The art of living in a dead future

The time one spends consuming news and making an overall effort to understand goings on in the world can be undermined quickly with a question: why is it that we need to know what we are being shown? There is no comfortable answer to this. Most of the news items we consume daily are of no significance to our daily lives. More importantly, they are things we cannot exert control over.

This is true of the stock market (what good is the all ordinaries when one is not an investor), electoral politics (most of what politicians pass will scarcely affect you, and your vote is meaningless), and the weather (why do I need to know about the rain in Darwin if I live in Melbourne?). This cycle of media items which we collect add nothing to our lives. A knowledge of them does not help us lead a better life. We stay informed, but only in a kind of vacant and empty way.

The fact of the matter is that we do not need to know most of what passes for the news today. This is not to say that we should not be intellectually curious — far from it. Endeavouring to know the truth, even the painful or dark kind, has always been a worthy pursuit. Yet the news does not contribute to this. It gives us no structural understanding of the world on any substantial level. It is a ‘truth’ that has been curated within an ideology whose influence is designed to be invisible. The overall structure of liberalism it is contained within is already assumed.

Most television news broadcasts take place in the evening at six or seven — incidentally, the time most suburban households are sitting down to dinner. This is no coincidence. As a family eats, they are barraged by an absurd litany of events of absolutely no consequence to their personal lives. Stories are designed to provoke a pointed reaction, usually extremes of anger, sadness or joy which bubble over in a minute before the programming moves on to the next sequence. What is going on here is an alienation of the family from one of the most important rituals of the day: an evening meal.

Dinner is one of the few meals a family can eat together, but when the news is on they may as well be apart. A ritual that ought to be situated firmly in the realm of everyday domestic living moves into the detached realm of content consumption. Family life becomes structured around a fiction: living rooms are arranged in a way so as to see the television as well as possible from every angle and places are arranged around the dining table to similar effect. The consumption of emotive content distracts each of us from the meal in front of us and, more importantly, the relations we have to the world around us. The common territory of the family is invaded and denied all at once.

Evening news was one of the first instances in which content became attached to a facet of everyday life, nestled like a parasite. At least with a newspaper one can read it as one likes when one likes. Our consumption of it was at least bounded by everyday living. Something like television news, on the other hand, reverses the polarity of content consumption. It allows it to pattern the everyday. This idea has been extended to everywhere one can see the news. Newspapers or breakfast news for the morning, radio for the commute to work — everywhere news media is vying for a slice of your everyday life to which you can make it a part of. The culmination of this is the smart phone. How often do we ever consume a meal, ride the train or transition from one mundane task to the other without taking a moment to cast an eye across a bottomless feed?

Content takes us out of the world around us. An immediate or common understanding of the everyday world — which we all access and author in our everyday lives — is that which matters the most to us and way we lead our lives. Incidentally, it is this everyday commonality which news media is so intent on absolving us of. It denies the existence of a common world.

This world denial is crucial to the nexus of liberal ideology. Take the presidential debates for instance. The candidates in these debates wage a war against the very idea of objective reality. Almost no statistics or empirical facts are employed. There is not even a discussion of concrete policy. Manufactured slogans are cherry picked by a PR team and tossed around in speeches without any context. There is not attempt at making an argument, no move to win the undecided over to their side. The basic formula is: candidate A says, “the truth is X”, and candidate B counters by saying “no, the truth is Y”. The presence of a common world which affects the lives of both candidates and their voters is never acknowledged in this process. It is explicitly denied.

The reason why candidates can win an electoral campaign without so much as acknowledging a common world is because media is employed to deny the inter-subjectivity of living and atomise our perceptions of shared phenomena. Once common sense has been sufficiently fragmented (and everyone is alienated from their everyday lives) all a politician need do is draw on the fictional reality the media has spun for them. When a candidate makes a truth statement — “the world is X” — all that is required for the truth of the statement to hold is that the media has cultivated a demographic of sufficient enough size which shares that view. The truth is not demonstrable by correspondence to common sense but correspondence to artificial perceptions. The proof of a statement is thus contained directly within the statement itself.

Politics is now nothing more than the art of managing falsified perceptions. The world around us is fixed to the subject — an entire political socius fragmented based on what channel one gets the news from. Commonality used to be the foundation of civic life. It was what the Greek city-states were modelled on; the idea of politics was to build a politeia in which every part was designed with some higher pursuit in mind. To be successful this required a strong common sense conception of what virtue, justice and human flourishing meant — otherwise no individual would commit themselves to it in the first place. Now, the common sense of the politeia has been lost and surgically replaced with something far more sinister.

People relish in what they have in common, but it is a kind of perversion of the word when what we have in common is not the constructive product of inter-connected lives but that which has been programmed and forced upon us from the top down. People talk casually about the state of the economy, an upcoming election, or some policy in a far-flung nation (looking for someone who shares the same interest in current affairs the same way one might seek out people who like the same books and music). They think this passes for small talk because they take these abstracted news items to exist as part of a unifying account of the world. All that is common about these moments is that two people happen to share the same source of brainwashing. The only thing we can truly have in common with one another is the immediate, the everyday. Only now, the everyday is held hostage by an information matrix plumbing its potentially as just another moment to stay connected.

The greatest accomplishment of the accumulation of useless news items is that they create a fixed fame of reference for the way a life ought to be led. They stifle the imaginal potentialities for living. When we are no longer concerning ourselves with the immediate and everyday — when it is no longer an object of our lives that we shape and act on collectively — we become exterior beings. Lifestyle choices are made for the sake of performance. We stay informed and connected not because we value an intrinsic good in the process but because we value what the performativity signals to others, aligning our behaviour with manufactured common sense. Everyday life is thus modelled on something external to the self. The effect is to lose a sense of responsibility to manifest for ourselves the kind of life we want to live. We cannot even imagine what it might look like (to have responsibility for our own lives) because the only field of influence which we have is everyday life — precisely that which media is so intent to deny us.

Take 21st century popular culture. Here is a creative space haunted by ghosts of its past. An entire industry has crystalised around feelings of nostalgia, now the most valuable component of any large commercial artistic venture. The production of nostalgia requires a reproduction of that which we have seen before. It takes of the appearance of past experiences, replicating human desires without the meaning that was once attributed to them. Our culture is frozen in a permanent state of infantilization repeating the same mythology endlessly.

Popular culture and entertainment, taken as a vessel for the collective imaginal potentiality of everyday living, has been stripped bare — simultaneously feeding us visions of the past while acknowledging that a return to that past is no longer plausible, precisely because it has been assimilated into the machine and lost what once made them worth valuing. No contemporary fiction can offer a vision of the future without the ghost of a recycled past. The future is dead in media as much as it is in our politics, and the capacity for everyday living as a constructive and agential space dies with it. No one knows what to do with themselves anymore.

The more useless news items one collects, the more they are complicit in this act of denying positive responsibility for living. The spectacle of the news-media matrix is one dependent on negativity. Negative emotions stimulate the greatest engagement with a platform, incentivising the production of news items designed to provoke responses like anger, fear and jealousy. It is no secret that positive people are better oriented towards manifesting for themselves the kind of life they would like to lead. The practice of positive affirmations constitutes most the basis of most magic and occult rituals for a reason. Negativity, on the other hand, is agent absolving. It places the subject-spectator in which the world is something that happens to the spectator and not something one can control.

Realising that one does not need to engage with things like news-media, that our perceptions of our world are being conjured by a system that wants to separate it from us and dissociate from the everyday, is the first step in breaking free from the spectacle. It requires cultivating a radical sense of the importance of individuality and the practice of everyday living. This places us in dangerous territory. The system of modern life which supports the spectacle is panoptic and all-encompassing in its totality; capable of embracing every subversion and internalising each contradiction. Amazon is the best place to buy critical theory from. Anti-consumption or traditionalist ideology are welcomed into the news-media landscape as another identitarian movement to be catered to. Those amongst us who propose a return to a common sense of everyday living in earnest are thought of as no more than a kitsch footnote to modernity.

There is thus a need for a more strategic rejuvenation of agential life. We might not be able to cut off the cultural circuity of modernity, but we may very well be able to direct that momentum elsewhere. There is something revolutionary in co-opting the sorcery of the spectacle, in taking the stranglehold it has on the imaginal potentiality of living and constructing our own images and our own modes of being. The secret to this relies in acts of spectacle that communicate an alternative vision for communal, everyday life. When everything is spectacle, every act of everyday living evokes something imaginal. This is power we can use constructively.

Those of us who are to build a common sense of the future are required to become something of a half-hearted ascetic — not just to retreat from the spectacle and reclaim forgotten agency, but also to return to it selectively, when the images we have left behind are useful to the task we have in front of us. Turn off your phone, sit with your own thoughts and think deeply about what it is you want. Distinguish between the programmed ‘I’ and the sovereign ‘I’ — the value-positing, egoist ‘I’ which identifies the realm of things within one’s control and has the power to act on it. Then, most of all, one ought to actually act on it. Thus begins the process of rearticulating common sense.

This all might sound needlessly individualist, but that is only because it involves embracing the reality of an existence that has already been atomised beyond repair. Few constructive visions of political future ever succeed in acknowledging this fact. Instead, they operate upon their own isolated ontology, existing as if in a vacuum. To escape from our atomisation requires an acknowledgement of the shared conditions of modernity’s denial of the everyday. It is precisely an individualised break from modernity which can reinvoke the collective — because it dictates a common sense approach to living that begins authentically from within the realm of everyday life, and not within the illusory superstructure created by the media.

In a dead future, freedom begins with something as simple as turning off the news.