Prophecies for 2023
All my visions will soon come to pass
You might remember that I started this thing not so long ago by proclaiming that the internet was already over. Before I wrote all that stuff down, I tried to explain the concept to a few friends, and all of them looked at me as if I’d gone mad. No, they said, obviously it’s not going anywhere. But I ignored them, and said that it would be ten years, maybe five, until the entirety of online became completely culturally irrelevant—and I think the last four months have shown that I was actually a little too cautious. In that time, Twitter revealed that its most active users were vanishing, before the entire website suddenly became the plaything of the single most embarrassing one that remained. One of the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchanges was revealed to be an enormous scam. The Atlantic reported that ‘Instagram is over,’ and the New York Times announced that ‘Luddite teens don’t want your likes.’ They’re reading books instead. I’m not saying that nobody was talking about this until I did. I’m just saying that I have the holy curse of prophecy, and all my visions will soon come to pass.
Predicting the year ahead seems to be an annual ritual on this platform. People like Matt Yglesias will wite lists of things they expect to happen, with each item followed by a confidence interval. Gunk Sclugmond (R) will win the Nega-Idaho runoff election: 70%. The volume of photolithography machines produced by ASML Holding N.V. will fail to surpass its 2022 record: 80%. I will eat over 100 eggs: 90%. The world must have some use for its Matt Yglesiases, these earthworms of thought, with their dutiful attempts to be more accurate than a coin flip—that sometimes even succeed—but this is a pretty sorry end for the grand tradition of gaining knowledge about the future. Once we had prophets and oracles and dreams.
These prophecies are different. They were arrived at through a combination of trend analysis, astrology, ideological dogma, guesswork, malice, and chance. They will subtly contradict themselves and each other, because the future is always contradictory. This is the shape of your year.
Donald Trump will die
Donald Trump will not be the presumptive Republican presidential candidate by the end of 2023. Instead, he will be dead. This is not a metaphor. I do not mean that his primary campaign will splutter out. I am not saying that his poll averages will decline. I mean that he will die: that his big wet sock of a heart will flop about one last time, and then stop. Small sparks of electricity will continue to pulse through his brain for several minutes, and it’s possible that the dead Donald Trump will continue to have some kind of subjective experience that the merely living can never understand. But meanwhile, the fat around his organs will congeal. His skin will go grey, and then green. As the bacteria in his gut start digesting him from the inside, pockets of gas will accumulate in the cavities of Donald Trump’s corpse. Later, he will be perforated by quiet worms, our apex predators, the only true winners in this world. It will probably happen on the toilet. Some people will laugh about it, and other people will pretend to be affronted and tell them to have some respect for the dead, and maybe a few will insist that it didn’t really happen at all, that Donald Trump is still alive, somewhere, doing his important work under an assumed identity in a bunker on the far side of the world. At his state funeral, which will be held this year, the cadaver’s old political allies will squabble and self-promote, and in fifty years or so his will be just another name in a long list of names of dead men for schoolkids to forget.
If Trump makes it to April, he will be 77 years old, which is the average US life expectancy. (When he took office, it was 78.5.) He weighs 244 pounds, and while he is also 6 feet 3 inches tall, this is still (crucially) shorter than me, and also short enough to make him clinically obese. Every day, he drinks a dozen Diet Cokes, and eats two hamburgers, a bucket of fried chicken, and a pint and a half of cherry vanilla ice cream. He believes that exercise is bad for you, since the human body comes with a finite quantity of energy, and the more physical activity you perform, the more you run down your stores of life. He is dying. He will die.
This is not to say that all the other stuff isn’t also true. Whatever strange genius once settled on Donald Trump, it’s now evaporated. His insults are flabby now. In December, he teased a ‘MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT,’ which turned out to be that he was selling a line of Trump NFT digital trading cards. For $99, you, the consumer, could buy one of 44,000 digital tokens of an image of Donald Trump’s face Photoshopped onto a stock photo of a cowboy. By the end of the month, secondary market sales had fallen by 98% from their peak. What Trump has lost is any remaining potential. In 2016, he was all potential, something impossible and unthinkable: what if this guy actually won? He could make his pitch with a very simple question: ‘What have you got to lose?’ Trump was the big red button marked ‘fuck everything up,’ and in 2016 a lot of us were interested in pushing it. But you can’t push that same button twice. We know exactly what it does now: it produces a long high-pitched whine, a few acts of gratuitous cruelty, and nothing else. In a way, he was right: he had a finite amount of energy, and now it’s been depleted. A human body that has fulfilled all its potential, whose actuality is identical with its possibly, is a fully decomposed corpse.
Young people will grow old
In 2023, the TikTok teens—the ones who wear dangly cross earrings and say things like ‘on God’—will all turn 25. Obviously this is hideously old and indicative of some deep moral failing. Their lifecycles have essentially completed; they will have to live out the rest of their biological existence as irrelevances, spare flesh, discarded by the vast social Tophet-machine that takes in the young and processes them into the carrion we call youth. In 2023, the oldest of the post-Zoomer cohort will turn 13: the age at which girls start getting preyed upon by adult men in the street, and everyone else starts getting preyed upon by people 25 and older terrified of becoming uncool. In 2023, a new breed of children will be asked to start producing mass culture for old people.
I can tell you what this will look like, if you want—but as I’ve explained previously, it doesn’t matter. Aesthetic Catholicism is out, aesthetic Quakerism is in. Hiking wear is out, linen is in. Visibility is out, disappearance is in. Guitar music will still be in. Veganism will edge imperceptibly towards out. There will be another bad child poet that adults pretend is good. There will be another creepily produced child activist who tries to raise awareness of something. (My guess: deadly cyanobacteria blooms.) And there will be another psychotic youth guru, who will obviously be worse than the last.
A few years ago, we got rid of Jordan Peterson because he was a misogynist. As if that would fix it. Last year, the same hunger for instruction that Peterson had once vampired off gave us a far worse, far crasser figue. I am thirty-two years old and even I couldn’t pointlessly extinguish my own life online without some algorithm serving up the hideous chinless face and gulping gimpy intonations of Andrew Tate. I don’t breave air because I’m rich. If you breave air you’re a pussy. You don’t have what it takes to make money. You suck in the same air that children, li’uw fucking children, get for free? You drink the same wor’er as every other loser? Do you really think billionaires, real Gs, are inhaling that shi’? It’s likely that Andrew Tate will now spend the next chapter of his life in a Romanian prison, so what’s next? How much more moronically reactionary can we get? Where is there left to go?
In 2023, we will go back to the very first tutor, the tutor of the youthful god Dionysius: Silenus, oldest and drunkest of the satyrs. The fat jolly spirit of the wine-press and lazy fly-buzzing summer days—but his wisdom is cold. The story goes that Midas, king of Phrygia, set out to hunt the satyr in his forests, and when the god had been run down and bound, he demanded to know what was the best and finest thing in life, the greatest luxury. The standard question of every lost, coddled boy: what should I want? Silenus, the happy daimon, replied:
Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this—to die soon.
This year, the wisdom of Silenus will appear as two-second clips of a teenage girl screaming into her camera. ‘KILL YOURSELF! KILL YOURSELF! KILL YOURSELF! DIE!’ They will be inescapable, and millions of grown adults will insist that she is the most important thinker of our times. Once she’s inevitably banned from all the platforms, her followers will start projecting her onto major world landmarks. Enjoy. Enjoy this world you made.
It will be a cold, cruel winter
I felt it in the growing gloom at three o’clock in the afternoon. It never used to get dark so early. It never used to snow in London before Christmas. As it turns out, I’m not wrong; the days really are getting shorter. In 2022, the network of atomic clocks that produces Coordinated Universal Time recorded the shortest day ever, 1.59 milliseconds under 24 hours. This winter will be a bitter one. It will hang heavy over the doorposts, and the strikers will accept half of what they need. In the summer, the atomic clock scientists will hold another press conference, kick their shoes, and mumble that somehow, in the slog and slush of winter, we’ve all lost an entire week.
The Year of Canetti
You might have noticed, over the last few years, that everyone has started talking about Ivan Illich. The people who used to talk about Deleuze and Foucault and Mark Fisher and Rosa Luxemburg are talking about Illich instead. The people who used to talk about Lasch or Chesterton or Burnham are talking about Illich. The people who used to just talk, without namedropping anyone in particular, have started making an exception for Illich. He formed the core of a small group of newly trendy thinkers, along with Jacques Ellul and René Girard, that everyone suddenly started talking about, as if they’d all been sent a secret memo and you weren’t on the list. This is your memo. In 2023, they’re all going to stop, and start talking about Elias Canetti. The age of anti-political institutional critique, in both its left- and right-wing articulations, will soon be over; people are tired of fighting the tyranny of the experts or the structural oppressions that undergird everyday life. It will become deeply passé to worry about the unchecked power of the medical establishment, the dogmas of academia, and what they’re teaching children in schools. You don’t know it yet, but the culture wars are over: nobody won; we’ll all just give up and go home. In 2023, the object of critique will shift back towards the mass populist enthusiasms that tried to confront the institutions, which all failed or degenerated, and which are all disappearing. (We communists will go back to being a weirdo intellectual minority. And you can expect to hear a lot less about the supposedly cool kids of the ‘New Right’ this year.) In other words, Canetti will become trendy at exactly the point when he is no longer relevant. This is how these things always work.
My edition of Crowds and Power is 495 pages long. If you start reading now, you just might finish in time to join in before they all move on to someone else.
You will not hear of wars or rumours of wars
The war in Ukraine looks like a consumer war: the videos from the Donbass instantly relayed to all you rubberneckers online, the sudden self-appointed OSINT experts geolocating piles of rubble, sagely frotting against various types of self-propelled howitzer. I could do what they do and maybe not embarrass myself. Ukraine will recapture Vaskylivka by March of 2023, and Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk by May. But what really distinguishes Ukraine is that this is the first major conflict to climb out of Baudrillard’s pit.
We expect the world to be tactile and responsive; we expect to be told that the things we say are important and they make a difference. We want a call to action. Our galaxy will collide with Andromeda in two billion years – here’s what you can do about it. But this is the action of another country with an independent foreign policy, brutally pursuing its own geopolitical interests, not a product marketed to the viewers at home. An actual bona-fide event, existing outside of our frenzied little discourse.
In 2022, there was a significant effort to assimilate this actual event to discourse. At the start of the year, a group of artists stood on the balconies of the Guggenheim in New York and threw hundreds of paper planes into the atrium below. This performance piece, they explained, was ‘to draw attention to the Russian war in Ukraine.’ As if more attention would somehow change things. They said they wanted a no-fly zone, but what they really wanted was simply to do something. The no fly zone was vaguely remembered as what we could have done in Syria, but unaccountably failed to do. A kind of grand geopolitical No Smoking sign: we decide that the Russians can’t fly their dinky Sukhois over Ukraine any more, and if they do it anyway, they’ll be breaking the rules. By the end of the year, we finally learned that there’s simply nothing to be done: no managers you can call, no important role you can play. In 2023, the war in Ukraine will continue, but it will also disappear. It will join Yemen, and Tigray, and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Myanmar, and Kivu, and all the other conflicts fought in the dark.
But at the same time, there are weird intricacies to the current war. Russia is still paying transit fees to the Ukrainian government to pipe Russian gas through its territory. Russian and Ukrainian managers still cooperate extensively to keep the network running. This new kind of invisible conflict is capable of mysteriously evaporating whenever other ends are in play. And this is not unusual: even during the height of the civil war in Syria, you could still get a bus from Damascus to Raqqa and back; civil servants in ISIS-occupied zones were still receiving their state salaries. Thomas Pynchon’s Zone-Herero saw something like this in the wreckage of Nazi Germany:
There doesn’t exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as the light you’re afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away—there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding. This serpentine slag-heap he is just about to ride into now, this ex-refinery, Jamf Ölfabriken Werke AG, is not a ruin at all. It is in perfect working order. Only waiting for the right connections to be set up, to be switched on… modified, percisely, deliberately by bombing that was never hostile, but part of a plan both sides—‘sides?’—had always agreed on…
Elsewhere, Slothrop has the same afflatus. ‘What appears to be destruction is really the shaping of railroad spaces to other purposes, intentions he can only, riding through it for the first time, begin to feel the leading edges of…’ In 2023, we will all have a similar break. War in general will not just pass out of the consciousness of media consumers; this year, it will even pass out of the consciousness of the people directly involved. War as contest and antagonism between groups will cease to exist. But the destruction, or the obscure reshaping of the world through violent chemical reactions, will continue.
We have already reached a state of Kantian perpetual peace: states do not declare war on one another. (The only recent exception is Azerbaijan.) But Kant borrowed his phrase, Pax Perpetua, from a Dutch innkeeper’s ‘satirical inscription’ above a picture of a graveyard. The state of perpetual peace and common purpose is indistinguishable from unlimited atrocity.
You will be eating fufu
Nigerian food is next. Casual-dining Nigerian-fusion chain restaurants, carefully calibrated to be non-threatening to white people, like Wahaca but for West African food, with chatty glossaries on the back of the menu to explain what ogbono and egusi are, maybe a little note saying that yes, you really do just eat it with your hands. ‘Grab your fufu and get stuck in!’ Fela Kuti on the playlist. Rattan, but not in like a colonial way. Fine dining is there already. Akoko is great. Ikoyi is great. I haven’t been to Papa L’s yet but I hear good things. You just need to move it a few notches downmarket and you can conquer the world. It’s a really good idea. If anyone actually does this I swear to God I’ll sue.
Art will retreat from the present
You’ve noticed that almost every piece of serious cinema today is a period piece. Something about the present feels unrepresentable, or at least unrepresentable in film, or at least unrepresentable in a film that’s also trying to be good: basically, nobody wants to sit in front of a screen and watch other, fictional people sitting in front of other screens. You can’t make movies about the age of the phone. So you set your films in the eighties instead, or the eighteen hundreds. There are surprisingly few exceptions. Tár managed it, sort of, but only because it had already suckered itself to another non-cinematic medium—music—which works on a distinct enough level to make all the shots of phone screens and Gmail inboxes bearable.
In 2023, other forms will start to trace the same path. Literature will exhaust itself of chirruping autofictions and neurotic diaspora memoir. It will have no more use for books that try so hard to bear witness to their times that they’re already meaningless by publication date. The alt-lit revival, pouty lowercase poetry, unplotted stories about people who mope around New York swiping right and talking slightly too much about God—an obvious dead end. There have been plenty of honest efforts, but this stuff simply does not work.
The solution—at least until the internet finishes its death throes, and possibly beyond—will be to medievalise: the cultural counterpart to economic neofeudalism. In the plastic arts, the most interesting and lively form in 2023 will be mosaics. Music has been there for a while, abandoning both the common-practice tonal system and modernist serialism; see Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. But medievalisation does not mean simply imitating some of the decorative motifs of medieval art, or adopting a vaguely pastoral, precapitalist vibe. In The Bounded Text, Julia Kristeva explains:
The second half of the Middle Ages (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries) was a period of transition for European culture: thought based on the sign replaced that based on the symbol. A semiotics of the symbol characterized European society until around the thirteenth century, as clearly manifested in this period’s literature and painting. It is, as such, a semiotic practice of cosmogony: these elements (symbols) refer back to one (or several) unrepresentable and unknowable universal transcendence(s); univocal connections link these transcendences to the units evoking them; the symbol does not ‘resemble’ the object it symbolises; the two spaces (symbolised-symboliser) are separate and do not communicate.
The world of the sign that replaced it is ‘illusionary,’ in that it aims to directly reproduce the immediately perceptible. ‘It is programmed by a closed (finite), dyadic process, which, first, institutes the referent-signified-signifier hierarchy and secondly, interiorises these oppositional dyads all the way to the very articulation of terms.’ But that hardly matters now. This year, we will walk backwards through the same door which was first opened in the thirteenth century. The image will regain its magical powers. Fiction will collapse into folklore. There will still be a few hopeless dead-enders writing realist novels, and maybe even giving them awards, but the particularity of the present will be marked by a retreat from any attempt to directly represent the particularity of the present. Instead of illusionary narrative, weorc and gesceaft wæs tæcne þæs ungesewenlices. Ne recenness, ac legendas. Ne biliþ, ac idolas. Ne þæt neurotisc sceapen, ac deepe slæp endebyrdra tīma.
Þes winter biþ swiþe cald. Bidde fette me ofer þa frostas.