Dennis Goodwin

Cope

by Dennis Goodwin

You’re born, and the rest is cope. From a shimmering plain of data, your nervous system jacks in: indistinct phenomena gain colors, borders and shapes, relations form, harmony settles in, you feel your first spurt of pleasure. “Give me more!”, you intent. Particles mutate into waves. They sense a new observer. Neurons fire, synapses bind, organs gestate, the body calcifies in the direction of its sensory inputs… it all comes in. Let’s call it reality.

Even before the generative processes of base consciousness cease, this reality is contested by a new sense: time. Time bifurcates the sensation of living: the rapidly fading still frames of the past, the perpetual expectation of the present, the promise of reward in the future. Time has a wind, streaking your face, as you accelerate from one oblivion to another. This emotional arc is the most basic story you tell yourself, about yourself. It coexists with many other stories, fables, mythologies, on twisted ribbons of subplots, from perdition to redemption. This new sense is more than just time, it’s the integration, simulation and maintenance of reality, in other words, cope.

Marx thought that the intensification of capitalism birthed a new sense: “having”. Private property gives man a material sense of being, of definition by possession. Property is palpable, that an otherwise pathetic object “[makes] made us so stupid and one-sided that [it] is only ours when we have it— when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc.,— in short, when it is used by us.” For Marx, this alienation of the object, that it only becomes real through its perception as a tool of capitalism, reflects man’s own alienation as a “strange object” in his found environment. Perhaps then the intensity of information warfare perpetrated by the internet has likewise given birth to a new sense: cope.

What is cope? A desire for smoothness. New data that cannot fit into preconceived notions must be pushed aside, or else it may create doubt as to the completeness of one’s system. Conflict, since it’s known to exist, must occur, but in a predictable, sanitized way. The stasis of the system is reinforced by the performance of crisis as the ritual exercise of the simulation’s power. Fiction requires friction. Yet it is the constant microdermabrasion that creates such smooth interiority, such a pointless arena, a bulldozer of all detail. The function of cope is narrative smoothing.

Internal contradictions may build up to a phase transition out of equilibrium, in which facts rearrange themselves into a new, stable formation. You wander the desert, from cope to cope, like a realtime data viz of so many teeming masses of sand trickling between borderless hourglasses. Nihilism is the negative space, the crackling void, the agonizing lurch between oases of cope. You feel the pain of falling out turn into the fervor of the newly minted zealot. And just as suddenly as you have stepped outside, you find yourself back in. The inside of the dome: an enormous, smooth surface, a brutal logic, outro music on an endless loop. Am I on the right side of history?

You find yourself strapped into a pleasure chair from which your galaxy brain bulges in all directions into infinite psychic pain. But the enveloping simulation’s power source must come from somewhere. From our helpless acceptance, our cope.

If you see yourself as important, forming the hub from which your reality spokes, from which your desires, goals, frustrations manifest, that is, if you possesses a will to power, do you not lose that power the bigger the world gets? Perhaps the great men of history were so great because their worlds were so small. Whereas in bigness, world events are a hostage situation binge watch. Then perhaps it is the power of cope to shrink the world and increase our perception of control. From the inability to foresee, steer or profit from events, from being an eternal Pagliacci to the present, a shrunken world provides the requisite illusion of power to feel greatness within smallness. Present history is defined not by what happens, but by a catalogue of recently defeated reality violations. By shrinkage.

Is the perception of time only possible through the accumulation of trauma? Is time itself trauma? Time, given that it is limited to each of us, demands that you take a stance against it. To be not time’s victim, but its beneficiary, then, to seize the means of the present, is the self-appointed goal of politics.

All politics is cope, but then again, to some extent, everything is a cope: a line being redrawn in public, meanings being mutually defined, the forum abutting the market. For the philosopher Lauren Berlant, politics is the organization of people into narratives allowing them access to “the good life”. This idea, while obvious, gives us the language we need to declare that we need more than just ideology to feel like life is being lived.

Berlant’s diagnosis of most of the shared elements of various good lives involves “upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively, durable intimacy.” Cope, then, becomes whatever set of beliefs will bring me closer to realizing my good life. It’s an ex post facto justification of my lifestyle that situates me in a false sense of control against polysyllabic specters that cannot be directly confronted, like deindustrialization, financialization, militarization, overmedicalization, etc.

However, imagining the good life, and organizing a political group around its realization, does not any way actually guarantee it. “The good life” can become a gauntlet of competition: a precarious web of mortgages, drug wars, hedge funds, medical bills, luxury brands and lifestyles all underpin its structure. For Berlant, this then turns the pursuit of the good life into a force of “cruel optimism”, a kind of revenge of the desired outcome against its fantasist for bringing it to imagined life. Perhaps this is what we really mean when we call out “cope”.

As the sense-making institutions that have upheld the liberal order decay, so too does the reality they provided. The unspooling of social promises, from healthcare to pensions to good employment, are currently being enjoyed for perhaps the last time by the Boomer generation. There are fewer and fewer commonly shared coping mechanisms—religions, unions, local politics— that can actually make a material difference in lived life. Their pattern of applied power means they have been raided and strip-mined for that very power by the superstructure of globalized interests that have replaced them. The norms of any society’s most powerful institutions has a warping effect on our reality, and these institutions’ decline causes perceptory hallucinations. The map to the territory is twisted in a way that you can never fall off, never find the world’s end, never find the cliffs of water that evaporate into the great ether, or into the hot breath of the deep fissures of the hollow earth Agartha, at the roots of the World Tree.

Psychological literature attempts to categorize unhealthy coping strategies into a taxonomy that sounds like they could describe every type of post on your timeline: acting out, avoidance, denial, displacement, dissociation, distancing, emotionality, fantasy, help-rejecting complaining, idealization, intellectualization, passive aggression, performing rituals, projection, provocation, rationalization, regression, repression, self-harming, somatization, and trivializing. There must be a perverse kind of pleasure in cope, otherwise others’ wouldn’t feel so loud.

Do you really desire anything, or do you just consume what’s available? Supply creates its own demand. The less material struggle there is, the more you need to invent new struggles just to make life interesting to live. The summit of the good life becomes the base of a new hierarchy of needs. You assent to whatever power can best provide us access to your adopted idea of the good life. And what is the good life if not the socially desirable set of fictions you strive to LARP, plucked from the images powerful entities circulate relentlessly in front of your eyeballs? Psychology, again: “[c]oping refers to cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage (master, reduce, or tolerate) a troubled person-environment relationship.”

Why do you have the political beliefs you do? Can the psychological rewards they dole out explain how they wormed into your brain in the first place? All politics is conspiracy: appeals to emotion, sinister groups working against you, trickles of selective information, confirmation bias, circular reasoning, obfuscation and mystification: a pyramid scheme from the good life to politics to control.

Perhaps a workable theory of conspiracy theories is that they represent something “true enough”, because the truth is more terrifying than the conspiracy. They work to explain a breakdown in the social contract that feels unilateral and alien, but is in fact distributed capitulation of once overtly powerful forces to themselves again, now covertly hiding behind “the market”, “the system”, or “the algorithm”. Unspecific doom reigns supreme.

A conspiracy theory is just a low status narrative according to the élites. Like religion or mysticism, it exists as a category in order to legitimize everything else as not having elements of that category: so religion is religion and science is science, with no possible admixture. It’s better than the random cruelty of chaos theory. Conspiracy theories are mythologies for the true optimist at heart.

The network itself is the author of conspiracy: whatever proliferates, wins. With every scale function of media distribution, new taxonomies of ideas colonize the most plugged-in minds. And for the bored, it’s something to do: a weaponized Farmville plugged into the orifices of reality. Ideas keep having sex.

This explains the internet’s most successful open source meaning making projects to date, namely: Qanon and woke. While both have their obvious flaws, it is essential to learn from their success in order to build something better in their wake. Any radical project should have community, wonder, fun, discovery, and more, using technology as a tool for humans, not humans as its tool of perpetuation. For all these movements get wrong, a dissection of their methods, their content, their desired outcomes is necessary for understanding how we may turn negative coping strategies into positive ones. Rather than debate the merits of any politics, why not investigate its psychological origins? If politics is downstream from culture, would not culture be downstream from psychology?

Qanon combines elements of Sudoku, 4chan, gematria, Satanic panic, Pokémon GO, Revelations and Boomer chain mail. The eponymous Q speaks to his followers in acronymic tautologies like “nothing can stop what is coming”, hypnotic Socratic questioning, and through a megaphone of endlessly re-shared Boomer fan art in the form of MS Paint collages heavy with compression artifacts. All to promote the by now familiar conspiracy that an élite sect of pedophiles secretly run the world, and Donald Trump was here to save us from them. Q inspires in his followers religious devotion, quiet tinkering, and community gaming.

The whole activity resembles nothing more than knitting— like knitting a digital AIDS quilt of Hollywood pedophilia, sex trafficking islands, Clintons in jail, and deep state cannibalism. This tapestry comes together in the beauty of the Q clock, an infinite astrolabe of predictions inspiring envy in the Mayans whose own powers ended in 2012: a conspiracy of time.

The terrible reality is: Qanon might as well be true. The material relations between the Qanon truther and their perceived oppressor would not change either way. What was lacking in that relationship before was a vector of attack: the reason why coastal élite power is so smooth and ungraspable. Why do “they” succeed while “we” don’t? As with Trump himself, critics focus too much on style and not substance (such that it is). For what it’s worth, Qanon is partially true. The money and power swirling around the late Jeffrey Epstein is enough to attest to this. Conspiracies do happen. If anything, Qanon is a more effective tool than traditional activism or outrage, where perhaps all avenues have been exhausted, because it is better able to seize the means of attention.

Qanon’s Satanic élites narrative is in fact a more palatable explanation for Q’s adherents than the truth: that the élites really don’t care about them. They’re in the Caymans riding out corona. Their apathy is more terrifying than active malice. It suggests they feel completely inoculated against any threat from the outside. And for Qanon, that Trump, in fact, isn’t going to save them. Now, the blackpill: who will?

For as soon as you express any blackpill, any misery, anger or loneliness online, a cadre of FBI agents will descend upon you like angels coming to Sodom and Gomorrah to extract your sins, first by succoring your hospitality, then by force. Botnets and actors foreign and domestic drive your engagement through the roof. It feels nice to be liked.

Similar dynamics, all the way down to the Fed infiltration, rule the woke left as they try to blaze a trail of radicality that is not instantaneously weaponized into a Fortune 500 HR sensitivity training webinar. The intensive calculation of what constitutes wokeness, the arcane and virulently mutating theory, the exploding encyclopedia of terms all resemble the participatory puzzles of Qanon. Woke is like a multiplayer RPG with a punishingly steep learning curve, where you are buffed by other players for displays of virtue, and debuffed for wrongthink or last year’s terminology. Functionally, it serves as an élite patois, a mark of distinction, the revival of nobility in those with high time preference.

The aesthetics of victimhood is “appropriated” to serve colonizers from far milder traumas. To be a victim is the highest virtue. This victim is the protagonist, and the story its oppressor; therefore there can never be justice, only a circular firing squad. They become crybullies to no one more than themselves, the lonesome dictators of the ball pit. Typical woke discourse can be characterized by appeals to authority and expertise, histrionic tattle-telling to teacher, and being the subject of words, online, “literally killing” them. Who thought “liberation” in the context of race, sex and sexuality would be so uptight?

Power wants to obfuscate the obvious so you believe more and more ridiculous things in a competitive spiral of signaled subservience, of capitalist masochism masquerading as #Resistance. The fitness-enhancing algorithms that combined sense data into a more or less common hallucination based on survival principles now becomes warped, hijacked into hallucinating the justifications of power. Power becomes reality. Why are you so miserable and unhappy?

This needy loop is ultimately self-defeating and actually damages the worthy causes woke claims to fight for. Empathy taken to such extremes acts as another cruel optimism dragging them away from the good life. Their storms of outrage have the curious effect of “raising awareness” about tragedy and misfortunate, without materially improving them. A “school strike for the climate”, that allows teenagers to take Fridays off from school, and take selfies with protest signs meant to convince no one, also changes nothing. Ad nauseum for so many other liberal projects. As if the psychological need was served not by the cause, but by the outrage. A transaction of blind righteousness. The desire to “be seen”, to be “recognized”, to find justification of one’s self in the eyes of another, is, like Qanon’s activism, is ultimately ineffective.

Contrast the vertiginous ivory tower of wokism with the horizontal sprawl of the Qanon bazaar. The tower is completionist: you must have all the required beliefs, always updated to the latest correct thought software, or else face dire social consequences. New information must be ruthlessly neutralized, while existing stockpiles of knowledge must be relentlessly undermined. Morality is a scorched earth strategy. Childlike wonder and exploration are shamed. While down in the bazaar, amateurs and experts commingle in pseudo-scientific exchanges of knowledge and support, drawing arcane symbols in the air. For anything that can be said about Qanon, at least corporations have not sought fit to co-opt it, just ruthlessly crush it. Leftists wish they had this kind of street cred.

All of this is not to say that state-sanctioned cope is not the norm. Whether you are soyfacing over instantly adopted, freshly manufactured “expert” opinion, or entering into an equally absurd performative rebellion against it, you are working to intensify the official cope. In a way, Current Year ideology is a kind of non-politics in that it is just reality maintenance for power. Power needs to cope, too.

Would it be controversial to say that both Qanon and woke want that mythical “good life”? And that their visions, materially, actually might look strikingly similar? Friends, family, security, the necessary material to make the world our own, however we define it.

For Berlant, we seek attachments— to others, to objects, to narratives— to better ourselves, to make us more worthy of our destined fantasy of the good life. But in this, we dilate the present— in the hyper-focus of online shopping, sexting, outrage mobs, scrolling, refreshing, tabbing k-holes— in part to delay truly feeling our precarity in relation to the good life. A lack of hope for the future translates into inflated expectations of the present transaction. The point is not the fruition of the movement, but the pleasure of the struggle and its revival of community.

Perhaps through the instinctual fog precipitated by the internet as a medium, it takes high arousal emotions like revenge, guilt, or more optimistically, love, to build a community at scale. It’s not about the pizza, hot dogs, or the Protestant Reformation explosion of identities, but the friends we make along the way. Qanon and woke act, as with all politics, as cruel optimism against the impassive, impersonal and mystical forces arrayed against us. Everyone is a downwardly mobile Sisyphus, backsliding down a hill of perverse pleasures. Cope is the production of obfuscation of a materialist explanation for one’s misfortune.

No matter in what way we cope, we are all enlisted against our will as the drone pilots of information warfare, in the desert at the limits of our powers of explanation. And even should we find ourselves on opposites sides, we will both magically feel like a sore winner in perpetually assured victory. “The misery of being exploited by capitalists,” writes the post-Keynesian economist Joan Robinson, “is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

If postmodernity is defined by suspicion of metanarratives, what then of narratives? Every cause, every effect is a narrative. Decline is a narrative. Ascent is a narrative. A conspiracy of facts. What we choose to remember, and what we choose to forget. We want power, but in a safe space, in time’s chosen playpen. False consciousness is a useful lens onto the world not because any consciousness is true, but because all consciousness is false.

In our chronically depressed society, any glimmer of bliss can become the cornerstone of one’s worldview. Inspired by such a divine-seeming spark, you are sucked into the vortex of ideology, if or until it spits you out again. These copes will pass. Each new cope resets the hedonic point zero, as our brains continually write new code for the universal learning algorithm, uncovering new memes, testing the fitness of our ideas, to think something truly new, truly beautiful. What we truly want. Psychology: “Happiness is really just about four things: perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness (number and depth of your relationships), and vision/meaning (being part of something bigger than yourself).”

To reach escape velocity from our copes, perhaps we should instead embrace attitude. An attitude is permeable, fungible, mutable, biologic. It operates under uncertainty. It sifts through the space junk of reality, selecting for preference. Where it does not find enough preference, it widens the light cone of its inquiry, for expanding horizons is what inherently gives information its meaning, as it forms denser networks of connections with the information consumed before it. Attitude seeks out novel perturbations to shake your stack of homunculi. Camp, before its miserable commercialization, was one such attitude from which to draw inspiration.

Our psychological fitness for the present is measured by our attitude towards the reigning Zeitgeist, namely, that we should be stimulating play, humor, forgiveness, tolerance, ironic detachment, wonder and experimentation. Perhaps one day there will be a powerful social movement based on such attitudes. Until then, our attitude will be microdosing copium, peeing in the feels tank, playing the human strings of pleasure like a zither. Brains are the enemy. The upper limit of brain size is determined by the elasticity of the birth canal. And so life is the ultimate cope of the void.

February 2021