One Day the Day Will come when the Day Won’t Come

26. IV 2020

Madness is the only way of forgetting – it is the hawthorn stick of history. (Borislav Pekic)

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Prologue: How modernity forgets

Civilizations are repositories of collective traumas. National sensibilities and neuroses have in common that they prefer to repeat their accidents, like the commemoration of defeats at cult sites, memorial pornography or reenactments of civil war battles[1].

According to Peter Sloterdijk, traumatized people are dislocated from the happy forgetful center to the margins of society from which there is no longer any simple return to normal life. For them, forgetting is an unaffordable luxury, and since consolation through forgetting is unreachable, it becomes unwanted and unacceptable. Incapable of digesting the poisons of memory, the traumatized subject embarks on conquering trauma through simulated grief, which begins when the victim decides to let him/herself fall into humiliation as if it were the product of choice. This condition awakens the emotion of self-pity which becomes a cause of resentment, and which in turn inspires rage. In order to deal with pain, victims exaggerate it to make it bearable: To transcend one’s depressed suffering, they extend the feeling of trauma or injustice to the size of the mountain in order to be able to stand on its peak full of bitter triumph[2].

The trauma of modernity

Modernity represents a large-scale civilizational coming of age – an awakening of reason and a shattering moment of self-realization driven by a collective expression of discontent with God and how he managed the affairs of the world. It is the most monumental transfer of power and responsibility in history, a tectonic cultural shock, an abandonment of millennia of old and tired narratives and organizing principles, and a collective trauma of epic proportions that continues to linger on.

With modernity, the blend of facts and fictions has changed. The whole world is upside down: Earth is no longer at the center of the universe; it has no beginning and no end; Man is no longer special, just an evolved monkey. However, contrary to initial expectations, enlightenment, rationality, and above all, emancipation from God, i.e. abandonment of the world of simplicity, determinism, coherence, and fairy tales, created their own problems.

In its essence, modernity is a process of disenchantment of the world — a seminal break point in modern culture and a radical departure in the way we experience reality. It connotes the removal of a magic spell and reflects a belief that humanity can control everything by means of calculation. And so, through the advent of scientific methods and the use of enlightened reason the world is rendered transparent, demystified and, ultimately, hollowed and deprived of its richness. It became disenchanted and disenchanting, predictable and intellectualized[3].

But to what end? Emancipation, progress, and enlightenment have ultimately failed in almost every respect. They only led to more unequal distributions and further accumulation of discontent — the number of people left behind has been growing unstoppably and persistent encounters with, or the looming threat of, the reality of exile to the margins of society has made modern man eminently traumatized.

After centuries of reason, modern man finds himself isolated, deprived of his ontological need to communicate, emotionally exhausted and socially disoriented, without a sense of territory, belonging, and identity.

The collective trauma of modernity is registering through an eruption of various modes of simulated grief as the ritualistic annulment of consensus, a revolt against what has become the conventional interpretative framework of reality. This is an expression of capitulation before the side-effects of enlightenment.

The uprising: Communitas

The world used to be simple when God was around and in charge. Details of “how and why” were left to Him to sort out and manage; man was left to deal with simple problems within his reach. Now, God’s things became man’s job and responsibility – he had to take care of everything and bear responsibility for his acts.

That was too much for man. Humans are unable to cope with too many things and this inability creates a state of chronic anxiety and libidinal disinvestment. Cults and fringe groups form in response to social and emotional dislocations caused by complexity fatigue and anxieties these conditions engender. These groups have always existed as an escape from conventional reality and as a pursuit of alternative self-serving fictions that soothe man’s injured soul. However, with advanced modernity and emancipation, their number has not only not declined, but it continues to grow at an ever faster pace and intensity. Never have we seen such a proliferation of cults and fringe groups as in the post WWII West. By joining those groups, members escape their social isolation and resurrect as social beings in communitas[4] – the communes of like-minded traumatized subjects.

A case study of regressive healing: Flatearthers

The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe. (a tweet posted by The Flat Earth Society)

As the media space has become saturated with the ever more astonishing and ridiculous, and the audience, never tired of being shocked and entertained, was ready to absorb this new dose of reality entertainment, the Flat-Earth Movement, although not new, made its second entrance onto the scene, finding its place together with various denier groups, from holocaust to evolution and climate.

There is really not much about Flatearthers that is worth discussing in terms of their actual view of the world– their ideas are pure idiocy. The group is only interesting as a sociological phenomenon, as an expression of a saturated discontent with modernity, and a mode of simulated grief — a demand for a remix of facts and fictions. Their existence is the most resolute no-confidence vote on modernity.

In the excellent documentary, Behind the Curve, Daniel J. Clark takes his audience on a journey deep into the world of Flatearthers. Their community consists, practically without exception, of social misfits of some kind — people left behind socially, developmentally or both. Mark Sargent, their most prominent spokesman, an equivalent of a charismatic leader but completely devoid of any semblance of charisma, is a fifty-something guy who lives with his mother on Whidbey Island in Washington. He is a college dropout who sports an impressive resume with 20 years of video game activity as his most important achievement prior to becoming the Flatearthers’ main spokesman. Other members are not much different — they all live highly reduced social lives, most of them loners.

Their social demeanor is not aggressive or openly hostile. At first sight they are not anti-science. They engage with whoever wants to talk to them, including scientists. Physicists and astronomers, in whom they inspire missionary instincts, see Flatearthers as misguided, innocent, and ignorant victims worthy of redemption.

They come across as open-minded and willing, even inviting tests and scrutiny of their views by scientific method and reasoning, but fail when it comes to interpreting the results of those tests[5]. They invest considerable amounts of time and personal money to pseudo-scientific projects of their own design to expose what they call “the round earth hoax”. In that sense, they carry a certain dose of fanaticisms: They refuse to change their minds, but also don’t want to change the subject. As such, Flatearthers inspire both pity and ridicule.

The Flat-Earth Movement is not a religion and, having a rather egalitarian structure, they do not function as a cult in a traditional sense either. They believe that round earth is a result of the most incredible conspiracy — that is where the seed of their madness resides.

Flat-Earth delusion is the site where the traumatic symbolic annihilation of modern man resides: Their movement defines the journey of reverse pilgrimage to the place where the showdown with modernity takes place. Their existence represents a template for the regressive reaction of the growing traumatized population in the ritualistic healing mode.

Flatearthers represent traumatic subjects of modernity. They are simulated martyrs who carry public shame about their beliefs as a badge of honor and an article of faith, an essential element of the initiation ritual. Their emergence and functioning contains the core of rebellion against modernity. The unifying factor with other such movements is its ritualistic aspect – healing by climbing the mountain in order to conquer it in bitter triumph.

Returning to the site of “original defeat”, to the battlefield where the original dogma which maintained pre-modern coherence resides, the site where humanity’s innocence was lost, where the world was denied enchantment, religion and the God-centric world were dealt mortal blows, where God was dethroned and denounced and man put in his place and in charge.

When grief is ineffective: Rage transactions

In December, buttressed by his conviction and advances in homemade rocketry, “Mad” Mike Hughes flipped on a camera and fantasized about the moment when he shows mankind that it lives on a verdant disk. Hughes, a self-styled daredevil, Flat-Earth theorist and limousine-jumping stuntman, died Saturday when his crudely built contraption propelled him on a column of steam, spiraled through the air and cratered into the sagebrush outside Barstow, Calif. He was 64.[6]

For centuries, western civilization has been battling the trauma of enlightenment, progress and general intoxication with complexity. Flatearthers embody the essence of that battle. They transcend the oppression of reason by abandoning it altogether in a regressive mode of healing and collective grief. Their struggle underscores the power of madness as the only way to forget or erase traumatic experiences of the past.

The growing appeal of crackpots of various kind and magnitude has become so pervasive that these characters have infiltrated the American mainstream. They occupy positions of influence at universities, in media, think tanks, government, politics and the White House — especially there where, after more than three years of relentless adverse selection, they have become practically sole occupants. Their emergence and widespread acceptance are the result of a quest for simple certainty by people who find themselves lost and bewildered by the growing complexity of their life and the grim reality in general.

These crackpots have a special appeal to a growing population of what H. L. Mencken calls the inferior men. The inferior man hates knowledge because it is complex –it puts an unbearable burden upon his capacity for thinking. He has an insatiable need for trivial simplicity, always ready to trade probable truths for palpable falsehoods. The science of cosmology is complex; it’s understanding requires an immense stock of knowledge and a habit of thought. But cosmology of Genesis, although idiotic, is so simple that everyone can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers to an ignorant man the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical[7].

Abnormal and delusional are not cut from a different cloth than what counts as “normal” or mainstream. There is a fragile boundary between different shades of madness – between fringe groups and suicide clubs or doomsday cults. One thing is to deny the existence of gravity, and the other is to act on it. But, the gap that separates the two is very narrow. This is a different level of madness, a pure death drive and a desire for self-extinction. It is the point in depression when the traumatized subject finally hits the bottom.

The latest installment of madness, to some extent already outlined by Flatearthers, is the formation of movement around a premature disruption of the lockdown during the corona virus pandemics, a sort of MAGA suicide fraternity. “Liberate TX, WV, MI, GA…” is less outlandish than reinventing cosmology and is not exactly the same as denial of gravity, but doesn’t fall very far from them. The communitas of MAGA-liberators has the same DNA and bottom line as any suicide club – they are all “Mad” Mike Hughes, ready to hop into their home-made rockets and take off. There is not much difference between injecting disinfectants into your body and drinking poisoned cool-aid in Guyana or eating cyanide-laced candy in a Berlin bunker. All these practices are a logical consequence of certain beliefs and the anesthetic comfort of the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. Like the Flat-Earth Movement, intravenous Clorox users and their ilk are ignorance and stupidity run amok, unleashed by conditions of simulated grief of the growing segment of the population traumatized by their systemic exclusion. Together with other deniers (evolution, holocaust, climate), anti-vaxxers, TV evangelists and the army of false prophets of doomsday, they are the loudest contributors to the great flood of arbitrariness.

This is a collective tragedy, staged as comedy. But the silver lining, if there is one, is that when we lose the reins on stupidity and let it run unrestrained, we allow evolution and natural selection to enter the scene and take its course.

[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (2012)

[2] ibid.

[3] Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf, Zenodot Verlagsgesellscha (2016)

[4] Communitas are social surrogate, reduced communities, defined by specific identity politics. They are essentially opposed to structure. They fill the vacuum created by destruction of social bonds due to modernity’s individualization against the need for community. Suspension of rules is a primary condition for the generation of the feelings of oneness and flow that characterize communitas. During some ritualistic episodes of liminality, like pilgrimage, participants become equal as they distance themselves from mundane structures and their social identities, leading to homogenization of states, and a strong sense of communitas.

[5] They derive their strength and composure by seeing themselves as privileged. Their delusion functions as doubt in a displaced mode. In the same way scientists and normal people in general are condescending towards them, Flatearthers look down on non-believers and skeptics as naïve and gullible victims of an elaborate deception visible only by the privileged few — them.

[6] ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes, who wanted to prove the Flat-Earth Theory, dies in homemade-rocket disaster (The Washington Post, 23-Feb-2020)

[7] H. L. Mencken, Homo Neanderthalensis, Baltimore Sun (29 June 1925)

9 thoughts on “One Day the Day Will come when the Day Won’t Come

  1. disperser

    Maybe . . . if natural selection actually worked as interpreted, only the stupid would suffer the consequences. The reason it’s not the case is that there’s nothing “natural” about this, both in terms of the result of stupidity on society and where this stupidity comes from.

    Many are intentionally inculcated with views that — for lack of a better descriptor — only the stupid can accept. But, that’s unkind. The better term might be ignorant, but I gravitate toward uneducated. Maybe even miseducated, sometimes intentionally so.

    I can’t fault (too much) people’s views regarding things that, when face with an explanation, they lack the tools to understand. That makes them easy prey for people distilling complex ideas into simplistic but grotesque images of the facts. If I were to be pressed into giving a reason, I’d say it begins with exposure to the various doctrines which admit no question or challenge. Those doctrines are then leveraged into social and political agendas (as weapons).

    But, even then, if it only impacted those afflicted, sure, let natural selection take its course. But that’s not the case in either the economic, political, or social arena. Certainly not in the economic arena.

    A good example is the anti-vaxxers . . . even if they were the only ones to suffer (the loss of their children), there are still the children themselves to consider, paying the price for their parent’s ignorance. But, they are not the only ones because their decision affects others (of all ages).

    Side note: I’ve recently been told I should perhaps curtail my propensity for commenting on other people’s blogs. I have no problem with that and if you so desire, just drop me a request via email.

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  2. werdevo

    Nice… many levels, lots to think about.

    I do think the silver lining is a bit dicy though… there is a not-trivial chance of massive collateral damage, ie we are all tethered to the White House in very real ways just as all of Germany was tethered to Hitler.

    Mad Mike wasn’t a cult leader, he didn’t insist on people coming with him.

    On the other hand, the Darwin adjustment wrt MAGA, clear to you and I in its own right, is not so clear with respect to the impact on the rest of us – for one, a blameless and vindictive government only passes any Darwinian punishment down to the masses (just pick up a newspaper). For another, and perhaps more distressingly, it takes time and space and energy to ‘get out of the way’ of the coming Darwinian accounting when applied at a national level. For instance, imagine going back in time, and trying to get out of the way of certain idiocies in the run-up to WWII. It is easy to look at a history book and point your finger: “There! that’s when so-and-so should have gotten the hell out of Europe!” but look at how hard it is to pick a stock-market top and/or bottom…. a little later, not so easy to cut losses (e.g. impeachment), and a little later…. ?

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  3. Pingback: The Flat Earth | Steven A. Guccione

  4. Qlarkar

    It’s unfortunate that this blog has caught “Orange Man Bad”, because Sweden seems to believe in the liberation you decry. Many other countries are open by our standards as well, with students back in school and stores reopening.

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    1. notesfromdisgraceland Post author

      Although I didn’t plan it that way, the timing of the blog actually seems to be perfect. The army of MAGA liberators is already on their suicide mission, about to learn that natural selection works even when you don’t believe in it.

      First, Sweden is fighting this against completely different background. Unlike the US, they are not facing an inadequate hospital capacity, so they can afford to take a long-term view and strategy. In the US, situation is very different. The disease itself is not horrible, like ebola, but is highly contagious, so it infects too mane people at the same time, which exceeds hospital capacity, severely reduced after decades of ill advised profit maximization etc. So, the US is battling a completely different battle than Sweden. It is a fight for short term survival, without victory of which there will be no long-run to talk about. This is like run on the banks—everything is ok as long as not everyone wants to withdraw their money at the same time.

      Current methods of lockdown are there to prevent everyone from the hospital capacity deficit. So, revolting against that is beyond stupid. It is not a sign of capricious government or its oppression, it is not in their interest to keep the lockdown. Avoiding appropriate measures of caution threatens to make the crisis deeper and longer. I am not afraid of being struck by lightning, but I don’t play golf during thunderstorm. That is just common sense and proper risk management.

      Second, the latest developments, rising fatality rate etc, in Sweden are suggesting serious problems with their approach, underscoring its has fatal flaws and is likely to force its corrections. It would be unwise to ignore those lessons. This is a quote from today’s press:
      “It is too soon for a full reckoning of the effects of the “Swedish model.” The COVID-19 death rate is nine times higher than in Finland, nearly five times higher than in Norway, and more than twice as high as in Denmark.”

      Third, just to make sure we understand each other, when one characterizes political leaders, after all is said and done and their successes and mistakes are summarized, one could say the leader was good if their ratio was for example better than 80/20–80% good decisions, 20% bad. A leader with 60/40, is pretty bad. 50/50 is terrible etc.
      In that world, Trump is an outlier — he hasn’t been on the right side of any decision, without a single exception, his score is 100% negative. He transcends any classification or comparison. He resides in another universe of “Bad”.

      And while the pandemic events haven’t really moved the scales on Trump’s total negative score, they underscored the extend of his ineptitude and the underlying costs of his incompetence in the way that cannot be denied even by his most ardent supporters.

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  5. Rick Jones

    This is an intriguing post. When I think about the possibility of it being valid — that there is an underlying systemic issue that connects the Flat Earthers to the End-the-Lockdown-Now crowd — I see the world in a different, scarier way.

    But here’s my problem with it…

    This post, itself, presents a narrative that is relatively simple and explains a lot. I actually breathed an internal sigh of relief when I read it the second time and more fully grokked it. “Of course,” I thought, “That explains it.”

    But in doing that, did I put myself in Mencken’s category of an “inferior man?” Am I giving up on trying to understand a complex situation — “What the fuck is wrong with these people?” — in favor of being able to explain it away as just another manifestation of the backlash to modernity?

    It troubles me, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

    That aside, good post.

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    1. notesfromdisgraceland Post author

      This reminds me of Russell’s barber paradox:
      There is a village in which there is a barber. This barber shaves all those , and only those, men who do not shave himself. Does he shave himself? …

      Very good logical point you raise :). I am confident that you are in no “danger” falling prey to alogical trap of anybody’s narrative.

      I think, the real “danger” is reading and subscribing to a single view, i.e. being uninformed, so to speak. On the other hand, being too well informed is counterproductive, it suffocates our thinking faculty — it is knowledge without thought.
      In forming your own opinion, the key is to be able to creatively ignore what is not important, to eliminate noise.

      Each idea we encounter presents a logical path that connects things. if it is well argued, it deserves to be given a non-zero weight (taken seriously). More than anything, such ideas, if they are really good, make us think: they point our a direction of thought and inspire us to go there on our own and follow up and make our own discoveries.
      Similarly, stupid ideas, like flat-earth or chlorox injection, are discounted — given zero weight. People embrace them because of their personal biases or because they are easy to digest.

      I think, beauty and logic are always based on simplicity, but getting down to that simplicity , discovering it, is tedious — it does not involve shortcuts and concessions.
      This should be contrasted with seductive triviality and the irresistible reasonableness of nonsensical of the populist narratives as a substitute for thought.

      At the end, it is all about how one weights information.

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  6. Rick Jones

    It’s not often that I spend this much time thinking about a blog post. So congrats on piquing my interest so much.

    The more I thought about this bifurcation you’ve posited, the more I was reminded of Thomas Barnett’s old “New Map of the World” idea.

    In Barnett’s scheme, the world can be roughly divided into two groups: the Core, characterized by economic connectedness and interdependence, and the Gap, characterized by disconnectedness and unstable leadership. Here’s a link to an original article about it:

    https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a1546/thomas-barnett-iraq-war-primer/

    In my view, he was basically saying the same thing you said in this post: the world can be divided into those who are coping and thriving in modernity (your characterization) or globalization (Barnett’s characterization), and those who are not. Those who are not — whom Barnett calls the “disconnected” — are dangerous.

    I actually exchanged emails with Barnett some years ago about America’s “Gap” — the Red states — and although it was just the briefest of exchanges, it fit in well with what I think you’re saying and Barnett agreed.

    Anyway, once again, good job. Thanks.

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