Post Truth | Hypernormalisation and the Radical Response

In a post last week on the ‘Fake News’ scandal and the way that our information sources have become distorted, narrowed and – some now claim – deliberately confused by digital algorithms, I concluded by saying:

In the chaos of this truthless mental and political environment, we more naturally turn to brands for security, to corporations and cat memes to lift us away and sustain the illusion that all will be well.

This, essentially is the message of Adam Curtis’ excellent polemical documentary, Hypernormalisation: confusion and absurdity have become political strategies that work to favour ‘strong men.’ These super-powers can either be figures like Putin, or major corporate interests. Both benefit from a confused population who have given up and gone Post-Truth. In this environment, re-election and retail are more simple. There is no effective opposition.

This is the politics of illusion, the creation and management of an artificial light by which our view of reality is augmented, is made virtual. It happens when life becomes mediated by a screen. And, like all illusions, all means of comforting ourselves against what is really true, we fight vociferously for it:

‘You have to defend the […] illusion with all your might; if it were discredited then your world would collapse, there would be nothing left for you but to despair of everything.’ – Sigmund Freud in The Future of Illusion,

I have been wondering what the task of ‘Radical Theology’ is in the light of Brexit and Trump. One thing must be clear: it is not simply to get people to change their views on Jesus. I believe absolutely that if the goal of Radical Theology doesn’t extend beyond the church, it is worse than useless.

Though it may begin with this core illusion of the divine force tending the light – and the ways that people diminish themselves and society through dogged attention to it – if it is to have any significant impact it must then move beyond the confines of religious belief and out into society as a whole, where myriad other illusions hold sway.

In a sense, Radical Theology thus performs a ‘priestly’ role like that given to Israel: to be a community tasked with taking a vital message out to other communities. Israel’s failure to do this, and its turning of attention instead in on itself, is the core tragedy of the Old Testament.

Radical Theology should be similarly harshly judged if it serves only to create a community of self-congratulatory people who have critiqued the divine illusion, but gone no further.

No, in this new post-factual world, in the Hypernormalised world where politicians have given up on politics, and corporations run the show (aided by a corporate anti-politics President Trump), and the world becomes so convinced that nothing can change and looks away and turns to cat videos… in this world, Radical Theology becomes the bedrock of a new kind of sociopolitical activism.

Both piratic and pragmatic, it has one task: seeking out the illusion wherever it can be found, in Apple stores, council chambers, sports bars and university campuses. It functions not in violence – in tearing down illusions – but in empathetically funding spaces and conversations that allow people to see the illusion for what it is, and begin the difficult journey of dismantling their dehumanising devotion to it themselves.

My fear is that this far, far more radical than the place I’ve seen many people come to. To feel that things stop once we have critiqued our religious beliefs is, I think, to fail to finish the job. As I have set out in Getting High, part of the miraculous curse of consciousness is our constant creating of new illusions, new means by which we might generate meaning. We will never hammer in the last nail on the last cross on the last god we have served. There will always be new ones being created. But as to where they are, and the technologies and political forces that are generating them, if we satisfy ourselves with the bounds of Christianity, we are blinding ourselves to the forest through close inspection of one tiny tree.


2 responses to “Post Truth | Hypernormalisation and the Radical Response”

  1. Cameron Freeman

    Thanks Kester, I’m very much in support of you own understanding of the task of RT: it must move beyond the confines of religious belief and out into society as a whole to seek out illusions wherever they can be found, while creating spaces where we can begin the difficult journey of dismantling our dehumanising devotion to these illusions in both our own lives and the lives of others.

    But where I’m perplexed is in the way that illusions function these days: the function of corporate media propaganda in a post-truth world is not so much to provide us with comforting fantasies of imaginary perfection, but to undermine our perception of the world, so that no one really knows what’s real or fake.

    For example, if we simply take the two most prominent post-truth stories right now from out of the USA: Pizzagate and the conspiracy about the Russian’s influencing the outcome US election, then we find ourselves in an awful double-bind. For if we simply accept the surface narratives at face value (elite pedophilia rings at the heart of DC politics and the Russians hacking the election to engineer a Trump win) then the surface level illusions are themselves already deeply disturbing!

    But as soon as we try to penetrate these illusions and dig a little deeper, then everything becomes confusing and contradictory. We are confronted with an indefinable shape-shifting slippery slope to nowhere, where we never know what’s really going on or who the real enemy is. And so, in BOTH Pizzgate (alternative media) and Russian conspiracy (mainstream media) the situation is eerily similar: there is either blind acceptance of a senseless nightmare – or we take a plunge down the rabbit hole into a world where there is no “truth”, no uncontested facts of the matter, and where the best we can do is insist that further investigation is necessary, while those government agencies responsible for such investigations refuse to take any action or disclose anything to the public.

    Both sides of the political spectrum are being played here, we’re all living under an insidious form of non-linear propaganda warfare (Adam Curtis) in a post-truth world. And as a result, it’s very difficult for me to avoid the conclusion that the aim of such illusions/propaganda is to make the masses feel helpless, powerless and defeated, in a constant state of destabilized perception, no matter what position we take on these stories. For those who accept the illusion (the official fiction) are led to feel that nothing and no one is safe anymore. Those who question the same surface narrative immediately run into endless inconsistencies – where nothing makes any coherent sense, making it impossible to counter these endless conflicting uncertainties with a coherent counter-narrative.

    It’s a very strange situation, and one that becomes even weirder: for the only source of comfort and security available here is to dismiss both illusions a priori, i.e. to maintain that Pizzagate must be a sophisticated hoax, and the Russian conspiracy is just another one of the Democratic parties post-election blame games. But then we end up in a place of counter-intuitive irony for RT, where dismissing illusions outright leads to a passive state of comfortably accepting the status quo. And that’s also profoundly unacceptable.

    Of course I have my own convictions here (Pizzagate is real, the Russian conspiracy is fake), but right now I’m convinced that the manufacture of these illusions is a deliberate propaganda strategy of the ruling elites, the aim of which is to magnify the power of the corporate state and minimize the power of the people it rules over. So the initial question for me is, what are we to do when:

    a) the surface illusions are terrifying rather than comforting,
    b) digging beneath the surface by undertaking a serious investigation leads us down a rabbit hole to nowhere, and
    c) dismissing both illusions from the outset leads to a passive acceptance of the status and quo?

    I have some further suggestions here, but first I just wanted to set out the flat-out bizarre predicament that we find ourselves in right now. I’m at a loss here, so thoughts and comments are very much welcome…

  2. While I am in no doubt as to the opposite (Pizzagate is false, and Russian influence in US election is true) I do agree with your point that, “I’m convinced that the manufacture of these illusions is a deliberate propaganda strategy of the ruling elites, the aim of which is to magnify the power of the corporate state and minimize the power of the people it rules over.”

    I think this is very very pure Capitalism. It is One Dimensional Man. With the growth of the power of the web, and the potential for knowledge and critique to grow, there is an increasing need for confusion, and the offer of a Retina wet-nurse to sooth us. I don’t think that there’s any question of dismissing the illusions outright (i.e., suggesting that they are all false). What is vital is that the reason for the constant manufacture of these illusions is got at. In other words, not which stories are ‘fake news,’ but why they are going so viral.

    But it is extraordinary, and bizarre. It’s another iteration of Capitalism to keep itself from being exposed. So yes, I think your conclusion is correct: we’re witnessing a ploy of “a constant state of destabilized perception” – but this is precisely where Radical Theology could become useful, because it has sharpened its deicidal tools on Christianity, and is well practised in drawing people down from that place of destabilised perception that has been thrown up by a system needing to hold onto a narrative in trouble.