Unworkable Equilibrium #2
Considering the ongoing nature of this phenomenon in Summer 2020
Intro: Four Months Later
Back in my hometown in Northampton, MA for July and August, out of the alternatingly too-quiet and frantic thrum of NYC, where I rode out the ‘first phase’ of the virus in isolation with my wife, I want to gather my thoughts on how various narratives and regimes of reality have and haven’t changed since I posted my first Unworkable Equilibrium essay, back in March, when the US was just beginning to shut down, amidst dire warnings from China and Italy, and a nascent sense of both terror and hope for radical change was in the air.
My essential question here will be: is the Unworkable Equilibrium (UE) still in place, even after all that’s happened this spring and summer? Will 2020, the “most cinematic of all years,” go any distance toward breaking the spell of seeing our lives as ever-evolving reality TV shows, or will it only deepen this mindset? (It must mean something that, early on, we were told the best thing we could do to play our part in the gravest international crisis since WWII was to “stay home and watch Netflix.”) If the UE weathers the shocks of 2020 stronger than ever, does this mean it’s here to stay, that no new future is coming? And if the UE is finally overthrown, its spell broken, where will our attention go next?
To recap briefly, the UE refers to a chaotic and “ever-ending” narrative that has become normalized and neutralized in our culture and media, in the sense that chaos is now expected, and thus oddly soothing. Compounding signs of the end of the world have a humorous bent now, like a slapstick routine that’s gone on too long and, by going on too long, reveals the nature of the joke it’s been playing—the joke about how the current system has found a way to preserve itself by seeming to be always on the verge of breaking down. Each new crisis—this essay will consider the virus, the protests, and the upcoming election as entwined but distinct crises—has an apocalyptic air to it, and yet this apocalyptic air has itself become the definition of business as usual. In this sense, the situation we find ourselves in feels unworkable, and yet remains (for now, and perhaps just barely) in equilibrium.
This must be part of what’s driving the mainstream spike in conspiracy thinking since 2016: the combined feeling that something is coming undone (that, soon, America will either get much better, at last turning toward meaningful social progress, or much worse, falling the rest of the way into real authoritarianism, and/or civil war), but also that the center is holding tighter than ever, as if seismic uncertainty were the most sustainable state of affairs.
Early in the pandemic, I heard an interview with a doomsday prepper. The interviewer asked whether he was happy to be so well-prepared, now that actual circumstances were vindicating the apocalyptic fear he’d been operating under for decades. His answer was telling: “No,” he said, “I’m prepping for the future, not the present.” The equilibrium that such prepping for the future entails—the mellow hobbyist dimension of it, the melancholic certainty that the dreaded event will never quite arrive—is precisely what the pandemic seemed poised to overturn. The question here is whether it actually has.
Before jumping further into this question, a brief rundown of my personal experience of the past four months:
March: fear, uncertainty; the wound is fresh, seesawing between disbelief (nothing on the Internet is true) and radical belief (everything on the Internet is true). Toilet paper and hand sanitizer are gone. Also, a constant monitoring of perceived symptoms, terror at the slightest cough or catch in the throat, and the sense, upon going to sleep each night, that we might never wake up. The book that epitomized this period was Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, my vote for the deepest and darkest pandemic novel ever—published in 1981, it was already speculating about a “plague that killed the old and spared the young,” and wondering who might stand to benefit from letting such a plague run its course.
I felt a lot of excitement at the prospect of a concentrated period of solo time, a unique opportunity to fast-track a lot of reading and writing projects that might otherwise have taken years to finish, as well as guilt at being in a position where I could have this response to a crisis that I knew was going to ruin the lives of many others. This was the “pandemic is a portal” phase, the hope, among many of my friends, that we might emerge better on the other side. In this sprit, I wrote and sent out Unworkable Equilibrium to a number of people, and entered into a series of productive conversations, which have informed the piece you’re reading now.
This was also the beginning of the “men who suddenly have too much free time and love data” genre of Internet article: suddenly, everyone was an expert, hawking charts, graphs, and inside scoops, debating the nature of the ‘curve’ and how/whether to flatten it, arguing over hospitalization rates, R-naught, herd immunity, comorbidities, ventilators, and on and on.
Lastly, it was when I started posting a photo of myself with my first cup of coffee each morning, as a kind of proof of life, a tradition I’ve continued to follow.
April: numbness, sadness, constant sirens, clapping for the medical workers at 7pm, washing all groceries and leaving dry goods outside the door overnight; the peak in NYC. Dawning awareness that this wasn’t going to be a short-term disruption: projections were all over the map, from “six to eighteen months” to “five years, or maybe forever.”
By this point, we were used to isolation; we were a little stir-crazy, but, overall, the intense alone time had been a positive experience. I started teaching a Zoom workshop on War & Peace, a book I’d long dreamed of reading. I remember sitting on my roof and cracking the book for the first time, staring up at the pale blue sky, feeling both extreme openness—the sky opening onto infinity—and extreme closedness, as my roof was the only vantage from which I could see it. The vast territory that the sky hung over thus seemed both real and imaginary, just like the vast territory of War & Peace itself, a novel that, I’d soon discover, featured a number of crucial scenes of characters, in states of duress, ‘suddenly seeing the sky’ and feeling liberated by it.
May: cautious optimism, spring renewal, a hesitant but relief-filled exhale. First walks to Prospect Park, first to-go cocktails, first experience wearing masks, as we hadn’t gone outside before this. The book that epitomized this month was J.G. Ballard’s Unlimited Dream Company, a pagan explosion of spring fertility and self-propagating Blakean surrealism.
June: protest, a sense of spreading American optimism with an undercurrent of evil directed against it, a feeling that this was going to be a feverish, brutal summer, with a totally new focus. Sirens replaced by helicopters. The pandemic seemed, if not quite over, at least a topic of substantially diminished importance.
The book that epitomized this month was Erik Davis’ High Weirdness, about paranoid drug and literary culture in the post-Watergate 70s. Its ruminations on the simultaneous necessity and guilt around pursuing individualistic vision quests in times of crushing political darkness felt utterly apt.
July: quiet, lull, the first time I felt the mental space and calm to attempt this piece, despite the fact that its targets are still moving.
Low-level horror as the protest narrative subsided and the virus exploded in the South and West—uncertainty about what this meant for us in the Northeast. A becalmed, sanctified period of respite in my hometown, a feeling of being far from the world, or in a world apart, an oasis of local safety within a regime of global danger. This was where I began to absorb news of federal troops in Portland—news that, as it was meant to, cast an ever-darkening cloud over where the protest movement and countermovement might lead.
And, by extension, a fresh wave of fear about what the fall has in store, epidemiologically, economically, and politically: a desire for this summer to never end, now that its end is creeping into sight. The book that epitomized this month—and maybe the whole summer—is Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless: its take on the fetishistic depravity of the Reagan Era feels like it could’ve been written last week, or like we’re still in 1988, the Berlin Wall still standing, its cracks just beginning to show.
Are These Historic Times?
Considering the compounding instabilities of the virus, our bizarre and manifold responses to it, the massive protest wave sparked by George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day, and the looming horror of November, my overall sense, as of late July, is that the UE has come under a new, and perhaps unprecedented term of questioning: a sustained and serious audit. The ground definitely feels as though it’s shaking underfoot, and 2021, though hardly visible, feels like radically new territory.
With this in mind, we can return to the question of whether this audit-mode is itself part of the mechanism that keeps the UE in place—a certain amount of give built into the structure of it, like the baddie in an action movie, whose only role is to prove the hero’s power, or like the motor of a slide projector that keeps moving from one slide to the next, in a cycle that only seems surprising if you haven’t seen the slides before—or if it’s a genuine threat, the appearance of the possibility of the UE’s overthrow.
Nothing seems more obviously true about this year than that it’s historic, a year that will live on in memory—one of the sharpest viral tweets of the spring was David Burr Gerard’s “future historians will be asked which quarter of 2020 they specialize in,” while, again and again, Noam Chomsky insists that this moment is unprecedented in the history of functioning democracies, and I’m inclined to believe him.
Yet my question remains whether this year will prove to be historic in terms of its longterm effects, or if it only feels historic in this moment, because of its myriad, Internet-mediated sources of chaos, and the uncertainty about what future this chaos is producing. In other words, is historic-ness a dramatic affect—an Instagram filter that can be applied to any footage—or is it a genuine perception about reality as it really is?
This meta-question will be instructive as a means of considering the UE from a new angle—that of July rather than March 2020—whether or not it implies a major overhaul of the order we’ve been living under since 1989. Perhaps the key question of 2020, both from within it looking ahead and from the future looking back, will be: is this the end of the neoliberal, post-Wall era, and thus the end of the end of history, or is it the end of the moment when it seemed like this might be the case?
I want to return later in the essay to some of the conspiracy theories circulating around Trump 2020 (which I’ll call Trump 2.0)—primarily those of QAnon—but it’s worth noting here, while considering the possibility that an entire era of world history is ending, that fears of satanic cabals operating in secret seem to rise to the surface whenever cracks begin to show in the edifice of a declining world order.
Like the Satanic Panic of the 80s, which took over just as the Berlin Wall was about to topple, and the legend of Rasputin, which spread just as the Russian monarchy was coming undone, QAnon—abetted by the many questions lingering after Jeffrey Epstein’s death last summer—has grown wildly popular by peddling the theory that Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are secret pedophiles, or even secret cannibals, killing and eating children, and thriving on children’s fear, in obeisance to the devil. Naturally, the theory goes, only Donald Trump, servant of God, can save us from them now.
This is all titillating enough, in an X-Files-meets-8mm sort of way, but what may point to a deeper shock underfoot in the summer of 2020 is the notion that we all feel the hellmouth opening up, as the post-Wall world shakes and threatens to crumble, revealing fissures in the ground of our sociopolitical order—fissures, indeed, that this order was erected so as to conceal—beneath which, we both hope and fear, chthonic forces of immense power are preparing to rise up, or to pull us down (maybe this is why Lovecraft has had such a resurgence in recent years, as well). Hence, the notion of an “uprising” can bring with it both the utopian hope of profound social change, and also the terror that the most deeply buried demons are about to be unearthed.
“Nothing can stop what is coming” has become QAnon’s catchphrase, in reference to an inexorable future moment in which, Q claims, all the evildoers will be caught, outed, and punished, a fantasy that shares more than a little ground with the more mainstream fantasy of a “perp walk” in which every member of the Trump administration finally gets their due. Despite the absurd nature of the way in which this phrase is deployed online, I think it nevertheless resonates with how everyone feels in 2020: something, indeed, is coming, and, whatever it is, we either hope or fear (again, depending on what it is) that no one will be able to stop it. Although this could be said of any moment, it feels uniquely true right now, for reasons I want to keep discussing.
Just as, after the fall of the Wall, capitalism came to define reality itself, we can now ask: does the UE define reality, or can it, like the Wall, come down, if enough popular will decrees that it must? In other words, can reality be saved from the UE, or is this now a farcical notion? At the very least, the UE has defined itself as a thing that we can discuss, as we’re discussing it here, in a way that I don’t think we could have a year ago—this is progress.
Whether this progress means the UE is growing less or more powerful, however, is a question that will perhaps only become clear in the future: if we end up with a genuinely progressive state, or, in contrast, an actual autocracy, it will be clear that the UE has given way to something else. If, instead, we end up with the same corporate, hand-wringing, conflicted but ultimately still “all business all the time” state we’ve had so far, it will be clear the UE has been able to absorb even the shocks of 2020, rendering them into above-average TV, just as, perhaps, America will simply absorb the ever-present possibility of death by Covid, rather than doing what it takes to address it.
There were moments in June—and I predict there will be again in November, if not before—when it truly felt like tensions were boiling over. Yet what does this mean? What do these tensions boil over from, and what do they boil over onto? If water in a pot boils over onto the stove, what, in our society, is the water, the pot, and the stove? Or does the metaphor, however oft-deployed, break down if we consider it literally? If it breaks down, it’s because there is no distinction between water, pot, and stove any longer: they are now, if they weren’t always, one and the same substance, so that the state of boiling over is as sustainable as any other.
In other words, is our growing ability to see the UE for what it is a force that is antithetical to it, or actually a force that bolsters it, simply adding another meta-level to a media edifice so gigantic it can easily incorporate its own outside, bifurcating the fantasy of its overflow into either Green-Day-style kitsch or over-earnest reenactment (how long until the inspirational Netflix series, narrated by Michelle Obama, about this summer’s protest wave? Could there ever be BREAKING NEWS so dire that The Washington Post would forego the opportunity to first show us a full-screen video ad for White Claw Hard Seltzer?)?
So, are these historic times, or not? Is it that the macro-narrative has now failed to account for what’s really happening, or vice versa: is there now only narrative, without anything really happening (and perhaps this was the case all along, but it’s only now becoming clear)? Was I naïve in March and again in June to believe that transformative change was coming, or am I naïve, now, to imagine that it isn’t?
We don’t know how things are going to end up: does this explain why we can’t tell if the times are historic? Would some outcomes prove that they are, and some that they aren’t? Or is it stranger than this, such that no outcome will answer this question? In other words, will this essay inherently seem dated after November, or does it express an uncertainty about what’s really going on that will linger, regardless of who’s elected, or even if there’s an election at all? Is the question of Trump or Biden—without drawing any false equivalence between them, as I do believe that Biden, though he’s no one’s preferred candidate, is in some tiny regard a decent human being—actually a pseudo-question, masking a deeper one? And, if so, what is it? If it can be conceived of, that’s the question I most want to ask here.
Sidebar on ‘The Real’
If the goal of these essays is to consider what’s real, and how the real is perceived, disseminated, weaponized, and refuted in 2020, then both the virus and the protests give ample material to pore over. First, in terms of the virus, the real has never been more hotly debated, with one side insisting that Covid is not only real, but that it has forced a collective reckoning with the real unseen since WWII—that it has, in short, forced us all onto the same page, monopolizing our attention and refusing our myriad desires to look away.
On the other hand, obviously, there’s outright denial that it even exists and, more subtly, a fragmented media landscape, such that, while it might be true in an abstract sense that the past months have been dominated by the virus, it’s not at all true that this fact means our attention has been convergent. If anything, our attention has been more fragmented than ever, as if there were not one but dozens or hundreds of different viruses going around, each with its own experts, found on their own channels, and each with its own set of both physical and psychic symptoms, and its own at-risk demographic.
At the same time, the video of Derek Chauvin slowly and mercilessly killing George Floyd sparked such a massive uprising partly, I think, due to its undeniable reality, how it rendered tangible the ways in which police murders of Black people are often all but invisible to white America, well known as one of many simmering evils in this country, but never before presented with such singular clarity. The image of the Man with his knee on your neck is so resonant because it’s a literal event that fans out into an array of metaphorical meanings.
Relatedly, the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” has come to resonate with the strangulations of George Floyd and Eric Garner, and also with the virus itself, killing so many people of slow, relentless respiratory failure.
In a similar sense, fantasies of politicians feeding on children touch on an obvious, underlying reality, addressed by Bernie as much as by QAnon: the exploitation of the weak by the powerful, and the growing social awareness that this is the case because our entire system of civic life allows it to be, perhaps even requires it to be. The grotesque inequities of where the multi-trillion-dollar bailout packages actually went only underscore this further.
Exploitation has been a constant throughout history, but there are clearly times, like now, as in the French and Russian Revolutions, and the Arab Spring, when the awareness of this exploitation grows too palpable to ignore, and the powers that have kept the exploited in line begin to buckle—or, again, to seem to buckle.
War & Peace: The Slippery Nature of Power
For much of the spring, War & Peace was my outside world, my only reminder of what the vastness of outdoor space felt like, as I followed the characters back and forth from Russia to Europe, from grand country manors to blood-soaked battlefields to the halls of power in 19th century Moscow and Petersburg. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, in preparation for my Thursday night class, I’d set up a plastic lounge chair on the roof outside my window, and lie out there, under the sky, reading.
What most sticks with me from the massive novel, in this moment, is Tolstoy's deep inquest into the nature of power, and why/how it vests itself in certain individuals, like Napoleon, for a period of time, and then recedes or moves on. Tolstoy seemed truly troubled by the question of what caused the “movements of millions of people from one side of Europe to the other in 1812”: he didn't want to say only 'God' or 'Napoleon,' but invested himself in considering what else it could be, and why it might prop up a Napoleon-like leader until, at Moscow, his apparent leadership (or ability to be an avatar for some other power, either natural or supernatural) no longer worked the way it had before. Why did Napoleon, so incredibly able to win, lose so suddenly?
The question of power as such, and our inability to understand what it really is and where it really comes from, relates back to Adam Curtis, whose career-spanning critique of 20th century progressive movements is always that they seduce themselves into believing they can sidestep the question of power—that, rather than seizing power, they can simply critique it—leaving the field wide-open for figures like Trump to step in and say, as he did in the 2016 debates, “I know how to win,” thereby aligning himself not with any critique or ideology, but with power itself.
This is all highly relevant to our moment now, as we consider the possibility of Trump's fall, or his transformation into an actual dictator, along with the proliferating conspiracies of Biden being a puppet controlled by unseen powers (just as Trump has often been called “Putin’s puppet”), a notion bolstered by the legitimate question of how well Biden knows what he’s saying at this point in his decline, and the equally legitimate question of the background powers that so swiftly orchestrated Bernie’s fall and Biden’s rise.
Combine this with the surge of people on the streets, and the reactionary surge of cops and, now, soldiers against them, and it does seem like the vectors of power in America, as in the Europe of 1812, are activated in a new way, and it’s not yet clear what, or who, will absorb and contain them. I’ve also often wondered whether BLM, or the contemporary Left more broadly, will produce a truly charismatic, MLK-like leader, in whom the collective power on the streets will be vested—a progressive candidate who can beat both the Trump’s and the Biden’s of the future—and what it will mean for the movement if it does, and if it doesn’t.
Though he shares much in common with Napoleon, another outsider who harnessed a population’s anger at its incompetent elites, Trump is mostlike Medusa: you know she’ll kill you if you keep staring at her, and you also know that her power will break as soon as you look away, and yet, in order to look away, you need first for her power to break. Or so you think. This is the paradox of Trump as an avatar of the UE: he thrives solely on the fact that we pay attention to him, and yet it feels as though the power to stop paying attention isn’t in our hands.
Perhaps this, more than anything, is the battle raging this summer: people on the streets are fighting to shift attention, and thus power, to themselves and the issues they stand for, while Trump, as always, is fighting to keep our attention on him (and, by proxy, on the troops he’s deploying). Does our knowledge that he’d lose power if we only looked away actually strengthen rather than weaken him, in the sense that we both know wecouldlook away and that we aren’t looking away, and the fact that our minds boggle at this contradiction is precisely what the UE needs in order to keep our attention directed outward, at the very things that turn us to stone? In other words, to what degree does America want to move on, and what would this moving on, if it’s what we want, actually entail?
Fixating on images of police violence, though it’s crucial to witness what’s happening, may function in the same way. If we all agreed to believe that the federal violence in Portland and elsewhere is only a show, not a sign of real things to come, it’d lose the ominous power it now has, and yet, in exactly the same way as above, we can’t believe this because the events themselves, though mediated through TV and Twitter, still seem real above and beyond the role they play as queasy entertainment—and this belief, of course, is what makes them real, and potentially dangerous on a much broader scale. Here, too, knowledge isn’t power: we can see the structure of the psychic loop, and the mechanisms by which our own attention vests it with power, and yet we can’t yet summon the opposing, internal power to look away.
To invoke Adam Curtis again, this is why critiques and deconstructions of power do nothing to shift its balance. The UE itself doesn’t care what we pay attention to, it only cares that we pay attention, and that our attention keeps shifting, so as to remain outside our own control. Its power resides not in fixity but in distraction, in ensuring that no single narrative ever plays all the way out (that, like the prepper, we’re always anticipating a future conclusion that never comes), and that there’s never any escape from narrative. This schizophrenic combination of deadened, entranced attention (being unable to look away from the Medusa) and constant distraction (being unable to see the Medusa, even while staring right at her) is what lets the UE thrive, and thus what may prevent radical change from occurring, even if 2020 is remembered as the year of radical change.
Ata certain point in May, the pandemic ceased to be an explicit topic of conversation, and faded into the background, as something that all parties in a given conversation could assume was mutually understood. I stopped ending emails to students and colleagues with elaborate remarks about how our video interactions wouldn’t be real (I used to feel compelled to put ‘see you soon’ in scare quotes, to show that I knew we wouldn’t be seeing each other in person), and started writing, simply, see you soon, assuming that seeing one another virtually was, if not as good as the real thing, at least now as easily assumed. I also stopped opening emails with some version of “I hope you’re doing okay in these crazy times,” and returned to my former variants on “how’s it going?”
In this way, the scope of the pandemic sank into the same dim background that the ubiquity of police violence rose out of when George Floyd was killed. Like racking focus between the foreground and background of a TV set, the UE functions by constantly appearing and receding from our attention, periodically reminding us that it exists while proving too nebulous to grasp.
Or perhaps it’s truer to say that the UE is the lens itself: not any one narrative (virus, protests, election), but rather the machine that controls and diverts our attention among them. Or, to try a slightly different metaphor, the virus, the protests, and the election are all distinct shows that we can shuffle among, while the UE is the network, or even the medium of TV itself. The question, then, is whether we can transcend the false change of channel surfing to achieve the true change of no longer watching TV.
By this logic, another fundamental question is whether the narratives pre-Covid were truncated, or if the opposite is actually truer: that we were over-ready, narratively, for a disaster of this kind. We’d already seen the trailer, and were in our seats for the Feature Presentation. Even Trump gutting Obama’s pandemic response team is in-character, setting himself up to play the fake president who denied the real virus.
America has long fetishized its own destruction by pandemic—usually with recourse to zombies as the base unit of dramatic value—and subsequent occupation by its own military. From The Stand to The Walking Dead to The Last of Us, pandemic pop allows us to indulge in the fantasy of being one of very few survivors in an America where nothing could stop what was coming, liberating the consumer from the dual fears that a) what’s coming will never come, and, b) what’s coming will come and destroy us along with everyone else.
So, were we, as a nation, blindsided by something that hit us out of the blue, or, like the racism that the protests have made undeniable, were we finally confronted with something we’d tried, for too long, to forget we knew was coming (or to pretend was only coming in a movie or a video game)? It’s tempting to say, sure, but Covid is actually real, and yet I wonder if we perceive it this way, or if our ability to consume news as narrative extends now to the reality of the virus itself, so that the difference between Covid and Contagion actually trends toward zero, no matter how grave the real impact of the virus proves to be?
Defeated Novum: Masks & the (Human?) Face
For a few weeks in March, the virus was a legitimate novum, inducing a rare spell of worldwide species-consciousness. It neutralized all sub-discourses and focused the world’s attention on a single, undeniable reality. Every article was about the massive social changes wrought by the Black Death and the 1918 Flu, and how equally great the social changes from this pandemic were going to be. These were the weeks when Naomi Klein said that crises force both good and bad actors to think bigger than ever before, and when the general sentiment was that we were in uncharted waters that would require us to abandon all our previous assumptions in order to reach safe harbor.
But by April, it had been wrestled back into familiar categories of left vs. right: mask vs. no mask, lockdown vs. reopen, save lives vs. save the economy, and trust the government vs. fear the government (this one’s a bit thornier, since Trump both is the government, and also the cheerleader of myriad conspiracies, not to mention actual militia groups, against it: perhaps this epitomizes the thorniness of the whole era).
Our brief spell of species-consciousness broke apart, its narrative coherence not only splitting down the middle, but also fraying into infinite sub-narratives: was Covid a Chinese bioweapon, an escaped lab sample, an American compliance drill? It was as if the virus, though it certainly hadn’t been cured, had been neutralized, its potential for deranging or clarifying our entrenched worldviews stripped away. It became, in a few short weeks, just another example of the same culture war that had been raging for years, more grist for the same mill.
In this sense,the return of preexisting political conditions truncated a supposedly truncated narrative, proving that Covid was much less of a truncation than it seemed like it was going to be. By April, instead of arguing over kneeling at football games or saying “Merry Christmas,” the same people were arguing, with the same fervor, over whether Covid was “a little cold” or “the Black Death.” And speaking of divergent approaches to reality, masks are perhaps the clearest means we’ve ever found of forcing every individual to broadcast the essence of what they believe to be real every time they step outside.
Teasing out this back and forth between collectivity and individuality further, the virus and the protests share a major aspect by merging the individual into the collective, turning individual cases of illness into a massive, society-warping pandemic (and the reverse: spurring certain individuals to refuse to play into this narrative, for fear of losing their autonomy), while the protests turned both individual acts of police violence into an indictment of an entire system, as well as conflating the disorientation, fear, and resentment of the individual protestors—broke, scared, and bored after months in lockdown—into a tremendous collective howl, a demand for a rotting system to collapse so that, maybe, something new could rise from its ashes.
Further, just as the protests aim both to highlight the murders of individual people (“Say her name” for Breonna Taylor, along with the proliferation of George Floyd murals and imagery) and to find an unprecedented strength in numbers, the virus is both de-individuating in that it infects people regardless of who they are (and then adds them, anonymously, to the ever-growing number of the dead), but it also calls up a seemingly primal need for the face to be seen, and a macho insistence, on the part of many individuals, that they alone will vanquish it, if infection occurs (much like Napoleon, who reportedly survived a plague in Egypt that killed many of his troops, because he “decided not to catch it.”)
Though I fully believe in the efficacy and necessity of masks, it’s worth pointing out that they, like Zoom, are dehumanizing. There’s something distinctly strange about smiling in response to what a person says on the street, only to realize, a moment later, that they can’t see your mouth, or struggling to hear what they’re saying, as you become aware of how important seeing their lips is for understanding their speech. Zoom, likewise, provides a simulacrum of contact that, in March and April, seemed like a surprisingly lossless substitute, but, by May, had started to grate, its inadequacies growing ever more maddening
All of this is to say that I feel ambivalent when I see photos of huge crowds at bars or on the beach, as well as marching in the streets: on the one hand, it’s obviously unproductive for curbing the spread of the virus; on the other hand, there’s something heartening about seeing such clear evidence for humanity’s need to be together. In some ways, surely, it’d be an even more dystopian turn if it were revealed that people had no desire to ever get off the Internet and see one another again in the shared space of America. If and when we move safely past the pandemic, I hope the lesson that we need one another’s physical presence won’t be forgotten.
Mirror Walls: A Fully Domestic Moment
Speaking of the shared space of America, another key facet of this summer is that, unlike in the spring, America is now largely alone with both the virus and the protests. Poor countries like Brazil and South Africa, where the virus is still raging, seem inherently chaotic, in a way that rich countries like Italy and Germany, where it was raging in the spring but has now been contained, do not. I’m aware of the colonialism in this observation, but I think there’s still plenty of truth in asserting that, in terms of public health, we’d rather be akin to Germany than to Brazil.
The strange new domesticity of this summer, in which so many fewer of us are traveling overseas, may have significant repercussions for the future, as well. If the fundamental narrative of the Bush Era was the War on Terror, the fundamental narrative of the Obama Era was a new, more articulate, more compassionate-seeming spin on the War on Terror—both foreign narratives—then the fundamental narrative of Trump 1.0 was “Stormy Daniels + Charlottesville,” a perverted realization of “America First,” which has now led us here.
Presidential administrations tend to rhyme, offering Republican and Democratic spins on a central conceit, such that Bush and Obama were 24 and Homeland (both shows created by the same writing team, offering two flavors of foreign adventurism: the first being the brash, hyper-masculine Kiefer Sutherland, the second being the hyper-verbal, internally conflicted [but still gung-ho about killing terrorists] Claire Danes), while Trump and Biden, if he wins, will both be “Make America Great Again,” or, indeed, “Drain the Swamp”: Trump’s nostalgia harkening back to the “straight, white 50s, along with the Wall Street 80s,” and Biden’s harkening back to the marginally more liberal Obama Era, both of them vowing to expel the corrupt operators that their predecessor put in place, and, with a newly domestic focus, to rebuild and restore America.
In this sense, the inward turn we’ve taken seems likely to last into the next administration, whoever helms it, and perhaps for good reason, as we may have reached the moment where America can no longer exist in the wider world without getting its own house in order—for better or much, much worse.
Returning to the notion of truncated narratives, two of the biggest (the Impeachment Narrative is so long-forgotten that I don’t even include it here) are:
Iran War: How is it possible that this was a world-overwhelming event—it felt like WWIII was on the verge of erupting, in a legitimate and not at all tongue-in-cheek way—and then, barely two months later, the virus completely eclipsed it, not just as the major story, but as a story at all? Now, four months after that, it’s as if this episode was cut from the season.
Why was this not the same trajectory as Iraq? Can the Covid interruption alone explain why the narrative will was in place back in 2003, but it’s not now? Is it that the Iraq Narrative was too successful, in that it was a coup of propaganda that can’t be repeated, or not successful enough, in that the war it led to was such an obvious failure that no government, no matter how deranged, wants to bet on trying to repeat those moves?
Or is it that the logic of reality TV has changed since 2003, undergoing a shift akin to that between modern and postmodern thought? In 2020, reality TV has suffused the culture so thoroughly that it isn’t even TV anymore. Perhaps, in 2003, before social media and ubiquitous cell phone video-recording capacity, enough Americans took the made-for-TV war seriously (the reported effects of the nerve gas that Saddam didn’t have were reportedly cribbed from The Rock), agreeing to believe that reality TV represents reality, whereas today it might be most accurate to say the Internet represents reality TV, while reality itself is buried in some upside-down realm we can only speak of using the language of the occult—a realm that, this summer more than ever before, we are all struggling to awaken into.
More generally, what about the War on Terror itself? This feels like it was auditioned to be the next global narrative after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and succeeded as such during the Bush and Obama eras, but, now, has fallen by the wayside, or given way to deeper (and surely more legitimate) fears of domestic terrorism—another warping-inward effect as Trump 1.0 flirts with 2.0.
The US’s disastrous wars in the Middle East feel over, even if they’re not — the deeper truth may be that they’ve come home to haunt us — and the question of what the defining conflict of the era we’ve now moved into is still up in the air. Trump’s efforts to paint the virus as the “Wuhan flu” feel desperate and marginal, as did the Mueller/Russia Investigation—it’s clearly risible to imagine that Trump’s rise was solely the work of a malicious foreign power, rather than the result of festering sores at home. And if a large-scale conflict with China is going to be the world’s next macro-narrative, it doesn’t feel like it’s begun yet, and it doesn’t yet seem clear that it will.
Mass Shootings: There hasn’t been one (at least not on the scale that earns mass-media attention) since the pandemic began. I wonder why. More than anything, I wonder what it reveals about these shootings as a phenomenon, if they can just stop when the narrative changes. It’s true that huge crowds aren’t at music festivals or in malls this summer, but they’re certainly out at protests and at outdoor bars and beaches, and on the streets… so the cessation of mass shootings has to be about more than just lack of opportunity. If they aren’t an inescapable fact of life in America, then what are, or were, they? If they’re a symptom that can clear up, what are they a symptom of?
Or is it that mass shootings by lone individuals have morphed into militia violence, threatening civil war on a far grander scale? This summer, groups on the Left and Right have been organizing, arming themselves (June was the highest month for gun background checks in recorded history), preparing for real conflict. It’s no longer solitary young men falling out the bottom of Reddit holes—this was perhaps true of Columbine and the shootings in its immediate wake, but has grown less true in the decades since, as the logic of shootings has tended more and more toward ideological, political extremism.
If this is the case, then Islamic terrorism will be another truncated narrative with secret continuity: while that story petered out, it also prepared us for the nascent narrative of white, domestic terrorism (peopled by a not insignificant number of Iraq and Afghanistan vets, while the militarized police use equipment also meant for/sent from the Middle East), which may well define the coming years, especially if the election is contested and the unemployment crisis continues to worsen.
Both of these truncated narratives contribute to a sense of our bloodlust turning against ourselves, rather than a foreign other, just as the virus is now spreading almost solely internally, no longer coming from China or Europe or anywhere else.
America’s sealed borders—it’s hard not to picture the country as a giant, poorly ventilated room, filling with Covid clouds—have become mirrored walls, reflecting our pathologies back to us in such a way that the domestic space begins to look foreign. In this light, it’s no surprise that soldiers trained for foreign wars have been deployed on American streets, where they treat their fellow citizens as foreign adversaries. TV commentators have begun to use the model of Syria as a worst-case scenario for where this might all be headed, while Chomsky says that Trump is beginning to treat the US as “occupied territory,” and the troops deployed to Portland turn out to be from Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard. In a way I’ve never seen before, the basic definitions of domestic and foreign space are changing, melting together and turning into something unrecognizable, as troops trained to enforce external borders now enforce internal ones.
Of course, “America First” was a feature of Trump 1.0 from the Bannon days onward, and he earned a strange form of support from the Left by vocally criticizing Bush and Iraq—remember when Jeb was the favored Republican candidate?—but it has ratcheted up significantly this year, as the pandemic also provides a rebuke to globalization, and, now, a further kibosh on immigration and international travel.
As America becomes a pariah state—the recipient, perhaps for the first time, not just of international fear and derision, but also of international pity—we have begun to focus on enemies within. Xenophobia, whether dedicated to hatred of foreign countries, or to foreigners within the US, has only gotten Trump far. The tenor of his speeches now is much less about the border, and much more, as journalist Jeff Sharlet notes of the recent Tulsa rally, about rounding up the “mentally and social impure” within the nation, whether on the streets of Portland, or in the halls of Congress.
This logic of invisible enemies within leads to a state in which only the ‘expert’ (Trump, or Q, in the case of the QAnon conspiracies; the Covid test in the case of the ‘invisible enemy’ of the asymptomatic carrier; and the author of White Fragility in the case of the ‘secret racists’ who are supposedly now everywhere among us) can identify who’s really good and who’s really bad, or who’s really sick and who’s really well. Just like the fear of embedded Jews in Nazi Germany, embedded Communists in McCarthy-era America, and embedded gays in all homophobic panics—the ever-present fear of being manipulated by those who are ‘passing’—there’s now both the fear of embedded cannibals (QAnon), and embedded racists, within the burgeoning and quickly self-deranging antiracist consulting movement, in which seemingly everyone is racist, unbeknownst to themselves, with secretly racist thoughts that only trained professionals can identify and purge.
This is not at all to diminish the real role that racism plays in America—my goal here is to highlight that role—but it feels that much of the antiracist movement in 2020 is turning conservative: wealthy, educated white people, with only white friends, learning a lot of jargon in a hurry to then promote to their white networks, in order to secure their positions of privilege against any real racial reckoning (which would involve actual material transfer of wealth and opportunity) by seeming to be enlightened enough to spot the secret racism in everyone else, while performatively exorcising it from themselves. In this sense, the desire of wealthy white people to inoculate themselves against racism is akin to their desire to shut themselves away from the virus, while Black and brown people die on the streets outside.
If Trump 2.0 is positioning itself as the lone authority that can reveal who the Real Americans are, and dispose of everyone else—essentially conflating the individual’s and the nation’s desire to be cured, just as dictators always conflate the individual, racially pure warrior or mother body with the health of the entire body-politic—and Biden (or Bye-Don, as a bumper sticker in Brooklyn read) is positioning himself as, simply, a cure for Trumpism, then the deeper question for progressive movements is how to cure the nation of the only-ever-symbolic desire to purge individuals, and instead to focus our attention on the real work of breaking out of bad systems, bad practices, and bad relationships with one another.
Localities: Nationalism, Social Distancing, & Real Estate Porn
The pandemic has turned this summer into not only a domestic era, but a local era, as well. It has restricted people’s travel within the nation, and, during the lockdowns, even within their own towns and cities. Never before have so many Americans remained for so long in one place, often a single house or apartment.
Being locked down in NYC this spring and reading about what was happening in NYC, I frequently had to remind myself that I was actually there, in the same place I was reading about—it didn’t seem possible. When Democracy Now! broadcast from “New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic,” it sounded like a dispatch from some distant outpost, as if my apartment shared no ground with the situation that Amy Goodman was describing. Psychologically, during the height of the lockdowns, the mental space my wife and I entered was probably both more unique (deep, deep in our own heads) and more universal (people all over the world were in this same deep headspace) than ever before.
Many friends described quarantine as a forced but not entirely unwelcome period of getting to know their possessions and their apartments in intimate detail: staring at the contours of a wall or the view out a window for hours at a time, or cataloguing all of their books, and perhaps finally reading the unread ones, or simply gazing at them on the shelf, making an entire world out of a locked room.
Another repeated topic of conversation was whether the lockdowns made localities more or less distinct from one another. On the one hand, whether we were in NYC or LA or a small town in between, we were all reading and talking about the same thing, to the exclusion of all that would have normally made our localities unique. On the other hand, we were all forced to entrench into the physical contours of wherever we were, much more deeply than if we could go about our usual travel habits, and engage in our usual activities, like concerts, museums, movies—which are both local and not at once, in the sense that, during normal times, I could visit the Whitney or the MoMA and thereby both experience and escape from the physical reality of NYC, in a way that I could not during the lockdowns, when I was forced to match my entire reality to the physical limitations of my apartment and whatever I could see from the windows. This, of course, and the endless virtual space of the Internet.
Speaking with a friend who rode out the lockdowns in Northampton about whether the spring had seemed short or long, we decided that time had passed differently in different places, as if any sense of temporal continuity had come undone, fracturing into local schema in which time was made of different substances in different places.
Like many city dwellers, perhaps especially those who grew up in small towns—and like Tolstoy, who fetishized the Russian countryside as the only antidote to the viper-dens of its major cities—my wife and I found ourselves longing for a return to the country. The narrative of urban flight has fragmented, along with so much else, into predictable camps, wherein wealthy NYC liberals made a bad name for themselves by flooding the Hamptons and the Hudson Valley, bringing both disease and inflation with them, while Trump seized on the rising anti-city sentiment to pitch himself, once again, as the lone savior of Real (i.e., rural) America, and warned that the rising chaos in the cities would soon spread to the otherwise peaceful countryside if he wasn’t there to stop it. Here, too, a logic of foreign invasion was recast in domestic terms.
Back in Northampton, my wife and I began ogling houses and properties as never before, along with an unprecedented number of other ex-urbanites. Clearly, the notion—however real or fantastical—of escaping the city for good, and working remotely while enjoying a lawn and ample indoor space, has been on a great many people’s minds this summer.
For me, this combined with a mixture of guilt and hope around the protests and encroaching violence: if we were to move to the country, would we be abandoning the cause of moral rightness by not staying to participate in the protests, or would we be escaping a wave of violence that would soon nullify whatever social progress had been made? In short, was moving to the country the responsible or the irresponsible thing to do?
These questions combined with a series of thoughts from the spring, about micro-communities, quarantine bubbles, a new system of education outside the obviously crumbling edifice of private universities (I’d started teaching a series of writing workshops over Zoom, which felt much freer and more productive than anything in my limited university experience ever had). All in all, the question of what’s coming, historically, is bound up with the question of whether cities will crash and empty out as a result of 2020’s shocks—imagery from The Last of Us, whose sequel was one of the unifying pop cultural experiences of the pandemic, comes back to mind here—or if they’ll prove stronger because of them. Perhaps cities will enter a new golden age of more space and lower rents, allowing more vibrant, adventurous people to return, or to move in for the first time, as in NYC in the 70s and early 80s.
More broadly, the question of how much nations should detach from each other—closing borders, decoupling supply chains so that, in future pandemics, each nation can make more of what it needs at home—is a macrocosm of the question of how much people should detach from each other, how densely we should live, what the proper social distance should be, and whether the resulting isolation is a price worth paying.
Eternal Present-Tense: America vs. Europe
The fact that I’m speculating here about how best to live in the future reveals, I think, something innately American in my mindset: that we are, and have always been, a future-oriented society. There are deep strains of nostalgia, certainly—perhaps I should instead say we are a “present-averse society”—but mostly Americans dream of growth and expansion, not of locking down what they have.
This is a major aspect of what has made us so unable to do what’s necessary to halt the spread of the virus. Unlike Germany, where there’s a greater consensus that “things are as good as they’re going to get, so we should do whatever it takes to preserve them,” the present-tense in America is demonstrably not good enough, so people aren’t motivated to sacrifice in order to preserve it. Not only is there no mutually-agreed upon “good enough,” it may be that the only thing Americans have in common is their own, divergent dreams of the future. Instead of an “American Dream,” there are perhaps 330 million “American Dreams,” many of them mutually incompatible, unified only in the sense that everyone is pursuing them. The core notion of ‘freedom’ is thus the freedom to pursue (or at least to feel free to pursue) one’s own notion of a better future, however unlikely its realization may be.
This, in turn, is part of what makes the UE so fascinating and maddening: if America is a future-oriented society, why can’t it actually reach the future? Why does the UE function as a form of stasis—locking us in a motionless present-tense—if we are all fleeing the present, so much so that we can’t even shut down long enough to wait out a virus? Is this pursuit inherently self-defeating, locking us into an unworkable present ever more firmly, the more we strain to get past it, like a boa constrictor that coils tighter the more its prey fights to break free?
We know, more and more clearly, that endless growth—of wealth, of population, of military power—isn’t sustainable, and therefore shouldn’t be desirable, but the only way to move out of this mindset is to stop kicking the can down the road, and instead consider life as it exists in the present, asking what makes it worth living, outside the temporary comfort of accumulation, or self-sacrifice/exploitation for the sake of potential accumulation at some later point.
This is the inherent paradox of past and future in America: we want to get out of the death-spiral we’re in and reach an actually better future, and yet the only way to do this is to stop chasing growth and instead meditate on the kind of present we truly want to live in, because—this fact is both obvious and impossible to fully comprehend—the future is, at some point, nothing but another present.
20th vs. 21st Century Conflict
As we consider where this summer might lead, it’s impossible to avoid citing European antecedents. We’re witnessing the rise of fascist elements that eerily echo those of 1930s Germany, and, as Chris Hedges warns, we’re also plunging into factionalism and mutual distrust that echoes the crisis in the Balkans in the 1990s. But we’re also facing unprecedented, inhuman variables: the human-influenced but inhuman change in our environment (of which the virus is an inhuman emissary, infecting and then spreading through humans), as well as the inhuman algorithms that control our speech and information diet online, shaping the narratives we absorb and participate in far more drastically than we tend to realize—never more so than during the pandemic, when almost all communication and information has been digitally mediated.
In this regard, the virus and the algorithms exist at a similar intersection of the human and the inhuman: they need us in order to spread, and they need to spread in order to live, but they are not, in and of themselves, remotely human. In this regard, we are far from the 20th century, and moving ever farther. It’s not just sophistry to ask of Facebook and Twitter whether people are communicating through algorithms, or algorithms are communicating through people.
If the global cataclysms of the 20th century originated in Europe—and resulted, after Europe’s near-total destruction by 1945, in the relative peace and stability it now enjoys, the aforementioned good-enough present tense (I don’t mean to discount the recent authoritarian slides of countries like Hungary and Poland, but I don’t yet see these dismal turns having broad, international significance)—the cataclysms of the 21st century seem almost certain to originate in America and Asia, the two powers which, together, carved up Europe in WWII.
The European story has thus been resolved—its narratives are no longer truncated—in a way that the story of the US, Russia, and China seems like it’s only just beginning down a long and fraught narrative path. If the 20th century crises of Europe were fundamentally crises of modernity, the crises we’re mired in now are fundamentally crises of postmodernity, born out of the fact that history didn’t end when it was supposed to, yet also didn’t continue in any coherent manner, leaving us with the dual feeling that we’ve seen it all before and we have no idea what we’re seeing.
Summer Reruns: The Rise of Hitler
The most glaring connection to Europe in the 20th century that now threatens America in the 21st is, of course, the narrative entitled The Rise of Hitler. The past three years, full as they’ve been of pseudo-crises, have repeatedly elicited the refrain of “what would Trump do in a real crisis? What if a 9/11 happened on his watch? Would that be his Reichstag Fire?”
Now that he’s got several real crises at once, the response is ambiguous: he’s become both more and less menacing. On the one hand, his Lafayette Square Bible Photo, taken after ordering that peaceful protesters be gassed to clear the way, is perhaps the evilest image of his entire presidency (this, along with the Soleimani killing, was the only moment in 2020 when I felt truly afraid that cataclysmic violence might be imminent); on the other hand, he’s never seemed more defunct and less in control (I’ve rarely seen a sadder boy than Trump finally forced to wear a mask). And if he’s grown more menacing in recent weeks, is it because his power is expanding (he’s flexing muscles he didn’t have before, enabled by lackeys who weren’t in place in 2018 or 2019), or contracting (he feels like a cornered animal, lashing out in desperation, even to his own detriment)? The fact that this isn’t easy to answer cuts to the heart of the question of what’s really going on in America this summer, and what future it’s going to produce.
The Rise of Hitler, as one possible future, has been so well covered, and so thoroughly converted to theater, that now, if it really is happening again, it has an unavoidable meta-dimension, like we’re watching reruns of a show we’ve already seen.Despite the value of hindsight, this may make us less rather than more equipped to prevent it. When articles say that, “Trump is taking a page out of the Fascist Handbook,” they mean this almost literally: unlike a hundred years ago, when media-stoked, semi-comedic fascism was new (as opposed to other, ancient forms of tyranny), today it really does carry the feeling of reenactment, like all the players are reading from this Handbook, doing everything according to predetermined roles—hence the postmodern dimension, the Pro Wrestling dimension, in which it always feels both serious and absurd, real and virtual at the same time.
It can start to feel like the 21st century is yearning to regress to the 20th, to start the clock over again, with the same conflicts in slightly different places—as if, on our deepest, most perverse level, we want The Rise of Hitler to play out again, because it’s comforting to be told a familiar narrative, rather than to hurtle into the genuinely unknown.
This is the double-edged sword of such familiarity: it can give us a roadmap to navigate what would otherwise be disorienting territory, but it can also force us to accept that stories must end the way they ended before, when this wasn’t necessarily the case. It can, in a very real way, keep us from imagining a legitimately better ending to the story we’re still in the middle of, and thus make us complicit in watching The Rise of Hitler play out to fruition once again—another Medusa we can’t look away from.
So, the question here is whether summer 2020 is indeed the real crisis we’ve feared, or yet another pseudo-crisis, another season of summer reruns to while the Dog Days away.
If this is true, or even possibly true, then the deeper and more provocative question is what would a really real crisis entail? Is there any such thing, or only perceived but never realized potential? Is it worth speculating about potential events—the most obvious would be something like Tiananmen Square: if the troops opened fire and killed a thousand or ten thousand protestors, or if, after losing in November, Trump told his supporters to start hunting down anyone who seemed like they’d voted against him—or is the crisis much deeper now, so that the level we need to question isn’t that of potential events, but the ontological conditions that allow (or disallow) occurrences to become events in the first place—the ground beneath which the hellmouth yawns.
One could also pose this question about the virus: is it possible that, had it been even worse, killing, say, 1.5 million rather than 150,000 Americans, or 15 or 150 million, that the magnitude of political change would’ve been radically different? Is it possible that, in March and April, when it was brand-new, it opened certain horizons of possibility that now, barring a truly extreme future surge, it is unlikely to bring to bear? Or are numbers irrelevant here, and the question of whether fundamental change can occur is answerable only by powers far stranger than we can imagine?
As another friend put it, we don’t have the morbid luxury of finding out.
In my last essay, I posited 9/11 as the last genuine event that we could all agree was an event, even if we disagreed about what had caused it and what the response should be. In the months since that essay went up, the virus has repeatedly been described as a “cataclysm far more significant than 9/11,” because, the reasoning goes, it directly—physically, not just mentally—affects everyone, not only those in the NYC area. This is true, and yet it is equally true that, unlike the virus, no one denied that 9/11 had occurred; to do so would have been not only absurd (denying the virus is also absurd), but also impossible, as the rubble of Ground Zero was too real to deny. In this sense, 9/11 remains the last undeniable event in the sense in which I mean it. Covid is part of a newer, stranger media environment, the “postmodern reality TV” era discussed above, in which everything might be other than it appears, and in which it’ll take a lot more than scary footage from The Rock to convince everyone of anything, regardless of whether it’s true.
Revolution as Role-playing, or Real Change?
In our era, reality TV has metastasized to the point where a reality TV star is now running the show—going from actor to director, or actor/director, like Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. Even Portland may be a show, more concerned with optics than actual, on the ground events, to the point where the greatest coup for Trump 2.0 may not be whatever actually happens in Portland, but rather the footage it generates, already repurposed for campaign ads, showing the supposed terror of Democrat-led cities, and the brave, unwavering man at the top who’s determined to rein it in.
In this sense, the troops are both real troops and actors playing troops. This then bleeds into even hazier territory, as citizen militia members buy uniforms on Amazon and in turn play these troops, enacting a double level of impersonation—reality TV squared. This harkens back to the notion of lone shooters metastasizing into organized militias, which in turn metastasize into occupying armies, where ‘real’ and ‘pretend’ troops are no longer distinguishable, the Call of Duty answered in some horribly warped manner.
More broadly, the question of roles is the essence of the protests themselves, as we fight over what roles people can and should play in our society, and what role the government should play in relation to them: what is the role of Black people? Of trans people? Of women? Of young people? Of students? Of urban people? Of poor people? Of rich people? Of artists? Of journalists? And on and on, so that the entire debate becomes a debate over the playing of roles and any given person’s freedom, or lack thereof, to choose the role they want to play.
The deeper question, which relates to the question of protest itself—is all protest performance?—is whether the shuffling and reassigning of roles is every truly revolutionary, or if the only revolutionary act (perhaps it’s impossible to escape the language of acting here) is to overthrow the entire concept of roles, and move into a space without them.
This is not at all to suggest that anyone protesting is acting in bad faith, but rather to question the nature of the arena in which their good faith actions are playing out, and how the vastly greater number of Americans watching at home (from inside the cathode ray mission) can and should process the actions relayed to them from within the arena of the streets.
In general terms, the question, as it relates to the UE, is whether there can still be legitimate revolution—in the sense of repressed classes rising up to actually oust their corrupt rulers, and replace them with an actually better system—or, now, only pseudo-revolution, in which we act out what we believe revolutionary behavior to be, from within the Videodrome of the UE, performing what we’ve seen on TV so that others, at home, might in turn watch us on TV. In short, are there real revolutionaries on the streets of America today, or only those, knowingly or unknowingly, conscripted into playing revolutionaries?
At the very least, the cat is out of the bag: the stock market is not the economy, police are racist and maybe altogether unnecessary, the government can pay your rent if it wants to, possibly forever, liberal mayors are cowards when it comes to protecting their citizens, who can, we now know, be disappeared into unmarked vans… all of this is known now, and it foments a kind of revolutionary spirit, but does this actually lead to real change, or is the knowledge of these things itself part of the UE, adding to the same festering pool of knowledge that contains the revelation that the entire Iraq War was a lie, and that a banking consortium that tanked the world economy in 2008 due to outright fraud can easily be bailed out by, of all people, “Hope” president Barack Obama?
If Netflix and Amazon and Bank of America can simply address the uprising by adopting some antiracist language, highlighting some Black authors and filmmakers, and convening a few committees, while keeping their business models entirely intact, then what is at stake on the streets? And yet, if nothing’s at stake, why are federal troops gassing moms? Is this, likewise, part of the theater, everyone compelled, by forces beyond their ken—the image of “puppet Biden” comes back to mind, as does the Napoleonic chaos that traumatized Tolstoy—to play roles they barely know they’re playing? In short, is the consciousness-raising event that is underway this summer likely to emancipate people from their roles, or only to make them aware that they are indeed playing these roles, because there are no others to play and no sane alternative to acting?
The Death Drive: Approaching and Recoiling from Radical Change
One lens to consider these questions through is Freud’s notion of the Death Drive, in which we yearn to approach death in order to discover that we can resist or transcend it. I think this is related to the protest movement, and thus to the UE itself: do we ultimately want to stress-test our system, acting as though we want to overthrow it while secretly hoping that it prevails, so as to prove how resilient it was all along, just as outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post endlessly cover Trump’s malfeasance while profiting immensely off of it, and thus not-so-secretly hoping he never leaves?
The recent revelation that the rules are no longer what we thought they were functions along these lines: do we want to truly, on a political or even ontological level, rewrite the rules of reality, or do we want to test those rules and, in so doing, see how resilient they are? This is the debate over reform vs. abolition on a macro-scale: do we want to slightly improve our society, or burn it down and start over? And if it’s the latter, what does that mean in practice? What risks are we willing to take?
By the same token, do those who refuse to wear masks and gleefully attend beach parties while cases are surging actually want to die, or do they want to prove to themselves and to the rest of us that they can come close to death but ultimately prevail over it, either because of their own strength, or because of their courage/knowledge in exposing Covid as a hoax?
We know that much of American infrastructure, from healthcare to policing to education to elections to the basic tenets of the social contract, isn’t working, and yet I still wonder if there’s the collective will to find out if anything lies beyond, or if we want to approach the edge and then get bounced back, like children who run away from home hoping to be found by our parents. We may fear that the system is too stable, in that its mechanisms of control are oppressive and unfair, but also that it’s not stable enough, in that too many people—not to mention the entire natural environment—are teetering on the edge, perennially faced with the prospect of collapse. This is yet another contradiction that the UE exploits.
There’s also a psychosexual dimension to this dynamic, as we provoke the ire of the police—society’s most obvious avatars of the status quo, of the Man—and then recoil with a mixture of rage and arousal when they strike back, enforcing the limits of a reality that (we secretly fear) may not, but for the police, be limited at all. A friend once told me that he both loathed and was turned on by the tone of total, docile compliance that came out of his mouth when he got pulled over for a traffic violation. I think this is a feeling we can all relate to, whether or not we’d like to admit it: like the Old Testament God, the repressive anger of the police makes us simultaneously yearn to rise above and to submit with, as Kierkegaard put it, infinite resignation.
“Nothing Can Stop What is Coming”: Undefeated Novum—Can Consciousness Lead Us Beyond the Mirror Walls?
As of late July, I believe the compound crises have brought us to a point beyond which a number of roads are still open. They’ve brought to the surface the fundamental question of whether there’s enough collective will—enough power, in Tolstoy’s view—to bring about a genuine social change, or if our wars with the police, and the State that backs them, will ultimately amount to an extended pornographic fantasy of provocation and dominance, before simmering down into the same UE as before. (If this happens, it will help prove the grim point that seeming about to be overthrown is indeed one of the functional modes of the UE, a routine it can perform at no risk to itself.)
Part of what will determine this question, and thus part of what will determine the election, is the kind of thinking that all Americans engage in between now and November, or, more to the point, the kind of thinking they engage in from now on, since a Biden victory will not answer these questions, except perhaps to put The Rise of Hitler back to bed. Biden may buy us time, politically and environmentally, but he won’t deliver the future that anyone’s fighting for.
Speaking of time, many of us have been spending an inordinate amount of it alone, and thus, I’d like to imagine, an inordinate amount thinking. If we extend the image of mirror-walls surrounding the country to our own heads, we can ask: do the mirrors of self-consciousness, polished during lockdown, reveal what’s truly meaningful to us, or the opposite—do they lock us within the same tired, defunct thought-loops we’d been running through for too long already?
In other words, is the profound mental challenge we’re facing now that of looking deep within ourselves, or looking all the way beyond ourselves, in order to find out if it’s possible to break out of the UE and actually reach a desirable shared future, beyond the end of history?
Or perhaps it’s the notion of futurity itself that, paradoxically, keeps us locked in the UE: if Germany and New Zealand have decided that their current forms are good enough, where would the US have to get to in order for this to be true here? What would it take for us to reach a present-tense that all 330 million of us would actually, together, decide to save? Maybe the innermost point—the cloistered center of thought—will yield the most universal vista, the final vision of something truly new, something so great that it will no longer be a symptom of the kind of thinking possible within the UE. Like Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, from within one system will come the makings of another—the makings of a future America worth saving.
It’s crucial to think about a real future, outside of the UE, because plenty of others are doing just this, and none of their futures are inviting. The Boogaloo Boys and other Accelerationists have envisioned their own way out, into an apocalyptic race war that they’ve tried to stoke by infiltrating the protests, in Minneapolis and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, QAnon speaks of a “Great Awakening,” similar to the earlier “Red Pill” meme among the alt-right. They claim to have “woken up” to a buried truth, a level of the “really real” that’s hidden from the rest of us, who accept the UE as a simulacrum for life itself, forgetting, or pretending to forget, that something isn’t right.
If we agree that neither a Boogaloo nor a QAnon future is desirable—nor, more broadly, a future in which big business simply drives us to extinction—then the question grows even more urgent: can we too wake up (in a more profound sense than is generally meant by the term woke) enough to look away from the Medusa? Is it possible to use this year’s long, unexpected spell of solitary thought and passionate, if remote, conversation to awaken to something genuinely better, not paranoid or regressive or fanatical?
Now that America has been rendered foreign to itself—and, at the same time, now that its latent racism and all-around cruelty have been rendered apparent to perhaps more people than ever before—we have a once-in-a-lifetime, or once-in-several-lifetimes, opportunity to see further, or to see differently, than we ever otherwise would have.
And perhaps the process of considering these questions contains its own solution, in that by refocusing on thought, conversation, and deliberate rather than distracted attention, we’ve begun to realize that what we want is a nation that foregrounds these things, rather than wealth, haste, and acquisition, a nation in which presence and consciousness are paramount—and the conditions that allow for these modes are in place—and where we find the courage to admit that we’ve arrived where we’re going, rather than continuing to speed, without a seatbelt, onward over the horizon.
Returning to the notions of micro-communities and time passing differently in different places, I hope we can both achieve greater global solidarity, in the sense of working together as a species to keep from destroying ourselves, and greater local diversity, in the sense of decoupling from mass media and beginning to embrace, or reembrace, uniqueness, discontinuity, mutual compassion, strangeness, dreaming, outsider art… the kind of thinking that only comes alive when it isn’t deadened by the burden of constant commercial stimulation.
“Nothing can stop what is coming”: I want to end with this phrase, as I believe it’s the key sentiment of 2020, perfectly expressing this year’s heady mixture of clarity and ambiguity: does the phrase represent stasis (none of what’s going on this summer, no matter how seemingly momentous, will accrue enough power to change what was already in motion), or the opposite (no attempt to ‘return to normal’ will be enough to stop the unprecedented forces that have now been unleashed)? These are the questions we’re left with.
If we know we’re inexorably approaching the future, as we’ve always been, and that whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, as it was always going to, then why does this summer feel exceptional? Why does the phrase no one can stop what is coming, an obvious tautology, feel freighted with special meaning this summer, as if it were truer now than ever before? And if we’re so certain that something is coming, its form already predetermined and inexorable, like Yeats’ rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, why are we still so unsure what it’s going to be?
Maybe, whenever what’s coming comes, we’ll know. Maybe The Life of Hitler will replay, to the bitter end, or maybe Trump 2.0 will prove much the same as 1.0, or maybe Biden will return us to a waxworks version of the Obama Era. Or maybe none of these things will happen, and something much further out of left field will. And maybe—life is always stranger than seems possible—we still won’t know what’s coming even after it’s come. We’ll still, even then, only know that it’s coming. Maybe the future will never become the present.
At the very least, if the foundations are indeed crumbling and the pit beneath is opening up, I hope this spring and summer have made us brave enough to look all the way in, as far down as we can see, instead of, yet again, allowing the next reality TV show to eat our attention.