Friday, July 10, 2020

Book Review of "How to Know What's Really Happening" - Francis McKee (2016)

Living in Los Angeles with having two therapists and thankfully COVID ended my dead-end job for 5.5 years, all me and friends wanted to know was... how do we become our best selves, set ourselves up to not hate ourselves and our lives if somehow it turns out that's what we're used to? (Thanks Capitalism)

Anxiety/depression pushes those thoughts away and says, look at this excel spreadsheet, when including a car and your lifestyle and your rent, it costs you $125 a day to be alive, get back on that horse!

So that's the context in which I may have gotten a few art-focused self-help books on getting back into art, but I could never stop having one foot out of the door. I mean, it's great advice and all, but aren't I trying to one day get a cushy job of being an art consultant too? I'm supposed to be making my brand of kool-aid too!

Then I think about my friend Francis and his book "How to Know What's Really Happening" which has come back to me after being on loan for a few years and I wonder...

How does he deal with both sincerity of strategies, his own joy in research, and his own and others' mental health within an art world that perhaps is looking to be only decreasing in funding, increasing in MFA graduates as consumers, artists attempting to be global and relevant enough to translate it into further opportunities for themselves? The last thing I think he was actually trying to make was just another self-help book.

If you think that this is all just interesting tidbits stitched together, then I think it's similar to Maggie Nelson's "Bluets" or Harry Dodge's "The River of the Mother of God: Notes on Indeterminancy, v.2" which all make fascinating references so quick and accessible it hand it makes you wonder why you never get answers this quick when you actually try to Google something.

But there's also skeptical reviews of his book and so I also think that his cover should have warned the reader enough that you were not going to be able to get access to the information you may have been looking for in the first place. If anything, the amount of references and what you can glean from them is more like a time capsule than a little red book that you can wave in the air and memorize to join a movement.

I'll spoil the 'ending' for you just so that you maybe can enjoy the book on another level other than seeking answers because Francis McKee is a trickster of a very high level (and last I heard it's out of print so I don't feel so bad posting pages from the book up on Instagram...):

How to know what's really happening:

Question 1: Describe one of your most viewed YouTube clips and talk about what in it appeals to you.
Question 2: Who is your favorite historical figure and why?
Question 3: Who is your favorite fictional character and what draws you to this character?
Question 4: What would you do if you were a magpie? (Of the Corvidae family, one of the only animals that's not a mammal that can recognize itself in the mirror)
Question 5: Outline a scenario for your ideal trip.

And then he proves his metrics Must be worth something because it's the same questions used by Fortune 500 companies, NASA, Oxbridge entrance interviews... So if that irony is lost on you, do know that it's not a joke at your expense, it's more of a self-deprecating joke where perhaps we all lose, so it's not just you... solidarity!

In many ways this is a book about dispelling the myths of greatness into bite size chunks.

Don't think you'd understand artsy books like Finnegans Wake? Francis glibly has it down to a few sentences. Want to hear a bunch of strange but true stories about Science (with a capital "S")? Then this is the next best read after the 'Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat'.
I think this book sits next to Paul Preciado's article "Learning from the Virus" because when it says to leave your phone and its tracking behind, McKee ends his by saying "I have decided to leave my baggage unattended" (both the sign of the privilege to travel where the curse is that Capitalism is making Everything look the same and GPS/wifi means you can never be lost again, but also that when we follow the official rules and regulations we are casually supporting that system by being a rule-follower of sorts)

I also think that he's contemplating books like adrienne maree brown's "Emergent Strategies: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds" as well as Ross Birrell's "Justified Sinners" as the kind of books small enough to pass around friends who may be familiar with all of the references but it's nice to have it all in one concise package.
But unlike those two I think he deliberately side-steps the elephant in the room of "but what activist actions produce lasting change?" in order to have exactly those kinds of thoughts;
because he knows that if you, the reader, does not actively update any kind of information into the lens of one's actual, current context, it is just some kind of virtue signaling or only taking in stories for their seductive aesthetic. The book itself is like a Socratic method littered with false entry points to prove a point.

I feel like this book would look at Adam Curtis' HyperNormalization' and say, how exactly do we know that we're better than or not in the disinformation times of the Soviet Union? And then perhaps it would also slyly point out that the film doesn't quite have a favorable view of women...

There's this idea from Jonathan Crary's "24/7" that kindof says "Garbage in, Garbage out" and it tries to get at the low quality of the stream of information we think we need, but where that book says to SLEEP, this book says to have patience, to step further back. Maybe you'll never be able to stop the onslaught of information, maybe because you're not supposed to... maybe you can render it powerless in another way that starts with how you alienate corporations instead of people...  (words taken from Emaline from 'Workshopping Work Beyond Capitalism' assembly)

Maybe we just don't actually know how to respond to the actual abundance that is online as if you're part of one gigantic single mind!

(Francis McKee is pulling from people commenting on other people's Facebook pages, unpublished films where you can see snippets of it on You Tube, and probably a snapshot of 3 months worth of articles from places like Science Alert, Wired, and the occasional tabloid newspaper/magazine. There is sheer abundance if your essays don't stick to whatever you can access via JStor)

You might wonder, who reads the drivvel that comes out of 'The Sun', 'Mirror', or 'Express', but then shouldn't we be asking ourselves how do we really differentiate the stuff we don't take seriously, and the stuff that we take so so seriously. And what if there is something bigger at play here, could pulled quotes from publications called 'The Sun', 'Mirror', or 'Express' actually be meant as a tarot reading? (The book he wrote after this featured tarot)

This little yellow pamphlet might be like an inside joke as a whole, but in the space between the bibliographical references it's got real things that the author themselves lives by, runs organizations by, and that the book has been written by.

Want specifics of what I mean (in terms of how the book is written in the spirit that it is inspired by?)
- He gives a neat history of Mass-Observation (the archive) while the book itself is a quirky archive of whatever was in the news in 2016.
- He talks about a guide-book to know "what's going on" can't really be 'out there' (and therefore not even in his book) "We have reached a point here where the search for what is happening no longer concerns the outer world. It's now the inner realm, the weather in our head, that we must learn to

In between the lines this book assumes that protest is necessary, and that maybe the best "skill set" may be to know how to come back to yourself when all of the information threatens to make you feel inadequate. I think it's a 'meta' reading/action, like the moment you grab this self-described self-help book, you realize that to take it in on your terms you're sharpening your skills in spotting Neoliberal rhetoric, questioning the source that assumes self-aggrandizing individualism (like being 'Woke'), and noting that the lip-service-strategies proposed to eventually deal with climate change aren't going to help us nearly enough when it comes to climate change right now (Lookin' at you Biden). It assumes that we are living our greatest challenges to our lives and need to know that there isn't a message we can buy into, nor can we get away with publishing self-help books (or COVID resource packets or Instagram life hacks) ad nauseum. It's a darkly funny proposition of 'What do we doooo?' and one of his responses is to look at those who thought the world was going to end, and well... I guess since the government murdered them, the world kindof did. But hey you're reading this and you're alive, and you thought a book titled "How to Know What's Really Happening" would be somewhat enlightening, so why don't You figure out how has one person's activity of 'Listening' turned into a book that seems like it's about nothing?

This book is perfect reading for a laugh when trapped in purgatory for eternity, nothing is funnier than reading "the year 2016" when time no longer exists.

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