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Year Zero

The age of the machines demands its own samizdat

David Samuels
November 25, 2020
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

I was born in the late ’60s, and I grew up on its mythology of peace and love and drug deals gone wrong. The good guys ejected Richard Nixon from the White House. It was a bad idea to fly coke in from private airstrips in Colombia. Speedboats and LSD were an equally bad combination.

As I grew older, I came to understand the novels of Robert Stone and the essays of Joan Didion as part of a much older American literature of disenchantment with promises of utopia. As my tolerance for paranoid abstraction increased, I read William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, and Donald Barthelme, who were grouped together on a single shelf in my high school library. Hearing and understanding the siren song of America required both an openness to the beauty of its overlapping and improvised languages, and being alive to the way that conspiracies, in both their real and imaginary forms, represent a countervailing and equally American drive for order. The American song exists in a back-and-forth dialogue between the freedom of improvised melodies and tones and the constraints imposed by instrumentation and musical form. It’s a dialogue between the desire to open things up and the desire to understand or fix the Brownian motion of hundreds of millions of free human atoms according to some kind of recognizable pattern that will answer our panic in the face of the unknown.

Now, I am reading all my old books again, including the novels of Milan Kundera, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking once on the telephone. Back in college, I quickly became embarrassed by the period of six months where I became obsessed with Kundera and read him not only in English but also in French. He was charming but bourgeois, and his sex scenes were undeniably French in their playful objectification of women, but without the masculine urgency and heaviness of a Roth or a Bellow. In the past few months, though, I keep coming back to him. The Joke, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Life Is Elsewhere are all very funny books, and they feel current in a way that Bellow and even Roth do not. And they predict a future that is both horrifying and palpable.

In The Joke, Kundera presents a society plagued by varieties of ideological conformity, institutional overreach, personal cowardice, and humorlessness that are all instantly recognizable in today’s America—both to the 22-year-olds and to their parents, who are old enough to remember a country that still embraced various individualistic forms of weirdness, fun, and sex. In the face of impending nuclear annihilation and other inevitable catastrophes, absurdity and pleasure were reasonable, logical human responses, which could be accommodated by a system that figured itself in contradistinction to the bureaucratic one-party-ism promoted by the Soviet Union. The fact that post-Cold War America has now achieved its own forms of dreary, all-pervasive, conformist mediocrity without the aid of a centralized socialist bureaucracy or the threat of a hostile, nuclear-armed Soviet megalith is surely remarkable, or ironic, or something else that I don’t have a name for; the question delves too deeply into the realms of political theory and bureaucratic sociology for me to stay awake until the end of the assigned discussion period.

The main thing I noticed in rereading The Joke, aside from the pleasures of the fifth edition translation, which Kundera accomplished using a prior translation by Michael Henry Heim, is that everything ends well; in the end, the author imagines the flaws and failures of Czech communist society as only a specific set of conditions and limits placed on the eternal longings and drives inherent in the human character. In Kundera’s later novels, however, the stakes go up, as he perceives that the lines between public and private life, which are necessary for the pursuit and maintenance of human happiness, which is arguably the highest value, even in the negative, of any novel, have been erased by a threat that the author has come to recognize as existential. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being depict a world in which institutions, art, and personal relationships are all pervaded by the totalizing ambitions of the party—and must therefore fail to provide a space for the realization of anything human. Since individual freedom and personal happiness are both human ambitions that are necessarily linked to each other, both are must be doomed to failure by a censorious, narrow-minded and humorless intellectual climate backed by the all-pervasive and totalizing force of state power. What would Google and Amazon Web Services say, once they finish building out censored search platforms for the Chinese government and a new cloud kingdom for the CIA?

The pleasure of reading books again is something to be thankful for. It is my reward for having presciently fled Brooklyn in late March for a farm in an upstate county with thousands of acres of green grass that are munched on by tens of thousands of satisfied-looking cows. It’s the boondocks, for sure, with more cows than people, but I am pleased as punch by the scenery. I walk the rolling green meadows with my morning cup of tea like a guitarist on an estate somewhere south of Manchester, England, waiting for my royalty checks. It is a fact that the tax codes of many countries make it advantageous for people with windfall earnings to buy herds by allowing you to depreciate them all at once in a single tax year, and thereby pay no taxes.

I have always dreamed of living like this. Being both temperamentally and sensorily resistant to the hideous and all-pervasive degradation that was foisted on America by Silicon Valley, I am well known as a technophobe among the small circle of people who are obliged to communicate with me on creative ventures. Very early on in the pandemic, I laid down a marker by insisting that I was unable to use Zoom, and moreover, that cellphone reception up here was terrible, and to please send me scripts or treatments by fax. I bought moderately high-end stereo equipment from 25 years ago on eBay, and set up B&W speakers with specialized NAD amplifiers and other gadgets in every room, so I could play rock ’n’ roll music along with some Bill Evans and John Coltrane. When it gets cold at night, I fire up the pellet stove in the kitchen, which offers incredible amounts of warmth in exchange for a single $5 bag of pressed wood pellets.

Before bedtime, I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Let It Be with my youngest son, who is 6 years old and a source of superhuman energy and joy. He has a 1,000-watt smile that he beams at anyone who catches his fancy. The smile is important, because he suffers from vertigo, which wakes him up at night and brings him to his knees in the morning. That’s life.

Yes, the coronavirus sucks. I tell my older son and daughter that life is what we make of it. Meanwhile, there are many things on Earth that we could experience that are worse than the current plague, for which a vaccine may or may not arrive this winter, or next spring, or even next fall—like brain cancer, lymphoma, wasting diseases, much deadlier plagues, starvation, civil war, homelessness, rivers drying up, rape camps, refugee camps, and many other forms of physical and mental torture that are much more common on the planet than enlightened Western people like to contemplate. Historically speaking, vaccines have not tended to work very well on viruses, which tend to rise and ebb according to their own ecological rhythms. In any case, what matters isn’t the coronavirus, but what we will wake up to once the pandemic is declared to be over.

The coronavirus interests me for the ways that it has accelerated and at the same time laid bare some of the more frightening effects of the much larger and ongoing crackup that is exploited by thriving online political cults that have erased the lines between their play spaces and the space of what was once normal life. Life is elsewhere for all of us now, meaning online. A new world is being born, the product of ongoing shifts in the tectonic plates of technology and capital that determine the subtler changes inside our heads, which are regularly harvested by Facebook and Google.

The aim of any sane person in an age like this one is to be free to love the people you love and secure the freedom of one’s own thoughts, the same way you step out of the way of an oncoming truck.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that we are already living in the dystopia that some predicted five years ago, or a year ago, and that is probably too late for anyone to turn back. Surely, the corporations that now own a far greater share of the national wealth than they did a year ago have little interest in turning back—and more leverage to resist contrary proposals. We are all sick with the same disease, which is being pumped through our veins by the agents of a monopolistic oligarchy—whether they present themselves as the owners of large technology companies, or as the professional classes that are dependent on those companies for their declining wealth and status, or as identity politics campaigners, or security bureaucrats. The places where these vectors converge make up the new ideology, which is regulated by machines; the places outside this discourse are figured as threats, and made to disappear from screens and search results, using the same technologies that they use in China. The absence of a discrete ruling party apparatus either makes this new system weaker or stronger than the Chinese system. Again, I am happy to leave that question to the theorists. What I am gesturing toward is the totalizing push, the constraints on thinking and speaking, the uglification of everything, the all-around tightening of the noose.

The American system has its own special characteristics, of course. The Karens who are sick of working 70-hour weeks while raising gender nonbinary children via Zoom, have transformed the bleakness of their inner lives and the absence of healthy social connectedness into fuel for political movements that are funded by billionaires and manipulated by the Silicon Valley monopoly platforms whose consumer-end strategies involve a form of social fracking, which is how these unfortunate women wind up screaming racially charged epithets at birders in the middle of Central Park. Because politics can only provide the answer to personal problems in a healthy, functioning democratic society, which is not something that we have right now in America, it seems fair to imagine that the problems of these women and other people like them, of whatever gender, or sex, or whichever word the machines allow you to write in the grammatical spaces reserved for pronouns, will get worse instead of better. The only way out, as the older comrades have noted, is through accelerating the process of revolutionary change. Yet even then, there may be cracks that will threaten to bring the entire structure crashing down around our heads, comrades, which is why vigilance is necessary, and must be redoubled, until the utopian promise is made real here on earth, which history tells us never happens.

I don’t believe in revolutions. I live here now, with the cows and goats. What I see out there, where you live, when my iPhone reception is good, is a kind of cosplay, which shows us that the wishful divide between “online” and “real life” is no longer real. The machines ate us, whether in the form of massive multi-player-role playing games that advertise themselves as a form of politics, or online platforms that stole everyone’s family pictures under the guise of greater social connectedness. The next phase is simple: to find someplace safe, healthy, and reasonably inaccessible and watch the tech monopolies, security bureaucracies, and billionaire organizing networks assemble themselves like Voltron into the exoskeleton of the emerging American techno-surveillance state.

Still, being a sensitive person with ongoing cultural interests and attachments, formed in a time and place that were increasingly and in fact quite radically different than the one in which we are living now, it is hard for me not to notice that revolutionwise, we are picking up where the ’60s left off, with all of the personality disintegration and other mental health symptoms that the last revolution had on offer but none of the sentimental bourgeois artistic experimentation or fashion sense or high-end drug experiences. My point being that the pervasive ugliness of the revolutionary new machine culture is not accidental; it’s a feature, not a bug. Beauty discriminates and is therefore inherently unequal and unjust. The colonization by big data algorithms of the inner spaces that are essential to the experience of literature or art ensures that the music sucks and the writing is terrible. The country’s educated classes have been transformed into a new kind of knowledge-worker proletariat that reads at a sixth-grade level and fills its free time, which is endless and therefore non-existent, by consuming pornography and propaganda, which share the same crude money-shot aesthetic. The goal of their governing algorithms isn’t to create beauty, or anything human; it’s to suck out your brains and then to slice and dice them into bits that can be analyzed and sold off to corporations and governments, which are fast becoming the same thing; it’s a mass mutilation of the human. What that sounds like in practice is like a car alarm that keeps going off, at a higher and higher pitch—a sound that has no meaning in itself, except as a warning that something has been shattered.

How to fight back? Religion is one way. Have a family at a young age instead of wasting your life buying crap on Amazon. Become a carpenter or a welder. Keep bees.

What I know, as a devoted reader of 20th-century literature, is that none of this, including your life, is actually my problem. My problem is how to escape from it all in order to continue being me. The aim of any sane person in an age like this one is to be free to love the people you love and secure the freedom of one’s own thoughts, the same way you step out of the way of an oncoming truck. If you want to argue about the wisdom of this approach, go argue with Emily Dickinson, Ralph Ellison, Elizabeth Bishop, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Herman Melville, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It’s only the machines that think that I owe you an answer. My answer is fuck off, and take your political garbage with you.

I remember the moment I realized that politics is inherently infantile and dehumanizing—especially forms of politics that enshrine the demand for social justice as the highest possible pursuit. I was 25 years old, and high as a kite, enjoying my eggs with rice and beans at a Spanish lunch counter in Chelsea, a place with a big glass window that let in just enough sun in the late afternoon to justify wearing my favorite dark aviator sunglasses indoors with my black leather jacket, which made me look like a heroin dealer in a Lou Reed song. I was reading a book, happily enjoying the inner quiet that I now try to recapture by taking walks in the meadow above my house.

The book was called Out of the Night by an ex-communist named Richard Julius Hermann Krebs, who wrote under the pen-name Jan Valtin, and it was a huge bestseller in America in 1940, before any memory of its existence, and of the lessons it had to teach, were more or less wiped away by the ever-more-shocking events of World War II, which like other shocking periods in human history is in the process of being pulped and reformed into a set of ahistorical and therefore utterly useless and puerile lessons about the evils of bigotry and hate. I found it at The Strand, where I used to go in search of precious artifacts of the last revolution like the transcripts of the Patty Hearst trial, which I still think would form the basis of a really tremendous dramatic miniseries co-produced by a fashion-conscious French channel like Canal+. It would be the American version of Carlos, which I made my wife watch in bed last week, when it was snowing.

The heart-wrenching story of Krebs’ not-so-gentle political education at the hands of both the German communist party and the Nazis, during which he tries and fails to save the love of his life, is what the rest of the world learned, while Americans were reading Hemingway. What they learned is that history is an evil plot—which is why escaping from history is the greatest privilege that America offered people who sought refuge there. In other words, Hemingway was right. History is a story told by psychopaths who are bent on power—which is why ideologies that promise to change the world in one way are likely to accomplish the exact opposite.

Today’s ideological moment is inevitably the byproduct of a process of class consolidation by a new elite that is 10 or maybe a hundred times richer and more powerful than the elite that preceded it, thanks to an epochal revolution in technology that is transforming every aspect of our lives. Visions of revolutionary change are a response to the resulting feelings of powerlessness that these technologies are producing. That’s not me, man. That’s you, too. It’s everyone on the planet. Putting your queer shoulder to the wheel is unlikely to make any of it stop.

The good news is that the most important events of my life, and your life, will always take place more or less within a 25-foot radius of wherever we are standing. Like the Beatles said, all you need is love. So, try to be kind, and avoid making sweeping statements about large classes of people. Give food to the hungry. Tell your children that you love them. And please, whatever you do, don’t embrace anyone’s sweeping program for remedying historical injustice, because history’s victims are already dead—and soon, there will be plenty more of them. I can hear the sound of the engines revving up, even from here.

The great inconvenience of trying to learn anything from history is that it keeps happening. What I can say for certain is that nothing is going back to normal. The steam-powered loom-shuttle and the Erie Canal and the workingman’s democracy are long gone.

So even taking the broadest views of things, it’s hard to imagine why I might leave my farm, even though I agree that America doesn’t deserve to go out like this—the golden land of steak and butter, where every man can live like a king and take the kids to the Polar Bear after dinner for soft-serve ice cream. Where children aren’t taught to report their parents for thought crimes.

America! For some people, those words might seem like a pledge of allegiance to racism, sexism, imperialism, transphobia, and the superspreading of infectious diseases by racist, sexist yahoos led by their deranged commander-in-chief, but that’s not how I see things from here. We are only poor, forked creatures who are all worthy of compassion, including Karens. Every once in a while, we may be offered the collective opportunity to summon forth something new between the earth and the heavens. Those moments are rightly terrifying.

Year Zero, which is what I have taken to calling the time we are living through now, began for me at the beginning of this year with my oldest friend dying of brain cancer. Her cancer, which had been in remission for four years, returned suddenly last fall. How it spread so quickly to her brain was a mystery that puzzled her doctors. It seemed that all of a sudden, her cancer woke up one morning, in her apartment in the back of a lovely brownstone in Greenwich Village, lazily moved around a bit in its nest, and then it extended its claws and went straight for her brain—which was always her best feature, not counting her surgically enhanced breasts. She was extremely proud of her new breasts.

When she told me about the return of her cancer, we were sitting together in her apartment, filled with rock ’n’ roll CDs, paperbacks, handwritten notes from famous authors and musicians, and other souvenirs of a well-lived life of 20 or 30 years ago. She was wearing one of her favorite pieces of expensive Soho cokehead jewelry, which she gave as a gift to herself for becoming famous. She bought polished black skull jewelry with diamonds in the eye sockets and mounds of cocaine, which was only one of the reasons why I loved her during our youth, and eternally thereafter. Cancer made her especially cruel to people who naively tried to help her, but never to me, or maybe only once.

As it turned out, breaking her expensive skull-jewelry habit was a lot harder than giving up opiates and coke, and the diamond-encrusted Jolly Roger in her cleavage kept winking back at me as she delivered the bad news, which in her mind was not all bad. If you listened to the smartest doctors, she told me, you could still make it. It was pointless to question her belief in the expert class of our youth, which no longer existed anymore, thanks to the complex intersection of a variety of social forces including liability law and the state-managed HMO complex and the planned dominance of large pharmaceutical companies, which together had arguably raised some minimum level of care while eliminating nearly all of the room in which any individual doctor could make much of a difference to any individual patient. My friend was a know-it-all, in addition to a bitch on wheels—so good luck telling her anything, especially now that she was dying.

The cancer killed her. But before that, it sent her to a famous cancer hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for an operation that the doctors said might give her another year—and who knows, maybe a little more. As it happened, she lasted a little more than a month, while her doctors were mostly on vacation. I fled to Switzerland a week after she entered the hospital, and then I came back to New York just in time for one particularly grueling part of the dying, which began for me one afternoon when I decided that she wasn’t suffering from a sodium imbalance, as her doctors insisted, but from the pressure building up inside her skull.

Now, I know nothing about cancer, but I do know a lot about people’s brains, in part because I am highly sensitive to language, and in part because life then made it even more urgent for me to learn about them.

My diagnosis of my friend’s condition was based on the following observable facts: Her eyelids were open, and her eyes had rolled back in her head. Her robe was also open, but she didn’t respond to any of my suggestive, anatomically detailed remarks about her new breasts. She had wet the bed.

You get the picture. Perhaps, as my mother the doctor suggested, I could have been a brain surgeon like my uncle Steven. Or maybe, we are left in an uncomfortable, age-old position, which we as Americans are perennially slow to recognize.

If you want to understand what’s happening to America these days, beyond all the surface noise about Biden or Trump or Black Lives Matter, think about what would happen if you or a loved one got sick, and what kind of care they are likely to receive, and why. The answer is that systems that treat human beings in the aggregate are bound to fail. I watched that system, functioning at its highest levels, drill holes in my friend’s head until she lost what remained of her functioning. However, because timing is always the last thing to go, we were able to feign the rhythms of familiar repartee well enough for the nurses to let her back downstairs twice, before she lost consciousness and was put into hospice care. During that time, I brought her Russ & Daughters smoked salmon (twice); we listened to Velvet Underground and Gram Parsons records; visitors came and went; and she recited her mantra over a thousand times.

If I had to choose one word to explain the multiplicity of weird and unpleasant events that have followed her death this year it would be flatness—which is the governing aesthetic of the ever-expanding network of new technologies that have rewired the whole country together in a dystopian feedback loop. We live like frightened rabbits in the bombed-out rubble of a previously existing American civilization, a place that is inhabited by the shell-shocked, the mentally ill, and every kind of psychotic grifter and mind-rapist.

Life is elsewhere now. I imagine Kurt Cobain in his ratty cardigan being delivered to the polls in a wheelchair on Nov. 3, with a flying penis drawn on the front of his N95 mask, cradling his shotgun. When they mail me my mandatory ballot for the next election up here, I’ll be voting for Kurt.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.