As I was trying to write about the past, I decided that I’d rather rework something I’d written about the future, in the past; but that’s something especially relevant this time of year. Maybe it’s tradition. Read it here.
And so in the late twentieth century the imperial cycle of the last century in some way replicates itself, although today there are really no big empty spaces, no expanding frontiers, no exciting new settlements to establish. We live in one global environment with a huge number of ecological, economic, social, and political pressures tearing at its only dimly perceived, basically uninterpreted and uncomprehended fabric. Anyone with even a vague consciousness of this whole is alarmed at how such remorselessly selfish and narrow interests—patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds—can in fact lead to mass destructiveness. The world simply cannot afford this many more times.
♦ Edward Said, “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness“
The populist dramatics presently unfolding, spreading out, and blanketing large swaths of the earth’s restless surface are part of the fabric that Said qualified as not just “basically uninterpreted” but also “uncomprehended.” I would add that the interwoven thread counts of ecology, economy, society, and politics also exist as a fabric uninterrupted: for the accumulated fibres of our invention have seamlessly stitched up every square millimetre of real estate, solid or psychic, spatial or virtual, from point to point to point. There is nothing raw, open, uncatalogued, or uncovered in the sense that would have existed for that plucky imperialist surveyor out at the vanguard of “civilization.” The map doesn’t drop off at some point. The tapestry of record covers all continents and states of matter, but it doesn’t exist with any satisfactory kind of explanatory notes. When almost anyone can know that everywhere in the world exists in unquestionable reification, and that you can’t fire a cannon anywhere without wiping out a village, you begin to realize that we are all part of the weave, and that its constantly evolving design is simply beyond any of us to contend with definitively. And yet, just as the illusion of the frontier of human conquest has dwindled from overtly national consciousnesses of patriotic narratives (for now), capitalist minds attuned to handicap everywhere remain constantly on the look-out to press their advantage on any number of fronts. Colonization remains a presaged and imperative force, and constantly on the move into spaces not empty, not unknown, but only provisionally unexploited. It is the lack of comprehension that allows for the reemergence and reassertion of mythologies reductive enough to claim that the human fabric is patchy, in need of radical repair, and not just inequivalent but also of unequal quality, stitch to stitch.
Expectation is a curious orientation. At its heart, it is a state that we feel entitled to. When we turn ourselves outward, grasp invisibly into the future, and take hold of a thing un-yet realized . . . something about that feels justified; even if it doesn’t feel so very realistic. What we expect draws within and coalesces around a core of right: as if some deeper reasoning has been at work, drafting a bill that comes into effect at midnight. From inside our subjectivity: the eager public: ourselves: we have been given just enough grounds to dwell upon even our most modest desires and our willingness to be spoiled. There is something in the future that we feel we deserve just as much as we want.
Often what comes to be revealed on the day is both a fulfillment and a desolation; a raw recognition or conversely equal disappointment. Jubilation. Despair. The accumulated evidence of many tomorrows waited out has its own way of making us feel adequate but out of sync. We are led to invest in the coming moment, to foresee a kind of destiny upon its arrival. Life, it may be said, encourages it. Patterns emerge effortlessly, and we project them on a luminous screen that banners across the approaching morning.
To expect, in the true sense of the word, carries with it an array of consequences. To expect brings all stray desires home with you, but snappingly hungry and irritable about the meal that’s on offer. In reality, and I speak broadly, the random, unforeseeable nature of even the simplest outcomes means that our dreams are constantly thwarted; but also that the most reasonable drafts detailing our rights in the future promised by ourselves to ourselves refuse to manifest faithfully. Our fictions are choked with characters perfectly adapted to the whims and uncertainties of their time and place. The sleuth susses out the criminal, rarely surprised by the knave’s nefarious endgame—but together they’ll often talk it out, until all the motivations are clear. The valiant and perspicacious leader addresses the crowd—but wasn’t he always sure of persevering, and wasn’t the defeat in line with his expectations from the beginning? The Machiavellian plots of the mastermind results in a coordinated pulling of all the strings of countless hangers-on, and puppets, wound in clockwork, dance according to the might of the right she has invested her powers in. The dream of a dream realized is reinscribed over and over. We might expect that at some point our own hard-won deductions, inductions, or abductions will someday work out for us unequivocally. The projected rights of tomorrow will work out right in an end befitting our creative drafts.
This is a season of expectations. Despite the anti-climaxes of ambitions thwarted and dreams unrealized—relationships, presents, and events unrequited despite our unquestionable deservedness—the holiday season is a lesson in acceptance, of things as they are with all of their unexpected manifestations. Our right to the future can only ever be approximate, just like everything else. What we see coming our way, behind the luminous screen, resolves itself into view as it crests the horizon. Is that what I was waiting for?
Yes. This is what you get.
Even the cosmopolis can feel confining.
I had harboured aspirations of striking out beyond the precincts of my ostensibly humble region and transferring my base of operations to somewhere fundamentally different; somewhere founded on a different design, a local perhaps perpetuated and driven by an ideology of a dissimilar tenor. The trajectory I envisioned, even from the point of my recent journey’s genesis—that first degree—took me up and out of my limited experience to environments diverse and challenging. Goodbye, Toronto! Goodbye, goodbye. Because really, how many jolly adventures can one have in the same local? Won’t the familiarity of a well-worn home lead to stagnation? Doesn’t the well run dry after ceaselessly drawing from it, year after year? And quite honestly, no one wants to be a parochial academic when the world beckons to ambition so compulsively. When you see yourself climbing up onto the shoulders of giants you imagine that giant standing at the epicentre of an unequivocally vital site, somewhere where they’ll see your banner snapping in the troposphere and it will mean something; the little people far afield might be driven to rally or flee.
Possibly, I exaggerate. If not, it’s still an indulgent fantasy. I came late to this.
I phoned a dear friend once many years ago, and I caught her at an unusual time. Her voice was thick with emotion, and as we talked she came to seem genuinely depressed. “My darling,” I said to her, “whatever is the matter?”
“Oh, it’s ridiculous,” she answered.
“Tell me,” I pressed.
“I’ve just finally realized that I’m never going to be a pop star.”
Hearing her articulate this epiphany was a minor detonation. There was a clear and lucid origin of perspective in its essence. Something had sunken in.
The allure of this particular pipe dream was relatively foreign to me. At that point in my life I saw myself as too unconventional, and too contrary, to be suited for any kind of status that relied upon mass appeal. The brand of success I entertained in my own reveries took the shape of a loving peer group and a chance to make a living creatively, but quietly and out of the way; and not so much out of pragmatism but rather an untrustworthy orientation toward brute reality. However, my friend’s realization, and what she was coming to terms with (however tongue-in-cheek) addressed a fundamental mythology that motivates a certain quantity of every project of self-determination. The spectre of destiny draws many of us forward; and it is seldom a modest phantasm that does the work within the formative imagination. Around the corner of the everyday is anticipation for a revelatory moment of discovery, a juncture where the avatars of forces which drive the world suddenly take notice, attend, and carry you off—transmute you from your station and install you within the charmed sphere of the relevant, respected, and adored.
The permutations of these fantasies are, of course, endless; and they drive the compulsive magnetism of celebrity. The public regards, but it also projects; and that delirious projection is a lot of what spurs much of the everyday toil through mediocrity. I suppose it’s most especially acute in the young, before the force of raw statistics begins to wear at your consciousness. However, at some point you have to mourn your chances.
I mourned early. I recovered.
And my ambition has evolved rather than degraded: I haven’t worn down—I’ve sharpened. I’ve fine tuned. This older self I have inherited, thanks to the inexorable dilation of time, entertains much grander designs than what my prematurely pessimistic ego made room for when I thought I was headed nowhere fast. I had always known that I would never be a pop star, but at some point I had become actually optimistic about the prospects of a more modest luminary position in the firmament. My dream machine has been steadily stoked these past few years, and where I would have been familiar tracing the inner contours of my psyche and discerning only resignation, instead I have adumbrated the shape and substance of actual desire; powerful objectives motivated. This is genuinely a surprise.
I blame positive reinforcement: the continuous encouragement of multiple successes after facing difficult odds.
So when my ambition to breach the national barrier surrounding me was forestalled last year, and my long range plans ran afoul of the very real odds stacked against me, I recalled my friend, anguished on the other end of the phone line. This will never be was stitched into the fabric of the sky, and I felt the destitution of a lofty dream aborted.
Never is a brutal oblivion; but never is also hard to ensure. In a universe that thrives on the proliferation of possibilities, of aleatory contingencies and powerfully interlaced probabilities, never is almost as unlikely as always. Not this one, no this time, is so much more palatable, and so much more credible, than never.
The dream can stand some adjustment. I do not need to be stationed in America to realize my ambitions. The well, here in Canada, in Toronto, has not run dry; and whatever arguments I thought made it imperative to shuck this city like an old skin have lost a lot of their validity under detailed scrutiny. Good things can come from familiar territories. Progress without movement can be an exciting way to examine personal morphology. One can trace new outlines over the old shapes on a map. The iterations might create a compelling palimpsest, a record and new manuscript simultaneously. The core of the exercise is solid, is estimable; familiar but still challenging. There are newnesses to learn from right here as much as there.
So I stay. So I commit to inscribing my mark with a fine point on a site that has asked me to use its surface. There are other ways to transcend boundaries and reach beyond one’s original sphere. The world becomes progressively smaller when it consists of continents of text. It can be nice to be at home and to travel without moving.
It was a surprisingly bright, English day; and swarming with crowds through London’s theatre district. My companion, whom I had come all the way across the pond to see, was providing the commentary, as my voice was out of commission. Just before all the fixed points of my life were upheaved and mobilized at the beginning of the summer, I lost my voice. Everything I wanted to express, direct, or exchange was throttled by a forced rasp that was all my ailing vocal cords could accomplish.
“It’s viral. Your body’s fighting it. That’s good,” said my doctor after I had submitted to her examination.
“I need to move cities and then leave the country within the next week,” I narrowly managed to convey to her.
She shrugged. Shrugged!
So, from my perspective, the visit to Britain was a little less convivial than I would have hoped; but ultimately the trip was already paid for and I wasn’t about to cancel. Sulking moodily in a newly acquired apartment, solitarily mired in an unfamiliar community, rather than exploring the banks of the Thames, wasn’t really how I wanted to spend the first half of July. So be it, I thought.
I packed up. I went.
It came to a frustrating result, but still, a rewarding one. It was a worthwhile visit: hanging out with physics nerds in the East End; frequently venturing out to buy bargain white wine from Tesco’s; navigating the Tube without being fairly able to ask for directions; wandering. England’s weather didn’t reject me—it was identifiably summer. There were lots of opportunities to rove about in the open air, and circumnavigate the kinks of London’s urban knot. It will be recorded as a cherished trip.
That day, though, frequently crushed by the mobile agendas of bamboozled tourists, we skittered past the theatre production of 1984.
“Everyone makes such a big deal out of that book,” my chaperone said to me. He went on to ask what I thought about it—does it predict a future we are on a collision course with? Or has it already happened?
“I actually haven’t read it,” I wheezed in a forced strain beneath the background noise.
He, the student of science, was shocked that I, the student of literature, did not have first-hand knowledge of the book. Although, when pressed, he admitted that he had only ever made it through the first 40 pages, and was basing most of his opinion regarding the interface of Orwell’s dystopia with our evident reality on hearsay. The conversation we managed to have about the novel’s lauded prescience in a way succeeded in spite of our mutual handicap. The upshot was the observation that, despite vocal remonstrations from the modern public concerning the erosion of confidentiality and the growing ubiquity of surveillance, recording, and monitoring technologies, it seems that we have in fact quite prosaically handed over the rights to our privacy in steady increments. Could we not say that we have already acquiesced to Big Brother? Has the revolution not happened around us? Isn’t Orwell’s future here?
Now that I’ve read the book, I see that there were some quite conspicuous lacunas in our unsubstantiated assumptions about the nature and character of Big Brother. As one of those frequently required schoolhouse texts, 1984 has a kind of imaginative currency that transcends the actual act of reading it. Having never cracked its spine I still felt familiar with the broad strokes of the text just by virtue of cultural osmosis; but that knowledge was a sketchy equivocation and did not adequately map out the content of the novel’s concerns. As a result our rhetorical questions about an already realized Orwellian present-future were fairly off base.
The omnipresent telescreens and the consequent obliteration of privacy; the techniques of doublethink and the reworking of language to delineate the boundaries of what is thinkable; the machinations of the Ministry of Love and its subversive agents; all these together produce a framework of technologies devoted to the subjugation and control of the very people who are at work maintaining that same control in 1984. The totalitarian regime of the Party in Oceania is indeed devoted to power: having it, exercising it, perpetuating its hold of it; and it does this largely through the management of information. The ultimate goal is to govern thought itself to render resistance impossible and secure the future of the Party indefinitely. The techniques are forceful, brutish, and conspicuous; but, more importantly, they only concern the 15 percent of the population who are members of the ruling class. The proles, the remaining 85 percent, remain relatively untouched by the social engineering, surveillance, and coercion techniques of the Party. The masses are simply kept poor, kept busy, and herded.
Orwell’s 1984 has not come to pass. The brutality and ham-fisted manipulation tactics of the Big Brother regime are quite self-evidently totalitarian, conceived and enforced by a relative few under the guise of a war-mongering communism. The conditions we live in are far more insidious, far-reaching, and all encompassing. The mechanisms of control that pervade our modern society bring to fruition the primacy of information that exists in Orwell’s vision, but they diverge sharply when it comes to concerns of centrality and complicity. We live in a network of coercions that lacks a definable centre: the nodes of power that continuously form and dissolve, while remaining continually mobile or nebulously defined, influence us from all sides. The agendas of human interests work to win us over through the functions of every design, every product of human endeavour. As we want, as we desire to interface, as we exchange and as we capitalize upon our options, we collaborate. Not only that, we proliferate the very forces which enact the processes of restriction and control that delimit us. The scale of our complicity in the management of human life does not confine itself to the ruling class—in this information age every participant in the circuit of feedback and interchange makes a tacit acquiesce to regulation, and in turn does their part in contributing to the policing of the comprehensive complex that overwrites the boundaries of our interconnectedness.
George Orwell didn’t predict this. We’re in a much more subtle mess than he could have envisioned.
There is always something to be said when the business of everyday experience converges with that of thinking; when the outer systems we navigate and encounter manage to connect with figurative inner tracks—to the less spatialized components that complicate the production of living. This is the time of the year when things change, and three-dimensional reality forces some recognition of the fourth-dimension’s incessant advance into familiar but unknown territories. The world seems to tilt. Time springs forward. The hues of nature tint and inch their ways towards the sky.
This also happens to be the end of a particularly significant term for me, and these past few weeks I’ve been facing the inalterable crux of a forked path, where each direction leads to a different way forward: both futures appealing but radically different. My inner life has been stirred up into a restrained but inexorable tumult as I contend with unavoidable outer demands. I’ve had to put my foot down—foot forward. I’ve had to commit.
The motivations that impel our actions do not seem to emanate from a void, from some mysterious state of blind genesis. We follow our ways back to understand the how and why of whom we are. This is not a new strategy, but it has come to be more formalized in the past century. The great-grandtheory of self-awareness, psychoanalysis, relies upon the implication that there is a narrative structure to a life. Freud recognized a central thread running through seemingly unrelated patches of activity (within and without) and stitched them all together. The details of that centrality—such as what it is that dives the libido, or the clarity of the pleasure principle—has, most definitely, benefited from further extrapolation. The students of the unconscious, post-Freud, have elaborated more nuanced diagnostics of the psyche; raw sexual motivations need not dominate the story in quite the way the author of the Oedipus complex set forth. There have been moves to suggest that the energy driving us may be more abstract. The connection that is there for exploration, for analysis—with the proviso that nothing that we do happens without a reason—is multifarious and open to interpretation. It may be that we are contingent in the sense that we respond to our often-unpredictable environment, but psychoanalysis posits that we are deterministic in our choices, in the tenor and the tone of our replies to events.
Freud himself came to admit that the process he pioneered was a more effective and therapeutic tool when caring for the minds of relatively healthy individuals. Working out a structure of meaning, accounting for and defining an interpretive frame to apply to life, is ultimately upkeep for the soul. Not accurately a science, despite its clinical and research component, and not quite a philosophy or a spiritual dogma, psychoanalysis is more of an atheist narrative of cause and effect, an analytical blueprint for understanding the ineffable. To function it requires complicity between all participants in the project: one has to acquiesce to a standard psychic cosmology, a common lexicography, and the premise that vast reaches of one’s personality operate anterior to active awareness; but there’s something there, in the resultant care for the incorporeal aggregate one calls the self.
My narrative, like many other’s, seems hopelessly disparate at times, but these past four years have established an arc of progress that I find reassuring, and the interest that I have been developing during that time in exploring the mechanics and techniques of analysis has had a large part to play in solidifying strategies for the next stage of the journey. Change has a significant part to play in making sense of what I am up to on the whole during this journey. The makings of a deeper understanding, which I can choose to accept, come from a long, hard process of acknowledging that there is a center; even if that center is constituted by a radical instability.
Confidence owes a great deal to the tacit acceptance of mystery.
I’ve been out of the pages and into the streets: down the highway: to different halls. I’ve been reconnoitring; figuratively; physically. The future, you see, has sent out invitations, and I need to assess which trajectory I most desire to travel. I need to figure out in which direction to launch myself. These are heady times.
But you can never truly get what you want, says Lacan. The objet petit a resists every attempt to possess. In this case, the inaccessible real and the perpetual deferral is any satisfaction with whatever choice is adumbrated; or even committed to. I have options, each which will fail to satisfy, but none of which will prevent the attempt to enjoy. In the end does it matter to whom I say “yes”?
Of course it does. It’s a smoke screen to suggest otherwise. The shape of the future arriving may not lead to a subsequent future after that worth vying for. I need to want to fight the interminable fight, and strive for that petit a, which, in this case, may involve struggling to define the indefinable elusive for many more years to come. A radical ambiguity is part of the appeal.
If only I could decide where I want to live, what I want to owe to whom, and how best to plunder some incomparable booty from the universe.
I’ve worked hard to get to faced with this predicament. Do I enjoy it now that it’s arrived? Can I live in this moment satisfied with the accomplishment, or is it a perpetually postponed arrival to a destination I can all but connect with? I’m reaching out. My fingers are extended. Contact is a hair’s breadth away . . .
Everything moves forward.
I’ve developed a nasty habit, and it has become obvious that, in its modest way, it is supporting the disintegration of a culture I adore. To be fair, it’s insidiously easy to access, and the convenience of indulging the compulsion is almost obscene: I can do it at home, at school, on the streetcar. The initial satisfaction it provides is almost instantaneous, but the long-term personal payoff is a humble, yet steady, stream of pleasure. I admit, it might be a problem. There must be a way to curb the urge. Somehow, I have to cut down. I must try and give Amazon the slip.
Perhaps there’s a program.
This epiphany came after reading George Packer’s rather epic survey of the monolith’s history of operations, “Cheap Words,” that just appeared in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. It summarizes the rather horrifying operational strategies of the company and the calculated exploitation of a market that is already besieged by the vicissitudes of the information age. “Amazon is not happening to bookselling,” the founder Bezos is quoted as saying. “The future is happening to bookselling.” Which, in its way, is probably true, but in the hands of someone who sees professionally published writing simply as a specialized niche product, rather than an institutionalized and rather unique medium of exchange, there is bound to be some damage done to the culture which surrounds it. In this case it’s a little ironic. The big, intimidating publishing firms, which have held the keys to the kingdom all these years, are finding themselves being muscled around by an entity even more interested in the bottom line than they have proven themselves to be, and if they suffer a little I doubt many writers or readers will shed many tears, but it’s the independents that suffer; and, without a doubt, the writers.
The rise of Amazon’s power to influence and determine the decisions of the houses that publish, based solely on consumer buying patterns and cost efficiency, represents the democratization of content selection. This, on its face, may not appear to be such a horrendous thing. A marketplace dominated by the most generally appealing products is, most would agree, efficient; but it does nothing to address issues of discernment and the prospect of innovation. I do not agree that the expert has nothing to offer to the process of selecting and curating the products that are exposed to the world. I’m rather invested in the premise that the authority of the specialist is worth paying attention to. Much that has become culturally relevant to antiquity through the ages has not been contemporaneously popular. The frame of appreciation has to be adjusted by innovators and connoisseurs. Complacency needs to be challenged if there is to be any room for the new, as well as reverence for the old, and I don’t want an uneducated committee to determine what art is available for me to interface with.
I came of age as Amazon was coalescing within the invisible circuitry of the Internet. Its presence in the world has developed as I have, and as we have both matured my attitudes towards the company have been fairly ambivalent, up until now. The mega bookstores were already annihilating the independents when I started my working life; the more fragile components of the trade were already suffering by the time I ordered my first book online. I felt like I was shafting Chapters, not the publishers of small press and academic work. This past year my Kindle has felt like a reasonable acquiesce to the realities of the modern age, and one that could save me significant shelf space. It still does, if I’m honest; but I need to stop clicking so thoughtlessly through the pages of a digital marketplace that has no reverence for the literature it trades in, or for the true value of the objects that it barely profits on, objects it just uses simply as a means to an end. There’s an evil ring to “total commercial domination.” It may be an exercise in futility, but a small act of resistance—ordering my volumes from an actual bookseller while the option still exists—is a reasonable enough commitment to an industry that I not only support, but steadfastly believe in its necessity.
As outright rebellion I have deleted my Goodreads account. For, although I feel comfortable judiciously sharing components of myself through Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress, I feel like I must draw the line at handing over my consumer profile to an entity that simply wants to exploit my data to, in turn, exploit those I would rather support. Though perhaps, in another way, that decision may ultimately prove more harmful, by refusing to let my reading choices stand and be counted amongst the crowd of bestsellers and reams of pop-psychology. Ah, the double bind.
Who wants to fight the future?
Oh, I do.