Unknown Soldiers: Building Bodies in(to) the City

While searching for other stuff I came across this paper – the first academic paper I ever wrote and presented – which I gave at the Uncanny Landscapes conference in London in March 2013. It seems like the right time of year, so I thought I’d let it out in to the light…

Unknown Soldiers: Building Bodies in(to) the City

Abstract On 11th November 1920, the corpse of a British soldier arrived ‘home’ in London from the Great War. Exhumed and re-entombed after five years buried in a ‘foreign field’, the body of the Unknown Warrior – perhaps composite, certainly mutilated – was welcomed as a symbol of national mourning and commemoration, and remains built into the fabric and psyche of London to this day. “Unknown, and yet well known” – the words from Corinthians inscribed on the slab of Belgian marble which covers the Tomb in Westminster Abbey – the body of a soldier reifies both the foreign, gruesome, unknown and unknowable horrors of a mechanically and geographically impersonal war, but is also the morally exculpable embodiment of countless sons and husbands – a paradoxical symbol both of identity and anonymity; and a tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar typically associated with ideas of the Uncanny. This paper seeks to expand on what Laura Wittman refers to as the “disquieting” effect of the Unknown Soldier and, using as a comparison the empty tomb of the Whitehall Cenotaph, which was unveiled on the same day as the reburial of the Unknown Warrior, will explore the potential repression of the actual corporeal materiality of the exhumed body, both in terms of the occupied tomb and the empty one, with all the Biblical and Gothic connotations which that might entail. It may be possible to conclude at this stage that the ‘Uncanniness’ of the (dis)embodied soldier in the built environment was – and possibly still is – more easily repressed and accepted than the prospect of the living soldier in the city, manifest either in the mutilations of survival or as the embodiment of unpopular foreign policy.


The idea for this paper came out of a wider project involving how the figure of the soldier fits into society and space – in particular the urban environment of London – in a physical, visible, human way, but also in terms of how representations of the soldier have been built into the city in the steady creep of militarised space, and as spaces and places of memorial and remembrance. In terms of how ‘at home’ the soldier is in the city, it occurred to me that dead soldiers might be accommodated far more readily than living ones, possibly because they can so easily and uncomplainingly be built into the fabric of the city but also because, once dead, they seem to be able to transcend the politically, morally or socially unsavoury circumstance of their death and are thus able to join the national (or nationalistic) narratives of glorious remembrance and sacrifice which began in earnest in the aftermath of the First World War. And that is what started me thinking about the Unknown Soldier, and the empty tomb of the Cenotaph, both representing every soldier, but no soldier – both known and unknown – the anonymous face of war – and for the official agenda, a completely blank slate on which these mythic narratives could be written, but crucially a slate which covered up – and repressed – the trauma of the war as represented by the horrific material corporeality of the dead – or possibly undead – soldier beneath it. As Laura Wittman writes: “the Unknown Soldier was at once a representation of the body of the nation and of the human body, both felt to be ruptured, perhaps permanently, by the war and by modernity”[i]. It could therefore be said that the literal and imaginative co-opting of every one of these ruptured bodies was a means by which the body of the nation might more easily be mended.

This paper seeks to explore how the dual sites of the Whitehall Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey quite literally embody the two basic poles of Freud’s Uncanny – described by Derek Hook as anxieties around, on the one hand, an embodied absence – (in this case the unidentified corpse), and on the other hand a disembodied presence (ie the empty tomb), or in other words something present which should be absent or something absent where it should be present, and that the attempted repression of the material corporeality of the present/absent corpse was, and possibly still is, typical of the wider official reaction to the aftermath of war, its justification, and the management of trauma and remembrance.

Untitled2In 1915 the British authorities made the decision that bodies of the dead from the Western Front would not be repatriated, there were simply too many – and would remain in the soil in which they died – nearly 700,000 confirmed dead and 350,000 missing, so, despite, as Paul Connerton points out, “the absurd proximity of the trenches to home”[ii] they could never be brought back to that home and mourned. At the end of the war it was decided that a temporary monument be built in London as a focus for the 1919 ceremony of Remembrance. The location of Whitehall was chosen, and Edward Lutyens commissioned to create the monument. His design was simple yet striking, depicting a tomb on top of a pedestal. First used in Ancient Greece to commemorate the passing of a specific person whose remains were elsewhere, the Empty Tomb of the Cenotaph was to be a symbolic representation of the repatriation of a million dead soldiers. The temporary cenotaph, which was built of wood and plaster, took the authorities by surprise in its popularity with the grieving public, and was quite literally almost crushed by the quantity of wreaths, flowers and visitors it attracted.

When it was eventually taken down early in 1920 (due to weather damage), it was decided to build a permanent monument of remembrance. Despite calls to locate the permanent structure in a wider public space, the site in the centre of Whitehall – by now deemed to have made sacred by the tears of thousands of mothers and wives – was where the identical Cenotaph of Portland Stone was unveiled on 11th November 1920. Intentionally devoid of any religious symbol to honour the beliefs of every soldier of the Empire, the Cenotaph bore only the inscription – on Lloyd George’s suggestion – ‘The Glorious Dead’. However, despite the presence of a permanent monument to all the dead, the lack of Christian imagery had not pleased the Church of England, and when the idea of bringing the body of a soldier home for burial was raised earlier in 1920, the Dean of Westminster made it his own and the body of the Unknown Soldier (or Warrior to include the other services…) , first paraded past the newly unveiled Cenotaph, was buried in Westminster Abbey a few minutes later. Neil Hanson has pointed out that there was no provision for, or representation of, wounded or maimed veterans at either ceremony, a significant irony given the fate of the body in the tomb.[iii]

So the 11th November 1920 saw two separate tombs built into the fabric of London within 2 hundred yards of each other – one empty, and one containing painstakingly unidentifiable remains, both intended as the symbolic homecoming of a generation of dead young men. Yet while the ‘unknown’ body became ‘known’ for the purposes of commemoration and mourning, and the splendour of Westminster Abbey became the familiar ‘local parish church’ for the purposes of reclaiming the body to English soil, there were some distinctly ‘unhomely’ elements surrounding both the Tomb and the Cenotaph which, presumably because they did not further the official myth of sacrifice, or did not accept the anonymity of remembrance offered to them, were largely repressed.

The fact that the coffin of the unknown soldier had arrived in England by boat accompanied by 50 sacks of battlefield soil, was something which might not only resonate in the literary imagination only 20 years after the publication of Dracula, but more prosaically it meant that – quite literally – a corner of a foreign field would now be forever England. In addition, the deeply unpleasant reality that the body in the tomb had been exhumed 5 years after its probably horrible death in Flanders, its remains picked through to ensure anonymity and that it was sufficiently decomposed to be accepted into the sacred ground of the Abbey, seem to this day almost too taboo to mention, and are surely mixed up with the wider fear of death and dead bodies with which the western world seems more generally to suffer.

The official line of commemoration after WW1 was, as Jay Winter has said, written “by people determined to uphold the nobility of the war effort and the dignity of the dead.” Soldiers were remembered as morally exculpable victims of aggression – their characters and bodies unblemished by personal weakness or the brutality of a mechanised war. But, Winter goes on, “commemorating the war in this ill-informed and blatantly non-combatant manner took on the air of propaganda… and like most propaganda it did not dwell on the sadder facets of the war: the maimed, the deformed, the dead, the widows, the orphans, and the bereaved.”[iv] The apparent attempt at falsification of the official memory record was, however, impossible to sustain completely, and the invisible became visible in a number of different ways, leaking into the official record almost subconsciously through the prevailing public interest in spiritualism or through the ‘anti-monumental’ means of post war art and literature. In both cases, it is the recognition of the horrific consequences of the war on actual bodies and the trauma resulting from such recognition which makes both the Tomb and the Cenotaph such potent sites.


Major William Orpen was commissioned into the Army Service Corps as an official artist of the war, and, having witnessed the horrors of the trenches first hand he quickly came to sympathise with the soldiers he was painting rather than with the men in authority who were, it seemed to him, so carelessly sending them to their deaths. After the war he was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to paint a series of portraits of the dignitaries at the Paris Peace Conference, one of which, entitled ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, featuring a Union Jack draped coffin foregrounded against the splendour of Versailles, was eventually accepted by the Museum in 1927.

But this was not before Orpen’s first version of the painting, depicting the tomb flanked by two ghostly, half naked and deranged soldiers, had been rejected on the grounds that a) it was not what the Museum had commissioned, and b) perhaps unsurprisingly the museum did not think it fitted it with the official narrative of a glorious victory, and Orpen was forced to paint over the figures. His diaries are a telling insight into his crisis of conscience; after the signing of the peace by the ‘frocks’ as he disdainfully called The Big Four, he wrote “And it was all over. The ‘frocks’ had won the war. The ‘frocks’ had signed the peace! The army was forgotten. Some dead and forgotten, others maimed and forgotten, others alive and well – but equally forgotten.”[v]


Another contemporary representation of the Unknown Soldier appears in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, when the ironically named pacifist Miss Kilman has her existential crisis next to the Tomb in Westminster Abbey. Bathed in the “bodiless light” from the Abbey windows, we are told she is surrounded by people who, “shuffling” around the Tomb, are “keen to see the waxworks”.[vi] The tension between the bodiless light, and the body in the tomb is enhanced by the suggestion of the waxworks – the uncanny reality of the known but unknown body, haunting the text. Woolf had herself been particularly scathing about the ceremonies of remembrance, describing what she called “the night of the cenotaph” as…”a lurid scene, like one in Hell… women crying ‘Remember the Glorious Dead’, & holding out chrysanthemums”, but her description of demobilised limbless soldiers at Waterloo Station as “dreadful looking spiders propelling themselves along the platform”[vii] showed in reality how the horrors of the war-mutilated body dehumanised returning soldiers in a way in which the cleansed and sanctified body in the Tomb did not.

The Cenotaph too, with its missing body becomes a strangely unsettling concept when looked at in a historical and cultural context – “saturated with ghostly national imaginings”[viii], as Benedict Anderson famously put it in the opening chapter of Imagined Communities. Although deliberately secularised, the empty tomb carries with it the considerable Biblical weight of the Resurrection, but also conjures up images of the Gothic. The un-dead body missing from its tomb, and indeed the un-dead body stuck inside its tomb had been a staple of late Victorian gothic and sensationalist fiction through the likes of Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, and the already popular trend of spiritualism and even occultism, was enhanced and indeed exacerbated by the desperation of grief after the war.

In the early 1920s, a 58 year old cleaning lady/turned medium called Ada Emma Deane began taking photographs of the Cenotaph on Armistice Day. When developed, the photos appeared to show the ghostly images of soldiers hanging above and mingling with the mourners.


The pictures were hugely popular, some people convinced they could recognise in them the faces of their lost sons and husbands, and Deane carried on for several years until a newspaper claimed to have identified the mysterious faces in the ether as famous footballers and boxers of the day. Even then she was fiercely defended by her supporters who included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


What we can see from this, therefore, was a strong need for actual bodily recognition… to see face to face the soldiers apparently brought to life and absconding from their collective empty tomb, and what lends a particularly uncanny edge to this need for recognition could also be seen by the rumour in the press that the Brigadier General who had selected the body of the Unknown Soldier had been blindfolded, as if he somehow might have been able to recognise one of the piles of bones and rotting flesh in front of him as an individual human being.


There has been much theoretical debate since the First World War on the political significance and affective power of monumental space, and in particular the “transformation of the body into monument” which, according to Mark Auge, occurs with “the mummification of a body or the erection of a tomb”[ix]. In The Production of Space, Henri Lefevbre writes that “only through the monument, through the intervention of the architect as demiurge, can the space of death be negated, transfigured into a living space which is an extension of the body”[x]. It is this idea of the body/monument which I want to briefly touch on in relation to the monuments of the Tomb and Cenotaph, and also with reference to more recent war memorials.

The condition of death has been described by Carlos Sancho as difficult to grasp because death “stands as a negation, an object that, as we stare harder, we find out that ‘there is nothing to see’. This ‘vacuum of death’ creates empty or negative spaces… quite as the imprint that is created when a body is removed, the shape of a person impressed on the bed”[xi].

Untitled7This idea of the physical ‘vacuum of death’ can, as we have seen, be monumentalised in the form of the Cenotaph – or empty tomb, but more recently the work of Rachel Whiteread has illustrated how absence and loss can be articulated by the physical expression of negative space. Whiteread’s work ‘House’ in Grove Road, Mile End has already been written about as an example of uncanny architecture by Anthony Vidler[xii] – her representation in concrete of a space symbolically devoid of what should be there turns a homely, domestic space into the ‘unhomely’ in much the same way that the absence of a body turns the Cenotaph into – for want of a better word – the ‘untombly’.

Untitled11It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Whiteread was chosen to create a memorial to the Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust , a negative cast of a library with the books turned inwards in the Judenplatz in Vienna. What might be more of a surprise.. an uncanny coincidence perhaps… is her design for the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square – a resin cast of the inverted pedestal -which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Cenotaph a few hundred yards away in Whitehall.

Untitled9Jenny Edkins and Jay Winter both pick out the Whitehall Cenotaph and the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington as examples of how memorial monuments can successfully harness the power of the body in recognising and confronting trauma. For Edkins, both memorials are “exceptional because they encircle trauma rather than absorbing it in a national myth of glory and sacrifice”. She sees the subjugation of trauma as a disruptive power which, if unrecognised, can “return to haunt the structures of power that instigated the violence in the first place”[xiii].

To Edkins, the two monuments are successful memorials because they face trauma full on by forcing reality and the recognition of the body onto their viewer, which is realised architecturally by the reflectiveness of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, enforcing bodily recognition as a mirror image – as this photo shows.


This paper has, however, tried to suggest that the bodily power of the Cenotaph is crucially enhanced by its coupling with the Tomb in Westminster Abbey – an uncanny doubling of the present/absent body which almost reifies the trauma so readily repressed in the myth (or Old Lie) of the Glorious Dead. And it is this official myth of remembrance and sacrifice – the absolution of blame and the repression of trauma, which, according to Mark Auge, is what needs to be forgotten in order “to remember the past as a present, to return to it to find the hideous shape of the unspeakable again”. Auge goes on: “Official memory needs monuments, it beautifies death and horror. The beautiful cemeteries of Normandy…align their tombs all along the intertwined pathways, nobody could say that this arranged beauty is not moving, but the emotion it arouses is borne from the harmony of forms, from the impressive spectacle of the army of the dead immobilised in the white crosses standing to attention. …it does not evoke the raging battles, nor the fear of the men, nothing of what would actually restore some of the past realistically lived by the soldiers buried in the Normandy soil.”[xiv]

This bringing of the past into the present in order to remember that which a mere monument and official rhetoric makes so easy to forget is, I would argue, embodied, if not personified by the duel presence, or absence of the bodies in the tomb. In highlighting the liminality of death, the mortality of the body and the blurring of anonymity and identity, they also embody the Uncanny. In the words of Ra Page: “[The Uncanny] puts us on edge — that place we really should be from time to time — and reminds us: it’s us that’s alive.”[xv]

[i] Laura Wittman, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body, (Toronto: 2011) p.3

[ii] Paul Connerton, How Society Remembers, (Cambridge: 1989) p.20

[iii] Neil Hanson, The Unknown Soldier: The Story Of The Missing Of The Great War, (Corgi : 2007)

[iv] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: 1998) p.81

[v] William Orpen, An Onlooker in France 1917-1919, (Project Gutenberg 2006) [http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20215/20215-h/20215-h.htm]

[vi] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, (Collector’s Library: 2003), p.149

[vii] Karen Levenback, Virginia Woolf and The Great War, (Syracuse : 1998) p.40

[viii] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (Verso : 2006) p.9

[ix] Mark Augé, Non Places, (Verso : 2008) p.50

[x] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Wiley-Blackwell : 1991) p.221

[xi] Carlos Garcia-Sancho, ‘Building Death: Cemeteries and the Representation of Death in Western Culture’ (issuu.com) p.17 [http://issuu.com/cgsancho/docs/buildingdeath#]

[xii] Anthony Vidler, Warped Spaces: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture, (MIT:2002) p.142

[xiii] Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics, (Cambridge: 2003) p.57

[xiv] Mark Augé, Oblivion, (Minnesota: 2004) pp. 88-89

[xv] Ra Page (ed.), The New Uncanny, (Comma: 2008) intro



New GeoHumanities article – A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism: provocation/intervention

My article A Critique of Linguistic Capitalism: provocation/intervention has now been published online first in GeoHumanities : https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/2373566X.2018.1486724

There were 50 free eprints available at https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/9Nm9BBmHdwdFYRxjqejh/full, but for anyone without institutional access, the accepted manuscript is attached below (as per Taylor and Francis guidelines). I can share the published PDF privately on request.


Language Redux

I have a new short piece about the value of language in the digital economy out in APRJA Research Values, ed. by Christian Ulrik Andersen & Geoff Cox. I use {poem}.py (my artistic intervention into Linguistic Capitalism & Google AdWords), to re-work Christian and Geoff’s introduction 3 ways:  http://www.aprja.net/language-redux/

This issue is the result of the Research Values workshop at the Brandenburg Center for Media Studies (ZeM) in Potsdam earlier this year, during which we also had the opportunity to present at transmediale festival for digital art and culture in Berlin.

The whole workshop/festival experience was amazing, and I got to test out an early version of some new work on the subject of Subprime Language, which I hope to be writing up shortly in collaboration with John Hogan Morris.

There are some fantastic full papers and interventions in this issue too from Furtherfield’s Marc Garrett, Tega Brain, Lea Laura Michelsen, Luke Munn, Francis Hunger, César Escudero Andaluz & Martín Nadal and Dionysia Mylonaki & Panagiotis Tigas and many more….

All papers can be found here:  http://www.aprja.net/research-values/


geographies of (con)text: language and structure in a digital age

Geographies of (con)text: language and structure in a digital age is an article I published last year (2017) in Computational Culture: a journal of software studies. It began life as an AAG paper called The Production of Context and Digital Reproduction of Language, presented in one of the Geographies of Software sessions organised by Nick Lally and Ryan Burns in 2016. The article talks about structural bias in language as it is digitised and monetised by tech companies such as Google and Apple. It includes some of my work on linguistic capitalism, a brief reference to my {poem}.py project, and the story of the Google search which launched my thesis…

This paper puts forward the concept of ‘geographies of (con)text’ to critique the metaphors and materialities of ‘the digital’, concentrating on the physical constructs and constraints of language on the web. A landscape of words as opposed to a landscape of code (Thrift & French, 2002), language-as-data becomes material in ways very different from both print and spoken word; its physicality represented in bits, bytes and circuitry, and its limits and variations mediated and governed by the processes which order, sort, move and index it. By virtue of their reproducibility and enhanced means of dissemination, digitised words can have paratextual – and often political – agencies and excesses beyond their linguistic function. Using examples of online search, dictionaries and translation, the paper will imagine how context as a kind of space might be produced, constructed and limited, how competing actors contribute tactically (de Certeau, 1984) to the (in)visibility and (im)mobility of the linguistic data in the searchable database, and how these actors negotiate the conflicting interests of money, efficiency and truth (Lyotard, 1984) in the geo-linguistic spaces of the web. With a geography of (con)text thus imagined, the mathematical and binary logics that construct and mediate the language within it are also clearly exposed. The paper goes on to discuss how creativity and originality might be restricted by ongoing processes of quantification and monetisation of language, before concluding that digitised language falls somewhere in the middle of a structuralist/post-structuralist critique; being at the same time both free from and constrained by the geographies of context.


Figure 1. Google search wives and girlfriends sexist, screenshot February 20, 2014


The Meaning of Light: Seeing and Being on the Battlefield

I haven’t always written about algorithms and digital capitalism, but I have previously used poetry as a lens through which to expose the politics and asymmetries of technology and space. The Meaning of Light: Seeing and Being on the Battlefield (cultural geographies Vol: 22 issue: 4) is a paper I published in 2015 based on my experiences as a reservist soldier in Iraq in 2003. It’s about vision, affect, bodies, materiality and the (often imperial) politics of terrain on the battlefield. It all started with a poem I wrote about watching illuminating shells lighting up Basra before an artillery attack.

Light Discipline (2013)

In a blackout we adjust our sights

by touch and cup our smoke against

the desert, waiting for the light.

At long last the barrel scrapes

into place and the night is instantly

exposed. I cover my ears and watch.

In the distance a fitful city crouches,

seared eyes raised to the floating

arc above, waiting for the strike.

First written for the Sensing War Conference organised by Kevin McSorley in London in 2014, I subsequently presented the completed paper at the 2015 AAG in Chicago in a session on Terrain organised by Stuart Elden and Gaston Gordillo.

The paper in cultural geographies is available here, alternatively you can get an open access pre-print from my Royal Holloway PURE page here.

light Screenshot 2018-03-21 17.40.17

What is Orwell’s 1984 really worth?

£58318.14 to be precise. In theory anyway… to Google.

1984endI’ve been playing around with running longer texts through {poem}.py and eventually managed to process (and price) the whole of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I use the idea of Newspeak in my critique of Google’s monetisation of language, so I thought it made sense to use the book for this particular experiment.

The book took 7 minutes and nearly a whole till roll to print. I find it quite mesmerising to watch, so I filmed it. The end/climax is almost balletic. You can watch here:

I’ll be doing some live demos over the next couple of weeks – first as part of the Museum of Contemporary Commodities session at the RGS-IBG on Friday 1st September, then as part of the Inter/sections exhibition at Mile End Arts Pavilion from 3-8th September, where I will be showing a framed collection of the poem.py receipts for the very first time. Finally, on 2nd October, I’ll be presenting alongside the brilliant Louise Amoore and Pip Willcox at the Testing Turing event at the British Library in London. Exciting times!

Politics and ethics in media & art technology | Exhibition & Symposium 3-8th Sept Mile End Arts Pavilion


I am very excited to be a part of this event at Mile End Arts Pavilion in London next month. I will be displaying my {poem}.py project at the exhibition (3-8th Sept), and also giving an artist’s talk at the symposium on the 8th September. The exhibition also features computer artist Will Hurt and designer Yosuke Ushigome.

From the website: Following the rise of unprecedented activism and political protests in the past year, Inter/sections 2017 explores how artists and technologists use different networks, databases, and systems to raise awareness of ethical and political issues around technologies. Inter/sections culminates in a Symposium on Friday 8 September. This is a day-long event for discussion and exchange between academia, industry and activists. Featuring keynote speakers who are experts in emerging trends in science and media, the Inter/sections Symposium creates a space to debate new ethical frameworks for emerging technologies.The Symposium includes…

View original post 270 more words

Buying Brexit: the politics of Google ads & the general election

By Pip Thornton

I have been doing some work about the Tories and Labour buying Google adverts for ‘dementia tax’ in the run up to the General election. It is fascinating to me as it shows so clearly what I am trying to critique in my work about the politics and economics of the search engine, and the neoliberalistion of language and discourse through Google’s AdWords marketplace. The potential tainting of the search engine with advertising is of course something Google’s creators Sergey Brin and Larry Page anticipated and indeed initially tried to avoid. This is evident in an appendix to their 1998 paper, on The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, where they noted that ‘advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers’. Last week’s debate about the use of paid Google adverts by all…

View original post 1,120 more words

How the Tories wrote my thesis: the political economy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine

brinpageScreenshot 2017-05-28 00.40.45

Sergey Brin and Larry Page invented Google as students at Stanford in 1998. They knew from the beginning how advertising could interfere with the efficiency and integrity of their proposed search engine. In an appendix to their paper, on The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, they noted that ‘the goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users’, and that ‘advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers’. They weren’t wrong, yet they had to fund it somehow, and after nearly two decades of conflict between advertising dollars and organising the world’s information (as per Google’s mission statement), a typical search engine results page (SERP) today is surely unrecognisable from what Brin and Page could ever have imagined, infused as they have now become with the neoliberal logic of a linguistic marketplace. There is of course an ever-expanding literature critiquing the political, economic and epistemic implications of search engines, initiated in part by Introna & Nissenbaum back in 2006. This body of scholarship is one which I aspire to contribute towards in my final thesis. In the meantime, I saw a search result this week that pretty much sums up that thesis, and I think I might have Theresa May to thank for that.

I have been researching Google Search and its various distortions for a few years now, but until last week I have never come across an example that has so crystallised the potential political implications and social consequences of a monetised and market-dominating ‘large-scale hypertextual Web search engine’. This example brings out the many powerful themes present within my research; organic vs paid SEO, linguistic capitalism, digital democracy, neoliberalism, power, discourse, politics, money, social inequality, digital economics, philosophy, epistemology, alternative facts and more…

THIS is the search result I am tempted to submit in lieu of my PhD thesis:

3partyScreenshot 2017-05-22 14.19.22

The background

On Monday morning (22nd May 2017), Google search users first started noticing that the Conservatives had taken out an advert with Google about the dementia tax. Despite dismissing the term ‘dementia tax’ as a ‘so-called’ phrase in the hyperlinked advertising copy, the Tory media machine apparently had no problem embracing, harnessing and indeed purchasing the phrase in order to exploit its commercial capabilities on Google’s AdWords platform. As a Tory spokesman said:  ‘It is quite right we take steps to tackle the misinformation and fear being spread by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’.

The first I heard about the whole thing was when a friend and colleague Andrew Dwyer suggested on Twitter that if the Tories were paying Google per click (PPC, or Pay Per Click is how the AdWords system usually works) in order to control and dominate the narrative around their controversial policy, then we should all be continuously searching for ‘dementia tax’, and clicking on the link the Conservatives had paid for. The AdWords platform is the original and fundamental source of the wealth and power Google enjoys today, but advertising this way can be expensive – and ultimately unsustainable – if your advert attracts clicks that you are unable to convert into sales. So hacking the system by clicking on the Tory sponsored dementia tax advert could theoretically cost Theresa May’s campaign dearly. The process is in fact much more complicated than that, however. For example, the more successful click-throughs an advert generates, the higher its ‘quality score’ becomes, thus driving down the cost of each click.

Although AdWords is based on an auction model, quality scoring and other algorithmic ranking factors also help to determine which bids ‘win’ the top spots on the search page, and it is not necessarily the highest bid that comes out top. Advertisers can also buy bundles of ad placements for a fixed price (called PPM – Pay per Impression). This would normally be used for customers who just want their brand or message to have more exposure, and do not necessarily need people to click-through. In addition to this, Google has systems in place to detect and counter apparent click fraud, whether automated or part of a physical campaign, and there are numerous independent anti-click fraud companies too. Google AdWords is a very complicated and confusing economy, which is why an enormous multi-million dollar Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry has grown up to sustain and perpetuate it.

But despite this, the potential financial implications of the Tory’s advert (if the clicking went viral and unchecked, for example) along with a nagging scepticism about the possible manipulation and loop-holing of free ‘charity status’ Google advertising through the AdGrants scheme, initially made me think that the overtly political adverts for ‘dementia tax’ had somehow bypassed the standard commercial (and ostensibly market driven) AdWords procedure. As I have written about elsewhere, it used to be the case that the free AdWords ‘donated’ to Not-For-Profits (NFP) through the AdGrants scheme could not be used for political or religious purposes, but Google dropped that caveat when it started allowing NFP groups to take part in the ‘Redirect Method’. Born out of criticism from government over the spread of extremist literature and sites through platforms such as Google search, The Redirect Method is a scheme spearheaded by Google’s innovation centre Jigsaw (but the method is open to anyone with the right charity status) which uses free AdWords to ‘buy up’ keywords and phrases which might be used by would-be extremists to search for sites, videos, forums or manuals relating to terrorism. Keywords such as ‘Join ISIS’, or ‘Jihad’, would be simple examples, although the whole list is far more detailed and nuanced than that. Instead of being returned a page of ‘organic’ results relating to their search terms, the would-be jihadist instead sees adverts at the top of the page which link to specially curated sites and YouTube footage which aim ‘to confront online radicalization’ by ‘redirecting’ the user to alternative sites. As its brochure states, The Redirect Method:

focuses on the slice of ISIS’ audience that is most susceptible to its messaging, and redirects them towards curated YouTube videos debunking ISIS recruiting themes. This open methodology was developed from interviews with ISIS defectors, respects users’ privacy and can be deployed to tackle other types of violent recruiting discourses online

It is a similar narrative-altering motive and methodology to the Tories’ rationale for using AdWords in order to ‘tackle the misinformation and fear being spread by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’, which is why my cynical mind wouldn’t have been surprised if the dementia tax adverts turned out to be exploiting some charity status loophole to obtain such a dominant position on Google, or indeed had been initiated through a non-official channel. This scenario would of course have meant that Google was not profiting from click-throughs, although the company can and does use these ‘in kind’ charity donations against their tax bill. On a more practical level, AdGrants accounts take many weeks to set up – and almost certainly longer than the period of time it took for the phrase ‘dementia tax’ to gain enough political traction (thanks in part to a Financial Times front page) to warrant the Tory’s need to ‘tackle’ it.

Winners and losers in Linguistic Capitalism

I have been following the adverts for several days now, and am fairly certain that it is plain old ‘linguistic capitalism’, rather than any hidden hand, that is mediating the current narrative of the ‘dementia tax’. But this is not to say that the current politicisation of the word ‘dementia’ has not had an impact on its use in a social environment. On the contrary, shortly after the Conservative advert on Monday morning, a Labour one appeared, and then some time after that, a Liberal Democrat one. (NB – the screenshot above shows the paid-for Tory and Labour adverts, and an ‘organic’ Lib Dem one… more on that later…). And it was not just political parties getting in on the act – privately funded adverts began to appear too, all of them presumably bidding for the keyphrase ‘dementia tax’. One anonymous advert links to www.dementia.tax, a site created last Monday (22nd May 2017) ‘by a voter that really doesn’t want mayhem in power’. As I mentioned before, Google AdWords is a strange and opaque marketplace, but whatever its distortions, the bidding wars going on for ‘dementia tax’ this week have presumably significantly driven up the price of the words. This is potentially great news for Google, who get paid the winning bid price on the pay-per-click system (which is in effect 1 cent more than the second highest bid), but it is less good news for the dementia charities who rely on free AdGrants words (which are capped at $2 a click), and who may in effect have been priced out of the market.

I do not know the full amount the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems or the independents are paying Google for their political exposure, and neither do I know for definite that charities such as Alzheimer’s Society, MindCare and Carers Trust receive free AdGrants advertising. Google’s data and systems are of course proprietary and opaque. What I do know is that according to the Google Keyword Planner (KWP), which suggests appropriate bid prices of words and phrases to advertisers entering the AdWords auction, the phrase ‘dementia tax’ has been valued at zero from 22nd May 2017 to time of writing (29th May 2017). From work I have done on the KWP in the past, however, suggested bid prices – especially those for words or phrases fairly new to the market – take a while to start reflecting changes. I saw this when the suggested bid price for the word ‘Chilcot’ rose from zero to £1.86 the week after the Iraq Inquiry was released in 2016, which I suppose is both a testament to the ingenuity of the SEO industry, as well as a depressing confirmation of the postmodern condition (work forthcoming). I will be keeping an eye on the KWP price data on dementia/dementia tax over the next few weeks. Given what I found in the historic data on the price of ‘brexit’ (see below), I suspect any jump in price may already have occurred, although that would not explain why the suggested price for ‘dementia tax’ is still zero.

Suggested bid prices are of course not necessarily indicative of the actual PPC, and access to that data is only obtainable through a funded campaign. For many reasons, I am reluctant to start getting involved in fake Google advertising for the purposes of research, even if if would afford me better data, especially when the arena is both so political and potentially detrimental to charity organisations. If I can find a way of doing so unproblematically then I will (I have tried contacting the dementia charities concerned to see if they might share their AdWord data), but until then, my own methodology is to use suggested bid prices and an artistic intervention called {poem}.py to critique the system.

Of course, it is important to remember that the coveted phrase here is ‘dementia tax’, and not just the word ‘dementia’, which when searched still returns dementia charity results, and has only risen in price on the KWP by a penny over the course of this week. But there is a significant ‘bleed’ in the way Google monetises language. If the phrase ‘dementia tax’ is not enclosed in inverted commas in the search bar as a ‘verbatim’ search, then the component words become triggers in their own right. This is easiest to see if you search a phrase (without inverted commas) on Google. If there is no discrete match (or at least if none is selected by the algorithm), then the snippets of text under each result will highlight in bold the word that has triggered the hit. Thus the advert below for a dementia charity is served on the search term ‘dementia tax’, despite the word ‘tax’ not appearing in the ad:

Screenshot 2017-05-28 18.56.31

What is really both interesting and worrying is that this advert for Alzheimer’s Society appears alongside other dementia charities at the bottom of the second page of the search results, which in eyeball terms is pretty much oblivion. While a Huffington Post article speculated that ‘the best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google’, there have also been other more rigorous studies into browsing habits that show that people rarely scroll beyond the first page. The adverts for the 3 main political parties, however (and the Lib Dems had taken out a paid ad out at the time of this screenshot) have pride of place at the top of the first page. This economic and political hierarchy of results not only takes up valuable real estate space from the organic results, but reveals the real-time effects this politicisation of AdWords might be having.

Returning to the original thesis-writing screenshot (thanks Theresa)… I hope to have illustrated how all the issues I have discussed in this post are implicit in that one search result (and I haven’t even begun to decipher the whole ‘alternative fact’ elements of the actual content of the ads). It tells some many stories. As well as what I have already discussed, the screengrab was taken from Page 2 of the search results. So not only does it reconfirm the Tories’ bigger spending power over the Labour Party (and that both parties have budgets big enough to reach beyond the first SERP), but that the organic Liberal Democrat result didn’t show up on the first page at all – it had been pushed to the second page by the paid ads. When only the Tory advert showed up at the top of Page 1, the organic Lib Dem result took up the last slot on the first SERP. Much the same seems to be happening to charities and NFPs who cannot compete against well-funded political campaigns. Political parties have of course always paid for advertising, but this new way of harnessing linguistic capitalism through Google AdWords speaks volumes not only about the state of digital democracy; a new fusion of politics and proprietary technology with strong and far-reaching collateral effects, but also about the nuances of individual campaigns and the political economy (and indeed the anatomy) of the search engine itself.



My essay The Death of the Reader has been published in Under the Influence magazine. It’s a special issue on the subject of SPEED, so the essay reflects on the implications of machine reading, and includes a brief description of my own intervention against the quantification of language (specifically by Google’s AdWords platform) in my {poem}.py project. A PDF of the essay is available here: Death_of_the_Reader_THORNTON.

Nasan Tur (UTI 2017)

I haven’t laid hands on the actual magazine yet, but it also features some artwork by Nasan Tur that I particularly like, an interview with Professor Judy Wajcman on Digital Capitalism, Speed and The Capturing of Imaginary Futures, and a variety of other fascinating and fantastic art, photography and writings.

The magazine can be purchased here.