Altered Course

~ Do you ever feel like the world has already ended?

Like everything has already been set. Without your approval or acknowledgment. Predetermined from some estranged and impossibly far away source point in the past. Things were only ever going to play out this one way. That everything — everything since the Big Bang about 13 billion years ago got this whole show started — is just playing out now, rattling down pachinko pins and levers and slots to arrive at the only end there was ever going to be…?

Randomness and free will are illusions. Consciousness allows us apes an active window into the game’s recording on the ever-multiplying screen of reality, to point and laugh and cry, to ‘participate’, but not to alter the course of things.

The world is not over, of course, not yet. But its implosion is promised in its beginning, coded-in from that extraordinary, incepting explosion:


Idk. Weird imaginings. Useless thoughts? Perhaps.

After all, there is still so much FUN yet to be had…

Anyway, I wanted to write this musing about one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite bands. “Altered Course.” Not one many probably know; the song is effective in making me emotional without words, in letting me bask in its slow flow and ponder the whole of my life… including existential questions like the above.

“Altered Course” — by the band ISIS, from the album Panopticon

~ “Altered Course” was described as one “of the most emotionally engaging rock songs of a decade, or more”. This excerpt contains the transition from the introductory movement into the early crescendo.

Altered Course” is an instrumental track. It throws out an aura upon the listener, with drums leading, a steady hum of guitar backgrounding, ambient keys in the foreground, the bass carrying the back end of the track. The layers combine to form an emotional orchestration, constantly building, every cymbal crash spelling the listener to keep on. To get to the next passage, of the song and the album. The penultimate track, “Altered Course” is both a culmination track and a hype track, for everything that came before and for the transcendent album closer coming next in “Grinning Mouths.” It is one of my favorite songs.

To me, there is profound emotional qualia to the layers of any ISIS song, a post-metal band from Boston. In their drums and keys, basslines and long chords of nigh impregnable melodies, meanings, they make worlds. Something about “Altered Course”, about the whole album of Panopticon, feels as though it depicts something innate and inescapable and beautiful and terrifying about the human condition. To me. Something like entropy. Everything flows, everything ends. Everything is always ending. Think wabi-sabi, but in heavy metal form. {Maybe all metal is wabi-sabi…?}

The actual end of the world, or universe, is instrumentally carried forth by entropy via the second law of thermodynamics. Asimov already laid this out. To the discerning, the end of the world is truly wabi-sabi— an impermanent, ever-shifting, beautiful and tragic process. But only to us. This is just our observation, our little marked slice of time, as sentient beings. ‘The End’ is really the end of what? Our consciousness as a species. Us merely experiencing the universe. The universe was here long before us and will be here long after us. {so too will the Earth likely outlive us as well, though it has a predetermined expiration date, by way of our Sun having one.}

Hubble Space Telescope image of supernova 1994D in galaxy NGC 4526.

Thus, one can consider the Big Bang along the lines of an… ‘altered course.’ The universe was one way before the Bang — a big void of dark matter and silence? — and another way after. Its course was altered by matter and energy shifting states and expanding, starting the game. {Why’d this happen? Idk. God? Chaos theory?} Game A kicks off {We Are Here, somewhere} with a clock ticking; Game B coming after, with another clock, but one we won’t be around to see the duration of {most likely}. One with 5th-dimensional beings, awakening Star Children, teleporting around, through time and space? One with the return of the dinosaurs, reevolved onto a new planet where they discover fire instead of the simians? One with sentient music and unconditional love…?

Who f*ckin’ knows? For now, Game A burns and glows, with us living on a garden world and inside of screens, trading essays and jokes and pixels and memes, laboring away our time, listening to music, watching it all go down. Here we are in the middle of it all, laughing and lamenting at the absurdity of it all.

Here on June 3rd, 2021, I really wanted to just riff on “Altered Course”, do a little thinking and writing about what the song means to me. How I feel as though my own course has altered in life, how my material desires have frozen or dulled, replaced by such contemplations, useless or not… About how I no longer desire much of anything at all, tangibly speaking, and just want to … be a *good* person, self-actualize along the lines of companionship, creativity, morality, the helping of others in some small way before my time is done…

Yeah. All that. But I watched {consumed} a couple things over the past week, recently released gems from within the vast mediascape of our day. Two things I felt the ineffable need to write about.

  1. Bo Burnham: Inside (2021) — Netflix
  2. Can We Be Heroes Again? Confronting the Banality of Modern Evil (2021) — Like Stories of Old — YouTube

One is a Netflix comedy special from one of my favorite comedians; the other is a YouTube video about the moral complexities of our modern world, told through the lense of philosophical stories and characters, both fictional and non. Around 90 min. and 43 min., respectively.

I found both to be masterpieces. For different reasons, though they do share a common throughline. I’ll try to cut through to that truth with some words. Obviously, I highly recommend them both.

On “Inside”, former cleverly foul-mouthed YouTube wunderkind, Bo Burnham, returns from a five year hiatus from his musical comedy act. Trapped within his home through 2020 quarantine {like many of us}, he sets to passionate work {like few of us} on what would become a kind of opus for his young career thus far: a one-man show of emotional struggle and creative force, sung and filmed from the heart, from the inside of a painfully enclosed space over months and months. As a film, it is visually stunning, especially impressive considering the solo job and confined set he is operating in. As an act, Bo deals in the existential questions of our time and of his role — as both a comedian and person — and its efficacy in our modern world {or lack thereof}. What does comedy mean when the world is burning? How much can we really help each other? How much power does any one of us have? Was the Internet a mistake…? Like always, Bo’s hilariously catchy songs have messages layered within the gut laughs they summon.

Bo sings and speaks about the purpose of comedy as an art, American geopolitical consent-manufacturing, fake ‘woke’ corporate pandering, the predatory nature of social media and the wider enterprise of the Internet’s culture of feckless salesmanship, his own depressions and performance anxiety, white privilege and the terrifying reality of being isolated, helpless, trapped… inside.

“Inside” is a roller coaster of emotion, laughing and crying are both on the menu for the viewer. Inventive cinematography, stage direction and costumes — both effortful in outfits and effortless in his growing beard and Jesus mane — score this “comedy special” as something transcending the genre. There’s a lot more I could say about it… but why should I? Bo already said it all. You just need to watch it.

Can We Be Heroes Again? Confronting the Banality of Modern Evil” by YouTuber Like Stories of Old is a video essay on the idealism of heroism, the glare of banal, systemic evils, and the shifting landscape of philosophical responses to our modern world.

0:00 Introduction: Dreams of Heroism
7:38 Part 1: Organized Irresponsibility
15:41 Part 2: Carrying the Cross
23:03 Part 3: The Banality of Evil
31:09 Part 4: Reclaiming Morality

In it, the author speaks from stem to stern on some of the big problems of our world: poverty and income inequality, oppression and war, impending climate collapse. He questions whether or not we can any longer believe in *heroes*, or morality {outside of fiction}; he examines how “evil” becomes systemic and banalized over time, through global, abstract market forces and the greed they engender into power structures.

As with the thesis of “The End of History” circa 1989, as with the words to Howard Beale in Network (1976) — “We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies… The world is a business, Mr. Beale.” — a multiplying vision of the long-term future, an eventual evolution toward an invested focus upon life-preservation, or morality, in our modern world, all falls before profit. Business. That’s the end of the line. No matter to the externalities. No other possibility exists anymore. This is our world from here, forever. With problems like poverty and environmental destruction, a diffuse irresponsibility weights us. With every country’s companies and consumers doing their part to perpetuate such inequalities and degradations – ironically, lest they fall behind the competition. Business. Globalized, standardized, banalized – and it’s been cooking the planet and the people in more ways than one.

Truly, Like Stories of Old’s video is an articulation of the same old doomer story many of us have heard since we were born… or just since the dominating domain of social media infected us all. <Degrading global material conditions not being addressed by the political or institutional powers that be.> Cool, cool, cool. But I thought the author’s presentation and flow of the ideas, along with the cinematic imagery and philosophical quotations, made the communications beautiful, if still depressing.

Though seemingly preventable, it is true these cycles have been locked into place now for years by the systemic hydra heads of our world — corporate and governmental forces, the faceless ruling class — unwilling to act. Heroes have not arisen. Technology has not saved us. The same big problems remain. And with the Internet and mass information, with social media connecting us all, even if we are not yet experiencing them ourselves, we are conditioned into building awareness of the world and its many ills. We see the temperatures. We cannot look away from them, while the world revolves and systems and structures keep crystallizing, calcifying always along classes. The same slow burn maladies of inequality and oppression perpetuate; the can of social and economic reform gets kicked over and over. The climate shifts while oligarchs strip out the copper wire, damning future generations to crisis.

Eventually, with any chance of sincere revolution {ha!} buried, the (pseudo)solution to these problems becomes, as individuals increasingly isolated from our labor and from each other, simply to change our attitude about it all.

With the Big System firmly in place {let’s call it what it is: globalized neoliberal capitalism}, morality becomes individualized, out of necessity, in response to the failures of any alternative socioeconomic vision emerging and absence of an efficacious popular working class movement arising within our recent purview, past or present. ‘Capitalist realism‘ sets in. Say “cheese”, because this is the last stop for humanity. We are the Last Men.

In the meantime, compromised, less-than-ideal – yet practical – answers to this reality then originate from on high, from the institutions in power: Recycle. “Meditate the pain away.” Give part of your paycheck to a charity of your choice. Volunteer overseas to help build houses, to hand out food and water. Look at our rainbow logo! Happy Pride!, etc.

Morality, and more romantically, ‘heroism’, become co-opted by the Superstructure {the media, culture, arts} of our day to enforce this isolating maxim of ‘personal responsibility’ upon us as individuals. In lieu of those in power doing so, each of us are tasked to do the long work of “fixing the world” {one paper straw at a time}. In private and public sector, every major institution and brand’s marketing campaigns spit out the same messaging:

“We can change the world!” / “You can change your life!” And we want to help.

For the latter, western culture says it simply: You can change your life relentlessly pursuing your own self-interest, by accumulating material wealth, and thus, some power.

And today’s world can be changed as well… But not by collective political action, never direct action upon society’s means of production, i.e. “the bag“, e.g. striking, unionizing, civil resistance {which has been choked away by previous failures, modern propaganda, overwhelming police force… inevitably producing a reluctant lack of will within the modern populace}. Not even by voting, which in America is closer to fashion than true politics {beyond media narratives, systemically speaking, what ever changes when you vote for one party over the other?}

No, we can change the world by our choice of what to consume. What websites we go to. What companies to buy from. Voting for “sustainability” with our dollars and eyes. Choosing the corp with more socially progressive advertising rhetoric. Or through content creation and consumption. Through the discourse around it. Making a better world one inclusive Marvel movie, or epic clip of a woke streaming TV show, or progressive viral twitter thread “raising awareness” about an especially heinous cycle of oppression, immiseration and horror currently ongoing in our world… at a time.

“What are you waiting for? Get in front of a camera and speak your truth to power!” {..just make sure you keep buying and banking and believing!!}

Solipsistically, we change the world by changing ourselves.

Hell yeah. This is meaningful.

We change the world by paying in. By working out. Consuming media. Buying products. By creating content, consuming content. We change the world by changing our bodies, by changing our minds. By looking good, by changing our attitudes about what is happening around us in the world, we feel better — even if nothing else changes. Real, institutional, systemic change is not on the menu. {Revolution or reform, out of the question.} “Being on the right side of history” overrides trying to get together to make history. ‘Having the *right* opinions about the world’ becomes the end of the work, it’s all we have the energy for anyway. {back to brunch! finally…}

This is the {American} liberal vision of change and progress in recent years, politically speaking. As the dominant cultural mode of production, I think it is one we all tacitly abide. It has corporations as the major nodes of all economic – and interpersonal – activity. Doubtless, it is preferable to many potential alternatives {theocracy, fascism}. It is a stratified, hypernormalised world with the individual {the consumer} as the prime, centralizing force of all modern cultural and economic catering.

In effect, in the job of changing the world, in the task of… life: We are, each of us, on our own.

Society’ {and its suffering} is not something that can be controlled; only your own body and mind as an individual. ‘Society‘ — for the routinized, busybody human ant winding through suburban corridors, from home to work to church to Applebees, does not exist at all.

Take responsibility for yourself! / This is all very complex… / Shut up and get to work! / Hold faith in markets. We will outgrow the problems… / Vote or die! / Just raise a family, let us take care of the rest… / Hustle, rise & grind! Become an entrepreneur! / Stop complaining and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. / Believe in yourself and you shall succeed! / Look, this is unfortunately how the world works… / Shut up! Just leave me alone

Concisely, we know it’s all consent-manufacturing propaganda servicing the pulsing heart of the core American system: Capitalism, ever reliant upon us workers and consumers feeding the markets > upon relentless corporate-led, state-backed oligopolized resource extraction on every socioeconomic front, from the environment and the people > short-term profit incentives > increasingly speculative and extremified financialization > the prospects of infinite growth, etc.

We know. Awaiting any serious crisis, we can get by just fine knowing the tedious truth underneath it all. Even if we are barely thinking one generation in advance. Even with no positive vision of the future, we can still live today.

In effect, it is up to YOU to make sure your brain is set to deal with all this…
Hey guys, we’re running out of time here.
“Goodbye sadness!”

And so on. Alas, this is the despairing course we are on, the one that accumulated history up to now, with its normalized systemic mores and incentives laid upon us from before, the nightmares of dead and dying generations, originated and steadily altered since some source point in the 20th century or before, that we can barely remember in books, let alone feel within our hearts or minds, born after all the really important decisions were made. Some call it “The End of History”, others may call it The Sixth Extinction.

As we are currently organized within society — as a mass of strangers shopping online — we are powerless to alter any of it. Get real. {If we are even thinking about any of this, our position in society or history… you nerd!} All this, to my eye — this philosophy of self-improvement as the master value of our day — is, in effect, a coping mechanism. It is cognitive dissonance. An escape from our own ineptitude. Distraction and discourse, all while the clock runs out and the planet heats up…

As the author of Like Stories of Old subtextually elaborates upon {as Adam Curtis lays out in pretty much all of his documentary work as well}: individualization is empowering, but misses what makes us human.

Dances with Wolves (1990)

That is *community.* Social relations, social bonds. Connection to our co-workers and our work together, our survival together on this world. Collective action. Communal, interdependent ‘morality’, in whatever way we can come into cooperation and make it happen for us. Conscientious collective concern for family and strangers alike, for those we know and those we don’t know, for the community as a whole. A cohesive focus upon more equitable flows of resources, upon alleviating meaningless sufferings. With it, an end to wars, prisons, borders, exploitation.

An ingrained ethos of personal responsibility for us individually, sure – but what about systemic self-discipline, some kind of homeostatic self-governance, a degree of self-regulation, an embrace of the consequences and a sense of self-responsibility from our systems set to extract and grow without end, trampling life and limb like an untreated cancer. What about investments into life and not just for returns on investments?

I think we fail to realize our interconnections, and so we fail to see the real solution to any of our problems: Each other —  mutual cooperation  —  sharing our world, sustaining it —  seeking human well-being afore profit

Yeah. Yeah right.

13 billion clicks out from the Bang and what kind of world have we built?

How might we alter our little course onto this more favorable philosophical ground?


Well, this is just my perspective. I quietly advocate for something like socialism when we can’t even overcome racism. I am aspirational and biased {naive?} by my own life and with my worldview. My words are just that: words.

Well, no. Not just from me; solidarity comes to me from Bo and Like Stories of Old.

They speak on it and struggle with it, too. {Do you?} Bo skirmishes with all the same stuff, and sings upon it in “Inside.” ~ “Healing The World With Comedy” made me smile; “Hands Up (Eyes on Me)” nearly destroyed me.

Food for thought. Thank you for listening to my rant, I guess.


So, how do we alter course?

All together. Or not at all. ~