Reality Gives Way to the Real: The Epistemic Crisis and the Damaging Omnipresence of the Sublime

Hurricane Florence Seen from Orbit (NASA)

Hurricane Florence Seen from Orbit (NASA)

I've attempted to write this three or four times, and it's getting a bit frustrating. To the point where I'm almost on the verge of jumping the gun and writing the piece on going to see Bleached, Refused, and the Hives play in Lawrence. I feel that one needs more time to percolate, so I'm going to try to write this again.

This piece is intended as a treatment of something I've seen mentioned and which I've been grappling with since sometime in fall of last year, but which I think I've had a subconscious awareness of for some time now. I'm speaking about the thing I've called “the Epistemic Crisis.”

While the news media sometimes talks about an Epistemic Crisis, or discusses the caustic effect that social media has on discourse, or features a think piece about how kids these days don't share the values of their elders, et cetera, et cetera. This isn't what I'm talking about, or not the whole thing. I feel that we are in a dangerous and critically important period of epistemic uncertainty. To whit, in addition to the examples that I mention, I want to introduce some anecdotes (which is an ironic move as far as proof goes; more on that some other time.)

In Spring of 2018, I had one student misunderstand that I, as an adjunct instructor, was the one who was grading the assignments that I had both designed and assigned: he had thought he could ignore my instructions on how to interpret the assignment and “go over my head” and seemed to draw up short at the revelation that there was no hierarchy beyond me as far as the immediate interpretation goes.

In Fall of 2018, I taught two first year seminar classes in English. While my students in the spring semester of that year had been the usual spread (some good, some bad, some – infuriatingly – quite personable and intelligent but not providing enough work to use as evidence that they were good students,) there seemed to be a sea change over the summer, and I received a crop of new high school freshmen who did not grasp some important things: for example, that notebooks were for taking notes, not for padding out backpacks; or that there was a cause-effect relationship between doing the work and receiving a grade; or, pertinently, that the plagiarism policy applied even when you actually committed plagiarism. Some students even lobbied that the assignments should be presented in the form of a bullet-pointed list: when I caved and presented assignments in a combination (prose description at the beginning, followed by a bullet-pointed list,) there was no commensurate increase in grades.

While I adjusted in the Spring of 2019, there seemed to be some difficulty on the part of my students with some basic parts of the college experience, such as students who didn't even remove their backpacks or headphones in class without prompting. One young person, in one of my classes even said, at one point in my “First Year Writing Seminar II” class, with a tone of dawning realization: “I get it! You're trying to make us better writers!”

Of course, there were still difficulties. A running theme from my time teaching college has been a lack of understanding of cause-effect relationships and a distrust of authority. I thought it indicated that I was a bad teacher (and perhaps it could; that's not an inconceivable assessment to me.) Still, a number of the problems that I noted were commented upon by colleagues, and so it may be a more general disconnection between academic culture and society at large.

But this isn't the only manifestation – I have also noted it in my other job, where I work retail. There, it's customary to greet customers at the door and give them a spiel when they come in to explain the store (there are legal requirements I won't get in to,) and while a number of people listen, there are four occasionally-overlapping types of customers that I've noticed tend to give some difficulty: people who ignore you when you greet them; people who interrupt you to ask you what you were about to say; people who claim to have come in beforehand and then display that they clearly haven't; and those who listen, and then flagrantly ignore the rules of the store in a way that leads to liability issues, despite prior verbal warning and signs. Other times, when we are opening or closing the store and the lights are off, people try to enter the store despite the fact that it is obviously not in operation. Many of these people will either ask if we're open, or if they manage to succeed at entering due to oversight, will simply attempt to begin shopping.

While this may be a related distrust-of-authority issue (I am a member of a privileged class of people who has a shock of gray at the temples, and possess a somewhat deep voice, as you all know from the intro to the podcast,) I think that it doesn't have to do with me at all. I think that is something else entirely.

Though, again, perhaps I should not count myself blameless.

But I want you to ask yourself: How many times have you thought you were having a conversation, only to realize that no actual communication had taken place?

How many times recently have you tried to articulate a thought that you understood clearly and the words just wouldn't form?

How many times have you witnessed someone – or actually, yourself, – read a check list or process clearly and utterly drop the ball on following it.

The Eye of Providence, from the back of a USA one dollar bill, and a common symbol associated with a number of conspiracy theories (image taken from wikimedia commons.)

The Eye of Providence, from the back of a USA one dollar bill, and a common symbol associated with a number of conspiracy theories (image taken from wikimedia commons.)

While I may be at fault, what I am certainly not individually at fault for are other things that I intuit are related phenomena: the rise of Anti-Vaccination and Flat Earth conspiracy theories; the current political climate and a worldwide neofascist ascendancy (i.e.: “the great bed-shitting of the early 21st century”); the inability of contemporary society to process the information we have about climate change into the requisite actions that we need to take; the continued use of social media by people who know that it makes them anxious and unhappy; the continued use of harmful substances (such as alcohol and tobacco) by many people (myself included); the continued tolerance for finance capitalism as an economic organizational principle despite repeated and disastrous evidence that it does not work; and the distrust of the news media and experts.

Some of these have other factors involved: traditional sources of authority haven't exactly been kind to people from marginalized groups, and a number of commentators have pointed out that if much of what you have been taught (e.g. about the police and politics and the “American Dream” or whatever) is shown to be a lie, why not doubt that the Earth is round? It's not like it effects your life in particular. Of course, with the issue of vaccines, the matter is somewhat different, because other people are effected by your actions.

What I think is at root here is a collapse of our collective ability to make sense of the world.

Consider the following passage, taken from the prose-poem “Nyarlathotep” by weird fiction author and noted racist H.P. Lovecraft:

H.P. Lovecraft, seen here  probably hiding a bird in his mouth . (Wikimedia Commons)

H.P. Lovecraft, seen here probably hiding a bird in his mouth. (Wikimedia Commons)

I do not recall distinctly when it began, but it was months ago. The general tension was horrible. To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night. I recall that the people went about with pale and worried faces, and whispered warnings and prophecies which no one dared consciously repeat or acknowledge to himself that he had heard. A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places. There was a daemoniac alteration in the sequence of the seasons—the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown.

I encountered this passage earlier today, read aloud in an episode of the brilliant Weird Studies podcast (specifically “Episode 29: On Lovecraft”.) It seems an oddly apt description of the times in which we live. While some of it is obviously stylistically overblown, the ultimate conclusion – “everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown” – feels like the experience of living inside this crisis moment.

While there are other authors of strange and weird fiction – better authors like Poe and Kafka come to mind – this is one place where I think Lovecraft might actually articulate a feeling better than other writers might. Shocking, I know.

Another way of putting it is that we have passed into a period of our culture when reality feels like weird fiction. Perhaps this explains the ascendancy that Weird Fiction has been having in recent years, with the likes of Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville (mentioned previously on this blog here.) attaining critical praise, Lovecraft and his contemporaries appearing in literature courses and pop culture (you can now buy Cthulhu plushes on the internet; to appropriate a quote from the Addams Family: “We gladly feast on those who would subdue us.”)

In short, the model of reality found in a weird fiction tale, in which reality is pulled back and we're forced to confront a chaotic, monstrous Real (in the Lacanian sense,) is the experience of being alive in the year of some god 2019. Being in a position to encounter that Real, unmediated and unfiltered, is a damaging experience.

In response, we retreat.

1024px-Maria_Scharten_-_Kreuzigungsaltar_5_Engel.jpg

To frame it another way, consider the figure of the Cherub in art, contrasted to the figure of the Cherub as described in the biblical book of Ezekiel:

As I looked, behold, a storm wind was coming from the north, a great cloud with fire flashing forth continually and a bright light around it, and in its midst something like glowing metal in the midst of the fire. Within it there were figures resembling four living beings. And this was their appearance: they had human form. Each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight and their feet were like a calf’s hoof, and they gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides were human hands. As for the faces and wings of the four of them, their wings touched one another; their faces did not turn when they moved, each went straight forward. As for the form of their faces, each had the face of a man; all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each had two touching another being, and two covering their bodies. And each went straight forward; wherever the spirit was about to go, they would go, without turning as they went. In the midst of the living beings there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches darting back and forth among the living beings. The fire was bright, and lightning was flashing from the fire. And the living beings ran to and fro like bolts of lightning.

In short: in the Abrahamic tradition, there was a reason that messengers of the divine begin their messages with “be not afraid” -- it was an instruction, a command, to stop screaming. The reason for this is that they were being confronted with the divine (or, as I am of a bit more of a materialist bent, “the sublime”) and that is, at best, a profoundly uncomfortable experience. At worst it is extremely harmful.

The Angel of Death from Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), directed by Guillermo del Toro, portrayed by Doug Jones.

The Angel of Death from Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), directed by Guillermo del Toro, portrayed by Doug Jones.

For a long time, these descriptions were buried and people thought of angels as people with wings – consider Renaissance and Medieval artwork depicting angels in western Europe – but in recent years, you've seen more depictions of old-fashioned angels, looking like something out of the aforementioned weird fiction stories, show up again.

Perhaps I'm a sacreligeous idiot for asking this question: What would be the practical difference between being visited by an angel and seeing an F6 hurricane blot out the horizon over the ocean? Both are profoundly damaging to the psyche, and signal great danger, and – most importantly for our purposes – you can't really do anything about either one.

We're at the point in our life cycle as a species where we could accidentally snuff out all life on Earth. In the atomic age, we were aware of it but it had to be an act of will to do it. Now it will be a species-wide act of will to make it stop.

In the face of this terrible sublime, we retreat. Our ability to make sense of the world short-circuits, possibly to protect us from what we're doing, because the alternative is to try to fix it.

A very effective description of this defense mechanism can be found in the brilliant and thoroughly dispiriting essay “On Hypermodernity” by author and cultural critic John David Ebert:

Civilization has now become the sum total of its population: a planet of individuals achieving instant gratification, amoral, valueless, unmotivated and without Vision. All exoskeletal 'spheres,' to use Peter Sloterdijk’s term, are gone and now there is only social 'foam,' that is to say, individuals rubbing up against other individuals, each with their own private semiotic sign regime clashing with each other’s. In Modernity, civilizations with their own sign regimes clashed with one another; in Postmodernity, terrorist groups as social formations clashed; but in Hypermodernity each individual is a nation state unto himself armed and equipped with his own electronic sign regime to do battle with other suits of light in cyberspace.

Ebert's Hypermodernity is the track we're on, I feel it's exactly the track we have to get off of. It seems to me that, before we can fix climate change, before we can make the world equitable and livable, before anything else can happen, we need to find a way to make these various “private semiotic sign regimes” come to an understanding. We need to reconstruct an open epistemological and aesthetic framework that allows us to work together and supports our efforts to solve these issues.

I feel that this is important, because it seems to me that the ideas we need to fix this issue are, frankly, too big to fit into the minds we currently have. I'm not sure where the answers to this really lie – part of me suspects that some answers might lie in the work of Phillip K. Dick (I feel the Utopian Impulse I’ve talked about so much in his work,) but I think that might be a piece for another time.