The Limits to Magical Thinking

Philip K. Dick once wrote: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” (“How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, 1978).

It is so tempting, as academics, activists, or advertisers, to want to believe in a purely constructivist world.

Trump and Breitbart and Neonazis are not original in their glorification of alternative facts. New Agers have been at it for decades, with their fluff around abundance consciousness, making people responsible for being poor. It is only because you haven’t cleared away the cobwebs of scarcity consciousness, they croon, that you’re poor. Say nothing of institutionalized racism, inequality of opportunity, nepotism, trust-funds, or lookism. No, the New Age ideology long ago took Social Darwinism and internalized it, so that its interiorization meant that your socioeconomic level remained pegged to your inner spiritual development, nothing more.

Working in the world of public health policy and epidemiology, the writing is on the wall: placebo, as powerful as the effect is, only goes so far. There is a “there” there in the world of matter and things. For example with cigarettes, putting a filter on the cigarette–something initially lauded as a harm reduction measure–did not, despite millions in advertising dollars and the hopes of smokers wishing to resolve their cognitive dissonance, actually reduce negative health outcomes. If anything, filters allowed smokers to take deeper puffs, drawing smoke deeper into their lungs, while believing that they were somehow having their cake and eating (smoking?) it too. All the optimism in the world still gave them cancer. All of the social construction of smoking as safe did little to stave off the morbidity and mortality suffered. And this has also been the case with so-called “light” and “mild” cigarettes–fancy descriptors, with absolutely no scientific mooring.

So how do we square the circle of ideation, which admittedly is an attractive frame to believe in, with the hard reality that there is a world out there recalcitrant to the imposition of conceptualization? This question is wrapped up with the productive debates at the intersection of analytic and continental philosophy since the 1960’s, revolving around the “remainder” or différance (Derrida, “Cogito et histoire de la folie,” 1963). In the hermeneutic tradition, one can see this difference between the interpretation and how the text or event plays out against the asymptote of time. As time passes, the careful observer will detect glitches in the assumed way of seeing, and allow herself to shift perspective in accordance with how things really show up (or are revealed) in realtime versus accumulating more resistance to phenomena, building up increasingly elaborate hoaxes and twists to resolve an incompatible Weltbild with an increasing rebellious reality.

Ultimately, reality will win. But the more we try to save face, and sweep reality under the rug of ideology, the larger the dustbunny of death and destruction that comes from the disconnect between our acting as if reality were as we wished it, and how reality actually is, becomes. Currently, in late capitalism, we have been behaving as if we lived on an infinite earth, where every type of capital is interchangable with every other kind. But complex systems theory and punctuated equilibrium show us quite plainly that irreversability exists. No amount of technological hooha can change the arrow of time, and put things back as they once were, or create life and complexity ex nihilo. We can create houses from forests, but not forests from houses. Yet, in a commodity culture of transubstantiation, such as digital currency, where everything is reduced to a common “price” on the same scale of value, this great ontological flattening is precisely what occurs. We rage against reality with the relativism of fake sameness, praying to the false idol of fungibility. Perhaps, this is one of the problems with the object-oriented-ontology (OOO) or new materialism people–in the end, they are engaged in little more than the narcissistic solipsism of magical thinking.