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  • Max Schmermbeck

Absurd Realism and the art of writing as thinking

Donovan, Lex and I have created Thought Magicians as a way to share ideas in an open and free manner without having to deal with the wretched hardships of academic or institutional publishing. For me, this means three things. First, it gives me the ability to cultivate the art of writing as thinking. By this, I mean the practice of thinking through new ideas by writing on topics I deem interesting and important. Second, it allows me to read work by others who might have something of value to share with me. Third, it creates the opportunity to develop new ideas together with other people, which is important for somebody who highly values the inter-active side of thought. In this text, I will briefly discuss my thoughts on writing as a form of thinking before developing the concept of ‘absurd realism’, which I recently stumbled upon while laying in bed. In short, absurd realism is a diagnosis of the fundamentally contradictive character of our contemporary collective psyche. The artificial and simulatory reality into which we are perpetually immersed is quite often totally absurd (from an existential, political and cultural point of view) while simultaneously serving as the only means of access to a whole array of important and serious problems. Absurd realism refers to an absurd world which demands to be taken absolutely seriously, creating a psyche which alternates between ironic, depressed detachment and overly enthusiast engagement. The concept is a way of framing the contradictory narratives of connection and disconnection that tear our psyche in opposite ways, which is why I think it might be useful for thinking about current times.

Before developing the concept further, I would like to dedicate a few words to discussing this platform and the thoughts and ambitions which stood at the cradle of its existence. As I mentioned earlier, Thought Magicians is a platform which wants to give aspiring writers and thinkers the opportunity to share and discuss their ideas. But in order to do so, ideas first need to be developed, which is what often gets forgotten. We walk around with the feeling that we have a lot of interesting and exciting ideas, but many of them eventually come to occupy the graveyard of our imagination simply because we have not taken the time to adequately develop them. This is what Justin Murphy, one of my personal inspirators when it comes to self-publishing and creating ideas, calls the ‘improvement illusion’: the idea that our ideas will get better (or come into existence at all) if we put off working on them until a later date, when we have the time and focus to do them justice. The point is, of course, that that moment never comes. We have a lot of intuitions, but we rarely actualize ideas.

This has been a constant source of frustration for me for the past few years; not only do I want to write more, I also want to write better. But somehow, writing texts for just myself doesn’t do the trick (except for journaling, which is valuable in a different way). My writing is often tied to necessity; I write because otherwise I will simply fail my courses. Thought Magicians is a way for me to break the improvement illusion and actualize the swarm of ideas, intuitions, and half-baked opinions pervading my psyche. It is a way for me to think by writing, because it allows me to tap into fresh thoughts by putting them into words and seeing the gaps in my reasoning. I think this method is crucial, because original and bold thinking occurs precisely in those negative spaces where our knowledge and reasoning reach their immanent limit.

This brings me to absurd realism, an idea that struck me when I was pondering over the tensions and problems of my own mind late at night. For months (or perhaps years), I have found it increasingly difficult to find a coherent, pleasant and stable way to position myself over and against the world in which I live. On the one hand, a virtual world of all-encompassing entertainment and consumption tempts me into cynical detachment. Theorists like Jean Baudrillard and Zygmunt Bauman already pointed at the fundamentally simulatory character of the modern world 40 years ago, and their message rings even truer today. Baudrillard, for example, argued that nothing escapes signification in modern society; the logic of cultural capitalism, social media and sensationalism haunts us in our very dreams. A system of signs, slogans and screens which endlessly refer to each other has created what he calls ‘hyperreality’, a version of reality composed of so many copies and simulations that it becomes more real than just ‘real’.

In this regard, Baudrillard also discussed the overload of information; because everything matters all the time, nothing really matters. Being plugged into the matrix of virtual cyberspace every hour of the day, we have lost the ability to differentiate between the important and the trivial. Or, rather, the difference itself has become lost. This is also pointed out by Neil Postman in Entertaining Ourselves to Death (1985), who shows that the logic of show business has entered our political, cultural and economic life to the point where entertainment and politics have become one. We need only look at the mediatized and sensationalist horse-race of U.S. election cycles to see this play out in its most extreme form. The election of the highest office in the Western world is framed through the logic of a game show, complete with rivalling teams, merchandise, televised face-offs and a winner to take home the great price all candidates so desperately yearn for. Of course, many more examples come to mind; the grand cultural impact of con-artist Andrew Tate, the psychotic character of discourse on social media platforms, the popularity of egomaniac man-child Elon Musk, the rise of conspiratorial thought; all these phenomena create the sense of a world which is simultaneously fake and more real than real. This is what I have in mind when I call the world ‘absurd’.

This isn’t the full story, though. Even though we live in a world full of copies and simulations, I also experience the world as meaningful and beautiful. The world invites and engages me, or it frustrates and repels me. But it surely contains real people with real problems. Even though the feeling of perpetual crisis is itself partly created by the sensationalism of 24-hour news cycles, this needn’t undercut the idea that our current predicament demands of us to actively engage with the world in order to instigate change. There is, in all senses of the word, a real world out there which demands to be taken seriously. But herein lies the crux of absurd realism. It is not the case that we have a realm of the absurd and a realm of the real, like two different ecosystems operating independently from each other. Rather, we can only access the real by means of the absurd and the absurd by means of the real. We have to take seriously a world which cannot be taken seriously; we have to act as if it were real even though we know full well that it is absurd.

From the perspective of our collective psychology, this tension plays itself out in the interplay of connection and disconnection. On the one hand, the absurd world pushes us away and begs us to physically and mentally disconnect ourselves from it. As a result, we seek worlds elsewhere. We devolve into irony and sarcasm. Or we lose ourselves and others in our paths towards disconnection. Being alone together, we devolve into loneliness and isolation. Conversely, the absurd world of hyperreality demands of us that we are constantly ‘up-to-date’ and totally connected. We cannot disconnect ourselves from the world, because the world is perpetually in crisis. We have to have opinions on everything. We have to be responsible. We have to act before it is too late. Herein lies the schizophrenic nature of absurd realism; by perpetually alternating between connection and disconnection, the world is kept at a distance whilst simultaneously being omnipresent.

It is this tension between connection and disconnection which constantly occupies my mind. As a result, I am perpetually torn; do I take the world seriously and engage with the absurd as if it were real? Or shall I take an ironic distance, care for my comfortable bourgeois bubble and see what happens? Are commitment, passion and dedication the remedies which can sustain my existence, or should I embrace escapism, sarcasm and irony? These questions are far too complex for me to provide you with any answers to them. What I can do, is leave you with another quote by Justin Murphy, who faces the problem of absurd realism in his own way:

“If the great writers of the past had been plugged into public and digital communication networks rewarding them for constantly reading public information and publishing their opinions about public information, many of history’s greatest countercultures would never have emerged. I’m increasingly convinced this is the most important task right now, at least for independent writers, thinkers, creators and developers. We should try to disconnect from all these culture-substitutes, which have been spoon-fed to us by corporations in naked bids for cognitive control. And in the space that is opened up thereby, we should find ourselves re-wilding how we think, speak, write and interact in small, private groups. We have to seek the good, the beautiful and the true, but from a place of cultivated ignorance rather than heavy over-knowing.”

Let us try to make Thought Magicians a place to cultivate this mind-set, using the tools of online publication to create a sense of free thought, counter-culture and creativity. Let us seek out places of productive disconnection and discover new ways to inform ourselves and develop our ideas. The challenge is there, the question is whether we are up for it.


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