More than half of the United States’ population thinks “God” has a special relationship with America. This belief in the nation’s exceptionalism provides a basis on which a majority of people can imagine that the United States is exempt from the consequences of its actions. Rules of nature, decorum, civil behavior, and good citizenship in the global community simply don’t apply. This brand of exceptionalism builds on the related concept of individual exceptionalism in which people imagine themselves independent of responsibilities or accountability to such annoyances as speed limits and safety laws, rules and regulations, or regimens of diet and exercise. The fantasy of unlimited personal wealth which currently dominates the national imaginary is the ultimate extension of individual exceptionalism—one is simply a law unto oneself in a system where money legitimates views and actions. And, finally, completing the list, we have human exceptionalism–the hubristic belief that our species is superior to all others, simply by accident of our having achieved a high-level capacity for technological transformation and exploitation of natural resources. Even as we (probably fatally) dis-balance the living systems of the earth, the sense that “we” occupy a place of superior intelligence prevails. Each of these forms of exceptionalism has major liabilities and consequences for the ways the political system in America works and the terms on which self-justification proceeds. Meanwhile, damage continues at a great pace.
A quick overview of the current conditions provides insight into the exceptionalist beliefs that undergird them. By extension, the possibility for transforming these political systems and processes depends on replacing the idea of exceptionalism with one of vital holism.
The rapid, recent transformation of American democracy challenges the very principles on which the concept—and this particular nation—were founded. Other instances of unsettling change can also be cited in the various democracies of Europe—Hungary being most conspicuous, with its self-labelling as an “illiberal” democracy, as is Poland’s swerve to the hard right. But France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Britain have also shown signs of the crumbling paradigm as the legacy of neo-liberal economics gives rise to neo-nationalistic politics. In these changed conditions, older political affiliations have less influence than the polarizing rhetoric that inflames dysfunctional hostility. Fervor does not follow party lines or organize constructively, but surges through channels of affective identification, wanton and unruly.
Current conditions are appalling. Mass-mediated psycho-social-hypnoses prevail, oriented to the whims of a monster. The absorption produces a collective gaze—creating the attention it presumably tracks. Do we recognize fascism in this form? Or are we waiting for our local conditions to resemble those of Hungary and Poland, where the motifs and manifestations still feel conspicuously like those of the historical past—posters on the streets, strongmen on the podium. Fascism looks familiar in that guise. But in the US, in the saturated consumer markets of mediated cultural life, the rallies and power shifts happen out of sight, within social networks that conceal their scale (and large public demonstrations often do not appear on screen, ignored by the media whose narratives of current events have no particular use for shows of opposition and resistance). Fueled by corporate funding, a tidal wave of potent rhetoric swells the opinion generating engines. The fragile condition of democracy becomes daily more apparent. Inequities of wealth distribution, combined with media oligarchy, destroy the democratic system.
We are witnessing the last gasp of reason as democracy fails. Dire states indeed—the end of the Enlightenment’s hold on the social imaginary. How to understand this phenomenon and counter the rising force of this form of phantasmatic authoritarianism? A few key conceptual shifts are needed to leverage prior insight into a new framework of analysis. The instrumentalism of Reason was formulated in an age of mechanistic political philosophy, the equivalent of a Newtonian physics of the social world. In such a construct, the nation, the individual and the human were all self-willed, autonomous entities believed capable of responsible agency—including engagement in behavior governed by contractual relations. Rethinking the terms of exceptionalism on which these assumptions depend is a crucial first step.
Retrospective analyses of the rise of fascism in the 1930s frequently ask how so much of the population could have voted against their own self interests. As the question is being posed again, definitions of fascism are being debated: Are we seeing nationalism? Militarism? Authoritarianism? Some other iteration? At the same time, we hear lots of speculation about how “interests” are understood—or how values divide along partisan lines. They think or want this or value that. These reifications and assessments blind us to other aspects of political processes. The discussion never gets to the other half of the equation: What is the concept of “self” in that crucial phrase “self interests”?
That “self” is assumed to be a sentient entity, autonomous, free-willed, actualizing, and above all, bounded as a unit. This idea stems from Cartesian notions, themselves rooted in classical Greek formulations of a self that can have self-knowledge. In spite of late 20th-century deconstruction of the autonomous subject, or psychoanalytic descriptions of self-construction, the self in common, political, conception still embodies the humanist tenets of a Western Renaissance ideal, endowed with the inalienable rights articulated by Enlightenment philosophes. That concept, always mythic, aspirational (and contradicted by policies of structural inequity), is now debased even as an ideal—and corrupted to destructive ends. Why? Because the ideo-mythology reinforces various exceptionalisms—American, individual, human—that are contributing to our demise.
We shake our heads over the refugee crises, the natural disasters, the images of famine, the sight of catastrophic events as if they were other, out there, remote. But they are the gangrene of a cultural infection we share as a single body politic—the whole of the human field of communicative mediation and mediated communication.
When the self is conceived within this mythic ideology of individualism, in accord with our late Enlightenment thinking in all of its vulgar, debased, and exploited formulations, narcissistic self-perception confers exceptional status. The “I” perceives itself as a unique being, apart from all others, exempt from generalities because of that distinct identity. Defined by taste, unique capacities, a singular location in the social-cultural landscape and demographics, the self is set apart from all others. That apartness is defining. Whether “you” are conceived as a voter, a taxpayer, a parent, a lover, a spouse, a friend, an agent of actions for which you are held accountable before the law, you are conceived first and foremost as a bounded entity. In that apartness, the construction of self as subject (the psychoanalytic construction) posits all else as “other”. Alterity guarantees the subject its illusion of wholeness and distinction. But the point is that this construction is an illusion—and that the binaristic thinking on which such alterity is based keeps us from imagining a co-dependent holism premised on withinness or amongness. The political implications of withinness are that when individual, national, and human exceptionalisms are stripped away, then the codependence of identity, as well as survival, comes into focus. We are not other than each other, separate from the political and natural ecosystems of which we are a part—and that lesson is a start point for our work ahead. Though incorporation of this holism into political analysis is long overdue, such an assertion has long been linked to ecological activism and naturalist philosophies in Eastern and Western thought.
American Exceptionalism sanctions a righteous, and murderous, movement West.
We must go further in these reconceptualizations and undo the “self” as a construct undergirding the individual whose exceptionalism persists. We need to see the self as porous, codependent, constituted transactionally, sensitive to impulses that pass through it and of which it is a participating component. The self is interpenetrated by pressures that work their way into the psyche, part of a higher order of force fields created in mediation and transactional exchange. We are no more hard-shelled units than protons and electrons are little balls in a tinker-toy model. Still, the idea of autonomy continues even when we acknowledge caring connections to friends and family, or influences from communities of faith or belonging, or imprinting from experience, education, training. The core resolution remains: that I am a bounded being, exceptional by “my” apartness from all other beings and all things. This construction is pernicious, misleading, destructive, outmoded, and not at all useful in thinking our way into future visions of a relation to the ecological conditions that sustain us, with all of their many physical and cultural dimensions. And it is certainly not useful in analyzing the dire state of American politics. Mass delusion operates at an aggregate level, not an individual one.
The transactional membrane of self to world, conflated with skin as the defining limit, is punctured by the portals of sense and function—to take in and eliminate information and nutrients. The processing apparatus that is the biological self is very porous. We breathe across ducts and alveoli, we absorb through mucous membranes, we vibrate to the sound waves of the world and process light into stimulation and signal. We are a pulsing, flesh-based, network of multiple simultaneous complex processes that embed us in the world—not as a thing separate from it, not as an entity sealed and apart, but in a fundamentally ecological holism of withinness and amongness. When are we going to come to terms with the social implications of this? And with the recognition that our illusion of boundedness, which guarantees our idea of individual exceptionalism (“not me”), human exceptionalism (“not us”) and American exceptionalism (“not this country”) is the flaw in reasoning that gives rise to the phenomenon of fascism, fueled by libertarianism, choked by consumerism, and amplified by the ego-narcissism of entitlement and privilege that blind us to the very real consequences of that blindness?
Human beings are a medium, part of a field of energies and communicative wave functions that are subject to the non-deterministic forces of complex unstable stochastic processes. We continue to assure ourselves of our exceptionalism at our peril, as surely as we continue to cherish our individualism as a means of guaranteeing identity against the chaos of mass illusion. And the illusion takes the perverse form of expressing itself as the delusion of individual identity, therein reinforcing the illusion.
The whole edifice and social infrastructure has to be rebuilt. It is falling. Failing. The rebuilding in the current mode of corporate fascist control to serve a limited oligarchy will result in military force and destruction. While not yet inevitable, this potential increases daily under the current rule of rampant disorder, distraction, and the spectacularization that absorbs attention to itself.
My neighborhood is filled with people imagining themselves to be doing good by driving Priuses and putting their waste into single stream recycling, voting for the candidates who still seem to speak reason to corruption (truth to power is an antiquated construct), and performing rituals of moral correctness in their habits of good eating, exercise, and decorum. They are making “informed choices” about their individual lives. They feel ownership of those decisions attributed to individualism of their lifestyle understood as “my” choices. When will we wake up? The supply chains of exploitation on which the path dependencies of our lives and infrastructure are based are part of a consensual project to which we are all adherents. We shake our heads over the refugee crises, the natural disasters, the images of famine, the sight of catastrophic events as if they were other, out there, remote. But they are the gangrene of a cultural infection we share as a single body politic—the whole of the human field of communicative mediation and mediated communication. Phenomena can arise locally—uprisings, elections, migrations occur. These may be put down locally, soothed, or smothered. But left to fester, or allowed to flourish, the malignancies will have their way, burn through their fuel and capability, infect the system and use its materials of exchange as a means of contagion. All empires eventually die out or else consume everything in their ravaging path and leave only waste behind. This is not a metaphor. In their existence as wave functions, social and cultural systems operate within an actual holistic ecology of a field of forces. When a wave flattens, crashes, it collapses the potential of the system into a deterministic outcome. The living system comes to an end–-or at least a crisis point—and ceases to function.
The dynamics of systems does not guarantee their vitality, just their potency. The force-field of public opinion works through an affective power of illusion, alignment, and persuasion. This becomes fascism when the “self” is absorbed willingly into a larger entity and identity. The publicity images of the 1930s, in which the rise of Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini are depicted as fields of mass meetings and gatherings performing a single armed salute while a leader’s face imposed on the crowd—those are the images of an earlier form of fascism. Now the crowd is invisible because its audience function is the field of social media participants, their faces six inches from their phones, addicted to tapping into the mass participation. Participation is not really about a self, engaged with others, but a condition of boundary loss through attention. The distraction engines keep the energy engaged. And all the while, a massive hysteria-rich field of energy rises from the entire network of transactions, as absolutely real as any electro-magnetic field around a cell tower or charged atmosphere in a room or shockwave from a tremor. And as these forces galvanize action, they work through the mediating system of human populations whose mind meld occurs without their awareness. They are all addicted to the illusion of making decisions. Making up “their” minds as if they had individual minds to make up.
To cite Trump, blame him, consider him a causal agent, is to adhere to the blind-spot of individual exceptionalism. See Trump instead as the extruded embodiment of a collective force-field. That is how power constructs itself. The sick canniness of the individual, the twisted agency of a whim-driven petulant entity perverted by his own inadequacy, pushed to an extreme of narcissism, is only the expression of an angry wave of collective frustration. The promised life was not delivered.
But to reiterate, minds, like bellies and lungs, are porous. The difference is that the sources of influence and nurture of mental activity are symbolic. And the symbolic is the most potent drug of all. Human beings will go without food and bathroom breaks, safety checks or caution when driving, to keep the flow of stimulation going, especially when locked into a narcissistic loop of affirmation and satisfaction, the pings and inputs of constant input. That condition of locked-in attention cedes the control of borders to the seductive power of connection. And connection builds exponentially as a field of attention, collaborative, aggregate, massively powerful. We are like tiny iron-based entities maneuvering in a massive field of electro-magnetic charges imagining our movements are our own. The question is not how delusional can we be, but how long can we remain delusional and continue to be?
Moving beyond exceptionalism—human, nationalistic, individual—is an essential component of transformation. We will not survive through reform, but only through radical transformation. Time to reimagine the future along lines that are completely other than those of the past. Our legacy intellectual constructs do not serve us, with a few exceptions—those of dynamic systems-based thinking and holism, integrative and participatory, with regulatory contracts that see the social as a full ecology. A new social infrastructure has to be built on a radically alternative system of belief imagined at a scale appropriate to it. We must imagine our collective identity within a pan-species holistic worldview of fully sustainable and equitable futures premised on a concept of withinness, and amongness, not alterity.
This radical political view would be holistic and non-deterministic in its grasp of the conditions of social and cultural forces. We have to imagine political processes that are contractual, contingent, and situated within living social and ecological systems, not governed by mechanistic rules that assume universal instrumentality. Structural inequities of the past—racial, gendered—cannot simply be addressed through retribution and correction. Necessary as they are, these gestures are not sufficient. The whole edifice and social infrastructure has to be rebuilt. It is falling. Failing. The rebuilding in the current mode of corporate fascist control to serve a limited oligarchy will result in military force and destruction. While not yet inevitable, this potential increases daily under the current rule of rampant disorder, distraction, and the spectacularization that absorbs attention to itself.
To cite Trump, blame him, consider him a causal agent, is to adhere to the blind-spot of individual exceptionalism. See Trump instead as the extruded embodiment of a collective force-field. That is how power constructs itself. The sick canniness of the individual, the twisted agency of a whim-driven petulant entity perverted by his own inadequacy, pushed to an extreme of narcissism, is only the expression of an angry wave of collective frustration. The promised life was not delivered. Again the belief and its refrain: God made America and why isn’t he taking care of it/us? The commitment to American exceptionalism results in a furious nationalism, xenophobic and racist, because construction of that other is the way to guarantee the self a sense of its identity. The exceptionalism of that “us” resists the recognition of withinness with a vengeance. Then the vengeance mounts as resistance, and fills the force fields of mediated sociality with unstable and virulent anger. The anger destabilizes control systems and unleashes the evil winds of hate, self-destructive and wanton.
So we find ourselves in the conditions of a rapidly dissolving civil society, the social contract in tatters, liberties mangled, rules of law trammeled, the fragile infrastructure of the Enlightenment vision of a democratic experiment rapidly dismantled, laid waste. The “self interests” of those who destroy these institutions are not served at all. Education is in shambles, taxes disadvantage the majority of the populace, the strident rhetoric disenfranchises those whose needs for safety nets and social services could not be greater. Their interests are not served and the illusion of identity, their “self,” continues to be conceived as a mechanistic, autonomous, individualism.
“We find ourselves in the conditions of a rapidly dissolving civil society, the social contract in tatters…”
Let’s go back once more to observations of American exceptionalism and the belief that God made America—and made it exempt from accountability for its actions. Watch the faces of the members of Congress, particularly the senior white males, as they cheer the President in his celebration of deregulations, racism, denial of colonialism, and complete disregard for the calamitous impact of environmental and economic decisions. How do these people imagine themselves exempt from the destruction they are enabling? We have seen the absorbing power of fascism before. We know how ugly it is, and how completely affective forces take hold. Ours (though I do not like to own this phenomenon), now, has a different flavor—corporate fascism.
The capacity of human beings to work as media, to be transacted as nodes, to be inflamed and/or diminished in their ability to push energies into shape, gives the social realm a momentum of belief in which outcomes cannot be determined and are subject to all of the stochastic forces imaginable. These are subjects rarely broached in the analysis of current politics.
The current transfer of wealth is of course a transfer of power. Capital realizes itself through the instruments of human systems. Combined with the persistent attack on the rule of law and undermining of every principle of democratic government, these are just surface symptoms. The potent collective illusion that subscribes to a profound belief in exceptionalism fosters these machinations. The “we” who believe they will be spared the consequences of their actions never waver in their faith, they believe because the terms of agreement are deeply rooted in structures of identity that deny the very conditions on which belief functions. They are wedded to a model of individualism in which free will works with mechanistic determination, without flinching or hesitation. The bounded autonomy of the individual is absolute in this belief, and the boundaries of identity are fixed, complete, and exist without question. Merit, accomplishment, wealth, success are all attributes of the virtuous, but the virtuous are all deeply flawed in this belief. They see themselves as independent agents, blind to the forces that work through them. As surely as neutrinos pass through the atmosphere and the earth, as magnetic waves align particles, forces of attraction and repulsion produce political alignments. Just as surely, they are creating the conditions of their own destruction. Do they all of these elected officials have off-world travel plans? Property in the heights of New Zealand?
The mechanistic explanations of echo chambers, media influence, opinion peddling and other features of the highly mediated landscape barely touch on the full field of mediating forces. The capacity of human beings to work as media, to be transacted as nodes, to be inflamed and/or diminished in their ability to push energies into shape, gives the social realm a momentum of belief in which outcomes cannot be determined and are subject to all of the stochastic forces imaginable. These are subjects rarely broached in the analysis of current politics. Imagine, for a moment, that the sum total of affective force in a social system were directly related to the rate, number, and value of exchanges within a time frame. Add the compression factors of geographical proximity. Up the ante by giving exchanges an extra charge when they take place within emotionally charge networks—family, friends, parties. Now consider the full impact of this affective force in our current first-world environment in contrast to its scale twenty years ago, fifty years ago, two hundred years ago. When Thomas Jefferson imagined the necessity for communication systems and transportation systems in tandem to effectually guarantee democracy, he could not have imagined the ways simultaneous, distributed, communications might operate. He could not fully imagine a virtual realm that had no relation (and thus no accountability) to geography and community. The creation of the “space”—literal, virtual, powerful—of cyber-networked environments constitutes a realm of influence and potent agency. The impact is unprecedented, not just because of the amount of mediation and its direct exposure to the population, but because of the constitutive effect of a realm apart, a force field of communicative affect with agency to act on its constituent viewers.
Political holism: withinness and amongness
Empires end badly. This understatement cannot conjure the multiple dimensions of corruption from within, suffering produced, violent occurrences, and monstrous deformations of normalcy. The sclerotic but virulent potency of a republic turned into a dying empire fixes its rhetoric in strident resistance to the evident change. The cultural mind resists, goes into mass hysteria of denial, even as the spectacle of self-destruction justifies its attitudes in virulent memes. For believers, the recognition that “God” did not make America, and will not save this country from its own rapidly accelerating demise, is beyond comprehension. The concept cannot compute. The system rejects the error message signaling its imminent end. The affective force of denial has a potency that reason cannot match. The narcissism of belief in which exceptionalism holds sway works like a drug across many sectors of the population. We watch chanting alignment in the Congressional chambers and wonder when and how fascism adopted this new form. But the history and causality can be tracked more easily than their trajectory can be altered.
As for human exceptionalism? As far as we are aware, we are the first species to knowingly participate in our own extinction . . . As the world falls apart, human relations to planetary systems fail and governments cease to meet the basic needs of populations. Evidence of this is everywhere, in floods, famines, displacements, in political strife and its human costs. But the costs to other living systems is equally devastating.
As for human exceptionalism? As far as we are aware, we are the first species to knowingly participate in our own extinction. We combine foreknowledge with the capacity to alter the destructive course on which we are set, and we do nothing but escalate the rate at which the conditions that sustain our existence are being destroyed—by us.
Holistic ecological politics, premised on within-ness, is the only way to shift from a model of exceptionalism based on alterity, to replace the asymmetry of otherness and its binaries, with a different construct—that of connection, relations, specificities produced across multiple differentials. Withinness posits specific identity as relational and comparative, produced through contrasts of coordinates and values, all of which are specific, emergent, and pluralistic not inherent, static, or binaristic. Undoing the structure of alterity reworks the terms of power from self/other to a condition of relative amongness.
What survives—and will thrive—are the microorganisms. They proliferate. They morph. Their capacity for replication and adaption will keep them viable when all else fails . . . New dynamic systems will emerge. They need not include us.
As the world falls apart, human relations to planetary systems fail and governments cease to meet the basic needs of populations. Evidence of this is everywhere, in floods, famines, displacements, in political strife and its human costs. But the costs to other living systems is equally devastating. Our unconscionable acts of ecological genocide are overwhelming in scale. The charismatic animals suffer most evidently and immediately—the large felines, the elephants, the whales, and the wolves. The sentient creatures, aware of their own suffering, mark the changes they cannot control. Whale pods are too small for the females to pass on their knowledge adequately. These living populations suffer. The realities of the social existence of animals, their interior as well as cultural lives, go unnoted. Human exceptionalism is responsible for violence to massive populations.
What survives—and will thrive—are the microorganisms. They proliferate. They morph. Their capacity for replication and adaption will keep them viable when all else fails. The simple but infinitely extensible capacity of hydrogen to join with hydrogen, and carbon, process oxygen or nitrogen, and create complex patterns and structures of organized matter and energy remains intact. And if it didn’t, then other chemistries would organize themselves to create organisms and emergent, contingent, systems. Life, defined as ability to sustain and replicate just such a specific pattern of matter and energy, will regenerate. New dynamic systems will emerge. They need not include us. The simple consequence of our illusions will be our demise unless we soon engage our condition of withinness over the long-standing illusion of exceptionalism.
Johanna Drucker is Contributing Editor on National Affairs at Riot Material. Ms. Drucker is an artist, writer, and critic known for her creative work in experimental writing, typography, and artist’s books; she is equally revered for her scholarly work on aesthetics, digital humanities, and the visual forms of knowledge production. Ms. Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. Her new theoretical text, The General Theory of Social Relativity, will be published shortly.