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Against Crisis, Dream
The path out of the false urgency of states of emergency
Unser Leben ist kein Traum, aber es soll und wird vielleicht einer werden
(Our life is no dream, but it should—and perhaps will—be.)
A few days ago, I finally recovered from a rather intense cold. Not covid, according to the tests, just one of those old school lung infections that turned into bronchitis.
I really don’t like getting sick, though I’m sure no one really does. The forced rest is always a kindness it takes me quite some time to fully acknowledge. Just before getting sick, I’d started a cardio training regimen that probably should have included more down-time between sessions, and I’m sure getting sick was related to that lack of rest.
I was quite “useless” during that time, meaning I couldn’t work, couldn’t cook, couldn’t do much more except stay in one place most of the day. This frustrated me more than anything else, since I had several large projects desperate to be finished. I also missed a planned trip to Trier, which disappointed me.
The gift of that forced rest, however, was that I was able to let my mind run through some thoughts I usually don’t let myself think. There are some thoughts you just don’t have time for, but when all you have is time, you don’t have that excuse any longer. And it also gave me time to dream.
I’ve been suspecting that we’re all heading soon into an even more highly-reactive time, one where everything is intense backlash to unresolved conflicts demanding to be addressed. Such moments can be quite ugly, and also violent, and I suspect it will feel very dark for many people for some time.
We’ve all probably had the sense that the world has just changed in fast and shocking ways. The problem at such times is that it’s never clear precisely what has happened, nor what can be done about it. Worse, when one shift occurs directly after another, we can get trapped in cycles of reaction where our initial response becomes the only response we can offer. We become rigid, even fundamentalist, and our ability to step back from those reactions fuels the crisis to which we were reacting and causes new ones.
This is Bayo Akomalafe’s point when he asks, “What if the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis?” Crisis is from Greek and meant “judgment,” as in a trial or a decision. It originally referred to the act of sieving, sorting out what was to be kept and what was to be discarded. Later, it primarily referred to a medical state, the moment when an illness or disease could either turn towards survival or death.
We still preserve this medical sense when we talk about crises. We think of ourselves, of our relationships, of society, of civilization, of the world as being patients in a hospital bed facing only two potential outcomes: life or death. In other words, in each crisis we are asking ourselves, “is this the end?”
It’s a kind of apocalyptic thinking only possible from a framework in which there’s an ultimate end and a final moment of judgment. Our understanding of time as a linear progression from a singular beginning to a singular end means we are always looking for the ultimate turning point, the discrete moment where the outcome is determined. That’s the moment of crisis, the tipping point. Everything before that point led up to the crisis, and everything that comes after is predetermined by decisions made during the moment of crisis.
Because we are mostly trapped in this way of seeing time, we cannot conceive of other ways of approaching each crisis. In fact, this way of seeing time is why we see each of these moments as crises: as turning points and emergencies to which we must react. Each time, we are summoned to the moment of crisis like heroic actors ready to determine the fate of the world, to manifest history and destiny through our response.
But then, there’s another crisis just after.
This is the violent brilliance of the “state of emergency” which Walter Benjamin and Georgio Agamben both interrogate. Benjamin links these moments to the Jewish experience of waiting for the Messiah, the “messianic promise” which repeats in Christianity through the “imminent return” of the Christ. Jesus is always about to come back, just as the Messiah is always just about to arrive. Everything before that moment leads up to the arrival, everything after is already written.
States of emergency are the imminent return or the messianic promise, ultimate crises that will determine the meaning of the past and the future of humanity. If we react wrongly, everyone will die. If react rightly, then we will have saved humanity, civilization, capitalism, the West, minorities, the planet, or whatever else happens to be at stake in each particular apocalyptic moment. Christ will have returned or the messiah will have arrived, meaning that we will be saved from the consequences of past sins and birthed into a new world of grace and progress.
The problem is that a state of emergency is really just the current order (“the state” in a broader sense than just the government) attempting to save itself from its own contradictions. When we react to its crises, we re-create and re-affirm the current order, “saving” it from the death that comes for everything.
Covid, Ukraine, and narrative control
It’s worth looking at a few of the current crises to see how this happens. Covid was one of these sorts of crises, an imminent death from which we needed to save society.
N.S. Lyons has an extensive piece documenting the massive protests against the zero-covid policy of the Chinese government, including quite a few videos. What’s really worth your attention is his analysis later in the article, in which he notes that Western coverage of the protests focus on them being “democracy protests” rather than protests against the lockdowns and control. It seems almost as if the West cannot speak about them any other way, because:
To do so honestly would be to strike directly at the same animating myth that drove “emergency” Covid measures in their own countries. The lockdowns, and vaccine passports, and QR codes, and mass censorship, and unprecedented termination of basic civil liberties, and brutal treatment of dissenters that we saw gleefully implemented by governments all over the world during the pandemic – and which were based directly on the China model – were always worse than irrational and illiberal. To point out that such measures are a continuing crime against humanity in China would be to point out that they were a crime against humanity everywhere.
That could prompt some unwanted reflections about how things went down the last few times people protesting against lockdowns and calling for human dignity, human rights, free expression, and democratic accountability (aka packs of “dangerous far-right extremists” and “conspiracy theorists”) took to the streets in the West.
In other words, pointing out that the Chinese anger is primarily about government travel restrictions, mask and vaccine mandates, stay-in-place orders, and vaccine passports risks reminding us that our governments did that, too. There were people protesting these things in these countries, and they were labeled “fascists” and “conspiracy theorists” by that same media trying to explain how these protests in China “aren’t really” about covid.
Just as with states of emergency after terrorists attacks, governments accumulated a shocking amount of power over the people they rule during the pandemic. This is something that needs to be admitted no matter whether or not you believe covid or the threat of terrorism merited these increased powers. These are increased powers they haven’t given up, and they’ll continue to use them during new states of emergency.
Those emergencies will likely be energy-related in Europe, since the economic costs of the Ukraine-Russia war is being displaced onto European and other countries through fuel shortages and subsequent price increases on food and other necessities. I think we’ll see very large protests here that the governments and media label as “far right populism,” and they’re likely to bring out those accumulated powers to deal with them.
The Ukraine conflict is another one of those unresolved matters that seems likely to trigger some intense reactions soon. What’s happening there is awful, but also the way that the US seems eager to keep it happening (“fighting Russia to the very last Ukrainian”) means we may not see any end of it for years. However, the aforementioned costs are only now beginning to manifest, because it takes many months for shortages to really be felt tangibly.
Pushing for a settlement would save the lives of countless Ukrainians, but the US won’t do that. No one wants to look like they are appeasing Putin, which is understandable, but if there is no resolution then the effects will destabilize every government in Europe.
That’s really scary if you live in Europe as I do. For Americans, it can sound only like a distant theoretical problem, just like Iraq and Afghanistan were distant places their government was bombing. The effects of those wars were left for the rest of the region to deal with, while Americans continued to enjoy cheaper oil and subsequent economic growth. This time, though, the economic benefit will be from cheaper European products and less competition as the economies here collapse.
While there have been quite a few news articles about inflation and the burden that rising energy prices are having on people, none that I’ve read have gotten even close to describing the palpable feeling of desperation here, a sense of harder times coming. The final dismantling of harsh restrictions on human life in the name of covid only just happened, and already there’s another crisis in the air.
The crises over Ukraine and covid are more related than they may seem, but this can only be seen when you step back and look at the larger shifts in governance. As I mentioned, governments accumulated (or seized) shocking amounts of power during the last few years, and even if many of the policies they implemented are no longer in place, those powers still are.
The power of control over narrative is one of those powers, and this power wasn’t only used to solidify a singular message about covid. Remember, Facebook admitted they’d suppressed news articles not just about the “lab leak” hypothesis but also about Hunter Biden’s laptop; Mark Zuckerberg publicly admitted the latter to have been on advisement from the US government. Other social media companies did the same, possibly also at behest of certain centers of government.
Governments and media corporations have done the same thing for news about Ukraine and Russia. We don’t have access to any other narrative except for the official pro-Ukrainian one. What this has done is not only prevent us from ever hearing anything that Russia might say without it first being filtered by Western media companies, but also this has led to the re-narration of any dissent from the West as Russian propaganda.
This was happening before covid, of course, but this perpetual state of emergency we’re now in (covid, then Ukraine-Russia, and then next an energy crisis and soon something else) has solidified centralized power over the narratives and made it so we don’t even have time to evaluate the last crisis before the next one begins.
When governments seize excessive power like this, the eventual reaction is always quite violent. The problem is that, since it’s impossible to enact real political violence on the state, the violence is instead directed towards easily-reached institutions and groups supportive of or protected by the state. This is the real danger when minorities (ethnic, sexual, or religious) gain special status or seek special protections from the state: they’re the first targets when the state is recognized as the enemy.
“Fear is the Mind-killer”
To get a better sense of the manipulation of crises here, consider the matter of the recent shooting in Colorado. Jesse Singal wrote a piece just the other day referencing the media narratives both of that event and of the Pulse Club shooting in Orlando. There’s a narrative capture occurring there which has multiple parts. One of them is related to the killer in Colorado identifying as non-binary, and there are really messy implications of this for the “declarative gender” model. (I’ll probably write about this in a later essay.)
The more relevant aspect of narrative capture in states of emergency is the issue of the Orlando shooting. Incidentally, I was part of the gay pride parade in Orlando that occurred after that massacre. I joined my sister, who had organized a contingent within the parade for the corporate retail store she managed. Two of the dead were her employees. The parents of the dead were in that contingent, and it was a very beautiful day.
Anyway, Singal’s point is that the Orlando shooting wasn’t actually motivated by homophobia, which is verifiably true as best as anyone can know. I’ve known about this for several years now, but if this is the first time you’re hearing this, please take the time to read Singal’s piece (and the associated On The Media article).
This doesn’t change the horror of the event by any means. However, it should give us all pause regarding the way that terrible event entered into certain political narratives in a rather dishonest way. We see that same dishonesty quite often in right-aligned narratives about immigrants raping women: isolated and often singular events get used as evidence of a larger problem that doesn’t actually exist, and the result is always an increase of fear about a crisis to which we “must” react.
If we’d like to move beyond relentless reaction, we must judge left-aligned manipulations of events with the same harshness as we judge right-aligned manipulations. It’s the only way to keep from falling into the position I’ve repeatedly drawn attention to: extremist right-aligned figures get to seize the ground of truth merely by drawing attention to the lies the left denies.
Especially, it does no good to anyone to over-exaggerate horrific events. Inciting fear and hysteria in people is a deeply violent act, whether done by murderers, the media, politicians, or activists. Fearful people are easily controlled, easily manipulated, and easily enchained, and anyone who incites fear has those states as their end goal—whether they can admit it to themselves or not.
The Crisis of Linear Time
That’s also the ultimate goal of all states of emergency. They are false breaks in time, false moments of the urgent “now” of the current order. Like a nun slapping a pupil on the wrist to make them pay attention, the state (and I mean not just the government but everything that rules) is constantly trying to force us into its present, to attend to it instead of anything else.
While I was sick, I started reading a rarely-cited work by Georgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience. Then, this Saturday my husband and I took a train to Brussels to celebrate his birthday, and I finished reading the book on the train trip there and back.
Agamben is a very bizarre and brilliant thinker, a Marxist who completely rejects dialectical materialism and convincingly argues that Marx himself did, too. His way of the world is as equally informed by modern political theory as it is by ancient pagan philosophy, and he’s one of the few theorists you’ll ever see notice the foundational influence of metaphysical concepts and pagan beliefs in modern political formations.
Infancy and History is a very difficult book and quite hard to summarize. First of all, by “infancy” he doesn’t mean children, but rather the concept of a human without speech (its literal meaning in Latin). His ultimate subject, however, is our conception of linear time, which he rightly sees as a creation of Christianity.
In linear (or “rectilinear,” in his words) time, everything happens only once, every moment is a discrete point, and everything moves from a beginning and end through successions of “instants.” That’s because the Christians believed there was nothing before God created the world, and that the world will eventually end and there will only be God (and those he resurrects) again. This framework repeats in the idea of the Christ: before his crucifixion and resurrection, everyone was lost to sin. After, however, everything in the past was transformed through its anticipation of that singular moment, and everything after is fulfillment of that sacrificial act.
The pagans, of course, had a more circular view of time with no discrete beginning of the world and no ultimate end. One of the best ways to illustrate the difference here is to remember that at the end of the Bible the world ends. At the end of pagan apocalyptic stories like the Ragnarök, the world keeps going. In fact, often times there is an ambiguity as to when such events even take place: they can just as easily be before our current time as they could be after.
That view was actually a problem early Christians struggled with, especially St. Augustine. Agamben points out that Augustine devoted quite a bit of time to trying to iterate a linear conception of time, because it was a completely new and strange idea. It actually took many centuries for linear time to become the dominant idea in Europe, and medieval theologians such as Aquinas were still trying to work out exactly what linear time meant.
There’s a really bright and hopeful truth in this recognition. It’s the same hope that comes from recognizing that capitalism is a very new way of arranging society: its newness means there’s still enough of previous ways of thinking around that they can be recovered. Actually, for linear time it’s even easier to recover other ways of thinking, since there are really-existing cultures in which linear time doesn’t exist.
In fact, the key to escaping linear time is rejecting its primary premise that the past is a static, dead object in a museum or a history book. As I noted in “Soap Has Always Been With Us, and Longer Still,” many languages don’t even have a way of speaking of the past as a different time. Instead, the past in these languages is merely a different place you are not currently in, the same way that a nearby village is a different place from the one you are in now.
If the past is place rather than time, then a state of emergency loses its power. Crises are no longer pivotal moments that determine the meaning of the past and the shape of the future. They are not turning points—they are openings.
Against the “messianic promise” and urgency of states of emergency, Walter Benjamin proposed the jetztzeit, literally the “now-time.” The messianic promise is a time of waiting for an external intervention that determines and defines everything, while the jetztzeit is the moment of recognition that everything might change with just a slight action.
Though he never referenced it, Benjamin’s idea is remarkably similar to Taoism. In the jetztzeit, what is needed is not force or reaction, but rather recognition that another order can be born in the moment. If a state of emergency is the current order demanding our reaction in order to save it in its crisis, than the jetztzeit is the refusal to answer its demand.
In his brilliant essay “Rewilding Witchcraft,” Peter Grey iterated exactly what Benjamin’s antidote to these states of emergency is:
“We need to offer the death rites in a culture that pretends that death can be cheated.”
That is, when the current order screams that it is dying and must be saved, we must not only refuse to save it, but we must also help it along its way. This is not “accelerationism,” but merely recognition: it’s all falling apart quite well enough on its own.
The jetztzeit can only be recognized by rejecting linear time and the story it tells about the world. There is neither progression nor regression, no primitive Edenic state nor advanced future civilization. We are neither fallen sinners nor enlightened elect, and most importantly of all we are neither the products nor the protagonists of history.
Sure, it’s not easy to shift into this way of thinking. Like the slight change in perception required to see a phantasm in a “magic eye” image, it’s a subtle art impossible to teach or transmit by conventional means. Fortunately, humans already possess all that is required for this: the imagination. Georgio Agamben makes a point in Infancy and History which I had not fully understood until encountering that book. I sensed it previously and even wrote about it, but I still didn’t quite understand it.
As I wrote and as Agamben notes, imagination has only recently come to mean “something that doesn’t exist.” Even medieval Christian and Islamic theologians still understood imagination as something else, a kind of intermediary faculty of humans between knowledge and truth. Often described as a sphere situated between the sphere of knowledge and the sphere of truth, imagination was how the world-as-it-is translated itself into what we call knowledge.
In this view, knowledge is what comes when imagination shows us images of the world as it truly is. That means that knowledge will always be partial and incomplete, and it must always be in active relation to the imaginal sphere in order to keep being knowledge.
The imaginal is the sphere of dreaming and inspiration. Dreams especially are the primary way we learn to see the world as it truly is, which of course sounds quite the opposite of how Western theories of knowledge see things. Now we speak of things being “only a dream” or an experience being “only your imagination,” when otherwise we would have seen dreams and imagination as the very key to understanding truth.
When we try to recount a dream to someone, we are always confronting the problem of time. It’s impossible to describe the precise order of events in a dream or to measure the time between one part of the dream and another. That apparent problem is actually the solution, because it reveals to us that we are always already experiencing non-linear time. Every night we dream, we step outside of linear time completely and into the only realm where truth and knowledge can meet each other.
Crisis as a false act of presence
This leads us back to these crises and the path to the jetztzeit. Each state of emergency is an attempt to re-establish and re-affirm linear time, because the current order can only exist in linear time.
To see this, consider the common complaint that Western capitalists levied against peoples in Africa, Asia, and other places regarding their sense of time and punctuality. Everyone outside the West had different conceptions of time, and those other conceptions were not just a barrier to capitalist expansion but also an enemy to it.
Capitalism requires linear time because the machines upon which it relies (actual machines such as computers, assembly lines, transit systems; and also mechanisms such as interest and wage labor) can only function in linear time. You cannot calculate varying rates of interest if the past is not a set, discrete moment, nor can you project future profits from factory production if the future is not a causal product of the present.
Beyond just capitalism, however, the nation itself requires linear time in order to justify its existence. Before the nation there was darkness, “pre-history,” which could only reach fulfillment upon the nation’s founding. Every nation follows the same formula of primitive past to progressive enlightenment, easiest seen in the linear time myth of France. Before the Republic, there was the oppressive ancien regime; now it is a present of liberation and democracy reaching ever forward into the future.
These are easy examples, but the rule of linear time extends into everything else and repeats the same “dark past ended, present fulfillment, future manifesting” formula. Medicine, science, technology, political identity, economic activity, and especially our sense of history is all predicated upon, shaped, and limited by this conception of time.
Because of this, everything is always in crisis. Religion is in crisis, traditional values are in crisis, human rights are in crisis, education, minorities, political parties, energy, financial institutions, entire economies, and especially we ourselves are always in a state of emergency. In fact, we are never not in such states, we are never not in crisis.
Crises are often described as moments of immediacy, emergencies demanding our full awareness of the present. However, the fact that we have to drop everything else we were doing to attend to the crisis means we must pull ourselves out of our own present into the present of another. In other words, that present awareness is not the awareness of our own lives, but rather of some existential threat which can never be overcome.
Akolomafe’s question, then, points us to the true problem of crises and these states of emergencies. It is not just that the way we respond to them is part of the crisis, but also that responding at all pulls us from our own presence into non-presence. We can no longer act but only re-act, as if watching a drama as mere passive spectators.
Walter Benjamin’s solution to the state of emergency is realizing we ourselves are the real emergency, that we are what is constantly emerging that the current order is trying to prevent. We are always the actual threat, because in our dreams and imaginings we can see the world without the mediation of the state and its narrations.
Agamben asserts that the diminished view of the imagination was a necessary condition for our current order. We had to stop trusting our dreams and even our own experiences of the world before we could then be convinced that the way the world is presented to us by the state was true. This is also Silvia Federici’s point in much of her work: capitalism especially needed us to stop trusting ourselves and even our own bodies in order to turn us into workers.
It’s a project that began before capitalism, of course. Once the Catholic Church gained a monopoly on meaning-production, we became convinced that our flesh was sinful, our desires controlled by demons, and the natural world unworthy of our attention. The Protestants retooled these older narratives into even more terrifying models of control and hatred of the human, and through these models birthed our current order.
Despite all this, no one has ever destroyed our ability to dream, nor can they. Though we may now believe we cannot trust our imaginations and must submit our sleeping visions to the sterile gaze of psychology, the very same sphere through which the world-as-it-is enters into our knowledge can never go away.
Some other writers have helpfully pointed the way towards this, even though they come at the problem from completely different frameworks. Paul Kingsnorth’s framework of the machine is one helpful way of looking at this problem, though of course it omits the role of Christianity’s linear time narrative in the creation of that Machine. Charles Eisenstein has also provided a really useful framework for this, especially through his assertion that a different story altogether is necessary. Also, his insistence that the covid crisis is part of a much longer and older mechanism of control is really important.
Someone else who gets to this question through a completely different framework is Caroline Ross. She recently published an older essay where she recounts a story related to the Tao to illustrate the matter of presence, and the result is something very close to what Benjamin was suggesting with the jetztzeit:
This is not just another illustration of effortless skill, as is often assumed. Here we are shown another way to be, one almost entirely forgotten in our culture, but real, nonetheless. It is not just 'not-thinking-in-words', not even 'mindfulness', it is uncontrived immersion and truly sensing the world.
This “uncontrived immersion” is the present/presence of the jetztzeit, and it is also the exact opposite of the forced emergency attention of crisis. Ross notes later that this “Art” can be inhabited in almost any path, and I absolutely agree with this. Even the very religions which birthed linear time into our world nevertheless make as their goal an attempt to live unfettered by that linear time. In some paths it’s called the “eternal,” while in others it’s called the “present” and in still others some variant of “timelessness.” Regardless what it’s called and how it’s formulated, the experience described is something even older than religion itself, because it’s the very substance and rhythm of dreams.
And dreaming is the only way to see the world as it is.