There is a keen interest in those who look to the future with hope, to be also aware of the dangers. And perhaps the most misunderstood - but brilliant - philosophers of the future was a Frenchman called Jean Baudrillard. You may or may not know the name, but you have seen his work, if you’ve seen The Matrix.
Even by the dubious standards of French philosophers, Jean Baudrillard’s writing is shockingly difficult to read. And the worst part is, he does it on purpose. His work is aggressively opaque, confounding any but the most serious attempts to understand what he has to say.
But then, it is a common disease of the philosopher to write in dense and unreadable prose. Sometimes the work of modern philosophers is so difficult to follow, let alone consider, that it is more effective to get deep insight yourself, from scratch, than to stumble through such contrived labyrinths hoping for a ray of light.
Most of the time, a philosopher who does not write clearly is not worth reading. If they don’t make it clear, that’s because they don’t care enough about what they’re saying to think it’s important enough to communicate, or strong enough to stand alone without smoke and mirrors.
And more often than not, they’re right.
But sometimes, very rarely, you get someone who writes in this way who actually does have something very serious to say. Baudrillard is one of these people.
He described himself as an intellectual terrorist, and although most people who read him will remember him only as a man of crimes against writing, his thinking was radical, savage, and terrifying indeed.
If there is one phrase I could coin to sum up what he’s talking about, it’s this - the neon coffin. That the advances we make, and continue to make, doom us to a world of perpetual cheapness, shallowness, and exponentially increasing degrees of fakeness.
One of the things about being a philosopher - if you’re serious about it, and you actually do want to know the truth - is that you can’t just reject things you don’t want to hear. Baudrillard’s ideas are not nice, and not hopeful. But we must remain beholden to the truth, to reality. Because if we are not, and if we simply believe whatever we want to believe, whatever little myths or excuses suit our present desires, then Baudrillard is right, and the future is lost.
To begin to go beyond him, we must do something else, something that perhaps is more suited to those of a daring bent.
We must stare into the dark, without flinching. We want to drive a stake through its heart, and to do that, we can’t just snap at its heels. And if it turns out that he is right, and we are doomed then we will see that with open eyes too, and never unsee it. That is the risk we run. It is the greatest risk - to roll the dice and look unflinching at a truth that might destroy all hope.
And it might.
So let us look then, at the heart of what this man has to say, and see if we can’t find a way to stake it.
Speed. The problem, when you really boil it all down, is speed. Speed of travel, speed of reaction - but more than any of that - speed of communication.
Things move fast now. Really fast. Anyone can say anything, and say it to everyone, and do it all in a mere instant. And most people do. And as speed rises, so the hunger for speed rises, because there is so much to see and do, and so precious little time to fit in all in.
The capacity for rapid communication creates an exponential demand for more rapid communication, and something has to give. What gives is detail. Substance. Contour. Depth. Passion. Humanity. Truth.
What remains is the little soundbites. The short, punchy taglines. The ‘5 star ratings’ of reviews. Just give me the labels. Give me the labels. Suicide bomber. Check. Right wing extremist. Check. Single parent family. Check. Government spending. Check. Liberal. Conservative. Communist. Capitalist.
Check. Check. Check. Check.
All of a sudden everyone wants the York Notes. TL; DR. But because the mass demand is only for the short version, the shrill version, the version stripped of depth and contour, that becomes the only place where big money can be made. And so big money invests in it. And it grows.
A world of labels. Split away from the reality to which they refer, packaged, polished, served up and consumed. Greedily consumed, of course, by teeming and countless millions who regurgitate those polished labels and look like they have opinions of their own.
A dark vision, indeed. And it gets darker still. Because the problem is, there’s no way to fight this. Any attack on the system just fuels it. Rage against the machine, and the machine will do what it does. It will label you. Shelve you. Reduce you to a to a soundbite, a label. Goth, punk, geek, rocker, dissident, rebel... whatever.
And as long as you stay below the radar, you can experience real living, hidden away from the charts, the Gap and the howling, jagged emptiness of the mainstream.
But beware - because if you gain any real scale, and catch the eye of the machine, it will isolate you as a demographic, and build flashy, shiny, polished copies of what you are. Products to create an impostor of whatever island of reality you've carved out of the lies. A cheap copy, with multi-million dollar advertising budgets. And many will buy into that copy, and say they are like you, and because there are many of them, your hideaway will become swamped with wannabees who don't really care what it's there for, or why it was necessary in the first place. They just like the look.
Fight it, and you make it stronger, because fighting is very easily packaged. The York Notes write themselves. This side believe A, B and C. That one, X, Y and Z. Look at them fight, and be entertained. Here are some opinions that sound clever - you can use them if you want, and people will think well of you.
This is the neon coffin. The prison Baudrillard wrote about. The prison you cannot smell or taste or touch.
I don’t like that this is happening. I’m not happy about it. I don’t ‘support’ this.
But it is happening. It extremely pronounced, and becoming more intense, entrenched and extreme with each passing year.
It is the dominant force of our times, hidden from view by the noise it makes, and the show of it. And if Baudrillard is right, it is the dominant force of our future, and the fate of humanity.
Baudrillard calls this universe of superficial labels ‘hyper-reality’. Reality sped up so it loses cohesion, becomes splintered and fractured, and more than all this, fake. And then that fakeness feeds back into itself, and we get parodies of parodies, copies of copies. He calls it a crime that hides its own tracks. And we are all complicit.
A vision of a future superficially bright, but inside, the human spirit rotting and dead.
The neon coffin. The modern world.
Don’t flinch it. Because if he’s right, we should at least have the courage to face this doom with open eyes.
But if he’s wrong, there is only one way in which we can find out how he’s wrong. And that’s to look, and not to flinch. Because there may be a way. Just maybe. A way to a better world, and brighter tomorrow.
All things eventually sunder under exponentially increasing speed. This is the heart of Baudrillard’s insight.
But even in this darkest of places, it seems to me that there is a hope.
Perhaps hyper-reality itself is starting to come apart at the seams.
Perhaps not - maybe it is merely my wishful thinking, but as the superficiality of the world increases, more and more people are being spun out of that superficiality.
X-Factor. Justin Bieber. Twilight.
A talent show. A pop singer. A film.
Why is it that these things create such intense and savage loathing in so very many? Is it the music that makes so many so full of hatred?
There has been bad music before, and bad films. But has there ever been so many millions united in furious rejection of them?
What are they rejecting? Because the passion and intensity of the negative reaction totally outstrips any normal reaction to a bad film, or a bad song, or a bad television show.
I think people are starting to see. They are starting to see something else. Not what the individual film, or song, or show is, but what it represents. A massive, bloated, corporate monstrosity that exists to feed the masses into superficiality, silence, and the illusion of free choice between different kinds of garbage.
Bill Hicks was one of the first to see this clearly. His brutal excoriation of the false and hollow culture of his time seems more and more relevant as time passes, not less and less. And these passions are rising in more and more people. As the corporate machine becomes more and more potent and effective at delivering superficiality, its true nature is becoming clearer, easier to discern, and harder to ignore.
Perhaps it is my wishful thinking, but I believe that Baudrillard was even more right than he thought he was. Even the sundering may be sundered, even the shattering might have a breaking point.
As the corporate machine churns out ‘culture’ that is ever more facile and shallow, it is hitting that breaking point for many, many millions of people.
Not the majority. The majority keep the machine fed.
But a very large number, and growing, are finding themselves strangers in their own land, strangers to a culture that is coming closer and closer to a kind of event horizon of superficiality. It’s running out of ideas. It’s cannibalising itself.
Ask yourself this - when’s the last time you saw a film that was genuinely new? Heard a singer with real originality?
It happens - yes. But it is happening with ever decreasing frequency. Repeats, remakes, reboots, cover songs. All the genres set in stone. Science fiction. Fantasy. Even literary fiction, the ‘worthy’ writing we all dread to read, was brilliantly characterised by Nicolas Mosley as just one more genre - the genre of elegant despair.
Perhaps that’s why we dread to read it. We know what it has to say. We’ve seen it all before.
We are living in the midst of apparent plenty, and yet many of us rail with fury against it. Fictions of fictions, copies of copies.
Because beneath all this lies something that cannot break, cannot be divided, cannot be split or cracked, and can never die. Something that calls out to be found and opened up, and whenever that call is met, it opens up further, and deeper still.
It is the only thing that can truly meet that human need we try to fill with glitz and frippery.
Real depth. Real substance.
Because all of this starvation of substance and truth has created a hunger. A hunger that for now can only find its outlet in blind fury and derision - scorn for the superficial lies, and the pop stars and the talent shows, and the film franchises, and the machine.
But even then, we must learn from the Frenchman. You can’t kill it with hate. It’s feeding on your anger. Instead, leave it alone, and watch it kill itself. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing but the truth.
And the truth is that we are not tiny children to be forever satisfied with simplistic songs and shows, and easy answers that never work.
More and more people want something else. Yes - still a minority of people. But a large minority, and growing.
The world wants you to wallow in the poverty of fictional riches, and sit like a fat, bloated spectator, a little emperor in your own mind, accepting the threadbare clothes you’re given because they are packaged in shiny wrapping. Don’t worry, says the world. Don’t trouble yourself. Consume. Spectate. It’s always someone else’s problem. Someone else will sort it out. You can’t be expected to do anything. You’re so small. You don't have the 'talent' that all these lucky people have. These beautiful people. It's not your fault you can’t change the world. And you can't. So stay quiet. Say what you’re told to say. Argue the arguments we give you to argue. Look like you have an opinion to other people who have accepted this.
Leave the big things to us. We’ll sort it out. Here, watch this new show. It has vampires.
The rebellion of our age, the revolution of our time, the battle for our future, is not one waged with guns or bombs over lines on a map. It is waged with courage and hope over the ownership of the human spirit.
And it cannot be won by fighting.
The lines drawn are these - do you care? Is any of this your problem? Do you still dare to hope? Are you prepared to do anything about it? Are you prepared to support those who are already doing something? Are you prepared to step off the couch, unplug from the superficiality, and in whatever way you can, enter the fray?
Because the problem is this. Nothing is set in stone. It is not written in the stars that humanity will rise from the mire. If our rage is all we have to throw at the superficial, that rage is very easily subsumed into it, marketed to, commercialised and neutered.
Instead, a truer and deeper rebellion is to support, nurture, develop and spread the one thing that the machine cannot replicate. Cannot cheapen. Cannot corrupt. Cannot tame.
This is how important it is that you support those indie developers. That you post links on your Facebook page, or Reddit, or any social media site, or forum, or podcast, to the amazing work done in the fringes by radical thinkers who break the mold. When you tell your friends over a coffee or a beer. When you fuel the subcultures, and don't sell out. When you go to live shows, and buy the tracks of real musicians who have given their hearts to the song. When you support those many, brilliant comedians who can never make the mainstream while they insist on rocking the boat.
When you make real contributions to support the work of people who play from their heart. Who have spent their lives to cultivate real quality, real craftmanship, in the hope that one day the storm will break, and the world will awaken, and quality will matter again.
These things cannot exist without support. The machine will not support them. It is extremely effective at sidelining them, pushing them aside and starving them of every scrap of oxygen it can.
Nothing can grow in a vacuum. If you do not actively support them, they will die.
And if you do support these things, what you are making happen is this - that when the storm does break, and the world stirs in its uneasy slumber, and blinkingly opens its eyes - that there are wonderful things for it to see. And perhaps, if they are wonderful enough - if they have been supported enough, and nurtured enough - then the world will reject that terrible fate that Baudrillard foresaw.
Just as the victory of the human spirit is not written in the stars, neither is its defeat.
The machine wants your rage. It wants your hate.
What is cannot handle is your support for an alternative.
So the choice of which future humanity will see, it would seem, is yours to decide.