“Is this … really happening? Is this … an act?”
Through the nervous, refocusing lens of an unsteady camcorder recording, an increasingly worried young girl verbally processes the scene before her. She’s witnessing the entertainer Meat Loaf moments after he collapses on stage at a performance in Edmonton, Canada. But this is not part of the act; this is really happening.
The camera briskly zooms out, revealing a confused and restless crowd. Audience members begin to vacate their seats. A roadie calls reluctantly for applause from the stage. Panic rises in the girl’s voice: “Oh my god, mum! Mum, what happened?”
At some point during this foul year—whether after the Brexit result in Britain, or Donald J. Trump’s US presidential election victory, or simply at a Meat Loaf concert—we were all various versions of that terrified girl, watching in shocked disbelief, grappling for a parental figure to assure us this was just a bad dream while something that wasn’t supposed to happen happened right in front of our very eyes.
Reality as we knew it broke down in 2016. All artifice revealed. Finally, ignoring or wishing away our collective situation would no longer suffice. But what is our situation?
It’s proved futile to establish “reality” today: television shows like Mr. Robot and Black Mirror blur the lines between cultural verisimilitude and speculative fiction; bogus news items propagate virally online, only to be revealed as such by “real” news organizations—publications and networks of which we have become progressively more distrustful; social media act as echo chambers, containing and reflecting our own images and opinions and desires back at us, reinforcing the perception of societal stability and normalcy; even comedy and farce have failed their critical duties, in part because reality itself seems evermore ironic, satirical and absurd.
How did we get here?
This peculiar account begins in July of 1892, with an obscure American philosopher and logician called Charles Sanders Peirce. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Peirce attended Harvard University in the early 1860s, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in chemistry in 1863. Peirce held only sporadic academic appointments, but his ideas on pragmatism and the nature of mind would have a profound influence upon a century of Western thought.
One of Peirce’s key philosophical contributions was called “synechism”: “the tendency to regard continuity” in all things. Peirce believed that we mistakenly perceive the world as a series of binary operations: utterances and interpretations. The medium of consciousness then wants to smoothe them out, and makes them appear uninterrupted and endless.
Peirce outlined synechism in an article called “The Law of Mind,” published in the journal The Monist. Radically, he argued further in 1893 that synechism implied the illusory nature of independent identity: “the selfhood you like to attribute to yourself is,” Peirce wrote, “the vulgarest delusion of vanity.”
But this notion of unified existence and consciousness found itself at odds with another, more lucrative view of the individual—one that would come to dominate the 20th century: the idea that each of us is utterly unique.
In 1925, the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud authored a brief but important article called “A Note Upon The Mystic Writing Pad.” In it, he likened perception consciousness to an Etch-a-Sketch-esque device made of wax and cellophane. Freud noted: “the appearance and disappearance of the writing” is analogous “with the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.” For Freud, consciousness was a discontinuous and malleable activity.
Peirce died in poverty in 1914, with many of his later writings going unpublished. Synechism was incongruous with the anthropocentric, Western notion of the individual’s supremacy. However, another of Peirce’s concepts would prove consistent with Freud’s imminent individualist ideology: pragmatism.
Peirce also thought that the best way to perceive reality was through logic and scientific inquiry—by data gathering. All objects had practical consequences, argued Peirce, and those consequences constituted the whole of our perception of them. It was the beginning of a results-based, utilitarian conception of reality.
Pragmatism would come to govern both public administration and private markets. For the following hundred years, value would be determined through demonstrating practicality.
A problem with the results-based reality arises when it rubs up against Freud’s notion of discontinuous consciousness. Freud supposed:
If we imagine one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way in which I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind.
Modulating the intervals at which our perceptual apparatuses register experience, for example, could destabilize our observation of time. Bombarding people with rapidly cycling and shifting forms of information could manipulate the development of memory, too.
In the 21st century, almost all of our memories emerged mediated. Even immediate, first-hand experiences were described in mediated terms: numerous eyewitnesses of the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City, for instance, recalled the twin towers’ dramatic descent as “like a movie.” Reality was entirely a simulation.
Suddenly, any practical result could be mass-produced: wide-ranging policies could seem effective on screen when, in reality, they failed. Corporations could appear to produce giant profits when, in truth, they were losing vast sums of money. A game of managing appearances became reality—carefully manufactured, and delivered through increasingly individualized media channels.
By 2016, those media forms completely dissociated: The New York Times and Fox News began reporting entirely different stories; political dissent was officially pathologized; Facebook and Twitter turned into self-reinforcing bubbles; Apple attempted to further circumscribe its ecosystem through new and proprietary standards; reality became a hall of mirrors.
That really happened. It wasn’t an act.
The world today is not a two-sided coin; it’s a 99-sided die, and on each side a problem. What we desperately need now is to tell ourselves bold and original stories about the future, building neither walls nor mirrors but bridges—bridges that revive a sense of interconnectedness, continuity, synechism.