I read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism recently which was very useful in that it crystallised a bunch of things I’d been coming to similar conclusions about, but also challenged and destroyed a few others. Always nice when that happens. I highly recommend everyone read it.
I also had a bit of a wobble about The Art and what the hell I’m trying to do with it, which meant turning to the excellent Art and Fear which all practicing artists should keep to hand. I now have a bunch of passages highlighted, such as “becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” Probably due to a historical lack of self-belief and self-confidence I’ve tended to keep my work separate from my self and have had a blind spot on marrying the two, and I think this is what I need to resolve if I’m going to succeed as an artist by any important metric.
Then there was John Higgs’ blog post on Operation Mindfix, looking at strategies from Robert Anton Wilson on how to deal with Trump and Brexit and the rest of the right-wing fascists who appear to have co-opted the tools and tactics of the counter-culture and weaponsized post-modernism. As a call to arms it’s a good start at understanding how we got here. I particularly like this bit:
The real gut-kick is when people confidently proclaim that we should return to the pre-post-truth world, and then think about how to do that, and slowly realise that not only is it impossible but that there was no pre-post-truth world in the first place. […] As the saying goes, if you want to be certain, buy an encyclopaedia. If you want to be uncertain, buy two encyclopaedias. Our culture has bought a second encyclopaedia.
There’s no going back to the world of certainty, because that world was built on a bunch of lies. These lies served to build environments where enough people felt secure in their knowledge about the world to not worry about those who were failed horribly by it. The lies excused inequality and poverty as unfortunate things that weren’t our fault, were just the nature of things, would be nice to solve but sadly the world doesn’t work that way. And the lies work because challenging them seems bound to lead to discomfort. Yes, it’s be nice if everyone in the world had equal wealth and opportunity, but if that means I loose some of my wealth and opportunity… Um…
You can label the lies as Capitalism, Liberal Democracy, The West, The American Dream, whatever you like. In other cultures they’d be different things - Stalinism springs to mind. Maybe they’re just “society” because in order to group people together there’s always going to be compromise, and when you normalise that over time (“tradition”) it’s easy to forget there was ever a compromise, or that the compromise was the result of fucking over a bunch of people different to you.
Oddly enough, you have to respect the racists and patriots for their clarity of thought. If you’re repeatedly told that your country and the sort of people who’ve populated it for a few generations is in some way special, it’s clear that other countries and people aren’t special, that they’re inferior. Especially when, in Britain’s case, that country explicitly benefitted from the assumption that its people were better and could take what they wanted from the others. When you’re literally giving citizens medals called “Order of the British Empire” it’s fairly clear indication that you’re down with the idea of the British Empire and, given the chance, would probably do it again.
(The same applies to most of the other European countries, which is one reason why populists on all sides hate the EU as it was born of a desire for peace and equality. Sure, it got taken over by small-c conservatives in the main but the seeds were a Trek-ian federation of planets. Shame it’s probably doomed.)
Which is all to say the stable, sensible, fair and righteous world we thought we were living in was built on sand. The shocks those systems have undergone over the last year, from Brexit to Trump and beyond, start make sense once you accept this. I helped campaign for Remain and was bereft by the Brexit vote, but upon much reflection Remain deserved to lose. Not because they campaigned badly, though they did, but because the whole campaign was predicated on an assumption of infallible normality. Or as a friend said to me soon after, I’m not worried, it’ll swing back to sanity eventually. A day later he realised to his horror it probably wouldn’t.
Similarly, Trump’s win was a traumatic event for me, but Clinton pretty much deserved to lose for campaigning, in ignorance or malice, on the assumption that the USA is built on fairness and equality. Neither side wanted to address the syphoning of wealth to a transnational hyper-weathly elite but Trump’s incoherent, contradictory analysis of America at least has the balls to be honest about how tax-paying, middle-class Americans could maintain their lifestyles: by shitting all over the poor and the foreign.
So this is how my brain has been this last month or so, processing the information that comes to me into what seem like the most depressing conclusions, all the while trying to build a strategy to address the world through my art. I believe that “Capital-A” Art is a form of practical philosophy, by which we gain understanding of the world through the making, and experiencing, of things. When you experience great art you come away with a changed perception of the world. When you experience something that, however well crafted and executed, is not great art, nothing fundamentally changes in your head. I want to try and make great art.
(I will probably at best make fairly-OK art but I have to try. We all have to try. Otherwise there’s no fucking point.)
So, how to get from a deeply pessimistic analysis of the last year to a constructive platform of art-making? That’s my challenge, and this is an attempt to sketch one out.
Robert Anton Wilson’s concept of Reality Tunnels is a good a start as any, especially as I’ve kinda thought this for years anyway. If we experience the world purely through our senses, then our ideas about that world are at best subjective. We achieve objectivity through comparing our experiences. (This is distinct from the knowledge we have about the world through scientific methods and tools which is probably a priori true and separate from our experience. But that’s a whole ‘nother rabbit hole altogether.)
A group of likeminded people is therefore those whose reality tunnels overlap somehow and we tend to seek them out. When such a group is in the majority, or has isolated themselves from others, it can seem like their aggregate reality tunnel is the almighty truth. But it’s not. It’s just one way of filtering all the crazy shit that the objective world is throwing at our senses. So a good way of understanding Brexit and Trump and All That Jazz is that the dominant aggregate reality tunnel has been shown to be one-of-many. Reality tunnels that had evolved in pubs and cafes, on Facebook and Reddit, found enough overlap to challenge the dominant tunnel and, thanks to venal and probably-evil populist leaders, overturned it.
This leaves us with a few options.
1) Try to return to the reality tunnel that found dominance in the late 70s and served us through to the financial crash of 2008.
2) Try to build an objective sense of reality through science and reason, dispelling this subjective nonsense once and for all (aka Utopia).
3) Join Putin in tearing it all down and seeing what can be salvaged from the ashes (aka Dystopia).
4) Embrace the multiplicity of reality tunnels beyond that which the authoritarian populists are comfortable until they crack.
Obviously I’m all about 4.
The post-truth, alt-facts stuff coming from Trump’s press team can be seen as an attempt to confuse and discombobulate those who might hold them to account while obsfucating what’s actually going on. But Trump vs The Establishment is also two massive reality tunnels failing to find common ground. There’s a good chance that Trump and his people actually believe they’re doing the right thing, and that makes them vulnerable.
How exactly do we sabotage the authoritarian populist right-wing reality tunnel? I don’t know, but I sense that while fascists gain power by sowing disorder they need order to keep it. Those with a vested interest in the old order, god love them, can only do so much, but those of us who have been embracing multiplex reality tunnels for years are well equipped for this task. Trump changed the rules. We know there are no rules, just overlaps of compromise that can be achieved through empathy and understanding.
That feels like as good a starting point as any. Embrace the subjectivity and push past fear and hatred and through to something better. Or as Mr Higgs put it, “evolving into twenty-first century humans”.
And, in writing this, I think I’ve figured out how to start making art about it. But that’s for another day.