Boredom in the Mind: Liberals and Reactionaries

“Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

“A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions.”

That is another great insight from Corey Robin, as written in his New Yorker piece, Eric Hobsbawm, the Communist Who Explained History. Boredom does seem key. It is one of the things that stood out to me in Robin’s writings about the reactionary mind. Reactionaries dislike, even fear, boredom more than almost anything else. The rhetoric of reactionaries is often to create the passionate excitement of melodrama, such as how Burke describes the treatment of the French queen.

The political left too often forgets the power of storytelling, especially simplistic and unoriginal storytelling, as seen with Trump. Instead, too many on the left fear the populist riling up of the masses. I remember Ralph Nader warning about this in a speech he gave in his 2000 presidential campaign. There is a leftist mistrust of passion and maybe there is good reason for this mistrust, considering it forms the heartbeat of the reactionary mind. Still, without passion, there is no power of persuasion and so all attempts are doomed from the start. The left will have to learn to fight on this turf or simply embrace full resignation and so fall into cynicism.

The thing is that those on the political left seem to have a higher tolerance for boredom, maybe related to their higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance shown in social science research. It requires greater uncertainty and stress to shut down the liberal-minded person (liberal in the psychological sense). I noticed this in myself. I’m not prone to the reactionary maybe because I don’t get bored easily and so don’t need something coming from outside to motivate me.

But it might go beyond mere tolerance in demonstrating an active preference for boredom. There is something about the liberal mind that is prone to complexity, nuance, and ambiguity that can only be grown amidst boredom — that is to say the open-mindedness of curiosity, doubt, and questioning are only possible when one acknowledges ignorance. It’s much more exciting to proclaim truth, instead, and proclaim it with an entertaining story. This is problematic in seeking political victories, if one is afraid of the melodrama of hard fights. Right-wingers might burn themselves out on endless existential crises, whereas left-wingers typically never build up enough fire to lightly toast a marshmallow.

The political left doesn’t require or thrive with a dualistic vision of opposition and battle, in the way does the political right. This is a central strength and weakness for the left. On the side of weakness, this is why it is so hard for the left to offer a genuinely threatening challenge to the right. Most often what happens is the reactionaries simply co-opt the left and the left too easily falls in line. See how many liberals will repeat reactionary rhetoric. Or notice how many on the political left turned full reactionary during times of conflict (e.g., world war era).

Boredom being the comfort zone of liberals is all the more reason they should resist settling down within its confines. There is no where to hide from the quite real drama that is going on in the world. The liberal elite can’t forever maintain their delusion of being a disinterested aristocracy. As Eric Hobsbawm understood and Karl Marx before him, only a leftist vision can offer a narrative that can compete against the reactionary mind

* * *

“Capitalism is boring. Devoting your life to it, as conservatives do, is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.”
~William F. Buckley Jr., in an interview with Corey Robin

Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals

The last thing in the world a reactionary wants is to be bored, as happened with the ending of the ideological battles of the Cold War. They need a worthy enemy or else to invent one. Otherwise, there is nothing to react to and so nothing to get excited about, followed by a total loss of meaning and purpose, resulting in dreaded apathy and ennui. This leads reactionaries to become provocative, in the hope of provoking an opponent into a fight. Another strategy is simply to portray the whole world as a battleground, such that everything is interpreted as a potential attack, working oneself or one’s followers into a froth.

The Fantasy of Creative Destruction

To the reactionary mind, sacrifice of self can be as acceptable as sacrifice of others. It’s the fight, the struggle itself that gives meaning — no matter the costs and consequences, no matter how it ends. The greatest sin is boredom, the inevitable result of victory. As Irving Kristol said to Corey Robin, the defeat of the Soviet Union “deprived us of an enemy.” It was the end of history for, without an enervating battle of moral imagination, it was the end of the world.

A True Story

We Americans are trapped in a cage with a sleeping grizzly bear and a pack of rabid wolves. The DNC careerists hold the keys to the lock.

They keep telling everyone to speak softly and don’t make any sudden moves, for fear of being torn to shreds. When someone suggests they simply unlock the cage door so that we could all safely step outside, they calmly explain that the danger is real but that we need to consider other options first before we go to such extremes.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump punches the bear in the nose and flings his own poop at the wolves, while declaring there is no bear or wolves and even if there were he’d use his business superpowers to make a deal with them. The GOP sycophants defend his bravery in standing up to the libtards telling everyone what to do. Make the Cage Great Again, cheers some in the crowd.

The corporatist news media hacks, a mass of people between them and the now growling animals, with great self-importance fairly report both sides of the disagreement. Meanwhile, the morning talk show hosts halfheartedly debate whether bears and wolves are fake news. Then they cut to an advertisement for a new antidepressant: “Do you feel anxious? Ask your doctor about Xibuprex. Symptoms may include prostate reflux, toenail dysplasia, herniated itching…”

The American people huddle together in separate groups. With passive expectation, their eyes are glued to their smartphones. They watch videos of what is going on around them and scroll through their social media feeds trying to determine which side they agree with by liking the Facebook posts and retweeting the Tweets that align with their preferred ideology or identity politics.

The bear awakens from its slumber. The rabid wolves approach. The cage door remains locked. The crowd nervously shifts this way and then that.

Neoliberal Catastrophism

“It seems like there are an increasing number of areas where the discourse among centrists and liberals follows a fairly similar script. The opening statement is one of unbridled catastrophe: Trump is fascism on the ascendant march! Global warming will destroy us in the next x years! (I’m not making any judgments here about the truth of these claims, though for the record, I believe the second but not the first). The comes the followup statement, always curiously anodyne and small: Let’s nominate Klobuchar. How are you going to pay for a Green New Deal? Don’t alienate the moderates.

“All of these specific moves can be rationalized or explained by reference to local factors and considerations, but they seem like part of a pattern, representing something bigger. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Eric Hobsbawm for a piece I’m working on, but the pattern seems to reflect the reality of life after the Cold War, the end of any viable socialist alternative. For the last quarter-century, we’ve lived in a world, on the left, where the vision of catastrophe is strong, while the answering vision remains inevitably small: baby steps, cap and trade, pay as you go, and so on. Each of these moves might have its own practical justifications, but it’s hard to see how anyone could credibly conjure from those minuscule proposals a blueprint that could in any way be commensurate with the scale of the problem that’s just been mooted, whether it be Trump or climate change.

“I wonder if there is any precedent for this in history. You’ve had ages of catastrophe before, where politicians and intellectuals imagined the deluge and either felt helpless before it or responded with the most cataclysmic and outlandish utopias or dystopias of their own. What seems different today is how the imagination of catastrophe is coupled with this bizarre confidence in moderation and perverse belief in the margin.

“Neoliberal catastrophism?”

Reactionary Mind Is Not Normal

“To live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological transformations, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution. Anxiety in the face of this process is now a universal experience, which is why reactionary ideas attract adherents around the world who share little except their sense of historical betrayal.

“Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.”
~ Mark Lilla, Our Reactionary Age

What if we are all more reactionary than we’d like to admit? Related to that, what if we are all more splintered and dissociated as well?

We have this sense of knowing who we are, as though we are singular stable identities. And we defend those identities with ideology or rather with ideological rhetoric, a wall of language with metaphors as the sentries. It is easy to rationalize and narratize, to make coherent the divided self that plagues the modern mind. It makes me wonder that maybe none of us is as we seem. We look at people with serious personality issues and we might call them dissociated or something similar. But what if we are all disconnected on some basic level. If that is our default state, then it isn’t really dissociation for there is no other supposedly normal state to be dissociated from, no unified whole that only later becomes fractured.

I’ve observed those who can say something to another person, walk into the next room, and say the complete opposite to someone else. It’s an amazing thing to see for how naturally it comes. There is no sign of intentional deception or self-awareness. Of course, this is not so easy to observe in oneself. If one were doing the exact same thing, how would one know? Yet we are constantly splitting ourselves off in this manner, just to get by in this complex society. Who we are with family is different than when with friends. And who we are at church is different than when at work. Egoic consciousness (from a Buddhist, Humean, and Jaynesian view) is always a limited construct, not as grand and encompassing as it presents itself.

We are all raised in a society full of lies, half-truths, and just-so stories. When we are young and innocent, we might occasionally challenge authority figures in their dishonesty and deceptions, their self-serving explanations and commands. But the response of authority challenged is almost always negative, if not punishment then gaslighting. This creates each new generation of schizoid adults. Not every kid gets this kind of mind game to the same degree, but I suspect this is what happens to all of us in various ways. It’s the way our society is built.

The trickster quality of the reactionary demonstrates this. And it makes us feel better to accuse those others of being reactionaries. But maybe the reactionary frames everything, existing at the periphery of our vision at the dark, blurred edges of liberal idealism. We live in a society of instability and uncertainty, of stress, anxiety, and fear — the fertile black loam of the reactionary mind. That would explain why it seems so much easier for liberals and left-wingers to become reactionaries than the other way around.

In my gut-level hatred of this reactionary madness, I feel most judgmental of those who turn reactionary, especially those who should know better such as a well-read left-winger mindlessly repeating racist beliefs or a well-educated liberal obliviously being converted while following their curiosity into the “Dark Enlightenment”. It’s sad and frustrating. I can sympathize for the lost souls on the right who were simply born into a world of reaction. They don’t know better. But when those most aware of the dangers of the reactionary mind are lured into its temptations, it further chips away at what little hope I have remaining for humanity. It makes me worry for my own mind as well, as I sense how overpowering reaction can be when one is immersed in it.

Our intellectual defenses are weak. That is what makes the reactionary mind flourish under these unnatural conditions of capitalist modernity. It must be what it was like in the late Bronze Age when the first authoritarian leaders arose in the growing empires. There wasn’t yet the rhetorical capacity among the population to protect against it, as would later develop in the Axial Age. Millennia later, in this ever increasingly reactionary age, authoritarianism grows worse as its rhetorical skill manages to stay one step ahead. We are inoculated only to the reactionary mind as it expressed in the past, ever expecting it to repeat the same way with the Nazi brownshirts goosestepping in the streets.

Corrupt power is what it is. Filled not only with authoritarians but social dominators, psychopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellians. Those people, for all the problems they cause, are a miniscule proportion of the population. They could not rule, could not cause damage if there weren’t those who could be manipulated, riled up, and led to commit horrors upon others… and then the intellectuals and media hacks who come along to rationalize and normalize it all. This is why I fear the reactionary mind, the sway it holds even over those not explicitly reactionary. This is why we desperately need to come to greater self-understanding. Even simpleminded fools like Donald Trump are able to seize power and play us like fools, only because the reactionary mind has seized the entire political establishment and body politic with the grip of a heart attack. The kindly pseudo-liberal reactionaries of the Democratic Party are no better — if anything, far more dangerous for their masked face.

Still, maybe there is a hint of hope. When looking at some other societies, one doesn’t see this kind of full reactionary dominance. I’m particularly thinking of more isolated tribes maintaining their traditional cultures and lifestyles. The example I often turn to is that of the Piraha. Daniel Everett noted how they lacked any evidence of stress, anxiety, depression, and fear of death. And along with this, there was no expression of authoritarianism and social dominance. I’ve pointed out elsewhere that traditional communitarian societies, if they were to survive, could not tolerate psychopathy as we do in such careless fashion. We modern Westerners are far too tolerant of this threat, as if we believe we are above it all. That is a dangerously naive attitude.

Related to this, in understanding human nature, the diversity of identity indicates there is much more we don’t understand. Many hunter-gatherers don’t have rigid ego boundaries, don’t have permanent unitary selves, don’t have a sense of individualistic isolation from others and from the world around them. They aren’t divided, splintered, fractured, or dissociated. An open and loose embrace of a complex psyche is their natural way of being and maybe it is the default position for all humanity. Our carefully constructed egoic structures are rather flimsy, not a great foundation upon which to build a civilization. No wonder we are in a constant state of fear and anxiety, ever worried about the whole thing collapsing down around us. We are without the calm confidence found among many indigenous people who know their place in the world, know they belong without needing the authoritarian control of a clenched fist nor the rhetorical sleight-of-hand of a demagogue to keep everyone in line.

The reactionary mind may be the norm for our society. But it is not normal.

* * *

Let me leave some brief commentary on Mark Lilla and Corey Robin, the two main scholars on the reactionary mind. They are correct to place nostalgia as the taproot of this phenomenon. Lilla is also right to link it back to early thinkers like Plato who reacted, as I see it, to both Athenian democracy and the ancient poetic tradition. But he is wrong to separate the reactionary and the conservative, a mistake Robin avoids.

But I’d argue that Lilla and Robin are further missing out on how the reactionary is linked to the liberal, two sides of the same paradigm. All of these co-arise. The reactionary isn’t only a counter-revolutionary that is only found after the revolution for the leaders who co-opt revolutions typically are reactionaries, from the likes of George Washington to Maximilien Robespierre.

Some conservatives seek to distinguish themselves by identifying as ‘classical liberals’, in the hope of separating their identity from both progressives and reactionaries, but they fail in this endeavor. For one, many of the classical liberals were revolutionaries, as some were reactionaries, since liberalism as a paradigm has been a mix right from the beginning, even in terms of looking to its precursors in the Axial Age.

To demonstrate this confusion of ideological rhetoric, Mark Lilla himself in reacting to the failings of the liberalism he hopes to defend ends up turning to reactionary nostalgia. So, when even a scholar seeking to defuse the reactionary bomb falls prey to it, you know that it is potent stuff not to be handled lightly, even for those who think they know what they’re doing.

* * *

In conclusion, here is my alternative view as an independent. There is something I’ve never seen anyone acknowledge. This is my own insight.

Some see it all beginning with the French Revolution and Edmund Burke’s response. But it’s a bit complex, since Burke himself was a progressive reformer for his era and belonged to the ‘liberal’ party. His reactionary stance came late in life and yet this never led him to abandon his former left-leaning positions. He was a liberal and a conservative and a reactionary, but he was no revolutionary though he initially supported the American Revolution, only because he hoped for progressive reform. The standard story is that reaction was the counter-revolution following revolution. That doesn’t quite make sense of the facts, though. To clarify this, look to the French Revolution. The Jacobins, I’d argue, were reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries.

They were reacting to the old authoritarian regime of French monarchy but not to eliminate rigid hierarchy for they used the same tactics of oppressive violence to defend their preferred hierarchy, precisely as Corey Robin describes the reactionary agenda. It was a power grab and unsurprisingly it led to an even greater anti-democratic authoritarianism. And they were counterrevolutionaries fighting against what the American Revolution had unleashed. The radical and revolutionary social democrat Thomas Paine, we must remember, sat on the right side of the French National Assembly opposite of the Jacobins. The French Revolution didn’t begin with the Jacobins for they only managed to co-opt it long after it had started. They were counter-revolutionaries within the revolution.

I’ve come to a more complex view. I tend toward the theory of Robin. But I don’t entirely agree with him either. My present assessment is that conservatism is the reactionary and the reactionary is simply the other side of liberalism. It’s all of one cloth. They co-arose together (and continue to do so), going back to the precursors in the Axial Age. This puts the liberal in a less comfortably righteous position. There is no liberalism without the anxiety and hence nostalgia that leads to reaction, and conservatism has nowhere else to stand except right in the middle of the chaos.

This comes to a breaking point now that ‘liberalism’ has become the all-encompassing paradigm that rules as unquestionable ideological realism. Reactionary conservatism can offer no alternative but destruction. And liberalism can offer no response but defense of the status quo. So, liberalism becomes increasingly reactionary as well, until there is nothing left other than reaction in all directions, reactionaries reacting to reactionaries.

That is the final apocalypse of the ideological worldview we take for granted. But apocalypse, in its original meaning, referred to a revealing. Just as revolution once meant a cyclical turning that brings us back. Reaction, as such, is the return of the repressed. This is far from nostalgia, even as we have no choice than to carry the past forward as society is transformed. The reactionary age we find ourselves in is more radical than the revolutions that began it. And what, in our projections, is reflected back to us flatters neither the right nor the left.

It’s an ideological stalemate for it never was about competing political visions. All rhetoric has become empty or rather, to some extent, maybe it always was. It never meant what we thought it did. We find ourselves without any bearings or anchor. So we thrash about on a dark sea with a storm brewing. No sight beyond the next wave looming over us, casting its cold shadow, and ready to come crashing down.

* * *

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter

The Ex-Cons
by Corey Robin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry

Wrong Reaction
by Alex Gourevitch

Why reactionary nostalgia is stronger than liberal hope
by Carlos Lozada

The Shipwrecked Book: Mark Lilla’ Nostalgic Prison
by Robert L. Kehoe III

The Revolutionary Nostalgia That Gave Rise to Trump – and ISIS
by Shlomo Avineri

Is a Conservative Crack-Up on the Horizon?
by Samuel Goldman

“…just order themselves.”

“Walking through the Montreal airport, my 10-year-old observes: “It’s interesting how people, without any signs or directions, just order themselves. It’s almost like they mindlessly work together.”” That was shared by Corey Robin, on Twitter (ignore the fact that airports do have signs and directions, the point being that people who regularly take flights at a particular airport don’t consciously need to pay attention to the signs and directions, as a driver on familiar roads can get to their destination on mental automatic mode). To which David Crespo responded that it “reminds me of what Herbert Simon said about complex behavior coming more from the complexity of the environment than the complexity of the agent.”

Crespo then points to a passage (from The Sciences of the Artificial), ending with this conclusion: “We watch an ant make his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach. He moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dune let, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. […] It is a sequence of irregular, angular segments — not quite a random walk, for it has an underlying sense of direction, of aiming toward a goal. […] He has a general sense of where home lies, but he cannot foresee all the obstacles between. He must adapt his course repeatedly to the difficulties he encounters and often detour uncrossable barriers. His horizons are very close, so that he deals with each obstacle as he comes to it; he probes for ways around or over it, without much thought for future obstacles. It is easy to trap him into deep detours. Viewed as a geometric figure, the ant’s path is irregular, complex, hard to describe. But its complexity is really a complexity in the surface of the beach, not a complexity in the ant.” That is to say behavior exists within environmental constraints. A simple but profound observation. And often forgotten.

Let me put it into a different context. The ego-mind with its thick isolating boundaries of hyper-individualism, the post-bicameral Jaynesian consciousness of self-authorization (“…just order themselves,” as Robin’s kid observed) — this has never fully taken hold. It’s more of a story we tell ourselves than anything else, not to dismiss the power of stories in constructing social reality nor to dismiss the potent realism of its all too real consequences.

The closest we have to self-aware willpower might be Benjamin Libet’s veto power, that is the inhibition of volition. Not free will but free won’t. Still, that doesn’t tell us the source of inhibition, even as an action being vetoed elicits what is subjectively experienced as consciousness. A point not to ignore is that consciousness doesn’t seem to emerge until that moment of volitionary crisis, when two aspects of self come into conflict. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue. We simply go along, following our routines and scripts, automatons of learned behavior and heuristics.

It’s easy to miss the significance of this. We have no way of pulling back the curtain of our own mind to see what, if anything, is acting behind the scenes. Even probing into the brain can’t pull us up by the bootstraps into this aspirational ideal of self-understanding. Libet simply points to the moment of consciousness as it emerges, in medias res. If nothing else, this demonstrates what we are not, whatever it may or may not say about what we are. The mystery remains (see Conal Boyce, “Recovering from Libet’s Left Turn into Veto-as-Volition“).

We are in the territory of embodied mind and extended mind, of situated cognition. We live in a world of hyper-objects that are cast as shadows by collective hyper-subjectivity, a reminder of other modes of being (such as what Timothy Morton calls entangledness: “Knowing more about hyperobjects is knowing more about how we are hopelessly fastened to them.”), modes of being that if not acknowledged become demonic as forces of nature (e.g., climate change). We are immersed, not standing outside peering in. Some of this is discussed by Patrick Grim in his lecture “Thinking Body and Extended Mind”, as part of The Great Courses’ Mind-Body Series:

“The core of [J.J.] Gibson’s theory of perception is that we don’t perceive objects and don’t operate cognitively in terms of representations. What we perceive, what any animal perceives, are what Gibson terms affordances.

“Squirrels don’t see trees, represent them internally, and calculate how to climb them. What they see is something more immediate and more action-oriented than that. They see a way up. That way up, the thing Gibson says they really see, isn’t an object, but an affordance.

“We don’t see a door hinge to the right, a knob, and calculate that we can get out of the room by turning the knob. We see something much more immediate and much more action-oriented than that. We see a way out. That way out isn’t an object, but an affordance. For Gibson, a mind in the world operates in terms of those performances…”

Ah, a way out. That is a funny phrase, one that caught my attention in a book by Anke Snoek, Agamben’s Joyful Kafka. Although already familiar with Franz Kafka’s fiction, Snoek gave me new perspective (Kindle Locations 358-375):

“Kafka’s ideas on imprisonment, catastrophe, freedom and ways out are not as simple as they might seem on the first reading of, for example, The Trial . The short story ‘A Report to an Academy’ provides further insight into the type of freedom that Kafka had in mind. The hunting expedition of the Hagenbeck Company captured an ape. To train him, they put him in a very small cage on the company’s steamboat, a cage that was too low for him to stand up and too small for him to sit down. At the same time the sailors tormented him. The ape realizes that if he wants to live he has to find a way out. But he does not contrast his distressing situation with freedom: ‘No, it was not freedom I wanted. Just a way out; to the right, to the left, wherever ; I made no other demands ’. 24 The way out is not directed so much to a specific goal, i.e. freedom or return, but is simply a way out.”

This relates to Giorgio Agamben’s notion of ‘gesture’. A gesture is not freedom but a confounding of systems of power and oppression. It’s important to be reminded that, according to Julian Jaynes, post-bicameral consciousness is not only the ground of individualism but authoritarianism as well. Once humans were shook loose from the bicameral mind, new systems of control came to the fore, both in controlling others and controlling the self.

This brings us back to what is doing the controlling. I’d suggest that the divine voices that once directed Bronze Age humans still direct us. The difference is that we internalized them and, in the fashion of Stockholm Syndrome, came to identify with one of our captors, a singular and monolithic egoic tyrant who rules the seat of our soul — that is to say we have been possessed and enthralled ever since. We aren’t free and can’t hope to be free, at least not on the terms of the demiurgic ego-mind. The best we can do is offer a gesture or rather become a gesture, the closest approximation to Libet’s veto power.

Maybe the only way to become truly aware of the self is by becoming aware of the world that surrounds us. The kind of culture and language, social order and environmental conditions, lifeworld and mazeway, reality tunnel and ideology —- however you wish to describe the world we are thrown into by circumstances of inheritance and birth — shapes who we are and how we think, what choices we perceive and how we act. As with the ant, we live moment to moment, not seeing the trajectory of our path from where we came from to where we are going. We are like the river defined by the contours of the land, meandering this way and that, damned up here and flowing over that way, but always heading in a particular direction.

Rather than simplifying down the human to the manageable size of ant-like, maybe this viewpoint has ended up revealing how complex we are in our immensity — far beyond isolated bodies and individual egos. The negative space between confining boundaries is not who we are. Instead, as water is shaped by what contains and directs it, we are the world around us; and as the water seeps into the earth, we are intimately a part of it and embedded within it. This doesn’t make us lesser but greater. The functioning of an airport is no less impressive than the building of a pyramid. Be amazed that we make it seem so simple in our mindlessly working together, somehow getting to where we are going.

* * *

Related Posts:

“Beyond that, there is only awe.”
Edge of the Depths
On Being Strange
Dark Matter of the Mind
Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature
Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond
The Psychology and Anthropology of Consciousness
Reading Voices Into Our Minds
Lock Without a Key
“How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.”
Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation
Making Gods, Making Individuals
Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral
Music and Dance on the Mind
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
Individualism and Isolation
Incentives of Individualism

Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter

First there was revolution. And then there was counter-revolution. Therefore, reaction follows what it is reacting to.

This is a simple analysis and, I’d argue, overly simplistic. It is the narrative reactionaries have been telling about themselves for a couple of centuries. It is also the narrative that Mark Lilla repeats in his recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind, which is a useful survey, summary, and synthesis of modern ideological history but not essentially original in framing.

The problem is the reactionary mind is not a modern invention. Many arguments could be made about when it first emerged. For example, I’d place it firmly in the Axial Age or, better  yet, in that earliest of dark ages when the Bronze Age civilizations collapsed and the Jaynesian bicameral mind was lost.

By the time Plato came up with his authoritarian republicanism as a reaction to Athenian democracy, the reactionary mind had already been developing for some time. That was the era when, as Julian Jaynes points out, lament rang out across many populations of the silence, loss, or abandonment of the divine. Nostalgia in one of its most potent form was born.

As with Corey Robin, Mark Lilla is right to mark out nostalgia as an expression of the reactionary. But focusing too much on that can be a red herring. Robin is better than Lilla in pointing out that reactionaries can co-opt almost anything, even radical utopianism or revolution itself.

That is where my own thoughts come in. The modern reactionary mind initially took shape not after the early modern revolutionary period but during it — maybe before it, depending on when one defines the beginning of that period. The reactionary mind as a modern phenomenon was well on its way at least by the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution, although some consider the Peasants’ Revolt an incipient form of this societal shift through conflict and class war.

The point is that the French Revolution was late to the game. That reactionaries finally found their voice following that is not entirely relevant to understanding the reactionary mind and its historical development. What the French Revolution does help us with is in showing another example of how reaction arose within the revolution itself, co-opting it as happened with the American Revolution (related to the rarely acknowledged fact that the American Revolution was a precedent for what followed, including large-scale destruction and violence).

Thomas Paine demonstrates the connections well, but his example also serves to show the complex relationship of reaction to revolution. He was a radical in the American Revolution and his radicalism was profound in its democratic vision. When he was welcomed into the French National Assembly during the French Revolution, he actually sat on the right side with the moderate reformers. It was actually his radicalism for democracy that made him moderate or aligned with more moderate forces.

What Paine specifically advocated was a democratic constitution and leniency to the king, rather than violent despotism and violent vengeance. The Jacobins are called radicals but in reality they were reactionaries or at least the leadership was. They were using the same means that the monarchy had used in enforcing power and silencing opponents. So, the Jacobins, as is typical with reactionaries, wanted to create a new and improved version of the old order by ensuring a rigid hierarchy remained. They weren’t interested in democracy, that is for sure.

That is what Mark Lilla misses. The French reactionaries, like the American reactionaries, took over the revolution through political coup — and this happened during the revolution itself, not afterwards. In France, it happened by the Jacobins seizing power. But in the United States, the Federalists did it through an ironically unconstitutional Constitutional Convention and then afterward they crushed the ongoing revolution.

The relationship between revolution and reaction is entangled. If this isn’t understood, it is likely that the reactionary mind itself can’t be understood. This creates a trap for the mind, in not understanding history we dangerously don’t understand ourselves.

Reactionaries aren’t limited to those other people, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”. The potential for reaction exists within all of us. A surprising number of Marxists, socialists, communists, and anarchists fell under the sway of early 20th century fascism. The same pattern is seen today with left-wingers who almost unconsciously become fascinated with or drawn toward reactionary thought, often with the rationalization of studying the enemy but it is clear with some that it is more than mere curiosity. The reactionary mind is dangerous for the very reason we see it as something other.

The confusion in all of this is that the reactionary mind is chameleon-like. I’ve come to call them Faceless Men, based on Game of Thrones. Reactionaries rarely present themselves as reactionaries. That means that anyone, under the right conditions, can get pulled into the mindset without realizing it. Reaction is simply an expression of fear an anxiety, once it fully takes hold. The human mind gets weird under high levels of stress (Keith Payne examines one angle on this by way of inequality, in his book The Broken Ladder). It really is that simple.

We need to develop intellectual, ideological, and psychological defenses against the reactionary mind. None of us are born with an immunity. But before we can do that, we have to learn how to identify the pattern of thought and behavior, to discern its incipient forms and the development that follows, to recognize the conditions and causes that make it possible.

This leads to me to another thought. Philip K. Dick has the notion of God in the Gutter. Let me decontextualize it from the monotheistic tradition of deus absconditus. Any powerful ‘god’ that rules over us, over our minds our society, such a ‘god’ is always hidden. And its ability to remain hidden is what I call symbolic conflation, a method of deception, obfuscation, and most importantly misdirection. That is the source of its power. That is also what makes it hard to analyze. Someone like Mark Lilla is taking the reactionary mind at face value, how it presents itself. That is problematic for obvious reasons. Corey Robin is more effective in peeling away the mask to see what is behind.

That is what we all need to be doing in these reactionary times. Lets start rummaging around in the gutter, looking below our normal line of vision, looking through the garbage or what appears to be garbage. But let’s do so with great care.

Collective Amnesia About Collective Amnesia

At Harper’s, Corey Robin has a piece on collective amnesia, specifically among liberals. It comes down to the incessant march of lesser evilism that inevitably leads to greater and greater evil, until nothing is left remaining but evil’s total dominance.

Each shock of evil normalizes the evil of the past, such that we frogs are slowly boiled alive. Don’t worry, the liberal suggests relaxing in his warm bath, we will revolt later when it finally gets bad enough. But this attitude never allows for self-awareness of complicity, the denial of which makes inevitable further complicity for it is never the right moment to admit guilt, no matter how often in the past it was stated, Never again!

“Strong stuff, suggesting the kind of experience you don’t easily recover from. If such feelings of betrayal don’t overwhelm you with a corrosive cynicism, inducing you to withdraw from politics, they provoke an incipient realism or an irrepressible radicalism… You get to lose your innocence only once… But… American liberalism is also a party of the born-again.

“The United States of Amnesia: true to form, we don’t remember who coined the phrase. It’s been attributed to Gore Vidal and to Philip Rahv, though it also appears in a syndicated column from 1948. But more than forgetfulness is at work in our ceremonies of innocence repeatedly drowned. And while it’s tempting to chalk up these rituals to a native simplicity or a preternatural naïveté — a parody of a Henry James novel, in which you get soiled by crossing the Potomac rather than the Atlantic — even our most knowing observers perform them. . . .

“Donald Trump is making America great again — not by his own hand but through the labor of his critics, who posit a more perfect union less as an aspiration for the future than as the accomplished fact of a reimagined past.

“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.

“Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been warned against normalizing Trump. That fear of normalization misstates the problem, though. It’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized — it’s the not-so-distant past. Because judgments of the American experiment obey a strict economy, in which every critique demands an outlay of creed and every censure of the present is paid for with a rehabilitation of the past, any rejection of the now requires a normalization of the then.

“We all have a golden age in our pockets, ready as a wallet. Some people invent the memory of more tenderhearted days to dramatize and criticize present evil. Others reinvent the past less purposefully. Convinced the present is a monster, a stranger from nowhere, or an alien from abroad, they look to history for parent-protectors, the dragon slayers of generations past. Still others take strange comfort from the notion that theirs is an unprecedented age, with novel enemies and singular challenges. Whether strategic or sincere, revisionism encourages a refusal of the now.

“Or so we believe.

“The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing… [T]he rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended. That may not be a problem for Roth, reader of Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.” (Though even Beckett concluded with the injunction to “fail better.”) It is a problem for us, followers of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” “

I noticed this scathing critique earlier and was glad to see it. It came to my attention again because he mentioned it in his blog in connection to an interview with Brooke Gladstone. That interview is part of several others (with Max Fischer, Deb Amos, and Sinan Antoon) in response to the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War.

Maybe no new insight is offered, but at the very least it is an important reminder. Not only is there collective amnesia for, as a society, we keep forgetting how often our collective amnesia has repeated in the past. We don’t know what we don’t know partly because we keep forgetting what we forgot.

Corey Robin also writes at Crooked Timer. And John Holbo at that site wrote about the Harper’s piece. In the comments section, there is debate about whether Trump is exceptional and, if so, for what reason. Should we be surprised or shocked? And about what exactly? Beyond that, what is the right context for understanding?

The comments section is filled with people who, for all their disagreement, know political and economic history. But even with the above average commentary and debate, it felt dissatisfying. There was little discussion of the fundamental causes of human behavior, of what makes the human mind tick, of the social sciences and related fields. The focus was almost entirely on externals, except for a few comments.

To some extent, that is even my complaint of Corey Robin. It is common on the political left, that is to say almost as common as on the political right. It’s easier to focus on externals and, with politics, the distraction of externals is endless. But for this reason, we rarely touch upon root causes. Robin’s theory of the reactionary mind goes a long way to explain conservatism and the modern mind in general, including amnesia among liberals (not that Robin talks about the reactionary in quite so expansive terms). Yet this analysis can only go so far because it never extends beyond the history of politics and economics.

A few comments by the same person, Lee A. Arnold, comes the closest to stepping outside of this intellectual blindspot:

Polanyi, The Great Transformation chapter 20 characterizes fascism as a spontaneous emotional “move” arising from within individuals, and uses the political conditions only to discard them. It is not a movement that requires a vanguard or imperial aspirations. The ONLY thing characterizing the rise of fascism, in the dozen or more countries in which it arose, was the sudden failure of the market system…”

Fascism is a socio-emotional disease that is ever-latent but suddenly arises within individuals and overcomes enough of them to make political control possible. Elites do not stop it, because it the disease overcomes them too. It is a paradoxical move: it offers an “escape from an institutional deadlock… yet… it would everywhere produce sickness unto death.” (Polanyi). Whether there is an external threat or an internal threat or both, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same.”

The very recent spate of commentators (here, and elsewhere) writing that fascism has been avoided in the US (or even go so far as to write that it cannot happen) rely upon a misunderstanding of what fascism was, or take too large a comfort in a narrow diversion from it. That may not be good enough, next time. Far from being silly, I see this as Corey Robin’s basic point, too.”

I imagine that the intellectual confusion and dismissal was similar in the 1920’s-30’s. It’s interesting that today so many intellectuals think that fascism originated from outside the individual, as some sort of organized imposition of structure by a vanguard. So today, we will see it coming: “It can’t happen here.” (Or else they think that our current democratic institutions and media culture are strong enough and varietal enough to withstand it.)

“But the evidence is that fascism arose spontaneously within individuals. It’s almost a pure emotion in the anger & hatred quadrant. It suddenly swept up a lot of people into supporting “doing something”, to cut through the confusion and deadlock. Yet it emotionally disregards facts, logic, science, humane values. It’s not a political-economic form in the same category with liberalism, conservatism, capitalism, socialism.”

That is related to what Robin gets at. Fascism is simply one extreme variety of the reactionary mind. The reactionary is never constrained to the mainstream conventions of ideological rhetoric and political forms. That is because the reactionary, by definition, is the result of the failure (or perceived failure) of the mainstream project of social order.

Still, even this doesn’t dig deep enough. I end up getting more insight about what motivates politics and economics from those studying philology, linguistic relativism, social psychology, anthropology, cultural history, and consciousness studies. The failure of our society is better explained by the likes of Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary), Lewis Hyde (Trickster Makes This World), James Gilligan (Preventing Violence), Keith Payne (The Broken Ladder), Johann Hari (Lost Connections), Sebastian Junger (Tribe), etc.

These other viewpoints are more likely to offer insight about collective amnesia. The typical political and economic analysis might, in some cases, be part of the problem. Karl Marx who, in emphasizing material conditions, gets portrayed as a reductionist by his critics and yet he went beyond most on the political left by presenting what is called ‘species-being’ — as I described it:

“The basic idea is that what we produce creates a particular kind of society and shapes human nature. We produce the kind of person that is needed for the world we bring into existence. And so the kind of person that is produced is incapable of seeing beyond the social and material world that produced him. We build our own prisons, even as there is hope for us to build new worlds to inhabit and new ways of being.”

So what produces a social identity that is prone to such extremes of collective amnesia? I’m specifically referring to what manifests in our society at the seeming peak or breaking point of this post-Enlightenment liberal age (or, if you prefer, this late stage of capitalism). If we could make sense of that, then much else would become easier to disentangle.

“Historical consciousness can be a conservative force, lessening the sting of urgency, deflating the demands of the now, leaving us adrift in a sea of relativism. But it need not be,” concludes Corey Robin in Harper’s.

“Telling a story of how present trespass derives from past crime or even original sin can inspire a more strenuous refusal, a more profound assault on the now. It can fuel a desire to be rid of not just the moment but the moments that made this moment, to ensure that we never have to face this moment again. But only if we acknowledge what we’re seldom prepared to admit: that the monster has been with us all along.”

That is no doubt true. But stories are a tricky business. The challenge is, in order to understand the present, we need to understand the origins of modern civilization and the modern mind. Most commentary, even on the alternative left, isn’t up to the task. The same old debate continues, as does the collective amnesia. We are stuck in a loop, until something forces us out.

This is not only a lack of understanding but a lack of motivation toward understanding. A revolution of the mind must come first before a revolution of society can follow. That isn’t something we collectively are capable of consciously choosing. What will happen at some point is that our old mindset will entirely fail us and every answer and response we used in the past will prove futile and impotent. Then and only then will we, out of desperation, turn toward the unknown in seeking the radically new. That is how change has always happened, as one would know from studying the deep past.

Until that point of total breakdown, we will go on forgetting and we will go on forgetting what we’ve forgotten. Our entire social order is dependent on it. And at the edge of breakdown, the reactionary mind takes hold and comes into power. The liberal too comes under its sway. It is a sign of the times. But is it the Kali Yuga of the liberal world or the dawning of the next Enlightenment leading to a new revolutionary era? Is there a difference?

* * *

4/1/18 – Let me take a different approach. We are all born into this collective amnesia. And for most of us, our upbringing fails us and our education is inadequate. That was true for me.

As I became more serious in dealing with my own state of ignorance, I became ever more acutely sensitive to the pervasive ignorance that is the foundation of America in particular. Even if that is true of all societies to some degree, I suspect there is something unique about what has been referred to as America’s Fantasyland. The US, in being an extreme expression, potentially can help us understand what plagues most of humanity at this late hour in the liberal age.

It is my love of liberalism that makes me so harsh in my criticisms. I long for a liberalism worthy of the name. But first that requires us to look at what the reactionary mind reflects back to us. It does no good to simply dismiss those others as ‘deplorables’. What gets repressed and projected doesn’t really go away, related to how externalized costs eventually come due.

Corey Robin’s take on liberal amnesia, despite my concerns of certain limitations, resonates with something going on right now. Few seem to be paying attention, specifically not those who have their hands on the wheel or are in a position to take hold of the wheel. Some are asleep, others are texting, and still others are imbibing intoxicants… but I’m suggesting that someone needs to be at the wheel with their eyes on the road. I’m one of those crazy radicals who would rather prevent an accident than deal with the aftermath.

So, first we should all look up and look forward. Where are we heading? And is that where we want to go? If not, why don’t we change direction?

We see a monster in the rearview mirror and, not realizing we are seeing our own reflection, we keep our foot on the gas pedal. Off we speed toward disaster, driven by fear and forgetting that we are the driver. As a society, we never stop going — expressed in the quote used by Robin: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.”

On we go. No one can doubt that we are going somewhere and getting there fast. The wind in our hair and adrenaline in our veins can feel almost like progress, as if we really will outrun our monsters this time. Meanwhile, Trump the egotistic man-child is sitting in the backseat tweeting and asking, Are we there yet?

Writing a post like this is less about in-depth analysis than it is about capturing a mood. I’ve written plenty of in-depth analyses and they have their value. But studying a medical textbook on cardiology is not the same as feeling the beating pulse under your fingertips. In reading Robin’s piece and the responses to it, I could sense the flow of blood at the heart of the issue.

Right there, something can be felt. It’s like the tug of the undertow when you’re standing a few feet out in the ocean water. Viscerally, in that moment, you know the power of the ocean and how easy it is to be swept away. The whole dynamic of the debate is caught in that push and pull. So maybe the debate itself (as framed) can’t avoid that sphere of influence, that narrative attractor. Much of the commentary on the problem is caught up in the problem itself, related to how the reactionary is the other side of the liberal.

This is why the amnesiac can’t escape the condition of amnesia. It’s not something external, like a pair of clothes that can be taken off or a wall that can be knocked down. It is a loss of some part of the self but not really lost, just hidden and forgotten. But anamnesis, remembering of what was forgotten, remains possible… if we could only remember that there was something we forgot and why it mattered so much that maybe we shouldn’t have forgotten it in the first place.

Thinking too much about that, though, makes us feel uncomfortable and we’re not quite sure why. We convince ourselves, once again, that maybe things unknown are best left that way. In a moment of crisis, the memory of something touches the edge of our awareness and yet quickly slips away again. We busy ourselves with other things, the preoccupation of the present eclipsing what came before. That is what responsible adults do, deal with the issues at hand, right?

I like the ocean metaphor. The beach, where land meets water, is our society. The progressive and reactionary is the tide going in and out. This liberal age is the storm wall we built to protect our home. But that storm wall has the unintended consequence of slowly eroding away the sand that forms the beach.

I saw a real world example of this form of erosion. And it was stark.

There is this wealthy estate my grandfather grew up on, as the son of the head gardener. When he was a child, there was a beautiful beach that was part of the estate. And next to the estate is a public beach. The estate owners had a storm wall built which caused their beach to entirely disappear, while the public beach is still there. Only a few feet separate the private property from the public space, but the erosion stops right at the boundary line.

This form of privatization is very much of this liberal age. Before this era, feudalism had its commons. Some speak of the tragedy of the commons, but that is a lie. There was no tragedy of the commons as they were heavily regulated. Those regulations of the commons only disappeared when the commons disappeared. And what followed was the tragedy of privatization, as seen with private developers building storm walls.

It is as pointless to blame the tide coming in, the progressive, as it is to blame the tide going out, the reactionary. It is the storm wall, the liberal paradigm, that frames the action of the tide and determines the consequences. Building the wall higher and stronger to protect us from the worsening effects of storms won’t really save us or our home. Maybe it is time to consider the possibility that the storm wall is the problem and not the natural flow of the tides that get defined by that modern construction.

The erosion of the beach is our collective amnesia. But to make the metaphor more apt, most people would never have a public beach next to them. There would be nothing to be compared against to remind people about what has been lost. And the loss would be gradual, the beach slowly shrinking as the storm wall grew larger. There simply is the loss of the beach along with loss even of the memory of the beach.

The very concept of a beach might disappear from public memory and public debate. Or people might assume that ‘beach’ was always a word referring to that threatening space just beyond the storm wall. Instead of discussing how to save or bring back beaches, political conflict would obsess over blaming the other side and arguing over the increasingly advanced techniques of building storm walls.

Eventually those storm walls would entirely block the view of the ocean, that is to say the view of the world outside of the system we’ve collectively built over the generations. The walls that protect us then would imprison us and enclose our minds, shut down our imaginations. But what fine and impressive walls they are, among the greatest advancements of modern civilization.

Here is the point, the moral of the metaphor.

It’s not that we should stop building great things, as expressions of what we value and envision. And it’s not even that we should specifically stop building walls for they too have their place when built with wisdom and understanding. But that requires us to realize the effect we have on the world around us in what we build and how that affects us in turn. The liberal project needs to be reinterpreted, reimagined, and reinvented. Or failing that, we need a new societal project that would inspire us as once did the liberal dream.

* * *

4/2/18 – On a related thought, Richard Eskow asks, Is the ‘liberal world order’ worth saving? That is a question I’ve often asked myelf and I’ve done so from the perspective of someone who has spent much of his life identified with the liberal world order. To be plainly honest, I like the liberal dream. It’s a beautiful dream.

So, a ‘liberal’ such as myself is implicated in this line of questioning, and the deepest implication is about what this change would mean on a personal level. Is my liberal identity worth saving? And in the long term, can it be saved? Or must we liberals become something new in seeking something new?

Eskow states that, “The “liberal world order” must own up to its mistakes. They were errors of commission, as well as omission. Today’s chaos – from Brexit to Trump – is fallout from a global system that works for the benefit of a privileged few and has failed to offer democratic alternatives to inequality and oligarchy.” That is to say liberals must own up to their mistakes. And in this liberal age, we are all liberals.

So, “Is the “liberal world order” worth saving?” That is a tough question. “Not in its present form,” suggests Eskow. “Yes, it has provided some semblance of order. But order without justice is both unfair and unstable. The unfairness has been apparent for many decades. Now we’re seeing the instability.”

Up to this point, we as a society have been unable to ask this question, much less take it seriously enough to attempt an answer. That is where ignorance and amnesia have left us. But maybe the coming storm, when it blows in our windows and knocks down our walls, will wake us up to the reality that was always there. What was hidden in plain sight will become impossible to ignore, as the costs finally come due.

From Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there is some oft quoted dialogue. One character asks another, “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways,” was the response. “Gradually and then suddenly.” That is how we will emerge from our state of unconsciousness and obliviousness. The experience of anamnesis will be a hammer to our skull. The gradual process has been building up for a long time. And soon the sudden result will finally arrive, appearing as if out of nowhere.

Will the liberal order survive? I guess we’ll find out. Let the awakening begin!

 

 

 

The Fantasy of Creative Destruction

An interesting take on the Nazis and their sympathizers comes from Jorge Luis Borges. What motivates a certain variety of reactionary authoritarianism isn’t straightforward politics. The vision is grander than that, almost a cosmic battle. Issues of who is victorious in war is maybe secondary.

In moments of honest admission, Adolf Hitler explained that the struggle he envisioned went beyond mere national interest. He wouldn’t allow German soldiers in Russia to retreat. Either Germans were superior and would succeed or they were inferior and would lose. His only purpose was to test the German race against foreign races. Let the best people win, that was his attitude. It had apocalyptic implications. Other races had to be destroyed and subjugated. Failing that, the German population must be sacrificed in the attempt. It was total war requiring total commitment.

This is similar to Karen Armstrong’s interpretation of Islamic jihadis. She has pointed out that the 9/11 terrorists seemed to intentionally flout Islamic law, as if they were demanding Allah’s attention and forcing the Divine Hand to intervene. They were trying to call down apocalypse, not unlike American evangelicals hoping to incite violent attack on Israel as they believe must happen prior to the Second Coming. It isn’t mere nihilism.

Some would argue that a similar attitude is held by Trump supporters. Not even those who voted for him, according to polls, thought he would do what he promised. But the one thing that he could accomplish was to destroy a corrupt system. Electing Donald Trump as president was like lobbing a grenade into a bunker. It may be an act of desperation, although it makes perfect sense as an all too human motivation. Studies have shown that individuals are willing to punish perceived wrongdoers even at great costs to themselves. It is what morality becomes when morality has been denied for too long.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth describes the Joker in saying, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” But that isn’t quite right. In his own words, the Joker explains himself: “Introduce a little anarchy – upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos – it’s fair.” Exactly! It’s fair. Death and destruction is the last refuge of fairness, what is necessary to bring on justice, even if it is the justice of a mad man’s chaos. The slate must be wiped clean. Then something new can emerge from the ashes. An apocalypse is a revelation.

To the reactionary mind, sacrifice of self can be as acceptable as sacrifice of others. It’s the fight, the struggle itself that gives meaning — no matter the costs and consequences, no matter how it ends. The greatest sin is boredom, the inevitable result of victory. As Irving Kristol said to Corey Robin, the defeat of the Soviet Union “deprived us of an enemy.” It was the end of history for, without an enervating battle of moral imagination, it was the end of the world.

There is a balance point in this, though. It is the fantasy of violence that matters most, the glorious battle that transcends mundane reality. The other way victory threatens is by making the violence all too immediately real. It was easy for Hitler, safely back in Germany, to play out his ideological visions on distant battlefields. When violence gets too close, it simply becomes terrifying. The Nazi sympathizers Borges described had the advantage of cheering on Hitler from a continent across the ocean. But even for them, the possibility of the Nazis actually winning caused trepidation.

* * *

The metal vultures and the dragon
by Alec Nevala-Lee

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind

Ideological labels are used in an odd way on the political right. They are used more as weapons of rhetoric than as accurate descriptions. This relates to Corey Robin’s analysis of the reactionary mind. One of the most interesting things that distinguishes the reactionary from the traditionalist is how easily the reactionary co-opts from the political left.

This is particularly central to American society. The reactionary mind, like fundamentalism, is the product of modernity. And the American experience was born out of modernity, beginning with post-feudal colonial imperialism. The social order and social identity fell into disarray and so political ideology became ever more primary. The reactionary mind is dynamically adaptive, for it shifts according toward which it is reacting. It thrives in instability and will promote instability, even as it scapegoats its enemies for this very same instability that it requires.

Reactionaries are tough opponents. They feel no moral obligation to fight fairly. Nor will they ever state their true intentions. The mindset and worldview precludes it, at the level of consciousness. The reactionary mind is not just a set of tactics but a way of being in the world, a permanent survival mode of mistrust and deception. Labels in themselves mean nothing to the reactionary. They are like crabs, in camouflaging themselves, that attach things to their shells — pieces of coral, anemones, etc. There is a hodge-podge quality to their stated views, a little bit of this and a little bit of that with no need for principled consistency. 

The earliest example of this is the fight over Federalism. The war of rhetoric was won by those fighting for centralized power. They didn’t actually want Federalism. What they were attempting to create, as Corey Robin explains so well, was a new form of hierarchy and ruling elite involving the same old pattern of concentrated wealth and power. They were as much attacking the traditional ancien régime (old order) as they were attacking the revolutionary movement. They co-opted from both of their enemies, but over time as traditionalism declined they increasingly focused on co-opting from the political left.

The first great victory of American reactionaries was in falsely claiming to be Federalists. They did this by co-opting the revolution itself and, by way of the Constitutional Convention, redirecting it toward counter-revolution. This forced their opponents into the position of being called Anti-Federalists, even though their opponents were the strongest defenders of Federalism. The winners not only get to write the history books but also get to do the labeling.

This is how a society like ours, founded on liberalism, quickly had its radical liberalism defanged. Thomas Paine, in a short period of time, went from revolutionary hero to social pariah and political outcast. He didn’t fit into the reactionary scheme of the new centralized establishment. Even to this day, the political right goes on trying to co-opt the label of liberalism, despite the absurdity in calling themselves classical liberals. Now a radical progressive and social democrat like Paine was a classical liberal, but he was largely written out of the history books for almost two centuries.

This pattern has repeated throughout Anglo-American history (and I’m sure elsewhere as well). The capitalists originally were strong liberals with a clear progressive bent. Paine, for example, was for free markets. And like Paine, Adam Smith saw high economic inequality as a direct threat to a free society. Yet the reactionaries took over free market rhetoric to promote the inevitable authoritarianism and paternalism of a high inequality society. Because of this, it has become harder and harder to take seriously the rhetoric of free markets — in its being falsely used to defend crony capitalism, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal globalization, market fetishism, and crude (pseudo-)libertarianism. There is nothing free, much less classically liberal, about this capitalist realism.

There are more examples. Consider right-wing libertarians and right-wing anarchists (e.g., anarcho-capitalists). Both varieties of right-wingers typically defend the legacy of inequality and injustice. Their labeling themselves as libertarian and anarchist would have been absurd a century ago. Both libertarians and anarchists arose out of the left-wing workers movement in Europe. Yet here we are with the political right having successfully co-opted the label of libertarianism and are in the process of co-opting the label of anarchism.

There is nothing they can’t co-opt, once they set their mind to it. This is true even for labels that involve race issues. The theory and label of human biodiversity has become popular among the political right, specifically among alt-righters, the Dark Enlightenment, and other similar types. They use it to promote the cynical worldview of genetic determinism and race realism. The sad part is that the originator of human biodiversity, Jonathan Marks, created the theory specifically to disprove these right-wing claims.

Once again, here we are with the political right having so thoroughly co-opted a label that its very origins is forgotten. It’s a theft not just of a label but the destruction of meaning. It makes genuine debate impossible, and that is the entire point. Reactionaries are constantly seeking to muddy the water. They do everything in their power to control the terms of debate. Their opponents are left in a state of disorientation and constantly on the defense. This is easy for reactionaries to do because they have nothing specific to defend or rather that they keep well hidden what they are defending by way of obfuscation.

This wouldn’t necessarily mean much if not for the consistent pattern that can be seen across the centuries. It’s clearly significant in what it says about the modern political right and the consequences it has for the political left. The lesson is this. Never take them at their word. And never fight on their terms. Labels do matter.

Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical

Absence is presence.
These are the fundamentals of mystery.
The Young Pope

Below is a gathering of excerpts from writings. The key issue here is imagination, specifically Edmund Burke’s moral imagination with its wardrobe but also the dark imagination and the radical imagination. I bring in some other thinkers for context: Thomas Paine, Corey Robin, Thomas Ligotti, Lewis Hyde, and Julian Jaynes.

Besides imagination, the connecting strands of thought are:

  • Pleasure, beauty, and sublimity; comfort, familiarity, intimacy, the personal, and subjectivity; embodiment, anchoring, shame, and nakedness; pain, violence, suffering, and death;
  • Darkness, awe, fear, terror, horror, and the monstrous; oppression, prejudice, and ignorance; obfuscation, obscurity, disconnection, and dissociation; the hidden, the veiled, the unknown, and the distant; mystery, madness, and deception;
  • Identity, consciousness, and metaphor; creativity, art, story, poetry, and rhetoric; literalism, realism, and dogmatism; reason, knowledge, and science;
  • Enlightenment, abstractions, ideology, revolution, and counter-revolution; nobility, power, chivalry, aristocracy, and monarchy; tradition, nostalgia, and the reactionary mind; liberalism, conservatism, and culture wars;
  • Et cetera.

The touchstone for my own thinking is what I call symbolic conflation, along with the larger context of conceptual slippage, social construction, and reality tunnels. This is closely related to what Lewis Hyde discusses in terms of metonymy, liminality, and the Trickster archetype.

Read the following as a contemplation of ideas and insights. In various ways, they connect, overlap, and resonate. Soften your focus and you might see patterns emerge. If these are all different perspectives of the same thing, what exactly is it that is being perceived? What does each view say about the individual espousing it and if not necessarily about all of humanity at least about our society?

(I must admit that my motivation for this post was mainly personal. I simply wanted to gather these writings together. They include some writings and writers that I have been thinking about for a long time. Quotes and passages from many of them can be found in previous posts on this blog. I brought them together here for the purposes of my own thinking about certain topics. I don’t post stuff like this with much expectation that it will interest anyone else, as I realize my own interests are idiosyncratic. Still, if someone comes along and finds a post like this fascinating, then I’ll know they are my soulmate. This post is only for cool people with curious minds. Ha!)

* * *

On the Sublime and Beautiful
by Edmund Burke

Of the Passion Caused by the Sublime

THE PASSION caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

Terror

NO passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. 1 For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous. There are many animals, who though far from being large, are yet capable of raising ideas of the sublime, because they are considered as objects of terror. As serpents and poisonous animals of almost all kinds. And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean: but can it ever fill the mind with anything so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes; but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed, terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime. Several languages bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word, to signify indifferently the modes of astonishment or admiration, and those of terror. [Greek] is in Greek, either fear or wonder; [Greek] is terrible or respectable; [Greek], to reverence or to fear. Vereor in Latin, is what [Greek] is in Greek. The Romans used the verb stupeo, a term which strongly marks the state of an astonished mind, to express the effect of either of simple fear or of astonishment; the word attonitus (thunder-struck) is equally expressive of the alliance of these ideas; and do not the French étonnement, and the English astonishment and amazement, point out as clearly the kindred emotions which attend fear and wonder? They who have a more general knowledge of languages, could produce, I make no doubt, many other and equally striking examples.

Obscurity

TO make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion. Almost all the heathen temples were dark. Even in the barbarous temples of the Americans at this day, they keep their idol in a dark part of the hut, which is consecrated to his worship. For this purpose too the Druids performed all their ceremonies in the bosom of the darkest woods, and in the shade of the oldest and most spreading oaks. No person seems better to have understood the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things, if I may use the expression, in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscurity, than Milton. His description of Death in the second book is admirably studied; it is astonishing with what a gloomy pomp, with what a significant and expressive uncertainty of strokes and colouring, he has finished the portrait of the king of terrors:

—The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed;
For each seemed either; black he stood as night;
Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell;
And shook a deadly dart. What seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.

In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree. […]

The Same Subject Continued

[…] I know several who admire and love painting, and yet who regard the objects of their admiration in that art with coolness enough in comparison of that warmth with which they are animated by affecting pieces of poetry or rhetoric. Among the common sort of people, I never could perceive that painting had much influence on their passions. It is true, that the best sorts of painting, as well as the best sorts of poetry, are not much understood in that sphere. But it is most certain, that their passions are very strongly roused by a fanatic preacher, or by the ballads of Chevy-chase, or the Children in the Wood, and by other little popular poems and tales that are current in that rank of life. I do not know of any paintings, bad or good, that produce the same effect. So that poetry, with all its obscurity, has a more general, as well as a more powerful, dominion over the passions, than the other art. And I think there are reasons in nature, why the obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than the clear. It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little. It is thus with the vulgar; and all men are as the vulgar in what they do not understand. The ideas of eternity and infinity are among the most affecting we have; and yet perhaps there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity. […]

Locke’s Opinion Concerning Darkness Considered

IT is Mr. Locke’s opinion, that darkness is not naturally an idea of terror; and that, though an excessive light is painful to the sense, the greatest excess of darkness is no ways troublesome. He observes indeed in another place, that a nurse or an old woman having once associated the idea of ghosts and goblins with that of darkness, night, ever after, becomes painful and horrible to the imagination. The authority of this great man is doubtless as great as that of any man can be, and it seems to stand in the way of our general principle. We have considered darkness as a cause of the sublime; and we have all along considered the sublime as depending on some modification of pain or terror: so that if darkness be no way painful or terrible to any, who have not had their minds early tainted with superstitions, it can be no source of the sublime to them. But, with all deference to such an authority, it seems to me, that an association of a more general nature, an association which takes in all mankind, and make darkness terrible; for in utter darkness it is impossible to know in what degree of safety we stand; we are ignorant of the objects that surround us; we may every moment strike against some dangerous obstruction; we may fall down a precipice the first step we take; and if an enemy approach, we know not in what quarter to defend ourselves; in such a case strength is no sure protection; wisdom can only act by guess; the boldest are staggered, and he, who would pray for nothing else towards his defence, is forced to pray for light.

As to the association of ghosts and goblins; surely it is more natural to think, that darkness, being originally an idea of terror, was chosen as a fit scene for such terrible representations, than that such representations have made darkness terrible. The mind of man very easily slides into an error of the former sort; but it is very hard to imagine, that the effect of an idea so universally terrible in all times, and in all countries, as darkness, could possibly have been owing to a set of idle stories, or to any cause of a nature so trivial, and of an operation so precarious.

Reflections on the French Revolution
by Edmund Burke

History will record, that on the morning of the 6th of October, 1789, the king and queen of France, after a day of confusion, alarm, dismay, and slaughter, lay down, under the pledged security of public faith, to indulge nature in a few hours of respite, and troubled, melancholy repose. From this sleep the queen was first startled by the voice of the sentinel at her door, who cried out her to save herself by flight—that this was the last proof of fidelity he could give—that they were upon him, and he was dead. Instantly he was cut down. A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with his blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and, through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment.

This king, to say no more of him, and this queen, and their infant children, (who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people,) were then forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcases. Thence they were conducted into the capital of their kingdom. […]

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that charity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations, even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe. It is this which has distinguished it under all its forms of government, and distinguished it to its advantage, from the states of Asia, and possibly from those states which flourished in the most brilliant periods of the antique world. It was this, which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners.

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way, gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. The precept given by a wise man, as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems, is equally true as to states:—Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation, which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.

* * *

Rights of Man:
Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution
by Thomas Paine

But Mr. Burke appears to have no idea of principles when he is contemplating Governments. “Ten years ago,” says he, “I could have felicitated France on her having a Government, without inquiring what the nature of that Government was, or how it was administered.” Is this the language of a rational man? Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race? On this ground, Mr. Burke must compliment all the Governments in the world, while the victims who suffer under them, whether sold into slavery, or tortured out of existence, are wholly forgotten. It is power, and not principles, that Mr. Burke venerates; and under this abominable depravity he is disqualified to judge between them. Thus much for his opinion as to the occasions of the French Revolution. I now proceed to other considerations.

I know a place in America called Point-no-Point, because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery as Mr. Burke’s language, it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance before you; but when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all. Just thus it is with Mr. Burke’s three hundred and sixty-six pages. It is therefore difficult to reply to him. But as the points he wishes to establish may be inferred from what he abuses, it is in his paradoxes that we must look for his arguments.

As to the tragic paintings by which Mr. Burke has outraged his own imagination, and seeks to work upon that of his readers, they are very well calculated for theatrical representation, where facts are manufactured for the sake of show, and accommodated to produce, through the weakness of sympathy, a weeping effect. But Mr. Burke should recollect that he is writing history, and not plays, and that his readers will expect truth, and not the spouting rant of high-toned exclamation.

When we see a man dramatically lamenting in a publication intended to be believed that “The age of chivalry is gone! that The glory of Europe is extinguished for ever! that The unbought grace of life (if anyone knows what it is), the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone!” and all this because the Quixot age of chivalry nonsense is gone, what opinion can we form of his judgment, or what regard can we pay to his facts? In the rhapsody of his imagination he has discovered a world of wind mills, and his sorrows are that there are no Quixots to attack them. But if the age of aristocracy, like that of chivalry, should fall (and they had originally some connection) Mr. Burke, the trumpeter of the Order, may continue his parody to the end, and finish with exclaiming: “Othello’s occupation’s gone!”

Notwithstanding Mr. Burke’s horrid paintings, when the French Revolution is compared with the Revolutions of other countries, the astonishment will be that it is marked with so few sacrifices; but this astonishment will cease when we reflect that principles, and not persons, were the meditated objects of destruction. The mind of the nation was acted upon by a higher stimulus than what the consideration of persons could inspire, and sought a higher conquest than could be produced by the downfall of an enemy. Among the few who fell there do not appear to be any that were intentionally singled out. They all of them had their fate in the circumstances of the moment, and were not pursued with that long, cold-blooded unabated revenge which pursued the unfortunate Scotch in the affair of 1745.

Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

As Mr. Burke has passed over the whole transaction of the Bastille (and his silence is nothing in his favour), and has entertained his readers with refections on supposed facts distorted into real falsehoods, I will give, since he has not, some account of the circumstances which preceded that transaction. They will serve to show that less mischief could scarcely have accompanied such an event when considered with the treacherous and hostile aggravations of the enemies of the Revolution.

The mind can hardly picture to itself a more tremendous scene than what the city of Paris exhibited at the time of taking the Bastille, and for two days before and after, nor perceive the possibility of its quieting so soon. At a distance this transaction has appeared only as an act of heroism standing on itself, and the close political connection it had with the Revolution is lost in the brilliancy of the achievement. But we are to consider it as the strength of the parties brought man to man, and contending for the issue. The Bastille was to be either the prize or the prison of the assailants. The downfall of it included the idea of the downfall of despotism, and this compounded image was become as figuratively united as Bunyan’s Doubting Castle and Giant Despair.

* * *

The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

Fear: The History of a Political Idea
by Corey Robin
Kindle Locations 402-406

It might seem strange that a book about political fear should assign so much space to our ideas about fear rather than to its practice. But recall what Burke said: It is not so much the actuality of a threat, but the imagined idea of that threat, that renews and restores. “If the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person,” then, and only then, do we experience a delightful horror.”1 The condition of our being renewed by fear is not that we directly experience the object that threatens us, but that the object be kept at some remove move from ourselves.

Kindle Locations 1061-1066

Whether they have read The Spirit of the Laws or not, these writers are its children. With its trawling allusions to the febrile and the fervid, The Spirit of the Laws successfully aroused the conviction that terror was synonymous with barbarism, and that its cures were to be found entirely within liberalism. Thus was a new political and literary aesthetic born, a rhetoric of hyperbole suggesting that terror’s escorts were inevitably remoteness, irrationality, and darkness, and its enemies, familiarity, reason, and light. Perhaps it was this aesthetic that a young Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote, two years after Montesquieu’s death, “To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”

Kindle Locations 1608-1618

As she set about establishing a new political morality in the shadow of total terror, however, Arendt became aware of a problem that had plagued Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville, and that Burke-not to mention makers of horror films-understood all too well: once terrors become familiar, they cease to arouse dread. The theorist who tries to establish fear as a foundation for a new politics must always find a demon darker than that of her predecessors, discover ever more novel, and more frightening, forms of fear. Thus Montesquieu, seeking to outdo Hobbes, imagined a form of terror that threatened the very basis of that which made us human. In Arendt’s case, it was her closing image of interchangeable victims and victimizers-of terror serving no interest and no party, not even its wielders; of a world ruled by no one and nothing, save the impersonal laws of motion-that yielded the necessary “radical evil” from which a new politics could emerge.

But as her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers was quick to recognize, Arendt had come upon this notion of radical evil at a terrible cost: it made moral judgment of the perpetrators of total terror nearly impossible.59 According to Origins, total terror rendered everyone-from Hitler down through the Jews, from Stalin to the kulaks-incapable of acting. Indeed, as Arendt admitted in 1963, “There exists a widespread theory, to which I also contributed [in Origins], that these crimes defy the possibility of human judgment and explode the frame of our legal institutions.”60 Total terror may have done what fear, terror, and anxiety did for her predecessors-found a new politics-but, as Arendt would come to realize in Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was a false foundation, inspiring an operatic sense of catastrophe, that ultimately let the perpetrators off the hook by obscuring the hard political realities of rule by fear.

Liberalism at Bay, Conservatism at Piay:
Fear in the Contemporary Imagination

by Corey Robin

For theorists like Locke and Burke, fear is something to be cherished, not because it alerts us to real danger or propels us to take necessary action against it, but because fear is supposed to arouse a heightened state of experience. It quickens our perceptions as no other emotion can, forcing us to see and to act in the world in new and more interesting ways, with greater moral discrimination and a more acute consciousness of our surroundings and ourselves. According to Locke, fear is “an uneasiness of the mind” and “the chief, if not only spur to human industry and action is uneasiness.” Though we might think that men and women act on behalf of desire, Locke insisted that “a little burning felt”—like fear—”pushes us more powerfully than great pleasures in prospect draw or allure.” Burke had equally low regard for pleasure. It induces a grotesque implosion of self, a “soft tranquility” approximating an advanced state of decay if not death itself.

The head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are
more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an
inclination to the object, the mouth is a little opened, and
the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh;
the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to
the sides. All this is accompanied with an inward sense of
melting and languor . . . relaxing the solids of the whole
system.

But when we imagine the prospect of “pain and terror,” Burke added, we experience a delightful horror,” the “strongest of all passions.” Without fear, we are passive; with it, we are roused to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Locke, 1959,11.20.6,10;11.21.34: 304-5, 334; Burke, 1990: 32, 36,123,135-36).

At the political level, modem theorists have argued that fear is a spur to civic vitality and moral renewal, perhaps even a source of public freedom. Writing in the wake of the French Revolution, Tocqueville bemoaned the lethargy of modem democracy. With its free-wheeling antimonianism and social mobility, democratic society “inevitably enervates the soul, and relaxing the springs of the will, prepares a people for bondage. Then not only will they let their freedom be taken from them, but often they actually hand it over themselves” (Tocqueville, 1969:444). Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king, Tocqueville believed that democracies might find a renewed confidence in the experience of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to public freedom. “Fear,” he wrote in a note to himself, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty,” or, as he put it in Democracy in America, “Let us, then, look forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes men keep watch and ward for freedom, and not with that flabby, idle terror which makes men’s hearts sink and enervates them” (cited in Lamberti, 1989: 229; Tocqueville, 1969: 702). Armed with fear, democracy would be fortified against not only external and domestic enemies but also the inner tendency, the native desire, to dissolve into the soupy indifference of which Burke spoke.

* * *

The Dark Beauty of Unheard-Of Horrors
by Thomas Ligotti

This is how it is when a mysterious force is embodied in a human body, or in any form that is too well fixed. And a mystery explained is one robbed of its power of emotion, dwindling into a parcel of information, a tissue of rules and statistics without meaning in themselves.

Of course, mystery actually requires a measure of the concrete if it is to be perceived at all; otherwise it is only a void, the void. The thinnest mixture of this mortar, I suppose, is contained in that most basic source of mystery—darkness. Very difficult to domesticate this phenomenon, to collar it and give a name to the fear it inspires. As a verse writer once said:

The blackness at the bottom of a well
May bold most any kind of hell.

The dark, indeed, phenomenon possessing the maximum of mystery, the one most resistant to the taming of the mind and most resonant with emotions and meanings of a highly complex and subtle type. It is also extremely abstract as a provenance for supernatural horror, an elusive prodigy whose potential for fear may slip through a writer’s fingers and right past even a sensitive reader of terror tales. Obviously it is problematic in away that a solid pair of gleaming fangs at a victim’s neck is not. Hence, darkness itself is rarely used in a story as the central incarnation of the supernatural, though it often serves in a supporting role as an element of atmosphere, an extension of more concrete phenomena. The shadowy ambiance of a fictional locale almost always resolves itself into an apparition of substance, a threat with a name, if not a full blown history. Darkness may also perform in a strictly symbolic capacity, representing the abyss at the core of any genuine tale of mystery and horror. But to draw a reader’s attention to this abyss, this unnameable hell of blackness, is usually sacrificed in favor of focusing on some tangible dread pressing against the body of everyday life. From these facts may be derived an ad hoc taxonomy for dividing supernatural stories into types, or rather a spectrum of types: on the one side, those that tend to emphasize the surface manifestations of a supernatural phenomenon; on the other, those that reach toward the dark core of mystery in purest and most abstract condition. The former stories show us the bodies, big as life, of the demonic tribe of spooks, vampires, and other assorted bogeymen; the latter suggest to us the essence, far bigger than life, of that dark universal terror beyond naming which is the matrix for all other terrors. […]

Like Erich Zann’s “world of beauty,” Lovecraft’s “lay in some far cosmos of the imagination,” and like that of another  artist, it is a “beauty that hath horror in it.

The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
by Thomas Ligotti
pp. 41-42

As heretofore noted, consciousness may have assisted our species’ survival in the hard times of prehistory, but as it became ever more intense it evolved the potential to ruin everything if not securely muzzled. This is the problem: We must either outsmart consciousness or be thrown into its vortex of doleful factuality and suffer, as Zapffe termed it, a “dread of being”— not only of our own being but of being itself, the idea that the vacancy that might otherwise have obtained is occupied like a stall in a public lavatory of infinite dimensions, that there is a universe in which things like celestial bodies and human beings are roving about, that anything exists in the way it seems to exist, that we are part of all being until we stop being, if there is anything we may understand as being other than semblances or the appearance of semblances.

On the premise that consciousness must be obfuscated so that we might go on as we have all these years, Zapffe inferred that the sensible thing would be not to go on with the paradoxical nonsense of trying to inhibit our cardinal attribute as beings, since we can tolerate existence only if we believe— in accord with a complex of illusions, a legerdemain of duplicity— that we are not what we are: unreality on legs. As conscious beings, we must hold back that divulgement lest it break us with a sense of being things without significance or foundation, anatomies shackled to a landscape of unintelligible horrors. In plain language, we cannot live except as self-deceivers who must lie to ourselves about ourselves, as well as about our unwinnable situation in this world.

Accepting the preceding statements as containing some truth, or at least for the sake of moving on with the present narrative, it seems that we are zealots of Zapffe’s four plans for smothering consciousness: isolation (“ Being alive is all right”), anchoring (“ One Nation under God with Families, Morality, and Natural Birthrights for all”), distraction (“ Better to kill time than kill oneself”), and sublimation (“ I am writing a book titled The Conspiracy against the Human Race”). These practices make us organisms with a nimble intellect that can deceive themselves “for their own good.” Isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation are among the wiles we use to keep ourselves from dispelling every illusion that keeps us up and running. Without this cognitive double-dealing, we would be exposed for what we are. It would be like looking into a mirror and for a moment seeing the skull inside our skin looking back at us with its sardonic smile. And beneath the skull— only blackness, nothing.  A little piece of our world has been peeled back, and underneath is creaking desolation— a carnival where all the rides are moving but no patrons occupy the seats. We are missing from the world we have made for ourselves. Maybe if we could resolutely gaze wide-eyed at our lives we would come to know what we really are. But that would stop the showy attraction we are inclined to think will run forever.

p. 182

That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.

Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.

p. 218

Without death— meaning without our consciousness of death— no story of supernatural horror would ever have been written, nor would any other artistic representation of human life have been created for that matter. It is always there, if only between the lines or brushstrokes, or conspicuously by its absence. It is a terrific stimulus to that which is at once one of our greatest weapons and greatest weaknesses— imagination. Our minds are always on the verge of exploding with thoughts and images as we ceaselessly pound the pavement of our world. Both our most exquisite cogitations and our worst cognitive drivel announce our primal torment: We cannot linger in the stillness of nature’s vacuity. And so we have imagination to beguile us. A misbegotten hatchling of consciousness, a birth defect of our species, imagination is often revered as a sign of vigor in our make-up. But it is really just a psychic overcompensation for our impotence as beings. Denied nature’s exemption from creativity, we are indentured servants of the imaginary until the hour of our death, when the final harassments of imagination will beset us.

* * *

The Horror of the Unreal
By Peter Bebergal

The TV show “The Walking Dead” is one long exercise in tension. But the zombies—the supposed centerpiece of the show’s horror—are not particularly frightening. Gross, to be sure, but also knowable, literal. You can see them coming from yards away. They are the product of science gone wrong, or of a virus, or of some other phenomenal cause. They can be destroyed with an arrow through the brain. More aberration than genuine monsters, they lack the essential quality to truly terrify: an aspect of the unreal.

The horror writer Thomas Ligotti believes that even tales of virus-created zombies—and other essentially comprehensible creatures—can elicit what we might call, quoting the theologian Rudolf Otto, “the wholly other,” but it requires a deft hand. The best such stories “approach the realm of the supernatural,” he told me over e-mail, even if their monsters are entirely earthly. As an example, he pointed to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “wherein the brutality displayed is so deviant and strange it takes off into the uncanny.” Ligotti doesn’t require bloodthirsty villains to convey a sense of impending horror, though. “I tend to stipulate in my work that the world by its nature already exists in a state of doom rather than being in the process of doom.” […]

“Whether or not there is anything called the divine is neither here nor there,” Ligotti told me. “It’s irrelevant to our sense of what is beyond the veil.” Ligotti believes that fiction can put us in touch with that sense of things unseen, that it can create an encounter with—to quote Rudolf Otto again—the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a state that combines terror and enchantment with the divine. In fact, Ligotti believes that “any so-called serious work of literature that doesn’t to some extent serve this function has failed.” It’s not a matter of genre, he says. He cites Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a character who would go wherever the clues took him, no matter how deep into the heart of the “unknown.” “Chandler wanted his detective stories to invoke the sense of the ‘country behind the hill.’ “

Because Ligotti has no interest in whether or not that world beyond actually exists, there is a tension, an unanswered question, in his work: Can we locate the source of this horror? His characters are often confronted by people or groups who worship something so alien that their rituals don’t conform to any identifiable modes of religious practice. Usually, they involve some form of sacrifice or other suggestion of violence. The implication seems to be that, even if there is meaning in the universe, that meaning is so foreign, so strange, that we could never understand it, and it could never make a difference in our lives. Any attempt to penetrate it will only lead to madness.

As a practical matter, Ligotti believes that the short story is the most potent means for conveying this idea. “A novel can’t consistently project what Poe called a ‘single effect,’ “ he explains. “It would be too wearing on the reader—too repetitious and dense, as would, for instance, a lengthy narrative poem written in the style of a lyric poem. A large part of supernatural novels must therefore be concerned with the mundane and not with a sense of what I’ll call ‘the invisible.’ “

Trying to get Ligotti to explain what he means by the “invisible” is not easy. “I’m not able to see my stories as establishing or presuming the existence of a veil beyond which the characters in them are incapable of seeing. I simply don’t view them in this way. ” But his characters, I insisted, suggest that we are all capable of seeing beyond the veil, though it’s impossible to tell if they are simply mad, or if they have indeed perceived something outside normal perception. I asked Ligotti if he saw a difference between these two states of consciousness. “The only interest I’ve taken in psychological aberrancy in fiction,” he answered, “has been as a vehicle of perceiving the derangement of creation.”

Thomas Ligotti: Dark Phenomenology and Abstract Horror
by S.C. Hickman

Ligotti makes a point that horror must stay ill-defined, that the monstrous must menace us from a distance, from the unknown; a non-knowledge, rather than a knowledge of the natural; it is the unnatural and invisible that affects us not something we can reduce to some sociological, psychological, or political formation or representation, which only kills the mystery – taming it and pigeonholing it into some cultural gatekeeper’s caged obituary. […] The domesticated beast is no horror at all.

In the attic of the mind a lunatic family resides, a carnival world of aberrant thoughts and feelings – that, if we did not lock away in a conspiracy of silence would freeze us in such terror and fright that we would become immobilized unable to think, feel, or live accept as zombies, mindlessly. So we isolate these demented creatures, keep them at bay. Then we anchor ourselves in artifice, accept substitutes, religious mythologies, secular philosophies, and anything else that will help us keep the monsters at bay. As Ligotti will say, we need our illusions – our metaphysical anchors and dreamscapes “that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds” (CHR, 31). Yet, when even these metaphysical ploys want stem the tide of those heinous monsters from within we seek out distraction, entertainment: TV, sports, bars, dancing, friends, fishing, scuba diving, boating, car racing, horse riding… almost anything that will keep our mind empty of its dark secret, that will allow it to escape the burden of emotion – of fear, if even for a night or an afternoon of sheer mindless bliss. And, last, but not least, we seek out culture, sublimation – art, theatre, festivals, carnivals, painting, writing, books… we seek to let it all out, let it enter into that sphere of the tragic or comic, that realm where we can exorcize it, display it, pin it to the wall for all to see our fears and terrors on display not as they are but as we lift them up into art, shape them to our nightmare visions or dreamscapes of desire. As Ligotti tells it, we read literature or watch a painting, go to a theatre, etc. […]

Horror acts like a sigil, a diagram that invokes the powers within the darkness to arise, to unfold their mystery, to explain themselves; and, if not explain then at least to invade our equilibrium, our staid and comfortable world with their rage, their torment, their corruption. The best literary horror or weird tales never describe in detail the mystery, rather they invoke by hyperstitional invention: calling forth the forces out of darkness and the abstract, and allowing them to co-habit for a time the shared space – the vicarious bubble or interzone between the reader and narrative […]

This notion of the tension between the epistemic and ontic in abstract horror returns me to Nick Land’s short work Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator in which the narrator tells us that what we fear, what terrorizes us is not the seen – the known and definable, but rather the unseen and unknown, even “shapeless threat, ‘Outside’ only in the abstract sense (encompassing the negative immensity of everything that we cannot grasp). It could be anywhere, from our genes or ecological dynamics, to the hidden laws of technological evolution, or the hostile vastnesses between the stars. We know only that, in strict proportion to the vitality of the cosmos, the probability of its existence advances towards inevitability, and that for us it means supreme ill. Ontological density without identifiable form is abstract horror itself.” […]

Yet, as Lovecraft in one of his famous stories – “Call of Cthulhu” once suggested, the “sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Here is the nub for Ligotti, the dividing line of those who continue to sleep in the illusory safety net of their cultural delusions […] Many will remember the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot once suggested that “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. […]

For Ligotti the subjective reaction to the seemingly objective stimulus of the uncanny is the gaining of “dark knowledge” about the workings of individuals, […] This sense that the corruption works both ways, upon the victim and the perpetrator; that the world is now topsy-turvy and that the uncanny boundaries between victim and perpetrator are reversible and hazy, and not always obvious is due to that subtle knowledge that each culture is circumscribed within its own black box of conceptuality. By that I mean by that that as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in his Cannibal Metaphysics argues the case that Amazonian and other Amerindian groups inhabit a radically different conceptual universe than ours—in which nature and culture, human and nonhuman, subject and object are conceived in terms that reverse our own—he presents the case for anthropology as the study of such “other” metaphysical schemes, and as the corresponding critique of the concepts imposed on them by the human sciences. […]

We’re in that position of moving either way: 1) literalizing our fantasies: building walls and barbed-wire fences against invading hordes of refugees, migrants, etc.; or, 2) of seeing through them, seeing the aesthetic and defensive use of art and social mechanisms to defend ourselves from the onslaught of our own daemonic nihilism and drives: our fears and terrors. […]

In our time we’ve forgotten this fact, and forgotten the art laughter, to see the world through the lens of art or horror literature and know that this, too, is illusion: the aesthetic call to our emotions, to our fears and our terrors that allows that purge, that release that only great art can supply. Rather in our time we’ve all become literalists of the imagination, so that apocalypse rather than a pleasant channeling of our fears has become an actual possibility and real manifestation in the world around us in wars, famines, racism, hatred, murder, mayhem… The problem we face is that we’ve targeted the external world of actual people and deemed them disposable as if they are the ravenous zombies and vampires of our contemporary globalist madness. We’ve turned the inside out, reversed what once existed within into a projected nightmare scenario and living hell in the real world not as fantasy but as daemonic threat and doom upon ourselves and others. Talking of contemporary horror films Ligotti remarks that the characters in these films “cannot be sure who is a “thing” and who is not, since those who are transmuted retain their former appearance, memories, and behaviors even after they have become, in their essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world.” (CHR, 92) This sense that we’ve allowed the immigrants (US) and refugees (US and EU) to enter into and become a part of the social body of our nations leads to this sense of the uncanny uncertainty that one cannot be sure who is the “thing” – is it us or them: a paranoiac nightmare world of ravening lunacy, indeed. Because our categories of normal/abnormal have broken down due to the absolute Other of other conceptual cultures who have other sets of Symbolic Orders and ideas, concepts, ideologies, religious, and Laws, etc. we are now in the predicament of mutating and transforming into an Other ourselves all across the globe. There is no safe haven, no place to hide or defend oneself against oneself. In this sense we’ve all – everyone on the planet – become as Ligotti states it, in “essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world”. (CHR, 92)

* * *

Trickster Makes This World
by Lewis Hyde
pp. 168-172

During the years I was writing this book, there was an intense national debate over the concern that government funds might be used to subsidize pornographic art. The particulars will undoubtedly change, but the debate is perennial. On the one side, we have those who presume to speak for the collective trying to preserve the coverings and silences that give social space its order. On the other side, we have the agents of change, time travelers who take the order itself to be mutable, who hope— to give it the most positive formulation— to preserve the sacred by finding ways to shift the structure of things as contingency demands. It is not immediately clear why this latter camp must so regularly turn to bodily and sexual display, but the context I am establishing here suggests that such display is necessary.

To explore why this might be the case, let me begin with the classic image from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve leaving the garden, having learned shame and therefore having covered their genitals and, in the old paintings, holding their hands over their faces as well. By these actions they inscribe their own bodies. The body happens to be a uniquely apt location for the inscription of shame, partly because the body itself seems to be the sense organ of shame (the feeling swamps us, we stutter and flush against our will), but also because the content of shame, what we feel ashamed of, typically seems indelible and fixed, with us as a sort of natural fact, the way the body is with us as a natural fact. “Shame is what you are, guilt is what you do,” goes an old saying. Guilt can be undone with acts of penance, but the feeling of shame sticks around like a birthmark or the smell of cigarettes.

I earlier connected the way we learn about shame to rules about speech and silence, and made the additional claim that those rules have an ordering function. Now, let us say that the rules give order to several things at once, not just to society but to the body and the psyche as well. When I say “several things at once” I mean that the rules imply the congruence of these three realms; the orderliness of one is the orderliness of the others. The organized body is a sign that we are organized psychologically and that we understand and accept the organization of the world around us. When Adam and Eve cover their genitals, they simultaneously begin to structure consciousness and to structure their primordial community. To make the temenos, a line is drawn on the earth and one thing cut from another; when Adam and Eve learn shame, they draw a line on their bodies, dividing them into zones like the zones of silence and speech— or, rather, not “like” those zones, but identified with them, for what one covers on the body one also consigns to silence.

[…] an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.

Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.

In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.

If this is how the trap is made, then escaping it must involve reversing at least some of these elements. In what might be called the “heavy-bodied” escape, one senses that there’s something to be changed but ends up trying to change the body itself, mutilating it, or even committing suicide […]

These are the beginnings of conscious struggle, but we have yet to meet the mind of the trickster— or if we have, it belongs to the trickster who tries to eat the reflected berries, who burns his own anus in anger, who has not learned to separate the bait from the hook. As we saw earlier, the pressures of experience produce from that somewhat witless character a more sophisticated trickster who can separate bait from hook, who knows that the sign of something is not the thing itself, and who is therefore a better escape artist with a much more playful relationship to the local stories. The heavy-bodied, literalizing attempt to escape from shame carries much of the trap with it— the link to the body, the silence, and so on. Inarticulately, it takes the sign for the thing itself, imagining racism inheres in the color of the skin. Wise to the tricks of language, the light-bodied escape from shame refuses the whole setup— refuses the metonymic shift, the enchantment of group story, and the rules of silence— and by these refusals it detaches the supposedly overlapping levels of inscription from one another so that the body, especially, need no longer stand as the mute, incarnate seal of social and psychological order. All this, but especially the speaking out where shame demands silence, depends largely on a consciousness that doesn’t feel much inhibition, and knows how traps are made, and knows how to subvert them.

This is the insight that comes to all boundary-crossers— immigrants in fact or immigrants in time— that meaning is contingent and identity fluid, even the meaning and identity of one’s own body.

It should by now be easier to see why there will always be art that uncovers the body, and artists who speak shamelessly, even obscenely. All social structures do well to anchor their rules of conduct in the seemingly simple inscription of the body, so that only after I have covered my privates am I allowed to show my face to the world and have a public life. The rules of bodily decorum usually imply that the cosmos depends on the shame we feel about our bodies. But sometimes the lesson is a lie, and a cunningly self-protecting one at that, for to question it requires self-exposure and loss of face, and who would want that? Well, trickster would, as would all those who find they cannot fashion a place for themselves in the world until they have spoken against collective silence. We certainly see this— not just the speaking out but the self-exposure— in Allen Ginsberg, and we see it a bit more subtly in both Kingston and Rodriguez. Neither of them is a “dirty writer” the way Ginsberg is, but to begin to speak, one of them must talk about menstruation (which talk she links to becoming the mistress of her own sexuality) and the other must talk about his skin (which talk he links to possessing his “maleness”).

To the degree that other orders are linked to the way the body is inscribed, and to the degree that the link is sealed by rules of silence, the first stuttering questioning of those orders must always begin by breaking the seal and speaking about the body. Where obscene speech has such roots it is worth defending, and those who would suppress it court a subtle but serious danger. They are like the gods who would bind Loki, for this suppression hobbles the imagination that copes with the shifting and contingent nature of things, and so invites apocalyptic change where something more playful would have sufficed. Better to let trickster steal the shame covers now and then. Better to let Coyote have a ride in the Sun-god’s lodge. Better to let Monkey come on your journey to the West.

* * *

“Disseminated Volition in the New Testament Gospels”
by Andrew Stehlik
The Jaynesian (Vol. 3, Issue 1)

It is well known that many words for inner spiritual motions and emotions are actually metaphors derived from primitive (outward) physiological observations. Brief references to any good dictionary which includes etymology can corroborate this conclusion.

Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind dedicated a whole chapter to this theme — looking forward through the Iliad (pp. 257– 272). He concentrates on seven words: thumos, phrenes, noos, psyche, kradie, ker, and etor.

Julian Jaynes recognized that these and other similar body based, physiological or anatomical metaphors (in almost any language) are actually more than simple linguistic metaphors and that they played an important role in the breakdown of bicameralism and the development of consciousness. Different forms of stress and anxiety trigger different physiological responses. Observations of these responses were used in naming and creating hypostases and metaphors useful in the terminology of introspection and the development of consciousness. […]

In the New Testament Gospels (therefore quite late in the historical process — the second half of the first century CE) I recently recognized an interesting phenomenon which could be part of this process, or, even better, a pathological deviation along this process.

Once in the gospel of Mark (9: 42– 48) and twice in the gospel of Matthew (5: 27– 30 and 18: 6– 10) Jesus is supposed to utter an almost identical saying. In this saying, individual parts of the body (eyes, hands, feet) are given the ability of independent volition. They can inform acting of the whole person. The saying suggests, further, that when the influence (instructions, independent volition) of these body parts is perceived as dangerous or harmful, they should be silenced by cutting them off to protect the integrity of the rest of the body.

All academic theological literature known to me takes these sayings as high literary metaphors. Frequent references are made to biology and medicine and the use of amputations are the last resort in serious conditions.

Completely unrecognized is the whole presumption of this saying according to which individual body parts could possess independent volition and as such can inform (sway/direct) the acting of the whole body. Even more seriously — the presumption that self-mutilation can stop or somehow influence higher mental processes. Even the person who is not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist can recognize that we are dealing with a seriously pathological state of mind. […]

Already at the time of recording in the gospels this saying was perceived as anomalous. Luke, the most educated and refined of synoptical authors, preserved the immediate context, but edited out most of the peculiar parts concerning disseminated volition and self-mutilations.

Further and broader contexts which may be mentioned and discussed: other Greek and Hebrew physiological and anatomical metaphors; the popularity of a metaphor of the body for structuring and functioning of society in Hellenism; the ancient practice of religious self-mutilation; the potential for facilitating our understanding of brutish penal codes or modern self-mutilations.

* * *

The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
The Haunted Moral Imagination

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
On Truth and Bullshit
Poised on a Knife Edge
“Why are you thinking about this?”

Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic. But for more recent corroboration, see: People Think Research is More Credible When It Includes “Extraneous” Brain Images, Peter Simons, Mad In America)