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Realists of a Larger Reality
The introduction to Here Be Monsters: How To Fight Capitalism Instead of Each Other
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I once went on a date with a bat.
He was really nice, quite attractive, and very well spoken. We had a few beers together, and then I invited him home as the bar closed. He agreed, and we walked back to my place together, talking. But it wasn’t until we were sitting on my bed, about to kiss, that he told me he was a bat.
You’ll perhaps forgive me for not noticing before. I mean, he looked human. He even spoke like a human, rather than employing the high-pitched inaudible chirps and clicks bats use for echolocation. Maybe you’ll also forgive me for laughing when he told me that he was a bat.
“You mean you want to role-play?” I asked, naively. “Okay, maybe that could be fun.”
“That’s insulting. It’s not role-playing: I am really a bat,” he said, making clear his disappointment.
I suddenly felt bad, so I apologized, and then asked him to explain. He told me he had only recently discovered that he was a bat, so he could understand why it was hard for me. He had known something was different about him for a long time; then, one day, someone online had told him, “I see you are really a bat,” and this had changed his life.
He explained to me that it wasn’t like being a furry, the subculture of people who dress up like animals to have sex. He didn’t need to “dress up” like a bat, because he actually was one. And most importantly of all, if we were to have sex, I needed to have sex with him as he truly was.
“What... what does that mean, exactly?”
“You will be having sex with a bat, not a human.”
This finally all got a little too weird for me. “I... I don’t know how to have sex with a bat,” I said. I had that weird dizzy feeling in my head, the way you feel when you realize you’ve been talking to a conspiracy theorist or a religious fanatic. I don’t know exactly what that feeling is, but it’s like an internal alarm, or a mental shutdown, something telling you to get out of there.
“I can show you how to have sex with a bat,” he said.
This was finally too much. I told him, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”
I received angry texts from the guy over the next few days, messages about how he’d thought I wasn’t a bigoted speciest but now saw I was, and how could I possibly even justify such prejudice. I eventually blocked his number, and mostly blocked the incident out of my memory until, years later, I was part of a social media discussion about the surge in the use of “neo-pronouns,” such as “dragon/dragons/ dragonself.”
What followed was a more-than-250-comment argument about the matter, with a really surprising amount of people taking weather- or mythic-based pronouns seriously. “Cloudselves” and “faeselves” faced significant oppression, I was told. Another person reported that fascists were targeting neo-pronoun users online by exposing them to their triggers (apparently listing your deepest triggers in a Twitter bio is a “thing”) in order to cause them psychological harm. Yet another supporter of neo-pronouns angrily accused me of taking the side of the fascists themselves, claiming that the arguments used against people identifying as animals or weather phenomena are the same used against non-binary and trans-identified people.
Needless to say, I didn’t engage further in that discussion. It felt as if there would be no way to talk about these matters without becoming trapped in endless accusations and arguments.
What’s Really Real?
Especially online, but also quite often in person, discussions of this sort can leave us with the sense that reality itself is a politically contested territory. Extreme and sometimes incomprehensible examples of self-identification often make great fodder for right-wing or tabloid-style commentary about the excesses — or what is often labeled “insanity” — of radicals or leftists. For instance, the very popular and controversial Twitter account called “Libs of TikTok” rose to prominence by reposting videos of “pronoun reveals” and of people discussing the subtle distinctions between newly created sexual orientations. Popular and often acerbic right-wing critics such as Matt Walsh have used apparent internal contradictions within the matter of gender identity as the basis for popular documentaries and articles, mocking those they interview and presenting them as representatives of the “woke” or of leftists.
From the left, on the other hand, we usually encounter denials that such excesses even occur — or that they are even excesses at all. Any criticism is often turned back upon the critic and their motives made suspect. Suggesting that someone cannot actually be a cloud, or that there are problems — including abuses — in populist iterations of identity politics, can lead a person quite quickly to be smeared as hateful, bigoted, or even a fascist.
We seem trapped in a position where there appears to be two — and only two — competing narratives about what is happening. Each narrative is in turn part of a larger framework opposed to the other, two containers into which all thought and all political action must be assigned. Each presents itself as the diametric opposite of the other, and sees everything outside its boundaries as automatically the territory of its dangerous enemy. Shadows of each other, they are locked in a struggle for “the real” that pulls all the rest of us into their shouting matches.
This all leads leftists and those sympathetic with leftist goals — an end to capitalist and industrialist exploitation of the Earth and of people — to a very difficult and confusing place. Previous projects and theories of liberation seem to have become unrooted from their original grounding. Worse, at least within the English-speaking world, right- wing demagogues have been able to dominate these discussions, to set the terms for the debate, and even to position themselves as speaking for the Real, for really existing things. This has meant that the left seems to many to be out of touch with everyday reality, or to be lost in fantasies and utopian dreams.
Accusing leftists and leftist goals of being utopian or lost in fantasy is hardly a new thing, nor is it really an insult. In fact, fantasy and dreams are where any significant positive change begins. Every revolution must first start with a dream, since we must be able to imagine the kind of world in which we wish to live in order to fight for it.
After all, what we are told is “possible” is never very inspiring. We are told that if we work for someone else at low wages, we may perhaps one day save up enough money to rent a slightly larger apartment in the dreary and expensive cities where most of us live. We are told that if we vote hard enough for politicians who repeatedly sell us out, we may one day get higher wages, less government corruption, less exploitation, fewer jails, fewer wars, or less climate change. We are told that this is all that is possible, and that to dare dream of something more is “unrealistic” or “utopian.”
The left, if it has been anything, has been the province of dreamers, of fantasies, and especially of the “impossible.” More than this, the left has been the province of tricksters and rogues, those who pull back the curtain on the fantasies of this world, who reveal the magic tricks that keep capital and the powerful in place. It’s been the leftists who’ve shown this political and economic system, this “reality,” to have been born from other fantasies and other dreams. And if this world was dreamt up in conspiracy, then can we not dream up and conspire a better one?
Realists of a Larger Reality
We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
The prolific fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin spoke those words as part of her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This part of her speech has lived on in the radical imagination — including in political slogans and leftist T-shirts — and it’s quite inspiring. However, it’s taken out of context. Le Guin’s specific point was her opposition to the growing corporate dominance over the publishing industry, as well as the tendency of writers to shape their works for sales strategies rather than to create as artists create.
Despite being very rarely quoted, an earlier part of her short speech is much more powerful and deeply relevant to this question of leftism and reality:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.
“Realists of a larger reality” is quite a phrase. It seems to evoke the legacy of the popular Situationist slogan during the late Sixties in France: “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” For the Situationists, who were Marxist artists and theorists, capitalism had led to the degradation of all life experience, alienating us from ourselves, each other, and the possibility of authentic social relations. Similar to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, they believed that we were no longer able to determine what was really “real,” and so we thus instead mistook spectacle and representation for reality.
We can see the truth in these ideas quite easily when we think of advertising and social media. In advertising, we view images or videos with upbeat or sweeping music in which happy and beautiful people seem to be happy and beautiful precisely because of the product being sold. Of course, we might tell ourselves that we see through the manipulation, yet advertising wouldn’t exist if it didn’t work.
On social media, especially on image- or video- heavy platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, we are presented with — and present to others — similar visions of a real that doesn’t really exist. When someone posts a selfie, for instance, they’ve often selected that image from dozens of other photos which they decided weren’t good enough to show. “Spontaneous” scenes of laughter with friends, stunning vistas, and even restaurant meals are never actually spontaneous. Getting the camera just right, making sure your friends are all looking the same direction, ensuring you’ve gotten the right angle on the landscape or the plate in front of you: these actions and many more are part of the creation of the “candid” glimpses of our lives we try to show the world.
We all know this because we all do this, yet even still, we often experience the images and videos of others as if they are actually not staged. We might then feel a bit depressed: that intimate photo of a man with ripped muscles — how does he just wake up with perfect hair in the morning like that? The tanned woman laughing with her friends at the club on a Friday night — why does her life look so exciting compared to our own?
We know it’s not actually “real,” yet we find ourselves nevertheless treating it all as if it were. Worse than this, we find ourselves unknowingly trying to emulate these false representations, posing our friends around a table at a club, arranging our hair and getting back into bed just to show that we, too, are happy and beautiful. And who are we trying to prove this all to? Others, or maybe also ourselves?
To be a “realist of a larger reality” is thus not only to dream of something different from what is, nor is it to be lost in the spectacle of the world of representations. Instead, it’s to see the scene presented to you as well as what created the scene. It’s to see not just the Instagram picture but also the camera with which it was taken, the person holding the camera, the staging and posing beforehand, and all the discarded shots afterwards. It’s also to see the social media network itself, the influence of “influencers” and the algorithms that determine which images you see and which ones you never do. It’s to see the effects of these representations on the way we see ourselves and each other, the profit motive behind the corporations which own, shape, and control the way we represent the world and which limit our ability to see what else is possible.
Being “a realist of a larger reality” requires we refuse to be lost in the world of images and representation. The way not to be lost is quite simple: we need only be faithful to the rules, or internal coherence, of larger reality. At the beginning of her acceptance speech, Le Guin references a particular political point about her receipt of the award:
And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long — my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for fifty years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
Le Guin was long a critic of what she saw as an artificial division between “realist” fiction and “fantasy” or “speculative” fiction. Fiction is by its very definition imaginary, “not real,” in the sense that it didn’t actually happen. Despite this, some fiction is seen as more realistic than other fiction because it tells stories with elements that look more like everyday occurrences than fantastic or magical actions. For Le Guin, however, both kinds of fiction serve the same purpose, telling us something about life, about humans, and about the way they act with each other.
A crucial element in any good fiction is internal coherency. Whether or not there are flying dragons and magical schools for children, there are reasons for — and most importantly consequences of — their existence. Flying dragons fly because there is such a thing as flying, which means there is such a thing as not flying. Magical schools for children exist because there is such a thing as a school and such a thing as children. The imagined world has limits and structures and consequences because our own world, “reality,” also has those things.
What Monsters Show Us
Not everything that looks like liberation actually is, nor is every political idea which claims to help people actually helpful. Sometimes, we can dream up things which become nightmares. Sometimes, the left is actually out of touch with reality, with “larger reality.” Sometimes, the theories and frameworks crafted to fight oppression only lead to more oppression. Sometimes, the “impossible” is actually really impossible.
That’s the purpose and reason for this book. In this time of politically contested reality, the left must become realists of a larger reality. This does not mean abandoning our capacities and obligation to dream of a different world; on the contrary, it means becoming more faithful realists for that world. What is possible is much larger than what we allow ourselves to imagine, because our imaginations themselves are shaped, controlled, and commodified by the capitalist order. To break free of that control, we must first admit that false visions and representations have captured too much of our political and cultural dreaming, leading only to more strife which feeds and strengthens the order we wish to see end.
To do this, I’ll present several fantastical figures, creatures drawn from myth and history, to show how we’ve failed to be realists of a larger reality. These figures function as archetypes in the Jungian sense, mythic containers of larger meanings and historical forces which are themselves neutral. They are “monsters” in the original Latin sense. Our word monster derives from the Latin word monstrum, itself coming from the verb montere. As with another English word sharing its root, demonstrate, monsters “remind, bring to (one’s) recollection, tell (of); admonish, advise, warn, instruct, teach.”
In older times, the appearance of a monster was seen as a sign, an omen, or a warning. They meant that something was wrong in the world, or with the relationship between humans and the world and the divine. In other words, monsters were a symptom of a greater problem, and they were also messengers pointing to the solution.
“The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of monsters appear.”
These oft-quoted words were penned by Antonio Gramsci, a young Marxist theorist imprisoned in Italy until his death at forty-six. A bit like the earlier Le Guin quote, there’s some context missing, but this time that context is what some believe is a translation error. The Italian phrase Gramsci used was “fenomeni morbosi” which means literally “morbid phenomena,” and it is elsewhere translated as “morbid symptoms.” However, as we just saw, monsters were once likewise considered symptoms, signs that point to some greater underlying problem.
The Nigerian philosopher, writer, activist, and professor of psychology Bayo Akomolafe points us to something else we should know about monsters. In his beautiful essay “When You Meet The Monster, Anoint Its Feet,” he reminds us that monsters and “the monstrous” arrive as part of moments of transformation:
Monsters are admittedly horrific entities. But monsters did not sprout autonomous of context or history; they have always been in dynamic interaction with the “city” that exiles them to the wilderness. This is why monstrosity can serve as a cultural means to examine ourselves. To meet ourselves as if for the first time....
I read monsters as cultural technology — as mythic figures that have always been intimately entwined with human becomings. From a time past remembering, we’ve needed monsters to define ourselves, to teach our children what not to do, to sound warnings about the future, to define the territorial boundaries of our habitats (and therefore carve out the wilderness), and to dream about the impossible. Indeed, monsters play a crucial social role: they challenge our addictions to particular forms and disturb the familiar.
That is, we need monsters not merely as stories but also as messengers from that larger reality. They bear with them not just warnings but also instructions and maps. They show us what we have become, and what we can also be.
Thus, the monsters we’ll look at are not creatures to eradicate, nor are they symbols of what we do not like. They are not things to fear, but rather beings from which to learn. Some are ancient monsters, drawn from antiquity and folklore yet persisting throughout our modern imagination. Others are very new monsters, born from technological shifts to which humans have not yet had time to adapt. Each of these monsters are monstrums, signs or symptoms that point us to a larger morbidity, a greater calamity or illness which we struggle to otherwise explain. Most of all, they point back to us, challenging, guiding, and inspiring us to birth the world waiting to be born.
Here Be Monsters: How to Fight Capitalism Instead of Each Other
A clear and engaging history of how left radicalism went wrong and how it can become what it must be again.
“This book is an invitation to a sober conversation, away from the sound and fury of social media. You’ve heard the whispers of this conversation, when people hint at their fear of cancellation, or wonder at how good intentions pave the way for hellish loops of toxic behaviour. Rhyd Wildermuth has lived enough of this first-hand, it gives his writing an edge of hard-won wisdom. In fighting monsters, he tells us, we risk to become monstrous; yet this bestiary he offers is also an invitation to come to terms with the monstrosities within us, the parts of ourselves that don’t fit onto any map of identities. And it culminates in a call to a politics that is grounded in friendship, surely the starting point for building a common life in the troubled times around and ahead of us.”, co-author of Dark Mountain Manifesto and author of At Work in the Ruins.
“Rhyd writes about some of the toughest, most contentious issues of our society — and he does so with empathy and wisdom. A great, highly informative book.”, author of Surveillance Valley
Here Be Monsters: How To Fight Capitalism Instead of Each Other, releases 12 September from Repeater Books (London).