In functional democracies, the quest for power can be understood as a struggle to occupy the public imagination. Recent events in the UK and the USA provide pronounced examples of this logic with an emphasis that other political events in modern history have not. With the election of Donald Trump and Brexit in the UK, the binary nature of the electoral options left the process of participatory democracy open to a form of narrative abuse, by posing questions of the polis which expressly denied the examination or assertion of plurality. As such the many relevant complexities were discarded, those who emerged victorious understood that they could perform in a fashion that allowed a support base to project the outcomes of their own logical acrobatics on to the actors in question.
This is not a critique primarily directed at Trump supporters or Brexiteers, as the blunt democratic processes which they exploited to their own ends which possessed a potential that the other side could have exploited more effectively. In retrospect, it is evident that their unwavering conformity to an agenda that didn’t realise it was failing created a conceptual barrier that they may never have been able to overcome despite claims that they “understood” peoples’ frustrations.
The concern in hand is one which takes account of the means by which ideological projects are pursued and how these values are constructed or manipulated. In these instances, the absence of plurality allowed supporters of Hilary Clinton or the ‘Remain’ vote an opportunity to sanctimoniously deify the agents to whom they lent their support in a fashion that produced a fiction of their own convenience. The limited spectrum of choice created a situation whereby those who chose to indulge the spectacle were committed to a process whereby the collage of their own experiences and the complex of their consequent values had nowhere to go that came close to embodying the sentiments that defined their outlook. Those who assembled an understanding of events remotely similar to those presented here, were resigned to a form of participation underwhelmingly defined by a rejection of the party which they found most repulsive. Indeed, I would argue that this very absence of plurality imposed conditions whereby the parameters of what was offered were so open that by centring debate around the competing cults of personality voters were encouraged to ignore the damaging legacies of the parties concerned lest they were from the opposition. The public were invited to rapaciously consume these constructed personas that in real terms provided such a limited choice, that to swallow either pill one had to reflectively shoehorn their values into the vacuum of substance that the parties in question represented. As such a wealth of lacklustre creativity was harnessed to propagate a process that resembled a philosophically impoverished, online “Shitstorm” more than any electoral project ever has.
The crudeness of these processes has induced a trauma. The emphasis of difference that such vacuous binaries promote is shutting down nuanced debate by parties who refuse to reconcile even the smallest marginal issue that could provide a bridge of understanding and have as a result allowed the re-emergence and emboldening of our cultures most toxic ideas, able to raise their heads in a vacuum created by and absence of meaningful reflection, evidenced in the seemingly unending conveyor-belt of “Shitstorms” which define contemporary discourse to its’ detriment. Such simplifications are of benefit to no one but those in the race for power, irrespective of who “won,” it must be realised that the moment of transgression that has occurred is not simply the fault of the incumbent but that the incumbent is almost by definition the legacy of those who proceeded them.
Slogans such as “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control” created a conceptual space which voters could inhabit, in effect they committed to an agenda of their own construction which defined their desires under an umbrella which was careful to ensure the terms of debate never left a particular realm of speculative narrative. In such situations, it is important understand that the option that provides the impression of making an “active decision” is one that holds greater appeal. The vacuity of these idioms facilitated an opportunity to express the self that was not on offer from the other side which served to coerce its’ electorate to sluggishly submit to the maintenance of an established order, riddled with the cracks and conceits of an economically aggressive and expansionist ideology in its’ beleaguered death throws.
I do not crave a return to the culture of so called “reasoned debate” that is nostalgically described by western premiers of decades gone by, unable to assume responsibility for the contemporary political landscape of which they were the architects. Similarly, the bourgeois metropolitanism definitive of the traditional media landscape retroactively appeal to a decency which they have actively undermined, cultivating the vulgar personas of the protagonists in the current tragedy of errors that we watch unfold with combined, hilarity, hysteria and impotence. Due to two or three decades of contraction of the Overton Window we have experienced the diminution of the ideological gulf that existed between main stream political parties who supposedly represented the “left” and the “right” of the political spectrum. This monotone discourse left them unable to read or steer the popular mood much less analyse it with any meaningful rigour, their sense dulled by a complacency and acceptance of the procedural logic of the dominant institutions that are understood to have power over our everyday lives. Therefore, we experienced these so-called “shocks” which were no more than the expression of a misread frustration, cultivated for years in silo, deliberately ignored by a commentariat who showed little interest in forms of experience alien to their own, which may have legitimately challenged the assumptions they had taken comfort in.
The Boorish derailment of the game that was being played out in rhetorical competitions where the victors played to a frustration whose legitimacy had been denied so long ago that the opportunity to promote transgressive, radical right wing values were able to flourish among communities who had been considered backwards before conditions had come remotely close to where they stand now.
Now we are where we are irrespective of how much one may or may not like it. Early calls refusing to “Normalise Trump” etc., were, I would argue, ridiculous. While the virtue of the sentiment of the such statements is not lost on me it read as little more than a puerile, denial of the inevitable, these men had the power they set out to win and the only way to counter the reality is to pursue a course which divests the office of the symbolic authority that it possesses by virtue of the populations continued investment in the language which justifies it. In Britain, the English electorate conditioned by years of xenophobic sensationalism made their decision within the parameters of legitimacy that were not questioned until it caused an upset more radical than it was thought able to permit. Now, much of the trepidation provoked by Brexit and Trump arises from the anticipation of material consequence the reality of which is uncertain but already possesses a power in abstract that instils fear of hardship which will be enacted upon the population with unpredictable diversity.
Nevertheless, within these responses exists a certain paradox, which without indulging an overly romantic perspective has some bearing on the agency that thinking about art can assist us in understanding. The artist, creates and reconfigures meaning via material parameters that they define for themselves, the act of drawing for example can be seen as an act of transmogrification. Interpretation and appreciation of the resulting artefacts can be assisted by sharing a cultural background with the viewer but is not bound to such a requirement, indeed the power of the act of creation can often be demonstrated by its’ ability to traverse such boundaries. This is a humble example, but I think describes with some efficiency an immediate process whereby a thought can be used to manipulate an external condition and in turn the consciousness of another, even if only momentarily. The anxiety in question occurs because one understands that our proclivity to indulge abstract thought often translates in to a material reality of someone else’s conception and as such we develop a fear of other peoples’ ideas for better and for worse. As Isiah Berlin once observed;
“concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation.”
This process seems out of our hands because we propagate the realities of those in the race for power through letting them define the parameters of thought we can reasonably consider. They inhabit institutions that we struggle to realise only have power because we let them. But the alternative, to stride towards any form of radical shift is difficult because it must be accompanied by an appetite to yield some form of counter power. As a result, the understanding of this phenomena of projection often stops here, rarely does it give sway to the definitive opposite that the power to create meaning lies within us, just as it lies within those we traditionally identify as powerful. Often, we put so much store in the ideas of others that the pain of destroying ones’ intellectual identity is too much to handle. Therefore, few allow themselves to create meaning on terms that counter prevailing hegemonies which could manifest beyond the boundaries of internalised narrative to create an alternative material reality to that which we currently experience. Such propositions may read as fantastic, solipsistic hokum but it is worth noting that this process is one which we practice every day when we conceptualise an activity in anticipation of carrying it out. In terms of design the drawing of the prototype must exist before it can be realised in three dimensions, political, ideological projects are no different by virtue of occupying a grander more atomised and abstract field of realisation.
THE FUTURE EXISTS
FIRST IN IMAGINATION,
THEN IN WILL,
THEN IN REALITY
This is bold closing sentence from Robert Anton Wilson’s book “Prometheus Rising”. It weaves together a blend of psychology, neuroscience, occultism, literary analysis, evolutionary theory, philosophy and mysticism to interrogate the inherently subjective nature of perception as means of demonstrating how malleable ideology can be. At the end of each chapter Wilson invites the reader to indulge in thought experiments inhabiting the perspective of differing ideological persuasions. These were derived of practices the author developed himself. Through the study and practice of different religions and mysticisms over a number of years Wilson found evidence that the numerous belief systems were able to yield results in that he described a process whereby any act of belief could be “proven” so to speak. Once he committed to these differing world views they began to show him the signs he looked for but this was essentially an interpretive phenomenon, the varying outlooks were protected, rationalised and justified showing how Wilson in a sense how dogma could be produced with relative ease, as he summarised “What the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.”
This thinking led him to push the concept of the “reality tunnel”. A reality tunnel in short is the state of understanding we occupy, it is the construct that defines our world view made up of social, cultural and domestic imprints which distil our understanding of the world in to a narrative that satisfies this structure. This seemingly convoluted description of what essentially amounts to a point of view may seem contrived but there is something else to it in that by breaking down the idea, giving it shape and analysing how views are constructed, Wilson tried to offer readers the tools to switch tunnels and maybe better analyse the less rational, internal hypocrisies that we all possess when operating from definitive ideological position.
So, with regards to events such as the Trump/Clinton election or the EU Referendum it can be understood that through the emphasis on the import of these symbolic events the drive towards binary discourse has driven a shift that encourages a further slide away from interrogating the plurality of discourse that a figure like Wilson aimed for. In an increasingly networked society we are experiencing a massive phenomenon of algorithmically driven filtration affecting how we receive ideas. Many are actively closing themselves off from understanding the motivations of those who do not share their values where the parameters of acceptable discourse are administered by those of like mind often under what is understood to be a moral prerogative. What better way to accelerate such a phenomenon than a binding electoral project that denies complexity and requires participants to choose a side?
In the Essay entitled “Neo-Nihilism”, Philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H takes the view that
“All cultures operate with ideology, so ubiquitous as to be invisible to those within, but blatant to those without. This is apparent when one looks upon the seemingly absurd virtues and vices of past ages and far places. What is also, however, seemingly apparent is that one’s present ideology, ultimately one’s morality is somehow correct, others’ being incorrect. In the West, we think we have ‘progressed’ morally from former, less moral times. But this is false; we have simply changed: moral progress and retrogress are illusions. In this sense morality is more akin to fashion than to technology.”
I am inclined to agree with Sjöstedt’s observation. Without discussing the point in terms of cultural relativism it is true that our observations of other cultures and other points of view are only ever indexed against the ideological space that we inhabit ourselves. As we have seen a re-emergence of the hard right in The West, ideas which were widely thought to have been driven underground or defeated have gained a new traction and an unfortunate sense of validation for those who indulge them. These ideas were considered a thing of the past but seem have now proven to possess an elasticity which was not understood or taken seriously until the grim reality was met upon us. We are not yet in a position where such value has regained power in totality such that they would orientate wider societies moral compass but it cannot be considered impossible given that the traditional “wisdom” embodied by politicians, commentators and pollsters did not foresee these circumstances, in part due to a lack of doubt. A complacent investment in the validity of their authority led them not to take their opponents seriously because in doing so they would have to doubt the validity of their own moral positioning which can rarely sustain its’ rationale when scrutinised to logical doubt. We are all product of a structure which places a moral value in principals once thought immoral and no doubt in the future when our societies do not resemble what we understand today many of these notions will de discredited by a normative condition that we cannot comprehend.
As such it must be considered that when we participate in the battle to occupy the popular imagination, or some sphere of consciousness beyond our own that the one must attempt to understand the internal logic of those we oppose in order to test our own values. Because beyond how such perspectives may lead us to destroy or develop the social and ecological environment we inhabit everything is imaginary, everything is created by competing attempts to re-design the world around us building on the chaos and harmony of the innumerable projects which afford us our initial platform.
This conclusion provides me in part with the foundational enquiry that underlies my practice. In my most recent exhibition, I tackled this notion of fragility and malleability in our ideological positioning by producing a very simple body of work which interrogated the fluidity of means by which monetary value is determined. Ever since the financial crisis of 2007 I have become increasingly aware of the dogmatism with which people often speak about “The Economy”. In a supposedly secular cultural landscape there is a curious sense of religiosity which accompanies the tone of barely in check hysteria that gives voice to speculations about faith and confidence or the lack thereof in markets. Indeed, it has become such a lynch pin of mainstream discourse that the rhetoric espoused by politicians and financiers alike an ideological alien could mistake “the economy” as a vindictive deity. As such it could be seen in Sjöstedt’s words to be one of our “seemingly absurd vices or virtues”.
Of-course the material consequences of how this atomised and interwoven structure is managed or manipulated can have very real material consequences, but again it is essentially abstract operating by virtue of consensus because the exchange is symbolic as is demonstrated by the material flexibility of currency.
The work I refer to was exhibited earlier this year in Brussels in a former Jeweller’s vault which now houses a small gallery, Artists’ Club/Coffre Fort. The site once played host to a considerable stock of gold and silver. Precious metals, such as these have historically functioned as a reliable store of value due scarcity and durability, attributes which pertain to some degree of objectively determined value in the face of more volatile market fluctuations. These metals, have provided material security for the valuation of currency in the past and so, the gallery’s history provided a contextual anchor for the work which playfully examines the relationship between the subjective and objective capacities by which fungibility is determined.
I started the body of work the previous year on residency in Harare, Zimbabwe, it features illustrations copied from the classic American children’s novel, The Wizard of Oz, painted on to a collection of de-monetized Zimbabwean Dollar notes printed during the hyperinflationary crisis of the 1990’s-2000’s. The Classic children’s fantasy, was written as a detailed political allegory that unpacked the monetary debate that defined the USA during the depression of the late 19th century. The fictive space was used to unpack the dynamics of power between different rhetorical and material entities with populists and establishment figures vigorously fighting over the concept of bimetallism in the contemporaneous monetary system at the expense of a largely agrarian working class.
In the 1890’s The USA suffered a severe depression, at this time the value of the US Dollar was indexed against a Gold Standard. Twenty years prior the same currency was paper backed to satisfy the spending requirements of the Civil War. Prior to the war the country operated on a bimetallic standard whereby both Gold and Silver were used to back the dollar. As such variations in supply led to unhealthy fluctuations in the value affecting the heavily debt laden farmers of the time who had taken advantage of the borrowing potential of the cheapened money supply of the previous decades. This led to a bold campaign for “Free Silver” by Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Brian, which sought to re-introduce the bimetallic standard.
This campaign was defeated in the volatile election of 1896. With the country in a state of crisis largely of its own making, the fractious landscape it created provided the blue print for Baum’s American fairy tale. The mawkish cartoon fantasy skilfully demonstrates the essentially subjective nature of such systems which are commonly framed as objective constructs, it lays out a complex allegory depicting the protagonists, their motives and their vanities in the political landscape of the time. In our ever more convoluted, abstract financialised contemporary context it struck me that in reducing the debate of the 1890’s to a work of fiction Baum inadvertently brings to light a meta moral in his story which permits one to look beyond the allegory itself and view the reality it describes as a construct of comparable artifice.
On August 15th 1971 Richard Nixon addressed the citizens of the United States to inform them that he had
“directed Secretary Connally to suspend temporarily the convertibility of the dollar into gold or other reserve assets, except in amounts and conditions determined to be in the interest of monetary stability and in the best interests of the United States.”
This has proven to be the most committed abolition of the countries relationship to a gold standard yet. Having secured its’ post war hegemony in 1944 when the international community agreed to observe the US Dollar as the global reserve currency in relation to a gold standard. The Nixon administration pulled of one of the most conceptually audacious gestures in modern history. By switching to a fiat currency, a gradual global shift in this direction was triggered. The term fiat in Latin can be translated as follows –
IT WILL BECOME IT SHALL BE
LET IT BE DONE LET IT BECOME
So, with a discernible lack rhetorical flair and the touch of ink on paper the main tenet of the international monetary system was undermined, allowing more arbitrary decision making to take precedence, gradually deregulating the spending capacities of governments and the shape of markets opening them to even greater levels of subjective manipulation. While it is clear what advantages this provides, the emphasis on value in turn becomes purely reliant on faith and manipulation of consciousness than before allowing for more volatile, engineered fluctuations to be administered by those who pull the levers. Such gestures represent incredible symbolic shifts that define our material culture but are strangely easy to accept, much like the economic trepidation that is associated with the political uncertainties of late, the leap is made with efficiency precisely because there is an underlying understanding of the malleability of meaning, the efficacy of visualisation and an unwillingness to upset the ideological apple cart.
The Zimbabwean Dollar was one such fiat currency which garnered wider international interest when it was radically devalued from the late 1990’s. Before being effectively abandoned in 2009 and it’s final demonetization in 2015 discussion was floated regarding the viability of printing a quintillion dollar note. The country had benefitted from a strong currency upon gaining its independence from The United Kingdom in 1980 but this changed in a short space of time in part due to lack of a material anchor. A combination of errors on part of the Mugabe regime who misrepresented the level of government spending to the IMF, World Bank and WTO compromised the faith other people, governments and banks had in their currency. A calamitous land reform policy undermined the countries strong agricultural economy which created a crisis in productivity leading the government to overprint and thus further jeopardise there already failing currency. The resulting lack of faith in the regime by international community and trans-national financial institutions, led to political and economic isolation. During my stay, I enjoyed a mix of tragic and comical stories which were product of the hysteria and scarcity that occurred in these times, like that of an old woman pushing a wheel barrow full of money to go shopping only to have her wheel barrow stolen by two men who proceeded to dump the money in front of her because the value stored in the vessel was greater as an exchangeable commodity than the mountain the of paper money. The country now uses the US Dollar, widely understood to be a safe. By divesting the paper currency of its fungible quality the government instigated the beginning of a limited recovery by dissolving faith in its own currency. During the crisis, the paper money was the truest material representation of a store of value that had its’ immateriality exposed by the unprecedented de-valuation.
In the supposedly ‘post-truth’ landscape, the material consequences of a fundamentally abstract and ideologically propelled financial system have proven to be materially destructive with recovery almost as illusionary as the conception of value, or lack thereof, which spawned the subsequent chain of crises. By triangulating the allegorical theme of Baum’s novel which interrogated the means by which material assets should dictate the value of a unit of exchange, with the radical devaluation of the Zimbabwean Dollar, in the former home of precious material commodities, the exhibition leant heavily on the constituent fiction and duplicity inherent in the outlined points of reference. These disparate strands were woven together to platform a discussion regarding the means by which notions of objective circumstance are in fact propelled by subjective values and ambitions which selectively determine their material boundaries, in service of a greater abstract system which profits precisely from its immaterial nature up to a point whereby an external material boundary imposes some form of collapse. In this respect, I do not feel that it is coincidental that the agricultural economy played a significant role in both of these crises given the necessity of such a form of productivity to societies sustenance.
As these events illustrate the malleable nature of the cultures of exchange we participate in daily, the symbolic and material fluidity is something we adapt to with little understanding or realisation of fluctuation due to our ideological positioning. This is demonstrative of it’s essentially constructed nature. In these terms, I would similarly conclude that the same applies to the means by which we index our identities against moral, political and cultural philosophies. They are fundamentally manipulations and more often than not become rigid hurdles to understanding differing logics begat by circumstances we do not recognise, which is ill served by the increasingly crude understanding of the spectrum of ideas in terms of traditionally understood dichotomies. Because then we only look for the evidence that proves us right as Robert Anton Wilson claimed to realise with his thought experiments and so I am reminded of Ronald Reagan who once corrected a mistaken journalist by saying –
“You believed it because you wanted to believe it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time.”