‘What’s going on?’ has been a common refrain amongst the last decade’s political and economic upheavals. Even if you barely followed politics or the news, it was much simpler to have a general grasp of what is going on. Asking this question is, obviously, not just an attempt to know but to understand as well. The problems of asking that question now are the answers you’ll get and the solutions offered.
Trying to understand what’s going on is based on a belief that everything is, in fact, understandable. This isn’t right or wrong, but it can lead to understanding by generalities, fitting events neatly into historical narratives and ideologies, and finding lies in the truths we are trying to comprehend. Writing in 1950 after two world wars and at the beginning of the Cold War, Hannah Arendt diagnosed this tendency towards “interpreting history by commonplaces,” but it is not up to the task of understanding events.
Public thinking is simple, but not serious.
This can aptly describe our own moment, not just for the various ideological movements [that have always existed] distilling reality into vials that that can be neatly organized and dispensed, but for factors unique to our own times, too. Asking ‘What’s going on?’ has spawned lots of answers and answerers, as implausible bullshit infographics go viral and ‘alternative’ media seek to explain what is really going on.
This lack of depth is compounded by politicians who can deal in slogans but not policy, by a #Resistance to a President led by the system that produced him and sees his greatest crime as being unpresidential; public thinking is simple, but not serious. Many rebels are committing the same crimes of logic and principle that they are supposedly resisting, and people don’t realise or even care that the image they just shared proving some great progressive crime was clearly made up on somebody’s phone. Truthfulness is verified by how it makes you feel.
The peculiar conditions of today mean that attempts at understanding the world have evolved from contesting the way that facts and events make up reality, to asserting competing realities altogether.
We all want to understand the world around us and I want to use some of my writing here towards that end, too. The goal is, to paraphrase Arendt, to face up to and resist reality, ‘whatever it may be”, to encourage others in this and to provide the tools for doing so. Even if I cannot render discourse any more understandable, I hope I can at least skewer those offering simple answers and deconstruct the forces contributing to this haze. This, at least, will give us a better chance at understanding what’s going on.
“Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality – whatever it may be.” Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism