A few years ago, a group of nomads parked-up their trailers and encamped on a patch of disused industrial land on the edge of the Docklands financial district in East London. Urban settings often bring different sorts of people into close proximity, but this was particularly intense. Leaving a glass-walled Manhattan-style skyscraper, or entering the lobby to an apartment block near the central precinct, the financial executives got wafts of woodfire smoke drifting over the water of the old docks, bringing with it the sense of some other world existing nearby.
The disjuncture was strongest for those who encountered the nomad’s kids. Docklands is immaculately ordered: reflective chrome finishes, symmetrical paving on the ground, neatly spaced bollards around the deep old docks, with share prices and currency values floating in perfect straight lines across the towering shiny buildings. Into this scene entered scruffy, delinquent children looking for trouble. They played among the bustle of the faux-Wall Street hubris, looking for fun and petty crime. When challenged, these kids were as dangerous as the untamed Pitbull terriers and Alsatians they always had with them. In a couple of seconds a suited passer-by could be set upon, stripped of his briefcase, and left languishing and bruised on the concrete.
In areas of London more used to these encampments, these children are known as site kids. These are kids who are born and raised on the temporary habitations called traveller sites in British law. Some of these sites are semi-permanent like US trailer parks, usually homing traditional gypsies. On other sites, the occupants take over unused land without permission. The nomads at Docklands were not of gypsy stock, but were descended from a wave of travelling drop-outs who took to living on the road in the early 80s. The dream back then was of a life lived without answering to any authority. They moved into old buses and trucks, and drove out to the countryside to be close to nature, turning their backs on the rule makers of Western Civilization (‘Babylon’). To distinguish them from the ethnic gypsies who have trekked the byways of England for centuries, the press called them “New Age travellers.” They invariably claimed for their own a hodgepodge of new-age ideas, like supposedly Native American traditions, Celtic paganism, eastern mysticism, and a dash of Rastafarianism. The highlight of the year for these denizens of the Age of Aquarius was a vast festival at Stonehenge for the summer solstice. By 1984, the numbers encamped around the ancient stones each year had reached 30,000, to the distress of local residents, the press, and law enforcement.
Predictably, drugs ravaged these travelling communities. The police – newly empowered and lavishly funded under Thatcher – proceeded to make life difficult for them. After an exclusion zone was erected around Stonehenge in 1985, a notorious showdown occurred in which police in riot gear smashed their way through the windshields of the traveller’s vehicles, dragging the inhabitants out over the shards of glass and marching them off, bloodstained, to be arrested. The audacity of trying to live without authority provoked bloody vengeance from the state. Many of the original, middle-class visionaries gave up on the dream and left the convoy to return to normality, while some had gone too far to turn back. In a few years, hangers-on had attached themselves to the convoy and overtaken the original new agers in number. Now all manner of oddballs lived on the sites. They were people rejected by mainstream living, or with criminal records that rendered them unemployable, or just straight-up addicts who found the travelling lifestyle preferable to sleeping on the streets. These people were hard-edged and spiky. When they descended on an area, most observers would stay the hell away. People who refuse to countenance any authority at all are not easy to deal with.
The remnant of the early 80s convoy were tough characters, but their kids were on a different level. When looking at grainy footage people of police grappling with the wild-eyed, acid-crazed inhabitants of the old rural sites, some travellers are holding babies, others trying to usher a toddler to safety. By the time of the Docklands encampment, the second generation had become the site kids. Their upbringings had been brutal. With parents living by the needle and the crack-pipe, they’d had to fend for themselves. Some were raised with occasional doses of acid or hash cakes, permanently altering their developing brains. The New Age roots of the movement had more or less disappeared within a generation. They blared out NWA from their trailers, and lived on McDonalds, not vegan stew. They were unschooled and completely illiterate. They all shared a virulent, all-encompassing, hatred of the police, whose roadblocks, truncheons, and arrests haunted their earliest memories.
The site kids were genuinely lawless. The parents had lived under the mantra “always question authority,” but for their children authority wasn’t even questioned because they never really encountered it. There was an unquestioned assumption that state authority was illegitimate, but even within the inner circle of travellers themselves, violence had replaced the law on the sites. The nomads could get by a lot of the time on bartering and quid pro quo cooperation, but without authority to keep these functioning, disagreements were dealt with by whoever could lash out hardest and fastest. The nearest the kids got to authority was therefore only ever coercion and intimidation. Authority had been replaced by brute force, it could never be seen by those subjected to it as legitimate or consensual. But an authority which is indistinguishable from coercion has ceased to be genuinely authoritative. Sites which ran on this harsh logic seemed to be, not areas in which people were liberated from oppressive social norms, but wastelands in which more brutal norms drained the life from its inhabitants.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the executives who encountered those kids while going about their life in the bustling financial district of Docklands. The abyss of comprehension between these two different tribes was deeper than even the vast Victorian docks beside which they met. It is relatively easy to imagine someone going about their workaday life, encountering the smell of wood fires and body odor, or a group of unruly traveller’s dogs knocking over the trash cans, and being transported for a second back to a more primitive kind of existence. But consider what it was like from the other side, for these kids to glimpse the life of the financial executive. Think of the incomprehensible figures on the share price screens, the smell of expensive aftershave, the gadgets and gizmos the purpose of which could not be fathomed after they’d been pilfered. Peering through monochrome windows, these neurologically malformed kids could never make sense of the multi-layered spreadsheets on the workers’ computer screens, the technologized symbiosis of man and machine in the gyms, or the driverless monorail trains winding their way between the buildings on raised tracks like decapitated snakes.
The site kids assumed the executives to be epitomes of obedience; willing subjects of the state and global markets who have assented to the status quo and respond dutifully to its commands. But one might ask if genuine obedience really applies to these executives. Acceptance of the state’s norms had become so auto-suggestive that it was not full-blooded assent. They had become unthinking cogs in their master’s machines, tasks flickering on and off on command like the LED screens on the treadmill or in the elevators. The unreal artificiality of the environment seems to cast no shadow. The end of history narrative, and the unquestioned rectitude of the dominant norms, meant these executives were just caught-up in something and carried along by it. Just as the site kids never knew real authority, the high achieving execs had never known real obedience. Obedience, to be called such, must involve a measure of assent, an obliging subjection of the will. Otherwise it isn’t real obedience, but something closer to mechanization. The executives the site kids terrorized didn’t know obedience, only unconscious submission.
The two worlds which collided in the few months of that traveller’s encampment are therefore more closely related than they appear. Both authority and obedience had receded, replaced by violent coercion on the one hand, and unconscious sublimation on the other. The peculiarity of this situation is intensified if one considers the locale of Docklands and its history. The cluster of skyscrapers sits on a part of London called the Isle the Dogs, about five miles east of the much older financial district of the City of London. There, the Bank of England had for centuries brought young men from English boarding schools, via Oxbridge, to its mahogany lined offices. Snobbery toward Docklands still endures in the City, with the 1980s riverside constructions seen as vulgar counterparts to the older neo-classical style of the City, conjuring images of the brash working-class lads who got jobs on the trading floors during Thatcher’s deregulation. In the centre of the skyscrapers towers One Canada Square. It seemed to appear from nowhere in the late eighties, towering over the Eastern side of London, with its pyramid crown containing a floodlight which revolved around the night sky, like the watchtower of a new world order.
The Isle of Dogs itself is odd. It is not a literal island, but a large promontory encircled on three sides by a sudden meander in the course of the river. Maybe it looked like an island to passing seafarers making their way along the misty waters while sailing out into the estuary. Or maybe it always just functioned like an island, in that land access was limited due to the sparse highways connecting the mainland. No-one knows the origin of the dogs. Of all the various theories, the most plausible are those connected with King Henry VIII keeping his hunting dogs in derelict farm buildings overlooking the river. Sailors would thus hear riotous cacophonies of barking issuing from somewhere beyond the mist, and envisaged hoards of canines to be prowling on the brooding promontory. The island was a rural backwater up until the early 19th Century. It had barely navigable marshes which were prone to severe flooding, and was home only to a handful of dwellings, the land criss-crossed by little streams cut into the soil to enable patches of land to be rendered suitable for grazing.
In the 17th century, British international trade exploded, and exotic goods were shipped into London in ever-greater quantities. Around this time, the Isle of Dogs became a synonym for lawlessness. The ships had to queue for days to get to the City, and wiley thieves could get down to the water’s edge after nightfall to steal from the expensive cargo. Once a thief had alighted back onto the island they could not be caught. Only the initiated knew the hidden pathways through the sodden marshland. A ship’s crew setting out after them would end-up drowning in the mud, their last gasps intertwining with the barks echoing across the river. The thieves were often children, particularly in the theft of liquor, because they wouldn’t drink the noxious smelling rum or gin they siphoned from wooden caskets before jumping back down onto land. The loss of cargo was so severe that eventually huge inland docks were built on the island itself, where ships could moor in walled enclosures for the days it took to process their goods.
Thus began the heyday of the Docks – a vast network of walled enclosures where huge amounts of exotic goods were unloaded to feed the mercantilist economy and fill the imperial coffers. The Isle of Dogs was no longer a synonym for lawlessness, but now hosted a complex collage of different interests orchestrating themselves into a highly functional and mutually beneficial system. The force of the monarch was not entirely absent, as the need to pay customs duty on incoming goods was central to the docks’ construction. But the walled enclosures of the docks were like quasi-autonomous zones, owned by imperial trading companies which were the world’s first joint-stock companies. These bodies managed global territories like only governments do today, in Britain’s far-flung colonies. They thus had their own armies, and happily policed their little walled outposts in East London themselves. The lawlessness disappeared. Homes were built for the laborers needed for unloading and moving cargo, and the “islander” came into being, as the new natives of this place we called. People no longer needed to navigate their way across the deadly marshland by night to earn their keep.
Notions of governance, of course, changed through the long 19th century, and in 1909 the docks were nationalized under one central authority. They continued to grow in capacity, and the industrial unrest of the first half of the 20th century gave the islanders a reputation as tough, unruly, and riotous. The old lawlessness of the island seemed to have resurfaced from somewhere deep beneath the earth. One could see criminality as an inevitable by-product of the more coercive authority of the state, disorder as a necessary counterpart to unilaterally imposed order. As the light of authority shines too brightly, it casts a shadow which can engulf it. The shadow-side to the Docks is built into the landscape of the island, at a place called Mudchute. Here, the vast quantities of mud produced by dredging out more docks was piled-up, creating a pocket of land which remains undeveloped, strangely immune from the civilising influence which surrounds it. It even feels subtly lawless today – a handful of fields with a grass-topped mound on which farm animals still graze, in the shadow of the glistening corporate skyline. Some say the mound looks like the Neolithic hill-forts and burial structures that surround the untamed and mysterious old plains out toward Stonehenge. Lawlessness is like the mud of Mudchute, in this case a by-product of overweening authority, something cast onto the horizon when authority ceases to be authoritative.
The docks peaked in capacity in the 1960s, after which cargo ships and container freight reached such sizes that newer docks had to be built out in the deeper waters of the Estuary, and the old docks fell into disuse and decay. In the 1970s, a local politician and islander was so frustrated with the area’s degeneration he wrote to Downing Street to declare the territory an independent republic. Not much came of it, but food supplies and power lines ran dry for a few days. The state made their boldest intervention with the huge regeneration project of the late 1980s – effectively taking control of all the now-derelict land for the construction of today’s Docklands. Now, there is a network of synchronized temples to the global markets homogenized into a smoothly running machine. The intersecting network of old ships’ waterways now lie stagnant and unused between the skyscrapers, their murky water lapping the old Victorian brickwork that enclose them.
During the nomad’s encampment, few realized that marauding site kids on the Isle of Dogs had a long-standing lineage in that place. What they represent lurks in the marshland soil – lawlessness, the refusal to countenance authority, piled up into an edifice with weird pagan associations. Yet the history of the island also resonates with what the contemporary executives they terrorized signify – sublimated subjection, the loss of genuine obedience in homogeneous, machine-like existence. The delinquents hopping across the hidden pathways across the old marshlands with their bottles of rum live on. And there is a sense in which the all-encompassing and unquestioned power served by the latter-day exec resonates with the way the old Docks were nationalized, and eventually cleared to make way for the skyscrapers. This power lives on too, in the eye-in-the-triangle of One Canada Square. But in the mid-point of these two bleak and soulless extremes lies the rich tapestry of the early 19th century docks: with its odours of wood-soaked rum, earthy pipe tobacco, saffron, and rose water. Its fruitful intersection of interests – its self-governance and clear hierarchies, enmeshed into the patchwork of a properly functioning, fecund whole.
The story of the island therefore points to a disappearance of both authority and obedience which has become so dominant in the West that its deeper aspects usually go unnoticed. Today, the execution of authority, and the undertaking of obedience, have become as toxic and untouchable as the notion of Empire itself. The imperial past is the forbidden fruit of the average historian, the dangerously unnavigable zone where few are brave enough to wander from the permitted paths.
For authority and obedience are today almost completely unsustainable. Parents are told to squat or kneel before their little children, to give a visage of equality in stature, so as not to talk down and give orders. Statements grounded on self-evident authority are now forbidden by parenting manuals (“Because I said so”), and replaced with more amenable inducements (“wouldn’t it be nice if…”). For those brought up in this way, it didn’t take long for the word “obey” to be taken out of the marriage rite, as something considered unacceptable within a loving relationship. In the workplace, all manner of amenable words for those in authority have taken hold – “leading,” “managing,” “consulting” – and for the underlings, an ability to follow orders is rebranded in terms of “appraisals” or “feedback.” The military is the last place where one can give a command, or follow an order simply because it was given, without being scoffed at.
Politically, the withering of genuine authority and its obedient response has grown apace over the centuries. Hannah Arendt asked in 1956 if anyone would be able to deny “that the disappearance of practically all traditionally established authorities has been one of the most spectacular characteristics of the modern world.” One result of this disappearance is that people no longer know what the words mean. Arendt points out that authority is “commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence,’ when the truth of the matter is “where force is used, authority itself has failed.” An authority indistinguishable from force has ceased to be authoritative. Similarly, she says obedience is a mode of response in which “men retain their freedom” – that is, there must be an element of assent, not blind subjection.
Some might argue here that obedience is what legitimate subjects do in liberal democracy, by heeding the law, participating in voting and so on. But the origins of liberalism point to a different form of assent to dutiful obedience. The quintessential expression of this is Rousseau’s social contract – a contractual agreement between equal parties, conditional on maintaining mutually beneficial conditions. Rousseau accepts that the social contract reflects a loss, the loss of the more primitive past when human society was simple enough to self-govern. But today Rousseau is so influential that discussions of authority cannot see beyond him. Any discussion of authority is couched only in terms of establishing the grounds of legitimate authority, defining when one must obey because the command is legitimate, meaning the contract is being maintained.
But a genuinely obedient response is different to contractual assent. It is not conditional. It involves going against one’s own will: it compels. Plato drew analogies between the impression of encountering something genuinely authoritative with the truths of reason. Something lucidly true compels the mind to assent because it is self-evident, regardless of how one feels inclined about it. There is no need for external means of violence, it simply grounds its authority in itself – “because it says so.” In this connection, authority and obedience are Apollonian, rooted in notions of truth, light, order, and self-evidence. Traditionally, of course, these solar connections meant authority was often patriarchal, the virile solar energy being considered as potently masculine.
Paradoxically, the Rousseauian ideal is intensified in some anarchist traditions. Noam Chomsky says he “would like to see communicated to people” the idea that “every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove it’s justified – it has no prior justification.” That is, it must always be questioned and never have its legitimacy presupposed, it must always be provisionally agreed-to as long as it fulfils contractual conditions. But assuming prior justification to authority is exactly what renders it authoritative, it is this which makes it compel. When something is genuinely authoritative, its prior justification is as self-evident as a geometrical truth – the three sides of the triangle or the radius of a circle being the distance from the center to the circumference. Something genuinely authoritative doesn’t need to be mediated through an interpretive lens to render it legitimate. It is legit because it says so.
A different intensification of the contract-theory can be located in that later child of the Enlightenment, Karl Marx. Marx certainly made space for authority in his scheme of history, as something which would be necessary for the proletariat to take hold of things and bring communism to full realization. But his dictatorship of the proletariat was only held to be a temporary and provisional stage before it gave way, eventually, to the complete withering away of the need for any authority at all. While Rousseau points to a primitive uncivilized past, Marx was bolder in directing minds to the rediscovery of this primitive order in a fully industrialized future – the end-state where each would take according to his need and give according to his ability. Both Rousseau and Marx thus share a key characteristic: a centre of gravity in some other point in time. For Rousseau, authority serves the social contract as a necessary consequence of civilization, to bring us as close as we can get to the peaceful simplicity of the past. For Marx, authority will expire, because we will rediscover our primeval simplicity through our highly developed future.
The Marxian impulse to assume an ideal state in which authority itself can be done away with has led to the situations where anything authoritative is replaced with brute force, like the new agers of the 80s produced the dark wastelands on which the site kids dwell. On the other hand, the Rousseauian impulse to hold that authority should not overrule the will, leads to a situation in which genuine assent is replaced with auto-suggestion. If obedience needs to be mediated though individual choice, authority develops into the sinister realm of manipulating choices. Rousseau gives way to the NPC-faced exec. The identikit mask is not the epitome of obedience, but its disappearance. The unnavigable wasteland of lawlessness is inverted into the homogeneously robotic system. The old Isle of Dogs can be seen as a photographic negative of the latter-day Docklands. Yet, just as the site kids and the financial execs were more closely related than it seemed at first glance, both the Rousseauian and Marxian extremes of political theory are closely related. They are both products of the Enlightenment, and they both share a centre of gravity lying in some other place, a Marxist end or telos in utopian communism or a Rousseauian beginning or omphalos in our uncivilized past.
But in the middle, again, stands the patchwork collage of the old walled docks. People once boasted that the Sun never set on the British Empire, because it reached all corners of the globe. The sailors making their way through the misty waters on their creaking galleons must have disagreed, for their secret artistry was knowing how to make their way across the blackened night by the light of the stars: observing other suns beyond our own when our own has disappeared from view. Resting in the old docks was, for them, a time when they could stop looking beyond this world to remote constellations – and would feast on the bounty they brought to shore. The liberal and the communist, the site-kid or the exec, are looking always to some sun behind our Sun – some unreachable locus where authority was or will not be needed. But genuine authority grounds its own legitimacy in itself, just as the Sun rises in the sky each day. The question facing us today is what might be brought to the shore of human civilization if this self-grounded legitimacy to authority is to be somehow rediscovered.
To pose this question, the ceaseless argumentation about what conditions make authority legitimate will need to stop. Going about the task in this way already renders it impossible, for what is required is a presumption of legitimacy as something self-evident. What is needed is a profound reorientation, an undoing, somehow, of the refractions of Enlightenment currents of thought into an newly orchestrated whole. The means of approach for glimpsing something so unthinkable is synaesthetic: it must bring together things we simply can’t imagine being the same, like seeing smells or hearing the sensation of touch. At either end of the problem lies the self-will run riot of anarchic outcast or the mechanized, sublimated citizen. The interstice between the two is like that between animal and machine. One seems all freedom, the other all regulation – but where the two meet and fuse something other comes to pass. In this sense the answer will be futurist, in the sense of that term used by Italian futurist painters. They highlighted the plasticity and malleability of man and machine – with Gino Severini, for example, distinguishing “real analogies” from “apparent analogies” – the latter being moments where two apparently unrelated things are thrown together to reveal some hidden essence behind each. We must rediscover how legitimacy and authority can be synesthetically indistinguishable again. It will be like suddenly seeing our own Sun in the sky after years of blindness, or rather, after centuries of preoccupation with some other sun behind our Sun. It will be like sailors coming to moor in a newly fortified dock and forgetting about the distant constellations that promised to guide us through the dark Enlightenment. We need to be rebooted to function properly with our own Solar operating system.
This recalibration calls, firstly, for the acceptance of something as self-evident, so that even questioning it is as absurd as suggesting the sun is not real. The NPC-exec has not accepted things, because his brain is wired into mechanized assent. The site kid is the gruesome product of the romantic hopes for some utopian otherworld. The paradoxical maelstrom of the current age is so disruptive not least because there is a lack of acceptance that genuine authority is necessary. Our living without it is as unsustainable as human civilization without water. As Arendt writes, in a family setting, the “helplessness of the child” means one must compel their will to yours, and politically, “the established continuity of an established civilization which can be assured only if those who are newcomers by birth are guided through a pre-established world into which they are born as strangers.” The reason authority and obedience endure in the military, is because in the throes of battle there is only room for that which is necessary. Genuine acceptance of this fact means authority will not be seen as a necessary evil but as a necessary good – a life-living force which mandates ordered existence.
Secondly, there needs to be a rediscovery of authority as that around which things cohere, like the Sun sits at the centre of our solar system. Richard Sennet defines authority by saying it is “an attempt to interpret the conditions of power, to give the conditions of control, and influence a meaning by defining an image of strength.” As paraphrased by Scott Beauchamp, authority is not about coercion, but about “the very context by which power, control, and strength are granted coherence.” Authority binds the whole together, and therein lies its integrity. Authority defines what is “fitting,” and therein lies its self-evidence. That which is genuinely authoritative encounters us like the cadence of a rhyming couplet, or a truth of geometry. Authority is like a concluding note to a symphony, after which the audience would never even think of asking if the piece could have ended in any other way. The arbitrary dies at the hands of the authoritative.
Thirdly, a rediscovery of authority and obedience will obviously be a rediscovery of hierarchy, reminiscent of how the Sun was assumed to sit enthroned over the lesser planets of the ancients, which each took their place in a gradated order, just as the Sun was itself understood to be under Jupiter and Mars, which were themselves under archangelic powers, and ultimately God himself. As Arendt states, the difference between an authoritative regime and a totalitarian or despotic regime is that the latter “rules in accordance with its own will or interest,” while the former has a source which is “always a force external and superior to it.” The authoritative voice itself rests on a duty to the “law” to which it is answerable, and which it has not merely constructed. That which is genuinely authoritative derives its authority from the same hierarchy within and by which it commands. Forcing together a religiously and culturally plural society on the shared basis only of being willing contractees, threatens to cast the shadow that will engulf it. Authority differentiates. Yes, it builds walls and guards them, because limits and boundaries are necessary and desirable, human communities require them. As Beauchamp writes, “our culture’s pervasive misapprehension and fear of authority derives, in large part, from our loss of community.” Moreover, boundaries mandate freedom, because they preserve the possibility of dissent. Transgression needs lines to cross.
To consider authority and legitimacy to be indistinguishable again is an act of synaesthetic recalibration, by which two apparently different things are seen to share a common essence. The encounters between site kids and NPC-execs given an indication of how this can happen, insofar as they both share the loss of genuine authority and obedience, respectively. Moreover, each of these losses follow from Rousseauian and Marxian Enlightenment impulses, which hold to a centre of gravity beyond this time, a sun behind our Sun. Our task is to knit and weave a presumption of legitimacy back into authority – permitting the genuinely authoritative action, and its properly obediential response. The interweaving needs to be so tightly embedded that the questioning of authority becomes the exception and not the norm once again. Indeed, a point where the very questioning of authority is almost forgotten – so indistinguishable is authority from its grounding legitimacy.
Such a moment can be envisaged as like those moments when the NPC-faced exec seems indistinguishable from the site kid. How are we to make sense of this absurd proposition? Undoing the refractions of the Enlightenment to see new singularities does not come easy. But a few years before the Docklands encampment an event occurred on the Isle of Dogs which promises to point us in the right direction. It happened at Mudchute. On the summer solstice in 1992, these fields with their mock iron age hillfort had themselves been the site of a traveller festival. The group responsible had been playing cat-and-mouse with the police out in the countryside for months, throwing illegal techno parties and aggravating landowners to the extent they’d been all over the national news that summer. They decided to set up camp near Docklands as a dramatic up-yours to the establishment.
This particular group had a fixation with the number 23. It was painted all over their backdrops and vans, on their t-shirts and hoodies, on the stickers and flyers they used to advertize their events. The reasons for this are to be found in the still perceptible New Age roots of the convoy, although it had since been redressed in cyber clothes and the folk and reggae had given way to driving electronic rhythms. The esoteric and new age associations of the number 23 are associated particularly with Robert Anton Wilson’s 1960s book Cosmic Trigger, almost a sacred text for the Age of Aquarius.
But these lawless nomads were locked in battle with the British constabulary, who soon encircled the Mudchute party in their riot gear, and droned overhead in their helicopters. The esoteric associations of the travellers might seem a million miles away from the typical policeman, but in Britain there is a long-running and mysterious interrelationship between the police and the freemasons. Just as the romantic, Aquarian lawlessness of the travellers has its roots in the Enlightenment, like the false prophet of authority’s final death, Marx –freemasonry too is, contrary to its founding legends, an Enlightenment invention. The mason tries to harness cosmic order under will, mediating all through individual choice, eradicating the obedience of the popular religious devotion of the less well developed. The freemason is fixated with the number 33 – the highest degree of initiation of the masonic lodge.
With these two apparently different groups converging on Mudchute – the night in question seems a very strange night already. But things take a curious turn when we penetrate more deeply into what these numbers 23 and 33 were held to signify by their respective devotees. Because, for all the superficial differences between the two groups, their numerical identities were held to be representative of the same thing. And this is a distant constellation – the sun behind our Sun: the so-called dog-star Sirius. Why Sirius is called the dog-star is more mysterious as the naming of the Isle of Dogs itself. It’s history is full of strange occult connections, from the dogon tribe of sub-saharan Africa to the alignment of it with the Great Pyramids of Geza.
But the point is not just that these sworn enemies actually shared a deep affinity, being products of the Enlightenment, squinting to see some sun behind our Sun. The point is rather that, by calling to mind this night, we can envisage the moment where they became indistinguishable. For the party in question only lasted a few hours before the police weighed-in. One aspect of the battle which ensued was passed into traveller folklore and spread across the country. It was well-known that the police, entering into a situation likely to get nasty, would remove their identifying numbers from their uniforms so no pictures or video footage would render them liable to litigation for undue violence. But, on this night – the police who set in to the scene placed on their jackets the number 33; deliberately trying to freak the travellers out by being brazen about their freemasonic allegiances. It worked, but only because the revellers, covered in the number 23, didn’t realize this wasn’t a battle between two opposite extremes – the sworn enemies were on the same side, the side of Sirius, the sun behind the Sun.
Let us imagine the scene in the moments before the sound systems were switched-off and the arrests began. The police are beating their shields steadily as they encircle the encampment, to intimidate the revellers. But neither side realizes the steady beat of the truncheons synchronises perfectly with the 4/4 bass drum of the music. The police dogs too, barking and straining at their leashes at the front police line, seem like mirror images of the travellers’ dogs rushing to the scene of the attack to protect their masters. And as the police set upon the crowd, it seems less like a battle between two warring groups, but more like a perverse dance – a traveller ducking under a policeman’s arm causing him to circle round 360 degrees, another suddenly shifting to one side so a policeman’s lunge leads to an abrupt stop and turn in time to the music. Another tries to grab a reveller by the scruff of the neck, and accidentally grabs a traveller’s hand – and for a few seconds it looks like they’re holding hands and pirouetting.
We can now see that two worlds can’t collide, because there is only this one world, and attempts to orientate oneself on an imagined elsewhere ricochet back to earth and bounce off each other. When this point is heeded, seemingly unrelatable things can take shape around each other properly once again. The arbitrary dance gives way to the authoritative order, and obedience responds immediately, simply because that was what was asked of it.
Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. He tweets at @Counteredlogos.