New and different stories, when the existing ones are exhausted

Thursday, 26th January 2017

From Jan. 26, 2017

My Deleuzian impulses make me want to resist some of the implicit stories we are telling in the current crisis (and it is, without question, a crisis). A great deal of what I see assumes a kind of linear progressivist model. We are either moving forward or backwards. Trump is moving us backwards, and we want to move forwards. There is ground lost and ground gained.

So, what if that two-dimensional model isn’t adequate for what is happening? I don’t mean to suggest that Trump is an opportunity instead of a disaster, because he isn’t. He’s a disaster. But what kind of disaster? He isn’t merely a disruption to the existing order, a chaotic element that breaks up the liberal linear model of social progress. He isn’t progress in a different direction. He isn’t the fulfillment of the dream of the religious right, or the libertarian right or any kind of right.

He is, however, a strange attractor. In complexity theory, an attractor is strange if it has a fractal structure, that is, if it multiplies its order at different levels and in different directions. If we assume a liberal order to society, we impose a kind of linearity on it. We’re either going forwards or backwards. If the liberal order was always a useful fiction we could tell about society in order to make sense out of it, then the reality is that it is and always has been a chaotic but self-ordering system.

There is an order to Trump’s America, and many have noted it. It is not a rational order. The normal forms of argument don’t work. But Trump’s version of the Gish Gallop, his piling on of lie after lie after lie, his program of shock and awe in his first week in office, all of this has a kind of order to it. We’ve seen it before. It is part of what seduced, bludgeoned, and inured those in other societies to the extreme measures being proposed by a government with marginal legitimacy but outsided self-confidence.

Politics is about capture. It is about rendering chaos into something manageable and malleable. The fact is, though, that politics is closer to murmurations of starlings, or ant colonies, or weather systems than it is to an ordered and directed set of contracts and structures. Hilary Clinton was supposed to be the next president. Everything pointed to it. And then there was a perturbation in the system, a flap of the butterfly’s wings, and it didn’t happen. Now Trump is treating election as destiny, as a mandate, but it is not. The system remains, the hurricane is still churning. He is not in control, he only thinks he is. He continues to perturb the system, every day, and he thinks he is locking down a new world order, or at least a new American order.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The modernists on the right, giddy with power, think that they have won. They think that they have controlled this hurricane of politics. They have not. There is much still to be written. Already we see fissures and dissension on the right. The endgame, we imagine, is the repudiation of the Useful Idiot, and the annointing of the real standard bearer of the right, the Vice President. The ideologue. That’s a great plan. It just assumes that there are no new perturbations on the horizon.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. No one does. But I’m not sure I accept the standard story, in which there is a forward or backward. One side moves one way, the other side the other. This is no tacit acceptance of the Trumpist agenda – quite the opposite. He is more in thrall of this story than the Democrats. But they are too. It feels like the French, lining up at the Maginot line, while the Germans just drove their fast tanks around the edges and made their antiquated battle strategy obsolete. It feels like bringing the cavalry to an air war. It feels like bringing troops to a guerrilla war. It still feels like we are telling this story as if it is the same story, a battle ground of the virtuous against the evil, and the other side tells the same story but with the characters reversed.

This is not an appeal for understanding. It doesn’t mean that we’re all the same. It means that this story is different than what we have had before. Our references to Hitler, to other authoritarian regimes – they might not tell us enough anymore. What would it look like to think of this as a chaotic system, one which has organized itself in specific ways because of specific influences?

I’m thinking we need a new story, not just a different story from the tired and fact-averse story told by the right, or the comforting story of progress temporarily thwarted that we have on the left, but a story in which we are not gods who can see all this from on high. We are the ants, we are the starlings, acting and reacting to what we read and hear and observe, and all our actions produce something that cannot be anticipated. It’s been this way – all the satire against the right, all the logic and reason, has served to produce only resentment on the right. It has been comforting to those who hold to liberal values, but our comfort has also been our undoing. Every clever jibe has solidified resentment, and helped to produce this event.

This is not good or bad, it just is. The question now is, what do to next? We must do something. We can’t triangulate, and strategize. We must act, without knowing what the consequences will be. A new left will find a way to surf that wave, to not try to control history but to adapt to it.

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