What is your experience of 21st century life….?
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I wrote the above sentence for the purpose of describing the ‘dark optimism’ behind my last major drawing projects. I feel I need to explain, in detail, what I mean, because I feel it is a good place to begin my understanding of the projects based on shared experiences and radical care that The Retro Bar at the End of the Universe is currently undertaking under the title of ‘The Public Secret’.
When I can’t help expressing my distress about my experience of this world, a few people have pulled me up and pointed me towards the work of the scientist/author Steven Pinker: his works on how our world is on average less violent and more safe than it has ever been. Begrudgingly accepting of this truth (although I’ve never read his book), I had to figure out why I remain loyal to my convictions.
Today, with the resurgence of the politics of rage (symbolised by one person’s name already dominating Google searches enough to be spared from this blog), it is beyond doubt that something is disturbing our experience of contemporary life. I instinctively disagree with the idea that people are never satisfied and always have to be angry about something; I argue we are in distress and that this distress is contextual, not time-immemorial.
There may be less war, death, etc, overall (as if the fact there hasn’t been killing grounds on the scale on the first half of the 20th century makes today’s blood shed fine and dandy), but I reject this opinion as a conversation closer. Additionally, we needn’t even have go into the vast studies of the social ills brought about by the slow return to vast inequalities within countries in the global North (vitally collated by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett,) to get to the crux of my very own wager on a shared experience and why I feel it is so important.
An article from the Irish Times by Fintan O’Toole has been shared around social media of late. I can’t disagree with his argument that Trump’s [sorry, I did say I wouldn’t feed that word into the algorithm belly] actions, and non-actions are trial runs for fascism. This scenario is certainly looking likely. We tend to think of algorithms in regards to echo chambers of consumer tastes, without realising that consumer taste itself has long been allowed to creep into all aspects of life, averting us from anything we may or may not already like. The hyperconnected age as we know it has allowed the forcefulness of consumer choice to be in every moment of our lives (it was Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism who said when we sleep we dream of capital), to feed us what we already know and feel comfortable with, from conversations, beliefs and adverts themselves, giving us meme-fixes in an (unsurprisingly) increasingly sad and lonely world. If it has engendered echo chambers, then intolerance and fascistic tendencies to shut down different views are, and are proving to be, the natural next step.
I felt so down after reading the article, and knew my hard-faced self-defensiveness to its likelihood would only lead to feeling tired, and thus wanting to be drunk, as I always do when I can’t affix a positive to anything tangible. Yet I have a riposte; not to O’Toole himself, but to the sense of doom that this likely scenario instils. I want to return to the above words….
‘…The Hyperconnected age as we know it…’
For this is speculatively an oxymoron, if you stick with what I’m about to suggest.
We have entered an age of information abundance through a consumer capitalist reality; despite the idealism and hopes of 21st century progress placed on this certain abundance in the final moments of the 20th century (which still haunt us), we entered the age of info-everything from within a culture dominated by the mechanisms of consumer capitalism, which are designed to maintain a reproduction of feelings of lack, inadequacy, and a unending desire to be more than what we already are. But the ‘fear of missing out’ (fomo) that has exploded with the onset of communication technology doesn’t just inform our so-called dumb and stupid needs, but also out needs to know more, to be informed, to know ‘the truth’.
All of this has propelled an entire civilisation into an ‘always on’ state of over-exposure to the ills of all-time. In an age that we thought would be so beautiful, the hell of yesteryear manifests itself in a psychic, private trauma (“Hiroshima reoccurs in a fractalized and mental form”). The traumas and injustices of all time have all risen to the surface all at once, and no cognitive walls or levees can fully keep them all out of sight.
In cultural ecologist Joe Brewer’s viral 2016 article ‘the pain you feel is capitalism dying’ he shed light on the very public secret where the political compromises that once made capitalist society bearable for a big enough number of people still assert themselves, despite that lived experience having broken down for the vast majority. Because this experience remains a public secret it is experienced as personal failure, a daily shame millions carry around with them, and this is perhaps most painfully felt in the countries where standards of living have either stagnated or fallen over the period we most commonly know as neoliberalism (but, what I prefer to call ‘endgame capitalism’).
The User/Addicts at the End of the Universe?
I believe the persistence of the unbearable is maintained due to its addictiveness. And one essential ingredient of the public secret of contemporary life is that most of us, not just the ‘spice’ users coiled up in city doorsteps, are engaging with life as users/addicts. This engagement with contemporary technology is a result of the continuation of consumer (‘fomo’) culture into an age where there are no gaps, no room for continuity. With continuity comes dream/desire-space; with fragmentation comes the pursuit of fixes, scores, hits. But because the addictions reproduce this fragmented life texture, it is very hard to imagine a way out.
Yet, again, it is also seen as a weakness to admit what all this does to our memory. In Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life he says “the past keeps returning because we can’t remember the present”. Yet I have often been scoffed at because I can’t recall contemporary culture (whatever that is), and reference a period when my experience of life didn’t feel so fragmented. Amnesia for the present is very much an aspect of our contemporary public secrets.
I visualise the present moment as one of being crushed into a corner between the best and worst possible worlds humanity will have ever known, with our immediate reaction to this pain being to side with the worst option. We know so much, too much arguably, that it seems so logical to implement all this knowledge to make life more sustainable, fair and healthy for the majority. However, the deadlock, the locked horns, is generating an intolerable heat that is producing insane geopolitical situations and insane levels of internalised violence. Within this context, independent news sources can continue to expose the flaws and injustices of power; activists on and offline can continue to stand up to the demagogues, and preachers of hate, but they may well just be fuelling the fire out of which these figures sprung …and believe me, I say this with trepidation, and with full respect to those who do engage in the aforementioned activities…
…After all, surely most of us would want to see a world where there is less suffering and misery…?
I don’t believe the aspects of today’s public secret that I have mentioned already are its primary features. But I do believe the aforementioned situational assessment I give is a justification to argue that working to create spaces for shared experiences and raising public secrets to the surface may actually be our only chance of collectively surviving the 21st century in any bearable and dignified way. Because what we have at our finger tips, if only we can properly actualise it, is a new era where we aren’t just ‘aware’ of mental health, but it becomes the foundation stone for a new age which is built around structures of collective care. A beautiful future.
As a group of artists and thinkers, I feel it is time for us to give up trying to be smart, and think more about being earnest and honest.
I believe this means returning to putting our hearts on the line, being honest about our own hells within a context that doesn’t come across as simply indulgent.
When I’ve put many things onto the internet in the past, without admitting to myself that I was in need of empathic engagement, it is nearly always a regret due to interventive responses always being ego-based; either telling me I need to sort myself out, or just being angry with me.
It’s hard to find a way of talking about your own weaknesses in an age of anxious identitarianism, but if I explain that I am doing so from a place of seeing it as a necessary act of honesty for the aim of shared experiences, maybe I can be spared the aggro of unwanted respomses.
I can only reach out on the half chance that as I am finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a beneficiary mental state on a daily basis, then so too are many, or not most, others.
I have to make it explicit that my most honest reasons as to why I can’t, not only find well-being, but can’t find a self I can live with, are words expressed in the hope that others feels the same, as for that to happen it then becomes ‘political’.
Yet I don’t mean ‘political’ in the sense of one groups’ ability to gain self-determination in the face of another (oppressor) group; I mean a wager on the chances that this ‘political’ issue bleeds right through class, race, gender and geographical boundaries, whilst, still, simultaneously being a product of the reality those boundaries enable the existence of.
For the premise here is that contemporary life, with its assaulting information, competitive individualism, 24/7 security paranoia, and actually-existing climate change (delete, or add, as you see fit) is proving to be toxic to the average psyche.
We can pick and choose, and sift through who is more deserving and undeserving within this global crisis, BUT LOOK: how can anybody argue against a fundamental rupture, or break out of the current situation being the only hope for everyone in long run? I’m not going give time to the pseudo-nihilism of ‘nowt you can do-ism’, because we all use that strategy for defense from time and time, and that is all it should stand for …..fuck: what I’m trying to say is nobody is a cunt here, unless we’re all cunts and I refuse to take that position, because I believe it is a result of an acceptance of the world existing under a depressive realism.
I believe in symbolic moments, because I believe most people do too (there wouldn’t be so much hope raised around a successful world cup run for our national team if they didn’t). But, in spite of things that should have ushered this in (Brexit, Grenfel, Trump, whatever) we haven’t seen something big enough yet, at least from the position of peace, love and all that hippy shit from the last century, that is, actually, the goal, once we manage to pull away all the dead skin of cynicism from the past few decades.
LONG LIVE ACID COMMUNISM…..And on to the next collective member for dispatches no2!
An Empathic Address For [Emotional] Election Day
#GE18 -The General Election of Governing Emotions will take place on Thursday 21 June, 2018. Beginning at the Leeds Print Workshop, Vicar Lane, Leeds at 5pm, from 6:30 – 9pm you are then invited to participate in the election night, held at the Art Hostel, Kirkgate, Leeds.
Thanks to Ben Crawford for helping to make this short film.
A GE18 Pre-election analysis lecture, given by british psyche, 24 may 2018.
The General Election of Governing Emotions will take place at the Art Hostel, Leeds. June 21 2018, 6:30-9pm.