“Kindness. The only possible method when dealing with a living creature. You’ll get nowhere with an animal if you use terror, no matter what its level of development may be. That I have maintained, do maintain and always will maintain. People who think you can use terror are quite wrong. No, no, terror is useless, whatever its colour – white, red or even brown! Terror completely paralyses the nervous system.” Mikhail Bulgakov
The current cultural eruption has led to a wide range of new and fascinating concepts emerging in common discourse, with the latest ones entering everyday language at a speed that is impressive and unheralded. We have one complex concept emerge to then be immediately superseded by another; concepts that actually need considerable and sufficient elaboration to be made sense of. Each would ideally receive sustained examination and critical engagement rather than be adopted as factual means for navigating complex phenomena.
When everything is political though, this is not permitted, or even considered necessary. In the battle underway, soldiers need weapons. They don’t need to know the history of the tool in their hands, the engineering that went behind it, the variety of weapons they might choose from, they just have to pick it up, aim, and fire.
If we lived in slower times, the dysfunction I speak of in this series might have been avoided. Better, wiser articulations might have emerged. Ideas and concepts might have been ingested and digested far more slowly. Kinks ironed out. Critique heard, refinements made, fallacies pointed to, and an appreciation for the limits of theory embraced. We might define such moves as forms of wisdom, rooted in the maturation of understanding through real-world application.
Practice ideally leads to theory evolving, mutating and eventually closing the gap between its inbuilt assumptions and blind-spots, and the reality of the wider world beyond its ideological boarders. But in accelerated and polarised times, this process has become unpopular, and we find ourselves instead in a politicised social landscape filled with sloganeering, attack and defence dialogue, and ideological assertions masked as facts. In politics, such behaviour may be forgivable, or even necessary, but in the practising life it presents a fundamental unease that cannot be swayed with a call to act on behalf of the good.
“They were arguing about something very complex and important, and neither of them could refute the other. They did not agree with each other in anything, and that made their argument especially interesting and endless.” Mikhail Bulgakov
Did you initially read wonkiness as wokeness in the title?
The latter term, as you are no doubt aware, is a very recent coinage that has quickly found itself trapped: Caught between definitions that mirror current polarisation, shifting from symbolising the extremely righteous and good of those who originally embraced it, to pointing towards a form of narcissistic guilt ridden Puritanism in the definition foisted on it by its opponents and critics.
This linguistic battlefield is a sign of the Great Wonkiness.
adj. won·ki·er, won·ki·est Chiefly British
1. Shaky or unsteady: a wonky table, a wonky concept.
2. Out of alignment; crooked: a wonky door frame, idea.
3. Not functioning properly or normally: wonky digestion; a wonky idealist.
4. Mentally unbalanced; crazy, Salvini, history of art teachers (on the whole).
[1920–25; perhaps variant of dial. wanky=wank(le) (Middle English wankel, Old English wancol]
There is much that is wonky at present.
With so much change underway and so many pressing issues all active at once, is it any wonder that we live in a time of great upheaval, which often presents as chaos manifest. The speed of this change we currently see mirrors a general state of hyperreality in which we are all now participants. And, it is to this word I wish to turn, as distinguishing between reality and our fictions about it could be usefully understood as the defining characteristic of our age. From climate denial to conspiracy theories, from the claims of the far left to the claims of the far right, an immense struggle to square belief, fantasy, ideology and identity markers with the reality of our mad, imperfect world is underway. And because it is all streaming live 24/7 on social media platforms, TV channels and in the News, we are all dragged into its vortex like waves.
We might add that our current struggles are, in part, sign of this failure to distinguish reality from fiction coming under immense pressure due to a variety of status quo elements all cracking apart simultaneously; from immanent environmental danger to an economic system no longer fit for purpose, from the loss of traditional gender roles to the loss of a future of work, massive changes all underway at once, each one requiring considerable reflection, discussion and processing to even begin to be understood. We are, however, expected to navigate it all right now, this instance with hunter-gatherer cerebral technology – an expectation that is proving too difficult for one and all. So, people do what people have always done, they narrow the view, grab at something that makes sense, and shut out the excess. We are, in many ways, anti-complexity creatures. This is not good news considering just how complex the world has become and the demands on us. Polarisation, popularism, and the reassertion of political ideologies is a perfectly understandable response.
Depending on how you happen to view the world more generally, we might ponder for a moment how human social existence is rooted in an interplay between reality and our stories, fantasies, dreams and everything we can imagine to be. From the history of myth, religion and social practices, we find this juxtaposition at their heart. If contemporary society is really a late form of Modernity or a postmodern age, then the cracking apart of unifying narratives is to be expected. In fact, one might wonder if we are living the consequences of postmodernism’s destabilising of grand, unifying narratives as we speak, as in, this is what happens to societies when you give up on God and his offshoots. For narratives about religion are the first ones to go, but then what about the economy (the money God), society as a whole (the God of the nation), race, gender roles, collective becoming and being, and even the whole idea of togetherness.
Looking at the culture wars in this way might give it a different shine.
Now, reality is a tricky topic to say the least, but for our purposes here, we can consider it as consisting of the things that occur and exist in the material world, both within and between humans, and outside of humans that don’t require our reflexive, subjectivity. Or, said in other words, reality is that which is indifferent to our hermeneutic endeavours and is prior to them and after them. Needless to say, reality is greater than we mere mortals and our social games and stories.
So, yes, the tree does fall even if we are not there to see it. I am committing to that reality; one not centred on us and our interpretative habits. No doubt, some of you will disagree, which is fine, but at least you know where I currently stand.
But, what about hyerreality?
Hyperreality as a concept emphasises the degree to which we humans struggle to separate out our fantasies about reality from reality as it exists apart from our interpretive habits. The term covers interesting shades of meanings, some of which are worth elaborating here. Its creator was the French philosopher and cultural critic Jean Baudrillard and he conceived of the term to capture what he saw as societies elaborating and living within simulations of reality through the creation and performance of symbols, signs and, the world of spectacle. Hyperreality can be further understood thus as a collective stance against the monotony, familiarity and boredom of existence through a collective and ongoing feeding frenzy on entertainment, social media, the devouring of information bites, and the fetishization of technology; an ecology of readily available digital cocaine stimulants if you will.
Think of fully-immersive video games as an example, AR, or POV porn, recreational drugs that provide irreal escape, stimulants such as Ritalin that make study more bearable, online chat rooms that provide replacement friends and turn neuroses into collective agreements, Twitter drama endorphin hits, Instagram obsession visual distortions, Tick Tock hyper-stimulation, digital pets, and the soon to be available fully functional sex dolls that will even learn to hold a conversation with you, so complex relationships can become a thing of the past.
Each of these provides an avoidance of the all too human trauma of existence, from loneliness, to a lack of attractiveness, from social awkwardness to the inability to get laid, from workplace monotony, to the boredom of other humans. Hyperreality is the escape room from our all too human condition. Increasingly its reality on steroids.
As past guest Yves Citton illustrated so well, we live within an attention ecology that involves the harnessing of consciousness towards a digital escapist world that is arguably a manifestation of our increasing social absorption into hyperreality; a new world where reality and the artificial overlap and become indistinguishable. This is not to assert that we all now live in such an artifice of the digital full-time, but rather that there is a seamless movement between the real and the hyperreal, in part enacted through our intimate embrace of mobile technology, and technology designed to mimic real life, but only better, and personalised to boot. We are as it were continuously seduced by the hyperreal, and emergent and more traditional forms of tech, into weakening the distinction between the material world in all its mundane familiarity and hyperreal modes of perceiving, feeling, interpreting and behaving.
Baudrillard understood hyperreality as a form of escape from the received structures of society and its norms and codes of conduct – a refutation of the past for a brighter, more stimulating present and future. The real becomes superseded by a new, realer world consisting of divergent symbols and language that form thoughts, feelings and behaviour that stretch away from the dissatisfactory and all too real settled present. The means of its transmission is fundamental so we are formed and shaped and modelled anew into these modes of living by the form of technology and the delivery methods they provide. Our intimate, addictive physical relationship with our phones is the most obvious example of this, but there are many.
Even less digital tech can be complicit in the hyperreal. How about travel by car? The touch of the leather gear stick, the SatNav guiding us all the way with a familiar voice, the warmth or coolness of the interior, the car body that protects us from the all too real elements outside. More immersive sound systems, warmed seats, screens for passengers. Cars don’t just take us from A to B, they provide us with a transcendent experience that is in many ways unreal.
And from this perspective one could argue that digital natives are already a merging of man and machine. And, I don’t just mean the obvious examples of functional interaction and algorithms that adapt to the individual’s needs and usage. It’s more personal than that. When a Tweet or Instagram like triggers strong emotions on cue then it is not so far-fetched a claim, especially if algorithms are the ones provoking the emotions, suicidal thoughts, or inspiration for a new business venture. What’s more, this environment is so stimulating, so naturally addictive, and so rich with imagined meaning that it becomes a refuge from that annoying, boring reality outside the digital realm; the digital world is a realm in which our highly stimulated performance becomes that of avatars of the unreal. Keyboard warriors, digital anarchist, Youtube channel culture saviours, Fox News anchors claiming to protect free speech – actors and actresses on stage one and all. This digital orgy not only performs what it imagines to be real but also further shapes the world that feeds on its production.
Thus, we have dark Dionysian acts of unreality; feeding frenzies, and a gluttony of the now. Semi-conscious, emotively driven, passionate acts of sacrifice, frenzy and devouring all fit here and there are umpteen examples I’m sure you can think of.
To see the hyperreal as a wholly transcendent realm would be deceptive. However abstract and digital they can be, they are part of the material world, though we move in and out of hyperreal worlds at increasing speed. The capacity to do so more rapidly has been delivered through our mobile phones primarily and this movement is part of the stimulation process itself; the hand reaches for the screen, we anticipate the digital stimulant through new likes and followers, we dread negative comments, or being blocked. Our emotions become rooted in an abstraction, they are a performance of the unreal. What’s more, the speeding up of this process could be seen as a form of mass collective schizophrenia: One that leads to increasingly disembodied beings that are fragmented in their feelings, thoughts and identities.
This is fascinating from a practice perspective.
Where is identity rooted? Where is my physical body when I am absorbed into the transcendental digital realms? What am I being trained into doing and being by the urge to constantly gaze into the screen of my phone, laptop, computer, TV?
Baudrillard conceived of the hyperreal as rooted in simulation. Within it, we become reflexively incapable of distinguishing reality from its simulation as it is enacted through the world of entertainment, the media, and through the range of dominant symbols and signs in action. I often think of our engagement with hyperreality as a form of performance like acting. We perform gestures, postures, acts and habits of speech as if they were real but in the hyperreal they drift into a form of acting, a simulation of the real event. This conversely provides us with a greater sense of control and the ability to micro-manage our subjectivity. It could be argued that the simulation is enforced by this process of living within and performing the simulation of reality and that the need to remain within it to maintain control over subjectivity leads to a circle of unreal practice. Presumably, in its extreme, this leads to the cultivation of new forms of terror and the loss of connection to stable reference points within society; family, physical friendships, predictable futures, and a society that, even if hated, can be relied upon to be there in the foreseeable future.
This process of acting or performance is not usually conscious. We perform what we imagine to be real but reality escapes us because the reality of existence is rooted in part in the mundane, disappointment, and boredom; characteristics of reality that we have trained ourselves to avoid through constant stimulation. Boredom is thus a reminder to stimulate, to feed and is no longer a state that we must learn to tolerate, inhabit or allow to give rise to other states of consciousness, descent, or learning.
Simulation can also involve the performance of experience on behalf of another. The schizophrenic nature of hyperreality makes this process far easier. Sex, love, hate, desire, outrage, are all performed, enacted, or inhabited on behalf of what is usually an imagined other, an archetypal figure, rather than lived directly through the unpredictability of a mundane human life and the all too imperfect other. In this world of osmosis, these experiences are felt to be eerily unreal; though this feeling is rarely articulated. Teen boys fail to get an erection with a real world female body, violence is enacted through video games as if it were nothing, friendship is imagined and paid for in Japan, outrage and offence are enacted on behalf of an unknown other, but even religions become sites of hyperreality too (though you could easily argue they always have been).
If we focus on Buddhism briefly, recall that we have hardcore meditation practitioners chasing the myth of enlightenment through hours of meditation whilst alienating themselves from the world of emotion, uncomfortable thought, and the messiness of human dynamics. Some of them inevitably end up inhabiting a hyperreal realm of lucidity that appears to be more like a mushroom trip, an MDMA buzz, the inhabiting of a Jhana realm 24/7, where self-control appears total. Such states may be desirable and certainly preferable to the insecurity, doubt and increasing trauma we hear of as being pandemic like amongst younger folk. Why wouldn’t it be better to escape into a realm of super-concentration? Isn’t that the end of suffering after all?
There’s a conversation worth having. From where I am stood, such a pursuit seems to mirror the schizophrenic, disembodiedness that is afflicting those addicted to social media, video games, or internet porn.
The hyperreal is an odd sort of shamanic realm too: it’s rooted in the ecstasy of transcendence. The desire to enter it can be seen in the various movements to escape the reality of our limited, material existence; radical life extension, ever new forms of gender mutation, human optimization, the emergent merging of man and machine, even some Metamodern waves can be seen as leaning into the realm of the hyperreal desire to elevate and evolve beyond.
But, how does all this fit into the Great Wonkiness you might ask.
Woke or Wonky?
Many young folk engaged in activist culture live it as an act of rebellion against the status quo, and in many ways this is to be applauded. The apolitical wave that lasted for decades has come to an end and the younger generation is politically awake: Most of them committed to noble progressive causes, from the environment to anti-racism. Despite the desire to do so much good though, the mass of actions, beliefs, practices and identities that come under the umbrella of wokeness have been critiqued and sometimes heavily so for a great variety of reasons: some valid, some less so. The beliefs and practices of the woke and those critiquing them can be seen as operating along a line that runs from real to imagined, and as operating in the extreme as integral elements of the hyperreal.
This should be seen as true for the far left and the far right, for conspiracy theorists at the wackier end of the spectrum, and the fervently religious, who see signs of civilization in decline, end times, the Kali Yuga, or a new dark age. Those ideologically captured appear to be incapable of perceiving this variety and we see this playing out in the knee-jerk reactions to intelligent critique, thoroughly human concern, and worries expressed at the high-speed adoption of often extreme and untested beliefs elaborated from highly debatable theory. By that, I mean theory that requires serious debate for it to even make sense, and for its claims to be tested.
The juxtaposition between those actively engaged in fighting the hot topics of racism, transphobia, islamophobia, as well as for gender equality, and those who critique their tactics and even their claims has been a site of real confusion, animosity and communication breakdown. Those fighting for what they perceive as self-evidently just causes are often stunned to find their noble actions criticized, even by those who are supposed to be on the same side of the political spectrum. Some of those involved in critique, rather than mere criticism, and who are deeply sympathetic to the calls for justice have been attempting to identify the mechanism at play in order to avoid falling into the number one pitfall of identity politics: polarization and its accompanying black and white frameworks for interpreting the world.
Hyperreality explains in part what is going on in the often contentious relationship between the reality of what is claimed, and the reality of what is actual. The solution to all this is, on the one hand, simple: recommit to what is real and larger than a given ideology’s claims. No, not to some abstract, all-encompassing reality we only need to access through meditation or the right kind of philosophical thought, or even the refuge of science, but rather an ongoing fealty to the Great Feast. In other words, a consistent and renewed commitment to engaging with the best of what we know so far as a species, whilst resisting becoming enchanted ideological subjects, incapable of distinguishing pet fictions (sorry, narratives and lenses) from the mass of incomplete knowledge and perspectives our species currently has access to. This is an anti-identity politics practice but is not a call to avoid such politics entirely. In fact, what I am proposing is a greater capacity to switch between the objectives highlighted by Jonathan Haidt in his work on polarization: distinguish between the projects of a commitment to truth from those of activism. He suggested that universities should make it explicit which one they are siding with. I am suggesting that a regular movement between the two would be ideal for those who feel driven to fight for a better world.
Wonky wokeness is a sign of an inability to see beyond ideological capture, and see outside of the hyperreal. It is to take comfort in the refuge of ideological certainty, and to commit to the political over other values, dynamics and social practices. This process has led to highly intelligent and well-educated folks making wonky claims which clearly do not match up with reality and as a consequence, the actions that emerge from them are run through with wonkiness, which is a shame: For as I have claimed throughout this series and on the podcast, the cultivation of new forms of ignorance will harm the good causes long-term as they mirror the past failings of the ideologies in operation underneath much wokeness.
The solution is not though to simply adopt status quo beliefs, return to life as normal (an impossibility) as some centrists seem to argue for, merely accept the imperfect world we are part of, but instead think more, think better, and open up bold claims to critique that learning might occur, not just for activists and their enablers, but society as a whole; polarized ideological battles are a sign of our failure to do this. We should not waste time on the utopian and dystopian claims of the more extreme elements and their inevitable counterparts, which are ultimately rooted in ignorance.
In Buddhism, hyperreality can be seen as intimately related to the various elaborations of ignorance. The response to which are the noble desires to see reality directly, to shed the veils of illusion that cover and colour our perception, to give up the poor beliefs and mistaken ideas that lead us in forever circles. These are noble ideals that we can all get on board with, in all arenas of life, including the political, and activism more broadly. In fact, it should be an easy argument and once was. The fight for environmental justice was easy; the science, the theory, the philosophy were easy enough to see, as clear as day. The anti-intellectuals, the reality deniers were all over there on the Right. They merely needed to lift the veil of greed, religious arrogance, or speciocentric foolishness and short-termism and recognise that shitting in one’s own bed was never going to end well. But then a considerable part of the activist left started to demonstrate a worrying tendency towards reality denial of its own, and I see this as being intimately linked to the themes this podcast is dedicated to uncovering; anti-intellectualism, anti-thought, idealogical enamouredness, and now hyperreality.
Where Buddhism can end up in deep water rather quickly itself, is when some of its forms get caught up in their own stories about the world, which are clearly fictitious, insisting, for example, that we are capable of knowing and experiencing reality directly and fully despite our mammalian sense apparatus, and hen residing therein forever more once fully enlightened as what are best thought of as super humans. This is a utopian fantasy in case you didn’t know. The tendency towards utopian and dystopian fantasies is thoroughly human and an understandable response to a world in crisis, wherever that crisis occurred in 1963 or 2020. There are utopian-dystopian games played by activists who deal in totalitarian ideals and fantasies about a world that is either utterly dark, or can be destroyed that they might remake society anew utterly devoid of X.
Yes, I know, most folks don’t inhabit such an extreme realm of desire, but the desire at those ends leaks into the unquestioned assumptions of those lower down the ideological ladder trap, and it there that we see such a startling inability to deal with reality. It’s where the hypocrisy, and nastiness of delusional wonkiness play out, are seen and hated by the vast swathe of folks who might be sympathetic to the general cause but will not drink the ideological cool-aid. When you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t and can only escape judgement by repeating whatever mantra of conformity has just been dreamt up by ideologues, the natural response is to eventually say a big fuck you. This could be avoided.
In Buddhism, more and more folks are waking up to the silliness of omniscience, a fully awakened planet, the perfect teacher, but many still allow the lingering allure of such claims to resonate and shape the desires and practices enacted in their discourse and ways of thinking and imagining practice. Wiser heads throughout the history of Buddhism have both elaborated Buddhism’s insights as the truth of X specifically, or the reality of Y only, whilst others have made the grand, sweeping metaphysical claims. Many of them rooted in desire or elaborated for political reasons, or, ironically, mere ignorance. The big claims are flashier though and often those best remembered and followed: hyperreality has been with us for a while it seems. In the words, in the former we can often find more sensible visions of the practising life that pay homage to our all too human limits and that many of us still find attractive enough to explore and work with. The depressing truth for many though is that sensible doesn’t sell, doesn’t pull in the numbers, hits, likes and attentive ears. The big picture visions of escape, or perfection, of no more injustice, no more pain, are too alluring in the end. It is why the Christian desire for heaven and union with god just keeps warping and manifesting anew.This could be avoided.
For pragmatic purposes and to close, today we might simply suggest that our stories about the world can be situated on a spectrum that is predominantly defined as closer to or farther away from the reality of events external to our interpretation of them. And that this is true for political activism and for the business of waking up and engaging with the contemplative life. And that hyperreality is both replacing the mundane reality of existence in a complex world but also making that reality harsher to inhabit and return to, especially for those without the emotional and psychological tools to face the world; a world characterised by increasing transparency in which its imperfectness is ever more visible.
There is a simple, practical, and dare I say perfectly reasonable habit of thought and mental discipline that might be encapsulated in a few questions for reflection and discussion. This could be a much needed salve for individuals and groups, but the ideological payoffs would need to be suspended and the fervent stories cloaked in the stimulating buzz of hyperreality would need to be weaned off of. That would at least be a sensible start.
- How do I strive to push my thinking, concepts, and conclusions towards the reality end of the spectrum of what we can currently know?
- How can I do this knowing I will never arrive fully at the end of that spectrum, but that I can commit to ensuring that my beliefs, ideas and conclusions are always in a state of growing towards or committing to that which is real?
- How do my current ideological commitments prevent me from doing this?
- What needs to change then to make this movement a constant feature of my intellectual and practising life?
You can try the same questions with emotions and feelings.
These ought to appear as Great Feast questions. For it is there that we can find our way out of polarisation as the deconstruction of the glue that allows democracy to function, people with diverse opinions to interact, albeit imperfectly, where we can be cautious about engaging with activism as ideological entrapment and performance, and the embracing of hyperreality as a refusal to live in the imperfect world we all inhabit. I may be naive and wrong in my beliefs. But I was asked to take a stand several times these last few months and by folks from very different worlds and these three texts illustrate where I have chosen to stop, at least for a while. The Great Feast beckons so no doubt they’ll be more movement to come.
There’s lots more that could be said but I need to move on.