The Downward Spiral: Centrist Dad Ouroboros
A lot’s changed in New York since we last heard from Dean in October. A president was elected and fresh plywood added to store façades, quickly blanketed in new graffiti hearts. Hope and the 5G conspiracy are pretty tricky things.
Manhattan’s salad bars and clothing boutiques have been boarded up and people have drawn looping hearts and scribbled words like “LOVE” and “HOPE” all over them, again.
Long before this happened, the windows of Chase Bank by Union Square were already filled with hand-drawn curly letters saying, “You Belong Here.” But where do I belong? Inside the Chase Bank? In the windows round the corner they’ve drawn flowers by the tellers’ desks and the promise, “We Are the Keepers of Our Culture.” My friend Victoria once told me, “Capitalism promises me a new society every day.” What kind of society though, is unclear.
I watched a friend dancing around for her Instagram dressed as a happy-go-lucky candy cane, and it was very unconvincing. I watched another friend using a filter that stuck a knife through her head, blood spurting out, staring dead-eyed at her own image, hypnotised, totally self-absorbed, and that felt very convincing, and authentically her. Authenticity is an attractive quality in a person, still.
It’s important to know how to perform well. When Grandpa died, my Grandma took to wearing flowery dresses and garishly coloured coats so that she would appear upbeat and jolly, hoping none of the other old folk in their Yokohama retirement community would notice that he was gone. Word got around quickly in a place like this, she said. This makes it sound like she killed him, but she didn’t, she’s just a proud old lady who doesn’t want to be bothered. Later I helped her smuggle a vase containing his bones out of the building’s front door, even though it was forbidden to do so.
My friend’s grandfather says you need two lists: a list of people you’d like to kill, and a list of people you’d like to fuck. That’s all you really need.
On Saturday morning there was hollering and hooting outside my window. I had no idea what was happening. This went on for an hour. Then I walked down to the subway and people were shouting and cheering and dancing in the streets. “Why is everyone so weird today?” I wondered. But people are always up to something. Later I got a text from my Mom. Turns out a new president just dropped. I started this column in January 2017, when the last one took office, and those years are now coming to an end. They haven’t been good years for art, but there’s been plenty to write about. The country already feels different. I went outside this morning and there were two business cards tucked in my doorframe for a new weed delivery service. “Text for menu,” they say.
So on Saturday my friend Sunil drove us past the Park Slope Conservatory of Music and there were theatre kids singing jumping up and down singing pop songs on all four corners of the crossroads and everyone was honking like a goose and it was silly and nice to see people so happy. It felt like a Disney musical. The kingdom has been under a spell, but a kingdom will always wake up.
My friend’s grandfather says you need two lists: a list of people you’d like to kill, and a list of people you’d like to fuck.
Hysteria seems more dangerous than irony. Trump was a bad president but also an egregore, a malevolent thoughtform we conjured up through collective doom-scrolling to haunt our screens, torment and entertain us, and quicken our paranoia and spirals and our millenarian thirst for the apocalypse. It takes a particularly narcissistic society, convinced of its position at the end of history, to feel so certain of, and fascinated by, its own hopelessness. The problem with acting hysterical about everything, is that in the end it’s morally deadening. If everything is doomed, then nothing is doomed.
Late on election night, which already feels like a long time ago, I grew bored and muted CNN and read a text about Guillaume Dénervaud, written by Nicolas Ceccaldi in 2018, I found on my bedroom floor among my scattered papers. It’s about walking down a dark tunnel lit by lantern sculptures in Parc des Évaux in Geneva. Inside is a statuette of a golden rat in a box to ward off the plague. Finally life is revealed as an absurd march into nothingness. Honestly I think we obsess too much about politics, particularly US party politics. Funnelling all of life through politics like a cheesecloth drains it of its vitality, its luminescence and complexity, and the many other sorts of meaning it contains. As for me, I believe the 5G conspiracy.
In a sense it’s wrong because 5G has no proven adverse effects on our health. But on a higher level it’s true, because networked society is melting, or providing us with a conduit to melt, our minds like an ice cream cone dropped on the sidewalk. It’s dumb that people believe that 5G caused the pandemic, that they’re burning down mobile phone masts like wicker men in the Highlands, but they only believe this because of a networked hysterical conspiracy that runs on all our phones on 5G. It’s a post-rationalising prophecy that reveals a greater truth. We are burnt from within. It’s a metaphor; but we’re all so literal these days. So much bad figurative painting, and not enough abstract thought.
“What’s bat shit about crystal dildos is when people try to make it reasonable. Like when someone says everyone in the White House is a Satanist. I mean yeah sure I would buy that– that’s probably true. But it’s only when you try to prove it that it really turns crazy.”
Campbell Carolan, Hamstermachine (2017)
On the bus stop by my house is stuck a picture of a magic lamp resting on the dunes. Below it promises, “I have actual Magical Powers … I can make your wishes come true, like a Genie from a bottle,” with a magician’s Instagram to contact. Sometimes I think modern society has grown too quick to trust pre-Christian, or pre-Islamic, pagans and swung too far their way. Other times I think we haven’t swung far enough, and desperately need more of the romance of the unknown. The problem with conspiracies like QAnon is how they’re wasted on explaining away banal politics and Washington intrigue. The problem with cursing the moon is that witches now do it for clout. Visionary magic and mysticism have been repurposed towards wellness, self-care and self-improvement. But those aren’t the mysteries of life!
Popular occupations on my elite dating app for creatives include:
Global Head of Culture
retired model try to act
Handbag specialist, Christie’s
A married lady I used to sleep with once wrote me, “We are spoiled, we know too much. We are overly critical of our parents because we think they have narrow experiences and dreams. We are sedated and we are stuck. We can never be happy because we know too much. But what do we understand? We are selfish, but we are right.” Which always struck me as a good summary of the Millennial condition. Today our dreams can come true as never before but they must really be our dreams. We have to keep hold of our dreams, to resist the lures of the influencers and podcast hosts, the Substack writers, discover page snake charmers, algorithmic telepaths, blue checks, OnlyFans sex objects, venture capitalists, journalists, columnists, artists, friends and relatives warping our desires. Everybody’s in the advertising game now. They’re selling themselves. But I preferred when advertising was just corporate lies, pornography, and songs, rather than deranged brand sentience, personal journeys, meaningless political propaganda, banks telling me I belong inside of them, and friends trying to convince me of their worldviews, and their value. Life has become about influence, temptation, and selling ideas. But I don’t think any of it’s really working.
For all the talk of bubbles and echo chambers, I’m not convinced anyone really agrees with one another. I’ve spent the last couple years in a small group chat of close friends around the world (washed-up thirty-something art-adjacent straight guys in various stages of crises) and we never agreed on anything. Every day I’d feel completely infuriated with some of them for different reasons. Consensus is something of a myth. Atomisation is as deep as the sea. I think most of us exist in a bubble of one. I don’t think most of us have coherent, consistent views even on the individual level. Anyway, I’ve been feeling happier and more productive since my conversation with friends collapsed under the weight of a moral panic around a sex scandal. Although, we had some times …
When I visit my neighbourhood third-wave pearl milk boba shop, they hand me a thick, fluted black straw in a transparent plastic wrapper that says “Iconic in Beverage Aesthetic.” Some other pleasing phrases I’ve encountered over the last four years:
Centrist Dad Ouroboros
Curious Cat Anon Troll
Cinnamon Cloud Macchiato
Over those years a lot of my friends have gone to rehab, or AA, or NA, or CA, or been placed on leave from work, or put on trial, or vanished, or have been perpetrators, or victims, of abuse, or cancelled, cast out, exiled, radicalised, or sectioned, or have killed themselves, or other darker misfortunes I won’t give voice to here, while growing older, feeling lost, alone, hopeless, that their lives are meaningless; it’s all, my friend once remarked, “very dispiriting”. One mustn’t despair though. The devil will come to feast on us when we’re vulnerable.
Last month I interviewed Oneohtrix Point Never and he told me, “I think disenchantment is really the story of the 20th century.” We have to allow ourselves to be re-enchanted. To shake off the bad spells and egregores, wherever they may come from. To be less distracted. Now’s a good time for that. We were all just so fucking distracted.
My friend from Serbia says Americans don’t know how to enjoy life. She says Americans don’t have an inside or an outside; I don’t know what she means by that, but it sounds very plausible.
One night I spoke to an Egyptian who told me about Cairo. When he had enough money, he’d fly home to Cairo. The first place he’d go off the plane, was to the market to buy a box of guavas, which were so much more delicious than any guava sold here in New York. Here they tasted like cucumbers so he had to put sugar on them. He put sugar on all his fruit here, he said, and it was good. But in Cairo he’d buy his box of guavas and go out into the evening, and everyone would be sat outside drinking sweet tea and conversing and watching life go by, enjoying what was left of the day. Then he’d go and buy some falafel, and koshary, and stay up late eating those things. Cairo never sleeps, he said. You could buy anything there at four in the morning. It was wonderful there, but very corrupt.
Sometimes if I want to read something meaningful, I’ll go on Quora and read posts from strangers with terminal illnesses. They write things like, “Living with a ticking time bomb forces me to live a life of NOW, a life of purpose, and to not sweat the details. I am more adventurous. I am so beyond consumerism and gossip that I feel like I am on another plane – not that I am better, just so beyond those things now. I let the stupid things go more and try to live more in the moment, more in joy.” That’s the kind of sentiment I’d like to see scrawled over a boarded-up Sweetgreen, or finger-painted in the window of the bank.
DEAN KISSICK is Spike’s New York Editor. The Downward Spiral is published online every second Wednesday a month. Last time he went on a gallery tour of Manhattan.