THE APATHY PARADOX

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When Chomsky talks about the creation of a necessary illusion, he talks about the times we live in. In these times the most dangerous question to ask is – What do you want? And that makes facing your desires, motivation, needs, dreams at one time and rationalize them into one specific answer an almost unexecutable thing. We get so confused when looking at our desires...

The society has never reached such freedom in access to information as nowadays. We treat information as an ornamental balast and digging through it became a heavy unwanted burden. This unseen luxury would sound incredible in the times of censorship or general iliteracy. And yet it’s an illusion. The more information we get, the less we actually care. Who needs censorship when nobody’s curious anymore?

Our peace in the world stuffed with loudly screaming information overload arises from our ignorance. Our fragile human brain is handling it all by amputating the nerve between eyes and brain and letting the image-dense data just freely flow in and out, but is not bothering with its meaning. This behaviour leaves space for manipulation and exclusion of the general public from the democratic process. Should we fight this social apathy and re-activate people?

Apathy is an overwhelming state of mind. It creeps up from behind, without you actually being consciously aware of it. You notice it’s there, when you look at terrifying pictures of a conflict zone and you process it the same way as an aaaaaawwww pictures of new born puppies. It doesn’t make any difference. Both pictures are just a sort of visual information, one of the many things that are happening out there that we – the spectators – don’t feel personaly connected with.

The unbearable lightness of consumeristic being has been solved by ataractic apathy. Apathy as probably the only honest emotion that’s left here. When you’re fed up with Facebook likes and neverending evaluation of your social achievements, when you’re done with the lying politicians and tired of the daily brainwash – it’s the natural thing to do. Remain comfortable apathetic.

The post-communist lethargy

I come from a post-communistic country and I grew up in an extremely lethargic environment. Shortly after sobering up from the beautiful dream of revolution, people resigned in their role as citizens for good. For a long time I thought the widespread social apathy must be the aftermath of the regime, that prevented you from having any impact whatsoever. But even when the country shifted from socialism to western capitalistic democracy with the freedom of speech and all that, this mood remained in the minds of the people. I was wondering, how can this be possible? We should have learned from the history and use our rights to question the government and to actively participate on the social process, right? But instead, another thing has happened. The social marasm was completed with a wave of a pure indifference of bored customers. And thanks to the globalized world, the wave hit us all.

The bright smiles and season sales

Reality is nowadays shaped in a way that suits our desires the most. Desires we think are our own. To make you feel happy and satisfied. Not to satisfy the whole society, since that’s been proven to be impossible already – now it’s time for your dreams to come true. With the first jeans from the west, MTV and McDonald’s ice-cream, it was so easy to jump on the track of happy consumerism, embrancing it all as a shiny new reality.

So when you’d start to think there’s nothing left to fight against anymore, that the society achieved the stage of a balanced working system, suddenly you realize you’re standing in the middle of a muddy dump of crisis filled with a whole bunch of smelly unsolvable problems.

And yet it’s happening and the most of us haven’t even noticed it. Because it’s so easy to remain in the closed kaleidoscope of your (and you friend’s) interests. Kaleidoscope’s very nice to look in. It constantly creates new and new spectacular combinations of shapes and colours. But the fact, that the content is still the same is often forgotten. It’s just one closed tube with some reflections, nothing more.1

The illusion of being constantly in touch with the world and well-informed is reflected inside our individualistic informational tunnel – our kaleidoscope. And by our activity, liking and sharing, commenting and following, the crystals of our personal kaleidoscope are picked to create entertaining daily combinations.

Although it’s actually very convenient to stay inside surrounded by already filtered information from the specific field of interests we (or our friends) have, it simply lacks the aspect of coincidence. That beauty of unexpected unpredictable though or random inspiration...

The chance of randomly stumbling upon something new, inspiring and totally unexpected is much smaller since we willingly repeat more-or-less the same routine everyday. This repetitive behaviour is building the filter through which tomorrow’s news will come. It’s the unbreakable pattern of reality that we notice only when we step out of it. This pattern usually breaks only with some kind of a “glitch” in the system. Then you can wake up from the matrix dream realizing, you’re doing something stupid in a loop and you’re actually not aware of the repetition. Then, at least for a moment, you see the absurdity of this behavior, but before you can act on it, this

realization falls back into oblivion.

The same applies to the unconscious ambivalent relationship to our own desires. Baudrillard says, that “the deepest desire is perhaps to give the responsibility for one’s desire to someone else.” Maybe we don’t want to define what we strive for and the perversion of desires lies in voluntarily letting someone else to tell you what you should be longing for. We should be lucky now, as we are constantly served with subliminal desire-production in commercials or showbussines.

Desires are not only visible in the purchases. Everyday we listen to all those stories about what our life should look like and what we should aim for. A contemporary mythology2 re-told in Hollywood movies and all the tv series. Actually, your biggest problem should be to care about your love life, find the most turbulent but romantic-like-hell relationship and follow the social standards. You’ll find satisfaction and happiness in your work, of course. Where you’re fulfilling the desire to be awarded, appreciated, socialy validated. No, you don’t go to work because of money. You go there to find your use and to be enthusiastic about it. To re-invent yourself and be creative, more and more everyday. Because you need it. Like bread. It’s an illusion, constructed and designed for you to please you, to comfort you, to make you want more, to desire, to make you buy and satisfy your desires, to make you think you make choices, to fool you, to consume you. Because you are feeding the system by your pure existence – capitalism would be nothing without your co-operation.

2, Roland Barthes: Mythologies, 1957

An inability to stick to something for a long time is a common problem. The attention span is shorter and shorter and we’ve become very successful collectors of bookmarks. Important things never to be checked again. It’s me, it’s you. Your neighbour, your best friend, your cousin, former schoolmate, exboyfriend, postman, yoga teacher or that woman you hit with the bike yesterday. We all need entertainment, some kind of treat or reward after the whole day of facing the dull reality outside. And we need achievements, which are so easy to get in the fictional realm of social media.

The world we live in now is not a place for utopian activism, that I used to believe. I have been successfully indoctrinated and I got to know that everything is already defined and can not be changed. To avoid heading into something that looks like a bottomless inevitable nihilism, I seek comfort in my own happy place. My own kaleidoscope filled with my favourite distractions. Playing Candy Crush, rather than evaluating my day before going to bed. Conscious suicide of an aware mind. One day, when my brain finally stops thinking, I’ll wake up absolutely happy.

What happens when the majority remains in this soft and comfortable apathy? Our active behaviour got limited to choosing the right product to show your personality or customizing the interface of our computer-world. That’s enough for us. We’ve shifted from beliefs to aesthetics, from engagement to spectatorship. We have the feeling that we made a point and our voice was heard. What is left is the pleasure of mere satisfaction that comes along with numbing the senses with endless distraction. A perfect condition for manipulation of the public.

Predictable acts of people wanting to change something for good often end up integrated in marketing strategies – because at the end anti-capitalists have to buy some products too, don’t they? It happens more and more often, that whatever kind of protest against capitalism actually feeds its ideology and makes it more powerful. As a consequence of being exposed to double-meaning headlines, positive language translations, layered visual messages, photomontages, hyperreal images, unbelievable stories and intrusive recipes for success, some of us are naturally creating a cynical distance between the transmitted reality and our own inclination to believe. This cynical attitude seems to be the new concept of ideology – people no longer believe in ideological truth, they do not take ideological prepositions seriously, but even if we keep an ironical distance from things, we are still doing them.

In the words of Slavoj Žižek: “So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.”

Thus revolution is not an option anymore. The prevailing idea of revolution is that it’s an act of people taking the power in their own hands and together accomplishing a significant political changes based on their needs. But the real meaning is more or less just “the overthrow of one government and its replacement with another” – with or without the presence of the public. It’s rather romantic illusion to think that ordinary people play any important role in revolutions. Now even less as ever before. To get involved in such things nowadays is actually almost dangerous, as you are risking not knowing what are you in fact fighting for.

What is currently happening in Ukraine for example – the maidan was crowded with impressive amount of active protesting people – but who can distinguish between the honest urge of citizens to demonstrate and all the other dubious business around it? There are some fundamental questions we should ask: is it even possible for ordinary people to really achieve something with revolution without funding or another kind of support from somebody who has the proper resources? Is the process of revolution as we ingenuously see it even probable?

Information era didn’t make things any clearer. Quite the opposite – it became a citadel of divergent meanings and factory for countless number of truths. The more you want to know, the more you ask – and the more you get confused by contradictions, half-truths, constantly changing meanings and bent realities. Propaganda left the clear slogans behind and is playing poker game instead. Misinformation is a new war tool.

The problems are made so global and complex, that it puts activism solely on the local level. The despair of inability to change anything is shifting the potential of activism towards small closed circles: small acts that don’t mean anything, except serving us with small comfort. Regional politics, local markets, DIY initiatives, village-communities – they are all examples of an active approach that just demonstrates the exclusion of the public from politics. Solving micro-problems temporarily and ignoring the global time-bomb ticking.

Why do we do that? Why are we still complicit in this ridiculous illusion?

Long suppressed active potential of people is the best fuel for manipulation with the history and the present. I’ve always been convinced that apathy is an absolutely unacceptable human condition. But when I see how easy it is to abuse the active potential of people, apathy might be actually a very smart thing to do. Apathy is an act of resistance. Apathy as a survival strategy for 21st century.

Ataractic apathy could be a successful cure for our situation. Like heroin addiction for the European crisis, as seen in Athens. It doesn’t matter that things don’t improve. You don’t have to listen to the stories how special you are and how you’re going to change the world one day. It’s bullshit. The kind of social disengagement towards this system might give you the time to reflect, that we lack so much in the real-time mode we function.

You’ll feel better, relaxed, stress-free, disconnected, released. Why suffer? Momma’s little helpers, happy pills, frontal lobotomy, whatever it takes to reach the ultimate comfortable apathy. Then we can freely enjoy the benefits of capitalism with no guilty feelings, without the need to balance it with saving the rain forrests or purifying yourself at evening yoga class. Apathy will give you the time and energy to step outside and zoom out from your kaleidoscope. Maybe you’ll realize you like your kaleidoscope and won’t get rid of it, but you’ll be aware of the mechanism itself. Reaching the stage of ultimate apathy towards the whole ideology is a step forward from the ironical distance and cynical commenting. Although, there is a risk it’ll become more dangerous stage of apathy than the first, unconscious one, if not facing the question of what you really want.

Since the game we’re playing is a game of double standards and blurry rules, the one who knows what he wants, wins. But why is it so hard to go beyond the implanted desires and figure out what we really strive for? To imagine at least something behind the current structure?

This reality, “the capitalist realism” as Mark Fisher3 calls it, seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable. This staggering lack of imagination in our time, complete paralysis of uncensored imaginary is confirmed by living only in the moment, canceling the future. Douglas Rushkoff remarks, that the futurism of 20th century was exchanged for presentism in 21st century. 4

No wonder the utopian futuristic visions of modern society completely disappeared from the daily life. Somehow we found ourselves in the fixed neoliberalist dogma, affirming the impossibility of any better alternative. Technological progress seems limited by commercialized standards and short-term profit, and to dream about the flying cars turns out to be sheer naivety. Why did we stop having the long-term utopian visions? Why shouldn’t we dream, although it’s obvious it’s not going to happen? Did we forget to dream or have the dreams been stolen from us?

3, Mark Fisher: The Capitalist Realism, 2009 4, Douglas Rushkoff: Present Shock. 2013

In 1987, two years before the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms (glasnost and perestroika) hardly started to be implemented in the social life. It was a soft wind of change, but nobody really believed it anymore. Because of the disappointment and hard landing from 1968’s Prague Spring dream, people turned their hopes down already. In this atmosphere of 1987, the Czechoslovakian movie Bony a klid appeared in the cinemas. The movie is depicting reality of the decaying regime – when the so called “socialist ideals” were already exchanged for consumerism without any effort to pretend. Just before the fall of the regime, black market with the unofficial currency bony5 was blooming. Bony were used in the government-run shops called Tuzex (similar to DDR’s Intershop), that sold western goods.

5, Bony could be exchanged only for foreign currency, but access to foreign currency was impossible for ordinary people – they were limited to buy bony from black marketeers called “veksláci” (from german word der Wechsel), who would stand in front of the Tuzex shops. Usually 5 times more expensive than the official rate.

It wasn’t that people didn’t know about it happening, but it was the first time it was shown so explicitly. After 90 minutes of disgust from the whole masquerade of the regime, with almost no moral at the end, the last phrase gave the movie a whole new meaning. After a long shot of marketeers indistinctly offering bony in the camera, the last one asks – “So what do you want then?”. If you don’t want to buy Bony, why are you hanging about here? If you’re disgusted, why are you still part of this? It was the most essential question that was necessary to ask at that moment for everybody. Of course nobody wanted the regime to continue, but what is the alternative then? And after this question being spoken up, it started series of political discussions and the change of the mood, that finally led to the Velvet revolution.

This question is what Jacques Lacan is writing about – Che vuoi? and that “is the question that best leads the subject to the path of his own desire.”6 Thus now, are we able to ask ourselves what it is, that we want, if not what we already have here? Can we even imagine something different? Are we ready to look inside and face our own desires?

6, Lacan, J., Écrits: A Selection, New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.

It’s a journey. From the first stage of comfortable apathy caused by daily distraction and today’s mythology, we walk through realisation of this illusion towards conscious apathy – a voluntary disengagement. The end of complicity in this seemingly unchangeable system. And that’s the apathy paradox. Fighting the apathy leads to another apathy.

The only way out of this vicious circle is through finding the answer to Lacan’s question. According to Lacan, it is only in the dream that we come close to the real awakening – that is, to the Real of our desire. Dream offers the time to reflect – a time we don’t have in our “always-on” present. It might be not a nice dream though, and it might turn out as a nightmare. Like the main character of Franz Kafka’s novels, who’s name is hidden from us – K. is trying to achieve something and is constantly kept far from accomplishing it. Whether it’s the court’s sentence or to reach the castle, he’s left in the indefinite postponement of the acquittal.

We might get lost in the loop of newborn confusing desires, we might hit the walls of the hideous labyrinth of images, we might become tired and demotivated, disorientated by all the possible directions we could take. The old desires, culturaly implanted ones, will not dissapear completely. They will appear every now and then like semiotic ghosts of the Gernsback’s Continuum7.

But once the question is sucessfully answered, the alternative reality can be born and can develop simultaneously next to the officialy accepted one. And we will be able to imagine things beyond the labyrinth’s walls. There will be the hope that we’ll be able to build a ladder or jump on the hover mobile to escape.

Some say the future has been cancelled. Maybe it’s just a matter of what reality they’re talking about...