Aaron, I’ve been reflecting on your Garden of Forking Memes essay. I’m so glad you’ve written such a comprehensive piece on this topic of subculture and history, and I’m honored you asked me to provide feedback on it. It gave me a lot of thoughts that I wanted to flesh out, so I’m responding here. I’m most interested to talk with you about something we’ve discussed a bit before, something which is left implicit in your essay: the disappearance and now reappearance of the future as an idea, and the question of from where the actual future will come.
The conversations of internet subcultures often feel substantive and expansive compared to the shallow discourse of presidential debates, op-ed pages, and cable TV shows. Mainstream news cycles rarely last more than a few hours, and their narratives are constantly shifting. They don’t tend to give a big-picture sense of where we came from or where we’re going. Internet subcultures, by contrast, are building grand narratives and meme worlds that help people feel their way through the chaos that’s currently unfolding. These stories cut deep, down to the most foundational questions of race and religion and destiny. We shouldn’t be too surprised that complex conspiracy theories, intergenerational trauma, and age-old religious fervor are coming to the fore — in a contest of narrative memes, deep history is a serious competitive advantage.
This part of your essay recalled me to our last in-person conversation. In January, you and I were sitting in A/D/O, talking about all manner of things, when you pointed out that every trace of the future seems to have been vanished from popular media. Perhaps this observation was inspired by this sterile piece of public art, whose ceaseless revolutions into new, forgettable arrangements of panels we watched as we conversed.
Your observation certainly held true for prestige television: the most popular shows of the last decade have been either gritty realist tragedies (e.g. The Wire, Breaking Bad, even the family politics of Game of Thrones) and unimaginative alternative-now dystopias (e.g. Black Mirror, Handmaid’s Tale, Man in the High Castle). The same could be said for movies, with the addition of campy fantasy, and here I’m sure I showed you this classic David Rudnick tweet. And of course, it’s been said by many that contemporary critical theory seems to have abandoned a progressive agenda beyond enumerating endless variations of capitalism — the carceral, communicative, surveillance…. Even fiction appears to have lost its edge, with last year’s most lauded sci-fi-adjacent novels, Oval and Infinite Detail, failing to render a meaningful vision of the future in any way.
A training program to acclimatize the citizen under late capitalism to learn and love humanity's new role as spectator and occasional collateral damage in a society consisting of godlike megacorporations and their chaotic interactions? That would be The Marvel Cinematic Universe— ཊལབསརངཧ (@David_Rudnick) April 27, 2019
On the other hand, when optimistic ideas for the future do get proposed (such as carless cities or 100% renewable energy) they are often deemed either unrealistic, delusional, or fiction by mainstream media. I recall coming to the hilarious and grim conclusion that the only type of pop media where a vision of the future is taken seriously is the “request for startup” variety of venture capitalist blog posts. Unfortunately this half-joke was borne out later this year with Marc Andreessen’s TIME TO BUILD essay managing to inspire and invigorate thousands, despite containing no plan for what specifically we should be building towards.
Returning to your essay, it seems that history actually has ended in some meaningful way within mainstream consciousness. While the entire media environment today operates under stream logic — involving the continuous production of new pseudo-events — what is different about legacy 20th-century media institutions is that their discursive progression is wholly ignorant of the past. The evolving discourse of new internet native subcultures, on the other hand, continues to produce history by incorporating new historical facts into themselves. I hope readers take your line “deep history is a serious competitive advantage” literally. Internet-native groups seek out historical events not only because they are politically aware, but because they are in competition with other ideological streams. To combine with Louise Druhle’s analogy, they are under selective pressure to increase their gravitational pull, and in doing so are producing significantly more compelling narratives than mainstream media.
One thing I’m unclear on is why history disappeared from mainstream consciousness in the way it did. Mark Fisher would say that neoliberal subjectivity corrodes one’s imaginary capabilities — the “slow cancellation of the future.” Philip Mirowski would be more explicit, arguing that neoliberal doctrine has had such patently devastating consquences for the working person that it has needed to obscure the origin of its crises and actively shape public discourse to protect itself. I’d also speculate about the separation of public and private spheres we currently tend to make, and the separation of home life, public life, and civic life, both of which also go back to the 70s, but I know little about those things. I guess a good generalization inclusive of all of the above would be that culture is in many ways downstream of capital.
On the other hand, mainstream media may have become ignorant of history as a psychological defense. The development of multihistories and memetic competition is just another way of saying the culture war. While we’ve all gotten used to living in a persistent conflict zone, it’s not exactly fun. Under these conditions, the mainstream world of lukewarm takes and forever-breaking news cycles, this Disneyfied universe of crossover events, characterized by the ambient listlessness of memory lapse, provides a sort of dull respite for the mind strained by ideological battle. Do you think this purgatory can last? What is its relationship with centrism? Personally, I’d guess any relief mainstream consciousness provides is illusory. The mainstream is under attack from all sides, with groups of all types attempting to seize its ideological ground. The best defense against ideology remains ideology.
Then there are nomadic anthropologists like you and I. So far, we haven’t declared a side. Up until now I’ve preferred to play the merchant, traveling from tribe to tribe, here selling a rare gem, there performing a clever trick learned far away, collecting oddities and fragments of wisdom as I make my living on the spice route.
The futures we envision never appear, receding into memory like dreams... The real future merges fluidly into the present, forcing revisions, mergers, and forks of historical streams of consciousness....— Toby (@tobyshorin) June 17, 2020
How does the immediate accessibility of so many alt histories undermine our ability to create shared futures?
But if all we’ve said before is true, doesn’t it follow that the actual future of humanity will develop not out of mainstream consciousness but out of one or more of these subcultures with a view of big history. In his New Models interview, Venkat mentioned something along these lines: that while inventing the future once took the ambition and charisma of an Elon Musk or an Edison, it’s now realistic to be able to invent the future for a few thousand citizens of one’s small-scale subjective reality.
That’s one reason why at some point, I think it’s more virtuous to choose the future we want to live in than to arbitrage from culture to another. Personally, I’ve never been able to avoid writing moralizing conclusions to my own essays, and these days I’m inclined to push myself further in that direction. I think that’s my biggest difference from Venkat, and the source of my biggest disagreement with him. What’s the point of developing Correct Opinions if you don’t use them to actualize the future you believe in? That’s one reason I’ve been addressing my writing slightly more toward a business audience. We are living in a liminal time, a time with high tolerance (outside the mainstream) for new ideas and experiments with new ways of living. We have higher leverage than we think.
One area I’m investing time into thinking about is new ownership models and ways of dealing with capital. I don’t understand monetary policy and I’m not particularly knowledgeable about economics, but it’s clear to me that we need new ways of understanding and allocating value the networked 21st century. I believe many of the co-ownership experiments happening in cryptocurrency communities can be made less esoteric and ported to areas outside. Capital ownership is a counterbalance to wage stagnation. Economists say that wealth has universal power laws, but designable economic models can surely make the curve more equitable. That’s a future worth working towards, IMO.
To what groups and ideas have you been hitching your camel? What history do you believe everyone should acknowledge? And what future? Your essay left me with questions about the role of the individual. Identity has never been ahistorical, and history has never been apolitical, but now more than ever, our identity is a decision of historical politics. With a self awareness unmatched by any historical subject, we see who we walk alongside, and can choose our caravan. We may not all be history-makers, we are all at least history selectors.