Hypernormalisation

Over the past several weeks, this blog has made a transition from discussion of internal, psychological issues — which I called the Anima Project — to a broader examination of the water that we’re all swimming in. It struck me yesterday just how many of the issues I’m addressing right now are similar to those raised in a 2016 BBC documentary by Adam Curtis entitled “Hypernormalisation.” You can watch that documentary for free on Vimeo here.

It’s a dizzying non-fiction film that throws dozens of events and ideas at you over the course of nearly three hours, but it has a surprisingly simple premise: we are living in a fake world that is driven by technologists and fanatics, covered up by corporations and politicians with a veneer of normality, giving the impression that things are under control.

As 2020 reminds us every day, that is obviously not the case. And yet, the Republican Convention opens today and for the next four days, we’ll be presented with a pageant about a make believe America far better off than it was four years ago. The Coronavirus pandemic will be called a great success story. The ongoing economic crisis will be painted as a “V-shaped recovery” that will soon return us to “the greatest economy in history.” The stock market will be equated with the economy, when it should actually frighten us that our current calamity has led to another massive shift in wealth from poor to rich.

The RNC is a microcosm for what has been happening in the United States over the past four years. But these trends are merely accelerating. A few weeks ago, I brought up Karl Rove’s quote from 2004 about the “reality-based community” and leaders who believe they have the power to shape their own reality. It plays out that way in Russia every day, but it’s time we took a look in the mirror and recognize that it’s becoming our day to day existence too.

How do we escape this dizzying theater of catastrophe and pretend control? One writer cited in the documentary, German sociologist Ulrich Beck, devoted his career to studying the ways modernity led to massively complex societies that always dance on the edge of catastrophe. Beck said our best course moving forward is to use politics not as a vehicle for change, but for “managed outcomes” — predicting, avoiding and mitigating risks as best possible. Such an approach would lead to more aggressive action against climate change and would help center political discussions away from personalities to questions of public interests, not just in the short term, but in the decades ahead.

I hope to use some of Beck’s work in the coming essays to address the calamity we are facing now. But I want to close by noting that my “Anima Project” series ended with a look at Don Quixote. Beck, by happy coincidence, sees Quixote as a metaphor for man trying to navigate through these increasingly complex times, where promise and calamity are often intertwined in ways we cannot anticipate. He says of Cervantes novel:

In the figure of Don Quixote, human life, whose future no longer bows down before the power of the gods or before God’s wisdom, has become a never-ending adventure. For, in God’s absence, risk unfolds its fateful and terrible, inscrutable ambiguity. The world is not as it is; rather its existence and its future depend on decisions, decisions which play off positive and negative aspects against one another, which connect progress and decline and which, like all things human, are bearers of error, ignorance, hubris, the promise of control and, ultimately, even the seed of possible self-destruction.

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