Horror, Glory, and Jokes [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 20 seconds. Contains 2469 words (nice)
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges… thing. A newsletter/podcast about the outbreaks of weirdness that shape our world.
I’m your host, as always, Stephen.
Our hope is to have the podcast going next week.
Reflection is the upside of going as slow to build this mutant newsletter podcast.
What do I want to say?
I’m trying to build a kind of toolkit for understanding the 21st century.
We’re running a kludge of ideas, instincts, desires, and social conditioning in our brains. And we're not keeping up.
And they'll be further behind 5 years from now.
I take the unpopular POV, “All that old stuff is trash.”
Yes, even your favorite thing.
Even convictions, useful or not, need renewal or let go.
Revaluate your understanding of the world. Keep what's helpful and let the rest sink into the long night.
This brings us to our second goal: I want to expand your mind. We're unprepared for the world rushing at us and the only way out is enlarging ourselves to meet it.
And we have to do that in a way that doesn’t leave people unable to cope with the grim meat-hook realities out there.
Beyond Nietzsche’s Failures
We want a toolkit we can come back to.
Let’s get into it. But first, an ad:
Trenchant Edges can only happen because some of you are smart, attractive, and good enough to help me pay my bills. Aren’t you flatterable enough to join us?
Beyond Nietzsche’s Failures
I dislike throwing around "Great Thinkers" but sometimes we have to address them or be blind.
Disclaimer: I haven’t read Nietzsche in a decade and don’t plan on going back.
"Greatness" isn't the same thing as "Goodness" or "Truth" but big swings clarify the problem.
Freddy’s big popular thing is the Death of God. He meant the way Industrial Capitalism, Enlightenment rationalism, and Democracy replaced previous norms.
He wanted a revaluation of values rejecting false universals of Christianity and Secularism. To create a life-affirming philosophy that would spur the best and brightest.
He called the person capable of achieving such a revaluation an ubermensch. A kind of moral superhero.
Freddy failed at this, but he was still insightful. We can learn from him. He considered Christianity a life-denying philosophy suppressing what's best about humanity. He called it "slave morality" for holding virtues that appeal to slaves instead of masters.
Transcending that rut was his life's work. Because we don't have time to cover all his ideas here, we're going to focus on the crisis of meaning.
He thought rationalism's fake objectivity was a poor substitute for Christian transcendence. That practical reason will leave us in a state of nihilism, meaningless.
The crisis was broader than he knew.
Even before our encounter with the "New World", Europeans have been struggling with the fact other people and their ideas exist.
Europeans and their descendants have not taken this fact particularly well. Could be some insecurity for spending so much of recorded history as a global backwater. Excepting Rome's reign.
And Rome didn’t give a shit about continental Europe until they had to.
Editor's note: I don't want to press into this too much but I'm acting like "Europe" is a single thing or coherent people. That's crap. But it's hard to write otherwise so bear it in mind. Freddy's Europe was Germany and France.
Access to new knowledge and technology started with Muslims and refined European thinking. Let's skip the discussion of how the dark ages weren't. What matters is gaining access to Greek, Latin, and Arabic works stretched their minds.
In The Dawn of Everything, the authors show how criticism from indigenous people motivated much of the Enlightenment. The authors show how the discourse around the "state of nature" grew from those criticisms. And from that came the myth of progress.
Nietzsche’s reading of Christianity as a singular guiding force in European history seems trite. In what way was the Inquisition or Crusades “Slave Morality”? Looking back on history, Christianity functioned like PR does today; a set of values to appeal to.
If you did some fucked up stuff you’d throw money around, perform some rituals, and make a public show of it all. And it'd be good.
Same as today.
So we already have a kind of public ethics vs private motivations issue. Having “slave morality” didn’t stop Europeans from industrial-scale slavery or global empires.
In practice, and Freddy missed this, the revaluation he requested was already complete.
But the Overman hasn’t turned out to be some buff guy in tights.
Let us consider some of the traits he expected from the Overman:
Embracing life, as in refusing to reject parts of life as good or bad.
Self-Overcoming, as in constant growth and expansion. Breaking through one’s limitations.
Revaluation, as in the Overman will define its own values.
The Will To Power, as in striving to exercise creative agency in the world.
Rejection of the Herd Mentality, as in embracing your own interests.
Such a person exists and has more or less since Nietzsche’s own day.
It's the Corporate Person, a legal fiction. The thing we refer to when we say "the corporation". Created with legal documents familiar to our discussions of Tulpas and Egregores.
A group joins together and imagines a new being. They give it a personality and give it symbols to touch the minds of others and resources to manage.
Of course, the company is only an idea. An imagined object. And yet, the resources get managed. And with that management comes obligations, enforced by the state.
This brings us to revaluation: The Overman’s only value is Maximizing Profit.
Both words are important there, though we often focus on the second one. Maximized profit is how you get good people slitting the throats of people they care about.
It’s not greed, but a socially constructed need for the largest possible returns on effort.
Most people have trouble imagining how profit-maximizing somehow threatens the biosphere.
But it works on all scales. Cheaper to litigate against coal miners than to pay for their healthcare? You do it. Makes more money selling drugs than building a culture of prevention? Now we've got an opiate crisis.
And this reality has been as devastating to other people as Nietzsche suspected. Communities atomized, resources strip-mined, and every cost passed along.
Capital L Political Liberalism believes that free markets should be the main way we organize the economy. And thus everyone. It’s a con, denying responsibility for the crimes the system commits but doesn't recognize.
We now know the cost of this system in lives, human agency, health, wildlife, and ecological damage.
The question is if we can find an alternative to organize the world along less amoral lines. And we need to build it out of what’s already around because it needs to come together.
I spend a lot of time listening to crazy people.
Not only myself, I mean, but a slew of people who are kind of unhinged from reality.
And one thing many of us have in common is a janky relationship with fiction.
The earliest discussion I remember about it was about violence in video games. It left me skeptical that adults could separate real and fictional violence.
The cliche today is “The Matrix is real”.
And it should be a cliche because The Matrix is just Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a famous bit of Philosophy.
But a TON of people seem to want to leave off the allegory part of it.
Which is… not great.
The obvious villain here is Andrew Tate. A Mansophere "influencer" and sex trafficker, obsessed with his image. He pitched too-online men his team of dollar store hustlers would free them from The Matrix.
It takes a lot for me to want to say, "The Matrix Was A Mistake", but self-help MLM gurus make a real case.
So many people only scratch the surface narrative and then try and use it to orient real decisions.
The Matrix is about control, and the trilogy wrestles with the serious question of retaking lost agency in your life.
Neo failed to retake his life in the original trilogy, but his failure is the Oracle’s success.
The fact so few people get that basic reading of the story is a sign of how we misunderstand the fiction around us.
This brings us to genre-savviness.
I tend to think fiction was pure good, actually, because it expands our minds. Shows us things that might exist or can’t ever exist.
But it comes with some risks. And they’re obvious: You confuse the stories you tell with the world outside your mind.
I’m not only talking about the pulps or MCU, I’m talking about the way humans structure information as narrative.
There’s some neuroscience suggesting that it’s more or less wired in. We’re wired for gossip, and our bias toward stories biases us to cut out info that doesn't fit.
Genre-savviness is about knowing the unwritten rules of the world you’re in. Is it a comedy? A tragedy? Film Noir? Absurdist Metanarrative? Each comes with the baggage of expectations.
But genre-savviness is only a virtue if you get the genre right. If you’re showing up knowing all the secrets of zombie flicks in a political thriller you’re gonna have a bad time.
Enter, stage far right, Alex Jones. A man certain he’s the hero fighting government overreach and left-wing degeneracy. The Turner Diaries, basically.
Listening to his show for long enough, though, you see how often he references movies as if they're real. His conceit is that he has a ton of documents that prove everything, but when pressed he has nothing.
The whole thing spurred on by confirmation bias.
Jones makes his money telling two better stories than most paranoids:
The first is predictive programming. "They" are seeding certain concepts into the world through fiction to prime people to act.
Ex. On March 4th, 2001, the X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen premiered. The episode features a secret US government plot to remote control crash a plane into the world trade center.
The linear time enthusiasts in the audience might recognize this as happening before September 11th, 2001.
Jones would say this is The Elites (you know who he means) showing off their contempt for you. Leaving breadcrumbs in trashy genre TV to their real plans.
Or, you know, it could be a room of writers trying to make their goofy spin-off hit well so they can all keep eating. Writers, like terrorists, have to think about what would make the biggest, uh, impact.
His other move is metaphysics: No one can take away your free will without giving you a kind of choice in the matter. So if you choose to go along with evil, it’s because you weren't smart or righteous enough to recognize it.
The whole thing turns the world into a participatory show where Alex resells his hate. All you have to do to fight "Them" is tune in and help Alex get the word out. It's quaint in the era of Qanon.
The thing is, Alex Jones misunderstands the world. The world has no heroes or villains. That’s something humans staple on top of it. The metaphysics appeal to his vanity and thus his audience's vanity.
But they don't exist. It’s a show.
And he doesn’t know what’s happening.
He’s far from alone there.
Perhaps you and I are no better.
I know Many people who agree with me more than Alex Jones does and who still fall for narrative traps.
As far as I can tell there’s only one way out, self-consciously turning narrative on itself as an expression of art. Becoming genre-savvy about the biases of stories themselves.
Oops, All Media Literacy!
But media literacy loses to motivated reasoning every time.
We’ve met the Demiurge and they are us!
OK, so European cultures have been in crisis for at least the last 600 years.
Note: When I say “European” here, I include their descendants outside of Europe as well. Including me.
I’m not going to claim that Europeans started off as especially blind or provincial. Most of us are provincial to some degree.
Settler colonialist competition blended Enlightenment rationalism with White Supremacy and existing patriarchy. The incentives of competing institutions built a world dependent on Europeans wearing blinders.
We can talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other conformity-enforcing systems. And we must talk about them because they're shoring up the machinery killing the planet.
Well, the biosphere. The bit of the planet we care about.
All these feedback systems condition us into narrow, harmful behavior. The isms call biases natural, normal, healthy, and good. They tell adherents to punish deviation lest degenerates Destroy Western Civilization.
19th-century race science is a fucked up way to think but the traces are everywhere. Even if you want to ignore them.
Why? Settler colonialism and capitalism run on extracting value from life. And throwing the waste away wherever.
We shape the system through technology and politics and then the system shapes us.
Even getting a sense of the scale and persistence of it takes tremendous effort.
Escaping this blindness takes real work and effort. It’s not a matter of waking up in a moment but of consistent reflection and proactive work.
Increase your awareness of the history of ideas you’re using and partaking in.
And since they can defend, reactionaries already call this work brainwashing or grooming
This blindness affects most of us, and we're conditioned by our environment. And we react to that conditioning.
It affects me as much as anyone. And you too.
We must move forward, the clock's running. But we also must recognize we may be wrong and seek the signs.
Let's explore the signs together.
We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we’ve been conditioned to. And that failure is killing the biosphere and causing industrial-scale suffering to ourselves.
I was once on a yoga retreat and saw the following thing written on a stairwell wall:
Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself
We’re rather collectively practicing this and the learning curve is… harsh.
(The quote is allegedly from the Bhagavad Gita, one of my favorite books of Hindu Scripture)
I’ve tried in the last few emails to sketch out some of the issues that have created the political and cultural deadlock we’re currently in.
There’s plenty more of course, but for now, I think this is a good place to start fresh.
We’re going to be exploring the resistance to mainstream thought. And yes, I maintain that the entire concept of mainstream is itself delusional outside of some specific contexts.
That should let you know what we’re in for.
Horror and Glory, the twin poles of our experience, my friends.
Horror and Glory.
See you soon.
I want to thank everyone who’s been patient with me over the past 3 years and supported me anyway. Y’all rock and I wouldn’t have been able to get here without your support. I feel like we’re just getting started. Should you wish to join the elite readers helping me keep the lights on, here’s how: