Max Herman on Tue, 14 Jul 2020 12:58:06 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> "Consume revolutionary media"

Hi Brian and Prem,

Thank you for your excellent observations; here is a longish reply which I've divided into three sections for ease of reading.


Varieties of Revolution

Ironically I think the most revolutionary media of today is created by the ethnonationalist camp.  Just as Bannon called himself a Leninist, it is the populist right which is using the traditional tactics of revolution -- propaganda, asymmetric conflict, destruction of institutions, and so on.  As the electoral minority, it is logical that the right would increasingly embrace the role of saboteur.

Revolution can lead to a variety of new regimes, not all of which are more equitable, just, or left-leaning.  Sometimes the revolutionary forces are more liberal and communitarian, but sometimes they are radically ethno-totalitarian.

The policies that are being called for from the left are actually, in many cases I think, simply calls for the basic rules of liberal democracy to be followed -- voting rights for all, economic dignity for all, respect for the common good, human rights, civil rights, environmental protection, free and fair elections, freedom of speech, respect for science, and the culture of social norms oriented around respect and care for others.  It's partly due to accelerating ethnonationalist chaos that ordinary pro-social principles seem revolutionary and incompatible with the state as it functions under current administrations.

Brian's point that the USA was built on a racist foundation is of course true, but the past can never be undone.  The systems of past power are now untouchable except as memory, so those of today must also be addressed.  These remain viciously unequal, retaining a vast amount of the racist foundation, and while the past cannot be erased it can certainly be learned from and sometimes atoned for.  In theory at least it may be possible to remove a foundation while preserving some aspects of a structure.  Examples from the past could include revolutions during which not all buildings were destroyed, not all adversaries put to death, and not even all legal structures or institutions nullified.  Of course it is also possible that nothing at all can or should be preserved, but I have some level of doubt about the practical advantage of trying to obliterate every single aspect of existing political systems.  Some precedent suggests that absolute, immediate dismantling of all present system is less strategic than deliberate change that can both manage incrementality and make use of rapid transformative opportunities when they arise.  Perhaps the pandemic has energized genuine change plans like the one Brian mentions from Davos.

Varieties of Change Aesthetic

This reflects what Prem said about hope.  Most people do need to see an understandable and sufficiently concrete plan of workable action for the present and near future before broad-based social support can be achieved.  Without such a plan, which tracks to actual results, the forces of right-nationalist revolution will always be one step ahead of those working to build and protect systems favoring equality, liberty, and community.  Hope implies, interestingly, an at least partially aesthetic bond of affection and trust for something that does not yet exist but can be traveled toward on some acceptable timeline.  As with Taoism, the path or "way" is both a means to a destination and an aesthetically valuable end in itself.  Another example could be Lincoln's speech to Cooper Union.

When Brian asks where to go for constructively revolutionary ideas, especially during a pandemic of claustrophobia, I think he captures a very important reality: the pre-existing theories, systems, plans, etc. were the fertile ground in which the pandemic took shape.  The reason we don't know where to look for the new map is the same reason for the pandemic existing in the first place, i.e., the new map doesn't exist.  There is nowhere to look for the map, because there is no map.  It has yet to be created.  I also think the map is of necessity decentralized and distributed, thus hard to identify in the traditional sense of "Adam Smith's Map" or the map provided by a particular politician.  Other people will be writing this map along with us, and perhaps everyone.

Of course many will say "that's ridiculous, the correct map is out there on my website at ABC.efg and in the works of Freud."  Certainly that is one theory and it might be true, and the proposals of both present and past plan- or map-makers should be listened to within reason.  On the other hand, I have suspected for some time that there is no map out there yet for what we are dealing with.  The new map still has to be created, as even the new map-making process itself must be, and there is no guarantee that either will be created, or if they will, when.  I say this not to dismiss the plethora of extremely valid change-agendas that are out there, just to hypothesize that there is something missing that is needed to move them from the realm of critique to the realm of actual implementation.

This absence of the necessary map need not breed hopelessness, in fact it should motivate its contrary in proportion to the direness of the global situation (which Eliot tried to address as long ago as "The Waste Land").  This is in part because each of us has some agency still and we can still communicate with others who also have some agency.  (This is also at the core of what I think Prem describes re lateralism).  Even under the ethnonationalist retrenchment and intentional chaos which is rampant there is a significant amount of free agency accessible to many.  Whether it's enough or not cannot be known for sure, but whether it is or not our obligation is the same and we should make our best effort.  Moreover, the "map" for humanity is never 100% certain, final, or set, and will have to evolve and adapt as long as we exist.

There is also a distinct possibility that humanity itself is the map.  The evolution and adaptation which is needed must occur at least to some extent within our own cells, neurons, and behaviors.  Perhaps technology and external information can help, but if the change required to achieve planetary sustainability requires a change in how we manifest certain non-technological aspects of our humanity then the quest is unavoidably in part an internal quest, discovery, and transformation.  As to the debate whether human beings can ever change, the evidence for neuroplasticity and the concept of agency in any form or degree should at least open the possibility that individuals and groups can change, evolve, or adapt, and possess to some extent a necessarily active role to play in their own adaptation.  Art and science are places where I believe our agency is both a real capacity and an existential responsibility (perhaps as in La Peste by Camus, itself a parable of sorts on totalitarian genocide).  The misguided belief that we can invent a computer or algorithm to "fix everything for us" may be a key error we need to correct.  The premise that humans can learn would necessarily imply that we can change, because learning is a type of change.

For my own two cents about what a new center of gravity could be, albeit in motion through time and context, around which a great and diverse fabric of complexity (like a new map of a solar system) might orbit, it seems to me that historically such centers of gravity include new ideas that are germane to many disciplines -- science, economics, literature, art, politics, philosophy, psychology, etc. -- in some coherent manner. The new center of rotation is not homogeneous or single (a common error in cases like Freud, Marx, Mao, and others) nor does it consist purely of new elements.  Much of the novelty derives from new configurations of existing elements, just as in science past knowledge is not usually rejected in toto but rearranged to accommodate new knowledge, hypotheses, or evidence.  Certain errors like racism and slavery can be rejected while other elements worth keeping (such as voting and science) may be salvageable.  Some degree of incrementalism should also be considered in case an instant universal solution cannot be found, but the pace of change will never be an easy consensus during mass crises.

The aesthetic energy inherent in rightist ethnonationalism has been known for a long time -- certainly since ancient Greece -- and this energy is paralleled by its toxicity.  Throughout the 20th c., as in even earlier centuries, we saw how this toxicity can become destructive on a mass global scale.  I do not need to go into this I don't think, and just wish to acknowledge that we are seeing a perhaps unexpected resurgence of rightist aesthetic activity (unexpected in part because interactive new media were thought to possess intrinsic attributes of communal feeling like "sharing" and "liking" yet are now shown to be almost instantly convertible to quite opposite aims).

It may not be possible to eradicate rightist ethnonationalist aesthetics completely or forever since they utilize some basic features of the human brain (like the amygdala, or the basic mammal/primate territoriality configuration) and because as long as agency exists human aesthetics will be susceptible to some degree of free choice.  I tend to view the effort as something like an immune system -- a resilient and adaptive immune system is better at fighting viral contagion from ethnonationalist button-pushing than a depleted or compromised one.

Hippocratic Change Meditation

Anti-virality may be one forgotten aspect of culture in the neodigital phase whose lack is now hitting us square in the face.  (There must be some theorists or art-people who talk about this since it is such a simple metaphor, I just don't know who they are.)  A clear example of weak and underdeveloped anti-virality is the difficulty Facebook is having with its addiction to advertising revenue from hate-based activity on its platform.  As even Adam Smith said, free markets without moral judgment will not bring forth good things.

In the interest of time I should conclude with the suggestion that mindfulness meditation is a necessary part of the new fabric which must be woven to both create something new and better than the old extractive/exploitative political economies and protect us from right ethnonationalism in the immediate term.  Mindfulness is both integrative in itself (based in part on the function of the brain's Default Mode Network) and intrinsic to all disciplines -- neuroscience, psychology, literature, politics (like the UK parliament), art, and so forth.  It is well known that psychology is crucial to both economics and technology.  Mindfulness is democratic or inclusive/universal by definition, and has deep roots in almost every human culture (avoiding the toxic trap of ethnocentrism and exclusionary nationalism).  It can also be a powerful vector of health and healing in the Hippocratic tradition.

Quite possibly, the new "map" we need will point us to a new era of culture in which meditation is incorporated with depth and breadth as fundamental to the pursuit of the revolution or "innovative rotation" that is needed.  Since the most powerful tool used by rightist ethnonationalism is the aesthetic, we should make sure to cultivate a robust anti-viral aesthetic movement as part of the new framework.  The new aesthetic can be tailored to the many other disciplinary challenges like health care, environmental protection, indigenous rights, anti-racism, and so forth.  The integration of meditation with art on the basis of the neuroscience common to both is often dismissed as a necessary foundation for sustainable networks, but, in my view, to dismiss it is to abandon one of the most rapid and accessible sources of anti-viral aesthetic capability.  Aesthetic experience can also provide a highly adaptive and resilient alternative to the repressive infrastructures of ethnonationalist populism.

Concretely I propose doing a 5-minute mindfulness meditation, with a timer, while looking at the Mona Lisa (in reproduction of course unless you are in Paris and will be allowed a close viewing for this long; my personal opinion is that the digitally restored version is OK but it's safest to start with the unrestored image).  Typical mindfulness meditation means to be aware of one's breathing, do a simple body scan (like posture, pain, facial tension, sensations of racing pulse, headache, hands and feet, etc.) then attend to immediate present-moment experience of the pigment in the painting.  It is OK to allow thoughts to arise, but just observe them and let them go.  Avoid launching into an accustomed internal monologue or analysis about the painting, and pay more attention to what you actually see, responses evoked, and the like.  Mild curiosity is very helpful during this type of meditation as it allows for novel experiences to occur.  Notes can be taken after the 5 minutes but not during.

If one objects to the Mona Lisa, I would propose just doing a breath awareness and body scan meditation for 5 minutes, then read a bit about Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach (1979), his strange loop idea, and the relevance of both to Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985), especially how the unwritten memo "Consistency" might relate to chapter IV of GEB titled "Consistency, Completeness, and Geometry").  I have written some blogs about this since May 14 which can be found at

Or, another meditation could be to consider the old Italian adage festina lente, "hurry slowly," and contemplate whether this suggestion is revolutionary, reactionary, or something more subtle than either.  The ideal physical setting for this meditation would be as close as possible to a river.  🙂

All very best wishes,


From: <> on behalf of Prem Chandavarkar <>
Sent: Monday, July 13, 2020 3:57 AM
To: <>
Subject: Re: <nettime> "Consume revolutionary media"

I was on this podcast some weeks ago and will repeat something I said there. <>

The challenge to which the left has not responded well is in constructing metaphors of hope.  Our idealism has manifested in abstract discussion on democracy, human rights, equity, rule of law, civil society, etc.

In contrast, the right offers tangible metaphors of hope, even if those metaphors are mythical fantasies of a glorious past: MAGA, the days of Hindu glory, etc.

So the left relies on rationality, the right on stoking emotion.  On any given day in politics, emotion will trump rationality.

The left needs to do two things:
Recast idealism in the form of poetic metaphors rather than abstract analysis.
Shift from overriding emphasis on the vertical axis between citizen and state, and build constituencies through the lateral connection between citizens.


> On 13-Jul-2020, at 11:27 AM, Brian Holmes <> wrote:
> That was my other favorite slogan appearing on hand-written signs during
> the weeks of protest after the death of George Floyd - protests that are
> still ongoing and that constitute the largest-ever social movement in the
> United States. If, as some have maintained, it takes full commitment from
> only 3.5% of the population to effect basic change, then we're looking damn
> good right now. But which change, in what direction?


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