We’re Not In This Together

A semi-semiotic gaze at post-pandemic futures

Everything is cancelled.

1. Despite its chummy tone and ostensible good intentions, your email doesn’t find me well. These are not just circumstances. It’s not just a strange time. For someone apprehensive of semiotics, the phase we’re witnessing is disconcerting as much as intriguing.

If we’re honest, it’s been like this for a while now. Even before buying wholesale into the lockdown lifestyle, catastrophe had been looming. To many people plugged into the news cycle, society had been hurtling towards apotheosis with glorious impetus.

How many times have you heard the phrase “the pandemic has laid bare the inequality and rampant consumerism in the world” in the last few months? We’ve noticed the signs: the charred koalas, the anorexic polar bears starving on melting ice floats, the very literal metaphors of a world on fire and sinking at the same time. The man-made climate crisis coupled with a resurgence of far-right sentiments escalate anxiety. We’re witnessing alarming levels of disruption in the field of factuality, from rogue actors to the leader of the free world — a subversion of the truth with devastating effects IRL.

Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash

The voices clamouring for a post-pandemic Utopia are getting coarse. Even to the more optimistic of us it seems like another world is possible, and yet improbable. We like to think we’ve reached critical mass for a revolution. Truth is, we probably haven’t. Many would love to see things change — just as many would like to see things return to pre-Covid normal. The virus is but a wrench in the works, a protracted inconvenience.

2. Let’s be frank: We’re not in this together. Because it means different things to different people. The sign complex deployed to tackle the pandemic is unambiguous. We’re horrified not at the number of deaths, but at the prospect of boredom. We don’t fear losing the old, for they are already dead in our youthful, active-wear society. What an uncool, FOMO-generating virus, so cumbersome and geriatric. We don’t like death, and we don’t like old people. As a result, we don’t inundate our networks with representations of the carnage, focusing instead on methods to kills time, or endlessly debating science, without the instruments of science.

You’d think that in 2020 we will have demolished the dialectical process of information, broken the unilaterality of communication where media plays the transmitter role. Armed with cameras, words and the immediacy of the live feed, we as “users” become our own editors, creating our own messages that we throw out into a communication churn.

We participate in the production of reality. The reality principle involves universal adherence to its elements of meaning. We deal with a lot of abstraction. Even physical objects are simulated, abstracted — phenomena, objects, experiences you know and believe exist because you have information about them, even though you never explicitly experienced them unmediated. I know there is a Great Wall in China because I’ve seen it documented in media. It could be an extremely elaborate hoax, that would require ridiculous, immense efforts — so I choose to believe in its existence. If not, I don’t subscribe to reality as explained by the reality mechanism.

Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

There was a quick transfer of focus from agony and death to a new claustrophobic paradigm filled with the yuppie tropes of Yoga with Adrienne, the Tiger King, sourdough, banana bread, free Yale courses and mindfulness. If these were the solely the privilege of the salariat and the proficians, they are now imposed on the precariat as obligatory coping mechanisms, with the caveat that it won’t elevate their status. There is little to no empathy towards those without means, those living in different circumstances. You can’t expect everyone across the world to start reading Atomic Habits or learn to code. It’s the message you’re pelted with across platforms, and it only applies to a certain population. It forces the narrative that we can curate our own path, when in fact there is very little mobility even within the society that glorifies (and expects) professional flexibility.

3. Time feels warped and weird in a psychedelic way — that’s because it is. The present is a culmination of accelerated sign production. Society has simulated itself, a model built to represent the model. It’s a scale model, the map of no territory, sold to us, its loyal customers, for a discounted price. It’s also a discounted experience. It’s the sales version, the one that works just long enough for the Company to cash out. We bought the projection, not the real thing. The Power Point presentation instead of the actual product.

GAFA has imposed a dominant narrative, a standard model to explain purpose, meaning, behaviour and to control their ethics and aesthetics. GAFA no longer maps the territory — it invents territory, generates the map like an open world game. There is an unfettered phenomenon of experience Gamification, where you trade your data for tiny dopamine hits from likes and comments.

Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

GAFA forces a Standard Unique Time, the co-incidence of phenomena and processes earlier separated by culture. The flattening of the symbol production field. Production the real moved into an unfair market, against the oligopoly, the anorexic David against an osmotic Goliath who swallows everything in its path. This is the smoke and mirrors game that we play among ourselves, telling each other that we live on coplanar orbits. We don’t share the same time, we don’t even share the same illusion of time. We belong to societies thrust in a blender of symbols, signs, languages and gestures that need to be the same, but aren’t necessarily the same. The language we use to communicate might have the same grammar, but differs in syntax and meaning. However, the sonic and iconic vocabulary brands use is remarkably uniform:

4. Most likely, things will not change. In any case, not for the better. The toxic practices that gos us here are fuelled by our own inadequacies. It will be pedal to the metal consumerism, fuelled by a full-throttle marketing machine that wants you back on track as soon as possible. You will acquiesce, there is no other way. Our culture is one of accumulation, by which it claims its superiority. There’s an entire business ecosystem that doesn’t care about your newly acquired banana bread skills. It will however take an interest in monetising the idea of acquiring perceived skills, in marketing symbolic self-sufficiency, incorporating that narrative in their story arc.

We are the generation at the bottom of a socio-cultural Ponzi scheme. The pyramid is about to collapse. While we chipped in, we will not reap its illusory benefits. Humanity hasn’t provided an all-encompassing philosophy in sync with its perceived technological prowess. We no longer aspire to reach for the stars to expand knowledge, but to strip celestial bodies of minerals — and stake various national claims. Centuries of meandering down various avenues of ethical inquiry have led us to a point where angry citizens protest against closure of beaches in the nation with the most pandemic casualties. Coincidentally, the nation at the forefront of disruptions in technology, labour, culture and, ultimately, the essence of truth, bent at will by a leader predisposed to mendacity and obfuscation.

These phenomena will continue well after the pandemic has become manageable, and will perpetuate the dominance of their narrative, sucking the oxygen out of global debates. There is little space for other issues, for a multitude of expressions. Our culture is based on unanimity of opinion, uniformity of design, singularity of intent. Thusly, the “new” normal will not be new after all, and unequivocally not identical in its manifestation across societies.

Romanian-born, Berlin-based multi-disciplinary artist working in the realm of sound, image and text.