UNWORKABLE EQUILIBRIUM: Thoughts on How Reality Seems in 2020
On the occasion of being self-quarantined in NYC during the coronavirus outbreak, along with (I hope) the rest of my peers and larger community around the country and the world, I decided to assemble some thoughts on how reality seems at the end of the first quarter of 2020. They range, sometimes along the course of a central argument and sometimes in a more free-associative manner, from Mark Fisher to Adam Curtis to Bruno Latour, from David Cronenberg to Don DeLillo, from mass shootings to the coronavirus, from Trump and Brexit to climate change and mass surveillance (which only stands to increase due to the virus’ potential demand for biometric screening), from Michel Houellebecq to Flat Earth mania, and from World of Warcraft to Lovecraftian monstrosity, in an attempt to consider why the nature of reality in this moment seems at once so fraught with complexity and so mind-numbingly flat. Some of the material here is adapted from a paper I wrote for a class I took with “philosopher of horror” Eugene Thacker at the New School last spring, while other sections stem from research I did for a novel I’m writing about contemporary Euro-fascism and heresies surrounding the Berlin Wall.
Most importantly, over the past week I got to hoping that this strange and unexpected term of slowness and solitude might serve as a productive stocktaking of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, here at the start of a new decade. Perhaps, if we all come through this alive, it will prove to have been a transformative period of reflection, a time-out that our lives afforded us only as a last resort, but one that will serve to reorient some of our priorities going forward. At the very least, I hope the following ruminations provide food for thought, and I’d love to hear from you if you feel like keeping the conversation going.
- Dual Atavisms
Reality in 2020 seems scarier than ever before, and yet this scariness feels increasingly familiar, even, in a dark way, kind of comforting. It’s this seeming contradiction — all the ways in which unpredictability has become predictable — that I want to start by discussing here. I think it may illuminate why we’re wavering between denial and overreaction (no matter how serious it actually is) to the virus, unable, as a national or global society, to respond with sober pragmatism, let alone anything resembling cooperation. The ways in which so much of what we experience today seems either unreal or too real, but never simply ‘real,’ is the topic I want to address here.
Conditions in the world today breed a kind of confusion whereby we feel that something has got to give, and yet nothing does. These conditions range from the weirding of the climate to the rise of mass corporate surveillance and algorithms governing more and more of our social interactions, as well as a sense that politicians are increasingly becoming reality TV performers and nothing else, so that those who overtly present as such, like the comedian president of the Ukraine and, obviously, the stable genius keeping us safe here in the US, are, in a bizarre sense, seen as the most trustworthy, because they acknowledge their actual role, rather than pretending to have any moral or practical authority. They numb us into a distrust of the real itself, and a disdain for the parts of ourselves that know this numbness is deadly.
A reckoning with the real, either in the sense of the fever finally breaking (to use a metaphor much on our minds these days), or of the fever growing so bad we succumb to it, feels imminent, and yet it still hasn’t come. So far, the fever has proven oddly bearable. A situation that seems unsustainable is somehow being sustained, and it’s impossible to say if this is better or worse than its bursting apart (into what?).
The moment at which the reality outside of TV (and at this point, as my Google-employee friend once put it, “the Internet has become TV”) is finally going to catch up with us looms on the horizon — a full-scale return of the repressed, promising to punish us for forgetting that such a reality exists by forcing us out of the role of spectators and back into the role of subjects — and yet it still hasn’t arrived, so the feeling of waiting itself becomes a form of queasy entertainment, filtering, naturally, back into TV.
One effect of this conundrum is a sharp and widespread move toward mythic thinking (and its many offshoots, all on the rise in recent years: neo-paganism, witchcraft, astrology, conspiracy theorizing, etc), but is this move proactive or reactive? Is it that our times are so un-mythic (a workable opposite might be “blasé”) that a mythic urge is resurfacing as a last-ditch corrective, or is it actually that our times are so mythic — so seemingly subject to vast, cold, Lovecraftian forces, the behavior of world figures so far beyond human reason — that humanity can’t help but recognize this, and respond in turn?
In a time that lacks any universal consensus about what the present consists of and what the future should look like, we fear both the loss of myth and its furious resurgence. For the time being, we are balanced between these poles, in an equilibrium that feels like it can’t last — and yet perhaps it can, and perhaps this “unworkable equilibrium” is the strangest condition of all.
To see how and why a new strain of mythic thinking has arisen from this condition, we have to begin by examining how the Internet has brought dual atavisms to the surface of the culture: on the one hand, the resurgence of hate, tribalism, and nationalism that has characterized world discourse since 2010 or so (on full display these days in the stark divide between those committed to taking the virus seriously and those whose very identity seems founded on flaunting it, or of blaming other countries for it); on the other hand, the warping of Silicon Valley’s utopian counterculture, which lasted from roughly the 60s through the 90s, into the same winner-take-all ultra-greed that characterized the robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the state of affairs that Bernie Sanders has risen to prominence by pointing out.
The expansion of the possibilities of human behavior and cognition — the fantasy of a universally tolerant, decentralized “global community” — that the Internet was supposed to bring about (and perhaps still claims to have brought about), has failed on two levels: that of its users, and that of its programmers/owners (my thinking along these lines is indebted to the films of Adam Curtis).
Nothing makes this clearer than a simple viewing of mid-to-late 90s sci-fi classics like The Truman Show, The Matrix, eXistenZ, and Dark City. Watch these films again today and marvel at how quaint their dramatic structure has come to seem: in each case, the hero learns that he’s living in a simulation or artificial environment, and, scandalized, decides to fight his way out, back to a real reality on the other side. This is the obvious and gratifying culmination of the film (remember Jim Carrey escaping through the edge of The Truman Show’s dome, while Ed Harris’ mastermind programmer grimaces in terror at the imminent loss of his star), and hence the completion of a mythic remaking of a fallen world: the hero renders an unreal world real again by refusing to remain in the simulation. He catches on, and he does something about it. Like Dorothy pulling aside the curtain, he makes sure that, by film’s end, the joke is no longer on him (or us).
Could such a story play today? Not as anything but farce. Today, not only do the unreal qualities of what we take for reality not cause us to try to escape, they cause us to embrace the simulation all the more desperately, just as Baudrillard, back in the 80s, told us they would. For, if we fear there’s nothing else, life in an unreal world is better than life in no world at all. This is the point that Adam Curtis makes in his 2016 film Hypernormalisation, where he uses the Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker to illustrate how subjects of the failing Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s did everything they could to ignore the obvious signs of system failure because they couldn’t imagine any other mode of living.
The outsider-heroes in the work of 80s and 90s cyberpunk godfathers William Gibson and Warren Ellis — hackers, gonzo journalists, off-the-grid techno-samurais… the whole aesthetic propagated by the early issues of Wired — look quaint today as well: who’s read Gibson’s new novel, Agency? I haven’t, and though I wish I wanted to, I can’t say that I do, much as I love the man.
Now that the Internet is no longer an ‘other place,’ no longer a trove of secrets or means of resistance or alternative to anything at all, it has, fully and unequivocally, become society, the thing to which an alternative must be sought. Snowden claimed that his greatest fear was that he’d reveal all that he revealed about the NSA, and that there’d be no mainstream response: that we’d absorb the information he shared, and simply continue using the Internet as we’d been using it all along. No one needs to point out that this is precisely what happened.
2. Demons & Gods
One schema for expressing the shift in the role of the Internet from the 90s until today is to pin it to the shift, in Greek mythology, between the age of demons — a time of chaos, a free-for-all in which danger and possibility coexist — and the age of gods — a time of rigid top-down control, marked by increased safety but also absolute unfreedom in the shadow of Olympus.
In the early days of the Internet, fears ran rampant of its potentially reality-destroying power, just as fears ran rampant that the dead could manifest through photographs, or that satan could speak through the radio or LPs: identity theft, perverts in chat rooms, sites telling kids how to make bombs and take drugs, bank fraud, etc. These were the demonic fears of the early Internet age.
By 2010 or so, absolute corporate control had seized the vast majority of the Internet’s ‘space,’ and we submitted to Amazon, Google, and Facebook with a generalized sense that we were now safe from weirdos. The colossal misinformation campaigns of 2016 were a wake-up call of sorts, but, of course, led to no substantive change. The Internet is now absolutely in the era of gods, with the era of demons — a dangerous time, for sure, but also a time of emancipatory strangeness, of blogs and zines and small-scale sites catering to fringe communities (who else spent their high school years studying psychedelics on Erowid.com?) — gone forever. Our fears of the Internet destroying reality have come true, while seeming to have been put to rest.
A quarter of the way into 2020, almost everyone would claim to want to use digital technology less, and yet who can muster any hope of doing so? Instead, our daily experience has warped inward and flattened out, to the point where going online no longer offers the possibility of meaningful connection, new opportunity, or even a brush with the new — and yet going offline, while perhaps still technically possible, is no longer a choice we are free to make.
The way in which the coronavirus has made the very act of going outside ill-advised feels like an acceleration of this same phenomenon. Though I don’t intend to minimize the suffering of anyone who contracts this disease, or who knows anyone who does or is about to (and god knows I may look back on this article in a few weeks and laugh at my own naivete), nevertheless, it feels as though, for the vast majority of people, the pandemic will be primarily experienced online. A disease that forces people into fear of the entire outside environment does certainly feel like what our screen-sickened culture deserves.
In his 2017 book Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, South-Korean/German philosopher Byung-Chul Han outlines this shift as one from biopolitics (Foucault’s notion of industrial governments and corporations controlling and monetizing the masses by coercing their bodies into compliance, via institutions like schools, prisons, and factories), to psychopolitics, in which post-industrial governments and corporations control and monetize the masses by ostensibly freeing their minds to enjoy a regime of unrestricted choice and self-expression.
Only weak forms of power, Han argues, rely on violence and intimidation to control their subjects, because, if they must do this, it means that those subjects have real options: there really are things, like unionizing and striking, that people must be prevented from thinking and doing. This is the world of Orwell. Psychopolitics, on the other hand, is much more the world of Huxley: a world in which we are seemingly free to do, say, buy, and sell anything we choose, without top-down control, and yet, underneath, all of these choices benefit the same few entities (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, the RNC, the DNC), and pose no threat to them. These are, thus, not real choices, just as our supposed digital free-expression is, in reality, nothing more than the willing surrender of our most sought-after data. Repression, in short, has been replaced with a dizzying form of compelled hyper-expression, which, because it appears voluntary, is that much harder to resist: imagine Jim Carrey sailing into the dome rather than out of it, and expecting applause for his bravery.
Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death outlines many of these thoughts from all the way back in the 80s, an era that, from Trump — a Diet-Coke-sipping Wall Street caricature if ever there was one — and Russia-as-bogeyman on down, seems to have returned to us in mutated, half-comedic form, like an undead maniac from a, yes, 80s slasher film.
3. Spectral Legacy of the Twentieth Century
Perhaps now that this is the case, the new millennium is finally ready to begin, twenty years after the calendar announced that it had, just as the 20th century is said to have begun in earnest around 1920, after the mind-boggling calamity of WWI: never again would humanity be able to imagine war, and, by extension, politics, the way that the Futurists et al in the decadent lead-up to the mechanized slaughter of the trenches, hoping for a brief and heroic purge of the 19th century’s ossified monarchies, still could.
But what WWI-level event (quarantine puts me in mind of Hans Castorp at his sanitarium in The Magic Mountain in 1912, awaiting the end of Europe as he knew it) signifies this new shift? Perhaps there are no longer such things as “events.” Perhaps there are only distractions, pretending to punctuate an otherwise imperturbable field of sameness, and perhaps the emergence of this state of affairs is itself the event I’m trying to locate. Or perhaps the only genuine events are those we imagine we’re being distracted from while paying attention to whatever’s crossing our screen, as if some vast and profound sight were only visible from the very corners of our eyes (here too, Lovecraft, a 1920s figure par excellence, comes to mind).
In the sense of being a discontinuity with the apparent course of history — a dent in reality that truly is a dent — 9/11 was perhaps the last time we could use the word “event” in its 20th-century sense. Conspiracy theorists may still argue over why the attacks occurred, but everyone agrees that they did. The evidence is too overwhelming, too blatantly pre-digital, to deny. Everything since, while perhaps an effect of this dent, is no longer undeniable in the same way. Not even Brexit or the election of Trump, which, due to the fact that they were possible in the first place, reveal that Britain and America had already turned too strange to adequately comprehend: both are simply material proof of how much the cultures in which they occurred had declined.
Perhaps the minimum definition of “event,” then, is that it must prove that something has become possible for the first time, rendering everything thereafter a mere example of a now-known phenomenon. In this sense, on September 10th, 2001, such an attack not only seemed impossible, but — in some metaphysical sense — actually was. Forever after, its possibility is a given, leading to our current era, in which the impossible is expected on a daily basis and greeted with a shrug.
4. Post-DeLillo / Post-Cronenberg
Two of the great chroniclers of the late 20th century’s transition to an entertainment-based reality are Don DeLillo and David Cronenberg, both still living, though now deep into their twilight years. Artworks like White Noise and Videodrome are as ingenious today as they were upon their release in the 80s, but I have the sense that neither titan will produce an heir.
No one working in their prime today will be as able to crystallize the strangeness of the 2020s as DeLillo and Cronenberg did for the 80s — there’s something too diffuse, too out of hand, and in some ways simply too dumb about our era to yield a new White Noise or Videodrome. It’s not for nothing that 9/11 is the last world event that DeLillo seriously turned his attention to, with Falling Man and Point Omega. If Chekhov (was it Chekhov?) said that great art doesn’t need to provide the answers so long as it asks the right questions, I’m not sure that any artist working today can even do this much, and perhaps it’s no longer their job to try. The question that is then paramount to consider here is what else art’s job might be.
5. Zizek v. Peterson
Two other 20th century figures I want to touch on are Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson, both outsider academics who rose to unexpected rock star success in the strange years following 2016.
For different reasons and to different degrees, each man presented himself as able to explain what was going on. Whether through Marxist-Hegelian philosophy (Zizek) or Jungian-Christian archetypes (Peterson), each made the case that history hadn’t, in fact, ruptured, but rather only progressed along a coherent path. Each offered a troubling sort of reassurance for vast podcast and YouTube audiences, placing the trauma of 2016 in a grander, even cosmic, context that, for a while anyway, seemed to make sense.
This culminated in the “debate of the century,” which sold out the Sony Centre in Toronto last year, making it perhaps among the best-attended and most lucrative academic debates of all time. During this debate, the two men ostensibly argued Marxism versus capitalism, but what stood out to me, watching the video afterwards, was how similar they seemed. Two creatures of the 20th century, arguing over which meta-theory better described 2019.
My sense, at the time of watching, was neither.
Now, a year later, both figures seem nearly forgotten. Peterson has given up his lecture tour and checked into rehab, and Zizek, well… I’m not sure what he’s up to, but I know that I haven’t watched any of his videos this year, despite them having been a staple of my diet between 2016 and 2018.
The attempt to posit a macro-theory, to situate ‘what’s going on’ within a larger schema, feels antiquated now, an appealing pursuit in the late 2010s, but, just partway into 2020, already an anachronism, much like the Futurist Manifesto in the years before WWI. I again had this feeling while reading 2010s recap pieces in major journals around the end of last year. More and more often, I wondered, what if none of these trends are actually relevant to what’s going on? What if they’re all side-phenomena, obscuring the main thing?
And then I thought, what if there is no main thing? What if these articles seem to obscure a ‘main thing’ that, in fact, isn’t a thing at all?
I still don’t know what WWI-level event accounted for this shift, but I do feel as though the 2010s are already a bygone era, one in which figures like Zizek and Peterson made a kind of sense that they no longer make.
6. A Flat Earth
Following the logic whereby it grows ever less likely that anything we’d thought impossible could suddenly be proven otherwise, could it be that the recent upsurge of belief in a flat Earth is an absurd physical response to a real metaphysical problem, i.e. the intellectual and emotional “flattening” of the Earth’s horizon of possibility onto a two-dimensional screen, whose variety of imagery and modes of feedback are growing ever less surprising? Unlike a genuine event such as 9/11, where anyone could simply visit Ground Zero (I like this term as a means of describing the onset of a new age of territorial uncertainty) in order to confirm that what had been reported had indeed occurred, “events” since then have come increasingly to rely on trust in the media, which has of course been declining as news sources splinter into sub- and sub-sub-cultural interests, while the mainstream media merges with reality TV (a merger that, needless to say, Trump understood sooner and better than anyone, and did more than his part to hasten). As has been said in many quarters these past four years, if an event on the scale of 9/11 — and, who knows, perhaps coronavirus is that event — were to occur now, would there even be any consensus as to what it was?
A dark but perhaps apt thought: maybe all the people out last weekend flaunting self-quarantine advice, up to the point of licking airplane toilet seats (I’m sure you’ve all seen the video) to prove how little they believe in the risk, are actually attempting the opposite: not to remain healthy, but to become sick, and thereby prove to themselves that what’s reported is true. A Cronenbergian concept, if ever there was one.
For this reason as well, the Flat Earth Movement can be seen as a radical denial of what isn’t directly before one’s own eyes: in other words, the roundness of the Earth (just like the actuality of mass shootings and climate change) must be taken on faith rather than experienced directly. As faith diminishes, so too must this old astronomical certainty, at least in the minds of a distressing number of people. Even if the Flat Earth Movement is mostly a joke, it nevertheless became a flashpoint in our recent discourse because it reveals the impossibility of our agreeing even on the most fundamental aspects of scientific knowledge.
There are thus two phenomena at work here, which combine to make real events ever harder to locate and believe in: on the one hand, there are “hyper-events,” like climate change and the dangers of mass surveillance, whose existence we must take on faith but that lack firsthand evidence (much has been written about how individuals can perceive the weather, but never the climate); on the other hand, there are concrete, anecdotal occurrences, like instances of terror and infection, which we are asked to see as examples of a larger trend or phenomenon, even though they may, in the end, be no more than discrete instances, not instances of anything.
Together, these two types of phenomena constitute a spectral legacy of the 20th century, which is the period during which both climate change/mass surveillance, and the kind of permeable media systems that seek to inflate isolated occurrences into examples of hyper-events (as well as the related tendency for individuals to treat all public space as a potential film/TV set, eagerly surveilling themselves) came into being, leaving us, the 20th century’s survivors, to sort out their import without the tools to do so.
7. Capitalist Realism
The idea for this essay came, in part, from British music theorist and punk philosopher Mark Fisher’s 2009 treatise Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, where he argues that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of Communism as a viable system of world power, capitalism has triumphed not only in the sense of vanquishing its arch-nemesis and proving itself ‘the best system,’ but also, and far more significantly, by transcending the need to define itself as a system at all. Now that it has no ‘other’ to push back against, and no ‘outside’ to offer its adherents shelter from, it’s free to conflate itself fully with ‘reality,’ to the point where no one can imagine a viable alternative, or even conceive of the thing they’d wish to imagine an alternative to. It has become, simply, all there is — the Sanders campaign has come closer than any other mass movement in the post-80s West to articulating an alternative, and has resonated, but almost certainly not enough to effect substantive change.
The world map without a Berlin Wall is another kind of flat Earth: a map of free and open markets, without any meaningful ideological distinction. It’s true that far-right forces around the world, perhaps especially in the US and Europe, have renewed the discourse of walls and closed borders and nationalism rather than neoliberalism, but the naked corporate greed in their brand of neo-fascism — the degree to which Trump and Putin and Bolsonaro and Orban all belong to the same class and all want the same thing, namely, wealth for themselves and their colleagues — renders their professed ideology into a farcical version thereof. They rose to power as TV fascists, which is not to say that they haven’t caused real harm, and won’t continue to, but just that their motivations are purely material, unlike (it seems, anyway) the 20th century forces that built the Berlin Wall.
Before he killed himself in 2017, a week before Trump’s inauguration, Fisher wrote often of “hauntology,” the notion of the present being haunted by visions of a future that never arrived, so that, for example, the Bush/Blair era of the early 2000s was suffused with the melancholy of being “the future” relative to the 80s and 90s, and yet nothing felt new. The technology that people in the late 20th century dreamed of had arrived, but it hadn’t succeeded in making anyone feel the way they’d hoped it would, just as J.G. Ballard always knew it wouldn’t. It had, rather, merely exacerbated the same conflicts that prevailed in the previous century, and made people even more susceptible to the easy actualization of their own worst impulses.
Seen in this light, the legions of people in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the former East Germany who profess nostalgia for the Soviet Union (as chronicled brilliantly by Witold Szablowski in his recent study Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic For Life Under Tyranny) yearn not so much to return to an actual past, in which East and West presented meaningful alternatives, and in which a potential clash between them would constitute a genuine world event, perhaps even a world-ending event, but rather to return to a point in the past in which an imagined future drama still loomed ahead.
In other words, both far-right and far-left forces today are seeking a way out of the hauntological present of 2020, in which no alternative to corporate power seems to exist, and in which the fear of WWIII often seems less acute than the fear that nothing new will ever happen again. This, I think, accounts for some of the giddiness surrounding the spread of the coronavirus, the feeling, as we watched powerful institutions shutter and health professionals offer horrific warnings last week, that perhaps something was finally about to happen: another genuine event on the scale of 9/11 (to which, of course, the virus has been constantly compared).
8. Mythic Thinking
It’s no stretch to say that mythic thinking is the exact opposite of hauntological thinking, except that the two may also be coterminous along some deeper, darker axis. Myth is the state of mind in which stability is fertile rather than deadening (in the sense that ancient truths sustain us, rather than hold us back), and where history is transcended rather than exhausted or repeated. It is a version of the world in which genuinely chaotic forces exist in harmony with the ability (and the desire) to go on living, forging a path into a future that really will come (and feel new). It is a version of reality in which genuine events continue to happen, and not only to people, but also through them. It’s a world in which mortals are forced to choose between Good and Evil, not Old Navy and Banana Republic.
Perhaps this Manichean distinction is a perversion of myth in its deepest sense — perhaps a truly mythic world is more complex and more fluid than this, and free of any moral charge — but, as I mean it here, myth today must be seen through a tired Judeo-Christian lens that can’t help but organize existence into a rigid struggle between opposing forces, where the goal is always to win rather than lose.
To return to a question posed above, and take it further this time: is it that the world in 2020 is becoming more mythic, and hence our growing distrust in reason and moderation is proof of this, or is it becoming ever less mythic, and thus we’re tapping into myth as a means of opposing this loss?
Perhaps it’s both at once, insofar as humanity is now stuck between eras: the original mythic era — the pre-Enlightenment time of magic and superstition (the age of demons) — is long over, and yet the era of reason and human supremacy through science and free-market dominance (the age of gods) also seems to be yielding to a new era of colossal misinformation and systemic and environmental collapse, which is once again dwarfing the power of the human mind to think or act clearly.
Perhaps, then, we are stuck in a moment of adolescence, suspended between the first mythic era of our species’ childhood, and the second mythic era of our maturity (or senescence), when we’ll inhabit, or at least interface with, bionic and networked forms beyond our capacity for comprehension — and/or return to prehistoric squalor. A new era of demons… the new dark age that Lovecraft warned of a century ago, and that James Bridle, in his fantastic book by that title, examined last year. The question of whether people hope or fear that this will happen is the question that must be asked about all apocalyptic thinking: do all the people currently stockpiling guns around the country fear that they’ll have to use them, or hope that they’ll get to?
In this way, myth harkens toward both the deep past and the deep future by promising escape from the present, which is both overwhelmingly new and oppressively boring (hauntological) at the same time. Myth is Jung’s conflation of Hitler with Wotan, the destroyer and redeemer, promising the German Volk a source of transcendental strength dredged from the deep past, and also an unadulterated, heroic future (the fabled “thousand-year Reich”). Equally, however, myth is the conviction that these things are behind us, that Germany (or anyone else) has “learned its lesson,” and transformed into a bastion of repentance, tolerance, and victimless financial and technological liberalism. This is the myth that the EU has no choice but to go on telling itself for as long as possible (and I hope it does).
Strangely enough then, myth in the 21st century is the simultaneous belief that the world can (and should) be remade according to ancient, monistic ideals, and also the belief that it already has remade itself, over the course of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, into something definitively and permanently enlightened, never to regress (the same myth that Silicon Valley has been telling itself, and us, for three decades now).
How could both of these beliefs, so diametrically opposed, share the quality of being mythic? And, if we accept that neither is a viable way forward, or even a viable description of the present, is there — to echo Mark Fisher one last time — any alternative? Is there any “outside” to this stalemate of imagination? Is there also a positive myth, something we might choose to believe in, rather than only myths we drift into when nothing else will bear our weight? Might myth be a first, rather than a last resort of sane people in 2020?
To back up and better define the term I’ve begun using, “myth,” as I mean it here, has a crucially different meaning from “mythology”: mythology is a specific body of tales that have been passed down over generations, nearly synonymous with “folklore,” though charged with more potency and religious import. Myth, on the other hand, is both more abstract and more primal: it is the condition of thinking that allows for mythology to develop in the first place. It’s what Romanian mythologist (and, sadly though unsurprisingly, alleged member of Romania’s pro-Nazi Iron Guard) Mircea Eliade, in his seminal study The Sacred and the Profane, calls the “manifestation of sacred reality,” which occurs on the “in the beginning” scale of time that humans, even today, are able to tap into.
A specific body of mythology — say that of Greece, or Iceland — may or may not contain stories and characters that a contemporary person finds useful, but the mythic mindset, in which lived events in the present take on profound significance and the path to heroism is always open, is universal and unchanging. Indeed, it may be the mindset required to see a banal occurrence as a meaningful “event,” and is certainly the kind of thinking that freights this viral outbreak with the grand heaviness that I think we’re all feeling.
Myth also isn’t “fantasy,” which accepts its place in an otherworld defined by imagination. The works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis claim allegorical relevance to our world, but they don’t situate themselves literally within it (indeed, there, as in the works of Lewis Carroll, characters must go through the wardrobe or on a long journey in order to discover the fantastic realms where the drama takes place). This is why the works of Lovecraft, which are almost always rooted in clearly defined New England settings, are more mythic and more troublingly relevant today.
Furthermore, the fact that massive spill-over has begun occurring with fan feuds over the new Star Wars and Marvel movies turning into genuine, real-life ugliness only underscores the point that is beginning to emerge: namely, that ours is an era of myth, not of fantasy, and thus the most potent fantasies gain their power in direct proportion to the degree to which they slowly and insidiously enter “the real world” by becoming mythic: Marc Maron has a great bit about the Marvel Universe serving as a genuine new religion for middle-aged men shocked by their own impotence, and I don’t see any argument against this point.
This slippage calls up a core ambiguity of myth, and also touches on its deepest source of power: myth is often seen as unreal (as in, “that’s not true, it’s just a myth”), but it is also the very force that makes reality real in the first place. As Eliade writes, myth is “the eruption of the sacred into the world, [which] establishes the world as a reality.” It is the distinction between “chaos” and “cosmos” (a line of reasoning that Jordan Peterson used to compelling, if dubious, effect) toward which every vision of meaningful order — not only the fascist fantasies, but especially those — aspires.
If movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show, in which ordinary people see through the simulation and find a way out, were the definitive pop cultural artifacts of the 90s, a time when technological control was growing but hadn’t yet achieved absolute dominance (an era of comparative innocence in the tech sector, in which William Gibson wasn’t writing solely about the end of the world), then the Marvel movies are the definitive pop cultural artifacts of the 2010s, a time when it became impossible to imagine ordinary people doing anything at all, and thus we regressed to the old myths of demigods saving humanity from itself, often quite literally, in the case of Thor coming straight from the same Norse sagas that inspired Wagner.
9. Re-consecration Ritual
It should come as no surprise that mythic thinking is returning just as the reality of the world, and of humanity’s role within it, is being called into question. In our post-truth era of simmering digital paranoia and malaise that never quite seems to boil over, the urge to start again with a massive re-consecration ritual — like an old couple, long out of love, hoping that renewing their wedding vows might reignite their marriage — is completely understandable.
Indeed, myth promises a means of reentering history, of lending the passage of time a sense of sacredness and purpose, and thereby breaking the holding pattern of online life, where time passes on two increasingly divergent timescales: the unnoticed elapsing time of one’s biological lifespan wasting away in a desk chair, and the eternal present of the digital environment, where nothing ever seems to change, even as updates blare in with speed-freak frequency, the banner atop every news site permanently boiling red with BREAKING NEWS.
This is why, in 2020, more and more people are eager to leave cities and restart their lives in micro-communities, farming and reading and spending time together in rural peace and quiet. I don’t know how many people are actually doing this — the economic incentives are certainly still skewed toward cities — but everyone I know speaks longingly of the idea.
Perhaps, as the self-quarantine goes on (or an enforced quarantine, if it comes to that, begins), we’ll see micro-societies of a sort developing within cities, as people stop taking public transit and return to cooking their own food, washing their own clothes, sitting around and talking in their own private spaces… something like a number of medieval villages clustered together within the superstructure of a silenced metropolis.
10. Breivik 1.0 and 2.0: Myth and Public Space
An important question about the appeal of myth in the current era of anxiety over human obsolescence and the urge to re-consecrate the world: is the appeal of myth that it posits the human as superhuman, or as ultra-human? In other words, is the driving aspiration that humans could transcend themselves and become gods, or is it that, in an era when humans see themselves reduced to clouds of data — raw material for the benefit of unseen technocrat overlords — that they might once again become themselves, reentering the Shakespearean narrative structures that only humans, in all their frailty, can partake of?
Either way, myth refuses to remain private. It demands to be recognized as part of the real world, not just a story that’s told, not just a metaphor, and not just a belief held by some. If it aims to remake an increasingly unreal world into a real one (remember the Trump campaign’s endless harping about the plight of “real Americans”), it can do so only if everyone agrees that this has occurred (much as I like the narrative possibilities of a situation in which some characters believe the world they’re living in is real, while others don’t). Perhaps this is why the radical atheism of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins turned so aggressively noxious in the early 2000s, just as fundamentalist strains of Islam and Christianity were also emerging from the shadows: the post 9/11 era, insofar as it’s constituted a global war over the definition of reality, has refused to allow any private beliefs to remain private, just as it’s refused to allow any moderate beliefs to remain moderate (one can even be a “radical moderate” today).
Myth is therefore intolerant because it refuses to accept the compromise of “you can have your beliefs, and I’ll have mine.” Indeed, it exists in direct rebuke to this compromise, insofar as myth only becomes “true” if it can be foisted onto everyone. Furthermore, unlike fantasy (where privacy is a defining feature), mythic thinking cannot be “only somewhere”; it must be everywhere, or nowhere. There is thus incredible potential for violence contained within the yearning for myth, since the yearning always comes from a private despair, while that which is yearned for is a totalizing, public renewal. This is why even a benevolent figure like Joseph Campbell can, in the wrong hands, lead down a very dark road.
This is surely related to the decision that Anders Behring Breivik (the bulk of my knowledge of his story comes from Åsne Seierstad’s 2016 book, One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway — And its Aftermath) made in 2011 to segue from the “overtly virtual” space of World of Warcraft, where he’d spent five years slaying orcs under the screenname AndersNordic, to the “dangerously non-virtual” space of Utøya Island, where he foisted the myth of the resurgence of the Knights Templar as a kind of revamped white supremacist medieval crusade onto the reality shared by a troop of unsuspecting schoolchildren. This may stand as one of the definitive transgressions between fantasy and myth of the contemporary era.
World of Warcraft must have instilled in him the rush of heroism and courage that had been absent from his “real-world” life as an Oslo stockbroker and self-described metrosexual before that, and yet a sense of frivolity must also have nagged at him throughout those long years in his mother’s house, a sense that the digital world in which he was waging war wasn’t consequential enough to redeem him — and thus that he was, despite being a virtual hero, still an actual loser.
In terms of myth’s relation to digital space, then, the videogame provided both the problem and its grim solution: it showed Breivik that he could become a hero by allowing him to play one online, and yet it also demanded that he extend the digital battleground into real space, rendering the “chaos” of the multicultural EU into the “cosmos” of what he imagined as a newly Viking-ized Norway, a bastion of Aryan glory, free from all the supposedly external sources (feminism, Marxism, Islam, etc.) to which he attributed his own self-loathing.
For this reason, Breivik’s crime is mind-boggling not only for the scale of the damage it inflicted (77 dead), but for the ambiguity of its relation to consensual reality. On the one hand, all of us alive in the world today are forced to admit that what he did was real, even too real (unlike his conquests in World of Warcraft), and yet, at the same time, none of us can share the mindset that motivated them, meaning that, while killing those children, Breivik was in an even more private space than he was in while killing orcs on his computer — a pastime that most of us can admit to enjoying on occasion. Thus, what he did is both public and private in a way that should be mutually incompatible, but somehow isn’t. Here again, we see a situation where something’s got to give, and yet nothing does.
Is the desire here, as is so often posited after a massacre of this type, that of a marginalized (perhaps self-marginalized) young man insisting on his right to dominate public space, to be seen and heard and taken seriously by others… or is it actually the opposite, that of a self-marginalized young man stating that no such public space exists, that it is all happening inside his head, and thus that no action he could ever take constitutes a genuine event? This is the same question that Joker poses, hovering awkwardly, as it does, between telling the story of a lonely man’s mental breakdown, and that of a comic book supervillain’s rise.
In other words, is the way in which the shooting is both shocking and superfluous (the nth example of a phenomenon that we already know all about) baked into the logic of the shooting itself, not only that of the reality TV system that seamlessly turns it into BREAKING NEWS?
To pursue this question further, we may need to consider the possibility that Breivik is already a has-been, a version 1.0 of something that has now reached its 2.0 phase. In the nearly ten years since his killings, Breivik has sunk into the mythic past he so yearned to reignite, becoming, for a new generation of white nationalist murderers, a larger-than-life figure, a kind of “titan of the ancient times,” a living meme, like the Joker or Bane, who inspired the movie theater shooter in Aurora, Colorado (as well as, reportedly, Trump’s Bannon-scripted “American Carnage” inauguration speech).
Breivik was still waging war within reality, while today’s shooters are waging war against it. From all that I’ve read about Breivik, it seems clear that he hated his perceived enemies, and thus identified with them as human beings — his struggle against them was, in his mind at least, real. Grotesque as his actions obviously were, they can be placed in a continuum with those of political extremists throughout history.
Today’s shooters, in an age when shootings have grown so common they feel more like reruns than genuine tragedies (however genuinely tragic this thought is), function more like avatars in videogames, who approach their victims not with hate but simply with the nihilistic spirit of the game itself — one doesn’t fire up DOOM full of genuine hatred for the monsters; rather, one fires it up hoping to kill monsters because that’s what the game is for.
Whereas once it seemed crucial to understand shooters’ motives and attempt to fathom how they could have fallen so far outside societal norms, now we simply accept that shooters shoot because that’s what they exist in order to do. If anything, shootings have become societal norms. When the search for a motive is undertaken at all, it’s at best perfunctory, a ritualistic nod to a more innocent time. No one today honestly believes that “knowing the motive” could make the shooting any less senseless, or have any effect on preventing the next one.
Ample evidence for this shift is to be found in last spring’s shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the gunman, Brenton Tarrant, opened fire on two mosques while blaring a Serbian nationalist propaganda song called “Remove Kebab” and live-streaming the killings to Facebook through a camera attached to his head — a technological shift that would’ve been hard to imagine in 2011, when news was still mostly confined to after-the-fact TV reports. In this regard, the NZ spree was both hideously public, in the sense that countless people around the world saw the atrocities playing out in real time (unlike Breivik’s shooting, where no one knew what was happening for many hours), and hideously private, in that no one watching could perceive the reality of what was occurring — perhaps not even the gunman. This is much more of a piece with the “age of coronavirus,” in which we watch infection and death statistics in real time, without, yet, having the ability to fathom what such illness feels like, nor the confidence to trust that the statistics are true.
Compared to this, Breivik’s crime looks naïve, or at least old-fashioned in its sadistic sincerity. The NZ shooting, on the other hand, satirizes the very possibility of sincere public action, and even the idea of society itself. It mocks the notion that there could ever be a response to any action, for better or worse, other than to consume it as entertainment (much like Trump’s constant fearmongering and despotic posturing, all in pursuit of what he blithely but perhaps accurately refers to as “ratings”). Tarrant is thus both an actual shooter and a meta-shooter, someone both doing and pretending to do something at the same time — another embodiment of the contradictory flattening of opposites I’ve been teasing out here.
Just before entering the mosque, he posted on 8chan that it was, “time to stop shitposting and time to make a real life effort post,” thereby both disavowing the Internet in favor of an incursion into “real life,” while also referring to that imminent incursion itself as a “post,” which, as soon as the footage was livestreamed, it became.
In terms of influences, he referred both to “Knight Justiciar Breivik,” whom he cited as his one source of “true inspiration,” and also the video games “Spyro the Dragon 3” and “Fortnite,” which he claimed taught him to be an “ethno-nationalist” and a “killer,” respectively. Then, as if the confluence of deep-seated Nordic racism and childish mockery of existence weren’t clear enough, he signed off with the message, “If I don’t survive the attack, goodbye, godbless, and I will see you all in Valhalla!”
To see these events (though, again, whether they really are events is a question whose answer may exceed the grasp of anyone currently living) play out on one’s screen, before anything was known about them, must have looked almost identical to the countless hours of videogame play-throughs that millions of people watch online every day. One could add fuel to this fire by mentioning how the Swedish provocateur PewDiePie, often YouTube’s most popular personality (his videos have been viewed over 10 billion times), is both a videogame commentator and a purveyor of casual, ironic Nazism to tens of millions of children. He was also the beneficiary of Tarrant’s glib “subscribe to PewDiePie” plug, moments before entering the mosque.
This much is new: countless previous shootings may have emerged from videogames, but this was the first to feed directly back into them.
Whatever moral faculties we can still access tell us, very strongly, that the footage from New Zealand should be placed in a different category from the livestreamed pseudo-violence of videogames, but can we actually place it there? Can we watch news of the coronavirus’ spread in a fundamentally different manner than we watch the movie Contagion?
If the answer is no, then it has something to do with our diminishing ability to see ourselves, let alone our fellow travelers, as fully human. If this weren’t all so bleak, it would sound like the concept for a Mao II-era DeLillo novel. Back in his 80s heyday, DeLillo posited terrorism as the inevitable evolution of art, the only way to get the attention of an increasingly numbed and post-literate public, but, as discussed above, now that such acts are themselves fading into rerun-status, we’re entering the post-DeLillo era without a roadmap.
The bizarreness of this development has something to tell us about the universal problem, today, of being uncertain whether we exist in shared or private worlds. Are we “together” on the Internet, even when we’re physically alone, vegetating in electronic light in our separate rooms? Are we “at risk” when we hear news of another shooting, in another city, or even in our own — either physically, or psychologically?
Surely, we do share a common planet, whose fate will eventually affect us all, but is there any means by which we can conceive of the reality of this, or is it merely one more factoid, one more piece of food for thought, part of the vast field of podcasts and TED Talks that philosopher Sianne Ngai calls the “merely interesting”?
Is the fact that the Internet radicalized Breivik and Tarrant (and who knows how many other young men, stuck at home for the coming weeks and months, burrowing into bottomless rabbit holes) to go out into the world and cause real suffering a sign that the Internet has its limits — that it eventually ends, and the point where it ends is the point that we should all be most afraid of (another flat Earth image: that of sailing over the edge)? Or is it actually the other way around: is the fact that Breivik is now in prison playing the PlayStation he sued the Norwegian government in order to obtain (in other words, back in a room not so unlike the one where he spent five years alone in his mother’s house), and that Tarrant’s footage is now floating around the Internet, generating ironic comments in the same swamp as years’ worth of ISIS videos and DOOM play-throughs (it’s been viewed close to a million times so far), proof that the Internet has subsumed everything, blurring the line between the real and the virtual to the point where it will soon be retrograde, or simply fantastical, to speak of any line at all?
Perhaps this is why the shock and disgust that animated DeLillo and Cronenberg is no longer viable. Picture the gun going into James Spader’s stomach-vagina, or the hand coming out of the TV screen in Videodrome: is any of this surprising anymore, or are we now interpenetrated to the point where we take such violations for granted?
Nevertheless, Tarrant is still a shooter with a proclaimed racist ideology, and one who was determined, like Breivik, to live on as a semi-public figure after his atrocity. He thus belongs to a different category of digital lunatic from those that Franco “Bifo” Berardi analyzes in his recent book, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. Focusing on such overtly nihilistic cases as the Columbine shooters, the Virginia Tech shooter, and Pekka-Eric Auvinen and his various copycats in Finland, all of whom professed a blanket disdain for mankind, and all of whom died at the scene of the crime — committing what Bifo considers a glorified form of public suicide — Heroes is a study in the despair of the individual, and the tragic ways that such despair manifests in shared space.
These shootings were anti-mythic. They were public declarations that meaning and value are gone forever, and that the world can never be remade. Insofar as they were based on no ideology, and the victims were selected at random, they were symptoms of an era (the early 2000s) in which politics as a serious facet of public life had died, but had not yet reemerged as a game. Dead, but not yet undead. There was no ground that these shooters were trying to re-consecrate, and no future that they were imagining for themselves or their “people” — either sincerely or ironically.
If anything, these shooters may stand as one of the darkest examples of the accelerationist movement, which sees no way out of late capitalism but all the way through it to the bitter end, as quickly as possible. Surely this same dark accelerationist fringe, embodied by figures like the ever-darker philosopher Nick Land, is all too happy to watch the coronavirus spread, hoping for as many deaths as possible.
What’s therefore most disturbing about Tarrant isn’t a horrific action based on genuine ideology (Breivik), or a horrific action based on pure nihilism (Columbine): it’s a horrific action based on an ideology that is both dead-serious and a videogame playthrough at the same time. This is the condition of 2020, which feels like a distinct development from previous atrocities, and one with much larger cultural implications.
The darkest possibility here is that suicide no longer manifests as an option in the ritualized form that mass violence has taken on: the notion of opting-out of the unworkable equilibrium has disappeared. Today, all that remains for such shooters is the absurd attempt to “rack up kills” online, and live in infamy on Reddit.
To wax poetic for a moment, it’s as if humanity tried and failed to commit suicide through the 20th century’s mass slaughter; today, inside the unworkable equilibrium, we are all its living dead, displaced from the territories we used to inhabit, and yet unable to admit that our stories are over. The world, in this sense, is already post-apocalyptic.
11. Adult Swim
One key venue that expresses this sense of a world that can’t die because it’s already dead is Adult Swim, which has developed its own unfortunate following among the meme-lords of the alt-right. Tim & Eric and Rick & Morty, two of the network’s flagship duos, perfectly encompass this (Lovecraftian) sense of humanity as a minor, absurd infestation of the planet, one whose suffering and possible extinction is, at most, a source of cringe comedy. In the worlds that both shows create, seriousness is an evolutionary liability, a vestigial trait within a species that’s arrived at the point of satirizing its own will to survive.
Rick & Morty, in particular, posits a multiverse so vast and self-referential that there are no consequences for anything that happens on Earth (or on any given planet). There are always more planets, even more universes, to explore. Though it’s a show I greatly enjoy, and one whose brilliance I admire, it plays into the unworkable equilibrium sense that humanity is both doomed beyond repair, and also invincible in its doomed-ness, because no situation is more than a single version of that situation: for better and worse, nothing and no one is unique, so tragedy is a nonviable conclusion.
In this regard, whether or not it intends to, Rick & Morty promotes a kind of climate change indifference. The viewer comes away with the sense that, if this world is ruined beyond repair, it’s no big deal, and to think otherwise is to not get the joke.
12. Bruno Latour
The idea of a world that may be ruined beyond repair comes front and center in French philosopher Bruno Latour’s 2019 book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Here, he argues that the renewed presence of ultra-nationalism in Europe can be attributed to the growing fear of losing territory due to the effects of climate change. In a mythic sense, I picture the resurgence of Nazi-adjacent politics as a long-frozen monstrosity emerging from the thawing crust of the continent. In a literal sense, it’s a direct reaction to the climate-motivated migrations of refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
The European hatred of these refugees is, in Latour’s view, only secondarily a matter of culture and religion. Primarily, a certain substantial subset of Europeans hates these people because they’re living proof that territory can be lost, and that one’s country (any country, and eventually every country) can become unlivable, or, even more profoundly, not a country at all.
“To the migrants from outside who have to cross borders and leave their countries behind at the price of immense tragedies,” Latour writes, “we must from now on add the migrants from inside who, while remaining in place, are experiencing the drama of seeing themselves left behind by their own countries.” It’s as if every refugee who arrives in France or Germany from Syria or Sudan is met by his or her equivalent from inside the host country, less traumatized, perhaps, but equally uprooted from any old notion of solid ground. Indeed, perhaps this sense of displacement, which manifests as a call to defend primal concepts of the “nation,” is the only form in which humans are able to acknowledge that climate change is real: if we can’t, en masse, accept the scientific data, then we are forced, instead, to respond to it as a problem of other people showing up uninvited.
Whether migration is necessitated by drought, famine, resource wars, or other terrestrial causes, it has been mapped, in the newly (re)nationalistic European imagination, onto a loss of the sanctity and integrity of European soil, resulting, as we see, in the resurgence of violent nationalism, of which Breivik and Tarrant (as a self-professed European wannabe from Australia) are merely lurid examples, much-admired by the South African and American far right, as well. “If the anguish runs deep,” Latour continues, “it is because each of us is beginning to feel the ground slip away beneath our feet. We are discovering… that we are all in migration toward territories yet to be rediscovered and reoccupied.” Here, as in the Nazis’ infamous “blood and soil” slogan, actual territory and cultural hegemony are conflated so completely that it grows difficult (and perhaps beside the point) to draw any distinction between them.
In short, what is presented as a fear about the future (what the migrants will do once they arrive in Europe: take jobs, build mosques, wear burkas, have too many babies, etc.) is in reality a fear about the past (the unspeakable reality of what has already happened to the lands these refugees are fleeing, and what could soon happen to Europe). The slippage between these two temporal zones is bound up with the resurgence of myth, which, as we’ve seen, is always concerned with blending the past and the future as a means of freighting a chaotic or barren present with transcendent significance.
To Latour’s notions of territory losing its integrity, we can also add the ambiguously real terrain of videogames, in which the fact that one’s heroic deeds don’t “count” the way they would “in real life” hangs in the back of the player’s mind as a dirty secret, a pervasive sense of shame, which leads out of the game and onto land that’s waiting to be “made real,” in Mircea Eliade’s sense of the phrase.
Space, in Breivik’s story, combines the anxiety about the edges of the virtual grating against the real, with a neo-medieval obsession with the porous boundaries of Europe: a terror of Muslim invasion, and thus a metastasizing fantasy of becoming a Christian (or neo-Pagan — Breivik’s theology is, to say the least, inconsistent) crusader, defending white Europe (or white America) against a rising tide of non-white invaders.
In other words, there are two kinds of borders that Breivik convinced himself he needed to police: the borders of the game, and the borders of the continent. In Latour’s account of the effect of climate change on contemporary politics, borders likewise assume both geographical and ideological significance, just as the lost territory of “internal refugees” exists as both real space and historical narrative, again flattening the Earth in ways that are nearly impossible to comprehend using any of our established modes of geographical or metaphysical thinking.
In our current predicament, we can add another border confusion: the border between the human world and the virus world, through which infection actually spreads, and the borders between countries, which leaders around the world have sought to close as a mostly-palliative measure against the virus’ spread.
Productively, Latour uses the word “land” as both noun and verb: people are losing, seeking, and defending their “land,” while also looking, perhaps in vain, for a place “to land.”
In tracing both the profound risks and possible solutions to this conundrum, Latour chooses to focus on Europe. Why? Because America, with the election of Trump and all that such an event implies about the health of its body politic, has abnegated any claim to being a responsible participant in the world’s unfolding drama. Both America and the UK, it seems, are much further along the path of their own self-destruction, whereas Europe, perhaps, still has a chance to find a beneficial path into the 21st century.
As Latour writes, “How could [Europe] escape from its vocation of recalling, in all senses of the word ‘recall,’ the form of modernity that it invented? Precisely because of the crimes it has committed, smallness is not an option.” This means that the question of how to go on living on Earth is being seriously asked in Europe, whereas in America it is being ignored in favor of the kind of solipsistic self-assurance that has always been this country’s defining trait.
Latour acknowledges that there was a time when Europe, “thought it could escape from history by taking shelter under the American umbrella,” but now “this umbrella, moral as well as atomic, has been folded up. Europe is alone and without a protector. This is exactly the moment for it to reenter history without imagining that it will dominate history.” He concludes, “There is no way out of this. Europe has invaded all peoples; all peoples are coming to Europe in their turn.” The continent “is small enough not to mistake itself for the world, and big enough not to limit itself to a small plot of land.”
Unlike America, China, and Russia, Europe has definitively given up on the lure of Empire, and yet, bearing the scars of its many past empires, it is uniquely poised to think hard about what it means to be a positive rather than a negative presence in the world today, after the form of history that it dominated has come to an end.
This is a burden, however, that much of Europe is unwilling to shoulder. The continent has instead entered what appears to be a defensive phase, perhaps one nostalgically hearkening back not only to its own pre-EU history, but also to the postwar phase in which its entanglement with America could still be seen in a positive light.
Because its colonial enterprises are so long past, and because they ended so badly, both left and right have now entered the business of protecting what they have: on the left and center, this means preserving a relatively peaceful, treaty-based EU consensus; on the far right, this means preserving the “European race” against invasion, or, to quote Tarrant’s manifesto and that of the American far right, “replacement.” This makes it prime soil for a narrative examination of the urge to escape history, and the myriad forces that render such an urge impossible to satisfy, and dangerous to pursue.
13. Poor Houellebecq
This conflation of practical and ideological/moral loss of territory is the central preserve of another French author, the brilliant, scathing, and undeniably xenophobic Michel Houellebecq, a favorite author of many online incel communities (whose fear of the high “birthrates” in Latino and Muslim communities is clearly envy of men who are demonstrably having sex). Despite, or because of Houellebecq’s least savory aspects, he’s also a crucial writer in the expression of contemporary malaise and the appeal of a return to mythic thinking, whatever post-secular form that might take in modern-day Europe.
The force that animates all of Houellebecq’s books is one of extreme longing. The vile, scabrous attitude toward sex and commerce on the surface of his pages is what people tend to react negatively to, but I think it’s actually the almost overwhelming sincerity underneath, the deep (and deeply conservative) yearning to return to a time before sex and money were so inextricably linked, and so freely traded, before the human body had been commodified by science and global commerce and the notion of the soul had been chucked to the curb, that makes people find him so odious.
This is also the source of his tremendous power: his ability to dive headfirst into hog-like excess and yet, always, remain honest with himself about his desire (even more private, perhaps more pornographic, and certainly more shameful) to return to a time before these things defined Western urban life. For all of his smuttiness and disdain for bourgeois values, Houellebecq is, if ever there was one, a lapsed Christian begging to be led back to some long-vanished Promised Land.
14. Second Genesis
There are two forms of mythic thinking when it comes to the notion of a Promised Land:
1: That one could be led away, to someplace new, like Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt.
2: That one’s own land could be transformed, re-sanctified in an alchemical process of “Second Genesis” (to bastardize a term from my beloved Bruno Schulz), and thereby changed into the ground of heaven.
In a novel I’ve been working on over the past year or so, some of the characters plan to return to Atlantis just as the rest of Europe is submerged beneath the rising seas. This is an absurd but not incomprehensible attempt to force the unworkable equilibrium to end: it’s the fantasy, on the one hand, of witnessing wholesale civilizational collapse, and, on the other, of hijacking that event (here the term is warranted) as a ticket into paradise. The fear of the End thus becomes a kind of tacit hope. It echoes Jim Carrey’s dream of escape in The Truman Show, but it’s more mythic because, in 2020, unlike in 1998, the only “outside” one can escape into is an outside that one has first invented, and then consecrated through mythic ritual.
Atlantis, in this regard, is a trans-national dream, a dream of escaping the current scope of nations altogether, and reforming a new one according to gruesome and fantastical rules, much like the alt-right meme of “Kekistan,” a country that only exists on the Internet, envisioned as a sort of anti-PC paradise.
In this regard, it correlates to the current resurgence of nationalist violence and fanaticism around the world, which, as historian Kathleen Belew argues, has never been “national” in the sense of defending already existing nations (there are, to be sure, highly racist forms of patriotism, but this isn’t the same as true violent nationalism, as the trans-national deification of Breivik and Tarrant proves). It is, rather, based on an apocalyptic vision shared by individuals in different countries, in much the same way that ISIS exists as a decentralized digital network, collectively imagining a possible future Caliphate all across the world.
In other words, these characters dream of catalyzing the end of the world and then electing themselves as its sole survivors — a videogame fantasy through and through, grafted onto the face of an Earth whose destiny (not to mention its fundamental shape) has never been more vocally in question.
15. Idiotism and Unincorporated Narrative Zones
So, if there’s no “outside” to this system, no getting past the algorithmic logic that loops us back whenever we seem to approach the “edge of the flat Earth” or the door in the Truman Show’s dome, then perhaps the only hope, in terms of unlocking (to borrow another videogame expression) an unexplored piece of territory is to look within the system itself. As someone who still believes in the power of art and literature, if imbued with genuine strangeness, I have faith that unexplored pockets and unincorporated narrative zones are still to be found.
Perhaps now is the time to leave the search for a macro-narrative behind (I certainly feel this way, at the end of this long article and the year or so I spent working on it), and turn our focus toward these unexplored pockets within the terrain instead. A figure like Alan Moore is a better guide in this pursuit than one like DeLillo, Cronenberg, or Gibson, as Moore has accomplished a transcendent renunciation of the contemporary, in favor of his own obsessive forms of art-magic. He’s arguably less famous now than at any other point in his long career (he is, like the other names above, a key figure of the 80s, as well as one of the world’s leading Lovecraft experts), but he seems unique in having turned his back on the flux of the exterior world in favor of something radically interior.
He’s found his own way into a kind of otherworld within the known world, rather than apart from it, a place of counterfactuals that, like the dreams we enter nightly, is no more geographically distant than the places we inhabit every day. These zones provide a means of perceiving the world as both real and unreal at the same time, and may thus offer a workable rather than an unworkable equilibrium.
This, of course, is another approach to myth, which is always both everywhere and nowhere, part of the world and buried within or hovering about it at the same time. In myth’s absence, the world bifurcates into a disenchanted surface (the blue-grey expanse of banks, computers, airport terminals, and highway overpasses evoked by Radiohead’s OK Computer), and a repressed, buried space of deep meaning and sincere struggle, sometimes cherished, sometimes shameful, but never extinct. Houellebecq’s agony is that of a man aware of both levels but unable to bridge them, or even to imagine bridging them.
Zooming out to the perspective of cosmic horror, this is the state of 21st century life: we can neither understand it, nor — not yet, anyway — refuse it. It just goes on. Whether or not we deem the world fit to bring children into, as Thomas Ligotti notes in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, we go on reproducing, just like our ancestors, who must’ve thought the same thing. Almost eight billion people are just here, not necessarily part of any narrative, mired in the runoff of history with no place to go.
Eerie as this image is, perhaps it also occasions some hope. Unincorporated areas of thought, noise in the machine, growing static and complexity, hiding spots in the shadows, no man’s lands in the texts we read and write, and on the map these texts represent… such spaces exist in greater abundance than ever before.
These unincorporated spaces are the best hope we have of finding a new set of events, rather than a repeat of those that have already occurred, steadily diminishing into non-events. These unexplored nooks and crannies are where new ideas wait to be discovered, just as deserts serve as the seed bed of new religions, because they’re free from the accruing dead skin of the cultures from which the new must depart.
Perhaps, then, the only non-violent solution at this point is not to remake the world according to primal ideals of purity and heroic meaning, nor to blindly inhabit our current, compromised “flat Earth,” nor to indulge in 90s fantasies of escaping the matrix, but rather to work both within and against the system we’ve inherited, taking the feeling of unworkable equilibrium as a subject and fuel for as-yet-unknown future endeavors, using it as raw material rather than being used as raw material ourselves by the owners of the Internet.
Byung-Chul Han lovingly calls this approach “idiotism”: the mindset of refusing to partake of the dumbed-down culture of SmartPhones and all they represent. As a digital update of the holy fool, Han’s “idiot” is the inverse of the cyberpunk hacker-hero. Today, he argues, the idiot must refuse the horizontal access of pseudo-choices that psychopolitics presents to its users, in favor of wandering off in search of a vertical axis instead, a place where new thoughts, even if they’re worthless, may still be waiting. The important point now is that the worth of a thought must be determined by the idiot’s desire to post it online — and then refusal to do so. Only then does the individual retain the value of their own thoughts, the same way that striking workers in the nineteenth century sought to retain the value of their own bodies.
This approach, which constitutes a form of acceptance without surrender, and perhaps also a contemporary definition of art, may be the best that anyone alive in 2020 can hope for. We ought no longer to devote our attention to parsing the nature of the game, but rather to plunging more deeply into its taboo axes. The only mythic thinking that’s still productive is the determination to believe that if there is no escape from the game, there are at least more interesting ways to play it.
If these weeks or months of disruption occasion our drifting further from the systems we’d been enmeshed in, perhaps we needn’t come back all the way.