Web

I took a Lyft to San Francisco International Airport. After we struggled to locate each other, the conversation with the driver started amicably – the mutual lament of technology. Then she took her serve. “Where are you going?” I was travelling home at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. She turned down the radio and proceeded to lay out an admirably intricate conspiracy theory about how the virus originated as a bioweapon at a PLA research facility in Wuhan. This, she clarified, was part of an ongoing scheme cooked up by the new bloods, a biological clique of corporations and politicians who promoted emasculating vegan and synthetic foods such as soy, signed iniquitous intercontinental trade treaties for their secret advantage, and directed the mainstream media to brainwash people into submitting like sheep to their plans for world domination. My driver was safe from coronavirus, for she was a free-thinking old blood, fortified by meat and organic foods such as grains and pulses. She made her own way in the world, poring over unsung scholarship on Neanderthal genetics.

Postmodernists used often to proclaim that meta-narratives were on the wane. It’s such a banal point today that it doesn’t seem to bear repeating. Today’s worldview is typically a more heterogenous, unstable compound: produced and consumed in a freer economy of ideas. Perhaps better still, spun on a labyrinthine semiotic web: so that such visions of reality are produced by, but fail adequately to represent or explain for the subject, the structural order lurking behind the representational veil of everyday life. They evoke a dissociative paranoia about an abstracted and chaotic external world which can only be seen through a filter, like the refracting droplets which on dewy mornings bespatter spiderwebs. Caught in this elaborately tangled web, we find our dark cavern and cocoon ourselves under our arachnid overlords. It can seem a more comforting fate than an endless traversal, through the cavernous cobwebs of mass culture, knowing that, despite Kant’s best efforts, we remain stuck in Plato’s cave.

Our only hope that the spider can be outsmarted is if we can resist its web sticking to our feet, and, kicking down on its silken strands, form droplets shaped so precisely as to reflect the metaphysics of our interdependence. And yet, because we cannot keep pace with the spinnerets, or anticipate its next movements, we are liable to tie ourselves into sticky knots. Silicon Valley is the great mother of late capitalist spiders. But she continues the work of her ancestors: the global culture war is thus interpreted as a the product of conspiracy, perpetuated by a creatively evil sociobiological cult.

We must re-spin the web – find a way to communicate our perfunctory knowledge, and systematise it through a sound procedure, into something capable of comprehending the totality, which in turn can be instrumentalised. And the politics of this communicative democracy demand that we explain why others so readily construct assured, simplifying explanations for the structure of everything – to persuade them otherwise. Any means of decoding the web is of course conceived through the web. Neither hermeneutics nor critical theory claim they came out of the aether. Everything that has been said or done had its own contingent, labyrinthine webs of context. But if we construct through deconstruction, if we divest objects of ontological coherence achieved only through a sinister entangling, then, perhaps, we can do what we must: disentangle, and then re-spin the web.

In recent history, conceptions of social order were at least simplified by the class structure of industrial capitalism, the certainties of a liberal constitution, and – since the second world war – faith in organised professions tasked to construct rational and positivist sciences for technocratic rule. Since then, mass culture, deindustrialisation, poststructuralism, neoliberalism, globalisation, social media, and the politics of identity have multiplied the number of dewy droplets through which we see our web. For this web, taken as a metaphor for the underlying material and discursive relations which produce our sense of reality, has both changed and was never what it was believed to be. The puzzle of the late twentieth century is that this singular insight seems to necessitate, but cannot produce, a paradigm shift in social explanation. In this sticky quagmire of meaning-making, who best understands why others are stuck can hope to free them.

Yet also for that reason, no individual should be condemned for falling prey to the spider’s entanglement. They alone did not produce the web. The spider clutches its paws for our ankles. We must find refuge long enough to form and peer through droplets, which are distorted on the glimmering and trembling web, by fluid dynamics so profoundly vast and complex in their flows and surface tensions, that their culminations and dispersions can only clearly be traced in retrospect.

Everyday decisions often involve a judgment about who you should trust. It’s not always easy to know whether neighbours, scientists, media outlets, or governments deserve it. But almost everybody can depend on system trust. That at least abounds in that great egg sac – the Bay Area. We can depend on the financial, technological, and bureaucratic infrastructure which makes transactional relationships with strangers possible, despite the semiotic vortex of its constitutive context. The Lyft driver safely deposited me at the airport, where I didn’t spare a second thought putting my life in the hands of the anonymous United pilots tasked to steer a Boeing 787 safely to Heathrow. I peered out the pressurised cabin to see Nevada, Idaho, and Montana, where freeways and urban nodes intersect an endless landscape formed by crop cultivation and circle irrigation. At an altitude of seven miles, you get some sense of the magnitude of the arctic tundras of Manitoba, the vast glaciers and frozen volcanos of Greenland, and the immense expanse of the Atlantic ocean. Delirious after ten hours of attempted sleep punctured by baby screams, I found something pathetically magical about the plane’s descent into the rolling hills and hedgerows of old England. It’s a strange thing that the beauty of such topographies is best appreciated from a machine which simultaneously destroys them by stealth.