The Year of Magical Thinking

Viral manifestation logics imagine that everyone else is an NPC

Silence Has no Wings (1966)

In a year subsumed by grief — mass death, fascist overtures — several phatic idioms emerged, hollowly and narrowly delineating our protracted and unfortunate global situation. “New Normal” was one such euphemism, thick with inattention and irresponsibility, flatly and vacuously describing a year fractured by extreme precarity. Other idioms from this past year were less descriptive and more prescriptive, blithely grafted from New Age bric-a-brac. My algorithm was increasingly preoccupied with “manifesting” and “raising one’s higher vibrational frequencies,” offering up several new horizons of possibility in an unravelling world. On Instagram, my Explore Page was populated with pernicious aperçus such as “Your thoughts create your reality.” On YouTube, I would sift through video recommendations that took up how we, as a collective, were shifting and ascending from a 3D reality to a 5D consciousness. Elsewhere online, I began seeing angel numbers everywhere — recurrent 1s and 4s and 5s strung together, signifying variously, apparently, that my dreams or ambitions or whatever else I had long been pining after were on their way to becoming fully realized.

Underlying much of this magical thinking were quantum mythologies suggesting that there were infinite dimensions one could interpolate oneself into through sheer thought alone. That is, one’s present reality and desired reality could exist in tandem — it was simply a matter of “aligning oneself vibrationally” with the reality one most desired to experience. By using the “law of attraction” or “law of assumption,” one could “manifest” a reality in which they were happy, healthy, wealthy.

While idioms such as “New Normal'' attempted to productively suture ideals such as “resiliency” and “a sense of togetherness” as an empowering rejoinder to 2020’s innumerable extraordinary crises in the reproduction of the everyday, the literature I was slowly absorbing on “manifestation” instead privileged some seductive, alternative brand of transcendental Cartesian egoism as the antidote to everyone’s problems. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and Abraham-Hicks’ self-help mysticism were no longer merely only esoteric relics of the mid-aughts, cherished squarely by boomer Oprah stans and desert spiritualists. Woo-woo was resurfacing and being remediated into the mainstream.

It was Ariana Grande on “Just Like Magic,” and Precious Okoyomon’s “Fragmented Body Perceptions as Higher Vibration Frequencies to God.” Woo-woo was naturalized and absorbed into politics as well, comfortably situated on both the right and the left. It was the QAnon Shaman, sure, errant and unhinged; however, it was also a demonstrably lucid and entrancing Marianne Williamson.

By 2020, optimism — and its inverse, pessimism — were both beginning to feel so outmoded. No longer as affectively or spiritually percussive as they once were throughout the turbulent 2010s, what were both perceivably dominant affects in our culture (as tracked by, for example, Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism) were now being dislodged by some new(er) affective topos. Magical thinking of the sort sustained by quantum logics appeared to absorb the conditions of optimism and pessimism, all the while rejecting the conditions of optimism and pessimism’s attachments to neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, magical thinking flagrantly refused to participate in the conditions of “reality” altogether.

Perhaps magical thinking as a mode of feeling through the present emerged as a response to the perceived atomization of the everyday; perhaps it emerged as a function of something else entirely. Last November, I attended a panel hosted by The Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto called “The Unfinished Business of Cruel Optimism: Crisis, Affect, Sentimentality.” I was anticipating that the panel might attempt to loosely reformulate Lauren Berlant’s configuration of  “crisis ordinariness” or “crisis ordinary,” which they critically track throughout their illuminating monograph Cruel Optimism, published in 2011. In Cruel Optimism, “crisis ordinariness” situates “crisis [as] not exceptional to history or consciousness but a process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what’s overwhelming.” Optimism, they argue, is an affective structure cathecting us inextricably to neoliberal hang-ups such as “the good life” — an enduring fantasy devoid of any sense of reciprocity, unable to fulfill the seductive promises that it offers. Cruel Optimism constellates around scenes and subjects moored exactly to this mood, compressing choreographies of desire to numerous genres of wading through the contours of a precarious present in which crisis ordinariness is deeply encoded.

Revisiting Cruel Optimism nearly a decade after publication, Hua Hsu’s 2019 New Yorker profile of Berlant argued that the stakes of their thinking around optimistic attachment should be read against the grain of the affective atmosphere of the 2010s, which he describes as a comparatively optimistic time. As Hsu points out, “The book was published at a moment when Barack Obama could still credibly draw upon ‘the audacity of hope.’ [...] The Occupy Movement, which began in September, 2011, could be seen as a response to the cruel optimism of capitalism, the pent-up outrage of citizens realizing that they’d been chasing nothing more than a dream.” When I first began thinking and feeling my way through this piece, I wondered how one might endeavour to take the “affective temperature” of the 2020s (a phrasing I borrow from Sianne Ngai). I was beginning to sense that this period might be structured by “crisis extraordinariness,” which, although not exceptional to history, certainly did feel to some extent exceptional to consciousness (at least 3D consciousness). While “The Unfinished Business of Cruel Optimism” — a title marrying Cruel Optimism to another of Berlant’s books, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality — did not directly attempt to arrive at an answer to this question, the panel did touch on a few germs and threads from Berlant’s next book, at least some of which appears to be preoccupied with “living at the limit.”

Magical thinking, perhaps, may be one such symptom of living at the limit. Magical thinking subordinates everyday experience, moving past the territory of optimistic attachment into something more brazen and feverish. Magical thinking — of the quantum-fantasmatic variety I’ve recovered algorithmically throughout this past year — is what happens when a subject vigorously aspires to be ejected out of this world and into the next; dislodged from the 3D, into the 4D, 5D. Magical thinking is not what happens when you are feeling optimistic about where you are situated or where you could be situated within some neoliberal capitalist plot. It’s what happens when you’re feeling done.

Done-ness, as a mood — which magical thinking absorbs and refracts (“I’m done being broke, so I am going to mobilize quantum mechanics to manifest a jackpot lottery win,” “I’m done being single, so I am finally going to manifest ‘My Specific Person’”) — in many ways, is consonant and contemporaneous with the affective ecology of the 2010s, whose aspirational logics were aestheticized through, for example, phenomena such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP and the proliferation of a wellness-industrial complex which demanded that we “always be optimizing.” However, where in the 2010s (and every decade prior under capitalism) our aspirations were aesthetically contingent upon our participation in and construction of “intimate publics” — what Berlant forges in The Female Complaint as “‘[spaces] of mediation in which the personal is refracted through the general,” sites where individuals can rejoice in community with others “through participation in the relevant commodity culture” and “experience [...] social belonging” — magical thinking in 2020 instead took up hyper-individualism as its dominant preoccupation, as opposed to capitalist collectivity.

Manifesting, by and large, is a single-player sport. Most of what circulates online concerning how to manifest emerges largely out of the work of New Thought philosophers from the early to mid-20th century — American writers such as Neville Goddard and Florence Scovel Shinn, who mobilized biblical scripture in order to cast the argument that life as we know it is merely only a simulation, and that every individual around oneself is simply a non-playable character. To New Thought philosophers such as Goddard and Shinn, neither hustlenomics nor securing the bag were proprietary to neoliberal capitalism — getting what you want, seemingly, boils down singularly to your state of mind, the sheer vibrational force of your imagination. In order to believe in the full powers of manifestation, one has to foremost think that they are indeed the only person who exists, and that the world around themself is simply a mirror reflecting and reaffirming their self-concept — or as Goddard frames more simply, “Everyone is you pushed out.” However, instead of being reassuring, this sort of postulation makes me feel existentially insecure. If you are the only person who exists, why would anything — even, and especially manifesting — matter at all?

By reproducing the logic of intense individualism that undergirds all neoliberal capitalism, by suggesting that the foremost person who matters — let alone exists — is oneself, manifestation logic captures one of the contradictions of our “current moment.” That is, manifestation claims to fully eject us from the present by abolishing reality altogether, and yet operates on a hyperbolic individualism which undergirds not just neoliberalism, but racial capitalism itself. Magical thinking thus simultaneously avoids and replicates everything it wants to leave behind. Magical thinking is not interpolating us or ascending us into some fantastic, fantasmatic future. Magical thinking only offers us a time capsule of the present.