Unworkable Equilibrium 4: What’s Real in the Early Post-Trump Era and How Can We Find It?
On the shifting nature of fiction and reality in early 2021, considering GameStop, the Capitol Insurrection, chaos magic, Pinter, Beckett, Trump, Biden, Pynchon and the Whole Sick Crew.
Burst Piñata / Chaos Magic
As I work through the following ideas in the aftermath of the #wallstreetbets / GameStop stock story, in which—supposedly, a term that now needs to precede each and every narrative—an army of gamers gathered on Reddit to punish short sellers who tried to profit off the death of a beloved and benighted video game retail chain, I sense that the place to begin is by picking up on a gathering atmosphere of chaos magic, a sense that polarities are shifting and realigning in post-Trump America, bedfellows are growing stranger, and old notions of Left and Right are breaking down. White supremacists are rioting beside Orthodox Jews and self-promoting real estate brokers, yoga moms and vegan hipsters are joining QAnon along with militia members, cops, and ex-military personnel, and basement gamers and memelords are using their stimulus checks to stage an Occupy-style uprising against corrupt hedge funds (unless they are themselves being used by hedge funds in a nihilistic mockery of such an uprising), all organized around the half-joking, half-serious principle of searching for the real, and violently opposing the unreal wherever it seems to appear.
It’s also productive to begin here by considering how the GameStop story relates to the notion of death, never more present (and repressed) than at this moment in American history, as Covid approaches half a million victims, while those who’ve so far evaded this fate by staying indoors nevertheless feel their lives slipping away, beyond the reach of time and space, last spring’s hopes of “baking sourdough and meditating” fading into an eerie, half-forgotten prelude to whatever chapter we’re in now. On the one hand, hedge funds profit off the death of companies—which have themselves profited off the death of people throughout this plague year—pillaging them for resources like hyenas tearing up their dead brethren; on the other hand, there’s an extreme surge of life in the GameStop story, an unexpected influx of weird, jagged energy—and, from my spectatorial point of view, of real excitement and pleasure—into the otherwise lifeless systems of another day on Wall Street and another day in quarantine.
Like the January 6 storming of the Capitol (which I’ll refer to simply as 1.6), the GameStop story calls into question what’s real and what’s fake, what’s serious and what’s a joke, what’s anarchism and what’s fascism, and who’s on what side, all with the veneer of a growing rage between what’s being framed as the people, however shaky and contradictory that coalition turns out to be, and the Empire, meaning a vague but tangibly felt coalition of Wall Street, the mainstream media, and the mainstream Democrats and Republicans, all now tenuously unified under Biden, though the legitimacy crisis that Wall Street is now undergoing is surely part of the larger legitimacy crisis of this new administration, as it struggles to hold a line that is already fraying into weirder, less coherent factions.
The insurgent energies leading to this atmosphere of chaos magic at the start of the post-Trump era stem most immediately from the defeat and deflation of Orange Julius Caesar himself. Now that we’re finally free to look away, it feels like a balloon or a piñata containing all of America’s strangeness, venality, and freaky joy has popped, and its contents are now floating free and being reabsorbed, no longer gathered within the ghoulish avatar that, since 2016, has both housed and served as a screen for them to be projected back upon, in a feedback loop that kept the UE hovering in place, vibrating with energies that have only now been released.
Now these energies are redistributing themselves, causing unpredictable reactions in the general population, and thereby inaugurating a new era in which the vectors of paranoia, fear, and hope have shifted, and the question of what’s real and how it might be accessed has taken a new turn—perhaps, at last, out of the shadow of the 20th century and toward the actual future.
The GameStop story is thus indicative of a larger trend, both in terms of “bottom-up” revolutionary energy, in which the underclass (although in this case, as with the meme-lords who helped elect Trump as a cosmic joke in 2016, it probably refers more to “counter-elites”—those with education and basic stability but no sense of upward mobility or skin in the game of mainstream society—than it does to genuinely poor people) uses the rules of the ruling class against its entrenched interests, and that ruling class responds by trying to discredit and shame this underclass on staunch moral terms, and to warn the rest of “normal society” about the dangers posed therein.
The same move that happened after Trump’s election (“these people are too dumb to know what they voted for”) is already happening in the finance world, as talking heads across the board caution readers and viewers about how serious the GameStop shenanigans “really are,” and why “non-experts” shouldn’t be allowed to game the market the way that experts can—and, further, why experts should be allowed to halt trading when the trades no longer benefit them, while any other form of regulation should be illegal. (This is the narrative, anyway.)
It’s telling that the Biden era is beginning with a mashup of trends from the beginning of the Trump era (a meme becoming reality, people “just doing it for the lolz” yet affecting real outcomes, a wave of fear about the dangers of “undersexed young men”), as well as the Obama era (another potential Wall Street crash, another Occupy-style “take down the 1%” ethos, another round of government intervention to keep Wall Street in power). On a linguistic level, the term “GameStop” is also tellingly ambiguous, as it begs the question of who’s stopping what game: are Reddit bros stopping Wall Street’s game, or is Wall Street stopping Reddit’s game?
This in turn sparks an exciting panic about what, in 2021, constitutes a game and what doesn’t. More generally, it forces us to consider the ways in which contradictory unrealities—the essential unreality of the stock market, which has soared throughout Covid even as the actual economy has tanked, and the unreality of videogames and the Reddit subculture surrounding them, organized here to use gaming tactics to defend a purveyor of videogame discs, themselves an obsolete technology propped up by nostalgia for the “real” experience of buying actual discs at an actual store, rather than downloading formless media through a digital portal—combine to genuinely alter the fate of actual companies and the fortunes of actual people. This provides a crucial means of access to the giddy strangeness of the present, as we exit the explicitly strange Trump era and begin to find our way into whatever comes next, which, though its official story has long been branded as back to normal, may, for that very reason, turn out to be even stranger.
The question at the bottom of all this is whether reality is finally breaking back through—is the fake stock market finally being forced to meet reality—or the opposite—is this the intrusion of an even more perverse pseudo-world, some concept out of a sci-fi novel gumming up the otherwise real workings of the stock market with a fake price surge, at just the moment when Trump Fever was supposed to be breaking?
These questions may be impossible to answer, but what seems certain is that we’ve entered an era in which cause and effect, illusion and reality, are being scrambled into new configurations. Are the GameStop Redditers making a mockery of the stock market, or are they showing it for what it really is, puncturing whatever veneer of integrity it had tried to maintain? Are the rioters from 1.6 an anti-democratic force, determined to overturn the Will of the People, who voted for Biden, and install a dictator by fiat, or (if we allow that they genuinely believe the election was stolen) are they a profoundly democratic force, storming the seat of a corrupt government after exhausting all other procedural options for having their voices heard—and if it’s the latter, is the moral imperative then to oppose rather than support mass democracy?
Furthermore, are the conspiracies-within-conspiracies that these bizarre events give rise to a means of glimpsing the actual power structure behind the illusion of American culture in 2021, or are they merely another delusional tangent, born of the desire to believe that someone’s in control when the truth is that we’re riding a rudderless ship into a deep fog?
If 2016 was one iteration of a disaffected underclass trying to assault the establishment, that time with a populist, nostalgic, “bring back the good old days” flavor, and 1.6 was something else—a moment the fantasy took a sudden turn for the real, or else the real took a sudden plunge into the fantastical (it was certainly an impossible-to-believe set of images)—then we’re now in the aftermath of that turn, a moment when the Empire is nominally back in charge and yet its authority appears shakier and more porous than ever, as it tries to convince us that the past four years were an aberration rather than a true measure of where we stand, and DC remains militarized long past the Inauguration, with no prospect of peaceful consensus on the horizon.
Every time I try to quit, they pull me back in
After the election, or at least after it seemed relatively clear that Trump wouldn’t succeed in overturning the results, I pried my attention away from the maelstrom of stimuli loosely correlated under the banner of “politics,” and returned to my novels and short stories. I had no illusions about how an incoming Biden administration would “bring us back to normal,” nor any illusions that such normality would be a wholly good thing, but I was beginning to feel that the nature of the conundrum had grown predictable and redundant, whatever remained of its signal devolving into familiar noise. I thus wanted to renew my vow to engage with the American mythic as such, without being buffeted helplessly by the news cycle.
Then 1.6 occurred, and, like everyone else, I was sucked back in. It would have been perverse to resist. Though I resented the distraction, I also sensed that here was something genuinely unprecedented in American history, after so many unexploded bombshells from throughout the Trump era. Here, at last, was something actually, unambiguously terrifying, the very worst moment of these dark four years, though still combined, as ever, with a dose of the bizarre, the inexplicable, and the hilarious, and met with the same ambiguous sanctimony in response, as news anchors immediately started decrying a desecration of “the People’s House” even though, surely, “the people” were the ones doing the desecrating, not the coterie of threatened officials hiding inside.
It also can’t be overstated how important it is that 1.6 arrived in the middle of a mind-killing entertainment desert. Barred from going to movies or concerts, and long since done with the meager offerings of actually good content on the streaming services, 1.6 was undeniably the first piece of truly compelling media I’d seen in many months. It was the first content—streamed on my laptop along with everything else—that I knew I had to watch, the first visual narrative that wasn’t a chore to sit through.
As I fell back in, putting my new novel aside, I felt a combination of disappointment—here, again, I was losing track of my own attention and letting the monetized news cycle reassert its dominance over me, as if to punish my previous lapse of engagement—while also feeling that, if my stated goal was to engage with the American mythic as a primary source, then here was the thing itself, more nakedly exposed than ever before. To overlook the reality of the moment felt like a dereliction of my own authorial intent.
At the very least, I decided, it would be worth exploring the contradictions that 1.6 called up, the weird mesh of public and private attention, of horror and comedy, of myth and idiocy, of moving on and remaining stuck in place, and the ways in which these contradictions mark the beginning of a new era—one in which Biden’s inauguration seems destined to play only a small part, and the energies of 1.6 and GameStop seem both thrillingly and ominously significant.
Does This Weaken or Strengthen the UE?
As I came back into the fray, I began to consider whether the escapades of the fall—the charged atmosphere leading up to the election, the much-vaunted “greatest turnout in history” on election day, the dancing in the streets of Brooklyn when enough of the map finally turned blue, the contradictory chants of “Count the Votes” and “Stop the Count” on the part of Trump supporters as they saw their early lead dwindle, culminating, of course, in the iconic Four Seasons Total Landscaping fiasco, one of the great comic moments in American life, exuding the kind of authentic, homegrown slapstick that gave rise to John Waters and Tim & Eric—had moved the needle on the UE: whether we were in a different place than we had been when I wrote the third essay in this series last October.
My first thought was that the UE is the defining symptom of an on-demand society, which has only grown more entrenched as Covid stretches unto eternity: things happen super-fast (1.6 has already been processed into the stuff of established history—indeed, the process of its being processed was part of the event itself, as the rioters were simultaneously live-streaming their attack and commenting on one another’s feeds, while checking social media for updates from Trump—who they knew was watching on TV, thereby exchanging roles with the original reality-TV star—while being filmed doing exactly that), and yet it still feels like we’re treading water, like we’re using these super-fast pseudo-events to distract from a deeper itch that isn’t being scratched.
Biden himself is an avatar of this: a uniquely old president, bringing a measure of classic-sounding wisdom to a situation that’s spiraling out of control in what feels like a new way, or at least in such a way that old crises—illness, inequality, climate change, dereliction of compassionate governance, the lack of spiritual grounding that so easily breeds extremist mania—are proliferating and growing stranger through new channels of thought and media. Indeed, Biden’s own forgetfulness makes him an avatar of a new era whose stated goal is to forget, and recede gently into an imagined past, even as we cannot help speeding toward an unimaginable future.
But then I thought, if the UE is so stable, why is it almost impossible to read articles from more than a day ago? Why has it been so hard to write this piece, focusing on a given set of events, when that set expands faster than I can write? I feel as though I can’t keep up, but what is it that I can’t keep up with? Is it the real that I’m trying to locate, which I can feel pulsing beneath the flux of surface-level activity? Or is it a delusion we’ve succumbed to, such that we (all of us conspiracy theorists in our own ways) believe in some ever-evolving master narrative to avoid the fact that we’ve largely run out of ideas, and have resorted to ever more shocking pseudo-events to mask this reality? Is even GameStop, for all the giddy excitement at seeing randos take down Wall Street (if that’s what we’re seeing), still just a sad longing for the good old days of playing Mortal Kombat on someone’s Sega at a sixth-grade sleepover?
The ways in which the QAnon world is responding to Trump’s failure to remain in office, and the fact that mass arrests of Democrats and celebrities have yet to occur, is also instructive along these lines: on the one hand, the movement seems to be fracturing and losing steam—hence, actually evolving in step with history—while, on the other, it’s simply kicking the can down the road, claiming that the real storm is still coming (on March 6th perhaps), and that Biden’s apparent assumption of power either isn’t legitimate, or that Biden is himself somehow a secret Q agent, carrying out the next phase of the plan, thereby adapting the same old story to whatever new events happen to intervene.
Either way, this resonates with the essence of American seediness as I discussed it in UE3, namely that, in this country, we’re always both waiting for certain seeds to sprout and usher in a culminating Age of Revelation—thereby bringing the American Story to a dramatic climax once we’ve reached the real future (many Capitol rioters proclaimed that “today is our 1776,” as if the first founding of the country had been merely a dress rehearsal)—while also remaining secure in the belief that no true consequences will befall us (just as many of the Capitol rioters seemed genuinely surprised to consider that they might be prosecuted for their actions).
The paradoxical way in which 1.6 was both silly and dead serious is front and center here: on the one hand, I can empathize with the rioters’ incredulity at being called domestic terrorists for having staged an elaborate, goofy prank; on the other hand, I can also appreciate that they really would have killed Pence, Pelosi, and AOC if given the chance, and am thus equally incredulous at the notion that they could’ve seen themselves as anything other than domestic terrorists. The fact that, no matter how much time passes and no matter how long I think about it, neither point of view cancels out the other is the truest conclusion I can come to about this moment. It makes me deeply uncomfortable to see people I know on Twitter eagerly tweeting photos of the rioters to the FBI; on the other hand, it would make me equally uncomfortable if the FBI declined to prosecute them.
In the Bush era, after 9.11—arguably the last “really real event,” to which 1.6 is already being compared—we launched an apocalyptic war of “good vs. evil,” and yet now, 20 years later, with that war standing as one of the largest mistakes in our history, we’ve moved on with hardly any consideration of what actually happened, even as we continue to sink deeper into debt and mutual distrust, and veterans of that war appear armed among the 1.6 rioters, while retired generals speak of using counter-insurgency tactics developed in Iraq and Afghanistan against this newly designated breed of “domestic terrorists” on American streets.
As an on-demand society that’s always both positing the End and evading all consequences, we believe that we shouldn’t have to wait for anything (that it should all be here already), while also understanding ourselves as a society of nothing but waiting, always approaching a culminating event that never comes (and that, if it did come, would end the very culture that the waiting defines, and hence, like Death itself, be incomprehensible to us). This gels with the simmering terror of our post-1.6 moment, in which there’s always both fear of further attacks and a sense of letdown when they don’t occur—a feeling of okay, now it’s on for real, combined with a deflating counter-feeling of… or is it?
Certainly, the hyper-militarized and otherwise unattended Inauguration—a weird echo of Trump’s meager and much exaggerated crowd in 2017—took on an ominous air when nothing necessitating such a military presence occurred, even though it would have been ominous for the opposite reason if something had.
On a podcast featuring audio clips from 1.6, a Tennessee woman was heard screaming about how she got maced (though later reports claim she’d actually rubbed onion in her eyes). When asked why she was there, she shouted, “What do you mean? We’re storming the Capitol—it’s a revolution!”
It’s hard to imagine a more quintessentially American response, combining entitlement and entertainment in such a precise way, as if the insurrection were a climactic scene she’d been cast in, one with a predetermined outcome that she was disappointed to see wasn’t playing out as planned. On the one hand, it was an extremely bold and courageous action she’d taken, however loony its premises; on the other, her attitude couldn’t have been more passive and resigned, as if the fact that the Internet had promised her a revolution meant it should be delivered in a bright white Amazon package.
Seen in this light, and given that 1.6 did not prevent Biden’s inauguration and that Trump did indeed board his plane and fly away—into either temporary or permanent Florida ignominy—the entire concept is a perfect American episode, playing at apocalypse and radical change in a way that not only doesn’t bring those things about, but that actually guarantees even greater stasis and entrenchment of the status quo, just as the liberal consensus, eager to declare the mania of the Trump era “over for good,” is also bound to be disappointed and unnerved by that narrative’s persistence. In this sense, it seems clear that the UE has survived Trump, though the giddiness I felt in watching 1.6 and reading about GameStop does indicate that it’s begun to evolve now that Biden is in office.
A Spectacle of Spectatorship: In Search of the Real in the Depths of Fantasy
Returning to the GameStop story and the larger implications of “meme stocks” on the supposedly real stock market, I want to think a little more about how fantasy and absurdity lead to the real, but never in quite the ways people expect. If the fantasy of overturning the election on 1.6 leads directly to the Biden administration cracking down on Internet speech and regulating public discourse within an ever-shrinking “middle ground,” and the GameStop event does the same—leading to sudden new regulations on the stock market, and increased scrutiny of Reddit, either as a source of genuine bottom-up disruption or as yet another screen behind which further manipulation and consolidation of power can hide—then the real emerges from the fantastical insofar as events cause the opposite of their stated goals. At the same time, these fantastical events reveal that what had presented itself as real in the first place (the inherent legitimacy of democratic elections, the inherent fairness of the “open market” or the “open Internet”) was anything but—a revelation that, once it catches on, cannot be easily suppressed.
In my fiction, characters are always in search of the real, but they don’t know where to find it, only that it’s no longer in the places where it used to be. I’m interested in forms of ambiguous deconsecration, situations where the expected sites of the holy, be they religion, mythology, community, hard work, “home,” even art itself, have become corrupted or coopted—“captured” in today’s parlance—and no longer provide reliable access to the real. Nevertheless, my fiction isn’t hopeless or devoid of spiritual potential, it’s just that the real appears unexpectedly, out of debasement or slapstick or ultra-violence, and it never appears in the same place twice—you have to fall through an unexpected trap-door rather than going down a pre-established rabbit hole. You have to get lost in order to find it, an experience that I undergo along with my characters as I’m writing, and one that I very much found myself undergoing as I let the churn of thoughts in this essay have its way with me (even as I wondered whether I was indeed going down such a pre-established rabbit hole).
If I think more expansively about my mission in searching for the real through writing fiction with the goal of producing offline, print books, I also think about the people in 2021 who are likewise acting offline—BLM leaders planning street protests, to use an example my brother offered while critiquing a draft of this essay, or teachers striking to unionize, or militia leaders running tactical drills in the woods. These people, for better and worse, represent either an absurd naïveté (that there is a world outside the Internet), or a kind of highly evolved, future-facing wisdom (that only IRL actions have any traction now—that you can only beat the Internet by leaving it behind), both of which I feel, to alternating degrees, while maintaining my own quasi-religious devotion to the book as a complete, analogue object, against all evidence that it is an artifact from a bygone age—and against the pull of the forces that have refocused my attention, once again, into this very-online essay series.
I recognized this same haphazard search for the real, in a space between digital and terrestrial realms, while watching the rioters storming the Capitol in the grips of a complex fantasy that allowed them to feel like genuine patriots, truly standing up for what they believed was right—and, on a more personal level, backing up with real actions the claims they’d made on message-boards and in chat rooms, thus providing video proof of the fact that they were real actors (with all the ambiguity this phrase suggests), rather than cowardly shitposters—and desperate to cut through what they saw as a barrage of lies (it’s telling that Trump’s slogan morphed in 2020 from “Make America Great Again” to “No More Bullshit”), while, at the same time, viewing it all as an extended prank, halfway between real ideological terrorism—a legit effort to overturn the results of a national election—and a tongue-in-cheek attempt to punk a bunch of self-serious senators and smoke blunts in a supposedly sacred federal building, egged on by an obvious crank like Giuliani, who then claimed his support had been merely a reference to the “fictional documentary” Game of Thrones. If that’s not 2021 America in a nutshell, nothing is. (Or nothing except seeing Twitter explode with people gloating over how the CEO of a company called MyPillow had been banned for supposedly suggesting that Trump invoke “marshall law,” a term he couldn’t even spell correctly.)
To link all of this to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is nothing new, but it may point toward a new evolution in which politics and pop culture have merged to an even more unholy degree, rendering all forms of political support into forms of super-fandom, just as many superfans—of Taylor Swift, of Beyonce, of Star Wars and Marvel Movies, of GameStop and AMC—have turned their support into a form of ironclad but policy-free politics. In this sense, even in supposedly populist events like 1.6 and Trumpism more broadly, people are unified not by genuine side-by-side solidarity, but by all being fans of the same celebrity. In essence then, these people may believe they are doing something together, but, in reality, they’re only watching something together (just as the rest of the country was unified against 1.6 by all watching in horror at the same time, while likewise doing nothing).
And yet, despite all this, something real enough to dominate my attention was present on 1.6. Although the real is very hard to find, I’ve come to believe that it’s also very hard to not find. It’s persistent and adaptable, even as the edifices that we expect to house it crumble.
The content of what Trump says, right up to and including his “you need to show strength” speech on 1.6, may be pure lies, but the degree to which his staunchest supporters really support him, the depth and legitimacy of that, is impossible to deny (indeed, it’s a persistent fixation of the mainstream press). In this regard, Biden is surely illegitimate—he may have fairly won the election, and, like Kerry, Obama, and Clinton before him, he lesser-eviled a vote out of me, but he doesn’t have true support in this regard, by any stretch of the imagination. People support him because they feel like they should; he doesn’t filter through into their fantasy lives, touching them on the level where real and unreal combine into something dark, secret, and intractable—or, as Bernie did with millions of young people in 2016 and again in 2020, something at once immoderately hopeful and righteously angry.
These contradictions lead to a boggling of cause and effect: on the one hand, the rioters on 1.6 wouldn’t have shown up if they didn’t, at least to some degree, believe that the election fraud was real and that Trump really was leading a movement that they were honored members of; on the other hand, for the rest of us, it wasn’t real until the rioters showed up. Now, forever after, this event will always have occurred, forcing the narratives that led to it into the real, in the tautological sense that we now know where they led. However absurd they may seem, we’ve seen proof of the power they have.
This illustrates how the absurd—and only the absurd—can become real, while whatever claims to be real is in turn fated to become absurd. Beneath the shock value of 1.6, this is the condition that I’m most drawn to explore here, because I think it touches on the essence of our times, and thereby elucidates the post-2020 evolution of the UE.
A Hive-mind in Search of the Human
The people storming the Capitol wanted to become the real people by standing up against a fake candidate (a puppet, a clone, a robot, a lizard-man, whatever they believe Biden is) elected by dead people, forged signatures, and other “unreal” actors, and yet, in the eyes of much of the world, they were the exact opposite: little more than a bot army, a bunch of deluded goons in the grip of a shoddy conspiracy they learned about on Facebook, fighting to empower a game-show host who was himself, by many accounts, “not a real president.” In this same way, the desire to dox people online—to reveal “who they really are”—is similarly contradictory, seeking to unmask the person behind the avatar, but only so that they can be banished into a deeper realm of the unreal, beyond the legitimizing reach of social media.
I met someone last summer who told me she wasn’t a “conspiracy theorist,” but rather a “conspiracy realist.” When I first heard this term, it had an air of insistent authenticity to it, a naïve but sincere declaration that she was a real person, fighting through the bullshit to seek out whatever it occluded. However, it turned out that this phrase was itself a boilerplate term in Q-world, as I discovered upon further research. All conspiracy theorists, it turned out, were now conspiracy realists. Like teenagers around the world “expressing themselves” through whatever punk music, skateboard paraphernalia, or overpriced clothing (or, of course, videogames) massive branding firms decide they should buy, she was merely parroting a de-individuated phrase as a means of asserting her individuality against me, a brainwashed, mask-wearing victim of the deep state’s long con.
Thinking back on this moment in light of 1.6 and GameStop, I began to consider how people fight to become real by using the tools that the Internet vests them with (hoping to overcome the insecurities about being unreal that flood the system of anyone who’s been online too long), thus melding into something non-sentient: hollow beings hosting algorithms that have learned to think through people, literally hacking their minds and using them for their own purposes, just as ISIS used bots to magnify their threats and thereby succeeded in taking over actual cities that they never could have taken through human force alone, and just as Covid hacks our bodies en masse without regard for whatever individuality we might have.
On a related note, our surface-level anxiety about constantly having too much to do—one of the defining moods of the age, which has only worsened as work has gone remote and thus invaded every hour of the day and every corner of the house—may mask a deeper anxiety about actually having too little to do, the creeping sense, as David Graeber points out in Bullshit Jobs, that much of our work is superfluous as, ultimately, humanity’s role in the functioning of society rapidly diminishes.
GameStop perfectly illustrates this conundrum, as it is both a narrative of “the little guy” (again, the real people) rising up against the faceless greed of Wall Street, and yet, at the same time, the only reason the ploy worked is because all those little guys banded together into a colossal, de-individuated mass—some post-human force that developed an aggregate purchasing power that no regular humans could have mustered on their own, and that thus represents more of a systemic nihilism than a triumph of the human against the system.
“Do your own research,” as the rallying cry of QAnon, is likewise both an empowerment of the individual (“don’t believe the mass propaganda of CNN or the New York Times, see for yourself”), and an inducement into the Matrix, an invitation to begin a pre-established descent down a well-designed rabbit hole, to become a puppet in search of a means of unseating the puppeteers, and thereby losing yourself by melding into something larger (“where we go one, we go all” is another canonical phrase).
In this sense, every conspiracy theory breeds its own meta-conspiracy, a conspiracy of how that conspiracy theory came to be and who, in the end, it actually benefits (there’s already a theory that a hedge fund is behind the Reddit group, using the façade of the little guy to do what the big guys always do, just as RussiaGate was a meta-conspiracy generated in response to the conspiracy-mad Trump administration). Whose interest is it in to have rabid crowds of QAnon devotees storming the Capitol while the electoral votes are being counted? Trump, so he can stay in power? Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, so they can shut down anyone they don’t like? The Democrats, so they can effectively banish Trump forever, and enforce new laws criminalizing all dissent, on both the right and the left? The possibilities proliferate the more you consider (or, as it were, “research”) them. Is QAnon’s campy obsession with pedophile cannibals itself a deliberately seeded distraction from the legitimate unanswered questions surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, whose sordid saga of running an elite pedophile ring has completely vanished from the mainstream news?
In 2021, the narrative of real people standing up for the perseverance of humanity against global enslavement (Alex Jones often describes his orientation as “pro-human”) has never been stronger, and yet this phenomenon is as networked and bionic as any ever seen, a pseudo-assault on the political elites that is itself managed by the tech elites, much in the way that colossal pop-cultural spectacles, from Star Wars to The Avengers to Parasite, produced on a scale that no individual artist could ever dream of, fetishize successful uprisings of “the people” against the “Empire.”
To put it as cynically as possible, we could say that the only successful uprisings of the people against the Empire are those imagined by the Empire, with the explicit design of offering the people the chance to imagine (for a fee) a kind of solidarity and mass success that, because they’ve just paid the Empire for the privilege of imagining it, grows ever less likely to actually occur.
That’s Funny, That’s Not Funny! How Does Humor Work Now?
Another salient shift underway in the post-Trump era is the question of where comedy goes from here, and whether, like chaos magic, it will disperse back into the population now that it’s been wrested away from the insult comic with the big mic (a truism in the Trump era quickly became how satire’s impossible now). Now that we again have a non-funny president, where will we look for a truly skewering take on our predicament, and, more existentially, how will we parse out which aspects of that predicament really are funny and which are not?
One interesting node in this story is how the fall of Louis CK, arguably the most significant comedian of the era immediately preceding Trump (2014-2016 or so), coincided with Trump’s rise, and the rise of MeToo more generally, which took on the logic of symbolic sacrifice, purging as many sex-criminal men in high positions as possible, from Harvey Weinstein to Jeffrey Epstein, on the tacit assumption that Trump himself, despite his ballooning list of rape allegations, was untouchable.
Along these lines, seriousness and humor mixed in Louis’ persona, in that, at first, he was the darling of mainstream culture (FX, Fresh Air, Madison Square Garden, etc), joking in a manner at once self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing about his extreme male perversity and predatory tendencies—how he suffered from his need to make women suffer. The degree to which he was upfront about this cannot be overstated, but it diffused tension in the air so long as people thought (or were able to tell themselves) that it was just a joke. That all abruptly changed when he was credibly accused of doing the exact things he’d been joking about for years, and then he was quickly and summarily discarded, and made into an example (these things are not funny if they’re real), thereby continuing to diffuse tension in the air, but now through his absence.
Trump, of course, is both similar and dissimilar in the sense that he outwardly forced us to take him seriously (somehow, this guy really is the president, we tried to convince ourselves), while inwardly making that impossible, and playing both to his advantage—he could be dead serious or just joking whenever it suited him, and often succeeded in being both at once.
This gets at the beating heart of all humor. A joke or a routine is only funny when it both touches and subverts the real, and thus offers a means of access to the real that seriousness—a head-on approach—never can. In this way, Louis’ jokes about perversion and the underside of the male psyche were funny because and not despite the fact that they were real. This is not to say that he shouldn’t have been punished for his behavior, but merely that some part of the huge section of society that made him a megastar sensed the seriousness behind his jokes, and found them funny for this exact reason, uncomfortable as it may be to admit that now. In terms of the ideas I’m considering here, his fall is therefore more interesting than that of, say, Bill Cosby or Charlie Rose, who’d both built careers on being nice guys and then turned out to be the opposite.
This ties in with both 1.6 and GameStop in the sense that humor—especially dark, confrontational humor—must be embraced as a means of accessing the real in 2021, as the Trump era’s obsession with separating the funny from the not-funny proved a fool’s errand of the highest order, both for those in the center, outraged by every ridiculous tweet, and for those suckered into QAnon (or any part of the Trumpian cult of national rebirth) without seeing how B-movie ridiculous its aesthetics and precepts clearly were.
An essential truth of this moment is therefore that “there’s no longer any criteria available for preemptively assessing what’s possible, and thus anything that seems like a joke might also be dead-serious, and vice versa.” After Four Seasons Total Landscaping, 1.6, and GameStop, we must accept that we’ve fully entered a moment where there’s no limit on what might be a thing, which means that the real is more volatile than ever before—it might be hiding anywhere, at the center of any joke.
The other night, I was in the living room with my wife when she turned on Netflix and searched for the crackling fire loop we sometimes put on in the background while reading. This time, instead of the familiar log fire, there was a loop of a green chemical fire burning in a trash can in a graffiti-strewn alley, with a bionic, diseased-looking bird floating above it, and sometimes crashing into its rim with a loud thunk! We both laughed, almost unable to believe that this was actually on Netflix (who’d made it? Why?), and yet, in the end, we let it play, and went back to reading with this awful loop in the background, having, in the space of a few seconds, accepted that, yes, this too was a thing. This too was part of the real now.
The dark brilliance of Trump was that he understood this was where we were headed. The fact that the liberal class was so effortlessly triggered played perfectly into his hands, just as many of his supporters also played into his hands by failing to see the danger behind the joke of his presidency. Avoiding a return to this quagmire requires learning from it, and studying epochal geniuses like Harold Pinter, who long ago saw how humor and horror were coterminous, both digging beneath surface-level sense and offending surface-level taste in their quest to touch on something primal, some level of the real that exists beneath sense, and even beneath nonsense, in which we shriek in terror or double over with laughter because we know we’re in the presence of something whose reality transcends narrative, and hence is not subject to propaganda, while at the same time generating further terror and hilarity as we come to see just how deeply-embedded the propaganda really was.
Unlike drama or other means of straightforward storytelling, which can easily lead away from the real by seeming to make sense, horror and humor are genuinely honest art forms: you’re either really scared or you’re not; you either really laugh, or you don’t. In a Pinter play, or a Beckett novel, you often feel both ways at once. This is the artistic ideal to which I also aspire, and which I think has plenty to tell us about why 1.6 was both terrifying and hilarious, and why GameStop is both a moment of genuinely exciting populist rage, and a dumb joke carried on to the point of absurdity—just as Covid, after going on so much longer than we’d imagined, has both grown in horror and taken on a bleak sense of slapstick, like a routine repeated so many times that it goes from being funny, to being not-funny, and then back to being funny again, due to the sheer audacity of its repetition.
In short, we have to move beyond the culture of sorting everything into categories of funny or not-funny (and using that as a criterion for judging what side people are on), and strive instead to see how what’s afoot now is both at once. Only once we do this will we manage to also develop a workable means of interacting with contemporary culture.
Is There a Limit to Theater?
Just as we can no longer view the world in terms of funny or not-funny, we also can no longer view it with an eye toward deciding what’s theater and what isn’t. Rather than seeing the surface of culture as an illusion to puncture in search of the really real beneath—the essence of conspiracy thinking, which takes comfort in believing that the real is always hidden beneath the surface, and that the surface is thus always fake—it’s more apt now to see the surface as a complex space that contains both the illusion and the reality in a constantly shifting combination, a 2D projection that, like the Internet, also contains profound depths.
As such, we can neither accept nor reject the surface on face value, but rather we have to pay a new kind of attention to it, an unholy combination of active and passive thought, in which we take whatever seems to be happening with a grain of salt, while also believing that, somewhere in the mix, the real is hiding, and that we never know where it’ll crop up.
At this point, I have very little faith in either mainstream (the good guys are back in charge) or fringe (the secretly-worse guys have taken over) narratives. If I have faith in anything, it’s that the theater itself is worth paying attention to, and that the strangeness emanating from it really is as strange as it appears. The truth is in there somewhere, but it’s divergent, not convergent. There’s no grand narrative waiting either to be taken apart of put together. There is, rather, only a pseudo-reality that itself contains the reality it seems to mask and distort (how I wish Philip K. Dick were alive to expound on this point using today’s points of reference). There’s no telling whether the master narratives or the conspiracies are true: all that’s definitely true is that our culture gives rise to these conspiracies at every stage, that every single event is shadowed by accusations of bad faith and attempts to debunk it as theater, that every act is accused of being staged by actors, which has to mean something very important about who are and how we see ourselves in 2021.
What I propose, at least for myself as a writer, is to revel in the theatricality—to neither debunk it as just-theater, nor enforce the belief that it isn’t theater, but rather to accept that, as theater, it has something significant and even beautiful to offer. If I go to a Pinter play, I don’t forget that I’ve gone to a play, nor do I lament that it’s only a play. Instead, I watch and feel genuinely moved and enriched by it. If possible, this is the attitude I want to bring into our new era, both as a spectator and as a participant.
In a world where theater has spilled out of the sites designated to contain it (this moment feels like a version-2.0 of the vast impact of Sleep No More a decade ago, now that theaters themselves may become a thing of the past), the most well-adapted mindset is that of metamodernity, a sense of incompatible poles being simultaneously true, and, most importantly, only true when taken together.
2021 is marked by a combined sense that people are “over it,” completely done with all ideologies and forms of belief, even that of “debunking” belief in the postmodern sense—we only want smoothness and numbness now—but also the exact opposite: people are so over the notion of belief that they’ve returned to the point of needing something to believe in, no matter how absurd, and thus we’re in a moment that’s equally cynical and credulous, in which nothing is true and yet (therefore) something must be.
The following schema developed from a conversation with a friend, who pointed out that the Trump era was not postmodern, in the sense of a simulacrum of truth with an absent or self-defeating center—an aesthetic most prominent in the 70s and 80s, and one whose remnants resulted in everybody wasting their time trying to decide if Trump was joking or serious, unable to see how his campiness was terrifying, while his terror was campy—but rather metamodern, an unruly situation with many genuine but contradictory centers of truth that can only be understood in aggregate, like a recipe that only works when all the ingredients are combined.
Instead of a postmodern turn, where it’s revealed that “there’s nothing at the very bottom” of the edifice (except, of course, for whatever relief comes from this revelation), in a metamodern situation, it’s always the case that there are “many things at the very bottom, and that the bottom may be on the surface, not beneath it.” If postmodernism is a “man behind the curtain” phenomenon, in which the supposedly real surface is revealed to be an illusion, then Reagan perfectly fits that bill: the flawless veneer of a compassionate, dignified, tactful statesman, worn by a has-been actor whose actual values were far more bloodthirsty and corrupt.
Compared to this, Trump is clearly more complex, mingling the real and unreal on the surface of his persona, while signifying that he may not be concealing anything underneath. An obvious liar who is nevertheless impossible to debunk (because his lies are so brazen they bypass any claim to being believed as such and attain the truth of really being lies), he’s metamodern in the sense that he foregrounds shamelessness and buffoonery in the façade that he presents to the world, scrambling what’s presented and what’s hidden, and earning the undying trust of millions of people: do his misspelled tweets represent his actual writing abilities, or are they a cleverly-designed populist ruse? Unlike George W. Bush’s obviously fake Texas rancher accent, or Bill Clinton’s saxophone performances, with Trump this question is never put to rest because, somehow, it isn’t the right question.
Most saliently, the metamodern differs from the postmodern in that it gains in legitimacy the more illegitimate it appears, and is thus made up of a single fragmented plane, rather than the more straightforward postmodern distinction between surface and depth, which is why I argue for taking the theater of 2021 seriously rather than trying to see through it. In the same way, the fact that GameStop stock is obviously worthless is what allows it to become a flashpoint for a sudden, delirious change in the definition of worth.
A few more examples:
Trump wanted to be treated like a king and given absolute authority, and yet during Covid he didn’t seize power, even when almost everyone, including his opponents, wanted him to. His behavior, as opposed to his rhetoric, was actually as un-authoritarian as could be, so much so that it caused a grotesque surplus in mortality.
Trump spent his rally on 1.6 both earnestly inciting a mob to overtake the government, and complaining that Oprah wouldn’t invite him on her show anymore.
The rioters were both frothingly violent, armed to the teeth and awash in Holocaust imagery, and also genuinely optimistic, motivated by a sincere love of country (however bizarre it seems from the outside), while the Democrats are both genuinely outraged by Trump and also totally complicit in enabling him, at least insofar as he’s served to further the military and financial interests of both parties.
Trump’s appeal lay in his seeming to expose the illegitimacy of the government, even as his power came from the fact that he was the government. In much the same way, he harnessed genuine rage at the grotesque excesses of the super-rich, even while reveling in and flaunting those same excesses (and complaining that some segments of the super-rich didn’t like him enough).
The machinery of social media is profoundly complex, far outstripping our ability to comprehend it, and yet the discourse it engenders is maddeningly simplistic—people are either all good or all evil, ideas are either indisputably right or dangerously wrong, all of which must be determined in a single sentence.
Trump is both an accused child rapist and a supposed savior of child rape victims. In a similar manner, Louis CK charmed Terry Gross into celebrating him as a model of liberal culture by joking eloquently (and honestly) about how unfit for that culture he really was.
QAnon spread based on widespread fear of deep state persecution, but only after 1.6 did that persecution actually begin, with the mass purge of social media accounts and FBI crackdown on “domestic terrorism.”
Speaking again of QAnon and other conspiracies, a key metamodern question is to what degree do these people actually believe these things, vs. to what degree are they just having fun, essentially partaking in a giant Renaissance Fair pageant? The metamodern answer, of course, is they do and they don’t, never one or the other. It’s only when joking and seriousness, theater and reality, are mixed in the right proportions that an event like 1.6 becomes possible, and its dissemination as both too real to handle and a dangerous break with reality begins to churn through the culture, laying the groundwork for GameStop and whatever comes next.
Basements, Sewers, and Secret Tunnels
One image that stood out from 1.6 and the Q-world discourse surrounding it is that of secret tunnels—here, I am perhaps articulating a desire to connect my nonfiction and fiction together, to create subterranean access points between these UE pieces and my novels and stories, so that they coexist on a psychedelic map that includes both real and imagined geographies, just as I exist in some middle zone between “real America” and an America of my own imagining, which is itself a quintessentially American headspace.
In any case, secret tunnels were a persistent obsession among the rioters, whether it was the tunnels and sewers in which Pence and the senators they hoped to kill or kidnap might be trying to escape, or the larger global networks in which satanic pedophiles supposedly traffic children, from the nonexistent basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in DC, to the tunnels beneath Davos and the vaults beneath Zürich, long a stand-in for the notion of elite globalist conspiracy (“The Swiss Alps are Swiss Cheese” is apparently another common QAnon phrase).
This in turn connects both to the basements in which we imagine incels and GameStop Redditers cooking up their schemes, and also to the “Chinese tunnels” in Mexicali, supposedly a secret access point beneath the US border. Whether it’s a panic about secret immigration—2016’s obsession—or, now, a panic about elites moving themselves, their wealth, and their victims underground so as to evade the gaze of the righteous, the notion of an unstable, chopped-up ground resonates very strongly as I try to get a handle on where we stand in early 2021.
This notion of perforated underground networks of influence also describes the way that, in the Trump era, subcultures bubbled up into the mainstream, so that, for perhaps the first (and only?) time in American history, genuine weirdos like Alex Jones and Steve Bannon, not to mention Trump himself, were at the absolute center of our discourse, and “normies” like Mitt Romney and James Comey couldn’t compete, until the fever broke, or appeared to break, in the election of Joe Biden—and yet here we are already obsessing over Marjorie Taylor Greene’s “Rothschild laser” conspiracies and trying to haul Trump back to DC to testify, barely two weeks into the Biden era.
The interesting question now, if the mainstream attempts to return to normalcy and push the weirdos back to the fringes, is how perforated the underground will remain, and what sorts of collapses and uprisings are still to come. Whatever happens, there is no question that our minds are also perforated in this way, softened by quarantine, porous, absorbing information we can’t vet, so that it’s harder and harder to tell what we think, or even to think at all (Heidegger wrote an entire book arguing that, throughout human history, we still haven’t truly begun to think yet). As we absorb information through unknown channels, that information digs yet other channels, until our own consciousness becomes like the America (or Switzerland) of QAnon’s obsession, subject to unknown subterranean traffic, the surface ever less stable, the “sure thing” of billion-dollar hedge funds ever more vulnerable to sudden collapse.
My conundrum here is to find an ethical means of both embracing this tunneled-out state, in the sense of wanting to remain open to as much strangeness and darkness as I possibly can—which means engaging in conspiracy thinking insofar as it enriches my fiction, and opposing the wholesale banishment of fringe speech from public discourse—while remaining committed to the belief that truth exists, and that its existence matters.
Perhaps this has been my real purpose in undertaking this essay, to try to think aloud about what orientation toward reality makes sense now that we’re entering an era in which the mainstream discourse will become much more sanitized and less flamboyantly weird—indeed, in which the discourse will become increasingly punitive against all forms of weirdness—and yet in which the effort to separate those aspects of American weirdness that are productive (helping to cultivate seediness into a beneficial sprouting) from those that are destructive—whatever seeds sprout into actual violence—is going to fall more and more onto individuals, because the culture at large will no longer see that question as relevant, as it did, or pretended to, during the Trump era.
If the same American forces of paranoia, tall-tale-telling, and unashamed grandiosity gave rise to both Thomas Pynchon and Donald Trump, the crucial question now is how to embrace the former while rejecting the latter.
The Danger of Coherence
The “pseudo-sanity” of returning to a coherent worldview, where the press and the government are fully aligned in their story, is scary in a new way. Rather than the fear of insanity that comes from too much porousness—from too many obvious lies, too much disjuncture, too much noise, too many grifters saying different things from positions of too much power—there’s a different fear now, a sense of eerie calm, a suspicion that the dominant stories are growing a little too aligned.
If you allow your thinking to become too perforated, the ground of your psyche collapses into madness, but if you remain totally unperforated, then you seal yourself into the echo chamber of whatever you already think, defending a narrative that can never stand up to scrutiny, because the truth is never static or self-sufficient. You become a propagandist for a worldview that will never cohere except by force, and attach negative moral valences to anyone who sees reality differently. This applies to literature as well, insofar as I want my books to make as little sense as possible without devolving into unreadable nonsense, in the hopes that this method may reveal a deeper and harder-to-pinpoint level of reality, only accessible beneath the deadening “apparent sense” of traditional plot structures.
Like a plant that requires water, the metamodern approach is to maintain a balance between internal and external stories, retaining an inner belief system while constantly “watering it” with outside stimuli, neither accepting nor rejecting anything on face value, but rather constantly mixing in new ideas to see what resonates—what causes those genuine responses of humor and horror, those unpredictable appearances of trap-doors to the real in the solid-seeming ground, rather than the addictive but corrosive sense of relief that comes from defending whatever seems to be true.
My biggest hope along these lines is to seek a way to see the strange as strange, rather than to posit ways in which it all secretly makes sense, because these ways are themselves illusions, leading away from the real and either toward corporatism (“the grown-ups are back in charge, so any questions will be shot down”) or fascism (“only we are the real people, and all our enemies are fake”). To resist the urge for everything to make sense and thus see the strange as strange requires a kind of mental agility that I’m trying to encourage myself to achieve, to see both conspiracies and their opposites as equally plausible and implausible, to align my identity with no particular belief system, to take nothing for granted and see nothing as sacred, save for the underlying strangeness itself, which, if seen in this way, is a profound natural resource—perhaps the greatest resource that remains in America—to be cherished and treated with cautious care, rather than enflamed or suppressed.
A New X-Files Age
If the Trump era was a time of supercharged 80s-reruns, a Diet Coke age defined by money-mad mobsters, Reagan-esque televangelists, and B-list actors moonlighting as politicians, as well as a tired reprise of Cold War anti-Soviet propaganda, maybe now we’re segueing into an era of 90s-reruns: a return of Clinton-era Democrats, a resurgence of volatility in the tech sector, as in the WTO protests of 1999, a new chapter of simmering white power, separatist, and militia violence, as in Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Oklahoma City, an era immediately following the fall of a cartoonishly obvious enemy (the USSR then, Trump now), and a proliferating set of supernatural conspiracy theories, as in The X-Files.
If so, then perhaps we can take pleasure in this cultural shift, while also seeking the genuinely futuristic, a real change this time, rather than the anticlimax of Y2K that the 90s dead-ended in, before kickstarting the 2000s on 9.11. If we aren’t forced into a defensive position, as so many of us were in the Trump era, then we should enjoy a newfound freedom to question the Empire rather than cling to it as a supposed last bulwark against a new Hitler.
If Trump was a centrifugal force, sucking in fear like the clown in Stephen King’s It, then Biden is a centripetal force, an empty center refusing to absorb our attention and thus, in a sense, gifting it back to us. This is a gift that we should do all we can not to squander so that, perhaps, we’ll succeed in reaching someplace actually new, rather than looping back to 2016 a few years from now, as the UE certainly hopes we will.
Speaking one last time of the UE, the deep question for these next few years will be whether the apparent atomizing of attention can become a real phenomenon, a source of genuine mental freedom and joy, or if this too will prove to be an illusion, masking the actual consolidation of power in government and tech amidst the ongoing Covid morass, and the further curtailing of subcultural foment. It’s too soon to tell, but it isn’t too soon to say that the energies for either outcome—or, in true metamodern style, for both—are now well in place.