) and Rigadoon (1961).

Kristeva argues that the positions available to the subject caught in a dichotomy of abjection- either fascist subject or abject subject – are played out in the relation between Céline’s political views and his novels. This interplay is doubly pertinent to Radiohead’s album as cultural product and in the specific internal poetics of the text. This essay will therefore follow the lines of Kristeva’s theorisation, by examining the ‘event’ of Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming), through both its political and historical embeddedness, and its detailed thematic and stylistic operations. At the forefront of the constructive work of the album in its cultural web is the construction of subjects. In the interplay between the album itself and his discussion of the album, Yorke constructs his own identity according to oscillating ideas of the self as one of two extreme poles of subjectivity: either the coherent, legitimate citizen, with political right on his side, or the abject subject, a ‘thief’ in revolt against the order of the ‘State’. Both of these positions are figured by Yorke explicitly against similarly oscillating subject positions that he constructs for George W. Bush: either the ‘thief’ or the fascist, at different moments. Whichever positions Yorke designates for Bush, it is always the ‘other’ to Yorke’s primary definition of ‘self’ in that moment.

This essay will initially examine, then, Yorke’s representations of himself and of George W. Bush, and Bush’s constructions of himself-the historically-politically located negotiations of subjectivity. Having outlined the operations of these interconnected Yorke-Bush subjectivities, I will then examine how they are figured internally in Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) as a cultural text, through a detailed reading of the lyrics. Following Kristeva’s extrapolation of a ‘stylistics of abjection’ in Céline’s novels, I will demonstrate that the ‘stylistics of abjection’ in Yorke’s lyrics are created by idiom, irony, and pronoun use. Finally, this essay will consider the ‘matter’ produced by all of these negotiations of abjection, the residue that is always the abject subject’s fundamental preoccupation. In this case the residue resolves into a question: How can western subjects move beyond the self/other binary when it has become so destructive? Kristeva’s theorisation of twentieth-century abjection through her reading of Céline’s late modernist texts about WWII has no optimistic shades in its darkness; it is a closed circuit of extremes, either ‘abject’ or fascist. This lack of a possibility of escape, a cycle of destruction, is made explicit within the historical formulation of the twentieth-century American subject in relation to WWII by contemporary psychoanalytic commentator Walter A. Davis. But Davis theorises a ‘way out’ of this cycle, and through a consideration of how his argument might relate to my conclusions about abjection in the ‘event’ that is Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming), this essay will show that in a different time and place from Céline and WWII, in twenty-first century postmodernity, and from British subjects, a way to negotiate self and other that does not perpetuate extremes that destroy; a path that may offer a way out for western subjects including Americans from the cycle of fear and loathing, is played out in the controlled environment of this cultural production.

The Compromised Subject

As a popular culture product circumscribed by mass-production in capitalism, Radiohead’s album is imbricated in the capitalism that motivates the global politics it is critiquing, making it a compromised artefact, and circumscribing its creators, specifically Yorke, within that economy. The shadow question motivating this essay, then, (its own ‘double’ aspect) is whether a popular culture album can be political-a question itself haunted by what Thomas Swiss, John Sloop, and Andrew Herman call “Adorno’s monolithic view of the culture industry” that has preoccupied musicology and cultural studies’ projects on music. As Swiss, Sloop and Herman argue, Adorno’s “high-culture dismissal of the aesthetics of popular music” (3) has been the target of numerous critiques from musicologists and cultural studies theorists for decades now, and no longer determines responses to popular music. As Jody Berland has argued: “Everything in the world of pop music is a commodity, whether sound, image, word, or act-that tells us both everything and nothing about how it works” (25).

I want to propose, here, that it is precisely the album’s position as an inherently compromised object in capitalist culture and the ways this circumscribes and informs the subject position as similarly compromised, that presents both a way of living within, and the impossibility of living within, the other that resides within the self. Compromise then, is a modality of the world constructed in Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) , in both senses: firstly, of delegitimation, but secondly as the means of negotiation and an ever-contingent, unsatisfactory, yet necessary, resolution.

Abject Politics: Abjection, Fascism, Racism

The ways in which Kristeva has theorised abjection as the condition of loss of the boundaries between self and other, inside and outside, has been well rehearsed. For the purposes of this essay it will suffice to recall that Kristeva formulates this argument via her analysis of Biblical texts and the shifts from the Old Testament to the New Testament. She argues that the Old Testament outlines prohibitions to prevent crossings between the binaries of inside/outside, pure/impure. In the New Testament the many prohibitions designed to guard boundaries become interpellated into the subject himself; the subject becomes internally predicated upon the binary of the self and the other, a figure of sin, who is capable of redemption because of the sacrifice of Christ. As the ‘source’ of the impossibility of monotheism, Jews become representative of the ‘Other/other’ that now has to be repressed within each subject in the Symbolic structure. Thus, Kristeva, amongst others, argues that anti-semitism is “the archetypal racism” (Kristeva, 87).

The response to this condition of internalised self-loathing is fascism, in the twentieth century, Kristeva argues, a trajectory demonstrated by Céline, who, she asserts, is definitively caught in a confrontation with abjection, in his novels. Those novels depict the breakdown of boundaries between inside and outside, the borders of the self, in formulations of disgust, repulsion, material disintegration, corpses, filth, waste and food, and the devouring feminine, that characterize abjection (Kristeva, 1). Central to the intensity, and indeed depths, of Céline’s engagement with the condition of abjection is his ‘other’ writing, the political pamphlets in which he espoused anti-semitic, fascist views. Céline, and all fascists, Kristeva argues, are railing against the Law, Religion, and the existing symbolic order, which they cannot live in without constant confrontation with the abject ‘other’ within themselves, which they seek to repress finally once and for all (178). The fascist desire that Céline demonstrates, Kristeva argues, is to replace the existing institutions and structure with a new one, that of a trinity of the Father, the Nation, and the Body, all of which seem to promise unity and coherence, an escape from the internally divided and self-repulsive modern subject (178). The fantasy trinity represents a hyper-patriarchal structure, a rejection of everything feminine and maternal-the ‘source’ of abjection.

As such then, for Kristeva, it is precisely the profound psychological tension and bitter internal struggle testified to in the extremes of Céline’s political anti-semitism and fascism and his literary abjection, that go some way to explaining the totalitarian impulses of the twentieth century, and position Céline, given the horrors of the Second World War, as a definitive writer of abjection and its implications. Céline’s political fascism, Kristeva argues, is an intimate response to the abjection represented in his own novels; it is his attempt to fend off the disintegration of the coherent ‘self’ that the abject ‘other’ threatens.

Kristeva argues that this structure will perpetuate and persist as long as the construction of western subjectivity, founded on this self-loathing, remains. In the contemporary moment, Thom Yorke’s negotiations reflect this ongoing dilemma. The relationship between the music/text of Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) and Yorke’s ‘real world’ interviews in his capacity as both a private individual and a ‘spokesman’ for the band, creates a conflation of fictional representation and political commentary that brings into being similar shifts and connections as those between Céline’s novels and his political pamphlets.

 Yorke and the Politics of Abjection

Yorke has denied that Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) is ‘only’ a political album, in his anxiety that the aesthetic value of the work not be ignored, but he has also deliberately complicated that denial by agreeing that the album has an entirely political ‘feel’ (Simonart, 53). The title phrase has an established historical function as a phrase of political critique, as it is a parody on the song played when any American President enters a formal gathering, ‘Hail to the Chief’. In recent times it has been used to ironically comment on Bush’s ascension to the presidency. Quite explicitly signalling his concern with the political situation of West-East antagonism, Yorke has said that the US is “being run by religious maniac bigots who stole the election” (Klosterman, 66). Yorke’s failure to maintain a coherent denial of the political nature of the album is evident is the following description from an interview with Serge Simonart in Rolling Stone magazine:

This record to me, these new songs, they’re not so much songs about politics as me desperately struggling to keep politics out. If I could have written about anything else, I would have. I tried really fucking hard. But how can any sensible person ignore what’s been going on altogether? I couldn’t, I really couldn’t. Fuck, man, I would love to write lyrics free of politics! Send me on a retreat somewhere, where I can get it out of my system! (53).

Yorke’s admission and denial of politics and indeed the lexicon of unwanted incursion and revulsion towards the politics that preoccupy him: the “desperate struggle to keep politics out” and the desire to “get it out of my system” echoes the rhetoric and imagery of abjection, as Kristeva defines it. Yorke’s description suggests the expulsion of part of the self, even to the point of physical vomiting, the act through and in which the subject constitutes the self as the self (Kristeva, 5). Abject imagery is evident also in Yorke’s construction of the relations between the citizens of the nation, and their governments: “I can’t believe people swallow this shit” (Simonart, 53). For Yorke, it seems, the politics of the West’s war against terror are abject, they are within and without, permeating even, the level of his own person and artistic practice.

 George (W.) Bush and the Fascist Trinity

The dynamics between Yorke’s political commentary and his lyrics parallel those that Kristeva identifies as operating between Céline’s novels and his political pamphlets: the explication of a poetics of abjection and its congruent political tendency of fascism. However, Céline and Yorke differ considerably in the operations of this dilemma. Where Céline is caught in a confrontation between two Célines-Céline the internally-divided and self-repulsive abject self, and Céline the coherent fascist-Yorke’s dilemma does not turn precisely on this binary alone. Where for Céline in late modernity it is the negotiation of the French fascist self and the Jewish ‘other’, for Yorke the negotiation in postmodernity has another level of complexity; it is the negotiation between the self as ‘other’ to its own nation’s citizen-subject and leaders, that draws the resistant citizen nearer to the official ‘other’ as designated by that nation: the Easterner, the Arab, the Muslim, all conflated by Western governments with the Terrorist. While Yorke has explicitly cast Blair as a leader taking his country to war against the opinions of the British nation (Fricke, 59), it is American President George W. Bush who occupies the strongest position of leader of the Western world, and it is against Bush that Yorke defines his own position.

Kristeva’s reading of the relationship between abjection and fascism provides a way of reading George W. Bush’s rhetoric of the war on Iraq and on terror, and of establishing how Bush rhetorically constitutes himself as a ‘self’: a President and a metonymic representative of the generic Western subject. As Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) recognises, George Bush is a name of multiple significations: of an individual self, one who is son and heir (to George Bush senior), one who is literally in the name of the Father, the presidential self, the collective body of America, and the western subject. This patriarchal trinity directly echoes the fantasy of the possible unity provided by the Father, the Nation and the Body. Bush deploys a political rhetoric that displays the same horror at primary abjection, and longs for the fantasized condition of unity, in which the terms Father, Nation and Body are not internally self-repulsive. This patriarchal trinity is found frequently within Bush’s speeches: his avowed revenge at Iraq is the outcome of the accumulation of intrusions into the idea of the necessary borders of self between ‘Bush’ and the world. Each term is evident in the following aspects of Bush’s presidency: his discussion of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s attack on his father, George Bush Senior; George W. Bush’s rhetorical conflation of himself with the American Nation (an operation inherent within the role of the American President), and finally in his figuration of the 9/11 attack through the imagery of a bodily ‘wound’.1

In his address to the nation on 20 September, Bush figured the 9/11 attack through an image of transgression into the body of the Nation, as a “wound”.

I will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people (17).

As John M. Murphy, American political commentator, argues, “People and leader became one in the conclusion.” (8) The “wound” to the body of the nation is the penetration of the Body of the Nation. Within the framework of this paper, Bush’s leading of a war against Iraq is a direct response to the fear of abject/contamination of the Nation; violence is a way to reassert the boundaries of the Nation and the self (that are, for Bush, the same thing), and shore up an identity whose coherence has been challenged

In September 2002, in a speech to the U.N., Bush argued that Saddam Hussein’s “hatred” was directed in the main towards America , and said: “After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad”, referring to an assassination attempt on George Bush senior during the Clinton administration, when Bush senior had visited Kuwait. George W. Bush’s assertion here personalizes the fear of the attack on the self as one on his literal father. His father has been, however, the President of America, a role in which George Bush senior also metonymically stood for the Nation, as his son now does. For George W. Bush then, from his perspective as current US president, looking back on an assassination attempt on his father, every aspect of the fantasized coherent terms, the Father, the Nation, and the Body, have been threatened simultaneously, in an attack that also threatened his own self, as another George (W.) Bush (Senior): the son who is also the father. This is a cycle of excess and polarity: an over-determined threat to the over-determined idea of the subject ‘Bush’. Murphy’s formulation of Bush’s response engages with the rhetoric of apocalyptic threat and abjection that Bush used in his 20 September address, and that echoes Kristeva so nearly. Murphy argues that “the battle was to be fought.for the nation’s soul” (624). Using what Murphy identifies is the rhetoric of Churchill, the now cliched language of war, Bush argued: “Our nation-this generation-will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail” (624). The multiple and over-determined coherence of the subject that constitutes ‘George (W.) Bush’-son and Father, individual and Nation, specific embodied westerner, and its abstract representative-then, is explicitly defined in relation to, and against, the abject outside, the “dark threat of violence” that threatens the inside that is America. It is the fascist subject with the fantasy of the coherent terms of the Father, the Nation, and the Body.

Radiohead and Bush: Self-repulsion and the Abject Thief

Given that Yorke has remarked upon the fact that opinion polls in 2003 showed that most British people did not want to go to war with Iraq (Fricke, 60), but Blair committed Britain to the war anyway, and that Yorke himself is anti- the war, the contemporary arrangement of the dynamics between the personal, the political and cultural products, differ significantly from those demonstrated by Céline around the Second World War. It is the primary ‘othering’ of Yorke in his feeling of opposition to the government of his own nation and that of the West more broadly that causes a chain-reaction of de-centralising of the self. George W. Bush is a/the western subject, but so is Thom Yorke, but Yorke’s views are opposed to those of Bush, leaving Yorke repulsed by the part of himself that is metaphorically that of the western subject represented by Bush.

The switch-point between the multiple formations of self and other centre on the identity of the ‘thief’, evoked in the album’s very title. It is the multiple and over-determined George W. Bush who is the ‘chief’ to whom the presidential song ‘Hail to the Chief’ currently refers, and is also, in Radiohead’s terms the ‘thief’ of the parodic ‘Hail to the Thief’. The ‘thief’ is a figure that Kristeva explicitly defines as abject when she argues that:

It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior.Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject. immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you. (4)

The title of the album, then, is an ambiguous celebration, ironic-both critical of the situation, and yet an assertion or statement of its reality-a ‘criminal’ is ruling the nation and is lauded. Yorke recasts Bush, through this ironic phrase, “hail to the thief”, as the abject that threatens the stability of the nation. George W. Bush in his multiplicity, a legitimate heir to the father but an illegitimate heir to the country, a “thief” who has stolen the election and therefore the presidency, and who therefore “disturbs identity, system, order”, a “killer who claims he is a savior”. Bush casts himself as the fascist subject protecting the nation against the other that threatens it, but Yorke casts Bush as the abject ‘other’.

However, it is not only Bush who is a ‘thief’, it must also be Yorke. If Bush is president, the logic of the Nation and the presidency means that he is the keeper of the Nation’s systems, whether they are fascist or not, and this casts Yorke as antagonistic to the Nation, as its ‘other’. As an enemy of the Nation Yorke is the ‘thief’, and he casts himself as such explicitly, in relation to the political import of the album lyrics. In a Rolling Stone interview he says:

When I started writing these new songs, I was listening to a lot of political programs on BBC Radio 4. I found myself.writing down little nonsense phrases, those Orwellian euphemisms that our government and yours [ America ‘s] are so fond of. They became the background of the record. The emotional context of those words had been taken away. What I was doing was stealing it back (Fricke, 60).

Here Yorke occupies the position of the ‘thief’, mimicking, ironically, Bush’s ‘theft’ of the presidency, by “stealing back” the language of the culture, to reinvest it with the meanings that it literally has. In doing so, he also draws attention to its capacity to be vacated language, inaccessible in its strangeness to a subject who has traversed the boundary between acceptable citizen-subject, and illicit identity, such as the thief, that places him in the position of ‘other’ to his own culture.

The pivotal significance of the phrase “hail to the thief” as a signalling of the arrival or a coming to awareness of a lowering mood of abjection and menace is evident in Yorke’s discussion of the creation of the album. Yorke tells of a moment that instates both the title of the album and its ‘real world’ conditions, of what Kristeva calls the “sinister, immoral, scheming and shady” qualities of abjection, that Yorke felt seemed to overwhelm him whilst the band was making the album, and that is, to him, reflected in it:

“When did you first hear the phrase “Hail to the thief” and what made it appealing as an album title?

It was a formative moment – one evening on the radio, way before we were doing the record. The BBC was running stories about how the Florida vote had been rigged and how Bush was being called a thief. That line threw a switch in my head. I couldn’t get away from it. And the light – I was driving that evening with the radio on – was particularly weird. I had this tremendous feeling of foreboding, quite indescribably, really. To me, all the feelings on the record stem from that moment (Fricke, 58/60).

The apocalyptic atmosphere that Yorke describes here echoes Kristeva’s description of the atmosphere created by the abject, a “violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” (1). It is just such a “revolt of being” that Yorke describes when he says he “couldn’t get away” from the phrase “hail to the thief”, that he experiences as a persistent presence in tandem with an “indescribabl[e]” “feeling” of imminent doom. Yorke cannot get away from the destabilisation of subjectivity that the phrase “hail to the thief” creates: as has been argued, the ‘thief’ is both Bush and Yorke, it is the ‘other’ in Yorke ‘himself’ that he cannot get away from, an ‘other’ who is also George W. Bush, the fascist who is also the ‘thief’ who has stolen the election.. Yorke himself is the thief also, the ‘other’ to his own nation that is run by fascists. He says that his use of idioms in the lyrics was a “stealing back” of the language of the ruling powers, and is therefore a disruption to the prevailing system. If his audience should seriously “hail” Yorke’s reappropriation of language he has “stolen”, then why should western subjects not “hail” a president who stole an election? The ambivalence created by the ironic phrase “hail to the thief” and its crossing between the fictional domain of the album and the real world domain of politics established the basis for the operations of the lyrics in their entirety. It is through a close-reading of the lyrics ofHail to the Thief (The Gloaming) that the intricacies of these shifting positions, and decisions about who is the thief and who is to be hailed, will be found.

The Thematics of Abjection in Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming)

Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) is thematically saturated with the stuff of the abject, most of which can be read metaphorically or allegorically as the situations and dynamics of the politics of 2003. Every song displays some form of abject imagery. An extended development of the thematic of separation and abject dissolution of boundaries is explicitly realised in the song entitled ‘Where I End and You Begin. (The Sky is Falling in.)’ The song describes an unbroachable separation between self and other, metaphorically one of death as suggested by the lines: “I am up in the clouds/and I can’t come down”, and testifies to the isolation, alienation and abandonment that characterizes separation from the maternal and the formation of the subject. This alienation is resolved by the collapse of the symbolic ‘self’ structure, the house, into the sea, followed immediately by an image of the self consuming the other, the internal abject, the devouring of the self by the self’s devouring of the other: “I will eat you all alive/And there’ll be no more lies”. Kristeva explicitly argues that all speech is an attempt to fend off the abject other (41), this devouring that signals an end to all language stops speech because the “lie” behind all speech-that the “I” who speaks is “one”, a coherent self, that “I” am distinct from the other-is no longer necessary, the categories of self and other are dissolved. Extending from this evident thematic preoccupation with abjection, Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) also deploys a stylistics of abjection at the level of language.

The Stylistics of Abjection: Idiom, Irony, and Pronoun

To explicate the relationship between literary stylistics and political commentary in her analysis of idioms in Jeanette Winterson’s fiction, Chloë Taylor Merleau deploys Lyotard’s claim that idioms can “bear witness to Differends” (86), a theorisation that can explicate the use of idioms in Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming). Lyotard gave the name of the differend to his theorisation of as two incommensurable parties that cannot communicate across their difference as, in the instance of this essay, West and East. Idioms re-inscribe into history silenced groups and groups rendered invisible through their inability to be articulated in language. These groups or individuals are those, for example in Winterson’s writing, Taylor Merleau argues, who are “deemed either abject or subhuman, such as the criminalized poor, animals, and same-sex lovers” (86). In Radiohead’s lyrics, idioms point to the horror of the false containment that they promise; that a specific cultural understanding can render any subject outside of that belonging, that the boundaries between inside and outside are neither stable nor clear.

The lyrics of Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) are saturated with cultural idioms and phrases that “bear witness to Differends”, specifically, the differends of self and other, Western subject and non-western ‘other’, by undermining the assumption of inherent meaning in cultural voice: “Two and two makes five” (2 +2 = 5. (The Lukewarm.)), “we’re damaged goods”, “we got nothing more to lose”, “I’m teetering on the brink”, “all evidence has been buried”, “all tapes have been erased”, “your footprints give you away” (Backdrifts. (Honeymoon is Over.)), “something for the rag & bone man”, “over my dead body” (Go to Sleep. (Little Man being Erased.)), “genie let out of the bottle”, “your alarm bells should be ringing” (The Gloaming. (Softly Open our Mouths in the Cold.)), “white elephants”, “sitting ducks” (I will. (No man’s Land.)), “a bully in a china shop”, “the pot will call the kettle black” (A Punchup at a Wedding. (No no no no no no no no.)), “tongue tied” (Myxomatosis. (Judge, Jury & Executioner.)), “a moving target” (Scatterbrain. (As Dead as Leaves.)), “dragging out your dead”, “I keep the wolf from the door” “put me inside”, “take it with the love its given take it with a pinch of salt”, “squeal to the cops” (A Wolf at the Door. (It Girl. Rag Doll.)). These idioms function to draw attention to the contradiction of the speaking voice itself. Discussing the use of slang in Céline’s novels, Kristeva argues that,

The vocabulary of slang, because of its strangeness, its very violence, and especially because the reader does not always understand it, is of course a radical instrument of separation, of rejection, and, at the limit, of hatred. Slang produces a semantic fuzziness, if not interruption, within the utterances that it punctuates and rhythmicizes, but above all it draws near to that emptiness of meaning at which Céline seems to aim (191).

Idiom draws attention to the speaking voice, the lyricism of the culture itself, it is the voice of the particular, familiar meanings of the culture. But in drawing attention to that familiarity and the very contingency of that familiarity it also shows its underside, its emptiness and strangeness to any position outside. Thus we can say idiom is excessive because it teeters at the limits of meaning; at once full of meaning, while pointing to the emptiness of all language. Unlike other forms of lyric inhabitation, such as the dramatic monologue, idiom contains within itself the process of translation and transformation, from inside to outside, self to other. As Kristeva has argued, speech itself is an attempt to assert the boundaries of the self by ‘devouring’ the threat from outside (41). In Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) idiom operates to undermine its own ‘speechfulness’, emphasizing the other within itself, to which it is estranged, and which haunts all acts of speech.

The idioms in Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) are frequently ironic, and irony is another aspect central to the representations of abjection, and one which enacts the struggles between Yorke and Bush, ‘self’ and ‘other’. The irony in the use of the idiom “over my dead body”, for example, serves to over-determine a thematic instance of abjection (the corpse, which Kristeva describes as the embodiment of our abject condition), as both a metaphorical and literal condition, an abject condition. Irony, as Naomi Schor argues, deploys the discourse that it is critiquing. Schor uses this characteristic of irony to argue it is homologous to fetishism, as it both acknowledges and disavows the primary discourse (98). However, this characteristic of the double, or internally divided and self-ejecting/expelling nature of irony also accords with abjection: the boundaries between the two meanings, the ‘straight’ meaning and its opposite, the critique instated by the ironic meaning, are not firm. Ironic language always contains its non-ironic other. Which is being meant at any one time is often the difference between whether the reader/listener/audience ‘gets’ the irony, and the potential for failure that is an inherent risk in the use of irony and that threatens to render the completely ‘other’ meaning than was intended by the irony. Irony then, is a rhetorical device located at the limit, on the border, and as such is capable of enacting abjection within language. It facilitates abject meanings: meanings that cross between the boundaries supposed to be solid, and which, in doing so, calls into question what is supposed to be contained by those borders.

Just as it is unclear upon exactly whose dead body political struggle is occurring in the ironic idiom “over my dead body” the speaking subject a citizen of the East or the West? One of the several thousand who died in 9/11, or one of the hundreds of thousands who have been killed in the subsequent retaliatory war?-the confusion of subject positions between self and other is foregrounded in the use of the personal pronouns throughout the album lyrics. As was discussed earlier, who is the “thief” of the title? George W. Bush, or Thom Yorke? The use of ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘we’, are the final stylistic aspect that I want to argue is of fundamental significance to the album lyrics, and function together with idiom and irony, to construct the abject stylistics. Every song on the album has some permutation of a negotiation between the personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘we’. The borders between those pronouns, the subjects they represent, are broken down through their compromised positionings. What is ultimately constructed is a convergence of self and other, East and West, Bush and Yorke, western subject and the eastern ‘other’.

In the song ‘The Gloaming (Softly Open our Mouths in the Cold.)’ (whose second title is a profoundly abject image of speaking: the mist that is created when the mouth is opened and the boundary between warm inside and cold air outside is punctured) the stylistics of abjection come together forcefully with its thematics, to perform the fight between ‘self’ and ‘other’ at the very height of hatred and loathing. The distinction between self and other breaks down at the self-reflexive point of orality and speech and utterance in the song:

Genie let out of the bottle
it is now the witching hour
murderers you’re murderers
we are not the same as you.

Again, who is speaking here is unclear. Is it the Western subject, the fascist afraid of the Eastern other? Or is it the Eastern subject responding to the West’s attack? Or is it both, shifting between lines: West accusing East: “murderers you’re murderers” and the East’s response: “we are not the same as you”? Or the inverse: the East’s accusation and the West’s fear-filled assertion: “we are not the same as you”? All of these meanings are possible, and thus, self and other occupy all possible positions simultaneously within these lines. Later in this song we read/hear the lines: “They will suck you down/to the otherside”, an image of loss of the self in the other, but one that does not answer the question of which subject is the self and which is the other. In ‘The Gloaming (Softly Open our Mouths in the Cold.)’ then, the conflation of self and other is effected through the incessant transgression of the pronouns back and forth, from one side of the binary to the other.

Am I/are we the ‘other’, or am I/are we George W. Bush?

In conclusion, then, Hail to the Thief (or, The Gloaming) is an album in which the subject of the lyrics deliberately occupies the psychological condition of the abject subject, the westerner who fears the other for what it signifies within himself, and seeks to destroy that threat through violence. The positions of thief and fascist are not stable, indeed, one resides always within the other. In the engagement with the abject subject, a stylistics of abjection is created which, through the use of idiom, irony, and personal pronouns, refuses a final separating out of self and other, inside and outside, West and East. The terms remain hopelessly entangled, and resolution remains therefore contingent on the circumstances of the specific lyric instance, a model, perhaps, for political analysis and negotiation between different nations, nations that are, ultimately, ‘Differends’.

America and the cycle of violence against the ‘other’

The need for awareness of the relations between the western self and ‘other’ and attempts to ‘resolve’ their schisms, however contingent or unsatisfactory, is suggested by a recent psychoanalytic reading of America’s relationship to war and its ‘enemies’ during the twentieth century. In his 2003 article ‘Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche After 9-11’, published in Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society , Walter A. Davis analyses America’s response to 9-11 through a psychoanalytic framework of memory, trauma, and repetition. Davis argues that ‘Ground Zero’ is an image of trauma-memory (he defines “trauma” as an event “that shatters the ego and its defenses” (1)). His analysis, as an American himself and therefore directly implicated in the events and their ramifications that he discusses, is located in America ‘s historical consciousness of itself in war. America , Davis argues, has its collective memory resonances in the Atomic Bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the American military in 1945, as a perceived ‘revenge’ for the attack on America by the Japanese when they dropped bombs on Pearl Harbour. Davis maintains that unless Americans acknowledge the trauma they created in themselves by what they did to the ‘enemy’ in WWII, they will continue to “repeat the psychological operations we perfected in Hiroshima in a progressive self-reification that we remain powerless to reverse as long as we refuse to internalise what actually happened on 8-6-45” (5). Thus, Davis identifies the American relationship between self and other in war as evidence of a psychological condition of self-ambivalence, internalised by the nation’s citizen-subjects as an explicitly American dilemma. Davis ‘ departure point for this analysis is one of the great figures of twentieth-century politics and reform, Mahatma Ghandi. Davis relates Ghandi’s advice:

Ghandi, on a hunger strike to protest fighting between Hindu and Muslim after the Partition, is confronted by a man in agony: “I am going to hell. I killed an innocent child. My son was slain and in my rage I killed a Muslim child. And so I am going to hell.” Gandi’s reply: “I know a way out of hell. Go, find a homeless Muslim child, adopt him and raise him as your own. But raise him in the Muslim religion.” Ghandi knew a way out of hell. I think I know a way in-and why it is the route we must follow in addressing 9-11 (1).

Davis argues that Americans must enter into the image of horror at the suffering the nation caused when it dropped the bombs, an image that has been collectively repressed:

What Hiroshima teaches that history remains irreversible in its tragic consequences until we find our own equivalent of Ghandi’s ethic: that the way out of hell is one that sustains trauma and depressive mourning as the destiny of historical subjects who know that reversal begins only when we are willing to plumb the depths of our collective disorder. .to sustain and deepen the trauma is our only hope (5).

Perhaps all western subjects need to take this advice and negotiate, through the specific optics of their own histories, their particular relationship to the sufferings caused to other peoples through colonisation and war, whatever the causes. Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) , I argue, effects just such a “plumbing of the depths” of the “collective disorder” that is not just America’s condition, but as this British band demonstrates, a relation between the West and all its ‘others’.


As Kristeva predicted, these dynamics of fascism based on abjection demonstrated by Céline in twentieth-century Modernity continue to play out. At the beginning of the twenty first century and well within postmodernity, however, the public recorder of those operations in both fictional and political terms is Thom Yorke, who is afraid of precisely this fascist potential of the western subject that Céline and George Bush display and that is an inherent potential of Yorke’s own western subjectivity. In this essay’s explications of the meetings of the album’s internal thematics and stylistics of abjection, with Yorke’s personal criticisms of the West’s war against Iraq , the answer to the question that shadows this essay resides; Hail to the Thief (The Gloaming) is a popular culture text, but it is also a political commentary. What is so disturbing to Yorke in Hail to the Thief (or, The Gloaming) is an oblique mirror reflection of Bush’s self-loathing: for Yorke the fear is that inside of the western subject is the fascist subject, the album is Yorke’s disgust at the fascist self. It is the recognition of the horrible possibility that he, Thom Yorke, is-that we are all-the same as George W. Bush. The other is within, Bush is, in this sense, the other within Yorke that the Radiohead lyricist finds repulsive and wishes to expel from himself. The western subject’s position then is always only one step away from war: “We can wipe you out/Anytime. Anytime” (Sit down. Stand up. (Snakes & Ladders.)). In a sense, it is only by ’embracing’ Bush, by entering into the fascist potential of the self, by wallowing in that horror, that contingent resolution is possible. The irony of the lines Yorke sings in ‘Sail to the Moon. (Brush the Cobwebs out of the Sky.) ‘: “Maybe you’ll/ be President/ but know/ right from wrong” has as its ‘other’ its literal meaning, and in that literal meaning there is perhaps, hope. It is only the compromised subject who can suggest compromise itself. Perhaps, as Ghandi implies and Walter A. Davis argues explicitly, the only way out of Hell is to love the other that you hate (whether that is the non-westerner, or George W. Bush), to turn back, and “walk into the jaws of hell” (‘Sit down. Stand up. (Snakes & Ladders.)’).


Kate Livett is currently employed as an Associate Lecturer in the School of English, Media and Performing Arts at UNSW, where she has recently completed her PhD on the Fetishisms of Modernity in the works of Gertrude Stein.


1. A term now irretrievably implicated in Mark Seltzer’s formulation of America ‘s “wound culture” (Seltzer 10).


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