Out of Focus

by Chris Horner

There’s a widespread belief that the world is really run by dark forces, or hidden actors we cannot see or know, but which operate like puppet masters somehow ‘behind the scenes’. On this view, only by a painstaking piecing together can we arrive at the truth about what is really going on. So we get conspiracy theories about New World Orders, Illuminati, Qanon and so on. Yet things are quite otherwise. Most of what you need to know is hidden in plain sight: all the conspiracies are open ones and the way the world runs is open to our gaze. The problem is that they are in front of us, but out of focus.

There are some things we know, and somethings we don’t know. Some things we see and acknowledge, and some things that remain hidden. But strangest of all are the things we see and know, yet somehow cannot see. We unsee them [1]. Obvious, commonplace things, like objects too close to a lens that are out of focus. Staring us in the face, they sit in plain view, but still unseen. They are disavowed along the logic of ‘I know this very well, but still, I do not know it’.

The things we ‘unsee’ come in various degrees of obviousness, but the range is not great, running from the unmissably obvious to that which requires just a little reflection to get into sharp focus. Here are a few examples, in no particular order, from the country I live in, but which apply quite widely:

  • We are supposed to live in a democracy. This means something like rule by the people. However, what decides who runs the government is who has the money. There are political parties, but they run on the same basis – money. This has the effect of ensuring that it is the moneyed who have their interests taken care of. Most either vote with a sense that nothing will change or don’t bother to vote at all. We all know this, while continuing to use the word ‘democracy’ to describe our political system.
  • I live in a rich country: the economy, despite recent shocks, is awash with cash. Yet there are people sleeping in the street a few yards from where I write this. I practically step over them to go down the street. The homeless have become an accepted part of the furniture of the street; meanwhile we have grotesque levels of inequality: the rich have got even richer in the last few years.
  • We stand for human rights, freedom and the rule of law.  We are also an ally of, for example, the Saudi Arabian regime, that chops off heads, promotes terror, and denies democracy. We supply it with the weapons and logistical support to wage a barbaric war in the Yemen that kills small children. 
  • We have free speech, yet the main organs of the media are privately owned by the very rich, who do not welcome news or views that do not conform to their world view, which are therefore denied a voice.
  • Our soldiers have killed families in Iraq and Afghanistan with impunity, while we hound and imprison the people who have made these crimes publicly visible (Assange, Snowden, Manning)
  • White skinned refugees are welcome; brown skinned ones less so.
  • Climate catastrophe is not soon, but is happening now (some people have begun to notice this)

If this is ideology, then it isn’t the kind that promotes a false consciousness. It is one that allows us – most of us, much of the time – to unsee: to disavow the things that are blindly obvious. And this is dangerous, because such a denial has real world consequences. Like the repressed, the disavowed produces symptoms: trauma and crisis, when people can no longer tolerate the contradictions between what is in and what is out of focus. I claimed at the outset that what we know is on the surface, and that is true. But to be moved to do other than unsee we need more than steady gaze on the obscene reality before us. For the surface, the appearance of things, should invite us to think. How did commodities becomes the rulers of our world? When and how did we lose the treasure that the enlightenment offered us – autonomy, freedom? For that we must look, think and act.

[1] I take the word and the idea from the marvellous novel The City and the City by China Miéville: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_City_&_the_City