The Speakeasy Imagineering Network

Today I learned that the term normalcy was popularized by Warren Harding, US President between 1921-23, over the then-accepted variant normality. His campaign slogan, return to normalcy, promised a return to a Pre-World War I condition.

Harding’s administration, however, also saw the beginning of the Prohibition era (1921-33). So presumably he meant a return to normalcy, but without the alcoholism, rampant domestic abuse, and corrupt saloon politics of the pre-War era. During the Roaring Twenties, to the extent it needed alcohol as fuel, the American romantic imagination (and here I mean the tumultuous Sturm und Drang of uninhibited subjectivity rather than the tepid nostalgia of pastoralism) either had to go abroad, to Europe, or hide in speakeasies.

I’ve been thinking about our own contemporary condition in light of the complicated relationship among cultural production, the romantic imagination, and Prohibition in the twenties, an era which rhymes in somewhat messy ways with our our own.

In particular, looking at the 2010s through the lens of the 1920s, I got to the interesting conclusion that what requires protection during times of overweening reactionary moral self-certainty is not the truth, but imagination.

The truth can take care of itself better than you might think, but without imagination, it cannot take care of you. And imagination, unlike truth, requires a degree of tender loving care, room for unconstrained expansive exploration, and yes, a reliable supply of Interesting Substances and safe spaces to consume them.

The Rhyming Twenties

Harding’s 1920 campaign message rhymes in a messy way with the present. In promising a sort of healing, pacifist, reactionary nationalism to a war-traumatized nation, it somehow manages to blend the soothing rhetorical quality we associate with Obama with the political content we associate with Trump:

“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

Restoration and reaction, of course, are not the same thing. Restoration heals what has been broken by conflict and trauma; reaction uncritically yearns for a return to an idealized past condition. But sometimes the two desires coincide, as they did in 1921 and do now. When they do, a particular sort of  unimaginative politics, founded on boring competing narratives of morality and virtue, becomes possible.

In the 1920s, Americans were trying to forget the Great War and reconstruct the 1890-1910 era in an idealized, edited form. As Harding apparently figured out, they were tired of experiments, surgeries, revolutions, and heroics. They were tired of change. They were ready for boring.

Yes to peace, no to increasing global integration. Yes to healing, no to alcohol. Yes to technological and scientific advancement, no to Robber Barons. Yes to paternalistic public institutions (many descended from wartime institutions), no to the systematic subjugation of public to private interests. Yes to ambitious public works, no to communist patterns of organizing them. Yes to bankers, no to unions. Yes to Jazz, no to black people.

I’ll leave the transposition of that list of inclusions and exclusions to the 2010s to you, as an exercise.

The result of course, as we now know now, was a decade of sustained but fragile capitalist growth and extraordinary scientific, technological, and artistic creativity.

But arguably, the good things happened in spite of the grand designs of contending political narratives, while the bad things happened as a result of them. The economic boom, as we now know, was a fragile one and ended with the crash of 1929. The artistic explosion had to hide in speakeasies, fueled by bootleg alcohol, or retreat to Europe.

In retrospect, politics did not even have the right questions, let alone the right answers.

Prohibition played an interesting part in this drama. It had roots in genuine social concerns (as does the war on opioids today), unexamined religious motives, powerful ideologically driven support (Rockefeller, a devout Baptist and lifelong teetotaler, was probably the most powerful backer), and a weaker scientific understanding of substance abuse (though not by much) than we enjoy today. Unlike Nixon’s Drug War 50 years later, which was arguably the product of sheer malice, the Prohibition era was more a matter of good intentions, misguided religiosity, and flawed sociology, combining in a toxic way.

Beneath the sociological justifications, the temperance movement was primarily a moral political narrative, within which alcohol use and abuse was more than a set of needs to be met and problems to be solved. It was the mark of a sinful life, one that stood in contrast to upstanding, sober, churchgoing citizenship. Alcoholism was a mark of weakness of character, to be fought with paternalism and moral education, rather than a genetic predisposition.

As best as I can tell from the perspective of a century later, Prohibition was one of two profoundly boring moral narratives that sucked all the air and imagination out of public spaces during the twenties.

The other was, of course, nationalism (provoked in particular by fear of communism) coupled with economic triumphalism, which evolved from a strident wartime mode to a muted peacetime mode.

The two narratives had an interesting coupling. Apparently — and I just learned this — German Americans, along with the Irish, were among the major groups who were against Prohibition, and it didn’t help their case that Germany had been the enemy in World War I. While globalism was not quite as much of a bogeyman as it is today, the retreat to 19th century nationalism was decisive enough to ensure that the League of Nations was born a lame duck.

Both moral narratives were, of course, assaults on truth, and concerted attempts to institutionalize preferred Noble Lies, as moral narratives always are. They differed in their classifications of vice and virtue, and choice of Noble Lies, but did so in a mutually reinforcing way.

But the truth, as always, eventually took care of itself, though at a very high cost. The economic contradictions of the twenties unraveled by 1929, leading to the Great Depression and eventually, World War 2. If the Roaring Twenties represented a failed attempt to return to a sanitized and idealized version of the pre-War world, the Thirties represented a reckoning with the contradictions exposed by the failure itself and a re-engagement with the unfinished business of the 1910s.

That much was necessary and inevitable. Truth represents that part of the phenomenology of a system that will self-correct no matter how powerfully Noble Lies attempt to deny it. One does not just turn off gravity by fiat. The truth does not stop sorting itself out merely because we are too exhausted to continue debating it. It merely takes the more expensive route of Darwinian creative destruction.

But there was an aspect to the Roaring Twenties that was not necessary, as far as I can tell: the survival of the imagination.

Imagination only survived in part due to luck, aided by speakeasies and bootlegging. The imaginative flourishing of the 1920s led, among other things, to the works of the Lost Generation of writers and artists, and the birth of powerful new imaginative modes such as stream of consciousness and modern science fiction. Instead of a resurrection and continuation of the exhausted late cultural era of the 1890s-1910s, fresh new thinking drove cultural production. Powered by bootleg alcohol, the return to normalcy, fortunately, avoided a rerun of art history.

While speakeasies and bootlegging provided temporary domestic relief, they were not enough. I suspect Prohibition was a part of the reason why so much of American creative production during the Roaring 20s actually unfolded in Paris (including significant periods in the working lives of such quintessentially American writers as Hemingway and Fitzgerald).

Speaking Easy

The etymology of speakeasy is what you’d probably guess, it derives from the necessity of having to speak quietly about such places. What is whispered about a speakeasy is not a forbidden truth, but a forbidden address. A pointer to a place designed not for the protection of truths, but for letting go inhibitions, the more easily to access Interesting Thoughts. I like to think speak easy also had connotations of imaginative words flowing easily, aided by alcohol, and evoking imaginative responses from sympathetic listeners.

The world of speakeasies is not an intellectual dark web or a whisper network of subversives where forbidden truths may be shared and revolutions planned. It is something much more basic and important: a place to get drunk in a world that is attempting to criminalize the imagination.

My notional speakeasy is a place where the flow of Interesting Substances is incidental to the flow of Interesting Thoughts, when something like Prohibition prevails outside. During cultural tough times, a society needs a Speakeasy Imagineering Network, SIN for short. To save your soul, you need a SIN.

I’m not much of a drinker, and haven’t been drunk in twenty years, but a good many of the better posts on this blog are the result of alcohol and other Interesting Substances. The link between Interesting Substances and Interesting Thoughts has always been a strong, if temperamental one. But the presence of Interesting Substances is not what makes a speakeasy.

One can, after all, drink alone at home, with shades drawn, as many did long past the end of Prohibition. What I suspect made speakeasies special was that you could be in the company of others in flouting the pious strictures and norms of the Moral Society outside, and search for your creative demons. Mutual complicity in cultural transgression creating the trust necessary for creative collaboration.

Interesting Thoughts are also, ex officio, subversive thoughts with high probability, though that is not their purpose, since they exist for their own sake. But intended or not, they present a far greater threat to moral narratives than mere truth. Not only are Interesting Thoughts likely to be subversive, they are also likely to be random in their choice of Noble Lies to undermine, so they represent a shared enemy to the stewards of all the moral narratives vying for public attention.

Unlike secret truths revealed by whistleblowers and traitors, Interesting Thoughts cannot reliably be coopted by one narrative to attack another. You cannot have a Nationalist speakeasy network turning alcohol into subversive thoughts for use against Progressives, and a Progressive speakeasy network doing the reverse. You’re either in the market for Interesting Thoughts, sight unseen, or you’re not. For better or worse, Interesting Thoughts are definitionally pre-ideological.

The Nationalist and the Progressive may hate each other, but they both hate Interesting Thoughts more (unless, of course, they are not actually sincere in their stated ideological beliefs, in which case they may very well be partners profiteering on the side).

And the kicker is, Interesting Thoughts need not even be true in order to be interesting or subversive. They merely need to imaginatively accommodate a degree of novelty in a way that arrests attention. They merely need to entertain a possibility (by buying it a drink, telling it a joke, etc).

The truth is not necessarily interesting. It is not even necessarily important. It is merely inescapable in the long term. In the short term, it can often be hidden away in noise long enough for you to get away with the profits of lies.

The truth, in other words, is much less of a threat to power than it is made out to be. Interesting thoughts though, are a different matter.

An imagination once expanded by an interesting thought does not return to its original size, and will not remain content with the old and the familiar. Interesting thoughts make people restless for novelty and growth. Interesting thoughts manufacture addictions more powerful than the most powerful opiates authorities might craft for the masses.

For the would-be dictator, shutting down the imagination is a higher priority than shutting down the truth. Speaking truth to power merely annoys it. In advanced authoritarian regimes, power might come at truth with a bone saw or a polonium-tipped umbrella, but so long as you’re willing to keep your head down and not present an overt challenge, power generally leaves truths alone.

Imagination though, is always a threat, and no detente is possible between it and power. Imagination leads people to speak weirdness to truth rather than truth to power, and draws attention away from boring things. This is far more of a threat to power.

To shut down the imagination, you have to both prohibit its natural expression and fill the space that would otherwise be naturally occupied by its products. This requires the production of time-and-space-filling cultural performances that consume attention without fueling unpredictable restlessness and growth the way genuinely imaginative works do.

Boring, predictable, comforting performances that present no novelty to the audience, and no challenge to the performer.

Parades for instance. Or long, droning, repetitive political speeches that go on for hours. Or version #39985 of the same light-hearted small-town Christmas romance story. Or putting on circuses (bread included).

It is not human to enjoy fundamentally boring performances, so how do you make people watch? How do you ensure they don’t change the channel or unfollow the Twitter feed? How do you make them watch the twentieth Hallmark Christmas movie with basically the same story or the tenth parade with the same missiles and tanks?

As we have learned the stressful way in the last two years (and as South Park presciently told us a decade ago, in the 2007 three-episode arc Imaginationland), the key to this is fear.

To make the familiar endlessly engaging, make the unfamiliar endlessly frightening. To make people yearn for walls, teach them to fear horizons.

Moral Panic Rooms

The list of easily provoked fears is endless.

Fear of closed borders, fear of refugee caravans; fear of the Alcoholics Anonymous circle of hell, fear of opioid-devastated towns; fear of Germans and Russians, fear of Russians and Arabs; fear of being beaten up for wearing the wrong clothes, fear of being fired for using the wrong pronoun; fear of homophobes, fear of gay wedding cakes; fear of sexual harassment, fear of accusations of sexual harassment; fear of secret networks of pedophiles, fear of armed militias; fear of Deep States, fear of encrypted phones; fear of white men with guns, fear of black men with lives; fear of Permit Patties, fear of black people living; fear of AIs, fear of aging populations; fear of falling birth rates, fear of growing populations; fear of inflation, fear of unemployment; fear of deportation, fear of immigration; fear of fascists, fear of antifa; fear of terrorists; fear of “troubled young men”; fear of a warming planet, fear of emasculation by solar panels; fear of the ICE, fear of MS-13; fear of flag-waving, fear of false flags; fear of political correctness, fear of disrespected anthems; fear of Hitler, fear of Stalin.

A world living in fear, glued to screens streaming boring political speeches and dull parades, and streams of witless tweets, is a world that has locked itself into a panic room.

A moral panic room.

The opposite of a speakeasy, a place where truth retreats in sacred fear for its own integrity, convinced of its own immutability, to die.

It takes fear to choose to listen to what a politician with no ideas has to say rather than watch a science fiction movie with ideas you’ve never heard of.

It takes fear to find and admire artistry in Twitter demagoguery instead of in witty cartoons.

It takes fear to turn from making witty cartoons to manufacturing hot takes.

It takes fear to look for amusement in owning the libs instead of in the antics of cats.

It takes fear to see in a cartoon frog the makings of a weapon to wield against the imagination.

Truth can be hidden by being drowned in bullshit, or simply by not being acknowledged or spoken out loud frequently enough, but the workings of the imagination must be actively crowded out of by theaters of boring familiarity, transformed into Must-See TV by hurricanes of whipped-up fear.

When such attempts to starve imagination of attention succeeds, it withers and dies, leading to long periods of deep cultural stagnation, where public life is one full of unchanging, devastatingly boring ceremonial observances, and private life is full of the dull despair of domestic drunkenness unalleviated by the pleasures of poetry production.

Gardens need walls, as Sarah Perry has argued, but on the flip side, playgrounds need horizons: directions of movement where novelty and calls to adventure reliably appear, beating back the boringness of moral panic rooms.

Civilized life is governed by the essential tension between the excitement of the promise of continued evolution and the fear of a return of barbarism. Between the call to adventure on the  frontier and the call to arms at the border. Between the subversive pleasures of the speakeasy and the dying sacred truths of the moral panic room.

In this creative tension though, there is no necessary symmetry between the two forces; no cosmic yin-yang balance that preserves itself. Societies can and do die from lack of imagination.

Because frontiers are always hard to find, but wars are always easy to start. Because fear is always easily stoked, but imagination is rarely sparked. Because it is very easy to get people to lock themselves down, very hard to get them to open themselves up.

That imagination survives at all, that novelty ever enters the world to drive evolutionary and revolutionary change, is something of a miracle. And sometimes, the miracle needs help.

We need a Speakeasy Imagineering Network for our times. Unfortunately, modern authoritarians are too clever to attempt to ban basic Interesting Substances like alcohol, so a new SIN will need to find some other cultural transgression besides drinking to serve as catalyst for pre-ideological Interesting Thoughts.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Hmm. Our minds themselves have become moral panic rooms. Fear inducing meme bombs being thrown in all the time by culture warriors. No room for daemon to come and play. Fear does not make a good playmate. It’s like we need to build a border for our borderless playgrounds.

  2. Ralph W Witherell says:

    Loved this post and these insights: “The truth can take care of itself better than you might think, but without imagination, it cannot take care of you.” and “Truth represents that part of the phenomenology of a system that will self-correct no matter how powerfully Noble Lies attempt to deny it. One does not just turn off gravity by fiat. The truth does not stop sorting itself out merely because we are too exhausted to continue debating it. It merely takes the more expensive route of Darwinian creative destruction.”

    I think that creative culture is largely muddling through current events fueled by various psychedelics as opposed to alcohol. The success of burning man suggests that an international hiatus for creative people, at least to date, isn’t required to breathe (but the increased police presence in and around events like bm each year could turn that over time as could heavy handed enforcement of cannabis normalization nationally).

    I also think that part of the attraction to participating in a speakeasy social setting is that the participants all have a shared sense of their “rightness” in the face of oppression. The person who normally was drinking at home with shades drawn (a shameful posture) was now in a setting where they could enjoy the shared experience that their preferred entertainment was in fact something to enjoy and not hide, at least within the confines of the speakeasy. Imagination and freedom seem to go hand in hand.

  3. Marc Hamann says:

    I think you’ve got the causality backwards again.

    By definition, ideological thoughts are not Interesting, since they offer pre-canned analyses and solutions for problems. And, true, Powers-that-Be often exploit fear to provide ideological funnels into desired directions.

    But humans naturally gravitate to ideology when they can’t face their real fears, instead deciding to focus on the pre-fab ones with pre-fab solutions on offer. The suppression of imagination is not top-down, but bottom-up.

    To think Interesting Thoughts, you need to be willing to look your actual fears in the face, to actually feel them, to confront the stew of contradictory forces and impulses that actually cause them, and be willing to go into new, even scarier, territory. This doesn’t sell quite as well.

    Unless each individual is willing to do that, any new network is likely to just become some new ideology, and existing ideologies will still hold the power to hijack people’s fear.

    As usual, the only way to change the world is for each person to change themself.

  4. Do you have a genealogy for your definition of “imagination”?

    AFAIK the commonly accepted use goes back to Coleridge and refers to emotionally/“vitally” charged images. Not sure if you are talking about the same thing.

    Not disagreeing with your def, just trying to understand it better.

  5. > To shut down the imagination, you have to both prohibit its natural expression and fill the space that would otherwise be naturally occupied by its products.

    That reminds me of a passage from “Cultural Amnesia” by Clive James:

    “The tyrant’s monologue doesn’t want to be interesting, and that’s its point. Camus was among the first— almost as early as Orwell— to realize that the totalitarian overlord’s power to bore was a cherished and necessary component of his repressive apparatus. Droning on without contradiction was a proof of omnipotence, Stalin had already proved it with his grinding speeches to the Presidium: speeches which had to be applauded at the end of each bromide, and for which the applause at the end had to be endless. (During the Great Terror in the late 1930s, the first person to stop applauding went in peril of his life: it was either bleeding hands or a bullet in the neck.)

    “Hitler was boredom incarnate. A typical oratorical effort was his broadcast on the eve of the Anschluß: it lasted a full three hours. And if listening to him was hard work in public, it was living hell in private. As we have it in transcribed form, his table talk makes us long for Goebbels. In the salon of the Berghof, for hours after midnight, Hitler would keep his punch-drunk guests from their beds with an interminable monologue about his early struggles and the shining Nazi future: a Ring cycle minus the music. Secretaries who worshipped him fell asleep trying to write it all down, while amputee officers reporting to him from the eastern front longed to get back to the comparatively spontaneous entertainment provided by the Red Army’s massed artillery.

    “Hitler had the con man’s insight into other people’s reactions and must have been well aware of what he was doing. He was proving himself. Or rather he was proving his position: proving his power. Tyrants always do, and Camus spotted it. If Mussolini strikes us as a partial exception, it was because he was a partial tyrant. In Fascist Italy, the idea of individuality never quite died among the people. The true political monster insists that, apart from a few hand-picked satraps, there shall be no individuals except himself. Everyone must be reminded, all the time, that solitude is all there is: solitude in the sense of helpless loneliness, awaiting its instructions from the leader’s voice.”

  6. > “An imagination once expanded by an interesting thought does not return to its original size, and will not remain content with the old and the familiar.”

    Guess that is what’s “wrong” with me.

Leave a Comment

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.