The Limits of Imagination [Trenchant Edges]

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where we bite off more than we can chew sometimes.

I hope y’all are enjoying fall so far. I’ve been up and around quite a bit this week. Even applied for a seasonal job doing taxes (I live right about a tax office).

Today I want to talk a bit about Mark Fisher (no relation) and a bit about ADHD.

Grumpy Media Criticism

I didn’t know about English philosopher and cultural theorist Mark Fisher until after his 2017 suicide, but I fell into his rabbit hole after.

After all, I don’t only share a last name with the man. I share quite a few serious preoccupations: Political economy, nostalgia, futurism, strange culture, left-wing politics, and living with depression.

(Editor’s note: When I discuss my mental health I usually get a few people reaching out to make sure I’m OK so I want to address this here: I will not be committing suicide. Frankly, I’ve put up with too much bullshit already not to play this life as far as it’ll go. Y’all are stuck with me.)

His two most popular works are a 2013 essay against cancel culture and identity politics called Exiting the Vampire Castle and a short 2009 book called Capitalist Realism.

I have complicated feelings about both works. Like Fisher, I do think the only way Left-politics will be able to take power in the US is with class-based solidarity. But I think his analysis is much less thoughtful or cogent than he’s given credit for.

Note: A really good book on status competition as an artform is Keith Johnstone’s Impro. By focusing on exploration rather than prescription, he ends up going deeper on the subject than anyone else I’ve ever read.

If y’all are interested, I could dissect the myth of cancel culture in depth. For now, let’s just say that I think the phrase has been used for so many distinct phenomena that are only loosely related that discussing it as one thing makes having an intelligent conversation about the subjects of gatekeeping, accountability, and taboos almost impossible.

History shows us that the greatest threat to class solidity is identity-based wedges. Quite a few scholars describe white privilege for the working class as a kind of racial bribe.

And solidarity demands we work to understand and assist with the struggles of the people we’re trying to be in solidarity with. So even in a class lead movement, we’re going to deal with “identity politics” issues.

But I digress. It’s capitalist realism I want to talk about here.

The thesis of the book is that under a neoliberal political and economic order, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. By Neoliberalism, I mean the macroeconomic financialization of everything and the political ideology of the perfection and supremacy of free markets over all other forms of social organization.

And, indeed, the last decade has had a slew of dystopian fiction cranking up the oppression of “first-world” people under capitalism.

It’s a kind of perfect capitalist win-win: By addressing the anxieties of the population, you can make very popular (read: profitable) commercial works that themselves serve as a kind of dam against radical organization.

We orient ourselves around the stories we tell each other, be they fiction or nonfiction. And denying any alternative to the Way Things Are is a classic method of control.

One only need look at the difference between the Catholic Church in 1000AD and in 2000AD to see the dangers of heterodoxy.

I find the reaction to Capitalist Realism somewhat telling because most of the fans of Fisher I see aren’t focused on the obvious response to it; Start imagining futures outside of capitalism.

Instead, they mostly congregate around his ideas around nostalgia called Hauntology.

We can get a view on this by looking at the names and groups of Fisher’s fanclubs. On Facebook, we’ve got “Mark Fisher Depressive Ghostposting” and “Mark Fisher Memes for Hauntological Teens” with a combined 50k people involved.

Sure, there’s now a “The Acid Left” channel on Facebook with a few thousand followers focusing on Mark Fisher’s unfinished political ideal of Acid Communism.

But they’ve got far less reach than the more depressive groups.

The notion that Fisher’s ideas have been recuperated into supporting the economic and political structures he opposed is pretty commonplace even in the, “Is this Hauntology?” groups.

Even if this isn’t learned helplessness, it feels like a lot of resignation.

Like, well we can’t change anything but we can at least watch it all happen as a group. A little dopamine hit to stave off total despair.

But is that the only option?

Beyond the Limits of Imagination

Imagination is a faculty. A means of remixing and generating novel ideas. A way to see outside the boundaries of time, place, and culture.

It’s not free or easy to get outside those assumptions. Even the most successful of us usually end up “products of our time” to our descendants.

Many of the more optimistic folks in the 1960s considered psychedelic drugs to be deconditioning agents, that they allow a person to strip away cultural baggage and see things clearly.

And they can do that.

But more often they reinforce unseen prior assumptions. A dangerous quality at the best of times.

If our problem is the limit of imagination, then part of the solution may be to stretch or extend its limits.

Which brings us to one of the central mysteries of psychedelics: Do they simply remix information already in memory? Or do they do something else?

Can you “receive a download?”

My personal answer is the most frustrating: Sometimes, maybe.

Part of the problem is a question of the thin margin between What You Know, What You Can Understand, and What You Can Be Shown.

A personal example: The first time I broke through on DMT I saw an amazing slew of shapes and objects I’ve never seen before. But they flew through my awareness so quickly the only memories I have from the experience look more like one of those 90s computer-generated artwork folders.

Did I learn anything from that hyperdimensional experience?

I don’t think so.

Mostly it felt like a very pleasant vacation from having a self.

Even with that ambiguity, I do think psychedelics can extend one’s imagination. But it’s a subtler thing than often portrayed. More like a plant growing than sky-opening revelation.

A younger me would be impatient for the latter kind of knowledge but a little more time has shown me that grounding and avoiding burnout are better long-term bets.

Grasping Towards A Real Future

A few weeks ago I read Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s wonderful book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

It discusses one option to find possibilities for a post-capitalist future: By looking at the places where capital has already finished a cycle of extraction and abandonment and seeing what survives and thrives in those spaces, we can get an idea for the kinds of qualities we’ll need as more and more of the planet becomes ruins.

The case study the book is built on is the global supply chain of matsutake mushrooms, a variety highly prized in Japan and other parts of Asia for its scent and flavor.

I can’t recommend it enough, but the TLDR is that industrial Japanese peasant forestry practices created an ideal environment for this particular variety of mushroom and went the economy stopped being as dependant on lumbar, maintenance of those forests decreased and other flora crowded out matsutake mushrooms. As they became rarer, their price increased and an increasing global trade in the mushrooms became profitable.

The Mushroom at the End of the World is about how humans, animals, fungi, and plants adapt to the wreckage of capitalism-driven industrial resource extraction.

And that’s one of the options for seeing possibilities outside of capitalism. Make a definition, look for edge cases, see how they might open up new options.

Matsutake mushroom pickers don’t work for wages, they don’t have bosses, they aren’t disciplined by market forces, and do not produce commodities.

They translate the messy reality of mushroom growth in forests recovering from industrial exploitation into sacks of mushrooms to be sold by brokers, who then sell them to exporters.

All of this is one way to look at opening new possibilities. I might point to Islamic banking (or other usury-free systems), worker-owned and managed businesses and gift economies as other ways to do commerce.

There’s another option where we can look for conceptual structures of a current situation and mess with the dials until we find something else viable.

Ex. Lots of people look at the hierarchy of a modern corporation and think, “Well, what if this was less coercive?"

This kind of conceptual tinkering runs a high risk of running into both Murphy’s law and the law of unintended consequences. A classic feminist essay by Jo Freeman called, The Tyranny of Structurelessness addresses some of the ways trying to avoid having leaders both creates leaders and even generates unaccountable cliques.

These problems are real, which is why it’s important to take an experimental approach with such changes. Gotta find out how things work (or don’t work) in the real world.

But we’re nowhere near even building a real thing. We’re still just kind of flailing around for some kind of direction other than oblivion from damaging the ecosystem via industrial-scale resource extraction.

Conclusion

We live in a time where the wheels seem like they’re coming off everything.

I try and see that more as an invitation to do something new rather than repeating more toxic habits we’ve built up.

After all, we’ve seen the world industrial resource extraction leaves behind. It’s kind of a mess.

Now, let’s turn to ADHD a bit.

ADHD Update

The following is a bit I wrote for my page a few weeks ago. If you saw that post, just hop down to the next header:

“Been thinking about my mental health a lot the last couple months.

About six weeks ago, my main client who's anchored my business fired me because, frankly, I'm not a particularly good copywriter. And I spent most of the two years I worked with him coasting.

And I've been thinking a lot about why that happened. Some of it was my own incompetence and some came from the constraints of my back injury.

But a lot of it came from how hard it is for me to stay organized.

Let me give an example: Running this page is easy. Running my email newsletter, which talks a lot about the same stuff, is hard.

What's the difference? This page is a place for me to launder my moment-to-moment inspiration. Whatever strikes my attention as worth discussing.

The Newsletter requires me to maintain motivation and consistency over a long period of time. Months and years.

My enjoyment and interest in topics is at the same level for both.

Last week I stumbled onto a mess of neurodivergent and ADHD memes and starting thinking about my patterns.

And, uh, spoilers. There's a lot of overlap there.

I've often described my motivation as trying to drive a car with a broken transmission. I'll want to do things but the effort often takes hours or longer to make it to my actually doing things.

Some of that has been masked by my back injury. IE: I literally have to be super patient with how little I can do in any moment all the time.

But I'm in a complicated bind here. I need money to live, but pushing myself to earn money now has both burned a lot of goodwill from clients and been personally humiliating.

Navigating my own bullshit is a full-time job.

So I guess I've got to figure out some alternative. Probably some mix of switching from copywriting to content writing and selling merch from this page.

But I've got to do some shit to improve this situation. I've got a reference to a good therapist and a PT place, so I just need to make sure there's money in the bank to pay for that treatment.

Tricky stuff.

I've spent a lot of my life avoiding getting formally diagnosed because of an aversion to the mental healthcare system in the US but I think that's been a mistake.

I've got some serious issues and they need proper attention.

Anyway, that's where I'm at this morning. Hope y'all are enjoying Monday”

My ADHD Strategy

Since then I’ve done a lot of procrastinating about important stuff, but one thing I got right was reading the book ADHD Pro by Robert Merki. It lays out a lot of the background on why ADHD causes problems for professionalism and lays out some guidelines on how to do a bit better.

The basic thesis of the book is that there’s no cookie cutter approach to ADHD since everyone has a different mix of systems and, probably, slightly underlying neurology.

He lays out 5 areas a strategy needs to cover.

  1. Mindfulness

  2. Planning

  3. Infrastructure

  4. Motivation

  5. Distractions

Let’s run through them real quick.

Mindfulness is the skill/habit of noticing what you’re doing right now. It’s become kind of a buzzword, but its also a basic lifeskill. As my favorite quote from productivity guru David Allen puts it: Pay attention to what has your attention.

Planning is about figuring out what needs do be done, and what kind of schedule it will take to make it happen.

Infrastructure is about having the stuff you need to do something you want to do ready at hand when you want to do it.

Motivation is about having the fuel to use your infrastructure and follow your plans.

And distractions are going to happen anyway so it’s important to build your plans with how to come back from being distracted in mind.

Merki’s insights on mindfulness are some of the most helpful in the book. Not for his obvious suggestion to meditate more, but for contextualizing learning more about ADHD as a potential new source for mindfulness and using spaced repetition as a technique to keep it clear.

If you’re not familiar with spaced repetition, it’s a learning technique involving repeatedly making and using flashcards to keep connections and ideas alive to improve memory.

I started using it to great effect in college and, in true ADHD style, fell off the wagon. Every few years I’ll pick it up when I’m starting a new project and it’ll work and I’ll fall off the wagon.

The trick is having a plan to check in on having failed to keep a habit up and then restarting it. It’s like a macro version of the part of meditation where you gently return your awareness to the object or sensation you’re focusing on. Don’t waste time or energy beating yourself up, just move awareness back to its source.

Since one of the most frustrating parts of ADHD is forgetting, it helps to have a regular repetition practice in place.

Something like, “write down everything you need to do on index cards and look at them every morning first thing.”

In most of my more productive and effective time periods that has been the baseline habit I’ve used to track and execute tasks. Mostly riffing on David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

More recently I’ve taken to using a sticky notes app on my laptop, which I don’t like nearly as much. And so I’ll be switching back to index cards again. Physicality helps.

Onto planning: Another key issue is recognizing that one typically needs to plan to do less, not more. It can be easy to assume you’ll be able to switch on hyperfocus, but that is a limited and unreliable resources.

My most productive natural hours are right after I get up through midday, so I’ll be adopting a basic idea from the book: Pick two main tasks/day, one after getting up and the other after lunch.

Combining that with measurable goals and actions, a failure mechanism, and aiming for consistent movement rather than speed of execution should let me compensate for my janky motivation systems.

Ex. This newsletter is coming out so late because I lost track of time this morning and listened to an utterly unhealthy amount of the podcast Knowledge Fight while playing Knights of the Old Republic on my Phone.

Not a great productivity solution. But I know I’ve got to leave at 4pm, so I’m forcing myself to publically discuss my approach to dealing with ADHD both as a way to extend this newsletter after a few dead weeks and as a way to do the thinking I’ve been putting off.

Deadlines can help, but they’re not reliable. And I won’t be the professional I want to be if I don’t figure out how to balance my health, mental illness, and work.

So, let’s talk more about infrastructure. I used to be able to have a dedicated office space for work. I can’t really do that with my back the way it is, so I’ll try another trick: have a second operating system installed on my computer without any of the bullshit loaded up on it.

My work requires a lot of Microsoft products, so that will probably not be a whole OS, but a different login for work. This way there will be a clear mental headspace and transition in and out of working even if I’m in the same spot on the bed.

Mix that with checklists after work with questions like, “What friction did I experience while working?” and “What can I do better tomorrow?” to build in an improvement loop into my workflow and I should be alright.

Merki then discusses one of my favorite things: The negative externalities of narratives around “finding your passion.”

Because ADHDers can frequently find new inspiration in anything, the idea you’ll find some “LIFES PASSION” is a unique kind of trap, inviting both hyperfocus and failure driven by being unable to sustain that passion.

We, uh, only have to look at my attempts to finish this Newsletter’s Terence McKenna project for an example. *shudder*

Letting go of that kind of expectation opens up space for healthier ideas about productivity and interest.

Which brings us to distractions. Aside from juicing up one’s goals and motivations, it’s important to recognize what Merki calls dopamine faucets, which are quasi-addictive habits that produce just enough dopamine to be compelling but don’t really build anything up.

Social media is high up on this list, as you can probably guess.

Apps that track how much time you spend on various apps are a good tool to eliminate wasteful time sucks here.

The other key thing is just recognizing that you’ve been distracted and being chill about moving back to working.

Countless times while writing this essay I’ve checked another website, and I’ve managed to gently move myself back to finish this off.

We’ll see how this goes, but I think I’ve got a lot of the pieces in place to actually set my life in order in a sustainable way.

Anyway,

That’s all I’ve got for now. Y’all take care of yourselves this week.

Oh, wait, there’s a bunch of “ADHD Focus music” on youtube, and some of it seems to work pretty well.

-SF