Once, there were two worlds, superimposed over each other. There was the experience of reality mediated by religion and ideology, art and myth; by news, entertainment media, the political process, advertising and product design. And under it, there was the real world, the raw existence of things, life without the overlay. The possibility of unmediated access to the real world was a subject of academic debate—the consensus tended toward no—but the media-political-industrial complex could never fully obscure the real world, and it was never a perfect overlay. That’s the story we tell ourselves, more or less.
For a host of reasons, that picture is no longer accurate. At some point, the overlay, the simulation—whatever you wish to call it—became all-obscuring, mediating our experience of every aspect of reality. If, before, the map was an attempt at approximating the territory of the world, it is no longer. Now, the map is an avalanche, trying desperately to cover the territory with a plastic approximation of its contours. This is, it goes without saying, a very rough sketch of the general mood, not a history of technology and media and propaganda, but it works as an analogy for the current moment: something has changed about the way we experience the world around us; technology and media, and their attendant political and ideological processes, are suddenly no longer lenses through which we view the world but the world itself.
This is, for most of us, a catastrophic state of affairs. When media—a useful shorthand for the bundle of phenomena which color our perceptions, but by no means the only ingredient—completely obscured the real world, it became untethered, beholden to nothing except itself, an endless stream of references without an actual referent—and if, once in a while, the signs point to the actual presence of a signified, it’s impossible to tell: the map is being held over the territory in a way that blocks all vision of the actual terrain.
To take merely one example: where, once, cable news afforded a 24/7 glimpse into what was happening in the world, it’s now accurate to say that someone who watches CNN, or Fox, or whatever their preferred audiovisual poison happens to be, is less informed about the world at large than they were before. Conspiracy theorists will say that this has always been the case, and they are right. But something has changed: there is now no guarantee whatsoever that what’s on TV has anything at all to do with what’s actually happening.
The total falsification of contemporary life goes further. Presidents are now impeached via Twitter suspension; coups are supported by internet bots. These things are significant, affecting events in the world at large, or at least one level deeper in the simulation. If you die in the game, you die in real life. Reputations are made and broken, often anonymously, via social media; jobs are offered and job offers rescinded. The simulation has its own events, makes its own news, its own faux society, even.
The contemporary media landscape, like the rest of “reality”, is now a choose-your-own-adventure game; the difference between established fact and conspiracy theory is no longer marked by plausibility or sanity but solely by self-appointed arbiters of truth and falsehood—and if you don’t like our fact-checkers, don’t worry, we have others.
Against this backdrop, a quiet mood of despair prevails, a post-pandemic feeling that all is not right with the world, that, in the absence of reliable information, in the absolute absence of any relationship between the overlays that filter reality through to us and reality itself, everything might just be quietly collapsing in on itself—and if it were, how would we know? When buildings actually do collapse, we’re quietly unsurprised. How many of us now look at overpasses and bridges and silently wonder if concrete has an expiration date? I do.
If the physical building blocks of society seem unkempt and prone to collapse, its spiritual and social building blocks are in a state of total collapse. The question of what constitutes a nation is an academic debate at this point, one worth having, but ultimately irrelevant to the current moment: whatever the essential ingredients are, America hasn’t got them anymore. And as America goes, so go her vassal states, economically and culturally subordinate. It only took several decades of the society-as-hostel framework for the society-as-home ideal to become completely obsolete; the notion that it might be preferable, or even simply desirable to some people, is at best quaint, at worst, verboten.
To a certain degree, societal malaise is a self-fulfilling jeremiad. If a civilization’s best and brightest feel that something is off, then something is off. And something is, of course, off, and, because the lenses through which we view reality are so off kilter, we lack the vocabulary to fully articulate it. It manifests itself in the way people move on public transportation; advertisements dotting the walls, promising the compartmentalisation, anonymisation, and digitisation of all, even the most intimate, aspects of human life; the way in which government media tends to infantilise the citizen, masked behind the language of empowerment and belonging; the distrust manifest in endless security checkpoints and surveillance cameras; the nagging feeling that something isn’t right.
Despite its inchoate form, this feeling isn’t mere discontent or reactionary sentiment. Several long-term social experiments are turning out, one after the other, to be bad ideas: the un-Dunbarification of modern life, betrayed by the realisation that society doesn’t really scale past a certain point; the dissolution of cult revealed to have merely replaced religious instinct with the most vulgar party politics and niche drip-brewed ideology; total sexual liberation shading into the reality of exploitation under the guise of consent; consent itself exposed as a rather poor conceptual building block upon which to construct a society. The list could be expanded for eternities, and no doubt will be. It turns out that the framework of man as an autonomous, anonymous, consenting being is not enough to hold up the world. Knowledge registers more as instinct than as fully-formed theory, as a general awareness that we were made for better things than this, more than as a fully formed program for change. Such programs, as we have been shown, are at best useless and at worst actively misdirected. Yet at the heart of all of them is the knowledge—placed onto various scapegoats, some authorised, some not—that there’s something wrong with things. Every healthy society, of course, has its Cassandras. If decline and fall are historically ubiquitous, then prophets of doom are omnipresent. Yet our Cassandras, gadflyish as many of them may be, are onto something (if, admittedly, they are very often on something as well).
Central to the lens, the simulacrum, the cataract that is the spectacle, whatever you want to call it, is stupidity. It is useless to dwell upon the manifold stupidities that occupy every echelon of the official institutions of society, because we all know what they are and because they aren’t real; useless because thinking too much about the overwhelming stupidity of government and academia makes us feel stupid in turn, which is the very purpose of the wastepaper ideology that prevails in those places in the first place. And yet, stupidity is the ivy eating away at the Ivy League, the regnant phantasy of policy papers and press releases, the hallmark of corporate culture, and the watchword of the loyal opposition. “It is all so stupid,” we sigh—and we are right. It is exhausting and embarrassing and unavoidable. Kitsch, cutesiness, the language of shallow belonging, the thinnest possible platitudes are the only shared language we have left.
All this is true, of course, insofar as we let it be true. The darkened, distorted lens which warps our perception of reality to the point of indistinction is only there to the extent we allow it to be: the oligarchy of attention is constituted by exactly that—attention—and the moment we divert our gaze is when it nearly ceases to exist. Behind that lens is a world, in bad shape—yet a world, tangible and real. It is that world that matters.
It is time to build: that much we all can agree on. Yet too many of the building plans drawn up are mere scaffolding, mounted on a reality that doesn’t actually exist. There is no replacement for building real, live society, but that has to be done in the real world, with real people, and it starts with fixing the plumbing. There is no way around this. Space, Bitcoin, replacements for the in-person life of the mind which only the city, rightly governed, can facilitate, are, as the kids say, cope. They are retreats into customised corners of the simulation, burrowing further into the map. They have nothing to do with the territory of the real world. They may be tangible ideas, even good ones—but they are at best irrelevant, at worst distractions, to the work which needs to be done now irl.
The first exit strategy is described in Genesis, Chapter 10:
Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth. He was a mighty hunter by the grace of the LORD; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of the LORD”. The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. From that land Asshur went forth and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah, that is the great city.
The Midrash makes explicit, as it always does, what’s implicit in the text: Ashur’s secession is not unconnected to Nimrod’s success; it is an escape from it. And, more strikingly, the Midrash reads into these sentences a rebellion against the times: Ashur, it says, was dissenting from the building of the Tower of Babel.
I take for granted that my readers know enough of the story to get by here—and if not, they ought to brush up on their Bible studies, because if not, they’re not gonna make it.
The story of the Tower of Babel is bookended by the story of legibility: it begins because “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words,” and ends with the dispersion of man to all corners of the earth, unable to speak the same language anymore. It is, like every event in the Hebrew Bible, a recurring motif in human history. There are always people—the demotic majority and Nimrod, their elected representative—for whom the apartment building of Babel is the ideal state. That vision is predicated on total mutual legibility. In religious terms, it is quite simply a rebellion against God; in secular terms, it is a sociopolitical disaster. The antidote is illegibility, which, I will argue, actually means a special form of legibility.
The leitmotif of the current moment—which has lasted altogether too long—is legibility. Transparency, accountability, publicity—all of these amount to the same thing: a public square diluted into nonexistence by universal participation, a Borgesian library of endless text. The canon wars are, in their own myopic way, a fight about this—which texts will we allow to shape our minds?—and yet the answer seems to be everything. America and its suburb states have no ideology, as far as anyone can tell—save for a bubbling cauldron of resentments and indulgences, merely one facet of an underlying incoherence—and, short of certain blacklisted thoughts banned more for their appearance than for their content, anything goes. Unlimited expression turns out to produce total incoherence more than anything else. The liberal dream of public reason, like the classical model of republican debate, is just that: a dream. It is farcical in retrospect: did anyone ever really think this mess would produce coherent results, let alone the best possible political outcomes?
The public square, now distorted into a non-Euclidean grotesque, will not be the engine of solutions. Its only role is as an endless party where endless introductions can be made, a virtual world where invitations can be extended, a supercollider of unlikely correspondences. No enclave or echelon within it will do; its problems—virtuality, democracy, transparency—are endemic.
Legibility to the system is, therefore, the problem. What is legible to the public square is accessible to the public and thereby an extension of the public square. Even the most abstract level of legibility—say, “we ought to have a society”—provides an opening for quotation and [mis]interpretation, for reincorporation into the public discourse, either in an oppositional mode (the fate, mostly, of “right-wing” dissent) or as parasitic co-opting (the condition of left-wing thought.) This is the fatal flaw of political dissent in the current moment—besides its frequently vulgar nation, its Quixotic tilting at windmills, and any other flaws you might care to mention. It is doomed because it is legible, able to be interpreted as yet another aspect of the stage play. Consider how much infrastructure President Donald Trump built, or, if you prefer, the poetry the poet laureate (a nonentity) penned during his tenure. What begins as dissent—if in this case it even did—ends as villain-of-the-week antics for the cameras.
Illegibility, therefore, is key. An invitation-only Clubhouse room is nice, an invitation-only real life room is better—but what if content itself were a barrier to universal participation?
How to achieve this, of course, is an open question. Languages, no matter how obscure, can be translated; codes can be cracked, but those are only the tip of the iceberg. The solution I leave to people much smarter and more experienced than I. But the key, I think, or at least a key, is less language and more hermeneutics.
Of course, the telos of this illegibility isn’t simply incomprehension, but rather limited legibility—mutual legibility.
Ashur comes up again in Jewish history, as the namesake of the script in which the Torah, since Ezra, has been written. It’s a fitting tribute, as there is one thing that distinguishes Ashuri text from the earlier Ivri: the crowns on top of the letters, which, the Talmud relates in a famous anecdote, are the legible illegibility which ties the said to the unsaid. Ashur, like the builders at Babel, has his alphabet. But his, like ours must, hides more than it reveals.
To note one further typographic example of the phenomenon I’m referring to—one which is obviously inadequate for us and yet must do: when the block Hebrew derived from the Ashuri script became ubiquitous, printers turned to a new script, based on Sephardic calligraphy, for printing Talmudic commentary and esoterica. For a time, it restratified the textual hierarchy, until in short course it too became readable, the universally beloved “Rashi script”. An endless cascade of typographic reinvention won’t work, obviously, but as a crude analogy, it’s fit for purpose.
The illegibility of discussion is the only way to put people on equal footing with the system. After all, the system is itself illegible, and not always through opacity but often, paradoxically, by oversharing: with all the world at our fingertips, it is impossible to put together a coherent picture of it. Curation has always been the way that human beings process information and generate meaning; in the absence of a curator (certain exhibits are, of course, closed for renovation) information cascades upon us, a ten-million-piece puzzle where none of the pieces have edges. The all-encompassing nature of whatever-it-is-that-we-live-in means that it cannot be easily defined. It can be gestured at, but not named. Any exit party, to say nothing of replacement-in-waiting, must be equally opaque. And—as a bonus—there is a certain joy in esotericism, that’s only paralleled by that of being understood.
The corollary to illegibility is non-indexability. In a world that indexes everything, what is most valuable is not, or better yet, cannot, be indexed. If something can be uploaded, replicated, it is transparent. And yet many things cannot be uploaded or replicated. Not all of these things are politically useful, but political usefulness is not the only metric of worth. Human subjectivity; literary corpuses too vast or abstruse to catch the attention of librarians; religious experience; hope and love; long-dormant hermeneutics—these are politically useless but infinitely valuable to leading a meaningful life, which is, after all, the point.
This is not a mere side point, though it might seem like one: our world conspires against the notion that things are unique. Disposability, or its more voguish cousin, recyclability, are the essence of the modern world. Objects, moments, concepts imbued with intrinsic meaning are the most revolutionary things in the world.
It would be hypocritical and foolhardy, of me to fully explicate what I mean by all this, and the truth is: I don’t fully know. Nonetheless, a few concluding notes: more than any other currency in the world, meaning is the gold standard when it comes to a real exit strategy. It exists in infinite supply, but is no less precious for that. I have tried to briefly sketch out how it can be mined: in real life, through discussion and friendship, the only actual building blocks of society. And fortunately, much ground has been ceded (and seeded) to us already: genuine understanding of art, literature, and religion is already, for the most part, utterly illegible; all the more so for the art, literature, and religion of the future.
There are no directly political implications to the thoughts I have sketched out here. There is, however, an instruction manual of sorts for the development of a blueprint. I hope it will be of use.
Elijah del Medigo is a pseudonymous writer living on the East Coast. He is occasionally active on Twitter @HeliasHebreus.