Month: December 2019

Regress-Angst and the Wellsprings of Trumphate (I)

Who in this wide world—whatever their political views—has not had the chance lo these past three years to marvel at that murderous sparkle that instantly appears in the eyes of today’s bien pensants whenever the current president is mentioned in earshot?

The tensing of the voice and body—the immediate presentiment of mortal threat—the outraged sense of something infinitely precious being permanently rolled out of reach—the screeching tones of inconsolable tragedy—the grasping at tenuous and even mendacious pretexts in order to maintain a maximum of self-righteous rage—all of this is characteristic, diagnostic, unmissable… and increasingly pervasive.

The recent passage (but not transmission) at record speed of articles of impeachment that are strangely based on no definite crime or misdemeanor, is only the latest large-scale manifestation of this condition, whose strange effects seem even to have bled into the mental health of the nation. On the individual level, many a therapist (including some known to yours truly) has recounted a substantial rise, since the election of 2016, in the number of clients claiming to have suffered actual psychological damage due to Mr. Trump’s election and subsequent leadership—the so-called “Trump Anxiety”.

It seems quite possible, in reality, that the assumed causality here is actually backwards—that Donald Trump simply is the scapegoat closest-to-hand, in the face of a much more deeply-rooted anxiety that is frustratingly difficult to attribute or localize and yet which lingers on the borders of consciousness. It may even be that Mr. Trump’s own voters are in some sense victims of this same anxiety—but simply choose to see him, no less facilely, as its possible solution rather than its culprit.

Whatever is happening, the “Trump Anxiety” (the term meant to replace the older, more tongue-in-cheek “Trump Derangement Syndrome”) has a power that far outstrips the terms of mere dislike or disagreement. To take one especially florid (but by no means unrepresentative) example, Counterpunch writer Paul Street recent went so far as to modestly propose the following form of justice as perfectly fitting for Mr. Trump:

“[…] the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds […]”

This passage is, in fact, an account of the execution of an eighteenth-century regicide (“Damiens the regicide”), quoted second-hand by way of Foucault. So we here have a true Foucauldian “limit experience”, served up as political revenge-fantasy—an improbable therapeutic for body-politic and soul alike.

It seems in these strange new borderlands of late-capitalist dislocation and hyper-subjectivist outrage, humor or argumentation are no longer selling-points, both having been pressed all the way to the floorboards without offering an iota of relief (or release). One is tempted to mangle a bit of Marx (also from Street’s own article) and say: “all pretense of light, Onion-style irony melts into air”.

But really one detects at least as much of religious moral vengeance as “limit experience” at work here. Consider the episode in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals where he cites one of the ancient Church fathers (Tertullian) describing, with unconcealed glee, the eternal torture that awaits all heretics and betrayers of the Faith. Here it is, for comparison:

How I will be lost in admiration! How I will laugh! How I will rejoice! I will be full of exaltation then as I see so many great kings who by public report were accepted into heaven groaning in the deepest darkness with Jove himself and alongside those very men who testified on their behalf! […] The actors will then be easier to recognize, for the fire will make them much more agile. Then the charioteer will be on show, all red in a wheel of fire, and the athletes will be visible, thrown, not in the gymnasium, but in the fire, unless I have no wish to look at their bodies then, so that I can more readily cast an insatiable gaze on those who raged against our Lord.”

—Nietzsche, ibid., §15

Do we notice any similarities with the Damiens passage?

Aside from this religious parallel, there are also many other things conceptually and emotionally completely amiss in Street’s position. For one, he does not seem to notice or much care about the incongruity of of a supposedly egalitarian-leftist-Jacobin writer (such as himself) passionately inhabiting the exact same emotional world as an outraged royal subject confronting the murderer of his beloved monarch. Are we to suppose that the advent of Trump has in fact caused Mr. Street, in his heart of hearts, to veer neoreactionary…? Perhaps he now even harbors a secret, aching sympathy for… the Stuarts?

Nor does Mr. Street notice—as he deploys ad nauseam Marx’s oft-quoted point from the Communist Manifesto that “everything sacred is profaned”, to accuse Trump of the same sort of profanation—that his outrage has caused him to lose his own ideological bearings in yet another way. For Marx here was by no means bemoaning the “profaning of the sacred” by capitalism, so much as marveling at it, and hoping to accomplish its completion. In general, the Left’s stated aim vis-à-vis religion is by no means to reverse the “profanation” begun by capitalism but to accelerate and complete it, culminating firstly in the excision of the sacred dimension of human life as exploitative balderdash, “the heart of a heartless world” etc. etc., and then in its wholesale replacement (with dialectical materialism or, if you are more modish, with woke-Wiccan alternatives).

Such are the befuddlements of late-stage Trump-rage. Yet for all the confusion he exhibits, Mr. Street’s resolute decision to condemn Trump in terms of profanation—along with the incandescent sadism of his proposed punishment for a man who, in fairness, has yet even to be charged with any specific crime—gives another useful clue to the type and power of emotion at work here. The kind of resentment that is in play now does not arise, say, from “failure to listen” or “immoderate views”, or—perish the thought!—from “fact-averseness”, but from the profaning of that which the listener considers sacred, fundamental, even transcendent. The attitude of Street, and of the countless progressives who have flung themselves upon the nation’s therapist’s couches since 2016, like the blood-lust of Tertullian, must be of a religious timbre.

Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore, offers some quite helpful reflections on this subject:

“Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue.”

—”Trump as Desecration

Conversely, it does not take a great deal of study to cast major doubt on the idea that that actual deeds or matters of effective policy truly are the ultimate source of “Trump angst”. One need only observe how often policies similar to or more extreme than those carried out by Trump (for instance, with regard to border enforcement or Ukraine) raised, when carried out under the Obama administration, only muted if any opposition from progressive quarters. And let us not forget the curious figure cut by those progressives who were ardently “anti-war” and “anti-American-empire” a historical eye-blink ago, but now quite suddenly find themselves hyperventilating at Mr. Trump’s relative lack of interest in militarily supporting Kurdistan in a proxy battle against Turkey; or who now align themselves, with great and gravid sanctimony, with the very same essentially hegemonic foreign policy claques and vampire-squid economic interests they heatedly (and sensibly) denounced in the years before the 2016 election.

So much for the old days of “stop the war machine”! In yet another example of (seemingly) Trump-induced ideological discombobulation, the new progressive drumbeat has shifted in favor of outdoing Trump on the kind of muscular, international U.S. interventionism that once made “neocon” a term of progressive loathing.

What is an “Intellectual”?

It strikes me that a great deal of the dysfunction we face in the systems of present-day society (whether business, government, science, you name it) seems to hang on one very simple, often overlooked question: what is an “intellectual”?

It will not suffice, of course, to answer “smart people”, as we are trained to do almost to the point of reflex. As cannot have escaped the notice of anyone above the age of five, many smart people, in fact, are not intellectuals, and also obversely: many intellectuals are vulnerable to spasms of breathtaking idiocy (what Taleb calls the IYI, or intellectual-yet-idiot).

Alas, then: intelligence, while widely associated with intellectualism, is nonetheless only tangential to it.

Perhaps it would be better to think of intellectuals in terms of their function in society (or their “responsibility”, as Chomsky once somewhat Polyannaishly put it), or more precisely, their goals as a class.

Here we get somewhat further. Indeed, like any social class, intellectuals tend to associate primarily with other intellectuals, to compete primarily with other intellectuals, and to see themselves, in some abstract way, as part of some vaguely shared social function. But, still, this does not completely convey what this function might actually be.

When one looks at their collective doings and commonalities, the answer that arises most naturally is that intellectuals, above all, are conductors—both in the sense of a musical performance and in the sense of a wire carrying a signal.

When a new cultural “score” is prepared and sent out for its premiere, it is intellectuals who arrange and oversee the performance. But it is also through intellectuals that the score is conducted, with near-light speed, to points far and wide, so that further performances may duly take place.

We see, then, that the intellectual’s function (at least in our system) does not stem primarily from brave truth-telling or even from a necessarily superior ability to arrive at truth–from “smartness”. Nor is it entirely explained by selfish class motives. Nor is it even always an intellectual who composed the score.

Instead, the typical intellectual’s role is not only to perform and transmit the score, but to wholeheartedly believe it. An intellectual’s capacity for absolute belief in the truth of what they conduct is, in fact, as vital a property as their conductive abilities; it provides a built-in affective boost to the signal, reducing its attenuation over long distances.

We may state the situation this way: intellectuals as a class are powerful because they are useful; and they are useful because they are gullible. (Or you can say “docile”, “impressionable”, “conformist”—though I find these somewhat euphemistic.)

How are they made so gullible, you ask? In the past, actual selection for gullibility was crucial. But in more recent times, gullibility is primarily cultivated in intellectuals through the simple expedient of rendering them expansively proud of being intellectuals.

Orwell once said it is difficult to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on his not understanding it. But now imagine if this man were instead convinced that his ability to understand *anything he is told* made him a superior kind of being, one of the first inhabitants of a new plane of human existence, freed of the shackles of error and tradition, with special dispensation to bring this light to humanity, etc., etc.! Now, what would such a man (or woman) not be able to “understand”?

So it is to inculcate this sense of absolute (and absolutely useful) pride in being intellectual as such, and not to impart any particularly powerful or truth-producing technical or philosophical acumen, that we must conclude is the primary aim of the modern institutions of “intellectual” formation–of colleges, graduate schools, schools of law, business, and international relations, etc. Indeed, over time, “education” has become completely indistinguishable from “the creation of intellectuals”, in the very sense of “intellectual” here used.

But to return to an earlier question: what is the end *goal* of this class known as “intellectual”? That is more interesting, and may be expressed through an extension of our electrical metaphor. As the proportion of the population comprised of these *intellectuals* increases towards a limit, the gullibility and conformism of that population will, it stands to reason, steadily increase. But when this limit is reached, a curious thing happens: all resistances to the spread of wholly arbitrary conformity completely vanish. The society, in effect, becomes a memetic superconductor. (Such a condition may already be somewhat familiar to our more media-savvy, and particularly our younger compatriots.)

We may have developed an idea, then, of *who conducts*. But we also now see that this is a lesser question than it first appeared. For the question of *who composes*, as yet, remains shrouded.

America and the Faceless Society

The newly-formed United States, having repudiated the mother country from which it derived whatever culture, morals and custom it possessed, found itself curiously faceless—a great, exhilarating question-mark. And as it had come into being during a time when great new notions of heroic universalism were sweeping the world, it was perhaps understandable that the new nation would choose, not so much to preserve what culture it had inherited or even to birth a coherent one of its own, as to embrace this facelessness and even press it to its limit. This is particularly apparent in many of the country’s founding documents–which tended to sideline traditional political methods in favor of universalist abstractions such as “contract”, “proposition”, and “right”–but also in the general trajectory of the society itself.

The resulting nation-state would center its identity not so much in any traditional form, custom, or even set of convictions, as in a careful sidelining of any such things, in favor of technical forms, relentless acceleration and—following the romance of the frontier—outward expansion. The Faustian longing-for-infinity, as well as the Enlightenment enthusiasm for pragmatic, materialistic, and universalized rationality, thus escaped their original European nurseries and found a fertile soil like none other.

So the American Experiment (whose radicalness has been largely lost on present generations) became a thoroughly “progressive” or “Enlightenment” project, one effectively sympathetic to—if not deliberately directed at—steadily eliminating all sense of place, face, or demos in favor of vast, amoral, technocratic systems with universalist aims. The result—which, aided by the USA’s immense prosperity and influence since WWII has spread to render huge swaths of the world similarly faceless—is now plain for any and all to see: an anomic constellation of disconnected, increasingly resentful individuals and pseudo-cultures, obsessed with rapid, virtualized self-gratification at the expense of authentic experience or character formation, all embedded helplessly in a planet-girdling technological matrix that enervates and stupefies its human thralls at least as much as it excites or entertains them.

This is the landscape that author James Kunstler frequently calls “the Geography of Nowhere”, or “places not worth caring about”; but we may also describe it as the physical embodiment of centuries of progressive, rationalistic Simplification. The basically dystopian character of this landscape is more than anything why, in the years ahead, a complete re-envisioning of the USA—up to and including a new Constitutional Convention, civil war, and a rejection of the whole modern understanding of the nation-state—will become increasingly inescapable. It is also why, in all probability, such re-envisioning will spread to all those areas of the world and daily life where the plague of facelessness has gained purchase.

The great “disenchantment of the world” commonly attributed to the rise of science and industry and the discrediting of religion was, as we must soon come to realize, itself a form of enchantment; but what are we to do with ourselves at last, when this enchantment, too, is unmasked and discarded? What strange visages will erupt from the psyche of mankind (or perhaps from some god) to fill the gaps, when the mesmeric doctrine of universalist facelessness gives way in earnest to the simple human need for a human face?

We have already begun to see something of the Left’s answer, in the form of identity politics, the sanctification of subjectivism, and in the increasingly anarchic spectacles of transgenderism, transablism, and even the creeping sexualization of children. The Right’s answer, however, is still unglimpsed—and possibly still unthought. (Most likely, though, its name isn’t “Donald”.)