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Paris and the New Terror: A Metamodern Malaise

23/11/2015 12:16 GMT | Updated 22/11/2016 10:12 GMT

I wasn't going to write about the Paris attacks. There seemed to be no appropriate words. There was only the deep resonant silence of shock and grief, the conventions of regret, solidarity and the reaffirmation of life. Other people were saying these things better than I could ever hope to; people who had lost loved ones, eye-witnesses and reporters on the ground. It seemed right not to speak when it was so important that their voices were heard.

In the past week, the people of Paris have carried on with their lives, showing a solidarity that is the only pragmatic answer to this situation. When such devastation occurs, consolation must come through connection with other people, with family, friends and strangers. These strangers might be our neighbours, or strangers who might be coming to our countries in search of refuge, in flight from daily occurrences of terror elsewhere in the world. But events like this have also implanted the fear that these strangers might not just be families like ours, hoping to find a safe place to raise their children, but that they might be waiting to detonate hidden devices in our backyards.

One fear that arises in the wake of such attacks is that the boundaries between "us" and "them" will become blurred. People are afraid of the integration of an enemy who is no longer distanced, but might be living in the flat upstairs. Someone we knew from school might have turned against us, become so disaffected that they wish to destroy us. This strikes at the very heart of our identities, our way of life. It is almost incomprehensible that our childhoods might have nurtured an enemy, exposed to the same influences as us, overlapping our footsteps. It is too close, too much of a threat given our fragile relation to the cultural factors that have shaped us. The chances of this happening are pretty low, yet fear is running high. Often, over the past week, I have seen people writing about this in a way that is reactionary rather than deconstructive, that ricochets between the various fear-traps erected by the media and popular culture. So I am not writing about the Paris attacks themselves. My words are superfluous there. Instead, I am writing about the struggle that people are undergoing to navigate a path through a new mood that has been evolving in the West since 9-11: a consciousness that is alienating to the individual and feeds on that sense of alienation. A consciousness constructed from opposites. A metamodern consciousness. A metamodern malaise.

Just like 9-11 and 7-7, the Paris attacks have moved us a step deeper into a climate of distrust. Distrust of figures in authority, distrust of one another and distrust of ourselves, makes this mood one of the most insidious dangers of those currently posed. Yet it is part of a much wider current mindset that permeates western culture in general, by which we experience disconnection from politicians, sources of news, other cultures and minority groups. Fuelled by irresponsible media reporting, it has bred a sort of trance-like state, a numbness in the public that results in the rise of parties such as UKIP or the failure of registered voters to turn out at the polling booths. It has created a culture of victimary thinking, a sense of anxiety, stasis, ignorance, arrogance and fanaticism. We are being bombarded by so many contradictory sources and reports, that the modern state of mind is one of confusion and overload. No wonder people feel vulnerable. They don't know what to think and they no longer trust their instincts. No wonder they are turning against each other, locally and globally. In 2015, we are intellectually and emotionally vulnerable in an unprecedented way.

Philosophers have been playing a game of semantics in the past decade, trying to find a suitable name for these times. In the 1990s, when we began to look back at post-modernism, a more optimistic mood emerged, with a resurrection of "hippy" values and the crusades of ecowarriors. There was also a sense of neo-sincerity, a genuine rejection of post-modern cynicism, a sort of post-irony phase that popped up intermittently in the pre-9-11 world. But the events at the World Trade Centre marked a sea-change in popular culture, forcing us into a metamodernity of opposites, propelling us back and forth between information and misinformation, sincerity and irony, engagement and detachment, love and terror, hope and fear. We are caught between these dichotomies: belonging to them as well as being placed uncomfortably between them.

It is too simple to say that we just carry on. Of course we carry on with our lives and do not let the terrorists win: we celebrate life and live it to the full. A happy, full life is the only preparation for death, whenever and wherever it might come. Reasonable precaution should be taken, especially when intelligence identifies certain likely targets. But there is more here. There is the concatenation of recent events: the sense that, in conjunction with the way we now experience reality online, things are speeding up. Paris might have been the most well publicised terrorist attack lately but it certainly was not the only one. A quick search online can reveal lists of the numbers of such incidents carried out, or foiled, around the world in the last twelve months. There has been an acceleration of these random, surprise strikes and the increasing loss of life. The Global Terrorism Index for 2014, just published by the Institute of Economics and Peace, shows that 32,658 people died from incidents related to terrorism in the last twelve months alone; a rise of 80%. This escalation makes it feel that we are on the verge of something apocalyptic.

Acts of terror have an undeniable effect upon the way we perceive and interact with the world. Everyone has had to adjust to it, consciously or not. We can't just keep calm and carry on: this isn't the 1940s. Nor is it the 1970s when the IRA bombers were aiming for an independent republic and ceased their campaign when the English Government involved them in talks. There is no negotiation with someone who is prepared to blow themselves up. We need to recognise that our next generation will be raised without any frame of comparison to this disturbing zeitgeist. For them, this is simply the way the world is. We have a responsibility to look this evil fully in the face. We need to understand how this has come about.

I have no answers to this situation. Many of the military solutions being posed by the current heads of state disturb me. I was born in the 1970s and I no longer recognise this world as the one that I was born into, the one that shaped my values. I fully accept that this is my problem: I need to adjust my thinking, because this is the world in which I must live. I feel a sense of disconnection that I suspect people are experiencing all around the world, regardless of age, gender, country and culture. It is something that we must all take with the utmost seriousness, to look this alienation in the face and seek the causes of it, and to counter it with empathy, understanding and love. That is the only way we can fight and defeat it. Paradoxically, while these atrocities are being committed by people who feel themselves to be "others," others are in fact the most valuable support we have in order to build a sense of identity and belonging. Now is not the time to reject other people who are afraid and in need: now is the time to welcome them, to trust them and give them a home. Now is the time to reaffirm life and love, to show that we stand together amid this climate of fear, facing and deconstructing it from within, from a position of choice. It is from the warmth of strangers that we will find our stability again.