Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

…a sense that our memories and perceptions have been misplaced or replaced, that our lives are not our lives, that our minds are not our minds and that we are all part of some collective nightmare being played our on a stage not of the world but of some simulated shadow stage of which we know nothing.
~S.C. Hickman, The Telecratic Imperative

The notion of sleep has been used by poets and Gnostics alike throughout time as the leitmotif of ignorance, bliss, and innocence. Asleep in one’s ignorance goes the saying. To be asleep is to be so immersed in the normalization process of the worlds ubiquitous systems that one no longer has that critical acumen to be able to step away, step back, step out of one’s environment and see it for what it is: an artificial construct within which one is imprisoned. All the Zombie films from Romero’s classic to the latest edition have one theme: the mindless hunger and desire of the consumer for its next meal ticket, the endless feeding frenzy of a mindless horde in search of filling the emptiness of its depleted flesh, its desiring machininc life. Like sleeping zombies we move to the puppet strings of invisible codes and algorithms that supplement, decide, and program our lives within a 24/7 dreamworld constructed to fulfill our deepest desires.
~S.C. Hickman, The Governance of the World

Those words of S.C. Hickman captured a deeper aspect of my mood. That our minds are not our minds. That we don’t know what our minds are. It is almost a haunted feeling of the mind being something separate from us. The unconscious is the nameless name of something we never experience directly. The realm of mind that is not quite human, a demonic possession or mind parasite. We can sleepwalk through our entire lives.

Are we really disconnected, dissociated? Or is this simply our ‘normal’ state? We don’t know what we are or what makes us tick. We don’t know how to resolve our unknowing, because we can’t step outside of ourselves. And if we somehow dig down into the psyche, what do we hope to find? Is there anything below our delusions and fantasies? What ground might we stand upon?

When we speak of a social construct, what exactly is that? Social constructs are the seams that hold our minds together, the buttresses of our identity, the mortar of the social order. Take away that stuff of imagination and what seemed solid would fade away. We aren’t what we believe ourselves to be, but we can’t be anything at all without those beliefs. We aren’t the stories we tell, even as telling stories is at the heart of what we are.

Our secret identity is in the disjuncture or dislocation, the slippage or elision. It is the interstitial, the liminal, the threshold. Not what we are but what we are becoming, reality being out of alignment with perception, always slightly off, a fraction of delay. The ground shifts below us and we don’t notice, for we also shift at the same time, all the world shifting around us. And no matter how quickly we turn, we’ll never see what is behind us. The person who sees is not what is seen, but nothing can be seen that is separate from the person who sees. There is no objective standpoint, no outside vantage.

This is why we are so easily manipulated and misdirected.

My thoughts have been circling around a few issues, ever returning to my theory of symbolic conflation. It has to do with a symbolic ordering of the mind, as expressed through social order and social control, social construction and social identity. There is a mystery there that resists close inspection, and yet draws one’s attention elsewhere.

One of the best ways I’ve found to describe it is like a bird fluttering away from its nest, pretending to be injured. Or think of another example from nature. A deer can outrun a human, but only over short distances. Humans are awesome long distance runners and a deer will eventually tire out, maybe one of the earliest hunting techniques. Deer have a way of avoiding this fate. One deer will make itself seen to get the attention of the predator. That deer will slip out of sight to slow down and another deer will then take that position. It requires a highly observant predator to lock in on one deer and to not get deceived by the switch.

That is how symbolic conflation works. The symbolic issue acts as a framing. It draws the focus in a particular way, making it difficult to see what is being hidden by misdirection. It’s truly brilliant. The reason it works so well is that we tend to think without full consciousness and so act on autopilot. We see without really seeing and it rarely occurs to us what we aren’t seeing by the very nature of how we are looking or rather being made to look. This can create the illusion that we are acting under our own volition, completely oblivious to how we are being deceived and manipulated. The power of it is that framing becomes enculturated into the very fabric of our being and of our society. We see what is framed rather than seeing the frame.

So much of our lives are symbolic. No aspect of our identities is free from this: nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, class, etc. We are shaped to the core of our being. Yet there is a superficial quality to this. We feel forced to conform to an ideological worldview, but in a sense some part of us remains free of this. Such identities wouldn’t be necessary, if they weren’t hiding something.

The majority of Americans are symbolic conservatives, even as they are operational liberals, which is to say on specific issues the general public tends to support liberal positions, but the rhetoric of symbolic conservatism remains immensely powerful (such that, obscured and divided and isolated by false identities, the majority doesn’t realize it is a majority). The American Dream offers symbolic aspiration that remains unfulfilled for most, in that American kids dream big and yet have lower upward mobility than kids in many other Western countries who have a more realistic assessment of their future opportunities, which never manages to undermine the symbolic narrative. The political right loves to obsess over symbolic constitutionalism, having very little to do with the actual history of the U.S. Constitution beyond some cherry-picked quotes from founders, ignoring all contrary evidence. And to pick on the other side, there is symbolic rhetoric of democracy and liberalism, too rarely resulting anything that comes close to reality, as liberalism is simply the other side of the conservative symbolic conflation.

There are also symbolic family values based on the recent invention of the nuclear family detached from the long history of extended relationships of kinship and community. Along with that, there are other symbolic culture wars that rarely if ever amount to any actual politics nor have much to do with the issues themselves, such as how so-called pro-lifers won’t support policies that have been proven to decrease abortions. Similarly, there is symbolic religiosity and symbolic happiness. Conservatives report higher rates of religiosity than what matches the actual data on church attendance. And research shows that conservatives, although reporting higher happiness than liberals, smile less often than liberals. Symbolic identities have to do with how people perceive themselves and want to be perceived by others, according to social expectations and norms, the entire social order enfolding us in its embrace.

We also can’t forget all the symbolic wars on poverty, drugs, Terror, etc; inevitably ending up distracting from the real issues and problems, the most fundamental causes and contributing factors. And of course, there is the symbolic hyper-individuality of the autonomous self, the rational actor, the self-made man, the self-interested consumer-citizen.

These symbolic conflations and frames burrow into our psyche. They are memes, mind viruses and parasites. They don’t merely use our minds for their own purposes of self-replication, so as to infect others. They restructure our minds, causing us to come to identify with them. There is often no clear distinction between the behavior of parasites and symbionts. We can only know them by their results; but the nature of the relationship is that, in coming to identify with them, we rationalize their existence as part of who we are. The sense of self becomes splintered with our lives divided into different aspects, leading to dissociation along with the strange phenomenon of knowing and not knowing all kinds of things, and in some cases even leading to varying degrees of psychosis.

The modern self is not normal, by historical and evolutionary standards. Extremely unnatural and unhealthy conditions have developed, our minds having correspondingly grown malformed like the binding of feet. Our hyper-individuality is built on disconnection and, in place of human connection, we take on various addictions, not just to drugs and alcohol but also to work, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and on and on. The more we cling to an unchanging sense of bounded self, the more burdened we become trying to hold it all together, hunched over with the load we carry on our shoulders. We are possessed by the identities we possess.

This addiction angle interests me. Our addiction is the result of our isolated selves. Yet even as our addiction attempts to fill emptiness, to reach out beyond ourselves toward something, anything, a compulsive relationship devoid of the human, we isolate ourselves further. As Johann Hari explained in Chasing the Scream (Kindle Locations 3521-3544):

There were three questions I had never understood. Why did the drug war begin when it did, in the early twentieth century? Why were people so receptive to Harry Anslinger’s message? And once it was clear that it was having the opposite effect to the one that was intended— that it was increasing addiction and supercharging crime— why was it intensified, rather than abandoned?

I think Bruce Alexander’s breakthrough may hold the answer.

“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them,” Bruce explained in a lecture in London31 in 2011. “The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”

A sense of dislocation has been spreading through our societies like a bone cancer throughout the twentieth century. We all feel it: we have become richer, but less connected to one another. Countless studies prove this is more than a hunch, but here’s just one: the average number of close friends a person has has been steadily falling. We are increasingly alone, so we are increasingly addicted. “We’re talking about learning to live with the modern age,” Bruce believes. The modern world has many incredible benefits, but it also brings with it a source of deep stress that is unique: dislocation. “Being atomized and fragmented and all on [your] own— that’s no part of human evolution and it’s no part of the evolution of any society,” he told me.

And then there is another kicker. At the same time that our bonds with one another have been withering, we are told— incessantly, all day, every day, by a vast advertising-shopping machine— to invest our hopes and dreams in a very different direction: buying and consuming objects. Gabor tells me: “The whole economy is based around appealing to and heightening every false need and desire, for the purpose of selling products. So people are always trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in products.” This is a key reason why, he says, “we live in a highly addicted society.” We have separated from one another and turned instead to things for happiness— but things can only ever offer us the thinnest of satisfactions.

This is where the drug war comes in. These processes began in the early twentieth century— and the drug war followed soon after. The drug war wasn’t just driven, then, by a race panic. It was driven by an addiction panic— and it had a real cause. But the cause wasn’t a growth in drugs. It was a growth in dislocation.

The drug war began when it did because we were afraid of our own addictive impulses, rising all around us because we were so alone. So, like an evangelical preacher who rages against gays because he is afraid of his own desire to have sex with men, are we raging against addicts because we are afraid of our own growing vulnerability to addiction?

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

Another thing happened with suppression of festivities. Local community began to break down as power became centralized in far off places and the classes became divided, which Ehrenreich details. The aristocracy used to be inseparable from their feudal roles and this meant participating in local festivities where, as part of the celebration, a king might wrestle with a blacksmith. As the divides between people grew into vast chasms, the social identities held and social roles played became hardened into place. This went along with a growing inequality of wealth and power. And as research has shown, wherever there is inequality also there is found high rates of social problems and mental health issues.

It’s maybe unsurprising that what followed from this was colonial imperialism and a racialized social order, class conflict and revolution. A society formed that was simultaneously rigid in certain ways and destabilized in others. The individuals became increasingly atomized and isolated. With the loss of kinship and community, the cheap replacement we got is identity politics. The natural human bonds are lost or constrained. Social relations are narrowed down. Correspondingly, our imaginations are hobbled and we can’t envision society being any other way. Most tragic, we forget that human society used to be far different, a collective amnesia forcing us into a collective trance. Our entire sense of reality is held in the vice grip of historical moment we find ourselves in.

We are afraid of what we don’t know. And so in fear, we huddle closer. The darkness in our own minds becomes shadows enveloping us. Anything that was able to pierce through our defenses would feel like violence and, in response, our reactions are out of proportion. We never see anything for what it is, as the narratives playing in our heads never stop. Those stories are our comfort or so we believe and therefore those stories are our fate.

But what if even only for a moment we saw the flame that casts the shadow? What then?

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Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation

My last post, in response to a race realist, was mostly written for my own amusement. It wasn’t a particularly serious post. Something about that kind of intellectual dishonesty is compelling. But I wonder how much of it is self-deception, being taken in by one’s own ideological rhetoric.

I had no desire to analyze race realism to any great degree because it ultimately isn’t about race. It’s similar to how, when conservatives argue for pro-life, it isn’t really about abortion. And it’s similar to how, when apologists argue about the Bible, it isn’t really about historicity.

When you accept their framing, there is no way for the debate to go anywhere because the purpose of the frame is obfuscation, as much to cloud their own mind as to defend against criticism. This is particularly clear with apologetics in being used as a tool of indoctrination for young missionaries, since the purpose isn’t so much to convert unbelievers as to further convert the already converted, the missionary strengthening their own ideological worldview. Maybe there is an element to this with any ideological debate.

This is something that has fascinated me for a long time. I’ve pretty much given up on online debates. I’ve been involved in too many of them and they rarely if ever go anywhere. I’ve changed my mind about many things over my lifetime. And on most issues, I don’t have a strong opinion. But it’s hard to argue with an ideologue when one isn’t an ideologue. The problem is that most people interested in ‘debate’ are ideologues.

There is no way I can ‘win’ a debate with an ideologue because there is no way for a real debate to even happen. As long as the ideologue determines the frame, he can never lose and he will simply go around and around in circles. Try to debate a religious apologist sometime and you will quickly see the power of ideological rhetoric. Apologists can be masterful debaters for the very reason that intellectual honesty isn’t their motivation. They will never concede any point nor fairly deal with any criticism.

Here is the problem for me about race realism. I’m neither an anti-environmentalist hereditarian nor an anti-hereditarian environmentalist. The entire nature vs nurture frame of the debate is meaningless, as it can’t speak to what we actually know in terms of scientific research. Such a debate within such a frame becomes a battle of ideological rhetoric, having little to do with seeking truth and understanding. Ideologues tend to like meaningless frames because they are more interested in the frame and the agenda behind it than they are in the topic itself. To be fair, these frames aren’t entirely meaningless, just that they don’t mean what they superficially appear to mean.

This is the only part that interests and concerns me. I want to understand what motivates such behavior, what makes such a mindset possible, what locks in place such a worldview. It isn’t just ideologues or rather everyone has the potential to be drawn into an ideologue’s mindset. Our minds are constantly being bombarded by ideological rhetoric. Few people ever learn to escape the frames that have been forced onto them, often since childhood. We pick up frames from parents, teachers, ministers, reporters, politicians, etc. And these frames are immensely powerful.

I’ve been trying to understand what this all means for years now. It’s the main project of my blogging. It is what led me to formulate my theory about symbolic conflation.

I realized that race realism is a great example of how this works. Race realism effectively uses political correctness, just-so stories, social constructs, etc… and all of this fits into symbolic conflation. Ideas are taken as reality, speculations as facts. The purpose isn’t to argue about the science but to use it for purposes of rhetoric, to shore up the racialized social order. This is why the race realist can never honestly deal with heritability and confounding factors, since it really has nothing to do with the science taken on its own terms.

Race is used as a proxy for other things: class, social control, etc. What makes a social construct so powerful is that it is taken as reality. The symbol is conflated with the world itself. The symbol becomes embedded within every aspect of thought and perception. It is unimaginable to the race realist that race might not be real. It is at the core of their entire sense of reality.

So, why is race so useful for this purpose? Like abortion, it touches upon the visceral and emotional, the personal and interpersonal. The symbol isn’t just conflated with reality but is internalized and felt within the body itself, expressed through embodied thought. The symbol becomes concretely real. Then the symbol takes on a life of its own. Only personal trauma or other severe psychological experience could cause it to become dislodged.

Social constructs aren’t just ideas. Or to put it another way, ideas aren’t mere abstractions. We are embodied beings and social animals. Ideas always are deeply apart of who we are. The most powerful ideas are those that aren’t experienced as ideas. An idea, as a symbol, may not be objectively true. But that doesn’t stop it from being experienced as though objectively real.

Something like race realism can’t be debated. This is because it is the frame of debate. The frame of debate can’t be changed through debate. As I once explained, “Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing.” The moment the frame is accepted as the basis of the debate, what follows is inevitable. Debate becomes a way of making it difficult to challenge the frame itself. As such, debate is a distraction from the real issue. It isn’t about race realism. It’s about an entire worldview and social order, an entire identity and way of being in the world. The more it is debated the stronger the frame becomes, the more deeply the symbol becomes conflated with everything it touches.

This isn’t just about those other people. This happens to the best of us. We all exist within reality tunnels. But some reality tunnels are more useful and less harmful than others. The trick is to learn to hold lightly any and all symbolic thought, to catch yourself before full conflation sets in. The imaginative mind needs to be made conscious. That is the closest humans ever come to freedom.

Poised on a Knife Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic.)

Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

I’ve thought about the abortion issue in terms of social control, the morality-punishment link, and symbolic conflation. It’s been on my mind for much of my adult life. The culture wars began just as I started high school, as my thinking about the larger world began to develop. Abortion was always the most potent of the culture war issues.

Corey Robin brings in another perspective—What Donald Trump Can Learn From Frederick Douglass:

If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn. […]

If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.

I’m not sure what to think of that theory. It’s interesting. I wonder if that in any way fits into some of my own prior thoughts on the matter. I sense some possible connections.

Symbolic conflation is about shutting down awareness and narrowing thought, and as such agency is central to it. The main insight I had early on was that the obsession with abortion never had anything directly to do with abortion itself. I’ve struggled ever since in trying to understand what it actually is about.

* * *

The following is a comment left at Corey Robin’s post—Chris G wrote:

That is the perfect rejoinder to this interview with a pro-lifer on NPR this morning – http://www.npr.org/2016/03/31/472501022/reaction-to-donald-trumps-abortion-comments

An excerpt: “Well, because the pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”

Trolling the Public Mind

Sometimes extremes can be a useful prod for one’s thinking. That has been the case with the troll I came across earlier this month. I can’t help but wonder what motivates such people. I could just dismiss them, not that it is likely once my curiosity gets going.

The question that comes to mind is: Does this troll actually believe in the position he promotes? I don’t have any reason to doubt it. He seems like a true believer who has become a committed activist to his cause, whether or not there is some kind of financial incentive behind that commitment. I doubt he is stupid and uneducated. In fact, he seems clever enough and that indicates some intelligence.

My suspicion is that he is like many people. He is probably a divided person, knowing and not knowing all kinds of things. Dissociation is a survival strategy in the complex modern world. It sometimes can be clear when someone goes to great effort to not know something that they are capable of knowing. Psychologists have studied this and shown how people can purposely not look at what they don’t want to see, while looking all around it.

The conflict isn’t between two sides of a debate, not fundamentally. The divide exists first and foremost within the human psyche. In trying to shut down debate and obfuscate the issue, the troll (or denialist or reactionary, whatever one wishes to call them) is trying to purge the feared content from their own mind. In order to undermine the science itself, these people have to understand the science, at least at a basic level. Their rhetoric is fairly often carefully structured in response to the known data. People know much of what they pretend to not know—as Cass R. Sunstein explained:

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe. […]

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

I definitely got the sense from that troll that he saw it as a game, a team sports competition. He was simply focused on getting his team to win. Still, I’m sure there is more going on than that. The competitiveness interpretation feels a bit superficial, even if it is an important factor.

This isn’t just about social behavior. It goes deep into human nature and collective reality. I had a bit of a strange thought, along these lines. What if there is something about public debate and social competition that easily elicits areas of non-rational thought that we would otherwise dismiss? I was specifically wondering about sympathetic magic. Let me explain.

Some people act like winning a debate and defeating an opponent, by fair means or not, is to prove they are right. Of course, for this mindset, defeating an opponent is winning a debate. In the ancient henotheistic worldview, when two societies went to war, it was perceived as a fight between the two ruling deities of those societies. So, it wasn’t just a people who won but a worldview that won, and it defined an entire reality. That worldview was reality, the reality of a particular culture and social order.

Those who deny the climatology science do so because they see the worldview it represents as a threat. It must be defeated, at any cost, because it isn’t just a threat but an existential threat. Naomi Klein understands this, and she argues that the denialists understand it as well. They realize that it goes way beyond mere science. If the climatologists are right, this very well may be the end of the world as we know it, collapse at worst and revolution at best. Either way, that means the end of the status quo and many people are heavily invested in the status quo.

Even most people on the political left feel wary about the challenge this forces upon us, and that is why so few on the political left put up much of a fight. Fighting for the reality of climate change is hardly inspiring. No one wants it to be true. Denial and dissociation is a normal human response to something so immense and overwhelming, something that is terrifying in its proportions and possibilities. We argue about it so that we won’t have to face the stark reality. This is a problem that our clever monkey minds can’t deal with. There is no positive outcome, no solution. No matter what we do, the world will change.

That is an uncomfortable truth for all of us, but it is most challenging to the political right. It simply doesn’t matter that they deny climate change, for it won’t stop climate change.

This got me thinking about Trump, the greatest troll America has ever produced. He is the king of trolls. He doesn’t even need the anonymity of the internet. He is pure arrogant bullying. It isn’t exactly anything new, just brought to its most extreme form. As Josh Marshall explained:

This is why Trump has so shaken up and so dominated the GOP primary cycle, at least thus far. As I’ve said, this kind of dominance symbolism is pervasive in GOP politics. It’s not new with Trump at all. Most successful Republican politicians speak this language

Trump will control, not be controlled. He will mock others ruthlessly. And he will destroy his enemies. One almost expects him to start thumping his chest.

He is just a variant of someone like Karl Rove. It’s a dominance mindset. These are powerful men who know they are powerful and aren’t afraid to use it. They have no shame because they consider no one else to be in a position to judge them. They are above it all. Take what Rove supposedly said back in the bad ol’ days of the Bush regime:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Power determines reality. Not the other way around. This is the attitude of someone who is used to getting their way and punishing those who get in their way. It is win at all costs. It matters not if this is an expression of Rove’s imperialism or Trump’s egotism—six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Rove’s comment connects back to my earlier point. There is something akin to sympathetic magic in this mindset. It is an almost magical belief in willpower. It is an assertion of one’s mastery.

This is seen in how religion relates to the political right. The rhetoric of dominance connects the tactics of apologetics to the behavior of reactionary trolls, bullies, egotists, and demagogues. To willfully assert one’s belief is to believe in the power of one’s will or simply in Will itself. Whether or not religion is directly involved, there is a god-like attitude in this.

It’s why apologists are so interested in history. And that is related to why right-wingers are so concerned about controlling what students are taught in history classes. Who controls the history books and textbooks will control the world. And, of course, it is the victors who get to write the history books, to determine what is taught.

The traditional Western worldview is built on a God of history. It doesn’t matter what the facts say but how the story is told and sold.

Reactionaries project their own mindset onto all of the world. They assume everyone is like them. As such, they can’t understand climatology as anything other than as a conspiracy of power and propaganda. In this worldview, there isn’t a clear distinction between the climate science and climate scientists. Reality has no independent existence and facts no objective validity. It makes one think of the relationship between postmodernism and fascism.

The sympathetic magic angle led me back to my ongoing thoughts about symbolic conflation. There is great power in this, and it continually amazes me.

Symbolic conflation requires issues that are visceral and emotional, socially relevant and politically potent, imaginatively compelling and symbolically multivalent. Simply put, what is needed is something that can’t be easily pinned down. This is the dark side of the mercurial spirit. The Trickster knows how to manipulate and con others, but he just as easily ends up fooling himself. The mercurial is about change, both transformation and destruction. But there are those who attempt to use this dark power for their own gain. Symbolic conflation is how this power gets bottled up. The con man gets taken in by his own con.

In this sense, I doubt the troll understands his own motivations. The greatest con of all is convincing yourself that you are more powerful than you are. But when one worships naked power, one becomes its servant, not its master. All attempts at social control are traps of the mind.

This isn’t about mere rhetoric. It touches deep into our psyche, far below the conscious mind. The stories we tell we eventually come to take as reality itself. And there is no more powerful force behind a story than that of fear.

I wonder if that is the Gordian knot of symbolic conflation, the cancerous lump on the collective imagination. It may seem like a lynch pin that could be easily removed, but what is interesting is that few people dare to tug at it to see if it will budge. Just because you can point to it doesn’t mean much. Fear of its undoing even makes the most radical of left-wingers reluctant to touch that raw nerve.

Whether climate change or war or abortion, such contentious issues open us up to a primal sense of fear. These are stark existential issues of life and death, of self and other. It’s not the ‘reality’ of these issues that matters. Sure, we can rationally discuss them, at least to some extent. Yet they remain political footballs thrown at the voter’s gut. They aren’t problems to be solved. They are psychological terrorism, their purpose being to enrage and divide… and ultimately to distract.

This is why Trump is no more interested in fair debate than is the internet troll and denialist. It is all spectacle, be it on the stage of mainstream media or the battleground of social media. It is ritualized drama, an emotional purging of our collective fears.

“Why are you thinking about this?”

“Why are you thinking about this?”

That was the question my father recently asked me, in relation to thoughts I had about books I was reading. The moment I heard the question, I realized he had asked me that question many times before, when discussing other topics.

I’m a naturally curious person. It isn’t that I don’t think about the reasons for my curiosity, but I wouldn’t think about it in the way that my father’s question was intended. His question felt defensive, and I realized that I often sense that defensive quality whenever I bring up a new set of ideas to my father. I’m so used to it, though, that I don’t normally give it much consideration. It’s usually just in the background.

My father has been my intellectual sparring partner for my entire life. He taught me how to think more than anyone else. This is significant for a number of reasons.

Most importantly, he is a conservative and I a liberal. So, my own thinking has naturally fallen into the grooves of this ideological dialectic. I’m incapable of thinking of liberalism and conservatism as separate phenomena. My relationship to my father is the ground for my experience of liberalism’s relationship to conservatism. This obviously gives a slant to my views. My liberalism is forever the son’s challenge to the father and hence to all things patriarchal and paternalistic.

This relationship is well established between my father and I. We each know our roles. When he asks me for my reasons, he isn’t just being generally defensive, but specifically toward something. There is something, as I see it, that conservatives will seek to defend before all else. I’ve previously called it symbolic conflation (also, see here, here, and here). It is the linchpin of the social order.

When I go off on my questioning obsessions, I’m wiggling that linchpin. I know it and my father knows it.

I may pretend that isn’t what I’m doing, for sake of good relations, but the fact of the matter is that I find myself a disturber of the peace in the Hobbit’s Shire. Like Bilbo Baggins, I’m not intending to be a radical revolutionary, a mean-spirited malcontent, or a mischievous troublemaker. I resisted my fate, as best I could, but to no avail. A disturber of the peace becomes such for somewhere along the way his own peace was disturbed. My mind and soul is disturbed by forces I neither comprehend nor control (some would call it ‘depression’), and so I act accordingly. It is what it is.

No one chooses to see the linchpin. But once seen, it is hard to unsee, no matter how disturbing.

Researchers have even shown that people will sometimes go to great effort not to see something. A study was done on different patterns of eye focusing. There was some image that didn’t fit into a person’s worldview or else didn’t fit into what they deemed acceptable, and as I recall the researchers were specifically dividing people according to ideological categories.

What was found was that certain people would look all over the room while conspicuously not looking at the one place where that image was located. So, they weren’t looking at it, but at some level they had seen it in their peripheral vision and were unconsciously recognizing its presence by actively looking all around it. This is a cognitive blindspot, not a lack of physical ability to see, just a lack of conscious willingness and desire to perceive.

That is how I think conservatives deal with symbolic conflations (conservative-minded liberals deal with it in the same way). They spend immense energy defending what they will never directly acknowledge. That is why the structure of the psychological dynamic is so important, where the symbol is conflated with reality. The symbol, as such, represents and obscures. The conservative knows and doesn’t know what the symbol means. The conflation is so tricky that even most liberals have a hard time untangling the knot or even realizing there is a knot to be untangled, and that is the conflation’s primary purpose, to hide the soft underbelly from probing daggers.

The conservative’s task is much easier for the reason that most liberals don’t want to untangle the knot, to remove the linchpin. Still, that is what conservative’s fear, for they know liberals have that capacity, no matter how unlikely they are to act on it. This fear is real. The entire social order is dependent on overlapping symbolic conflations, each a link in a chain, and so each a point of vulnerability.

A symbolic conflation both represents and replaces what is unspoken, both distracts from and obscures what is hidden. It is a fluttering bird luring the predator away from the nest. My mind was brought back to these thoughts not just because of my father’s question, although the question helped focus my mind. Seeing the fluttering bird of his question, my attention was drawn to the trajectory from which it was fleeing.

What started all this was my reading about shame (along with guilt, honor, etc), the topic that elicited my father’s question. It so happens that conservatism and liberalism are key to my thoughts about shame, although I had not immediately stated so to him, but still he sensed the implications.

The issue of shame is a sore spot where conservatism and liberalism have, from their close proximity, rubbed each other raw. It is also a site of much symbolic conflation, the linchpin like a stake in the ground to which a couple of old warriors are tied in their ritual dance of combat and wounding, where both are so focused on one another that neither pays much attention to the stake that binds them together. In circling around, they wind themselves ever tighter and their tethers grow shorter.

Stepping away from that predictable struggle, I found myself wondering about what is outside the proscribed boundary of polarized consciousness. In my specific inquiry here, my mind slipped down a side path that runs parallel to well-tread ruts. Exploring shame caused me to wander afield, as the subject is new territory for me, and in wandering I found myself following this new trail of thought. As often happens, I discovered something of interest along the way.

I was led back to an author and a book with which I’m already familiar, but I was now able to see it in new light. The book in question is Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde. I had forgotten how much the author discusses shame and I have to say it is one of the better books on the subject that I’ve so far read. Here is what caught my attention. A few sections I recognized as territory from my own maps of symbolic conflation. Hyde’s cartographic descriptions of this emotional terrain, however, uses trickster mythology (instead of ideological predispositions) for the map’s legend and scaling.

In the first passage that got me excited, Hyde shows the relationship between shame, the body, and the social order. He writes that (pp. 169-170),

“[A]n 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…”

I loved his explaining of this metonymy as a bait and switch. It is a brilliant analysis of how symbolic conflation operates. Hyde unpacks the confusion and in its place offers clarity.

The visceral language he uses is powerful. Symbolic conflation sounds too abstract. The actual experience really is to be snared in a trap. The body, as being spoken of here, isn’t a mere metaphor. What makes it so compelling is that the imagined gets identified with the body, with specific parts and specific functions of specific bodies. One feels this in one’s own body and so at the most basic level of one’s sense of identity and reality.

So much falls into place once this is understood. I’m forced to think more deeply about my own previous speculations and understandings. I sense how this touches upon the beating heart of symbolic conflation. A symbol is always rooted in the imagination with the taproot running deep into visceral experience, the body being the dark soil in which it grows. It is in our telling of stories that this visceral experience is brought to life and made personally real. A story is about meaning, but it is a meaning more of emotions than of ideas.

I’m also brought back to thoughts of reactionary conservatism. Is Hyde specifically pinning down the fluttering wings of the reactionary conservative? Has he devised his own snare to entrap the reactionary conservative in action, like a camera set up to snap a picture of a wary beast in the deep wilderness? If so, what is the precise relationship between reactionary conservatism and symbolic conflation that is captured here?

I’ll return to those questions, but first let me explore further into what Hyde has written about. In the next passage, he explores a historical context for one particular trickster mythology, Hermes of the ancient Greeks (pp. 206-207):

“[Norman O. Brown] therefore proposes this parallel: just as Hermes acquires a place alongside Apollo in the course of the Hymn, so in the course of the sixth century the “Athenian industrial and commercial classes achieved equality with the aristocracy.” That equality was not easily won; it required the resolution of a whole series of differences. In the aristocratic era, wealth came from herding and farming the soil; in Athenian democracy those sources of wealth still existed but were increasingly challenged by a craft economy and commercial exchange with strangers. Agrarian aristocracy was organized around hierarchical kinship ties; Athenian democracy retained such ties but added a new ethic of equality symbolized by the fact that many political positions in Athens were filled by a lottery in which all citizens could participate, regardless of family or status. Most important, the emerging cosmopolitan democracy brought with it a “new ethics of acquisitive individualism [that] conflicted with the traditional morality which the Greeks called Themis— the body of customs and laws inherited from the age of familial collectivism.” The older morality took any deviation from “the archaic form of commerce by mutual exchange of gifts” to be an immoral thieving (even what we would now call fair trade was taken to be robbery). In short, during the sixth century, a world organized through kin relationships and a collective ethic of gift exchange gave way to a world in which hierarchy could be periodically revised and social relations were increasingly articulated through the individualist (which is to say, thieving) ethic of the marketplace.

“As for those who were excluded or marginalized, we should remember that, in a society where the dominant values are kin ties and agrarian wealth, those whose identity is bound up with trade are typically consigned to a subordinate place in the order of things. They are, so to speak, “low caste” (as they have been historically in India, where merchants and artisans fall into the lower two of the four varnas). If, in the Greek case, such people hope to place themselves on an equal footing with the warriors and family farmers of ancient days, they will have to subvert that order and reshape it on their own terms. Such, Brown argues, is exactly what happened: the “regime of the landed aristocracy was overthrown, its agrarian economy yielding to a new economy based on trade and handicraft industry, its political oligarchy yielding to the politics of ancient democracy.” The Hymn reflects that change: “The theme of strife between Hermes and Apollo translates into mythical language the insurgence of the Greek lower classes and their demands for equality with the aristocracy.”

“Brown’s claims cover a lot of ground and his talk of class conflict gives off an air of retrospective Marxism, but the [Homeric] Hymn itself, however we fit it into actual Greek history, sets up a tension in accord with the one that Brown suggests. There is little doubt that in the classical period Hermes is associated with artisans, merchants, and thieves, and the poem itself makes it clear that some kind of “outsiderness” is at issue, and that Hermes hopes to change it.”

Right there! That is key. The described “outsiderness” brings us directly to the doorstep of the reactionary conservative, as understood by Corey Robin. Before I get to that, let me add the paragraph that immediately follows the above (p. 207):

“To effect that change he has, as I said earlier, a method by which the excluded can enter a group, change its structure, and give themselves a place at the table. A whole range of cunning tricks makes up this method, but its underlying structure is quite simple: no matter what he does, Hermes is either an enchanter or a disenchanter.”

I would note and emphasize that this touches upon the Burkean roots of reactionary conservatism.

Edmund Burke was one of those outsiders (in his case, raised a Catholic in Ireland) who sought “a place at the table” of the English ruling elite. He didn’t want to overturn the table and certainly not to take an axe to it. His attitude was that of the emerging middle class challenging the weakening traditionalism of the ancien régime. It was the same basic pattern that played out two millennia before in ancient Greece.

It is interesting to think of the reactionary conservative in his role as trickster. He is seeking to redefine his position and remake the social order, of course in his own image. The reactionary rhetoric being used is tricksy, for it generously borrows from the political left in order to undermine the political left. The reactionary conservative seeks to usurp the liberals role as challenger to the status quo and simultaneously to remove the teeth of radicalism, leaving the left without any real bite.

Enchanter and deceiver. The trickster may free you but at a cost of enslaving you to something else. He hypnotizes you with a story and makes you drowsy with a song, he puts you under the sway of an archetype and delivers you into the control of an unseen power.

This is what the reactionary conservative does with symbolic conflation, not to claim that this is how conservatives understand their own actions, as this process happens mostly within the unconscious, the territory of the imagination and the playground of the trickster. Reactionary conservatives end up deceiving both others and themselves, a mutually-afflicted magic spell of misdirection and mystification.

Edmund Burke the progressive reformer becomes Edmund Burke the reactionary conservative. Was there an actual change of character or was his real character revealed?

Is the reactionary mode of being the trickster lying in wait within the liberal mind? Do liberals simply fall prey to their own fears and dark thoughts? If Burke hadn’t felt shame in his outsider status that he tried to hide by gaining social position, might he have avoided falling into this reactionary stance of pulling up the ladder behind him? Why is it so often that the challenger to power who is the one most fearful of challenges to power and so most reactionary to any further unsettling of the status quo?

With this in mind, Hyde does offer further context, in which he describes two aspects of the trickster (pp. 208-209):

“Depending on which way he is moving across the threshold, I call him Hermes of the Dark or Hermes of the Light. Hermes of the Dark is the enchanter or hypnagoge who moves us into the underworld of sleep, dream, story, myth. This darkening motion is a precondition of belief; with it Hermes delivers you to one of the gods and puts you under his or her spell. He dissolves time in the river of forgetfulness, and once time has disappeared the eternals come forward. Hermes of the Dark is the weaver of dreams, the charmer who spins a compelling tale, the orator who speaks your mother tongue with fluid conviction.

“Hermes of the Light is the disenchanter or awakening angel who leads you out of the cave. There the bright light prepares the ground for doubt. There he kills and roasts the sacred cattle. He dissolves eternals in the river of time, and when they have disappeared, the world becomes contingent and accidental. Hermes of the Light translates dreams into analytic language; he rubs the charm from old stories until they seem hopelessly made up and mechanical. He walks you inland until you stop dreaming in your mother tongue.

“Hermes himself is neither one of these alone but both at once. He is neither the god of the door leading out nor the god of the door leading in— he is the god of the hinge. He is the mottled figure in the half-light, the amnigoge who simultaneously amazes and unmazes, whose wand both “bewitches the eyes of men to sleep and wakes the sleeping,” as Homer says in the Iliad. I sometimes wonder if all great creative minds do not participate in this double motion, humming a new and catchy theogony even as they demystify the gods their elders sang about. Pablo Picasso had that double motion, disturbing classical perspective while presenting a strange new way of seeing, one so hypnotic it shows up decades after his death on billboards and children’s printed pajamas. Sigmund Freud had that double motion, dragging slips of the tongue into the daylight, or “explaining” Moses, while simultaneously retelling the old story of Oedipus in a manner so compelling that, decades after his death, Ivy League literary critics can’t get it out of their heads. Or there is Vladimir Nabokov: if you think his deft language magic is serious, you’re wrong, and if you think it’s just a game, you’re wrong.”

Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light. The latter might be thought of as the liberal mind in radical mode. The former would then be the liberal mind in reactionary mode, what is known more simply as conservatism, it likely being redundant calling a conservative reactionary.

Hermes isn’t one or the other. He is both the enchanter and the disenchanter.

This is how I see liberalism in this liberal age. I suspect that ultimately the radical and the reactionary are the two archetypal roles of the trickster, as they get expressed in post-Enlightenment modernity. Hermes the enchanter puts the linchpin in place and hides its location. Hermes the disenchanter is the liberating force that wiggles the linchpin or even pulls it out, but only to put it back in at another location. The trickster shifts, not destroys, the boundary.

The great minds of any age play both roles in an act of creative destruction. They learn from the problems and weaknesses of the old vision. They then replace it with an even more powerful reality tunnel, a cognitive trap that will be even harder to escape, whether or not that was their intended result.

This is how we must understand conservatives. The best conservative thinkers and leaders were able to accomplish this magic trick. They offered something new and convinced so many that it was always that way. Conservatives are first and foremost enthralling storytellers, drawing us into their narratives, sometimes even against our better judgment. They don’t just redefine conservatism, but the entire political framework and the entire historical foundation of thought. They proscribe the perceived reality of what was, what is, and what must be.

This obviously isn’t how conservatives think of themselves, and that is the entire point. What they do has so much power for the very reason that it doesn’t correspond to what they say. The closer you watch the more you will be thrown by the sleight-of-hand.

I’ll allow Corey Robin to explain this from his own perspective, as written in his book The Reactionary Mind (pp. 42-43):

“Whether in Europe or the United States, in this century or previous ones, conservatism has been a forward movement of restless and relentless change, partial to risk taking and ideological adventurism, militant in its posture and populist in its bearings, friendly to upstarts and insurgents, outsiders and newcomers alike. While the conservative theorist claims for his tradition the mantle of prudence and moderation, there is a not-so-subterranean strain of imprudence and immoderation running through that tradition— a strain that, however counterintuitive it seems, connects Sarah Palin to Edmund Burke.

“A consideration of this deeper strain of conservatism gives us a clearer sense of what conservatism is about. While conservatism is an ideology of reaction— originally against the French Revolution, more recently against the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies— that reaction has not been well understood. Far from yielding a knee-jerk defense of an unchanging old regime or a thoughtful traditionalism, the reactionary imperative presses conservatism in two rather different directions: first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; and second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes. What conservatism seeks to accomplish through that reconfiguration of the old and absorption of the new is to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses. A new old regime, one could say, which brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate.”

When I first read this book, Robin’s theory was disconcerting. I had previously been taken in by all of the confusing rhetoric. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of any of it. I couldn’t figure out what conservatism even meant or was supposed to represent. Like most Americans, the obfuscation was a powerful force in obstructing clear thought. But what if, as Robin suggests, conservatism is in some sense the complete opposite of what it pretends to be? That is a truly radical possibility.

The one part of his theory that is most intriguing is something I already pointed out. According to Robin, conservatism is and always has been driven by outsiders. That is what gives it such a dynamic quality, as opposed to its proclamations of traditionalism. In speaking about “populist currents,” he states that they “can help us make sense of a final element of conservatism.” As he elaborates (pp. 57-58):

“From the beginning, conservatism has appealed to and relied upon outsiders. Maistre was from Savoy, Burke from Ireland. Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in Nevis and rumored to be part black. Disraeli was a Jew, as are many of the neoconservatives who helped transform the Republican Party from a cocktail party in Darien into the party of Scalia, d’Souza, Gonzalez, and Yoo. (It was Irving Kristol who first identified “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism” as the conversion of “the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”) 41 Allan Bloom was a Jew and a homosexual. And as she never tired of reminding us during the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin is a woman in a world of men, an Alaskan who said no to Washington (though she really didn’t), a maverick who rode shotgun to another maverick.”

This outsider element is key to probing beneath appearances. It gets down to the visceral feeling behind conservatism, the gut-level pull of its language and imagery. “Conservatism,” he continues (p. 58),

“has not only depended upon outsiders; it also has seen itself as the voice of the outsider. From Burke’s cry that “the gallery is in the place of the house” to Buckley’s complaint that the modern conservative is “out of place,” the conservative has served as a tribune for the displaced, his movement a conveyance of their grievances. 42 Far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob’s treatment of Marie Antoinette. The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose. His constituency is the contingently dispossessed— William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man”— rather than the preternaturally oppressed. Far from diminishing his appeal, this brand of victim-hood endows the conservative complaint with a more universal significance. It connects his disinheritance to an experience we all share— namely, loss— and threads the strands of that experience into an ideology promising that that loss, or at least some portion of it, can be made whole.”

This brings me around to the original issue. Loss is a powerful emotion and so it is a site of symbolic conflation, where the trickster can play his tricks. Loss speaks to everyone and it is a truly amazing trick to make loss symbolic of power itself, of position and privilege (pp. 58-59):

People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess. It used to be one of the great virtues of the left that it alone understood the often zero-sum nature of politics, where the gains of one class necessarily entail the losses of another. But as that sense of conflict diminishes on the left, it has fallen to the right to remind voters that there really are losers in politics and that it is they— and only they— who speak for them. “All conservatism begins with loss,” Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, which makes conservatism not the Party of Order, as Mill and others have claimed, but the party of the loser.”

But what is loss? It is primarily a feeling. Once elicited, many stories can be woven around it, both hopeful and disempowering, both beneficial and malign. Loss by itself, however, has no inherent meaning.

Loss is a wound, an opening and an openness to meaning. In portraying the listener as the wounded, the rhetorician and storyteller puts the listener in the position of vulnerability and fear. If one is wounded, someone must have done the wounding and so there must be an attacker toward which requires a defense or a counter-attack. The loss points an accusing finger to a thief and a criminal, someone undeserving and dangerous, a taker rather than a maker, a destroyer rather than a creator.

The trickster is as much about what isn’t there, silence as much as sound, which is why loss resonates so deeply here. Loss signifies something and yet refuses to settle on a single significance. It makes us uncomfortable, to sit too long alone in that throbbing ache. We seek to fill the emptiness with meaning or yet more emotion, anger or shame, hatred or longing, or else fill the silence with the sound of speaking, our own voice or that of another.

Loss is elusive, always shifting, hence its trickster quality and reactionary persuasion. We are willing to be deceived by anyone who will tell us what our loss means, who will give us a story to help us forget, if only temporarily.

Lewis Hyde also touches upon this theme of loss in Trickster Makes This World (pp. 287-288):

“Like the heap of stones over a grave, the symbol that stands for a thing that has been lost (not “Krishna” but “Krishna-gone”) belongs to an odd class of symbols. We cannot “read through it” to its sense, because what it stands for is missing. It operates not as a point of entry into meaning but paradoxically as a breeder of multiple meanings. That is to say, when we try to find the sense of one of these “symbols of loss,” we discover only senses that we ourselves bring to it, and we can easily bring new ones each time we approach. (A famous example is Thoreau’s remark in Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail.” A hundred and fifty years after this line was written, what one notices is not that its readers have slowly settled on its true meaning but that meanings have proliferated each time someone looks at it.) Symbols of absent things draw interpretive minds the way the flute music draws the gopis. If multiple meanings are what you want, a lost hound is a better breeder than any real Fido. Krishna erases the mundane, then erases himself, and these removals— precisely because they do not declare— open the field for human beings to spin out endlessly their sense of what has happened.”

A symbolic conflation always points elsewhere, assuming it points anywhere at all. It is an empty signifier, for it can never mean what it claims, can never be as it seems. It sends one’s mind in circles, chasing what is not there, a shadow cast from somewhere else, and like a shadow it is defined by a lack of substance. It is the shape of an empty space, a sense of an absence. It is an aporia in the narrative, an elision between meaning and the meaningless.

I’m always enticed by what is missing, unspoken, ignored. My father’s question attracted my attention not because of some answer it was pointing toward, but because it seemed to point away from something else, maybe another question. That is the same basic reason that has obsessed my mind about symbolic conflation. It feels like there is no end to insights to be mined, for the trickster multiplies meaning. The trickster can always disenchant. Our minds can be freed of the binds that tie us down and tangle up our every thought.

Still, taken at face value, my father’s question is a serious question. Why do I focus on what I do? I ultimately don’t know.

It reminds me of my habit of always looking down as I walk. My father, on the other hand, never looks down and has a habit of stepping on things. It is only by looking down that we can see what is underneath our feet, what we stand on or are stepping toward. Foundation and fundament are always below eye level. Even in my thinking, I’m forever looking down, to what is beneath everyday awareness and oft-repeated words. Just to look down, such a simple and yet radical act.

Looking down is also a sign of shame or else humility, the distinction maybe being less relevant to those who avoid looking down. To humble means to bring low, to the level of the ground, the soil, humus. To be further down the ladder of respectability, to be low caste or low class, is to have a unique vantage point. One can see more clearly and more widely when one has grown accustomed to looking down, for then one can see the origins of things, the roots of the world, where experience meets the ground of being.

This is also of the trickster. One can learn a lot about people by looking at their shit and sifting through their garbage, all that is metaphorically and literally rejected and repressed, tossed away and thrown aside. The greatest of insights are gleaned this way. Those who know shame are given the opportunity to know what gets lost and hidden in the muck of shame. Toiling in the dirt and grime, they can dig up what was buried, now decaying, and in the hole dug they can plant seeds to grow.

Where sun and earth meet is the liminal space of the fertile.

As Hyde explains (pp. 179-180):

“In this world, in trickster’s world, life and death are one thing, not two, and therefore no one gets rid of death without getting rid of life as well. You get no seeds at all if the sunlight is too pure ever to mingle with the muck of the rice paddies. You get no seeds if shit never enters the New Palace. And because there is always a hunger seeking for those seeds, whenever humans or gods move to purify life by excluding death, or to protect order completely from the dirt that is its by-product, trickster will upset their plans. When purity approaches sterility, he will tear a hole in the sacred enclosure and drop a dead pony on the virgin weavers, or strew his feces under the Sun Goddess’s throne. In the Legba story we saw that trickster can create the boundary between heaven and earth, threatening the gods with dirt until they retreat into the distant sky; here we see that once such a boundary exists trickster can abrogate it, importing dirt into the exalted halls until some of heaven’s wealth is loosened and the earth is fertilized, the sun reborn.

“I am, of course, reading this Japanese story rather literally. While it is a nature myth for an agrarian culture (those seeds are actually seeds, and that pile of shit should properly be called manure), the images resonate at other levels as well. If dirt is “matter out of place,” if it is what we exclude when we are creating order, then this and other stories about tricksters and dirt must also speak to the sterility that hides in most all human system and design. The models we devise to account for the world and the shapes we create to make ourselves at home in it are all too often inadequate to the complexity of things, and end up deadened by their own exclusions.”

That is why the world needs skeptics and contrarians. Those who don’t just ask why but also why not. Sometimes the windows need to be opened to let the musty air out and the sunshine in, circulation and merging of the elements. A balancing, a coming to equilibrium.

To play this role, however, is difficult. For the outsider to succeed in forcing change to what is inside is likely to find himself then being on the inside. A window being opened, the opportunity of entry beckons and, with entry, comes promises of inclusion. This is how the trickster transmutes shit into gold, a turtle of the earth into a lyre for a god. And in this is found the secret link between the trickster and the cultural hero, between the bastard child and the prodigal son.

The trickster often finds himself having become domesticated and respectable. The trick of change is as much a trick played on himself as on others. “Such may be the frequent fate of radical change-agents,” states Hyde (pp. 224-225), “to be coopted, outflanked, and contained by the larger culture, to be brought up short of a full apocalyptic reallotment.” He continues,

“But what exactly are the options? A remark by Claude Lévi-Strauss offers a way to imagine the possible fates of those who threaten a group with fundamental change. Lévi-Strauss contrasts two types of societies: “those which practice cannibalism— that is, which regard the absorption of certain individuals possessing dangerous powers as the only means of neutralizing these powers and even of turning them to advantage— and those which, like our own … adopt what might be called the practice of anthropemy (from the Greek emein, to vomit).” The latter eject dangerous individuals; they leave them in the woods, or build special jails to cut them off from the group and keep them isolated. In short, groups can either expel or ingest their troublemakers. The most successful change-agent avoids either fate and manages to stay on the threshold, neither in nor out, but short of that difficult balance the next best fate may be to be eaten, to be incorporated into the local myth.

“Let us say, then, that the Homeric Hymn to Hermes records an incorporation; it is an after-the-fact record of a disruption that has been contained and re-presented as something Zeus “had in mind all along,” not an apocalypse. Trickster’s disruptions are always potentially apocalyptic, but in this case they are converted into manageable mischief. For apocalyptic action, one needs turn to Monkey disrupting the Taoist immortals or to the medieval Loki after whose disruptions the Norse gods are not reborn in Scandinavia but supplanted by Christianity.

“The Hymn is not so apocalyptic and that may be the more common case. It is what might be expected when an outsider penetrates the group: at some point there must be an understanding, a series of compromises that formalize the move, a negotiated living together. In this case the terms are to a large degree set by Hermes, but they do not upset the entire order of things; the order adapts to contain the introject, the foreign thing it has swallowed, and at that point we should divide the “domestication” plot into two forms. It is one thing to submit to an old set of house rules, quite another to enter a house that you yourself have helped to build.”

The reactionary conservative gets assimilated. This is how each generation of conservatives inexorably shifts ever leftward. Over a long enough period, conservatives becomes more liberal than even the liberals of the past.

The ultimate secret of all symbolic conflations contrived by the conservative mind is simple, that there never has been a conservative tradition. The voice of conservatism is but an echo of the liberalism that came before. A reactionary can only rearrange, never create anything new. Yet, in rearranging, the next stage of radicalism is made possible.

The reactionary asking the radical why merely provokes the radical to ask their own questions. These further questions the reactionary cannot answer.

* * * *

By the way, I’m not clearly speaking of absolutely distinct categories. I probably could have explained that better.

I don’t see any reason why a person couldn’t be a radical liberal at one point and a reactionary liberal at another. My speaking of both as liberal was my way of speaking to that possibility. Maybe everyone has the potential for each, and understanding that is our only defense against the extremes.

These are roles more than they are fundamental identities. I wanted to state this more overtly so as to not allow for any confusion.

In talking about my father, the context is a relationship. These roles always exist in particular relationships. As such, I’m only a radical to the extent that I’m relating to someone playing the role of a reactionary, my father in this case. Ditto for what I perceive as my father being a reactionary, a role he is playing in relation to me. These are situational and hence contingent roles, although people have a way of trying to make such roles permanent.

Anyway, it is irrelevant how an individual self-identifies. Labels can be misleading. What is important isn’t that my father prefers the label conservative and that I’ve tended toward the liberal label. There is nothing inherently reactionary or radical in a label.

None of this involves judgement of character. Neither role is morally inferior or superior. These are social realities and must be understood on those terms. They exist only in relationship and only as a singular inseparable dynamic. For me, this isn’t just a dynamic in my relationship with my father, but a dynamic of ideas in my head, what can feel like an internal division and conflict that gets processed by way of an external relationship.

In short, I can’t blame my father for how I experience my father. My response to his question remains my response. My purpose isn’t to objectively prove intentions and motivations. I’m limited to my own intuitive abilities to suss out meaning, an endless process.

These are thoughts I’m playing around with. When the personal is involved, it can make it easier to ground one’s thoughts, but it also can mire one in other kinds of confusions. That is what I was trying to indicate near the beginning of this post, when I spoke of the dynamic between my father and I. It truly has shaped my view of politics. Through this, I gain certain insights, but those insights no doubt have many biases and constraints.

This is the reason I find value in connecting my personal insights to the writings of others, to give me perspective. I’ve been developing these kinds of ideas for many years now. This represents some of my most original thought. My initial understanding arose out of my experience. My later readings have helped to give shape to this understanding.

As my understanding has developed, I’ve come to a more nuanced view of ideology and labels. This post represents one further step in the development of these ideas and insights.

* * * *

As a side note, I mentioned directly above that this is some of my most original thought.

I’m speaking of symbolic conflation. I came to that insight entirely on my own. In fact, I coined the phrasing of ‘symbolic conflation’, as I hadn’t seen it described by anyone else. Lewis Hyde comes close in his use of metonymy, but that doesn’t fully capture my meaning.

The insight slowly emerged from years upon years of discussions with my parents. So much of my political understanding goes back to my family relationships. The original inspiration was a single observation.

A highly emotional and divisive issue of politics is abortion. It has in some ways been the most central theme of the culture wars, connecting together so many other threads in a way that is hard to disentangle.

I presented my parents with the data that countries that ban abortions don’t decrease and, in some cases, increase the rate of abortions. This is to say that on average banning abortions does increase the abortion rate.

This undermines the entire rationalization of the socially conservative position. But my parents were unfazed by this challenge to the heart of their ideological system. I experienced similar refusal to confront these basic facts from other conservatives as well.

By their own logic, social conservatives shouldn’t support banning abortions. Doing so, according to their way of thinking, increases the killing of babies. The only way to protect life is by not making it an issue of shame and fear, by giving women many choices and resources. All of this prevents unwanted pregnancies in the first place and hence prevents most women from even needing to consider abortion.

This is common sense. Yet I’ve never met a conservative who is able and willing to morally and rationally confront this challenge. It hits too close to a nerve. Pull on that thread and the whole thing might unravel.

This is how I came to my original thoughts on symbolic conflation.

Now, having read Lewis Hyde, I realize that it was no accident that I first came to this understanding because of an issue like abortion. It is a highly emotional issue that take the body as an ideological battlefield. An ideology, as some see it, isn’t just about political opinions, but an entire worldview. When ideology is grounded in bodily experience, this creates the possibility of what I observed and what Hyde describes.

Lakoff sees the family as a fundamental metaphor for politics. That seems to be the case, but maybe that is because family relations are so personal and visceral. A mother gives birth to and breastfeeds the child. Parents hold, caress, and at times punish the child. Families live in and share the same physical space.

Hyde points in this direction with some of his examples, such as a mother telling her daughter a story of shame when her first menstration came. As Hyde explains, this is about creating and enforcing social boundaries. The first boundary ever created is the bond with the mother.

In future writings, i’d like to explore the relationship between shame and symbolic conflation.

I’ve recently come to realize how important shame is to so many aspects of human experience and society. I sense that shame might be core to every symbolic conflation. Both shame and symbolic conflation are about wanting to keep something hidden. Or rather shame is the experience of the failure to keep something hidden or the fear that such failure is likely, and that fear will never go away as long as the symbolic conflation is in place.

I’d also like to connect this to my thoughts on race and racism, along with some similar issues related to our collective past of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. Specifically, I’d like to connect this to my thoughts on the perplexing issue of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The study of ignorance, agnotology, would also be the study of what is hidden, both to public and private awareness. All of this connects to ideas I first came across in the writings of Derrick Jensen, ideas about the victimization cycle, silencing, dissociation, splitting, doubling, etc.

Shame is the one of the most primal defense mechanisms. When I see shame in operation, I know something of the greatest of importance is being protected. People will kill and die for shame.

In thinking along these lines, Hydes book reminds me that with shame we touch upon the sacred. This is at the heart of what it means to be human. It isn’t just about conservatives and the conservative moral order. I wish to tread lightly, for we are all implicated.