Our times are fractured, how we see the world is fractured. If we could piece it all back together, what would we see?
“Have we reached peak Ragnarök yet?” This question rather nails the current feeling of mounting chaos that is rampant in this world. Neil Gaiman was asked his question by an American journalist in 2017.* Just like the rest of us, Gaiman was then – and no doubt is now – trying to piece together some logic and hope to help guide him through what he terms “this world of Brexit, Trump and madness.”**
Hang on a minute, lads
“Almost everywhere trust in governments, parliaments and elections is collapsing. Shared civic life is replaced by closed social circles that receive entirely different, often false, information.”
Perhaps it will all make sense in the long run? In retrospect, the past (no matter how chaotic it seemed whilst being lived through) can often seem to have a logic that it didn’t seem to have when events were unfolding in real time. When we attempt to piece it all back together, a different picture can emerge.
Nostalgia for “post-truth politics”?
I got to thinking about this last weekend, prompted by a fascinating YouTube video in which Alan Moore interviews Stewart Lee about the latter’s then-new book Content Provider.
The video dates from just two-and-a-half years ago. It was filmed in August 2016, post-Brexit vote, pre-Trump election. Parts of it are remarkably prescient.*** Other parts already seem like a time capsule**** from another era. It feels oddly quaint to hear the phrase “post-truth politics” now. Has the absence of truth from politics become so commonplace that we might no longer even comment on it?
Content Provider collects Stewart Lee’s Observer columns from 2011 to 2016. As with his stand-up comedy*****, Lee’s journalistic efforts are big on audience alienation. “I decided to write as if I was trying to get sacked,” says Lee. The tone of these articles puts Moore in mind of “a Kamikaze pilot deliberately crashing into his aircraft carrier on take-off.”
Going to hell in a handbasket
Over the half-decade of writing his Observer column, Lee felt like the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Yet, from the perspective of the howling chaos and uncertainty of August 2016, Lee and Moore note that 2011 to 2016 might almost seem a halcyon era of common-sense and stability. Lee says:
“2011, when the collection starts, feels like a long time ago compared to the news speed of 2016. There’s this assumption that everything is instantly generated.”
Moore takes up this theme:
“The rate of change itself is changing and accelerating. This is a problem for everything. There’s this mounting complexity. And we couldn’t even handle our previous levels of complexity. It’s all so much faster.”
Lee says that we are approaching “a crisis of the perception of information.” If experienced in the moment, the fractured nature of modern media (including social media) means that the narrative is all over the place. Our times are fractured. But Lee notes that through shaking the pieces out of their fractured state and reassembling them to compile the book, a different view emerges:
Stewart Lee: “It’s interesting how the context changes. All these bits are online somewhere, attached to the publication they’re in. But you put them together in a book, and that asks you to consider it in a way that you wouldn’t as individual pieces. And changing the context changes the perception of it. It does feel like the character of the writer gets more mad over the five years, as does the level of madness from the public commenting on things. In isolation, you don’t see that. And that’s sort of what digital media has done to us. We see a succession of things in isolation, rather than as an assembled whole. Putting it into a book accidentally creates an arc that follows five years of what’s going on.”
Alan Moore: “And it becomes a kind of graph for the decline of culture.”
Stewart Lee: “The decline of me!”
What would we see?
What a web we weave. Our times are fractured. How we see the world is fractured. But with the benefit of hindsight, looking at events from the recent past can reveal a hidden narrative. If we could piece these times back together, what would we see? What will be obvious in, say, 2021 that isn’t obvious now, yet is staring us in the face?
Gentle reader, I sincerely hope for your sake and mine that this story will prove to have some kind of happy ending. Or at least one in which some tiny measure of common-sense wins through. May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
* The “peak Ragnarök” comment can be found at around the 48-minute mark in this delightful video of Neil Gaiman’s talk with Stephen Fry at the 2017 Hay Festival (which tied in with the mythical coincidence of the former’s book Norse Mythology, and the latter’s book Mythos.
** No matter your political persuasion, I’d be surprised if you thought we were living in normal times. BAU (business as usual) just does not apply.
*** Alan Moore and Stewart Lee definitely have form when it comes to prescience. I had the privilege of getting to see them in conversation at the British Library on Monday 4 July 2011 (with Frank Skinner sitting right behind me). Stewart Lee asked that evening:
“What is Twitter but voluntary self-surveillance?”
**** A slight digression on this topic… Gyles Brandreth’s excellent political diaries, Breaking The Code serve as something of a time capsule. They depict an era that was eventful in the living. But some of the political events, situations and concerns in these diaries can seem unimaginable when compared with our current state of permanent crisis. As Brandreth writes, this was an era in which MPs might embark on taxpayer-funded factfinding missions to investigate allegations that UK compact disc prices might be inflated. I purchased the book following a mini-review on David Hepworth’s blog, in which he describes it as “the most candid parliamentary memoir you’re ever going to read.”
*** I won’t even attempt to unpick and explain the complexities of Stewart Lee’s comedy persona for the uninitiated here. But if you would like to find out more, I highly recommend Lee’s book How I Escaped My Certain Fate.
- Broken window pictures by MJCarty.
- Broken mirror picture via Wikimedia Commons.