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Reality honks back (again), the joys of choosing the physical over the virtual - and Walter Kirn makes the subversive case for fun
Some time ago, I realized that I was most useful to the technocratic neoliberal project when I was at my unhappiest. In that mode, I worked endlessly, a cog in a machine, shut away, alone, on screens, unavailable to those I care about. Generating revenue that I promptly spent on overpriced take-out, in a feeble attempt to anesthetize myself. To ease the psychic distress triggered by my spiritually-bankrupt lifestyle.
This, of course, is the story of the pandemic for many of us in the professional class, as lockdowns accelerated a trend already well underway, removing many of life’s messy distractions, from friends and extended family to chores and social events. Leaving only the task of being an efficient unit of production and consumption, for hours on end, in tiny condo cells that could be located in any big city, anywhere.
Thinking this through, I realized, too, that the things that give me joy are almost always offline, and either cheap or free: reading books, having long conversations, hiking, biking, walking my neighbourhood, listening to music, hanging out in coffeeshops, going to live comedy shows, laughing, cooking for loved ones, and spending time outdoors with family, friends, neighbours, dogs, and children.
The isolated, atomized virtual existence is, by comparison, utterly soulless.
Which is why it remains a hard sell — particularly for those who still live the bulk of their days in the actual, physical world.
One of the most thought-provoking Substack essays I’ve read this year ran during Canada’s trucker convoy crisis, by a self-described “writer laboring in the U.S. foreign policy blob” who publishes under the pseudonym N.S. Lyons.
In “Reality Honks Back,” Lyons offers a striking lens through which to view the trucker uprising, using a quote from Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites as a framework:
The thinking classes are fatally removed from the physical side of life … Their only relation to productive labor is that of consumers. They have no experience of making anything substantial or enduring. They live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality — “hyperreality,” as it’s been called — as distinguished from the palatable, immediate, physical reality inhabited by ordinary men and women. Their belief in “social construction of reality” — the central dogma of postmodernist thought — reflects the experience of living in an artificial environment from which everything that resists human control (unavoidably, everything familiar and reassuring as well) has been rigorously excluded. Control has become their obsession. In their drive to insulate themselves against risk and contingency — against the unpredictable hazards that afflict human life — the thinking classes have seceded not just from the common world around them but from reality itself.
Lyons breaks down society into two classes of individuals: the Physicals and the Virtuals — groups that “tend to navigate and interact with the world in fundamentally different ways.”
The Physicals do manual labour, in physical locations, with actual physical assets. While the Virtuals manipulate and distribute information, on laptops, from any location anywhere.
Lyons argues that the trucker conflict is, in fact, a clash between these two visions for society, and indeed for humanity.
This is worth mulling over — as I have been, for months now. Particularly this part:
For the Virtual elite, the most unforgivable thing about the Physicals, and the physical world in general, is that they stubbornly refuse to yield to full, frictionless control. There is a reason the dominant informational class is today most comfortable in a purely virtual environment — it’s one where they can have direct, instantaneous control over (virtual) matter. Real matter is stubbornly resistant, a reminder that the self doesn’t control the universe. It’s dirty, polluting, a reminder of one’s vulnerability, even mortality. And the need to rely on other humans to deal with it is super awkward.
That awkwardness is not going anywhere. And, if the Canada Day weekend in Ottawa was any indication, neither are the truckers.
If control is one of the defining characteristics of our age, then perhaps spontaneity can serve as its antithesis. Comedy is a great example of how this can work; it is joyful and unpredictable and life-affirming. It is also quite difficult to contain.
Here’s the money quote:
Fun — when your rulers would rather you not have it, and when the agents of social programming insist on stirring nonstop apprehension over the current crisis and the next one, the better to keep you submissive and in suspense — is elementally subversive. Fun is ideologically neutral, advancing and empowering no cause. Fun is self-serving and without ambition. It wishes only to be. It produces nothing for the collective and may represent a withdrawal from the collective, temporarily at least. Your fun belongs to you alone.
With that, I log off. I break the trance. And head out into the messy, chaotic physical world, full of living, breathing human beings.
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