So we survived 2017. Now what next?

A visual metaphor of 2017? The Eagle Creek wildfire burns as golfers play on 4 September. Photograph: Kirsti McCluer/Reuters

Navigating the rough tributary waters that ended up forming the year that was 2017, it’s easy to see why many of us feel frustrated, angry, and exhausted. Issues as far and wide as wildlife loss, attacks on justice, permanently crossing the 400ppm mark, social fragmentation, echo chambers, extreme weather events, heightened inequality, #metoo, the refugee crises, all augmented by the incessant pace at which headlines move on. Yesterday’s crisis seems like a decade ago, and by the time you’ve made sense of it there’s a dozen other open fronts to firefight.

At the same time, the interconnected root causes of all of these issues makes it impossible to read news objectively, or contemplate events coldly from distant places. As Latour points out, there is no distant place anymore. And along with distance, objectivity is gone as well, or at least “an older notion of objectivity that was unable to take into account the active subject of history.” Who is telling the story is just as important as the story itself.

New patterns are emerging — but assuming they’re values agnostic is foolish

The curators Hans Ulbrich Obrist and Simon Castets set out a few years ago to help bring to light emerging artists born in or after 1989. They picked 1989 as a marker in the sand due to the many paradigm shifting events that occurred that year:

“the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the start of the post-Cold War period, the introduction of the World Wide Web and the beginning of the universal availability of the Internet”

The patterns they found in this aggregated portfolio speak of the shifting ground conditions in which our generation is maturing into — such as the exploration of the blurred lines between virtual and actual lives, a focus on politics and environmental damage, and a growing fluidity of identities and voices.

But society as envisioned by the artistic avantgarde has its own blindspots. As Adam Curtis, the author of epic documentaries such as Hyper-normalisation and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, has been pointing out (most recently in this great podcast), we’re living through a shift from a collectivist societal vision to an individualistic vision — and this seeps deeply through our culture. This individualistic paradigm is manifested in the postmodern turn of the 1st person viewpoint, the disappearance of the omnipresent narrator, the rise of influencers and personal branding, the rise of individual causes and campaigns, to name a few.

But what if the Me-society isn’t allowing us to see what a collective struggle, and therefore, what a collective vision might look like?

And more importantly, can we, the 89+ generation, shift the dominant paradigm when we’re both benefitting from it and are incentivised by it?

The largest protests since the 1989 revolution — but how do we build a plurality of resistances to the present system and collective visions of a different one? Photographt:

This year, I’ve followed closely the protests against changes in the judiciary system in Romania (documented here and here) and I’m left pondering whether political asks can suffice when political visions are lacking.

Unlike the castle-state approach to power during the communist decades, a power analysis of today’s relatively young democracy reveals a web of Foucauldian ‘micro-powers’ — where large-scale corruption and purposeful lack of due diligence are employed and exercised in net-like organisation.

Talking this through with my grandmother, who has lived under fascism, communism and today’s neoliberal flavour of capitalism, the need for perspective becomes apparent. Paradigm change comes about over long periods of time and is often the result of the slow erosion of belief in the visions offered by the status quo. Her wisdom also give an inkling into the plurality of resistances required to seed change — seeing ideology for what it is, being able to discern fact from fiction, building trust networks and alliances, building alternatives to the existing incentives and most importantly, finding joy among what can be seen as bleak and dreary.

What comes to mind, is a quote by Prigogine, a physical chemist known for his work on thermodynamics and entropy:

“When a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system.”

Fighting rhinoceritis

Teju Cole, in his piece for NYTimes, reminds us of the 1959 play by Eugene Ionesco, Rhinoceros, calling out the modern rhinoceritis that has swept us off our feet. In this seminal piece of absurd theatre, the main character, Bérenger, becomes the witness of his fellow townfolk transforming into rhinoceros, while no one believes a transformation is under way. The play was written in the context of a rise in totalitarian regimes at the time, while Ionesco also drew from his past experience of the rise of fascism in 1930s Romania.

Cartoon by Benjamin Schwartz

We’ve seen these weak signals cropping up sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly over the past few years. We’ve seen the normalisation of hatred, xenofobia, racism, and othering alongside a renewed focus on how ingrained sexism is.

However, “the opposite of othering is not saming, but belonging”, says prof. John Powell, and there the implications of a lack of belonging have become apparent this year. Making sense of this all, while keeping apace with changes yet to come, means that, like Bérenger, we need to roll our sleeves even higher and move onwards and upwards saying:

‘I’m not capitulating!’

So, what next?

How can we experiment towards changing power dynamics and shifting the systems that surround us? How do we midwife a new order out of the seeming disorder we’re swimming in? How do we build resilience and keep going when the impact on our actions might not be felt for years or decades?

I’m far from having answers to any of these questions, but to make sense of this all for myself I’ve tried to summarise what I feel like I need to do:

  1. I need to slow down. Call it millennial angst or what have you, but over the last years I’ve felt the need to tackle all possible causes I felt I could add value to, taking on a lot more than I could actually fit within the 7 day week I ended up working. In 2018, I need to define a narrower brief for myself — paraphrasing Senge’s Fifth Discipline, faster is slower.
  2. I need to focus my anger and energy. As I need to define and commit to fewer things, I also need to learn to let go of at least *some* of the things outside my sphere of influence, such as worrying about renewed nuclear threats.
  3. I need to be present. An obvious one, but time and presence are the scarcest of resources — so I need to use mine wisely. When I was little we had lots of fruit trees in our garden, and I knew the seasons not by the names of the months in the calendar, but by which fruit was going to be ripe next. Exercising presence means disconnecting sometimes from the hype cycle, working with and not against rhythms (including biological and seasonal ones), and being with people who replenish, rather than deplete my energy.

“If others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”
W. Morris, News from Nowhere (1890)

Appendix — a reading list

In no particular order, I’ve listed my favourite articles and op-eds from this year, the ones I kept going back to and found new wisdoms with every re-read:

  • Women In Power: From Medusa to Merkel, by Mary Beard — which includes my favourite quote of the year: “You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.”
  • Donald Trump is Gaslighting America, by Lauren Duca — and for that matter her entire column, Thigh-High Politics.
  • When our thoughts are no longer our own, by Hari Kunzru— on the changing notions or interconnectedness, privacy and how automation will more likely result in ‘large scale human warehousing’ than in the advent of a post-human leisure society.
  • Winning slowly is the same as losing, by Bill McKibben — “The old quote “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” implies it may take a while, but we’re going to win. When it comes to climate change though, the arc of the physical universe appears to be short, and it bends toward heat.”
  • Do civilisations collapse?, by Guy Middleton — What do we apply the term ‘collapse’ to — what exactly was it that collapsed? Fascinating read on how archaeology and ecology define ‘collapse’ differently and the anthropocentric vs ecocentric worldviews.
  • Have psychologists found a better way to persuade people to save the planet?, by Hayley Bennett — Climate-change warnings provoke higher levels of ethnocentrism and group conformity, which brings further proof that narratives and identity framing are a key battleground. A potential way to tackle this is by using values sets as framing lenses for socially dominant groups — ie. hyperspecific messaging.

And lastly, a piece from 2014, but just as relevant today:

  • On not going home, by James Wood — What does home mean and what sense of belonging can we grab hold of when the thought that this pale blue dot was our borderless home is being challenged?

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