Hellish Introspection For My Birthday [Trenchant Edges]
Welcome back! This is the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter where sometimes the abyss winks back.
I’m your host Stephen and after a week of what science tells me isn’t covid, but is definitely a nasty little bug, I feel lucid enough to write again.
This should be the Blavatsky piece, but I’m going to push that to Saturday so I can finish some client work today.
Let’s jump into what I’m sure will be a light topic for conversation.
Postmodernism and Alienation
An obnoxious fact anyone trying to understand the world we live in has to deal with is there’s an awful lot of history and theory floating around the world to explain it and most of it isn’t very good.
Created for science fiction, Sturgeon's revelation that 90% of everything is garbage applies widely.
So we have to contend a bit with Modernism and Postmodernism. What are these awful words? Well, they both mean like 500 different things each depending on context.
Modernism (as we’ll use it) is an ideology of progress from the first half of the 20th century.
The postmodern condition and the eclectic theory of postmodernism are reactions to skepticism about progress. The condition is about how “modern” people in the industrial/imperial core feel a loss of a sense of meaning as more possible ideals are enacted and turn out more complicated than they’re sold on.
Obviously, this shit is way more complex than I’m making it out to be. There are a mess of different movements contextualizing these ideas in different ways and we’re mostly going to ignore them.
As part of our exploration of fringe ideas, we’ve touched on postmodernism now and then. Terence Mckenna’s attempt at a political project was largely based around using psychedelic drugs & upper paleolithic ideals as a cure for postmodern alienation.
UFO cults are often considered postmodern for reasons I don’t want to really deal with here and Qanon is maybe the most postmodern movement ever to exist.
Which brings us to alienation: The felt-sense of separation between a person and various parts of their life. People, what they do, and so on.
“Modernity” is alienating because technology has allowed us to abstract the personal relationships that used to mediate all parts of human experience with impersonal transactions.
Ex. Where in the middle ages you might go to your local pub and drink for months on credit because the owner knew you and knew you’d only have be able to pay at harvest time, now that kind of personal credit is extremely rare and vast/impersonal bureaucracies have sprouted up to serve the same needs.
Marx talked about alienation extensively in his writings because he saw it as a major driver for the kind of psychological and moral harm done to people by the combination of industry as technology and capitalism as a mode of production. Instead of expressing personal intent through their work (as pre-industrial craftsmen would), alienated workers show up to do a highly regimented and repetitive work they have no input in designing and don’t even get the majority of the benefit from their labor.
All of these forces just continue to accumulate so we’re in a more intense period of postmodern alienation than we were 100 years ago. blah blah blah, every criticism of social media you’ve ever heard.
Lots of attempts to solve this problem have been proposed. Most aren’t even worth discussing.
Well, alienation isn’t really an intellectual problem. It’s not a puzzle to solve. It’s an experience. It’s not really caused by thinking a certain way, but in dissatisfaction in how you go about living.
There’s no correct way of thinking that’s going to eliminate angst because angst is built into how our mindbodys work. And it’s easy to fetishize a prelapsarian unalienated past, but anyone who’s lived in a small town knows there’s plenty of alienation going on in that kind of close knit social circle.
Writing about this same problem before most people really recognized it, Fredrich Nietzsche suggested a cocktail of Will To Power worship, Loving Your Fate, and Fatalism could make a new heroic ideal.
But what we got was the corporate ubermensch, a revaluation of all things laid out in double entry bookkeeping. Maybe as far away from heroism as it’s possible to get.
What old Freddy meant by Will To power was the sense of expansion and growth that comes with trying to do something you want to do and getting there. It’s a little more nuanced than, say, greed or base ambition.
In practice, that means keeping your head down and focusing on your personal work rather than trying to find a larger context. Good for short or medium work, but not really conducive to building something that really lasts.
There are a slew of messy issues with that, but the biggest is just that macro forces can just dump you out of whatever personal project you were working on at any point with or without warning.
“So overcome that too” is maybe not a great answer.
But I think I’ve digressed too much here so let’s use a bit I wrote about the definition of postmodernism this morning to refocus.
Alright, here's my actual definition: a loose collection of reactions to the realization that all the checks written by humanity's most deeply held beliefs keep bouncing.
So the questions it seeks to answer are:
1. Why don't the promises made by ideologies and other movements come true?
2. Now that we know their money is no good, what's the point even in believing in them?
3. Is there even such a thing as a good check?
The most compelling answer to #3 is capital, which can reliably buy comfort and distraction for anyone willing to avoid thinking too much about how the sausage is made.
The reactions come in 3 major groups.
1. Oh no, our beliefs aren't working as we believed them to, WE BETTER BELIEVE EVEN HARDER. This is the path of the zealot, reactionary and otherwise.
2. Well, if beliefs don't work what's the fucking point of even believing? This is nihilism.
3. If beliefs don't work we're free to seek them out on lines other than efficiency. This is absurdism and art.
There’s another group, and it’s kind of one of the themes of this newsletter: High Weirdness allows us to live in both mythic/enchanted worlds without sacrificing rationalism.
There’s another angle, metamodernism, that we might have to approach more formally. But I don’t know enough to really say just yet.
I used to believe postmodernism would force people into Kamerez Dabrowski’s 2nd integration, prompting a lot more personal agency and responsibility. But it seems like it’s mainly made people endlessly hungry for distractions and ways to continue giving their power to others.
Back to Introspection
So, what’s the fucking point of all this.
Well, I’m 35 and trying to decide what I’m going to do for the next… 43 average years of my estimated lifespan.
I tried not planning for the long term for the last 35 years and it doesn’t really seem to have worked very well. A lot of what I’ve done has been to try and avoid the destructive way my dad’s mid-life crisis wrecked his life in my own. He was only a bit older than I am now when he cheated on my mom and, in a move he regretted until the day he died, divorced her.
I figured maybe the way to approach life was to start by working out your emotional baggage and worry about finances and stability later.
In some ways, I think this has been a huge success and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been when not madly in love, and does that even count? Not really, IMO.
But in terms of creating a practical environment to live and thrive… it’s been pretty janky. Now, I was probably too traumatized to do anything else. But it seems like the usual path of stumbling into a path that isn’t really for you, becoming fairly financially stable, and then blowing up to pursue something more authentic is a lot more practical than the route I went.
So, I need to find a path that’s more or less within my ethical framework (ugh), one that provides me with enough money to live (ugh), and one that will let me recognize/adapt to megatrends.
Funny thing is, I feel like I’ve been in grasping in the right direction for all of that.
Just need a bit more organization, refinement, and consistency.
So, what was all that about postmodernism? Well, I don’t think we can really see the trends without looking at both the material and intellectual context they take part in. A lot of people right now think we can believe our way out of the culture we have.
That’s not true.
And I’m done pretending it is, even if folks are saying my beliefs are what will draw people out of this mess.
At the end, our only real way out is to consciously share emotional connections and build radically different infrastructure somehow. So, I guess we’ve got that going for us.
So I think we’re going to keep this newsletter (with a new name, probably), for a bit longer. :-D
Also, I need to go make breakfast because it’s already lunch.
See y’all on Sunday.
always enjoy your missives, look forward to blavatski piece. take it easy
I absolutely love the parallels in our lives and way of thinking. It's always a pleasure reading these. They read like our emails and chats. 💜