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Wreath Lectures

Wreath Lectures 2016: This Was The Year That Did Not Happen
Robert Barry , December 1st, 2016 10:19

Robert Barry kicks off the 2016 Wreath Lectures by casting his mind back over the past 11 months and asking if, given how utterly rancid and appalling everything has been, the year actually happened at all

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One Friday afternoon in the middle of November 2016, everybody died. "Someone just notified me that my Facebook page has decided to announce my death," a friend posted at around 3pm on the 11th. He was not alone. At that moment, millions of profiles around the world found themselves suddenly appended with a little blue flower and a message of condolence. "We hope people who love Mark will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate his life," the banner read atop Zuckerberg himself's own personal page.

And then, in less then an hour, they were all alive once more. Every memorial badge was removed from every page, raising each profile from the digital grave, and confirming once and for all Facebook's ultimate power over life and death. A million virtual Lazaruses rolled away the stone, their allotted four days truncated to scarcely forty minutes. One more gap in the matrix, tidily corrected.

But think for a moment of all the people you really did see die this year: singers, actors, cinematographers, composers, refugees on faraway beaches, civilians in war-torn cities, maybe people who know, or at least people known by people you know, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends. Think of how you first learnt of their deaths. In most cases, I'll wager, via Facebook. With a memorial badge or some typed phrase in a status box. Or on some platform very much like Facebook. Or on some major news source increasingly parasitic on Facebook and platforms very much like Facebook. Almost indistinguishable in form and content from the millions who died and were resurrected that November afternoon. Every one of them whispering urgently, in unison, from their tombs: 2016 did not take place.

In 1991's febrile first quarter, the French theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote a series of columns for the newspaper Libération, syndicated in Britain by The Guardian. The first was headed 'The Gulf War will not take place', its title a satirical nod to Jean Giraudoux's play The Trojan war will not take place. It was followed, once hostilities in Kuwait had commenced, by 'The Gulf War is not really taking place' and, later, 'The Gulf War did not take place'.

Baudrillard's essays guide the reader through the interminable deferral of an unreal build-up, through a war that was never declared, that never officially began and so could never really end, into an impossible conflict, a war so thoroughly mediatised that nobody could really believe it was happening. In the newspapers, on the radio and TV, the Gulf War was so ubiquitous that it became a kind of wallpaper and disappeared. It came to us as a marketing campaign, a speculative venture, for a product that never quite came into view.

The Gulf War, Baudrillard claimed, was fought by decoys, boasting, and hypocrisy. The whole thing was practically its own hoax. At the same time, it was a war stripped bare only to be "reclothed with all the artifices of electronics" until, finally, "electronic coverage of the war devoured time and space".

"We are no longer dealing with historical events," Baudrillard wrote fifteen years ago, "but with places of collapse." Baudrillard himself has been dead nine years now. But what could he possibly see in the events of the past twelve months but just such a place of collapse. The collapse of democracy, of public trust, of the media themselves, of the very idea of the people, and of truth. He would look upon all of this and ruefully shake his head, muttering, 2016 did not take place.

"The Trojan War will not take place," Andromache declares at the start of Jean Giraudoux's eponymous play. "I shall take that bet," Cassandra replies. And like the newspapers and spokespeople who sneered of "Project Fear" before the June referendum, Andromache sighs, "doesn't it ever tire you to see and prophesy only disaster?"

Giraudoux's Trojans know full well that the war will be a catastrophe, that the Greeks will slaughter their youths and sack their cities. Until the very last scene, Trojan statesmen insist, the war will not happen. It cannot. But, egged on by the silk-tongued Demokos, they plunge finally into war over a symbol – of beauty and purity and courage, a pellucid spectre of self-determination – and over a lie.

We seem to have lived through two Trojan Wars this year and the corpses are still piling up. Two great tumults that every respected source insisted wouldn't happen, shouldn't happen, and mustn't happen, but then went along and happened anyway.

They were campaigns run on lies and fictive symbols. As we speak, a Special Crime Team at the Crown Prosecution Service is considering a complaint that the Leave EU campaign willingly misled voters with deliberately inflated claims of the European Union's financial toll on Britain, of Turkey's imminent accession, and the absence of control over national borders. Eager fact-checkers have found 37 known falsehoods in Donald Trump's speech at the final presidential debate in the US and 21 more in his acceptance speech after the election. His cheerleaders at the odious Breitbart news hail the dawning of a new "post-truth" era.

We should not be surprised if both polls were finally won by fabrication, since fiction was the terrain on which they fought. In June, Reuters reported that some 50% of web users now get their news via Facebook and for a growing demographic it is the primary source of daily news. But as analysis by Buzzfeed has since shown, Facebook's yen for "engagement" inadvertently values fake news over real. By giving preferential placement to those stories that gather the most likes, comments, reactions, and shares, Facebook provides a platform for hyper-partisan websites like Freedom Daily and Occupy Democrats which dribble a relentless stream of stories with little more than an odds-on chance of truth. We live in a cloud of manufactured outrage, in the endless deferral between a noisy hoax and its quiet debunking.

Meanwhile, major media outlets, under pressure from declining revenues, lay off fact-checkers and other editorial staff to opt for an army of precarious freelancers trolling Twitter for quick content that apes the form and style of substance-free clickbait. The BBC, on the other hand, under the guise of impartiality, presents truth and lies side by side, like equally palatable flavours of ice cream that might be chosen between at whim and without consequence. It is almost inevitable that, presented as equivalently valid options, the spurious would best the bona fide since it is not hampered in its race to sensationalism by any commitment to what is concrete and verifiable. Real events must go to the back of the queue. They are too boring. There is no room for them anymore. 2016 could not take place.

On the first of June, at a conference in California, Tesla cars and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to the stage and declared that we are "probably" living in a computer simulation. "Forty years ago we had Pong," he said from a swivelling red leatherette armchair. "Now, forty years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously – and it's getting better every year. … If you assume any rate of improvement at all then the games will become indistinguishable from reality. It would seem to follow that the odds that we are in base reality would be one in billions."

Not only that, Musk went on to say "we should hope that that's true." And this was at the beginning of June – before Dave Swarbrick, Muhammad Ali, and Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell all passed on. By now I should imagine Musk is desperately scouring the shelves of his medicine cabinet for red pills, murmuring under his breath, over and over again, the same fervently wished-for phrase: 2016 did not take place.

To be sure, it has felt more than once over the course of the year as if the world has become the plaything of cruel and capricious forces. Haven't you wondered if the reality we're living through isn't at the whim of bored adolescents with impossibly sophisticated software, munching distractedly on high fructose corn snacks some time in the distant future? Certainly if we are living in a fictional world, it is not a very well written one. Huge plot twists keep taking place without any reasonable motivation. Major players drop out at random. We are living, perhaps, in a Jason Statham film or an under-rehearsed and hastily-composed daytime soap.

The tendency for soap opera producers to whip out some implausible catastrophe when ratings are lagging is well known. Due to the continuing stranglehold on our culture by the post-war boomer generation, the past twelve months have felt like a slow plane crash on Stella Street, or like the juvenile gamers who control our destiny have just peeked deep into this nth-degree-Sim-City they are half-engaged with and plucked out of our collective unconscious everybody's answers to that tired old question of the perfect guests to a fantasy dinner party and killed them all off, one by one.

The only consolation for this state of affairs is that if we are living in a computer simulation, the players are bound, soon, to realise that they've gone too far and spoilt their own game. Why bother sitting through the now-inevitable endgame of global war, environmental devastation, and slow degeneration into savagery and desperation? Already their sweaty fingers must be poised above the reset button. In a few days we'll all be looking about ourselves, wondering what happened. 2016 will not have taken place.

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Dan John
Dec 1, 2016 1:34pm

I wish this essay didn't take place.

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Jive Ass Slippers
Dec 1, 2016 2:35pm

In reply to Dan John:

Let's not forget the increase exchange value of pithy quibs over meaningful discussion.

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Dan John
Dec 1, 2016 2:47pm

In reply to Dan John:

But seriously; the big irony is that this article bemoans 'fake news' and opinion-over-fact, yet presents a relentlessly left-wing interpretation of recent events, only including examples that fit that narrative. For example, did the Remain side lie in the EU ref? Of course they did. Both sides did. Politics always involves distortions, persuasions, appeals to emotions over facts. That's not new. "Post-truth" or "Post-fact" is just the current trendy phrase used in think-pieces. I’m aware The Quietus is a primarily a music site, so political balance isn’t expected / required, but, still, it’s odd to remain part of the filter-bubble problem?

How about a centrist / centre-right-leaning writer gets to write a Wreath Lecture on this site? Surely that would be more constructive? Challenging the audience rather than giving them what they expect and confirming their views and feelings. This article just serves as a minor salve to the, I assume, generally left-leaning editors/writers/readers on this site? Let’s blame the media, technology and the easily confused, distracted masses, rather than even consider that there could be other explanations in the ‘real’ world. For example, The EU vote wasn’t simply won by ‘lies’ (Both sides lied in comparable measure), but by a patriotic sense that democracy is important. (Exit polls of Leave voters showed the primary motivation was ‘democracy’, then ‘immigration’).

At the risk of sounding ridiculously pompous the article is interesting as a study of psychological trauma; the total lack of engagement with the reasons people voted for Brexit or Trump. It’s such a shock to the liberal, end-of-history, settled worldview, that it feels literally unreal.

Lots of genuinely terrifying, shit things have happened in the world in 2016, but the response to that should be hard-headed realism, a solid resolve to acknowledge other viewpoints, challenge them when appropriate. Let’s work hard to fight extremes from the left and right.

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Randy Moonshine
Dec 1, 2016 3:03pm

Both Kate Bush and Morrissey have recently come out with views not of the "party" line, though i suspect many many of your older readers agree with them.

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LG x
Dec 1, 2016 3:54pm

Another day, another masturbatory and condescending bit of sociopolitical navelgazing on the Quietus.

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Shea M.
Dec 1, 2016 5:49pm

In reply to Dan John:

it's a great example of dystopian virtue signaling.

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Dec 1, 2016 6:41pm

Leftist shills (e.g. academics, politicians, 'public intellectuals', 'journalists', etc) have argued for decades that Western Society is an amorphous construct of antiquated ideas, mores, manners, behaviors, and arbitrary knowledge. In other words, Western Society is an illusion that IS simply because most participants agree that it IS. They argue that Western culture, knowledge, objectivity, certainty, tradition, belief, honor, etc, is artificial, exclusive, and discriminatory. It is with great delight that the same Leftist shills whine, complain, and gnash their teeth when someone such as Trump overtly distorts, bends, or subverts 'Truth'; the very same idea that stated shills have professionally assailed for years. Schadenfreude is delicious and payback is a bitch, Clowns. Looking forward to an even greater and more disappointing 2017.

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Jive Ass Slippers
Dec 1, 2016 7:50pm

In reply to Dan John:

Fair enough. I have always enjoyed The Quietus’s political pieces. It’s a fresh perspective compared to the New York Times, Guardian, Washington Post, ect. I’m not for sure what side of the Atlantic you are on but I’m still recovering from Trump being elected so I could really use the salve right now anyway. While I think Brexit is a little more complicated, I am still scratching my head at Trump. The Quietus is right to point out how disconcerting it is with all the fake news that is being spread and how easily it is being swallowed up. Where ever we want to point fingers at who’s to blame, we can’t dismiss that this misinformation has not played a big part in these outcomes. I’m certainly willing and enjoy getting outside of my bubble, unfortunately, at least in the states, I haven’t been able to find any good alternatives. I see the manufactured outrage machine working, both the left and right, and it does seem like we are clicking away to our destruction. We need simple solutions and can’t be bothered with learning nuance approaches to these issues.

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Derp Indeed
Dec 1, 2016 8:05pm

In reply to :

Yes and that schadenfreude is going to be even more delicious when Trump doesn't deliver on any of the promises he has made and is a dismal failure. So far his "shaking things up" is appointing his cronies to his cabinet. Your "outsider" is a Bush on steroids.

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Dec 1, 2016 11:28pm

In reply to Derp Indeed:

DI -
Your assumption of my position (e.g. Schadenfreude is predicated upon a) Trump delivering on his campaign promises, b) Trump shaking things up, c) Trump being an outsider - all of which will result in his successful presidency) is both facile and erroneous. I suggested no such thing, as is plainly evident in the original text. Rather, my pleasure is in observing Leftist shills suffer at the monsters of their own making (e.g. post-truth, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, etc). Your reasoning (as expressed) implies that only two camps exist - Trump supporters and Trump detractors. You fail to consider that many other possibilities exist. In short, your reasoning is flawed. In fact, one can argue that Trump has already succeeded insofar as he has utilized the tactics against those who created them and thereby won the election. Good for him. I hope Trump is successful, but not for the reasons you assume. Happy Holidays.

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D
Dec 2, 2016 9:49am

"...quick content that apes the form and style of substance-free clickbait."

It is strange therefore that this piece apes this trend by dragging us through the 'ooh isn't 2016 terrible' line. Assigning a series of deaths, tragedies and political shifts to a tedious, almost irreverent, narrative about the year in question rather than the content.

The idea that the two 'seismic' events suddenly came out of nowhere is one of the great media myths of modern times. Repeated enough to hide from the fact that the media should take a a great deal of responsibility for where we are right now.

Taking the EU referendum as an example - the repeated lie that this was a 6-12 month battle of 'post-facts' is truly a nonsense. The UKIP rise and most importantly the media's infatuation and failure to call to account is a story of the last 10 YEARS not months.

We should all be hugely concerned about "Journalism's" inability to look inwards and its tendency to anchor itself on a line about 'free press' and 'democracy'. A position which it has abused massively over the past decade.

Mass media normalised the current line of debate and now mass media is trying to create some arch illusion that it is all to do with a year-long full moon. It's all downhill from here.

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Cunty McShitballs
Dec 2, 2016 3:23pm

In reply to :

You're one angry dude. Did a lefty touch you inappropriately when you were a lad?

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Derp Indeed
Dec 2, 2016 5:36pm

In reply to :

That two sided fallacy was set up in your original argument where you mention "left", "leftist shill", "shill" about ten times. Left implies a notion of dualism. So which is it? You don't get to utilize simplistic notions dressed with assumptions when it suits your argument and turn around and pontificate the complexity of "truth".

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A Bell Is A Cup
Dec 2, 2016 8:14pm

In reply to Derp Indeed:

"You don't get to utilize simplistic notions dressed with assumptions when it suits your argument and turn around and pontificate the complexity of "truth"."
There's a good deal of irony in hearing this statement come from (what I assume is)a leftist or a liberal considering that both preceding(then in the service of underhandedly paving the way for their assumed victory) and following(now in the service of shifting the blame and avoiding self-reflection) Brexit and Trump, that is exactly what that particular camp has been doing.

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Dec 2, 2016 9:39pm

In reply to Derp Indeed:

DI -

In my initial post, I state "Leftist shill" twice, "shill" once, and "left" zero times. In my second post, I state "Leftist shill" once, "shill" zero times, and "left" zero times. Thus, I reference a metaphor (which I qualified via example in both posts) a total of four (4) times within 276 words or 0.01449 (i.e. ~1% of total text). Thus, your estimation of my "two sided fallacy" is incorrect mathematically and incorrect philosophically. I've proven the maths portion and the philosophical refutation, as follows.

As you well know, a number of political parties exist within the UK(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_the_United_Kingdom). One references Left(ist), Right(ist), Centre(ist), etc, with the full knowledge that not every subtlety, nuance, or exception is implied. Study the Second Titled Column (i.e. [Political Position]) within the link I provide to you. You will read descriptions (e.g. "Centre-right", "Centre-left", etc) that identify a respective party based upon its ideological framework (which is subject to change with time), not its absolute position on each and every issue, topic, theme, force majeure, etc.

A short post is not designed to be a philosphical dissertation. One anticipates that one need not qualify each and every word with supporting evidence. In short, one anticipates a certain level of intelligence of the reader. Perhaps that is my mistake. To your point, "Left" does NOT imply dualism. Rather, the term is an abbreviated method of referencing a set of positions held by a party, institution, academy, social construct, etc. If you are incapable of comprehending this idea, then seek educational assistance.

To summarize, I did not "utilize simplistic notions dressed with assumptions". Rather, I asserted a position very clearly (i.e. It delights me that Trump won an election by utilizing tactics constructed (by what I consider to be) by Leftist shills). In fact, I made no assumptions whatsover other than an unspecified level of reader intelligence. As suggested, this singular assumption has proven to be evidently false.

In the words of The Dude, "Obviously you're not a golfer."

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Derp Indeed
Dec 2, 2016 10:24pm

In reply to :

Does it make you a shill if you are Centre-Left or just Centre-Shill? I didn't see that in your link. If you want to get pedantic, you don't need to capitalize left when you say "Leftist Shill". You should capitalize only when you use it to when formally referring to a political group. Just a little FYI since I imagine you use that phrase a lot. I would hate for you to spend all that time on your heavy handed erudition to just fuck it up with a minor faux pas like that. Also, Big Lebowski quotes are so over used.

Anyway, it's that time of day where my weekend starts. It's been fun. Cheers!

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Robert Barry
Dec 5, 2016 4:33pm

In reply to Dan John:

Indulge me: name one actual known lie told by the remain camp during the referendum campaign.

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