SOCIAL IMAGINARIES AND THE
BREAKDOWN OF NORMALITY
This was first written in Spring 2020 during the pandemic for a presenting talk at Waterkant festival. The following is an edited version of that talk that I updated in Winter 2021.
ENTER THE WEIRDNESS
What-the-fuck-is-going-on is the question of the decade. It’s the suspenseful, eerie mood that hangs above us like a ghost, infecting any person alive today who still has the energy to think about “world issues”, all those people who are privileged or smart enough to not have given up yet in trying to make sense of contemporary society, despite the increasing weirdness that’s plaguing every corner of it.
Amongst this sea of uncertainty, perhaps the most easy way out is to go full on on the apocalyptic road: has the time finally come, are we witnessing the end of the world?
Well, maybe. Let's see:
We’ve got the pandemic, extreme inequality, political polarization, conspiracy theories, post-truth politics and climate collapse.
I know, it’s pretty bleak. Good thing then that we have the techno optimists in Silicon Valley, Pinker, Gates and et al reminding us that, actually, we’re at the best we’ve ever been:
The massive drop in extreme poverty, literacy being at all time highs, disease eradication and hunger wiped out. All thanks to Rationality! Science! Tech! And essentially, STEM and Modernity doing a better job at world-improving than even what the most radically optimistic preachers could have foreseen.
So Doomers, take a chill pill, the world is not ending yet. Maybe this is just a bump, the West is still winning, and we just need to do more of what we know already works. So let's stop complaining, and let’s get your new career in cyber on.
tech will save the world :)
A WORLD MADE OF NARRATIVE
Because perhaps we’re not so fucked. Or perhaps we are, and the story of the miracle of progress has been dead for a while. But either way, it doesn’t matter, because this question misses the main point. Because what’s most unnerving about the current world situation is not so much that things are *bad*, but that we seem to have lost the plot. Everything is weird, normality is cancelled, and nothing makes sense.
You see, there’s a big difference between bad things and things that don’t make sense. Bad things are tragedies, and the world is full of them. A tragedy is when your country loses the war or when your party loses the election to a better prepared candidate. Tragedies are also the sweatshops in Asia, hunger in Africa, war in the Middle East and refugees dying in the Mediterranean Sea.
Tragedies are sad, even heartbreaking. We may try to fix them or alleviate them, but we don’t lose much sleep over them. Because tragedies are sad, but tragedies make sense. They are a crucial part of the narrative, they are what happens when you don’t play the game well or when the cruel game of life gives you a weak hand. Tragedies are essential to keep the story coherent, stable and running, with clear distinctions between winners and losers, good and bad, and what to do if you want to fall on the winning side.
And in the story of modernity, everything made sense for a while. Reason, science and technology were here to save the world, lift us out of poverty and pave the road to immanentize the eschaton. In exchange, all we had to do was work hard and leave religion and superstitions behind.
Hungry and poor as we were, humanity fully devoted itself to this noble pursuit, and as a reward for its hard work, the miracle of progress was born. Under this new story, the tragedies of contemporary society were rebranded as the expected path of “countries in development”, and no matter how bad the tragedies were, they always strengthened the narrative rather than deplete it.
To some, the world of the early 2020s might seem hellish, frightening, awful, grim. But as bad as it may feel, that world is not a world of tragedy. No, no one would create such a fuss about that. We’re dealing with a very different monster here: real-time, globalized, narrative collapse.
Narrative may seem too ethereal, a fancy word reserved only for humanities junkies and those who get off with abstraction. But it’s essential, the building blocks of civilization itself.
You know the story: we humans, collectively stand in all of our power and glory, capable of building great cities, putting the man on the moon and creating the technology that promises to surpass human intelligence itself. Individually though, we’re little more than hairless monkeys with big brains, meriting only a mediocre place in the animal hierarchy.
But those brains can pull off quite an impressive trick. They can interconnect with each other and create an entirely new dimension: social reality. Like true scalable magic, the emergence of the social imaginary allowed us to create a shared system of symbols and meaning that enabled us to collaborate with each other and eventually build ✨the world✨.
This big oddysey took time, and it started right at the dawn of humanity. The good ol’ days, as anarcho-primitivists would say. Back then, people were connected to each other through kinship and the natural world on which their survival and happiness depended. People organised into clans around sacred totem members—human kin as well as animals, plants, and the landscape features that composed their natural habitat.
Now, both kinship and the natural environment are ‘real’ phenomena -material objects- not a social construction. But what happened was that an imaginary, made up, dimension emerged from them, creating the concept of the tribe, the sense of being an ‘us’, and the concept of the spirit, the energy that flows through all life and that inspired our first beliefs in animism.
Concepts like the tribe and the spirit became central to our social imaginary, the main building blocks of our social glue that enabled us to create a sense of shared reality and collaborate.
But with the rise of big, agricultural city states, the number of people we’re now surrounded with grows many times over the Dunbar number, killing our sense of tribe; and our newfound occupation as farmers (aka wheatslaves) greatly diminished our sense of connection to the natural world, making the spirit and our animist beliefs obsolete.
But the social glue is still needed, and now even more than before, so we start to tell different stories. The Tribe becomes the Kingdom, a single divine body that unites us all, giving us a place and a home in great mythological order the world. And from the original spirit we create God, now with capital G, as the ultimate authority that guides us and oversees all things.
Fast forward to the 18th century, and now we have Science! Reason! the Industrial Revolution! And the story of Gods and Kings just doesn’t cut it anymore. So to keep up the social glue strong, we dial up the brain magick, and get the story factory running again. The Kingdom becomes The Nation, as we slowly transition from royal subjects to sovereign citizens, and The Economy takes over 'God’ as the ultimate system of value that we measure everything upon.
The concepts of Kings and Gods and Nation States and The Economy are, respectively, what I call the organizing unit and ultimate authority of society, the organizing unit being the highest number unit of people that humans can cluster and function around at any given time, and the ultimate authority being the ultimate source of what determines value in a society.
These concepts became the main pillars of our imaginary, the master myths that we created most of our narratives around. Those narratives inspire every aspect of our social existence: how we perceive ourselves, how we relate to others, and the ideologies that code our worldview.
For example, the narratives that we have around the self in the modern age are very much centered around participating in the economy and being a productive member of society. These narratives are the reason why our identities are so closely tied with our profession, why ‘the elite’ today mostly refers to the economic elite, and why we feel this deep existential guilt and even worthlessness when we are not being as productive as we’d like to.
These narratives are so deeply encoded into our experience of life that they feel as natural and powerful as natural laws themselves, but if we look back some hundred years we find a very different story: we’d see that the main virtue is not being successful or productive, but rather being “a man of god” or a “a noble man”. We’d also see that individual success in the way that we understand it today wasn’t really a thing, and that the rulers of society weren’t high achieving entrepreneurs, career politicians or celebrities, but rather kings with their divine right and the clergy with their direct line to God. And forget about being productive, the thing that would really, really make you feel guilty would not be procrastinating or missing deadlines, but not complying with God's word, or being a traitor to your king.
A similar shift happened to the way we understand relationships. In a pre-modern social imaginary, good and fair relationships were understood as knowing what your place is in the hierarchy of things -the Great Chain of Being- and carrying that role with honour and according to God’s mandates. But as we shift to a more economically centered society, good relationships start to take a more contractual undertone, as it’s visualized with the theory of the Social Contract. Under this new paradigm, we are no longer confined to our divine role, but are seen as free, sovereign individuals who have rights and responsibilities. Good relationships mean collaborating with other people around common goals, making agreements with others (be it marriage or a business opportunity) sticking to those agreements in a responsible way.
And then, ideology. Ideology is an interesting one because in popular sociological discussion or cultural critique is often seen as the master social construct that runs everything in society; but even ideology, as pervasive and omnipotent as it might seem, is subjugated to the imaginary, in the sense that it always refers directly to its master myths.
This becomes extremely clear when you see that all the main ideologies that modernity produced are all directly referring to the myth of ‘the economy’, like Capitalism or Socialism, the myth of the ‘nation state', like Facism; or both myths, like Communism. Similarly, we see that ideology in the pre-modern imaginary also refers directly to the master myths of the ‘King’ and ‘God’, and it’s predominantly expressed as alliances to different Kings, Dynasties and Religions, with its corresponding wars and crusades acting as the politics of the day.
Finally, all of these narratives are created over a background of a certain epistemology and ontology that determines how we should think about things and that is, of course, also determined by the imaginary. In this case, we see that the God-as-ultimate-authority pre-modern imaginary is mainly based around magical thinking and the Divine Order of the Cosmos, which created a worldview in which everything and everyone is in their right place given by God; while the economically centered modern imaginary created a system of rationality and meritocracy, where rational analysis can easily dictate what’s best, and that whatever comes out as ‘best’ should always go on top.
THE SOCIAL SIMULATION
As essential as these narratives are, they always remain hidden in the realm of the collective unconscious, their magic only working as long as they are kept from being explicitly exposed to the public eye. They are the water for the fish, the code of the matrix, the master algorithms running the simulation.
Of course, once you see it, the realization becomes basic, elementary even -but that doesn’t make it feel any less profound. Everything is a social construct! Culture, ideology, norms, they are all made up! So get in loser, we’re going to deconstruct.
This realization became the DMT of postmodernity.
And like DMT, in moderation, it can be a powerful lens to explore the world, that shines light on many of the hidden but essential patterns that run our life. But abuse of it, and your stories of enlightened human-like beings that have fully transcended material reality will end up making you sound like a cultish crackhead instead.
Because yes, the social simulation might be imagined, but that doesn’t mean that it’s running on the ether either, free of all constraints. On the contrary baby, like Marx and Madonna would say, we’re all material girls, living in a material world, and the constructs we made up are not arbitrary fairy tales but rational adaptations to the environments we had to deal with.
TECHNOLOGY RUNS THE SHOW
And in the material realm, there is always one key aspect that seems to run the show and determine the kinds of stories we tell, and that is technology. During all these years technology has been the common thread that has made humanity evolve, ploughs taking us from hunter gatherers to peasants, the printing press from peasants to citizens.
This isn’t because technology possesses some kind of mystical teleological quality aimed towards civilizational upgrade, but simply because technology allows us to outsource and thus exponentially increase our natural powers and capacities.
And as singularitarians like to remind us, the most crucial thing about technology is the fact that it evolves in an exponential way, so that change is extremely slow and linear at the beginning, only to then massively and suddenly pick up speed.
And indeed we see that in recent years the pace of change in society due to technological progress has vastly accelerated, so that we’ve experienced more change in the past 20 years than in the past 200 years.
To the intensity addicts amongst us, this all might sound exciting, but to our primitive monkey brains that were primed by evolution to expect and thrive in linear change environments, this rate of change easily throws us over the edge.
And this is how the social glue of the imaginary breaks again, but this time it breaks exponentially fast. And the narrative factory is powerful, but not exponentially so. On the contrary, what we see is that the main narrative making complex of modern times, broadcast media, is well on its way to collapse, as with the rise of the internet and social media, the established storytelling elites are no longer able to mediate reality for the rest of us.
And so what we’ve been left with is a hyper advanced technological society but that’s running on an extremely outdated OS. And we all know what happens when there’s such a big disconnect between hardware and software:
GLITCHES IN THE SIMULATION
The first major glitches started happening in 2016. First Brexit, then Trump, all in an angsty attempt to go bring back the tried and tested but nevertheless outdated nationalistic narratives of before. But it worked, and it worked so well that the trend extended to all five continents. Talk about a worldwide tour.
What this event signified was not an actual return to facism. No, what they meant was that the current modern narrative had hit a critical spot, and that half of the world could not believe in it anymore. Most importantly though, these events opened the gates of the void, the narrative-free world where there’s no coherent framework to make sense of what-the-fuck is going on. But the void is scary, and we’re baby -so most of us will still try hard to pretend that everything is mostly fine so we can keep going with our little normie lives.
But 2020 changed everything. Corona comes, normality gets cancelled, and weirdness becomes the officially recognized state of affairs. The void is here bitches, no more pretending now for anyone.
But what did Corona really change? Corona didn’t actually change anything, but was just the catalyst that finally brought the future that we had been holding back.
The future of work is here, as we sit in our homes, either trapped in video calls or being unemployed and receiving UBI-like cash. The retail apocalypse that had been building slowly now is here by decree, as our corner shops close and we all order from Amazon. The social inequality we’ve long been worried about is now manifesting in plain sight, it’s just that now we refer to it by essential and non-essential workers. The sense-making authority of established media elites is visibly lost to both expert and amateur Twitter accounts who seem to be always two steps ahead of their game. We have massive surveillance tracing our contacts, geopolitical trends like the ascent of China and the decline of the US consolidating, the demand for fossil fuels evaporating, and the fragility of our hyper globalized supply chains exposed. In the aesthetics department, we see the exhausting pretentiousness that instagram encouraged and millennials perfected losing its power and allure, only to give way to the zoomer native quirky cosyness of baked bread, Tik Toks, and no makeup on. And finally, like the cherry on top, we have the stock market proudly standing with remarkable stoicism against all the chaos going on, as if wanting to deliver its final “fuck you, world”, showing us, one more time, how disconnected our master myth can be from the real workings of society.
Looking at the world through these lenses, it’s clear that none of the events that sent a death strike to normality were a rare black swan, but rather the expected result of a series of interconnected trends that had been on the slow cooker for several years. And if there’s anything surprising about these events isn’t the happenings in itself, but the twisted poetic beauty in which they erupted into the scene, making them look more like something that came out of the most perverted Kubrick film instead of the daily news brief.
And so this is how with the advent of Corona, our terminally ill imaginary expired its last breaths. From that moment, the old world was forever gone, and with the new one yet to be born, all we have is the void.
EXIT THE VOID
Without narrative, humanity is left naked, staring helplessly at the 🕳void🕳. It’s where old ghosts come around, where packaged truths die, where meaning and morality water down. For some, that experience might be liberating, the moment that finally brings them peace; but for many, that’s is the most scary place to be in.
And so to protect us from it, we deploy all of our strengths in the fight of the narrative wars, doubling down on righteousness and simulated certainty, fighting our enemies as best as we can: we write OP-eds, we do Twitter threads, we go to protests and we lecture our friends.
But if instead of fearing the void we learnt to lean in, we’d find that this place of apparent nothingness is actually the most fertile space, because it’s only in the space of what-the-fuck-is-going-on, when normality is gone and our previous preconceptions are blown, that we can find the insights and the will that can open the gates of the new world.
TAYLOR, Charles. Modern Social Imaginaries. Duke University Press, 2003.
BOUCHARD, Gérard. Social Myths and Collective Imaginaries. University of Toronto Press, 2017.