There is no polycrisis, only nostalgia for an imagined present
I’ve used the word permaweird for a few years now, mainly in my Great Weirding series, but in some other writing as well. It is my modest entry in the ongoing contest to name the present, which Adam Tooze’s term polycrisis currently seems to be winning. Adam Elkus, coined a similar term, the omnicrisis. Then there is perma-crisis, which I think was coined by John Robb, but I’m not sure. Crisis theories (and names) are popular.
I suspect, though, that crisis theorizing is barking up the wrong tree. In its anxiety to inspire an actionable sense of generalized collective urgency about the overall state of the world, crisis theorizing misses the essence of what is going on: there is no default (hyper-?) object for a sense of collective crisis to be about. At the scales of complexity where these crisis theories apply, the object of the crisis must to some degree be constructed by the collective sense of urgency it induces. But it appears that no such coherent consensual object can be constructed in the regimes we are talking about.
The pandemic came close for a bit, but it was merely a regular sort of crisis. Not the kind of meta-prefixed crisis the terms evoke. In general, we have not been in a state of continuous crisis, poly, omni, or perma. We have merely been convinced we ought to be. That the stream of bewildering events ought to add up to something we can collectively get worked up about, and do something about together.
I think we are experiencing an end-of-history subversion of the possibility of a collective sense of urgency at the largest social scales. Coordinated action at such scales, to the extent it is needed, must originate somewhere other than in a shared sense of urgency.
The Last Men at the End of History cannot sustain any sense of collective urgency for any length of time at the important scales. And mere individual or even tribal actions do nothing to alleviate the sense of collective, even universal, crisis-in-waiting. The world is now too complex for that to work.
So to operate by a crisis theory of the present is to navigate by social fictions indistinguishable from religious eschatologies. This does not mean large-scale problems don’t exist. It merely means crisis/urgency framings are about as useful as religious frames. They are merely doomsday theories of the present that keep rolling over into the future.
Bruce Sterling in his annual prognostications at the Well (which Drew Austin has some nice commentary on as well), almost gets away from the gravity well of crisis theorizing:
I'm mildly surprised at how much cultural continuity this particular decade has to offer. It's like the year 2020 started, and that year has never stopped since…
…There's something very Twenty-Twenties about attempting and failing to "turn the page" on inconvenient truths that can't and don't go away. That's why each year tends to repeat the last. I wouldn't call that "moral cowardice," because people do not, and cannot, really ignore the pervasive problems -- they do see them, and tend to complain quite consistently about the same issues, year after year. But, without ever getting much done about them. It's rare to see any public problem that's analyzed, agreed-upon, confronted, dealt with and dismissed. All the "crises" tend to thrive, and to mutate into long-term shambolic debacles. It's a decade that feels the need to marinate in its own distresses -- doomscrolling as a way-of-life.
Unlike Bruce, I’m not surprised. This continuity and mutation into “long-term shambolic debacles” (though I would challenge the “debacle” part) is precisely what I’ve been going on about with my notion of the Permaweird. Arguably, once you’re in a regime of long-term shambolic evolution, you can’t really think of it as a crisis at all.
The Permaweird leaves us in a perennial state of frustrated urgency; a cortisol-saturated state of being with nothing to do and nowhere to go. And the longer it persists, the more we begin to harbor the growing suspicion that perhaps there is no crisis as such. That for the most part, despite the snowballing weirdness, there is nothing in the circumstances for which a literal crisis response, in a biochemical fight-or-flight sense, is appropriate, either at an individual or collective level.
Things like climate change and the culture war are not even crises in a figurative sense. They are phenomena that exist on social scales we are simply not used to inhabiting at all, in crisis mode or otherwise. Our intuitions and frames from smaller scales do not apply.
These phenomena are persistent strands of disorienting weirdness we are learning to adapt to and live with, without copping to it. Effective or not, our adaptive responses don’t seem to alleviate our sense of crisis, or restore any sense of normalcy, “new” or familiar. We just add or drop strands in our crisis portfolio as the situation evolves. To me, this suggests that crisis-thinking is a vestigial kind of cognition, again like religion.
More precisely, an undirected sense of generalized crisis is a kind of nostalgia for an imagined present. One that we fail to recognize as a reactionary impulse because it does not anchor to the past. To the extent it is merely imagined, any sense of normalcy associated with it is manufactured, as is any sense of crisis.
I have argued before that normalcy is just the majority sect of magical thinking, but if so, by extension, so is any larger sense of crisis. If a situation fails to spark any sort of acute and decisive response at the right scale, but also fails to decisively kill us for failing to respond, is crisis really the right term for it? Is urgency really the right mood for responses?
I suspect it is better to think of normalcy and crisis as paired kinds of magical thinking that define imaginaries of the present. Your particular urgent *-crisis is a function of the normalcy you choose to fetishize. Your heavens make your hells.
It is weird to talk of the present in terms of imaginaries. We are comfortable with the notion that past and future can be imaginaries. We talk of normalized versus revisionist histories, and of ranges of speculative futures, but the present seems less open to such speculative understandings. The past and future seem to fan out behind and ahead of the narrow bottleneck of constrained possibility that we inhabit and name the present. Surely there is no room for nostalgia and imagination there?
Yet, there is no metaphysically compelling reason for this sense of the present being a bottleneck of possibility. In fact, it makes more sense to assume that if there are many pasts and futures, there are many presents as well. So why are we unable to see them? Why can we not choose to inhabit a present that is not a state of frustrated urgency? That is not a nostalgia for an imagined present? That is not understood in terms of an awkwardly prefixed generalized crisis?
I think this is happening because we are attached to a fixed sense of personal agency that is inseparable from a fixed sense of the present. And the present is getting too complex for any such attachment to be a stable one. So you are forced to choose, moment to moment, whether to perpetuate your sense of a stable normalcy, or your sense of your own agency. If the show must go on, you must accept helplessness within it. If you reject helplessness, there is no show.
The present is that which we can act on, and in simpler worlds, our sense of normalcy and crisis (the “show”) is a fragile, ephemeral map of our own agency. And because this agency is necessarily a function of individually varied stakes and capabilities, we cannot help but see different patterns of normalcy and crisis in the world around us. Patterns that get harder and harder to reconcile into sustained shared understandings and imperatives as the world gets more and more complex. The simple consensus show turns into a complex shitshow that no two people process in the same way.
With apologies to Tolstoi, every simple show is the same to all players, but every player experiences a complex shitshow in their own way.
The world has gotten more complex than we can imagine shared overlays for, and this presents as a persistent weirdness that leaves us with a nostalgia for a shared imagined present that we process into a persistent sense of generalized crisis. But consensus failure is not necessarily a crisis, except to a nostalgic imagination. If you can give up the nostalgia, there is a chance you might find there is no crisis.
The end of history is perhaps best understood as a threshold of complexity beyond which the present is uninhabitable for collective imaginations at the scales we yearn for. Only atomized individuals and unsatisfyingly small tribes can make the journey from past to future.
The post-historical present, unlike the past and future, is a lonely place. That is perhaps the right definition of the Permaweird: a condition shaped by the inescapable loneliness of the present.
For many, the only mechanism that satisfies that definition is “market,” but there may be other things that can operate past the limits of collective urgency. This question of mechanisms is not the focus of this essay, but I may explore that in a future essay.