The Wheel Inside the Wheel

Adam Gopnik‘s recent piece in the New Yorker codifies the suspicions many of us have been sharing with each other: “We are living in the Matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers…The people or machines or aliens who are supposed to be running our lives are having some kind of breakdown. There’s a glitch, and we are in it.” Gopnik’s evidence is everything in that “nothing like this has ever happened before” category: Trump’s win (Sad!), The improbable Superbowl outcome (Go Pats!), the Best Picture Oscar snafu (even in airbrushed Hollywood.)

Gopnik’s conclusion:

Whether we are at the mercy of an omniscient adolescent prankster or suddenly the subjects of a more harrowing experiment than any we have been subject to before…we can now expect nothing remotely normal to take place for a long time to come. They’re fiddling with our knobs, and nobody knows the end.

Or perhaps, let us pray, it’s just that someone forgot to plug in an important part of the machine, and, when they spot the problem, they’ll plug us back in to the usual psychological circuits. Let’s hope for a sudden mysterious surge of energy, and then normalcy again. But don’t count on it. Expect the worst. Oh, wait. It’s already happened.

Gopnik’s “I’m kidding but not really” tone has a dark humor, but it is also aligned with more serious efforts to figure out this blinkered thing called shared reality. Kathleen Stewart‘s Ordinary Affects is a slim but brilliant unpacking of the significance of everyday experience. As an anthropologist, Stewart approaches the quotidian with a point of view that is reminiscent of my recent fascination (some are saying obession) with hyperobjects*:

Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relation, scenes, contingencies and emergences…They work not through “meanings” per se, but rather in the way that they pick up density and texture as they move through bodies, dreams, dramas, and social worldings of all kinds. Their significance lies in the intensities they build and in what thoughts and feelings they make possible.

Stewart has a writer’s bent even though her collection of vignettes is not categorized as fiction. Ordinary affects “surge or become submerged,” can offer a “tangle of trajectories, connections and disjunctures,” can gather into “stories or selves” and then quickly disperse, float, recombine.

Here is a sample vignette:


The potential stored in ordinary things is a network of transfers and relays.

Fleeting and amorphous, it lives as a residue or resonance in an emergent assemblage of disparate forms and realms of life.

Yet it can be as palpable as a physical trace.

Potentiality is a thing immanent to fragments of sensory experience and dreams of presence. A layer, or layering to the ordinary, it engenders attachments or systems of investment in the unfolding of things.

This may not be the right forum for placing a heavy hand on these larger than life topics. Just note that Stewart’s book is a great one (and a special thank you to my fabulous kinswoman and friend Rebecca Ricks for this recommendation). It can, along with Gopnik’s piece, also find commonality in the jaunty spirit of Mary Gauthier‘s lyrics:

Souls ain’t born, souls don’t die
Soul ain’t made of earth, ain’t made of water, ain’t made of sky
So, ride the flaming circle, wind the golden reel
And roll on, brother, in the wheel inside the wheel

From the Bodleian Library (Photo: BibliOdyssey)

* Timothy Morton‘s term. More about Hyperobjects on Slow Muse here and here.

3 Replies to “The Wheel Inside the Wheel”

  1. Re-interpretation.

    I read the recent article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. Where I agree with Mr. Gopnik that we are likely living in a simulation, a grand experiment created by God or Gods. Where we diverge is the interpretation of recent events.

    Instead of interpreting recent events from the lens of an elitist who has a definite opinion, my presumption of who Mr. Gopnik is. I want to consider the recent “aberrations” in the matrix are not really aberrations at all, but corrections and examples of how silly man has become.

    Starting with the Oscar debacle. Could it be as simple as the Gods pointing out to us that we have put way too much value in meaningless entertainment and give way too much credence to actors and actresses who are simply acting within the Matrix. So what an actor does is create a temporary pretend reality within a pretend reality. Two pretends doesn’t make one real.

    Trump is simply a reaction to all the garbage generations of egomaniac politicians have heaped on top of the truth. Mr. Dopnik to make the assertion that Trump is unfit, he presumes he is right and that is the truth not his opinion. Roughly half the country and many around the world think he is fit, if for no other reason he is not Obama, he is not Bush, he is not Clinton or Sanders. Instead of some juvenile playing a game of switcheroo from the heavens maybe God is saying grow up, get over your egos and live real. You may not like it, Trumps lives more real than almost any elite politician or celebrity. And that scares the heck out of them. And maybe, consider that Hillary was never meant to be President or anything more than she has already been.

    As far as the Patriots/Falcons game. I was as amazed and surprised as any sports fan. It was amazing and the analogy of the controllers of the game switching sides mid third quarter is amusing and a great analogy. Instead could it be interpreted as exactly the opposite? The master plan was for the Patriots to win all along, it was there destiny, it was their achievement as a team and individuals not the Falcons. The first three quarters were the “mistake”. A “mistake” to shake our reality and placate our need for excitement while delivering the original outcome exactly as it was supposed to be.

    If indeed there is a being or a group of beings controlling the joy stick, making the play selections and delivering on the master experiment then is it also not possible that each and every event we find unbelievable, wrong, crazy, amazing, and incredulous could be re-interpreted in such a way that Mr. Dopnik is wrong and I am right. Or, I am wrong and the correct interpretation has not been revealed yet, maybe we just are ready yet for the truth?

  2. Stewart’s vignette reads like a prose poem.

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