2017 is the year I lost my mind. Or the year I found it. It’s hard to tell the difference nowadays.
I don’t mean “2017” as the literal calendar year. I mean as a historical moment. History is a coat of many colours and our threads started spinning a long time before 2017, and they will continue indefinitely after. But this year is the one where it really feels like we’ve gone through the looking glass that is the 21st century. The world we left is never coming back and our next destination is still somewhere out of sight.
Every day is something new, and every day is exactly the same.
You wake up in the morning and reach for your smartphone. You skim your newsfeeds for the fresh new hell each day will bring. US President Donald Trump said and/or did something wacky? Another record-breaking mass shooting? International incident between nuclear powers? Beloved public figure committed vicious sexual crimes? White nationalists are marching on Virginia and murdering people with cars? YouTube videos radicalized so many people into believing the Earth is flat that one guy built a rocket in his garage to prove it? A random person that you never heard of 30 seconds ago said something problematic on the internet? Praise the Lord and pass the goddamn benzos: it’s another red-letter day for content.
So much happens in the run of a week or a day or even an hour that it becomes impossible to hold anything in your head. You forget that Fyre Festival happened or that Kim Jong-Un’s brother was murdered in a Malaysian airport by a woman wearing a ‘LOL’ sweater or that Ted Cruz liked a porn tweet or that the US president repeatedly threatened to start a nuclear war, because the world is a nonstop horrorshow beamed directly to your eyes. (Soon it will be superimposed on your surroundings, like Pokemon Go but for anxiety.)
The world has always been a parade of nightmares and bullshit. But once upon a time, you could give all this up and log off and go the fuck outside. Most of us can’t do that anymore. The border between the mad world of the internet and the maddening world of flesh and blood is growing thinner every day. And it goes both ways; your FitBit can be hijacked as part of a Bulgarian ransomware attack on the US Department of Agriculture, and most public discourse has already dissolved into an unmoderated media flamewar that has put the trolls in power.
Every real thing that happens is broken down into a million ephemeral shards that endlessly slice through our screens. A series of algorithms, built out of the pieces of your life scattered across the internet, ceaselessly brings you new content designed to provoke you into interaction and distraction and consumption. Anger, sadness, laughter, joy, disdain, nostalgia, fear, whatever. Like and share and hashtag. Click click click. Welcome to the arms race to monetize the human brain.
This is a strange moment in social life when we can feel the ground shifting beneath our feet and see the void peering up through the floorboards. Nobody is who they seem and nothing is what it appears. Time feels distorted; fast and slow and stopped altogether. Anxiety is everywhere. The present is unbearable but the future is unthinkable. Small wonder mass culture is trapped in an endless nostalgia loop, desperate to clamour back into our 1980s Eden. The Emperor wears no clothes and the King has left the building; there is no social operator’s manual and there are no adults that you can call for help.
There is no time to catch your breath. The mad masterless machine we call late capitalism must smash forward through the bodies of the poor and the limits of the Earth and the fragile trellis that holds the human mind together. It is clearing the path for the world it makes in its own image. It is racing us towards the edge of something, some great blind hill on a cliffside, pedal to the metal, spinning out of control. Everyone is scrambling for the wheel. Nobody is reaching for the brake.
There are many days when it feels that the world has already gone over that edge. That it’s been too late since before I was born. That it’s only now in the geological microseconds before The End where we see exactly how fucked up everything is and always has been and how utterly powerless anyone is to do anything about it.
There are some days when I believe that this is true. But as they used to say in Newfoundland: “we have to live in hopes, supposing we die in despair.” Turn the lesson of 2017 on its head: if the old world is coming undone, then there are no fucks left to give. This year has been more than just wreckage: it has been a reckoning. The silver lining on a cloud of generalized nihilism is earnest vulnerability. The sky is falling; let’s pull it down together and storm heaven.
The real watershed moment this year, beyond an impressive display of cruel and craven idiocy by the global ruling class, is that 2017 marks the inaugural year of a new phase in the sexual revolution.
This, too, has been building for years. But #MeToo seems to have finally exposed the vast architecture of male sexual entitlement—as well as its small army of enablers—to those who have otherwise enjoyed the luxury of ignorance. The tide it has loosed in Hollywood will not stop anytime soon. It will roll across the world and sweep through every bedroom, until every man worth the title stops and listens and reaches deep inside his heart to renounce the genital rapacity that has been promised him as his birthright.
The dog days are over. God damn you indeed if you skip that long look in the mirror for the roots and seeds of violence.
The process will not be smooth, shot through as it is by a thousand other intersecting political projects. It is an open secret to the Extremely Online that anti-feminism is a gateway drug to white nationalism and the cold embrace of fascism. Gamergate was the canary in the coal mine for the current digital kulturkampf. The well of reactionary rage is deep and seems unlimited, and the backlash will be fierce and ugly. But a revolution is not a dinner party. No one ever promised it would be easy—only that it would be worth it in the end.
One day all this will end, and we will come out on the other side. This is how you survive the existential crisis of this year and all the ones to come. You learn how to see, with an almost psychotic clarity, the ugliness around and inside you without losing the golden thread of hope that makes life bearable. You learn to be bent and warped and frayed by the forces beyond your control without ever really breaking. You learn how to stop time; to hold still in your mind those brief moments of peace and light that can still be found if you understand how and where to look.
This kind of survival is maddening. But it’s also the only way you can remain sane. And if that’s not a perfect paradox to cap off 2017, I don’t know what is.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.