There’s the real world, and then there is reality, which is agreed upon. The latter seems to be unraveling.
While admitting from the get-go that I see maybe 5% of movies that come out, the image of the decade for me, so far, is that of the approaching planet in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. It looms almost beautiful on the horizon, getting bigger, luminescent in its annihilating power. It alters our world before smashing into it, rending null all of our achievements. And while the movie is “about” depression (to reduce it unfairly), it seems that this image–that of one world smashing into another–might be the defining idea of our time.
Rushdie played with this idea in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Beside the Orpheus/Eurydice retelling, his mythic rockers also felt another universe crashing into ours, distorting what was real and what wasn’t, making our felt reality a matter of subjectivity. Strange signs and wonders abound, and those that feel them are either the initiate or the lunatic.
Without being too dramatic, I feel like we’re essentially already there.
Don’t get me wrong–as long as humans have known how to whisper, there have been conspiracies, and codewords, and nonsense passed along like gospel, intermingled with just enough truth to give it validity. But never before have all these groups felt so empowered, and been able to connect so deeply and instantly in a constant reinforcing feedback loop.
That was evident in the “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which burbled from the swamps of the internet into real-world violence over the weekend. To sum up: some obscure DC pizza place was considered, by Reddit morons, to be the front for a (possibly satanic!) pedophilia ring run by John Podesta and Hillary Clinton. To even try to refute it is to stare gibbering insanity in the face. Why the hell would they even do that? Terrible profit margin at best.
Now, to be sure, the person who invented this might have been a little off, or he may not have even believed it. The people who spread it may or may not have believed it. Some may have been in it for the lulz, others may have been easily convinced, because belief brings meaning. For many, the two may have been indistinguishable.
We know that it was belief that motivated Edgar Madison Welch, who doesn’t seem lofty enough to get the 3-name treatment, honestly, to walk into the pizzeria with a loaded rifle and demand to investigate. He fired one shot into the floor (because bullets never ricochet), but it ended peacefully.
This time. What happens next time? What happens to a heavily-armed society in thrall to conspiracy and who sees artifice as a reflection? What happens to a country, and to a world, where there is no agreement on objective reality, and where everyone can forge their own?
These aren’t fringe players anymore, either. This comes from the same swamp that got Donald Trump elected President of the United States. Donald Trump! The man has been the living embodiment of unreal–not in the “dude, that’s unreal”, sense but in the “human constructed wholly out of nothing” sense–since he first burst into our public consciousness.
It’s not just that he is empowering the goons, although he is doing that. Don’t forget, his National Security Advisor believes in and pushes Pizzagate. It isn’t so much about ideology, as it is about a general agreement that’s breaking down. There isn’t just one world, with a solid ground on which people can construct their narrative if they want. There are many worlds, crashing into each other, remolding each other, and creating something we don’t understand. There is a plasticity to reality, which isn’t the objective real world, with its hunger and death and rising oceans, but an idea. And that idea is breaking apart, which puts the real world in more peril.
There’s nothing new in these thoughts, but I don’t think we’ve quite accepted the ramifications of what is happening, because I don’t think we can even fully word it yet. It’s a confluence of social media echo chambers, an atomized world that paradoxically has access to more information than at any other time, constructed narratives over real horrors, a melding of the fact and fiction and factless reality we see on our screens, and a world where the old gods have been largely killed and nothing, not even a rough beast, slouches toward rebirth. You see it in the ravening purity of ISIS and swampy denizens of the alt-right. You’ve seen it growing in phony televangelists and hippie cult leaders and dictators blaring over the radio. You see it in the most powerful man in the world, who is entirely artifice, a preening inch-deep nothingness. You feel it in the ground beneath your feet, shaking.