Discover more from The Trenchant Edges Newsletter
The Virtue of Strange [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes, 47 seconds. Contains 2957 words
Welcome back from our long dark.
We’re your host and this is the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter/podcast thing about fringe culture, the limits of knowledge, and the horror and glory of living in this terrible world.
We’ve been incubating.
It’s not quite a time to reveal our full glory.
But We’ve also got much to speak of and it’s best to start.
When We left you there were two open threads:
A Series about Jeffery Epstein
A series about Magic, social identity, and the possibility of intelligent minds without bodies
We’ll be rounding out March with the conclusions to these series.
But in a sense, this episode is the first episode of the rest of our lives. And probably the first one uploaded to the accursed Apple podcasts.
So let’s ask a really basic question: What the fuck is this podcast about?
Then we’re going to violently change the subject.
Escaping The Matrix
I sometimes unironically wonder if the movie trilogy The Matrix caused some kind of contagious brain damage.
We live in a world where this wholesome trans/gnostic remix of Plato’s Cave has been turned into sales patter by both propagandists and hacks selling courses.
Leftist nerds from the Situationist International called this “Recuperation”, how the dominant cultural systems of a society defang radical ideas and sell them back to people as entertainment and as a sedative.
There are senses in which “The Matrix is real” makes sense, but many of those are either cogito hazards or literal gnosticism.
We can use it as a metaphor for how socially constructed reality obscures actual physical reality, but it’s clumsy at best at that and it’s probably better to speak plainly.
Why am I talking about The Matrix here?
Because there is no shortage of people selling fringe ideas and either many or most of them have ulterior motives involving a sales funnel and parting fools from their money.
Of course, true believers are often dangerous as anyone who’s looked at the joy of Heaven’s Gate members before their 1997 mass suicide can attest.
I’m not here to tell you how to get out of the Matrix. Were you serious about the underlying reality there, you wouldn’t be on substack or facebook. And you probably wouldn’t want to understand it through pop culture.
Not that I can tell you what’s on the other side of the edge I’m implying exists, I ran out of courage there and came back to the fold. Albeit awkwardly.
The object of our study here is The Matrix itself: the cheap seats for the mainstream and the various allegedly less deluded fringe wings.
We, uh, live in a society as the kids stopped saying years ago.
When addressing fringe topics the two most obvious and popular ways to address them are either evangelism or debunking.
I am not an evangelist or a debunker.
What little good news I have is that we as a civilization have tried a lot of things to make sense of our world and if we excavate that rubble, perhaps we can use it for something better in the future.
But that’s up to you.
In some senses, knowledge is a product of social labor. Something we discover and refine together. Science takes this fact and combines it with rigor and method to create a refining machine.
If we’re going to understand, uh, understanding better we’re going to have to think about where knowledge comes from, how it’s processed, and who gets to see what results.
See, not all facts are compatible with science. Empiricism is an excellent way to get to the heart of shared reality, but what happens when realities aren’t shared?
Is it madness or genius?
Often it’s merely a mistake. But it’s not exactly rare for someone to build a mansion on such mistakes.
There’s a great parable from the New Testament Gospel of Matthew about building your house on sand vs rock. Our modern era is about the continuous discovery that what we thought was rock is less real even than sand.
This is literally true in the sense that we found out that physical matter is mostly empty space with delusions of grandeur, and then that even what bits of stuff were there in the first place are actually more… probability fields than really real as our intuitions claim.
And it’s metaphorically true as our accumulated knowledge and alleged wisdom have pushed us to develop the infrastructure that deny us a path to navigate through. There’s no time-tested map to a sustainable future, let alone one where people can thrive.
Just lots of evidence that continuing the way we have is driving toward disaster.
In times of great stress, people tend towards one of two options: Reactivity or Searching for new possibilities.
I’m here to argue that while we must learn from tradition, attempts to recreate it by imposing dead ideals on a living world are doomed to fail. Holding a bell at gunpoint doesn’t mean it hasn’t rung.
And shooting the fucking thing just makes it ring more.
Stigmatized Knowledge, Cultic Milieus, and Orienting through Ambiguity
We’re not born with much in the way of knowledge.
Unlike other animals, we’re very much helpless at birth. We speculate this is an underrated factor in human development: The first thing we do is to learn how to learn. To make sense of that blooming and buzzing confusion William James spoke of.
After a bit of trial and error, we orient towards the most important things: The faces of our caretakers, what to do to get fed or made more comfortable, and eventually mobility.
And in some senses, we never really stop adding to our storehouse of knowledge.
Of course, that’s a simplification. Many of us end up avoiding real learning because it’s expensive, time-consuming, and often not very fun. To say nothing else of all the more important things you might have to do.
Breaking through a conceptual barrier often takes much more work and effort than a physical wall.
So we put together a picture of the world from information accessible to us and go out into the world.
More recently, we’ve become enmeshed in media: Pamphlets, books, newspapers, telegraphs, phones, radio, TV, and eventually this Internet we’re using now.
Mass media created the possibility of a mass-scale public informed by the same sources in roughly real-time, instead of separated by months or years.
We must talk about media here because it’s very much a recent and fragile addition to human life. The infrastructure must be maintained and improved and resources must be spent to make that happen.
So with mass media comes gatekeepers.
They’re not necessarily bad exactly, but they do skew what gets broadcast. Good if you say, don’t want child pornography accessible. Bad if you disagree with the ruling class.
Combined with gatekeepers, be they journalists, academics, influencers, or newspaper barons and you get a divide: Official Knowledge approved by the gatekeepers and stigmatized knowledge that’s been rejected by them.
Note: Stigmatized Knowledge is a term coined by Michael Barkun in 2015
A good concrete example of this in action is the recent Graham Hancock Netflix Documentary Ancient Apocalypse.
Hancock spends 8 hours going to some very cool and often gorgeous places and talking about basically two things: 1. There’s a slowly emerging body of evidence suggesting the world is older than we think 2. Graham has come to believe that this is evidence of a globe-spanning, technologically sophisticated civilization destroyed by a comet 12,000 years ago.
Well, that’s not exactly true. His main point, by the sheer amount of time and repetition, is the cabal of archeologists is suppressing these new findings and that they refuse to agree with his conclusions.
Naturally, this has sparked much controversy from archeologists upset to be characterized like this.
We’ll come back to Graham in a few weeks.
Such stigmatization comes in degrees. We can contrast it with Ye West’s open antisemitism: Graham is getting criticized, but Ye is losing a staggering amount of money and being pushed from one of the most famous mainstream figures into the far-right media bubble.
And this brings us to another important fact: “The” “Mainstream” is more like the Amazon basin these days than a single monolithic river.
Content exists in a complex, nonlinear ecosystem as different people with different interests compete to capture eyeballs, usually to sell attention or subscriptions.
Speaking of, The Trenchant Edges is supported by attentive, immune-to-propaganda readers just like you. We don’t have sponsors and only sell your data to countries with cool intelligence services, like Narina.
This messiness creates a huge variety in quality and intention of different parts of the overall media ecosystem, which now approaches the melodrama of McLuhan’s Global Village. The fundamental quality is asymmetry: Everyone has different information, evaluates it differently, and uses different methods to do so.
We can look at this on a spectrum between Completely Official information and Completely Stigmatized information.
The former is press releases from institutions, official reports, and the like and gets progressively more obscure till you have the rantings of a college dropout on some random website. Probably a really charming one hitting you up for a small subscription fee so he can pay his bills.
Or even further to scrawlings on a notepad in some shack or apartment, never shown to another.
But we’re more concerned with information that gets spread around, even if only by physical copies from person to person.
The edges of this system form what we call the cultic milieu.
Where the relatively central area is all *pretty* official, and much of the rest of the ecosystem is informal, the cultic milieu is where things start getting really fucking weird.
At least, it *used* to be where things started to get weird but we’ve been increasingly seeing a fracturing in the pseudo-shared reality created by broadcast media.
Terence Mckenna called it, “The Balkanization of Epistemology” in the 90s, when he noticed how completely at odds the metaphysics of many fringe groups were and how they seemed increasingly using words in wholly unrelated ways.
Fast forward to 2023 and we’ve got lots of options for alternative facts. Conventional wisdom says there are two sides in mainstream politics: Liberals and Conservatives.
But if you look at the actual numbers you find out that while 36% of Americans think of themselves as Conservative, 25% think of themselves as liberal. That’s not even 2/3rds between them! Moderates fill out most of the rest at 37%, with the remaining 2% being some variety of undecided.
But that kind of broad polling is a blunt instrument and more data complicates the situation.
As of last October, the Democrats have 38% of registered voters, Republicans have 29% of registered voters, and independents are 28%, and third parties are about 3%.
All rather interesting, right?
And all of those groups are fragmenting in different ways.
The recently public Dominion Voting v Fox News Brief in favor of Summary Judgement shows pretty conclusively how Fox News, according to the words of their own executives and hosts, how the network both manipulates and chases their viewers to maximize ratings.
What’s the point of all this? The center cannot hold, I guess.
And the weird rushes into the gaps.
Qanon, for example, is just kind of normal politics for the right wing in the US now. It’s not entirely in charge, but it’s a powerful insurgent force in the right-wing that demands the whole republican party at least cut them a deal.
We’ve got a whole media ecosystem generating moral panics ad nauseam and now they’re backed by a whole stack of legislation and a mess of shady billionaire financing.
All of this is underpinned by tropes and narratives that tie immediately back to the Satanic panic and much further back to the fucking blood libel itself.
So we’re on our maybe fourth “season” of me actually writing this fucking newsletter. This one is going to be a lot more, uh, “political” because the weird has broken containment.
The diseased Imaginarium of reactionary Christianity, which sees satan and pedophiles behind every door is on an upswing and the rest of us just have to cope with, to borrow a great title from a great book, popular delusions and the madness of crowds.
To zoom out to the macro-level, I think European civilization and its colonialism-extended annexes are trying to cope with the fact of Distrust.
The classical image people think of the past is one of profound compliance.
A place for everything and everything in its place.
The real world was never really like that, of course, but since Martin Luther’s damnable Theses split open the Reformation, Distrust has become a norm.
(Is even a transformative figure in this? Arguably not, point is Distrust has been going on a while)
Is a functional and healthy world built on agency and mutual offering space instead of compliance possible? I’d say yes, but we have so much to unlearn it’s not going to be easy.
We live in a crazy time and as the ruling class extracts ever higher rents from the rest of us, more and more people are coping with that time badly.
All that said, the center of the US is still its most powerful political force.
The Virtue of Strange
Broadly, my take on the US is that we’re an empire that’s passed the peak of its influence and we’re at the very least moving from the unipolar “End of History” (for the ruling class), to a multipolar return of the age of great powers.
It’s a time of fraying.
Historically, there are only a few options from here.
(the bad one), double down on the empire and find a new source of cheap wealth to extract, probably via colonialism.
(the worse one), lose the empire but romanticize it and try to reestablish lost glory through reactionary violence at home and abroad.
Accept a declining role in the world and focus on a more limited set of niches to keep the economy going.
Reorganize things to focus on building local communities & addressing the material needs of the majority of the population instead of resource extraction for the top of it
My guess on which of these is most likely is #2 then #3 with #1 and #4 distant possibilities. I figure other possibilities like degrowth, balkanization, etc mostly dead end into one of these in practice.
The kind of renewal-without-return-to-empire will require us to shift the way we live quite a lot.
Which means learning from ideas that have been stigmatized in the past.
Is this all just a lot of hot air to cover the fact I think we should be communists?
Well, no. I do think communism has the least-bad ideas but Lenin, Stalin, and Mao are long dead. The days of huge peasant empires are already over. Leftism is a huge stockpile of insights and ideas that may or may not have a damn thing to do with what’s viable in the 21st century.
Marx is more valuable for his approach to synthesizing different fields into a grasping comprehensive critique. The “Ruthless criticism of all that exists” is a project I was involved in long before I realized its pedigree.
A quote trimmed from Marx’s Letter to Ruge
Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
Therefore I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.
After all, Marx himself denied being a Marxist and, if I may turn to Nietzsche for a moment, the history of the left is something to be overcome.
Because if the left can’t address people’s practical problems, the right will.
And that doesn’t go great for an awful lot of people.
Anyway, that’s the big picture as I see it.
There’s a notion that dabbling in mysticism is a hobby for people who feel they have no direct power over their lives and I think that’s true in a lot of ways.
But I do think we need to find a path toward real renewal without creating a system built on industrial-scale extraction of natural resources and human suffering.
The Trenchant Edges is us excavating our way towards such renewal through the junkyard ruins of discarded ideas from the past.
We need not accept the blinders society hands us.
Alright, whew. Well, that’s that.
I’m writing this at 5am on Friday morning, an essay I started months ago. I’m recording it almost a week later at 7:30 on a Wednesday.
I’m not going to chastise myself for procrastinating. It doesn’t help, and as I learned from meditation years ago, it doesn’t matter how distracted you get as long as you recognize the failure, let go of it, and refocus.
This isn’t a sprint or even a marathon. It’s a movement towards metacognition (I hope).
Higher-order awareness of the patterns we’re tangled in.
And I hope you’ll join us as we go along.
See you next week.
(for real this time)
Alright, it’s time for me to pitch y’all footing some of the bill for it. Ready?
The Trenchant Edges needs money for books, electricity, and for our regular donations to the friends of the mafia. We’re too weird and disabled to employ and so we must call on you, the people, to support our quixotic rage.