Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “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.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind

Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals

“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

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.

There are demagogues like Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump. The former has made numerous stated or implied threats of violence over the years, and others including his ex-wife have accused him of actual violence. As for the latter, his invoking violence is well known, going so far as to brag he could shoot someone in the street and get away with it. Of course, both also speak of violence in broader terms of culture war and dog whistles, racism and xenophobia, paranoia and conspiracy. But whatever form it takes, it tends to be rather blatant and blunt in going for maximum effect.

There is another kind of reactionary as well. They often present themselves as respectable intellectuals and often liberals will treat them as such. Once dead and gone, through rose-colored nostalgia, they are remembered as representing some high point of worthy conservatism. A great example of this is William F. Buckley Jr. who had a combative attitude, occasionally erupting into threats. Yet, upon his passing, liberals praised him as the leader of a golden age of conservatism. That isn’t how liberals saw him at the time, of course. He was no soft-spoken, fair-minded public intellectual. There was a reactionary edge back then that essentially is no different than today.

More recently, there is Jordan B. Peterson who has taken on the defense of masculinity and has done so with an increasingly confrontational attitude, aggressively so at times. Some might argue that he has followed a predictable path of reactionary decline. Or rather that his reactionary mind is showing its true nature. One suspects there is often a threat behind the rhetoric of reactionary ideology, even if not always explicit, but give it enough time and it can become explicit. Is that true of Peterson?

He began as an academic talking about a Jungian archetypal masculinity (i.e., patriarchy as mythology and mysticism) enforcing order on feminine chaos (one wonders if he read Carl Jung’s Answer to Job where the patriarchal Yahweh is portrayed as a chaotic force of  unconscious nature) — by implication, this is a Manichaean fight against the effeminizing forces on the political left that are psychologically and socially neutering boys. But for all the semi-religiosity of his language, his ideas were always presented in rather boring academic terms and with a meandering pedantic style. Now some perceive the academic veneer to be wearing thin, as he has slipped further into the archetypal role of paternalistic father figure, in becoming yet another right-wing pundit and self-help guru.

The difference for the reactionary intellectual, as Corey Robin explained, is that they approach the Burkean moral imagination of the horrific and sublime (with its sociopolitical framing of purity) by way of abstraction while usually keeping a safe distance from the concrete. They are inspired, excited, and enthralled by the fear-ridden imaginary with its fantasized violence — that is until it gets too close, too real. In an actual fight, Buckley or Peterson would likely get the shit beat out of them. The pose of intellectual brawlers and alpha males is just that, a pose not to be taken too literally, and yet there is always an underlying hint of authoritarian authority. They do see themselves in an existential crisis, a near cosmic fight that must be won or else that all of Western civilization will be lost, and they don’t think of this as mere hyperbole.

This is why, when cornered, they will lash out with the language of violence, sometimes with stated threats of hitting their opponents. Peterson did this recently in using a tweet to threaten someone with mild-mannered violence, a rather unmanly ‘slap’ (maybe his opponent was deemed unworthy of the full manly force of fisticuffs). Of course, this ‘threat’ is silly taken at face value. We Americans aren’t exactly worried about the importation of the Canadian “slap culture”. The point of concern is that he would even say such a thing, considering how common this aggressive machismo is on the reactionary right. This kind of verbal threat could be dismissed, if it didn’t ever lead to action but sadly there is a long history of it doing just that. Take for example Bill O’Reilly repeatedly having called Dr. George Tiller a “baby killer” until one of O’Reilly’s viewers took the implicit threat and made it explicit by assassinating Dr. Tiller. Or consider the Pizzagate fake news pushed by right-wing media that also led to a real world shooting. Violence is a desired result, not an unintended consequence, the enacting and enforcement of the moral imagination.

It’s not that there is any reason to worry about one of Peterson’s fanboys going out on a slapping rampage. What is worrisome is the pattern of talk that becomes increasingly extreme over time, not just by any single person but across an entire society, specifically here in the United States, that is already so obsessed with violence and authoritarianism. This might be taken less seriously were we not in the middle of this era of rule by Donald Trump, a man who came to power through violent rhetoric, a man now as president who has shown fascist tendencies toward authoritarian display, from a declared desire for a military march with tanks to sending the military to the border.

I don’t see Jordan Peterson as a fascist, much less a Nazi. And I would be wary of too broadly painting the canvas of fascist mysticism, such as how Carl Jung is often dismissed out of hand. But I do take seriously the dark moral imagination that forms a swift and powerful undercurrent. And as such I do have valid fear about how Peterson’s words, no matter his intentions, could so easily be misused and so quickly lead to harmful ends.

Though I don’t agree with all criticisms of Peterson, I do wonder if some are on target in pointing to a fascist tendency in Western modernity (a reactionary defense of hierarchical authority given persuasive force through neo-romantic mythologizing, often as folk religiosity and volk nationalism). There is a powerful current of thought that gets tapped, even by those who don’t realize what they are tapping into — to put it in a Jungian frame, there are unconscious archetypal forces that can possess us. I’m not sure it matters whether or not someone means well. If anything, my greatest concern is often about those who hide behind personas built on claims of good intentions.

Peterson is invoking moral imagination. It is a powerful tool. And potentially it is a dangerous weapon. I’m not entirely convinced he realizes the fire he is playing with. There is a short distance from nostalgic fantasies to reactionary radicalization. And that distance can be covered in no time at all when a resonance develops between public mood and political power. It has happened before and could happen again. Peterson should heed his own warnings about totalitarian thought and authoritarian politics.

Criticisms of left-wingers, feminists, etc hasn’t tended to end well in the Western world — interestingly, considering Jordan Peterson’s fear-mongering, the ruling elites of both the Nazis and the Soviets attacked, imprisoned, and killed left-wingers: feminists, social liberals, social democrats, Marxists, anarchosyndicalists, labor organizers, radical intellectuals, experimental artists, etc. This puts Peteson as a self-proclaimed anti-authoritarian in strange company when he too attacks these same left-wingers. I’d rather we, including Peterson and his followers, learned from history than having to repeat it again and again.

I’ll let Canadians worry about Canada. But as an American, I’ll worry about the United States. Let us not forget what kind of country this is. The U.S. isn’t only a country founded on genocide and slavery. You remember that little thing about Nazi eugenics. Guess where they got eugenics from? Right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A..

Let me explain how close this hits to home. There were many Americans who originated eugenicist thought and practice, helping to set an example that inspired Nazis. One of those Americans was an Iowan school teacher, Harry H. Laughlin, who lived near my home — Adolf Hitler personally praised this Iowan eugenicist: “The Reichstag of Nazi Germany passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933, closely based on Laughlin’s model. Between 35,000 and 80,000 persons were sterilized in the first full year alone. (It is now known that over 350,000 persons were sterilized). Laughlin was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Heidelberg in 1936 for his work behalf of the “science of racial cleansing.” (Five other Americans received honorary degrees the same year).” Eugenics never became as powerful in American society, but the impulse behind it fed into Social Darwinism, the Second Klan, Jim Crow, sundown towns, ethnic internment camps, violently enforced assimilation, etc.

Around the same time in Western history, mass urbanization was underway. As women gained more freedom in cities, feminism and other women’s movements gained new force and influence. So, with the destruction of rural communities and loss of the agrarian lifestyle, a moral panic arose about boys being turned effeminate and weak, not just by womanly culture but also by a supposed soft city living along with the temptations of alcohol and such. This fear-mongering about a lost generation of boys was a major impulse behind fascism and it took hold in the United States. There were large fascist marches in the U.S. at the time. But we are fortunate, I guess, that anti-German and anti-Italian xenophobic bigotry took much of the force out of American fascism. Instead, all we got was a patriarchal movement that created Boy Scouts and a National Park system. We might not be so lucky next time.

Someone like Peterson may be less problematic for Canada, as Canadians don’t have the same cultural history of reactionary extremism. What is problematic for Americans is that Peterson doesn’t seem to understand what kind of influence he might have south of the Canadian border. His words and ideas might speak to American reactionaries in an entirely different way than he intends. And that could have real world consequences. He isn’t helping matters by suggesting the way to deal with ideological opponents is through physical force, not that interpreting his words as idle threats is any better. Furthermore, his projecting his violent fantasies of a postmodern Marxist death cult (the equivalent of cultural Marxism or cultural Bolshevism) and feminist totalitarianism onto his opponents is just as, if not more, troubling.

Rather than defusing conflict, Jordan Peterson is fueling the fire. He is itching for a fight, playing out some script of antagonism that he is fantasizing about. What brought him to fame was a political issue involving gender pronouns that turned out have been fake news he helped gin up by way of misinterpreting a proposed law. But having been proven so severely wrong didn’t chasten him for he is getting more aggressive as time goes on. His rhetoric plays directly into reactionary paranoia and alt-right fear. We are far from the end of history for we are smack dab in the middle of it. The stage set long ago, the third act of a tragic play might begin soon. If so, it will be the denouement of yet one more cycle of conflict, first imagined and then acted upon. I fear it won’t be boring.

* * *

“Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered…”
~William F. Buckley Jr. to Gore Vidal

“Maybe not tonight, because as you would, I’d smash you in the goddamn face.”
~William F. Buckley Jr. to Noam Chomsky

“Here’s the problem, I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassed against me and the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined, which is: we talk, we argue, we push, and then it becomes physical. If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is. That’s forbidden in discourse with women and so I don’t think that men can control crazy women. I really don’t believe it.”
~Jordan B. Peterson to Camille Paglia

“And you call me a fascist? You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment, I’d slap you happily.”
~Jordan B. Peterson to Pankaj Mishra

Jordan Peterson joins the club of macho writers who have thrown a fit over a bad review.
by Jeet Heer

Since Peterson loves to categorize the world into Jungian archetypes (the devouring mother, the dragon-slaying hero), it’s worth noting that this tweet fits an age-old pattern: the hyper-masculine writer who is unhinged by critical words.

In 1933, Max Eastman wrote a scathing review in The New Republic of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, accusing the bullfight-loving author of “wearing false hair on his chest.” Four years later, the two met in the New York offices of their shared publisher, Scribner. “What do you mean accusing me of impotence?” Hemingway asked, before trying to beat up Eastman. The two men had to be separated by editorial staff. The same year, Hemingway assaulted the poet Wallace Stevens, twenty years his senior, for saying that Hemingway was “not a man.”

In 1971, Gore Vidal wrote a scathing essay on Norman Mailer for TheNew York Review of Books. “The Patriarchalists have been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons, at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated and killed,” Vidal wrote. “There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression.” Enraged, Mailer slammed his head into Vidal’s face in the dressing room of The Dick Cavett Show. Five years later, Mailer was still looking for revenge. At a dinner party, he threw a drink at Vidal before tackling him to the ground. “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer,” Vidal quipped, while still on the floor.

In 2000, the critic Dale Peck went after Stanley Crouch in The New Republic, writing that Crouch’s novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome“is a terrible novel, badly conceived, badly executed, and put forward in bad faith; reviewing it is like shooting fish in a barrel.” In 2004, still stinging from the review, Crouch confronted Peck at Tartine, a Manhattan restaurant, and slapped him.

* * *

Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism
by Pankaj Mishra

Reactionary white men will surely be thrilled by Peterson’s loathing for “social justice warriors” and his claim that divorce laws should not have been liberalized in the 1960s. Those embattled against political correctness on university campuses will heartily endorse Peterson’s claim that “there are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men.” Islamophobes will take heart from his speculation that “feminists avoid criticizing Islam because they unconsciously long for masculine dominance.” Libertarians will cheer Peterson’s glorification of the individual striver, and his stern message to the left-behinds (“Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark.”). The demagogues of our age don’t read much; but, as they ruthlessly crack down on refugees and immigrants, they can derive much philosophical backup from Peterson’s sub-chapter headings: “Compassion as a vice” and “Toughen up, you weasel.”

In all respects, Peterson’s ancient wisdom is unmistakably modern. The “tradition” he promotes stretches no further back than the late nineteenth century, when there first emerged a sinister correlation between intellectual exhortations to toughen up and strongmen politics. This was a period during which intellectual quacks flourished by hawking creeds of redemption and purification while political and economic crises deepened and faith in democracy and capitalism faltered. Many artists and thinkers—ranging from the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, member of the hugely influential Munich Cosmic Circle, to the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh—assembled Peterson-style collages of part-occultist, part-psychological, and part-biological notions. These neo-romantics were responding, in the same way as Peterson, to an urgent need, springing from a traumatic experience of social and economic modernity, to believe—in whatever reassures and comforts. […]

Nowhere in his published writings does Peterson reckon with the moral fiascos of his gurus and their political ramifications; he seems unbothered by the fact that thinking of human relations in such terms as dominance and hierarchy connects too easily with such nascent viciousness such as misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He might argue that his maps of meaning aim at helping lost individuals rather than racists, ultra-nationalists, or imperialists. But he can’t plausibly claim, given his oft-expressed hostility to the “murderous equity doctrine” of feminists, and other progressive ideas, that he is above the fray of our ideological and culture wars. […]

Peterson rails today against “softness,” arguing that men have been “pushed too hard to feminize.” In his bestselling book Degeneration (1892), the Zionist critic Max Nordau amplified, more than a century before Peterson, the fear that the empires and nations of the West are populated by the weak-willed, the effeminate, and the degenerate. The French philosopher Georges Sorel identified myth as the necessary antidote to decadence and spur to rejuvenation. An intellectual inspiration to fascists across Europe, Sorel was particularly nostalgic about the patriarchal systems of ancient Israel and Greece.

Like Peterson, many of these hyper-masculinist thinkers saw compassion as a vice and urged insecure men to harden their hearts against the weak (women and minorities) on the grounds that the latter were biologically and culturally inferior. Hailing myth and dreams as the repository of fundamental human truths, they became popular because they addressed a widely felt spiritual hunger: of men looking desperately for maps of meaning in a world they found opaque and uncontrollable.

It was against this (eerily familiar) background—a “revolt against the modern world,” as the title of Evola’s 1934 book put it—that demagogues emerged so quickly in twentieth-century Europe and managed to exalt national and racial myths as the true source of individual and collective health. The drastic individual makeover demanded by the visionaries turned out to require a mass, coerced retreat from failed liberal modernity into an idealized traditional realm of myth and ritual.

In the end, deskbound pedants and fantasists helped bring about, in Thomas Mann’s words in 1936, an extensive “moral devastation” with their “worship of the unconscious”—that “knows no values, no good or evil, no morality.” Nothing less than the foundations for knowledge and ethics, politics and science, collapsed, ultimately triggering the cataclysms of the twentieth century: two world wars, totalitarian regimes, and the Holocaust. It is no exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a similar intellectual and moral breakdown, one that seems to presage a great calamity. Peterson calls it, correctly, “psychological and social dissolution.” But he is a disturbing symptom of the malaise to which he promises a cure.

 

The Resolution of Jordan Peterson
by Brent Cooper

This of course obscures the broader context of longer interviews, and distorts Peterson’s message at the expense of his critics, so nobody wins. Peterson is not cryptofascist, but a great portion of his audience is. (What does one do when they finally discover a dark truth behind their popularity?)

“So is Jordan Peterson preparing his base for the coming race war? I do not think so. My read of him is that he is actually terrified of what he started. Nobody is more surprised than he is by his fame… he’s on sabbatical after basically declaring war on his own institution. You can’t go home after that. He needs his Patreon now… He has cast his lot with his mob.” — The CANADALAND Guide to Jordan B. Peterson

[…] An aside: In my article on systemic-conspiracy, I argued that the concept provides a useful explanation of how totalitarianism occurs, and how to avoid it. What I am theorizing complements Peterson’s message, but his denial of systemic (sociological) approaches prevents any of those ideas even getting on his radar.

“This is relevant and convergent with Jordan Peterson’s oft-repeated warning that we all have the potential for totalitarian fascism in us; to participate in systems of violence. Systemic-conspiracy is sociologically latent, which is arguably the major lesson of the 20th century.” — Systemic Conspiracy and Social Pathology

Peterson is so hellbent on avoiding totalitarianism, that he ironically has a totalizing worldview about “the left” to the point of scapegoating them just like Jews were. Cultural-marxism is the new cultural bolshevism and its stupidly obvious, and glaringly wrong, but conservatives love it because it’s their last resort: blame the people trying to fix the problem conservatives started. Peterson’s stock is artificially inflated because of support for these beliefs. Come for the supreme mythological wisdom, stay for the crypto-fascism. Or is it the other way around? Peterson is ironic — he’s not post-ironic, because he’s not metamodern. He doesn’t get it, and if his fans and critics don’t get it either, then this will remain a stalemate.

These sentiments are perhaps better articulated by Noah Berlatsky than myself (below). Again, no one is attacking Peterson here, but rather just logically pointing out the hypocrisy. Peterson gets highjacked by the right, so this information should help him reform rather than retaliate. The term “useful idiot” doesn’t really fit, since Peterson is incredibly smart, but he is nonetheless being used for that very intelligence to spread bullshit.

“But how does Peterson suggest an alternate path to fascism when his philosophy is suffused with barely hidden fascist talking points and conspiracy theories?… And, moreover, why is a supposed anti-totalitarian literally calling for educators who disagree with him to be subject to McCarthyite purges and tried for treason?”

“People who put Leninist posters on their walls to remind themselves to hate communists all day, every day, are leaving a door open to other kinds of hate too. Peterson does not want to be a member of the alt-right. But he shares their hatred of the left, and, as a result, he makes their arguments for them.”

— How Anti-Leftism Has Made Jordan Peterson a Mark for Fascist Propaganda, Berlatsky

Is Jordan Peterson the stupid man’s smart person?
by Tabatha Southey

“Postmodern neo-Marxism” is Peterson’s nemesis, and the best way to explain what postmodern neo-Marxism is, is to explain what it is not—that is, it is entirely distinct from the concept of “cultural Marxism.”

“Cultural Marxism” is a conspiracy theory holding that an international cabal of Marxist academics, realizing that traditional Marxism is unlikely to triumph any time soon, is out to destroy Western civilization by undermining its cultural values. “Postmodern neo-Marxism,” on the other hand, is a conspiracy theory holding that an international cabal of Marxist academics, realizing that traditional Marxism is unlikely to triumph any time soon, is out to destroy Western civilization by undermining its cultural values with “cultural” taken out of the name so it doesn’t sound quite so similar to the literal Nazi conspiracy theory of “cultural Bolshevism.”

To be clear, Jordan Peterson is not a neo-Nazi, but there’s a reason he’s as popular as he is on the alt-right. You’ll never hear him use the phrase “We must secure a future for our white children”; what you will hear him say is that, while there does appear to be a causal relationship between empowering women and economic growth, we have to consider whether this is good for society, “‘’cause the birth rate is plummeting.” He doesn’t call for a “white ethnostate,” but he does retweet Daily Caller articles with opening lines like: “Yet again an American city is being torn apart by black rioters.” He has dedicated two-and-a-half-hour-long YouTube videos to “identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege.” […]

What he’s telling you is that certain people—most of them women and minorities—are trying to destroy not only our freedom to spite nonbinary university students for kicks, but all of Western civilization and the idea of objective truth itself. He’s telling you that when someone tells you racism is still a problem and that something should be done about it, they are, at best, a dupe and, at worst, part of a Marxist conspiracy to destroy your way of life.

Peterson says he only thinks of it as a “non-violent war.” But when you insist the stakes are that high, the opposition that pernicious, who’s to say where the chips will fall?

Some of My Beef With Jordan Peterson
by son1dow

In terms of postmodernism, it has been well covered that he has no idea what is going on, he is yet another bullshit about postmodernism dealer online. Just read wokeupabug’s comments in that thread M1zzu recently linked, as well as so many others – it explains how his main source is not at all one you should trust. The forum there is askphilosophy, the user linked has a PhD in philosophy. I wish I could link famous philosophers for this kind of stuff, but they don’t like giving these youtube intellectuals and renegade scholars recognition too much. The more I hear of Peterson, the more I wonder if he read anything of postmodernist philosophy, since the only views he seems to espouse perfectly match bullshit dealers like Hicks, and he NEVER EVER seems to properly engage Derrida, Lyotard etc. For all I know, he could be reading neofeudalist conspiracy nuts like Dugin as well. For all of his love of debate and challenge, I would be interested to see him discuss postmodernism with someone who has read the actual books, yet I cannot find that. The worst thing about these people is that there is no way anyone with even the most cursory understanding of postmodernism would mistake Hicks or Peterson as knowledgeable about it; yet it spreads like wildfire. Some of the most dumb misunderstanding of it is perfectly incapsulated in this comic – note the explanation below the comic. The comic itself satirizes the fact that postmodernism is literally the opposite of feminism or marxism, it is as sceptical of metanarratives like them as it is of scientism or judaism. So blaming it for marxism is the dumbest thing you can do. I’ve personally had this conversation with Peterson’s disciples like 50 times; none of them know the first thing about postmodernism and are stumped by these basic questions. This is concerning a school of thought that many of them are sure is trying to bring the downfall of western civilization, mind you – and few if any of them know the most basic things about it.

Cultural marxism is more of the same, it’s a repeat of an old nazi conspiracy theory called cultural bolshevism that has to do with a real term… Only the term is about an obscure school of thought that is not even related to any of the claims people make about cultural marxism. It’s just another nonsense term to throw around and talk about as much as you want, with no basis. Once again you have to wonder how many of these youtube intellectuals boil down to reading conspriacy theorists to get this stuff. However by now it is a real industry of people repeating the same shit and explaining it as the cause of feminism or transgenderism or whatever they like, with their viewers gobbling it up without any regard for going to the sources which couldn’t possibly show anything like it. Makes you wonder how they can doublethink their way into doing that while still considerig themselves intellectuals. Very few people repeating this nonsense even know what critical theory is, yet they’re sure as it is bringing the downfall of western civilization. Talk about drinking the kool-aid.

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Why Conservatives Love War
by Corey Robin

While the contrast between the true conservative and the pseudo-conservative has been drawn in different ways—the first reads Burke, the second doesn’t read; the first defends ancient liberties, the second derides them; the first seeks to limit government, the second to strengthen it—the distinction often comes down to the question of violence. Where the pseudo-conservative is captivated by war, Sullivan claims that the true conservative “wants peace and is content only with peace.” The true conservative’s endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. He knows that we live and love in the midst of great evil. That evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he’d like it to be.

The historical record suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it’s true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. “I enjoy wars,” said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. “Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” The conservative’s commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It’s philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly, as in the case of Santayana, who wrote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” or laboriously, as in the case of Heinrich von Treitschke:

To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace.

Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: War is life, peace is death. […]

Far from challenging the conservative tradition’s infatuation with violence, however, this indifference to the realities of war is merely the flip side of the Burkean coin. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, Burke was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”—should they become real threats, “conversant about the present destruction of the person”—their sublimity would disappear. Burke’s point was not that nobody, in the end, really wants to die, or that nobody enjoys excruciating pain. It was that sublimity depends upon obscurity: Get too close to anything, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience is “an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses the thrill you got when it was just an idea.

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 many, that failure is symptomatic of the inequality of contemporary America, and it is. 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 it becomes a reality, it can be as tedious as a discussion of the tax code or as cheerless as a trip to the DMV.

Redefining the Right Wing
Corey Robin interviewed by Daniel Larison

Last, the question of sublimity and violence. I think this is one of the most interesting elements of the right because it shows just how extraordinarily rich and sophisticated its vision of human nature is. I don’t think the right has by any means a monopoly on the discourse of violence; the left has its own long tradition of reflection on violence. But where the left’s discourse is primarily influenced by Machiavelli — that is, an awareness of what Sheldon Wolin calls “the economy of violence,” or the necessity of instrumentalizing violence, of making a very little go a long, long way — the right’s attitude is reflected in Burke’s moral psychology, particularly his theory of the sublime.

You had asked previously how representative the account in the book is. You suggested that my strongest cases are Teddy Roosevelt and Georges Sorel, neither of whom is an unproblematic representative of the right. But I mention a great many other cases throughout history of voices that virtually every anthology of the right would include: not just Burke but also Maistre, Tocqueville, Churchill, and of course many of the neocons. Now I know, Daniel, that you’ve spent the better part of your career fighting the good fight against neocon imperialism and that part of your argument against the neocons is that they are not conservative. But their position has deep roots on the right. My sense that it’s too easy to dismiss the neocons as innovators from afar.

I think what’s distinctive about the discourse of violence on the right is that whereas the audience for violence on the left is the victim of violence — the leftist (whether a revolutionary, guerrilla fighter, terrorist, what have you) seeks to impress upon enemies the power of what threatens them if they do not accede to the left’s demands — I think that the primary audience for violence on the right is the perpetrator and/or his/her allies. In other words, the right sees violence as primarily a source of rejuvenation among a ruling class that has gone soft. That’s what is so interesting to me, in part because it completely inverts the standard stereotype we have of the conservative being more hard-headed and realistic than the progressive. If anything — and I really assign no normative weight to this; it’s more interesting to me as an intellectual problem — it is the left, as I’ve suggested, that has been more influenced by realist modes of thinking when it comes to violence. Lenin read Clausewitz, Gramsci read Machiavelli, and so on. And that’s not because the left is more humanitarian or anything like that; it’s mostly because of necessity. Revolutionaries, by definition, don’t have a monopoly on the means of violence; they operate at a major deficit, so economy is essentially forced upon them. The right by contrast suffers from a surfeit of power, so it looks to violence to address a quite different set of concerns.

Politics and Vision
by Sheldon S. Wolin
(as quoted by Don MacDonald)

In evaluating Machiavelli’s economy of violence it is easy to criticize it as being the product of a technician’s admiration for efficient means. A century like ours, which has witnessed the unparalleled efficiency displayed by totalitarian regimes in the use of terror and coercion, experiences difficulty in being tolerant on the subject. Yet to see Machiavelli as the philosopher of Himmlerism would be quite misleading; and the basic reason is not alone that Machiavelli regarded the science of violence as the means for reducing the amount of suffering in the political condition, but that he was clearly aware of the dangers of entrusting its use to the morally obtuse. What he hoped to further by his economy of violence was the “pure” use of power, undefiled by pride, ambition, or motives of petty revenge.

A more meaningful contrast to Machiavelli would be the great modern theoretician of violence, Georges Sorel. Here is a true example of the irresponsible political individual, fired by romantic notions of heroism, preaching the use of violence for ends which are deliberately and proudly clothed in the vague outline of the irrational “myth,” contemptuous of the cost, blinded by a vision of virile proletarian barbarians who would revitalize the decadent West. In contrast, there was no hint of child-like delight when Machiavelli contemplated the barbarous and savage destructiveness of the new prince, sweeping away the settled arrangements of society and “leaving nothing intact.” There was, however, the laconic remark that it was better to be a private citizen than to embark on a career which involved the ruin of men. This suggest that the theorist like Machiavelli, who was aware of the limited efficacy of force and who devoted himself to showing how its technique could be used more efficiently, was far more sensitive to the moral dilemmas of politics and far more committed to the preservation of man than those theorists who, saturated with moral indignation and eager for heroic regeneration, preach purification by the holy flame of violence.

The Poverty of Conservatism
The ideology of power, privilege and plutocracy

by Johnny Reb

A Little History

“Hatred of the left in all its guises, from the most tepid to the most outré, is thus not incidental to fascism; it is at its core.The fascist route to power has always been passed through cooperation with conservative elites; without the acquiescence or even active assent of the traditional elites could never have attained power” – Robert O Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism

Historian and political scientist Robert O Paxton informs us that hatred and fear of the left is not just a key characteristic of fascism, but of conservatism as well. For conservatives it’s the trepidation that the majority underclass will rise up and demand real democracy and social justice as they did in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917. This hatred and fear is the locus of the conservatives reactionary response to democratic movements that challenge their traditional entitlements and privileges. Violence is, and always has been, an open option for conservatives, but one of their less dramatic and vicious responses to left wing movements is propaganda, cooption or minor concessions to the working classes that don’t meaningfully change their supremacy within the socio-political order.

It’s generally agreed by political philosophers that the monarchist Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who, in his ponderous uncompromising diatribe on the French Revolution*, was the first express and define conservatism as a discrete political ideology of moderation and prudence. But the history of the past 200 years has been anything but moderate or prudent when one considers the fanatical anti-democratic invectives against the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, the defense of racism, slavery and Jim Crow, the genocide of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the vicious attacks on trade unionism, the red baiting and persecution of ordinary working people, social democracy and the welfare state, the ongoing hostility to the New Deal of FDR, the Great Society of LBJ, civil rights, humanism, feminism, gay rights and endless imperialistic wars**. Whereas the predecessors of today’s conservatives (and the transmogrified new beta version, the neo-conservative) in the old regime thought of inequality as a naturally occurring phenomenon ordained by God, an inheritance passed on from generation to generation, their encounter with many people’s revolutions such as in the Russian and Cuban revolutions and the Spanish Civil War clearly demonstrates that the revolutionaries were right after all: inequality is a distinctly human creation. No book on conservatism since Burke’s magnum opus comes close to improving on his contempt and condescension of working classes, which he described as the “swinish multitude”, and the pompous celebration of his “natural aristocracy.”

* Edmund Burke, Reflections of the Revolution in France, 1790. Every major political tradition without exception lays claims to liberty and the tradition of freedom. None have so far delivered for the masses the freedom from constraint or coercion that these claims entail. Anarchism is, in my view, really the only genuine political philosophy of freedom and egalitarianism. But it’s never been provided with an opportunity with the exception of many indigenous cultures in North America, the short period of the Spanish Civil War and the Kronstadt Mutiny during the Bolshevik Revolution. Burke, whose opinions are not so uplifting as some of his grandiose prose, advised William Pitt that his government ought not concern itself with helping to feed starving citizens by any other means than for sale through profit and not be concerned with actions that would alleviate the suffering and death by famine. This expresses the essence of Conservatism (blame the victim) and Burke’s resolute opposition to democracy and obsession with private property rights that has been carried on by his successors. In fact it was conservatives who consistently blocked the vote for those who did not own property. And only those who are well-heeled, entrepreneurial or efficiently acquisitive are of any value to society and who have the right to lay any claim to liberty. These were the values of the white slave and land owning white aristocratic conservatives who were the framers of the US Constitution.

**Conservatives, it can be evidenced, love war. The historical record confirms that, far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been energized by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it’s true that many conservatives have expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. “I enjoy wars,” said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. “Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” The conservative’s commitment to violence is more than psychological, however; it’s a philosophical; it’s a “war is life and peace is death” philosophical commitment. Power and its partner violence, the conservative maintains, are the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life exhilarating, full of risk and worth living.

One possibility explanation for the conservatives love for war is its embrace of authoritarianism and hierarchy, with their twin requirements of submission and domination; the other is violence, particularly warfare, with its rigid injunction to kill or be killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are of great significance to conservatism as a theoretical tradition and historical practice. Consistent with Edmund Burke’s argument, however, the conservative often favours the latter over the former. Once we are assured of our power over another being, says Burke, it loses its capacity to harm or threaten us. Make a creature useful and obedient, and “you spoil it of everything sublime.” It becomes an object of contempt, contempt being “the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious.” At least one-half, then, of the experience of hierarchy—the experience of ruling another—is incompatible with, and indeed weakens, the sublime. Confirmed of our power, we are lulled into the same ease and comfort, undergo the same inward melting, that we experience while in the throes of pleasure.

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Rebirth of a Nation
by Jackson Lears
pp. 18-19

The organic imagery embodied in “the national tree” reflected a new strain of romantic nationalism, which melded the individual with the collective by likening the nation to a natural organism. According to Edward Everett Hale’s popular didactic tale, The Man Without a Country (1863), one’s personal identity—indeed one’s very life—was dependent on immersion in a larger national identity. While Lincoln used the language of “the people” to elevate democracy as well as nationhood, more typical orators deployed the same idiom in the service of organic nationalism, wrapping the government and the citizenry in the sacred garment of the nation.

The sanctity of the nation justified its demands for blood. Redefining unspeakable losses as religious sacrifice, Northerners forged a powerful link between war and regeneration. In some formulations, personal rebirth seemed to arise simply from the decision to risk combat—to plunge into action as an end in itself, heedless of the consequences. (This would be the version that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. would eventually celebrate, as he recalled his own war experience, and that Theodore Roosevelt would unwittingly parody.) More commonly, the revitalization was explicitly moral. For generations, republican moralists had been haunted by visions of a citizenry grown soft through indulgence in luxury and other vices of commerce. The many forms of sacrifice demanded by the war provided a perfect opportunity for Americans to redeem themselves from commercial corruption, to transcend private gain in pursuit of a larger public good. So moralists said.

Sacrifice was most appealing when imagined from a distance. As usual in such cases, the loudest yelps for blood often came from those farthest from the battlefield. Charles Eliot Norton, a well-connected young Brahmin intellectual, waxed eloquent over “the Advantages of Defeat” after the Union Army was routed at the first battle of Manassas. The humiliation might have the salutary effect of sobering us, soldiers and civilians—of reminding us that this “religious war” would require a mass blood sacrifice. “But there must be no shrinking from the prospect of the death of our soldiers,” the young man warned. “Better than that we should fail that a million men should die on the battlefield.” Victory would eventually come; and meanwhile Northern character—so long sunk in selfishness and softness—would be purified by protracted struggle. Years later, Norton would repudiate these youthful fatuities and become an outspoken anti-imperialist. But during the Civil War, his breathtaking arrogance was commonplace. Men routinely praised the cleansing power of war from a comfortable distance.

Some turned in therapeutic directions. The Albany Argus predicted that “A vigorous war would tone up the public mind, and impart to it qualities that would last after the calamities of war had passed.” And the historian Benson Lossing wrote to Sue Wallace (the wife of General Lew Wallace) in 1862: “I have felt profoundly impressed with the conviction that out of all this tribulation would come health, and strength, and purification for the nation.” From the perspective of the people who actually fought it, or were swept up in it, one could attribute few more bizarre effects to the war than “health, strength, and purification.” Here as elsewhere, one can glimpse the connections between millennial dreams of collective rebirth and the sort of organic nationalism that could eventually mutate into fascism.

pp. 27-29

But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. Blaikie caught the larger contours of the change:

“A hundred years ago, there was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is to-day. Over eighty per cent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty per cent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings—mercantile, mechanical, or professional—which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.”

This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.

This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.

pp. 203-204

American politicians were capable of this sort of sentimentality, too. In public, at least, they could insist that their apparently imperial aims were uniquely leavened with moral concerns—in particular a commitment to the spread of freedom and democracy. But in private, their sentiments were less exalted. Writing to Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt reviled “the jack-fools who seriously think that any group of pirates and head-hunters needs nothing but independence in order that it may be turned forthwith into a dark-hued New England town meeting.” Most “dark-hued” peoples lacked the crucial character trait, he noted elsewhere: “There must be control. There must be mastery, somewhere, and if there is no self-control and self-mastery, the control and the mastery will ultimately be imposed from without.”

Roosevelt’s obsession with “mastery” revealed the trigger of empire. Behind all the economic calculations and all the lofty rhetoric about civilization and progress was a primal emotion—a yearning to reassert control, a masculine will to power amid the drifting slack waters of the fin de siècle. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan invoked the cautionary example of ancient Rome, after it had abandoned its “strong masculine impulse” and “degenerated into that worship of comfort, wealth, and general softness, which is the ideal of the peace prophets of to-day.” Mahan was the leading big-navy imperialist, and imperialism was the most important political form of late-nineteenth-century longings for regeneration. Those desires flourished on both sides of the Atlantic, taking shapes peculiar to their surroundings. In the United States, the quest for regeneration through empire reworked ancient Protestant dreams of rebirth into a secular militarist agenda. Yearnings to recapture the heights of Civil War heroism combined with Anglo-Saxon racism, fears of overcivilized decadence, and a providentialist faith in American mission.

The result was an ideological witches’ brew. In Europe similar mixtures fostered fascism; in the United States imperial ideology had more benign consequences—for U.S. citizens themselves, if not for their subject populations. The reasons for this divergence are many and complex, but perhaps the most important was the genius of the Constitution’s framers in creating the checks and balances that prevented executive tyranny. Still, American imperialist rhetoric, including Roosevelt’s, often sounded remarkably proto-fascist. Like the ministerial ranting of the Civil War, fin de siècle militarism celebrated blood sacrifice in combat, but with new and more secular emphases on sheer physical courage and the inherently revitalizing effects of conflict.

Popular misunderstandings of Darwinism equated evolution with inevitable progress, and assumed that progress could be achieved only through death-dealing struggle. “Antagonism,” the Popular Science Monthly announced in 1888, is “a necessity of existence, and of the organism of the universe so far as we can understand it; [it is apparent] that motion and life cannot go on without it; that it is not a mere casual adjunct of nature, but that without it there would be no nature.” A struggle for existence was at the heart of all life, among men as well as wolves, in commerce as in war, “as necessary to good as to evil.” Without it life would be boring to the point of ennui, or nonbeing.

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The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
The Haunted Moral Imagination
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
Reconstruction Era Race Relations
Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males
The Right-Wing New Age

Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia

The amount of entertainment media is immense these days, even limiting it to big biz media in the United States: Hollywood, cable, television, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. I try to be discerning in what I watch, but I also have a curiosity to sample what is being produced. Viewing entertainment media offers a glimpse into the national psyche. It’s the moral imagination that Edmund Burke could never have imagined, the mental furniture of media-saturated late modernity.

I look for the narratives and tropes that are popular or for whatever reason are being pushed by media companies. As others have noted, the Cold War had re-entered or been re-introduced into the cultural imagination. It began with the 9/11 terrorist attack because our actions during the Cold War era were coming back to haunt us. In the fight against the Soviets, it was the U.S. that trained, armed, and allied with Osama bin Laden and in the process helped create al-Quaida. It was the U.S. that purposely destroyed so many secular democratic governments in order to replace them with theocracies, dictatorships, and fascist states. And it was the U.S. that, as allies with the Iraqis, gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons (i.e., weapons of mass destruction) that he used against his own people while we watched and did nothing.

The sins of the father fell upon the sons. It was Generation X that fought in Iraq during Desert Storm and once again in the Iraq War. These GenXers and their non-military generational peers were bottle fed on Cold War media and ideology. It was maybe natural that, as this generation began careers in entertainment media, they (along with the older generations) inserted the Cold War mentality back into the mainstream. Once again, we started seeing Russians portrayed as enemies in movies and shows.

Recent political events during and following the 2016 presidential campaign brought back many of the dark fantasies of the Cold War. And the fear about media meddling struck a chord that resonated with the early Cold War. Russia has returned to the world stage as a major political power. And the U.S. corporate media have given the Russian elite all the attention and coverage they were seeking. Putin’s purpose was unlikely to elect any particular candidate and more simply to regain the respect of being treated as a real threat. As nothing else could, the fear-mongering of U.S. media boosts Putin’s ego and his popularity among Russians. They were back in their Cold War role.

I hadn’t given this much thought recently. But it all came back to my attention while watching a relatively new show, TNT’s Legends. It originally aired a few years ago and the rights to show it were purchased by Hulu. I mention it not because it is great entertainment, rather because it is an expression of the cultural moment. It’s likely Hulu wouldn’t have had any interest in it, if not for recent political events and investigations involving Russia. After watching a few episodes, it immediately felt familiar. I realized that, although outwardly about the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the basic story came from my youth. It’s a revamped Vietnam War show. There is the traumatized war experience that the protagonist can’t remember and some kind of secret government operation or experiment that involved combat soldiers. The protagonist has been brainwashed somehow and he is trying to remember who he was and what happened.

Legends has hints of Cold War movies like the Manchurian Candidate, although more heavily leans on the tropes of Vietnam War movies, specifically Rambo and Jacob’s Ladder. The latter movie, Jacob’s Ladder, came a bit later in 1990 when the Cold War mood was declining but still much in the air. All of these movies weren’t limited to the imagination of screenwriters and producers. They express the paranoid mindset that had taken hold back then. Also, the U.S. government really was doing some crazy shit, from brainwashing experiments to drug experiments. Jacob’s Ladder was a fictionalized account of an actual government experiment, although the source material of Rambo was a popular conspiracy theory that had no basis in reality.

Whether inspired by truth or paranoia, such narratives spoke and in new forms continue to speak to the public imagination. What do such narratives mean? And why do they keep coming back? The have become part of a deep-seated American mythos that continually gets introduced to new generations.

The Legends show was based on a novel by Robert Littell (two of his other works were earlier made into a movie and series). He grew up during the World War II period, was in the Navy during the early Cold War, worked as a journalist and foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War, and began his fiction writing in the last years of the Vietnam War with his second novel being about that war. He is one of the authors who helped popularize the American spy novel, one of the main expressions of Cold War paranoia where truth and conspiracy were mingled. Although an old guy at this point, he is still writing and was last published in 2016 (a professional writing career that has lasted a half century).

The novel that was the source of the Legends was written in 2005, at the height of ramping up public opinion for the War on Terror. It was a time of the return of the paranoid mind with the likes of Alex Jones gaining mainstream attention. Interestingly, the developers of the show were three older GenXers: Howard Gordon, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, and Mark Bomback. And all of them were born during the Vietnam War. These producers have been involved in other shows that embody the mindset of paranoia and the war state, such as Gordon having co-developed and written scripts for Showtime’s Homeland while Nachmanoff was a director for that show. Gordon had done earlier work for years as a supervising producer and scriptwriter for The X-Files, the original show that made conspiracy theory fully mainstream.

If these narratives, these collective fantasies didn’t have such staying power, it would be a lot harder for them to be constantly used as propaganda tools. The Bush administration was able to use them to great effect in drumming up support. And that persistent paranoia has taken on new life and new uses during this Trump era. It’s because the public and politicians are constantly being fed this kind of entertainment that we get this world we find ourselves in. They are powerful narratives, capturing the moral imagination through visions of power and greatness, paranoia and terror. We get trapped in the stories we tell. There is no way to rationally respond to them. They are mind viruses that get passed on from generation to generation.

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!)

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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.

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* 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)

Morality-Punishment Link

Morality and punishment share an interesting relationship. Society seeks to punish immoral acts. But I also thought of how a relationship between the two applies in the opposite direction.

Take AIDs as an example. It carries its own punishment or rather it is the punishment. The moral crime that is supposedly being punished is sexual promiscuity. AIDs has a stigma. To be infected proves you are guilty, within a particular worldview. However, in reality, not everyone gets AIDs from sexual promiscuity and not everyone who gets infected becomes sick. If a simple prevention or cure for AIDs were discovered, the morality-punishment link would be broken.

There are many other STDs that don’t capture the moral imagination. The reason they don’t is because they are easily cured if caught early enough. There is less consequence and so they seem less attractive to moralizing. How can you know something is morally wrong without a moral punishment that follows from it?

This works for other issues as well. The reason why a certain type of person sees the poor as moral failures is because poverty is seen as a punishment in the ‘natural’ scheme of things. Any negative consequence is easily transformed into a moral punishment. This type of thinking particular captures the religious mind; after all, if not God or the Devil, who else causes people to suffer or not? The Invisible Hand of the ‘Free Market’ is just another supernatural being doling out moral punishment and reward, an economic Santa Claus who keeps a list.

This points to what is so interesting about the world of Star Trek: Next Generation. Most major problems have been solved, especially poverty and hunger and probably STDs as well, although the latter doesn’t seem to come up in the show. That future utopia has almost permanently broken the morality-punishment link. There is no negative consequence for being lazy or for being perceived as lazy by others. The conservative moral imagination is severely weakened in that world.

Liberals do seek to break this link in many ways. Liberals seek to promote freedom, not just freedom to act but freedom from being punished for acting freely. Without punishment, though, the conservative sees the world lose all meaning and society to lose all order.