China is in the process of one of the largest recoding transformations of religion, worldview, and philosophy in history. A new story about religious diversity and the order of the political Earth and Universe is being constructed, and sold as self-evident, eternal and universal. Even more strikingly, this model is being developed under the aegis of the nominally atheist Communist Party. Both government-stimulated and by grassroots initiatives, the Chinese religious landscape is changing and developing at accelerated speeds. Both secularization theoreticians in the West and communists around the World had argued that modernization and secularization go hand in hand. The contemporary situation of China, at the dawn of the age of Xi Jinping and the One Belt One Road Initiative, religion is back with a vengeance; sometimes nominally, when we look at the rise of Buddhism and Christianity in China, sometimes, in disguise, for example in the renewed embrace of Confucius as the cultural core of the Chinese Nation. However, nothing in these developments has anything to do with tradition or the past; most religiosity in China is unmistakably postmodern, and any appeal to tradition is purely rhetorical.
The Ubercode of the Chinese government, in their political model that they have dubbed “socialism with Chinese characteristics” are the so-called twelve “Core Socialist Values”; four national values: prosperity, democracy, civility and harmony; four social values: freedom, equality, justice and rule of law; and four individual values: patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship. This code is repeated over and over in schools and in public space and is the foundation for the expression of power in its relationship towards ethics, philosophy and religion.
The Chinese Government officially distinguishes five Legal religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. Conspicuously absent are Confucianism or Ruism (not a religion anymore) and Chinese folk religion (not a religion either, but just culture). Fenggang Yang has distinguished between three “religious markets” in China: the Black, the Gray and the Red markets. On the marketplace of religion and spirituality, practices and ideas compete for the loyalty or at least their spiritual consumption by the Chinese laypeople. Black markets are those institutions which are registered under the CCP rules, and therefore “Legal”. The Red markets signal all religious activity which is illegal and usually actively persecuted by the state. Red market religion is also discursively suppressed by referencing to it as “superstition” or “evil cults”.
Christianity has been present in China since the 7th century CE, only a few centuries shorter than Buddhism – though Christianity is usually regarded as a Western religion, maybe we should rather see it as a Eurasian social movement; Christianity’s initial spread went towards Syria, Armenia, Persia and India, rather than the West – Today Chinese protestants embrace “Jesus” and admire his “exotic” values such as “love for your neighbor”. The number of Christians in China today is estimated at somewhere between 60 and 100 million (both Catholics and Protestants, both Black, Gray, and Red), especially in Southern Urban areas. They often gather in so-called home churches. At this speed, China is projected to be the largest Christian country in the World by 2050.
The strongest religious force in China today is Buddhism; numbers of self-identified Buddhist rose from 60 million in the 70s to somewhere between 100 and 200 million today; monasteries are turning into Spiritual Incorporations and Monks into CEO’s. Branding “Chinese Buddhism” as a humanistic religion that aims at happiness for all people, it is quietly working together with the Chinese government in the promotion of Chinese culture around the world as part of the “Soft Power” strategy. Chinese monks travel to Europe to learn how to meditate – a Western Buddhist practice – to integrate this into Eastern monastic life. PhD’s in technology from Qinghua University are becoming monks in Beijing and set up Artificial Intelligence and Social Media departments, clad in monk robes with smartphone in hand they float around the monastic compounds which were often build less than five years ago.
In Longquan Temple in Beijing, a robot monk can advise devotees on the teachings of Buddha; wisdom from the Buddhist Masters is also spread through Weibo, Wechat, and Instagram. The oldest Buddhist temple in China, Bai Ma Si in Luoyang has developed project of the construction of Buddhist temples in Indian, Thai and Myanmar style respectively, thus imagining a “Global Buddhism with National Difference”, coding Buddhism in the national model the Chinese government likes to see. Though people who occupy the spaces of “Buddhism” like to think of it as a World Religion and a long tradition, the Chinese context shows we could maybe better approach the world of Buddhism as a plurality, with hundreds of different “Buddhisms”, some traditional, but most very contemporary, even as “invented traditions”. Each temple claims its own “authority”. Buddhism however has already become a global phenomenon, and the speed by which Buddhist codes are moving is increasing. China has co-opted Buddhism in its political strategy.
Even more elusive is Daoism. Sometimes regarded as China’s “real” or “native” religion, it is similarly questionable whether we could consider Daoism a unified system of worship and thought. Dao which can be talked about is not the eternal Dao, says the Dao-de-jing. Though 180 million Chinese practice Daoism in some form, only about 10-20 million actually call themselves Daoists. Daoism has an inherent anarchistic nature. However, claims to authority and authenticity are just as common in Daoism, though it is even easier to claim to be a Daoist. American Taoism has spawned phenomena such as Tao Yoga and Healing Tao, all supposedly founded on “ancient Chinese Taoism”, though reference to tradition is often explicitly left out; “the Dao is everywhere”. To the great chagrin of “Quanzhen” Daoist monks and priests in China, these American new-age Daoists now flock to the “Holy mountains” of Daoism in China, such as Huashan, where they import their imagined Daoism to a country which has no clue what’s going on. Will the real Daoist please rise?
The Chinese society is sometimes called “Confucian” – while for Mao, Confucianism was part of “The Four Olds” which needed be exterminated; Xi Jinping has realized that Confucius fits in very well within the National Chinese exceptionalism narrative. Furthermore, Confucius emphasized respect for authority. Confucianism was named as the result of the prejudice of Western Christians that all religions should have a founder. In fact, Ruism refers to the Teachings of the Ancient Masters, of whom Confucius was but one. Furthermore, although Confucianism has historically been part of the Three Teachings of China, since the 1900s, Confucianism was not given the label of “religion”; partly because the concept of religion was necessary to express something more modern, and partly because many religions don’t want to be called “religions” by their proponents. Confucianism is too exceptional, to be merely a religion.
Confucius has been the symbol of one of the largest global soft power operations of the PRC; currently there are 480 so-called “Confucius Institutes” in the world, all functioning hierarchically under the Beijing based Hanban. Confucius Institutes are nominally erected to promote Chinese language and culture, but unofficially serve as centers to defend the Chinese narrative on the global order. The pace of Confucius is currently accelerated, with the aim of having 1000 Confucius Institutes around the world by 2020. In the spirit of the historical Empirical Examination system, thousands of students around the world now take Confucius Institute facilitated exams in HSK Chinese levels. The Chinese religion of Confucianism still is the Faith in China. China is fast becoming a religion in itself.
Islam is having a hard time in this particular order. As a religion, it is legal. Hui Muslims, which are technically just Han-Chinese who are Muslim have to navigate a religio-sceptical Chinese state; but the Uyghurs – who are a Turkic minority – have been met with strong resistance against their cultural identity by the Chinese state, and this is an understatement.
But dividing religion into “religions” has in China always been part of a strategy of divide and conquer. Emperors invited Buddhist and Daoist over to their courts to make their cases for either religion; this emphasized “difference” and always led to temporary support of one creed over the other. The Western model of “World Religions”, which developed somewhere near the end of the 19th Century, has been particularly useful for the people in power. These models, however, do not reflect the actual situation of religion and spirituality in China; namely messy, magical, subversive, diffused, rhizomatic. Even the definition of “folk religion” doesn’t faithfully reflect what is actually happening, on the ground, when religion is lived. Gods, demons, fairies, shamans, they usually don’t neatly fit within the clear boundaries of “religions”. Contemporary estimates show us that 215 million Chinese people today believe in the spirits of the ancestors; 362 million Chinese people have participated in divination practices such as fortune telling, face reading and so on and so forth. A stunning 754 million people practice ancestor worship. The country which likes to see itself and is often observed by the outside world as “atheist”, harbors incredible numbers of religious believers and practitioners.
And then we haven’t even touched on the Dark Religiosities and the New Spiritualities. Dark religiosities, those practices and religions which are considered illegal by the Chinese government, whose rhetoric describes them as “evil cults”. Falun Gong is the most famous example. The Chinese history is however scattered with millennial movements, cults, and religious guru’s. Today we also see the arrival and rise of self-help emotional-expressive New Age and New Spirituality movements from the West, often via Taiwan. The Body Heart Soul movement is only one of several “psycho-movements”, in which people dance and sing together expressively and search for their true selves. Often, these cultures are also connected to individual entrepreneurship and the startup culture in China. We might refer to these movements as an “Easternization of the East”.
One of the largest mobility movements in contemporary China is the rise of tourism, which takes the historical place of pilgrimage. Buddhist and Daoist Temples often won’t be able to distinguish between the “secular tourist” and the “religious pilgrim”, since both participate indiscriminately in the two most important religious activities in China: lighting incense and making selfies. Tourism is accelerating and become the code practice which subsumes all difference between religions.
All these religiosities: the Socialist code, the Confucian Chinese order, the “Religions of the World” and the hybrid religion are in constant negotiation and clash with each other. Some have coined the term “religious ecology” to describe the particular environment of Chinese religiosities. Others have called the Chinese being engaged in a “Strategic participation in a shared religious landscape”. These descriptions ascribe to a “harmony” discourse, which is strongly propagated by the Chinese government. “The Chinese didn’t make the mistake of underestimating the power of religion” – I read somewhere recently. The harmony on the surface comes at the expense of strong suppressive forces to put the genies of religious emancipation and spiritual individualism, let alone Dark Religion, in their respective bottles. Who controls how we relate to the transcendent, the divine, the immanent transcendent; who sells us salvation? Who is allowed to sell it to us? Who delivers us from suffering? If religion expresses our Ultimate Concern; who sets its price? Which productive forces have to be employed and, how does anybody produce salvation?
We used to emphasize on the afterlife and the transcendent world itself. But a new-materialism is rising; a materialism which does not exclude religion as being superstitious or backwards, but considers religion a material force within an inherently political world, a world in which philosophy, religion, politics, the private and the public can never be separated. This earthly stage is being shared by a wide variety of religious actors; humans, gods, spirits, demons, churches and temples, animals and plants. The scent of incense. The sound of drums and bells. Divination cards and charts. Wechat payments and cellphones. We have artificially separated religious activities from other domains of human and planetary culture. Therefore we failed to see that it has never left and will never leave, although it will transform into forms that we couldn’t imagine before. In the end, religiosities are about imagination; the imagination of code violations, decoding existing systems, recoding them; writing algorithms about how bodies move together. Develop Rules for the Human Park, which the planet is becoming. The prophets are still among us. Let them dance.
This essay was originally presented on 11 August 2018 at UCCA Gallery 尤伦斯当代艺术中心 in Beijing in the context of the Long March Gallery performance lectures under the title “Spiritual Unbecomings”.
I told most of my friends at home that despite the fact that Beijing is an amazing city to live in for six months, the air pollution would surely be suffocating. At the airport I needed to make sure I would be permitted a transfer visa for Taiwan – a country that diplomatically speaking doesn’t exist in China – otherwise my precious six month single entry student visa would be rendered worthless. On my taxi ride to the People’s University of China it struck me: the sky in Beijing was blue. Not just kind of foggy blue, but deep Persian blue. The sun shined bright, though the temperature was freezing.
I had heard that on the streets of Beijing, for a while now, the rage had been dongchong xiacao, or “winter-insect-summer-grass”. When I arrived at the university and met for a cup of hot water with some philosophy students there, I asked them about this caterpillar fungus. As I had understood, the fungus in the brain of this caterpillar, was supposed to have highly beneficial potencies, especially with respect to the enhancement of the libido. Xi Jinping propagates “Chinese medicine” as part of his strategy to use Chinese culture to gain “soft power”. Magical caterpillars are no exception to this strategy.
The caterpillar is found in Yushu, in what is Eastern Tibet, or Xizang as the Chinese call their province. Since the prices skyrocketed with an exponential zeal which would make Bitcoin look pathetic, most of the economic activity of Yushu in the harvest month (May) for the yartsa gunbu, as they call it there, is directed at digging up caterpillars. At peak season, a well experienced gatherer would find about four of them every hour. Collect eighty, however, and they could easily make about $10.000 in the pharmacies of Beijing.
This new Tibetan gold rush has already been condemned by the Dalai Lama, since riots had broken out in the streets of Yushu and shrewd opportunists started manufacturing and selling counterfeit products. The produce is transported and traded between Tibet to the major Chinese urban areas by the Hui, a Chinese ethnic group, who are mostly Muslim. They themselves appear to have no faith in the efficacy of the winter-insect, but understand that trading them is an excellent way of sustaining their families.
My friends at the university in Beijing have heard about the magical dongchong xiacao as well. Students as they are, they are skeptical as well. It seems that certain fads are only seen for what they are by faithful Muslims and philosophy students. “It is just as with the blue skies,” they explain to me. “We call these ‘conference skies’”. They add: “Xi Jinping is tightening things up; some even call him a new dictator.” When Xi supports a caterpillar, prices go through the roof. When Xi presses down on Bitcoin, prices plummet. And when Xi wants the sky to be blue, it’s blue. Only this time, the sky will stay blue.
In deze derde aflevering van Podcast Posthumus bespreek ik samen met Christian van der Heijden de opkomst en invloed van Bitcoin en andere cryptovaluta op het posthumane denken.
This evening I overheard a conversation in French on the benefits of meditation. A young French philosopher was inquiring with a woman who regularly practices meditation whether for her there was also a political dimension to it. I soon realised this was a very interesting question which has never received serious attention.
For me meditation has always been something which comes and goes in phases of my life. Sometimes, I meditate for more than an hour every day for an extended period of time. Sometimes I even meditate for almost ten hours on Vipassana meditation retreats. Also, I have participated in Zen retreats.
Currently though, I am more involved with the political questions of religious diversity (Who decides what’s orthodox religion? Who decides whether (a) religion is wrong or not?) and the politics of objects (Why do things not participate in the democratic process?). This also means that my dialectic mind so to say is a little stronger, though my mindful mind might be weaker. Nevertheless, that’s both a great starting point for social engagement and for dialectical reasoning.
When just doing a quick google query about meditation and politics I came up with a couple of hits. First, there were hits about politicians who meditate (in this context they usually mean mindfulness, I will come back to that distinction). Second the question was whether meditation makes you more liberal or more conservative. The neuroscientific odds appeared to be in favour of liberalism, although the effect waned away after a while.
Nevertheless, both hits did not answer the question as I meant it, so my question became, what do I actually mean by this question? The only answer to the question I found somewhat satisfying was a blog post which quoted Osho on this topic, a spiritual guru from the 70s who’s take on spirituality I usually find very inspiring, despite the controversial character this guru had. “Can I be revolutionary and a sannyasin at once?” is the question asked in this blog post. For Osho, politics is about competition, and polar. Meditation for him is about accepting the polarities, therefore he states that meditation and politics cannot happen at the same time. “Meditation is like light. When meditation comes, politics disappears.”
Now this understanding of Osho feels to me a little dissatisfying. In the first place, it compares meditation to “light” and politics with “conflict” and darkness. Not only do I think this understanding is very dualistic, it also begs to be deconstructed. Maybe meditation is darkness and politics is light? I know many marxists who would readily agree with that statement.
But Osho is a little more nuanced than I account him for now. He rephrases the question whether meditation and politics go together by saying: “Can I choose to change the world and change myself at the same time?” Osho answers: not possible. But he explains it as follows: “When you change yourself you have started to change the world – and there is no other way. If you start changing others you will not be able to change yourself, and one who is not able to change himself cannot change anybody.”
This explanation makes me even more interested. In one sense, Osho appears to acknowledge a kind of non-dualism between self and world (when you change yourself, you change the world). But there is also a kind of dualism in the sense that he rejects the possibility to change others. The hidden premise here of course is that politics means that you want to change others. Although I’m sympathetic with Osho’s non-dualism, I suspect he discards “politics” as dualistic too easily. Certainly, dualistic politics and meditation won’t go together, but is politics necessarily dualistic?
Let me elaborate on how I understand meditation, to see if that would clarify the issue here. As a practice, the most easy way to describe meditation is to sit still and be aware of your sensations. There are many different ways to emphasise elements of this practice. A famous essay by the Zen philosopher Dogen, is sometimes translated as “How everyone can sit”, and describes in detail how you should sit. This description is all you need, according to Dogen, to know how to meditate. A more classical text, the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (widely used in Vipassana practice) focuses less on the way how to sit, but more on how you should direct your attention while sitting. It emphasises the focus on breath and by extension the awareness of the sensations in your body, to which you should practice to keep an equanimous mind and remember that all these sensations are impermanent. The practice of meditation has in the past decades been translated to a more popular and some would argue secular version, which is generally referred to as mindfulness. Similar to traditional meditation instructions, it emphasises to be aware of the present moment, don’t judge your experiences and bring your wandering mind back to the exercise of mindfulness, but with gentleness.
In my analysis, though superficially similar, Zen, Vipassana and mindfulness represent three very different takes on what meditation is about and are in a sense incomparable precisely for that reason. The main distinction lies in the purpose of the practice. For Vipassana, the goal of meditation is “enlightenment”, which is the ultimate liberation from suffering which is inherent to all living beings. Meditation is the final enterprise you can undertake to relieve yourself from the illusion of being alive, which is the result of the attachment to our desire. The idea meditation is the tool to reach this liberation is ultimately a matter of faith, although the practice is so thoroughly described that if you follow it correctly you will very quickly notice tremendous change, which will definitely enhance your conviction that you are on the right track. In Vipassana, the meditator is not enlightened, but strives to become enlightened (Arhat). As I see it, Vipassana is therefore a dualistic practice. There is a clear distinction between non-liberation and liberation.
In this way it is distinct from how I understand Zen. According to Zen, meditation cannot lead to enlightenment, because everybody is already enlightened. It might be that you don’t realise at the moment you are enlightened, and meditation can certainly assist in realising this, but ultimately there is no difference between the state when you realise this and when you don’t. This is non-dualism. One of the central debates in Zen history was fought out between proponents of gradual enlightenment, who say that this realisation comes gradually as a result of your practice and the proponents of sudden enlightenment, who will say this realisation will just strike you, more or less independent of your practice. In Zen, meditation is beautifully purposeless. Just like Dogen says: everybody can do it: just sit! You can already do it! It’s universal. Even if you don’t sit you’re enlightened. Enlightenment is not hard, it is instead very easy.
The discourse of mindfulness then, does not hide the fact that its practices are derived from these Buddhist traditions, though it usually emphasises strongly that mindfulness is not a religious practice, that it has all kind of benefits to people in contemporary society, that you don’t have to “believe” anything, and that it’s benefits are backed by scientific evidence. Furthermore, the practice of mindfulness is supposed to improve connectivity in your brain. A big hurray for this great non-religious practice. Hurray.
Let me be clear: mindfulness and politics are for me indeed completely disconnected. Politicians practicing mindfulness might help them making better decisions, very admirable in itself, but that does not imply the same as saying that mindfulness is political. The only way I might think of mindfulness as political is as part of a liberal secular ideology, which is opposed to for example a communist ideology. Nevertheless, I don’t see any wars being fought over mindfulness any time soon. Mindfulness is about as political as going to the movies, which is in my opinion not very political.
My focus would be on Vipassana and Zen. Vipassana I have identified dualistic while Zen I believe is non-dualistic. The next important question is how we are going to regard politics? The central question of politics, I’m suggesting is who does decide on collective action? Let’s focus on this action first. The assumption in action is that the reality is at present in a certain state and that it would be better if it would transform to another state. This “utopian moment” which appears central to all political deliberation is without doubt dualistic. At present, the world is grim, but as a result of (collective) action, it becomes bright. Important here is the question whether political action needs to be understood in a dualistic way? Is the goal of politics enlightenment (utopia)? In that case it would be similar to Vipassana. Or, this would be the other option, maybe society in itself is already a utopia, but we just don’t realise it yet. That is how I imagine a Zen politics. (The third option is that politics does not strive for utopia or any better kind of society, but that it just “fixes holes”. This would be – and I mean this pejoratively – “mindful politics”.)
The tension between meditation and politics, and the options we have available to solve this tension, shows me a very interesting trait about how we understand the political act. Because however the deliberation process develops, there is a very strong hidden assumption, that whoever makes decisions in name of whomever, these decisions should improve reality in a noticeable way. This assumption reveals a strong lack of acceptance towards reality as it is, precisely what meditation is trying to teach us.
At present, many often feel sad about the state of our world, they might even feel bitter or discouraged to change anything about it, they feel anger towards all kinds of suffering of human beings or grief about the loss of identity. It is this emotional feelings that become part of our political action: a deep feeling of dissatisfaction with the world in which we find ourselves. Meditation – both Vipassana and Zen – teaches us we might not be free to how we encounter the world (there is pain, there is suffering), we are free to react on it in a certain way. The meditation practice advises us to remain equanimous to what we experience, but just notice it and stay only in the noticing. If we don’t do that, we will fall back into the habit of reacting to what we experience, which is usually a judgment – I don’t like this, I don’t like that – and then a reaction – I kill it -, which would be informed by our negative evaluation to it. Or, when we are extremely positive, our habit of judgment to our experience would be positive we say – I like this – I take it.
Now meditation does not necessarily teaches us that we should not act at all. Buddhism only observes that all reality arises in interdependence, meaning that everything is a reaction to something else, connected by desire or repulsion (I love flowers, I hate fascism). These distinctions fade away through the meditative practice, because you realise there are no flowers independent of your judgment of it, neither is there any fascism. Everything arises in interdependence.
In Vipassana now this situation is seen as burden from which we seek liberation. The politics of Vipassana would be: refrain from politics, because it only causes more misery. You cannot improve life, you can only liberate yourself from it. Meditation is the only and ultimate political act.
In Zen this is more complicated. The basic premise is that everything already is enlightened, as it is sometimes called “the Buddha nature”, but it is ignorance that prevents us from knowing this. When the veil is (partly) removed, you can see much clearer that everybody is suffering, not because they’re not enlightened, but because they don’t know they are enlightened. Therefore, Zen Buddhism invokes the ideal of the bodhisattva: a being that has become very close to full understanding of her enlightenment, and therefore realises that the reason so many beings suffer is their ignorance. The bodhisattva therefore returns to the world of suffering to guide other beings to lift the veil of ignorance. Of course, for every being this lack of understanding is different and should be relieved by different means. A wise bodhisattva knows how to lift these veils of ignorance a little more.
Politics is the collaboration of subjects towards a more common goal. The politics of Vipassana are easy: you meditate to liberate yourself from suffering. If your are persecuted and killed, before reaching your goal – don’t worry you’ll be reborn and start from where you left off. The suffering is only an illusion anyway. The politics of Zen are much more complicated. Since anybody can be a bodhisattva and anybody can be ignorant, you never know who to trust. Is the leader of this great political party a realised enlightened person, who acts by the best of her understanding to guide us towards liberation, or are you in fact following a current of ignorance? I believe here comes the important overlap between politics and meditation into play. Many politics as I have said assumes an imperfect world. Zen Buddhism understands everything in the world as enlightened, though ignorant of it, thus causing suffering. The only way, however, to act political from a meditative point of view is to act detached from the outcome of your actions. You don’t act to improve a situation in the world; the only influence your actions should have is on how reality is perceived by the actors in it, because it is precisely their ignorance towards it that causes suffering.
My conclusion is that a non-dualistic understanding of meditation is indeed very political, and also reinterprets the political as non-dualistic as well. I also argue that meditation in this sense should be political. Neither do I consider the political as something negative, nor meditation as something positive. Since any desire can be a cause of suffering and any attachment creates more suffering, both meditation and politics should remain detached from the result of its action. Nevertheless, meditation and politics can never be separate, because ignorance and the magnificence of power are one and the same.
This text served as the introduction to my Master thesis on Emmanuel Lévinas and Jacques Derrida, written in 2008.
Both these styles of thought could be criticized. This critique would in both cases be directed to the created image. We provide critique to make clear in what respect the image is not accurate. An important trait of critique is that it acts by definition against a mental condition of the original thinker, who – as we have said – is governed by attraction or repulsion, lust or nausea, mania or depression. The critic provides a complementary judgment: she urges the idealist to accept reality more as it is, but also warns the aesthete that not all that glitters is gold. With their inner necessity as their motivation, all thinkers are first of all representatives of themselves. Against the background of the emphasis of contemporary continental thinkers on questions of alterity, we are left challenged. What moment did the Philosopher decide that the Other became necessary to articulate? Was it a feeling attraction or repulsion that prompted this? Or is also the philosophy of alterity ultimately in a sense motivated by a hidden narcissism, a concealed attempt to articulate herself?
Today, what has been a virtuality for so long will become actualised. After months and months of polling what might be, today American voters will, by the act of colouring dots on pieces of paper and throwing those in big bins, create what has been carefully planned over the past 18 months or so: a human body which represents and and acts as the the will of the collective of all human bodies that we commonly call “Americans”.
That being said, the collective imagination surrounding this – what is called – “election” was focused on one such body; a body commonly referred to as TRUMP. It is a sobering exercises to focus our attention on a moment on pronouncing this name, with mindfulness. Trump. Again once more. Trump. Without any doubt, I know you have been pronouncing this name before. Trump. It’s a phonetic miracle how this combination of tongue and mouth movement interaction, supported by exhaled air, represents such strong emotional connotations. Trump. What do you feel? Excitement? Repulsion? Fear? Whatever it is, it is very likely not indifference.
Tonight, Clinton will be elected president of the United States. But this election is not about her election. This election is about the possibility that something else happens. And that is: that whatever this thing may be, “Trump” gets elected. I can not recall very clearly when was the last time that one man triggered the imagination of so many people – so many human bodies – at the same time. How many of 7 billion people will never have heard about Trump? How many of those who have will be indifferent when they hear that name, pronounce that name? I argue: very few. And that’s why I believe that Trump unites us. Our collective interest is in Trump. Our collective focus is on Trump. News outlets can not publish on anything else but Trump, because the readers don’t want to read anything else but Trump. We want Trump. We want to be repulsed by him. We want to know how repulsed we are by him. We want to repeat that, over and over again.
Is there even a person named Trump? This body which is most likely carried in an airplane from territory to territory, at the same moment twittering the excrement of his soul into the blogosphere, where it feeds the craving news consumer. Trump. What did he say? How repulsive is it? Why is it so repulsive? Analysis. What do “the polls” say – which as a Delphian oracle has become the prime current event worth reporting ? Analysis. Analysis of the excrement of the soul of Trump, which might be the mirror image of our own desire. Trump touches our spirit. Trump unites us. Whatever Trump is, “it” has found the key to our collective imagination, a pivotal focus point for our increasingly disseminated attention. This is the novelty.
This week, VICE distributed promotional video by Adam Curtis his new film called HyperNormalisation. In this video, Curtis argues that it becomes increasingly clear that we are all living in a dream world, detached from reality. Social media, he argues, have developed algorithms that only present you with information that confirms the ideas you already had. This dystopic worldview does not appear so dissimilar from the vision in the 1999 movie The Matrix.
There is however a strong self-referentiality problem with his video. First, it makes use of similar persuasive techniques it uses to criticise. After all, Adam Curtis’ films are also a product, and VICE and the BBC are outlets to sell his product. Second, if the message of the video is correct, than only people who already agree we live in a dream world get to see this video. Therefore, the film might offer us a correct representation of the state of affairs in the world, but can not be able to really offer a solution.
The film also supposes an intentionality by the elites and representatives of global capital that might not be correct. The assumption of the video states that there would be a possibility of liberation from this situation, as if we would be able to discard our chains and walk into the “real world”. As a metaphor, this duality between the “dream world” which is a bad state which only benefits some sort of semi-transcendent global elite and the “real world” which is liberated from slavery is tempting. After all it feeds our subconscious desire for freedom. But the value of freedom is precisely constitutive for the world order Adam Curtis attempts to criticise. After all, it is the promise for freedom that motivates us to act and to consume. The question is whether Adam Curtis succeeds in transcending the trap of the wheel of enslaved desire he criticises. What would his liberation look like?
Curtis describes politicians as “pantomime villains” whose job is to make us angry, so we engage more in social media. Social media is then seen as absorbing all opposition, to which Curtis adds the depressive conclusion that that is the reason why “nothing ever changes”. Two striking problems are noteworthy about this analysis. First, the idea that “nothing ever changes” is quoted here as a truism, although it seems highly questionable. Many advancements in terms of human rights, ecological protection and equality have been made. Maybe this progress has not been as much as we want, but if Curtis would discard those advancements as “fake” or “dreamlike” as well, the question is what would count as change anyway? Second, if social media would really be absorbing all opposition, this video could not be opposition to it, because it is being distributed by social media as well. If this would be the case, we wouldn’t be engaging in critical thinking by watching this video, because our engagement with this criticism would only be a productive resource for the social media as well.
Finally, Curtis compares our condition as “HyperNormal”, comparing our situation with people living in the totalitarian Soviet Union for rhetorical effect. Again, the question arises how a liberation from this should really look like? It could certainly not lie in a self-expressive “live life authentic” ethic – quit your job and travel the world – because this is precisely which is being sold to us by travel companies and thus part of the “consumption factory” he describes. What remains as a possible liberation would be the complete and full acknowledgement of the “real world”: life is miserable, violent and unequal and no solutions exist for this, except accepting this state (and of course deleting your Facebook account). Not only am I unsure whether this is really what Curtis would like us to communicate, also such a conclusion would be as ridiculous as assuming the opposite.
Adam Curtis’ film stands in a long tradition of leftist critique of the system, global capital and corporate power. What is valuable in his analysis is the recognition that our desire for freedom is working against ourselves. A solution for this problem does, however, not appear imaginable from this perspective. If we would discard the suspicion that there is some inherent intentional evil in the way global capital functions, his video might offer us a striking image of the human condition. The drama and sense that there is an injustice being deliberately inflicted upon us by social media is, however, misplaced. For now, I rest at questioning Curtis’ intention: does he want to show us a way of liberation from our shackles, or is he himself a “pantomime villain” in our clickbait imprisonment?