Living Without the 'Vegas Rule'
Every day, we step into a river of experiences that transcend the limits of language. By default, we treat these departures from comprehensibility with an adaptation of the ‘Vegas Rule’: what happens beyond the limits of language stays beyond the limits of language. That’s what we’d like to believe.
With this bit of sloppy sophistry, we justify leaving the inexpressible not only unexpressed, but also unexamined. This way, we lose. But if we reflect for even a moment, we realize that the Vegas Rule is bullshit. Whether we apply it to decadent pursuits or refined enthusiasms, the rule appears false and useless. What happens in ‘Vegas’ never stays there.
The persons who bear witness to the happenings often find their lives re-colored by the memories of this liminal space. In moments of self-honesty, the newlywed husband, now back from Vegas, may remember that his bachelor party revealed or re-ignited his doubts about marriage. His wife may remember the version of herself now concealed by the cloak of sobriety.
The moment of clarity may pass. The echoes of Vegas may fade for some time. The couple may return to the choreographed normalcy of the lives they allow into consciousness. But, to paraphrase the Gladiator, what happens in Vegas echoes in eternity.
Consider, for example, the trip to Vegas that ended as the New Year began. We may reasonably debate whether we landed in Vegas about four years ago on election night (November 8, 2016) or Inauguration Day (January 20, 2017). Historians may also trace the start of this trip to the crash of 2008 or the tragedy of 9/11 or to the 1970s or to another watershed. Regardless of how we construct the chronology of this trip, we know that we can’t deny, suppress, trivialize or disown what this trip has revealed.
Due to the nature of the revelations, we will inevitably resort to denial at times. It’s not necessarily because we lack courage or intelligence. It’s that we lack the symbols to language the revelations.
However, denial and other psychological defenses do not form an impenetrable wall around the limits of language. Instead, they form a semi-permeable membrane. Both in living cells and in the human psyche, this membrane arguably performs the most important function. Forming a filter between the inner and the outer space, the membrane honors the separation without fetishizing it. It absorbs and oozes information, distinguishing the nourishing from the toxic.
The membrane has a wisdom tragically lacking among the red-and-blue participants in the farcical border-wall debate now faded from public discourse. The wisdom of semi-permeability is also absent from all the pseudo-controversies around false dichotomies that energize modern tribalism.
For those with the eyes to see and ears to hear, the membrane forming a filter around the limits of language translates the information flowing in from the other side. The data that survives the crucible of translation trickles into conscious awareness.
For example, all poetry worthy of the name is a way of speaking about the unspeakable. Every tear is a drop of meaning flowing into comprehensibility. Every moment of aesthetic arrest is an intimation of the inexpressible. Every dream is a letter from Self to self begging to be read. Every inspired action is a message from the other side. Every bite of a psilocybin mushroom is a cleansing stroke applied to the doors of perception.
This essay is one man’s record of the messages now flowing across the membrane – messages so fragile, nuclear, equivocal or esoteric that most of them may float in the synaptic cleft for years before we start seeing them acknowledged in blog posts, white papers, opinion columns and political speeches.
Like fragments of a dream, these messages cannot be asserted or debated. They are best spoken and heard through whispers. Turning to Gladiator again, recall the words of Marcus Aurelius addressed to Maximus:
There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper, and it would vanish. It was so fragile. And I fear it will not survive the winter. Maximus, let us whisper now together…you and I.
The ‘Messages’ in Brief
Here’s a summary of the messages I’ve absorbed over the past four years and hope to elucidate in 2021.
MESSAGE #1: Don't “Name it to tame it”. It has no name.
We are living through a Revelation comparable to the revelation on Mount Sinai described in the Hebrew Testament. As an ardent adherent of the religion of no religion, I use the “R” word here in an empirical sense — not to mystify the meaning of this moment in history but to express increasingly self-evident realities. Whether we describe it empirically, metaphorically or in the language of theological doctrine, this revelation is not evenly distributed. Even after the Insurrection of January 6th, the revelation remains obscured by willful blindness.
We are living through an Apocalypse — etymologically, an ‘unveiling’. The veil separating the conscious from the unconscious is thinning and tearing. We are suffering from a forced exposure to the realities we have long feared to confront. This trauma is causing symptoms in the collective psyche for which we don’t have an adequate vocabulary, and probably never will. Rather than just hope to survive the Apocalypse, we can dare to live through this unveiling with our eyes and hearts wide open.
We are living through the collapse of our world. We should not mistake these messages for mere metaphors or a test of the emergency broadcast system. We still debate (or, often, pretend to debate) the reality of the climate catastrophe, but this fake debate excludes the larger context of collapsing institutions, ideologies and shared expectations, not to mention the cataclysmic pollution of our media ecology. Collapse is no longer possible or likely or inevitable; it is already in progress. We are passengers on this “Titanic”.
MESSAGE #2: We are in a war we can't describe.
Our war is permanent and pervasive. We can’t run from its battlefields or find shelter among trusted allies. Our war has breached every border, boundary, semipermeable membrane and security perimeter. It has hacked and hijacked every country and culture, institution and individual, religion and technology. Unlike the epidemiology of a pandemic that merely envelops the entire world, our war can best be described as fractal — i.e., characterized by the ceaseless arising of self-similar patterns that re-enact themselves across scales and dimensions.
Our oldest technology has become incongruous. One of the most easily languageable consequences of War is that it renders language incongruous. But we defy futility; we use language to respond to the revelation of the inadequacy of language. We seek solace in the descriptions of our predicament. At their best, our descriptions serve as the proverbial fingers pointing at the moon. At their worst, our descriptions flow into the tsunami of bullshit ceaselessly flooding our epistemic and institutional order. This is a high-stakes game.
Just do it: De-coupling meaning from language. With language rendered incongruous, how does one find and nurture meaning in the fog of the hyper-dimensional war on meaning? Is the search for meaning still feasible in the Mindfuckistan of filter bubbles, weaponized information, structural distrust and the collapse of institutional legitimacy? In Mindfuckistan, we must de-couple meaning from language and seek fulfillment, instead, in enlightened action. In other words, we stop explaining ourselves and follow the idea appropriated by the Nike motto.
MESSAGE #3: This is a different kind of Apocalypse.
We are safer than ever before. Prophets of Progress (e.g., Steven Pinker) have constructed superficially convincing data-driven arguments about the decline of physical violence over the long span of history. At the same time, these prophets trivialize what they call “metaphorical violence”. With this rhetorical sleight of hand, they distract their audience from the epic shift of significance from the Tangible to the Intangible. As long as we ignore this shift, we can justifiably celebrate the present moment as the “Best Apocalypse Ever!”
This is a deeply violent time. Carl von Clausewitz famously observed: “War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.” And Jacques Ellul, as quoted by Marshall McLuhan, argued: “Propaganda begins when dialogue ends.” So, if the eruption of war and propaganda points to the failure of politics and dialogue, then what lies beyond the limits of language is simply a different kind of language, and what lies beyond the struggle for power is a different kind of struggle. We only change the means. In both cases, the change entails a categorical shift from non-violence to violence. But most of the violence is symbolic.
In this petty pace. All wars are exhausting, but this war is exhausting in a different way, a paradoxical way. On the one hand, it conforms to the megatrend of the Great Acceleration, in that our world is spiraling into increasingly terrifying dystopias. On the other hand, this war, as all wars, creeps in this petty pace, lighting fools the way to dusty death. Long after we have depleted our resources, screamed our agonies, grieved our losses, peered into our shadow, and processed our trials and errors, we are still at war, and we are exhausted. Overtime, we discover resources we used to overlook, strengths we used to consider superhuman, and voices in the dungeons of our minds whose pleadings we hear for the first time or in a new way. The war must go on! Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…
MESSAGE #4: Understand what we are fighting for and against.
We are fighting for the vitality of our relational neural networks and against our atomization. We don't want to either build walls or open borders. We want to protect the sensitivity and wisdom of our semi-permeable membranes.
No one wins in the war of Self vs. Self. Reeling from encounters with Chaos, some of us — and a part of each of us — will inevitably turn to the magic of denial to manufacture semblances of Order. That's why, we want to opt out of willful blindness without judging fellow humans who choose to opt in. The politics of denial demands an appreciation of nuance, liminality, and the universality of defense mechanisms. During this Apocalypse, we will need to “thread the needle” — allowing people the space for their denials, on the one hand, and guarding against the ripple effects of their blindness, on the other.
We are fighting against pathocracy, and we do not trust the masks of malevolence. On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, pathocracy is scheduled to formally don a new mask, a much nicer mask, and an army of apologists will prod public opinion in the direction of obeisance. They will assert that we feel relieved by the re-inauguration of decency and institutional order. They will try to edit our memories of Vegas. Judging by historical precedent, most of us will go along to get along. We will give up control of our semi-permeable membrane to allow the manufacturers of consent determine what we remember, think and feel. We will comply because we feel we must. But some of us will remember Vegas.
It will take time to develop these messages. For now, I'll leave you with this sampling of the sources that have most helped me articulate the messages above.
Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril
Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time
Charles Fernyhough’s The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy
Essays, Articles and Newsletters
Jem Bendell’s viral 35-page essay Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy
The Climate Psychology Alliance December 2020 Newsletter
Susan B. Glasser’s The Trümperdämmerung Is a Fitting End to 2020
Here are recent lectures by Michael Dowd, the “Pro-future Evangelist”.
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