The Public Secret is a project our artist-led collective the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe held, starting Friday 31st August, in a warehouse on the south west side of Leeds. For this we all contributed a dispatches – which you can find here. This is my long read which I have omitted from the collective’s blog, because of its length and personal detail.
As an artist collective, something binds us. Speaking frankly, I don’t think we even share the exact same ideals, life goals, or approaches to creative practice, or even a shared understanding of what creative practice means. We really are a motley crew. But this motley crew have converged through finding one another’s company comfortable enough to have honest reflections on what seems to be the grand unspeakable.
Basically, what has brought us together is the public secret: everybody knows this thing we are in (call it capitalism, liberal democracy, modernity, whatever you like) isn’t working, and is beyond tweaking; it’s unable to meet the required needs of an unbelievably self-aware connected planet; mental well-being is collapsing in the old industrial nations of modernity, as ecological and social stability collapses in the old colonised nations of modernity.
We all know it; all see it, yet rarely speak it to anyone but our closest friends. Few of us truly like what we see in the world beyond our comfort blankets, but somehow it remains in the realm of self-doubt; the TV’s, radios, even the signage in the café is saying business as usual, “so who am I to speak?”.
I feel this sense of the great unspoken is what bound the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe. Our collective doesn’t read from the same page; our vocalised points of priority in this urgent need for change all differ, as do our inherently preferred ideological bases in the categories of old modernity (yeah, most of us still cling to one when we feel cornered).
One day…some day…
However, I have recently had to come to terms with the fact that such self-assured prose (that, uncoincidentally, I’ve never felt confident enough to publish beyond my own blog) faces falling flat, on my part, for the reason of what it omits.
If you scour my decade-old blog you will find plenty of content that on the surface appears to be self-pitying. What you won’t find is the comments from anonymous sources. I deleted them. They hurt me.
The reason for this is that I wrote these blogs not for sympathy, but for the purposes of understanding, recognition; parachuted-in help, I guess. If anything, a desire to be released from my ego, not an ego-boost.
The reason that so many of my blogs have confusingly meandered between a sporadic critique of contemporary life to very honest reflections on my own life is that I have always been seeking help from anywhere but within. A need for a paternalistic recognition of both my external concerns and how they connect with my inner distress(even if heroic intervention came in the form of the infamous relationship between O’Brien and Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, which is basically an abusive but yet reassuring father-figure).
For this reason what I am now about to write, in an aim to try to understand if my ‘post-capitalist desire‘ (to use a name that Mark Fisher gave one of his essays) is a product of perpetually placing happiness outside of myself, comes with the disclaimer that I am writing from a position of trying to take affirmative control of my life. For the sake of myself and whoever, ego-based interventions into my own affairs are no longer required, thanks (if they ever were…).
What is the purpose that drives me? I have intent, sometimes it burns away leaving pure drive, but I have intent.
Is the desire for a post-capitalist world my intent? Or is the post-capitalism just over the brow of the horizon what I use as substitute for the sense of inner disarray that I have felt since as long as I have known?
I am no longer in the business of asking honest questions right here on my blog in blind hope that somebody with some cure will come and make me whole. I have spent far too long as a backseat passenger in my own life. A back seat passenger who has thrown things out of the window, even jumped out of the moving vehicle (bruised and broken, only to heal and get back in), yet always remained passive.
Nobody wants to leave their life regretting the life they had; regretting that they were constantly chasing or waiting for something, with no arrival; or that what they did do is so regretful, largely due to be being motivated by sad, negative preoccupations.
Well, with above disclaimer in place, I’ll be totally honest: if I was to die tomorrow, the moments beforehand would be spent regretting my entire life.
Trying to break down the compulsions, routines that I live by is proving very difficult. Nonetheless it is a task I am not letting any individual compulsion-driven act forget; I’m not wanting to meet that ultimate regret at the end of it all.
I often feel convinced that when Kurt Cobain sang that there was ‘something in the way’ he was speaking from a similar, if not far more desperate, place.
The biggest, and most convincing argument I, and many others who are emotionally loyal to the post-capitalist desire face is the one that aims to defang any argument made by anybody who is unable to find peace and inner enrichment in the here and now.
Despite the way I have posited this commonplace argument making it glaringly obvious that not all of us can find peace in the here and now, there still persists an undeniable truth to it. And I know that as a white, educated male, who has a perpetual existential itch, that I am very susceptible to it; I often clumsily walk into a corner where the undeniable half-truth reveals itself: “why don’t you just learn to enjoy your life!”
And it’s true. Why don’t I just learn to enjoy life?
So, I need to begin my way out of this maze of brutal dualisms and unhelpfully vague holisms by beginning from scratch (disclaimer still in place…).
From being a young child, what fired me, motivated my successive obsessions was always an abstract; an image of some future moment, where (to quote a psychotherapist I saw at much later date) the universe aligned. I was constantly day-dreaming about some future landscape that had no distinctive features apart from the fact that the disorientating cluster of signifiers in the present tense had gravitated to a central point of meaning. The fact that my encounter with the social was initially poor, fostering a low self-esteem I haven’t until now properly challenged, encouraging self-pity and withdrawal, certainly did nothing to hamper the persistence of the libidinal investment in this abstract future whole.
I came to see the negatives that played themselves out in those years (from school bullying, people without enough money, right up to stories from far away about tropical deforestation) as unnecessary states of affairs that were to be ‘righted’ as we travelled further from the ‘olden days’ of my parents and grandparents to some point when it would all be merely history.
World War to End of History…?
These dreamy expectations of a just and coherent universality certainly cluster together around the final decade of the 20th century. I have pondered ever-since on this as being more than coincidental; I didn’t need to know of Francis Fukuyama’s premature triumphalism about ‘the end of history’ (as in, an end to the chaos and brutal upheavals of competing ideologies played out in the previous 250 years), to pick up on a specifically 1990’s optimism, constituted by the fall of the repressive Soviet system, the teenage kicks of ‘neoliberalism’, and the pre-millennial computer-generated utopianism, glued together by the momentary flattening of counterculture (think of squeezing down femimism into The Spice Girls) into a mainstream consumer palette.
But this is irrelevant now; we are, culturally speaking, still vomiting up the 1990’s, in our social media exorcisms (from where nobody, like in an William Hogarth etching, is spared – perhaps rightfully), but this doesn’t heal the void, certainly not in my own life. And it’s high time I acted.
I’m now a 34 year old, who has spent most of his ‘going out’ evenings of the 2010’s drinking alone – although it is the sense of having failed which has had a larger influence on my actions than alcohol, as swathes of friendships have stretched into non-existence, leaving me like a caretaker of places we all once haunted, 11 years into a low-paid job that most barely spend a year doing before moving on.
Where I work, where I live, and how long I have worked and lived in these circumstances would be of no-consequence if I associated with them positively and (much more importantly) confidently; if my relationship to home and work was a somewhat more positive affirmation of my life. But it couldn’t be further from that.
Fuck me. I’ve been writing this shit that seems very much like the aforementioned for as long as the piece of string named ‘getting old’ is long.
I have always placed so much emphasis on the passing of time; I gave each passing year a certain identity distinct from the others. When I was young, growing old was anticipated for all the life-affirming rites of passage it would deliver. The future would always align and straighten the disorder of today.
However, the future intervention that would align the world stopped being a rite of passage and instead something I clung to for hope of rightening a new inner turmoil. Since my mid-to-late teens I have been driven my compulsions and routine, bent on either maintaining or losing control. Always from the sense of needing a higher hand to intervene, I went from late teen eating and control disorders, to aiming my sights on ‘big nights out’ in my early 20’s where getting pissed up and momentarily losing my controlling habits would free me – maybe a woman would come into my life, and a validated obedience to patriarchal norms would liberate me from the things that caused anxiety.
During this time, the moment of universal righting moved towards more Dystopian seas, I became rapidly politicised and super adept at turning pub conversation towards pointing out to others the iceberg we were heading for (metaphorically speaking of course) – unaware that they too had seen them, probably before I. It was another means of seeking external validation, seeking an external answer to the inner gulf. What ensued was a situation where I was still waiting, whilst everybody around me went on and did other things, until I found myself hitting 30, being drunk in pubs by myself. The drink was still used to liberate me, but by now was from a daily sense of failure as life passed me by, and once inebriated it was no longer a means to liberate me from the negative controlling habits of my youth, but merely a means to access more regrettable avenues for negative pleasure-seeking. Again always as the back seat passenger.
Yet, I admit I am sat here, alone in bar, drinking, writing this down.
But I’m here now attempting to actively break this circle, rather than wait for it to break.
But how does this relate to political ideals? Surely I have just expressed that the issue is internal to me and not external to the world?
Well, I have harboured a certain paranoia since my political ‘awaking’ fell further back onto negative pleasure seeking: that many who I felt I shared post-capitalist desire with began to see me as an hypocrite. They see me as unwilling to act on what I see as right and wrong; in one respect they are right. On the other hand action is born from self-worth and pride, those who can act on their own behalf feel a joy from doing so; they love being alive and fight for it whenever they see it being taken away.
The reason those with political ideals, who become so reliant on them as a crutch, are easy targets to those who have found an inner sanctuary but are more or less happy with the status quo, is that they are clearly people who aren’t happy with their ‘lot’ and communicate out of unresolved traumas and grievances. This is true. I don’t not distinguish myself from this group, as disparate as they are.
However, these traumas and grievances are real.
I will be honest, what has often scared me from undertaking a course of intense self-confidence building is that I am scared that I would eradicate my entire identity in the process. I cannot differentiate my who I am with my entire concept of the abstract utopian ideal.
But the truth is I have never really known myself anyway. Me, I, John Ledger, has never stood tall in the here and now, but always in some abstract future point. My sense of fashion (intrinsically bound up with self-worth) has been at sea since I was a teenager, I don’t really know what I am meant to be, and to get back to the question of politics, I do not know how to act in this world.
What I have to convince myself is that making a life for myself, finding out what gives me a joy to be alive, isn’t in opposition to a post-capitalist desire. I have visually illustrated the experience of being trapped in a late-stage capitalist world for the best part of 15 years. It would be foolish of me to see this as time-wasted, but that time has gone, and there so much more to do, not out of duty but out of joy.
Being happy and being part of the emerging movements to transform the world are far from mutual opposites. My self-made task, is to find this out for myself.