‘Well-informed cynicism is only another mode of conformity.’
‘Let’s smoke feelings together, it’s all about you, me and feelings, which should be forgotten.’
‘When you need to be polite to your search engine in order to get good results.’
‘Your AI will talk to my AI’
‘The heart says yes, but the attention span says no.’
‘Be the training data you want to see in the world.’
‘Pause for the People’
‘The bird struggles hard but moves nowhere, yet it is incapable of landing.’
(Chinese saying about the hummingbird)
‘No longer “Socialism or Barbarism” but “Degrowth or Mad Max”.’
‘Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.’
There are always new requirements, but none are beneficial to you. They say the opportunity for advancement has faded. Desire was extinguished long ago. Your soul feels depleted, with no discharge of inner tensions in sight. You need change but can’t cope with it any longer. What happens when there’s no more energy to address the issues head on, you put off tasks and forget to take care of your body? You feel bored and lonely now that your online friends no longer answer. You indulged last night, but it’s no longer possible to get drunk or high. How do digital souls survive when perseverance means nothing anymore? Once you’re too tired to manage your life and deal with planetary dysmorphia, there’s always a fallback option: copium.
If the goal is to reclaim the power of definition in the fight against right-wing meme hegemony, here’s one. Copium is the digital information intake that makes one temporarily numb, intoxicated and deprived of sensation when there is literally zero emotion on display. This is the road taken from bittersweet irony down to confronting and overcoming absolute nihilism. What happens when there’s no purpose anymore in dealing with the world’s true nature, and you enter an unnarratable condition?
Copium is a micro-release that helps you keep going, beyond the destructive side of drug-taking and the psychedelic ecstasy of colourful alternative realities. Push ahead, say it out loud, stay weird and be assured there is life again after the Event Horizon. Enter the tricky mental state of pain-killer-as-attitude that opens you up to the miracle. What happens when the escalation of shock value tactics no longer works? Once inside the rabbit hole, one forgets euphoria, and even the rush. Instead of a theatrical breakdown the fictional yet all too real copium drug causes a ‘whatever’ flatlining of the involuntary capitalism we’re thrown into.
And whilst you are both partly alive, partly dead, today’s robots jump, dance, collapse and stand up again. Even worse: they apologize and ask how you’re doing. Chatbots are no longer trained to be polite and distant as with HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. They are emphatic, provoking violent responses from the frustrated multitudes that rage against artificial stupidity and unfounded hope. ‘Have a nice day – and please don’t forget to rank me!’ Shut up! We care but don’t care.
The essence of copium
According to Know Your Meme, the ‘portmanteau of the words “cope” and “opium”’ describes ‘a fictional drug to help one deal with loss’, where making memes acts as a coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions. The term, which can be traced back to rapper Keak da Sneak’s 2003 album title, was used in an illustration featuring Pepe the Frog hooked up to an oxygen tank labelled copium, a chemical ‘used to soothe the mind of a person who has just lost a debate’. The cartoon drawing, popularized in meme space during the 4Chan-Twitter Trump years, reached its peak after 6 January 2021 and the storming of the US Capitol. There’s also a suggestion, according to Wiktionary, that copium leads to denial.
The term can also be read as a reference to the US opiate crisis. As a contemporary memes states: ‘Turns out, the real opiates of the masses … is opiates.’ However, we’re talking here about symbolic ways of how to grapple with stress, panic and anger, not about luring, self-destructive ways out. The late French philosopher Bernard Stiegler describes this period as the collapse of ‘global childishness’, ‘leaving the white middle classes to sink into misery, alcoholism, drug addiction and resentment, accelerating the regression of their life expectancy as well as the collapse of their “intelligence quotient”.’
While Urban Dictionary defines copium as ‘metaphoric opiate inhaled when faced with loss, failure or defeat, especially in sports, politics and other tribal settings’, the emphasis here lies on the structural aspects of a life defined by serial defeats. What happens when this loss becomes permanent and hardwired into techno-social existence? The shock doctrine that defined the neo-liberal age is long gone, yet ‘change’ is for the happy few. The shock is permanent now and has become an integral part of twenty-first century life. What remains is diversity in the form of stagnation, regression, crisis and decline, and a never-ending sense of disaster, which Kim Stanley Robinson called Götterdämmerung capitalism in his cli-fi novel Ministry for the Future. Nothing will disappear voluntarily, out-of-the-blue. Appearances refuse to fade away. With both history and technology speeding up further, hyper forces become autonomous entities that no longer need the human subject. That’s the bleakness of life after the tipping point.
In 1843 Karl Marx wrote the following, now famous sentences: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ The aim of religion then was to calm down uncertainty in life. Around the same time, the phrase ‘God is dead’ started to circulate. Blame Kierkegaard, Stirner and Nietzsche, but once the secular genie was out of the bottle, no ‘spiritual renaissance’ could reinstate the authority of religion (with the violent fundamentalist regimes in Iran and Afghanistan serving as a cruel reminder).
Fast forward from the nineteenth century and the question is what does the ‘copium of the people’ looks like today. What calms you down? How do you cope? What are ways to incorporate insecurities in the light of the inevitable? The raw objectivity of the collapse alone will not lead to political action unless we take vulnerability into account. This is the lesson for the 2020s. We’re supposed to be actors but behave like twentieth-century spectators. This is our melancholy.
‘Just that something so good. Just can’t function no more.’ (Love Will Tear Us Apart, Joy Division)
Instead of defining coping as a psychological strategy, whereby the subject rejects a harsh truth and adopts a less disturbing belief, let’s stress the survival aspect of repetitive everyday life that does not allow for (revolutionary) change. The spirit of capitalism may be dead, but so is the will to resist and overthrow the regime.
‘Take a chill pill!’ (popular saying)
Coping is then a result of the loss of the positive side of ideology as a belief-system. Being in the world is reduced to killing time. It’s time to go easy on the job and quit the hustle. Let’s chill and check the socials.
What are ‘coping mechanisms’? In this light, copium can be anything. It’s an empty container as long as it alleviates the pain and is understood as a metaphorical opiate. While some associate it with subdued addictive substances and things like sports, sleep, porn or food, copium is better understood as essentially digital time killers such as binge-watching series, playing games and doom scrolling TikTok videos. And don’t forget all the senseless YouTube sessions.
Copium stands for vita non activa and provides relief from contemplation, giving your brain a break. What happens when worries go in circles and it has become impossible to make a decision, any decision? Apathy used to be a stigma. No longer. There’s sympathy for the slacker. Everyone has had enough. This is the big difference from thirty years ago when neo-liberal positivism was still the norm and the slacker was looked down upon as a lazy, sub-cultural figure languishing about as Generation X. The state of distraction today equals impulsive digital interactions that offload the anxieties onto another platform or app: send an instant message, swipe to match on a dating app, comment on a post. All this will never bring rest or tranquillity, let alone mindfulness.
What’s your poison?
Copium is turned to as a defence mechanism in situations of stress. But what happens when this ‘mechanism’ enters geo-politics, behavioural psychology and, ultimately, is sold back to you through social media marketing? The neuro-science enlightenment campaign has paid off. The workings of the brain’s reward system are now common knowledge. Patterns of cybernetic control have been recognized. The higher art of coping, which arises with all this techno-cynical reason, is at the same time a reflection on Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of the state of frenzied stasis.
‘Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.’ (The Verve)
Hauntology might be one option, but what happens when the nightmare returns as in a Groundhog Night, which, unlike Groundhog Day, would start all over again the moment the main character falls asleep? Will copium – once popular on Twitch, sometimes also called hopium – only extend the nightmare? One wonders whether the digital papaver will make the chain of disasters worse or rather soften its mental impact? Or does it, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase, work more like a painkilling ‘aspirin of the people’? God-like rays beam down from the clouds and then disappear, in an instant.
According to therapists, we need to cope ‘in order to deal with disadvantage or adversity’. But once you run out of coping skills, there is always copium as a last resort. This is the promise. Regression is a never-ending downward slope. We’re thrown back to coping mechanisms after access to the past and future are blocked. There’s just horror of the eternal presence of the now, the never-ending, monotonous everyday. While everything appears to change, nothing does. Dealing with a world driven by reactive forces has become a central issue, considering the easy way people flow in and out of existence in this world. What’s your poison?
The paranoia trap
There’s an uncanny whirlpool of factors at play that spins around an empty core called the Self. This is what happens when feelings of being undesired, unwanted and isolated are experienced together, on an industrial, cosmic scale. This is the late social media age of collective loneliness, also known as the not-yet-widely-recognized Sherry Turkle syndrome. But the issue is no longer being alone in the crowd. The sad and lonely gather to muffle the perception of pain, create quasi-communities with accompanying ideologies in an attempt to give meaning to living in the void. Whether or not there is a lack of actual social networks and personal (emotional) bonding is no longer relevant. The techno-social reality supersedes the identity building of an outsider group. Once failure is democratized and becomes a general condition with multiple ways to express itself, we need to look beyond this or that subculture and address the general techno-affect.
Let’s dig into a particular case. In her research on young male incels and their online forums, Canadian researcher Kate Babin lists four factors for the lack of social cohesion. She starts with othering the in group, the practice of ‘rampant distrust between members on a forum’. This reflex of exclusion mirrors a general lack of trust on platforms and can be seen as an internalization of surveillance and digital extractivism. One is never really alone online, nor in a closed group for that matter. There are always big and small Others virtually present that watch and follow in a semi-invisible manner. There’s never really trust. The social feeling is a fake one, at best unreliable.
On this overcrowded Planet Internet, coping is never just of solitary concern. Levels of paranoia in open networks are at an all-time high, while tacit activist knowledge on how to identify infiltrators and spies remains virtually non-existent. Large flocs of users are ready to disappear overnight, never to been seen again. While in the past this culture of uncertainty was associated with online anonymity, these days social media makes it so much easier to investigate who’s behind a username. At best copium acts as a mask – if only we could see online comment culture as the masquerade balls during Venice Carnival.
The second element, clogging up the forum, is again an internal matter, used to show engagement through minimal involvement. There is pleasure in derailing an internal discussion or exchange like this and disrupting rational deliberation; I post, like and share, therefore I am. When the signal to noise ratio tips, the power of discourse is momentarily disrupted, reproducing a simulacrum of community.
Shitposting is the third factor Babin lists: a culture jamming technique in a foreign feed, for instance on YouTube or Twitter. Often only one bad remark will suffice to end an online discussion and start an avalanche of ‘engagement’, a trick cultivated by the grifters that make up the troll-industrial complex. The advice of 1990s cyberculture ‘not to feed the trolls’ did not scale beyond the do-good hacker community and is nowadays largely unknown to mainstream users.
An additional issue here is the absence of elegant moderation tools. Platformed communities cannot shield themselves because online environments are supposed to remain ‘open’ (to grow). Closed groups simply do not have to deal with shitposters. The way users dealt with ‘zoom bombing’ during the COVID-19 pandemic years (sending an exclusive passcode to subscribed participants before the event or meeting) shows how easy it is to protect certain online exchanges. However, old media still loves reporting shitposting incidents as a sign of the decline of digital media – and society in general. Instead of accusing adolescent others with immature behaviour, it may be better to frame these acts as part of an ideological conflict, a culture war, or, more recently, cyberwarfare.
Babin’s fourth and last characteristic is fatalism, which is by far the most interesting of her factors as it invites us to compare fatum today with Jean Baudrillard’s Fatal Strategies from 1983. Babin notes that ‘any positive mention of an interest or a hobby which presents an opportunity for members to connect with each other is instead diminished and labelled a “cope”.’ So what’s the fatum here? Software, community ties, the zeitgeist, the incel identity trap? In her conclusion Kate Babin notes that the incels.is forum she investigated ‘creates division within a subcultural community, leading to an absence of social support, low quality relationships and extreme negative affectivity.’ Identity isn’t celebrated as a liberation but becomes a paranoia trap.
The fatality is a second-order, weak version of Baudrillard’s romantic notion of the seductive ‘evil’ side of the Inevitable. Instead, what is experienced is an instable order to fabricated elements, glued together in a temporary setting, seemingly exchanging fate with design. Fluidity is the opposite of predestination. The real existing attitudes confronted here are forms of confusion, which manifest as ‘optionalism’ – I have the freedom to choose between a multitude of options and in the end cannot decide.
The same old funeral songs
As Timothy Morton noted, ‘the outdoors is already indoors’. The coexistence of me and disasters is a reality. Morton describes problems that ‘one can understand perfectly, but for which there is no rational solution’. We are always wrong. Should the collapse be accelerated or can the katechon (the restrainer), when properly administered, impede its spread? Is copium then the ‘katechon from below’? Crowdsourcing efforts to delay the arrival of the Antichrist? How will users cope after the Internet Mass Extinction when billions of profiles get wiped out in a singular event? Each and every disaster are parked in our personal histories in a parallel trajectory – until they no longer can be. Will it become necessary for public health and political activism reasons to design the collective psychic armour that will protect us against the detrimental mental fallout of platform disasterism?
Can memories of the past function as copium? Russian researcher Nina Danilova has written an interesting study on the status of déjà-vu, a phenomenon driven by an ‘overabundance of memory and the disappearance of hopes for a better future’. But what happens when memory can no longer be captured and is simply no longer there? What’s the déjà-vu effect in a culture of psycho-technic amnesia? Déjà-vu of the little that’s left? Sure, one can learn mnemonic techniques, but the lure of tech is always there to assist us when sudden waves of nostalgia resurface and we browse through our photo collections, social media collections and the occasional emails. We consist of technical devices, as prosthesis, as Stiegler calls it. Users feel mnemonically disabled and cannot live without their devices. With Paolo Virno, Danilova defines deja-vu as ‘a condition that determines apathy, fatalism, and indifference to the future, since history seems to be known in advance and unalterable’.
Danilova asks: ‘Why is thinking of the future so problematic within the temporality of déjà vu?’ Micro déjà-vu moments, whether narco-technically induced or not, are one of the many contemporary manifestations of ‘stuckness’, provoking a sense of stagnation of both society and its subjects. How have we already experienced the apocalypse before it has even happened? There can only be one ending but not in this story: we are stuck in the final phase that deliberately upholds its resolution. What happens when life gets trapped in a repetitive loop and we can only listen to the same old funeral songs? You want to move on, but, in the current sadist scenario, there is no way to elegantly exit from the scene.
In a digital cosmos, held together by copium, there are multiple readings. The Russian take on this is always an interesting one. As Danilova explains in an email exchange, ‘the Russian mentality is set to resist any hint of rose-tinted glasses. Our way is to hit the bottom so hard that you see stars.’ I ask about toska, the Russian form of despair beyond depression, sadness and melancholia, and how it relates to copium: ‘Toska indicates a realm where irony doesn’t work anymore. It is always a post-ironic state of disillusion. Irony is still a form of copium, as the meme world demonstrates. In the toska state of mind, one cannot hide behind it anymore. Copium can therefore be put aside as a frivolous Western affair, with still too much hope between the lines.’ Russians, we might say, subsist in the realm of post-copium: a continuum of culturally determined despair. As a dialectical antithesis, one could propose that it is precisely copium that prevents the cultivation of suffering and the ultimate establishment of death cults.
According to Italian theorist Franco Berardi, in analysing the West, we should consider the unsinkable Donald Trump as an addictive (social) media celebrity, a political copium of a peculiar kind:
Americans, in their majority, have so far used that repellent individual in a move to sabotage the globalist elite. But now there is something more crazy. The American mind needs to cope with the persistence of intolerable reality, so they open up the box of Pandora of total erasure of reality as Rational, unleashing a limitless sphere of memetic meaninglessness. The sphere of meaninglessness is not limited by plausibility, not to mention trustability or truth. The question for many is thus how to cope with the depression provoked by the limits of reality, by the predictability of rational choices.
While politics is often pushed aside as soap opera or a bureaucratic game, popular figures themselves are turned into copium.
Operation Find Lost Time
Once you’ve witnessed sudden mood shifts from anguish and mourning to outrage and anger as the core patterns that expresses discontent in society, ideological labels such as optimism and pessimism become interchangeable. The copium engine sits in the midst of all of this, right in the middle, making sure the pendulum never stops. In contemporary online culture, the happy emotions of ‘hopecore’ and the infinite doom scrolling ‘corecore’ mode co-exist. Both are forms of collective psychic armours to protect the precarious multitudes from a growing flood of disasters. While gurus, therapists, influencers, friends and parents believe in the power of positive messages, users that yearn for better times have learned to leave open all options: while hope might be a mental painkiller, a visit to the dark side can be equally uplifting. As both morale boosting talk and dank memes can quickly lose their impact and become disgusting, don’t forget the power of singing the blues.
In the end, copium is a way to bridge empty time, flat, never-ending periods that are no longer intense nor circular but stretched and repetitive. When life is a series of pseudo-events from the lives of others, time flies and nothing stands out. It may be counterintuitive to reintroduce and impose a waiting time for no good reason, but the rebellion against friction-free smoothness feels right. The decolonization of time is at hand: Operation Find Lost Time, overcoming stagnation fused with a never-ending stream of disasters to create an inflationary spiral. Remember, the long durée of the malaise and the temporality of crises are no longer opposites and have become a toxic mix. Better relax and do nothing special. The ontological shock isn’t coming. Instead, distributed forms of waiting are on the rise. Chilling together provokes. Expect a planetary call for a ‘strike on time’ soon.
For Cade Diehm from the New Design Congress in Berlin, copium is distinctly different to nostalgia, the cozy web and escapism. ‘They all have similarities, but copium itself is a derogatory description of delusion as cope instead of defeat. … Copium is like coming last in a foot race and thinking you’re winning. It’s a form of post-Trump HODLing. BAYC ‘gm’ and WAGMI, QAnon loser moms “awaiting the storm” any moment now: General Flynn and Q are coming in to drain the swamp next year. Nostalgia for last month. That’s the promise. It’s the intensity for power or control, filtered through nostalgia but super immediate. It’s not a desire for current affect, and it’s not a longing for something long past. It’s a denial of the immediate.’
Upsetting Silicon Valley billionaires and their start-up clone armies worldwide would be an easy strategy to disrupt the ever-growing demand for copium. Their invisible tricks include employing behaviour psychologists and other techno-magic tricksters. It has taken time, but mass vigilance tactics at the frontline of subliminal wars are understood by the multitudes – even if they will eventually be rendered useless. The aim now is to reverse the digital extractivist strategy of disappearing into the background to making infrastructure that is visible. Challenging power to fight it out in the open isn’t likely to be questioned. And if their influence can no longer be diffused, there will be no return to ‘normal’.
For Hannah Ahrendt, solitude meant solitary reading – while being with other authors. This is not how we perceive the current desolate situation. Copium is causing us to no-longer-be-there when the web of human relations unravels. Confronted with worldlessness, temporary lapses of absence may cause feelings of guilt, but the need to know has taken over. Indifference rulz, as David Kishik writes in Self Study: Notes on the Schizoid Condition: ‘Although I want to express my emotions, all I can report back is a gradual loss of affect, plus a growing sense of isolation. Is this what medieval monks called taedium vitae, a weariness that arises not from life’s burdens but from its crawling emptiness?’ This is the inner struggle for (tele)presence. It’s time to articulate the dialectics of the absent presence.
Accelerationists see the unfolding of the forces of digitization as a guarantee for the apocalyptic transition from this late-capitalist bourgeois society to cool socialism. Against the passive certainty of the collapse, there’s nothing more exciting and erotic than the energy of new beginnings that overcome the death cult. This is Hannah Arendt’s Lebensphilosophie: the liberating feeling of not having been here before and escaping the prescribed apathy, cynicism, paralysis and depression to act, again, historically.
What comes after boredom? Discover the power of self-organization to overcome the depleted self. Reclaim the social – it’s now or never. Action is the a-priori; the coming community will not be presented on a silver platter. Tactical media are a radical interruption of the historical continuity of platform domination and don’t need a wolf at the door to thrive. There are multitudes of urgencies. Listing them would be a mistake and bound to make one depressed. Best to run into an urgency of collective design: your very own collapse trouvée.
‘By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already ended. It ended every day for a century or two. It ended, and another ending world spun in its place.’ (The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, Franny Choi)