Donald Trump wins, so The New Yorker ponders Jason Brennan’s argument against democracy:
Brennan calls people who don’t bother to learn about politics hobbits, and he thinks it for the best if they stay home on Election Day. A second group of people enjoy political news as a recreation, following it with the partisan devotion of sports fans, and Brennan calls them hooligans. Third in his bestiary are vulcans, who investigate politics with scientific objectivity, respect opposing points of view, and carefully adjust their opinions to the facts, which they seek out diligently.
While it’s nice that our future epistocrats are so relatable, that’s exactly what gives me pause. Why is a book about how politics should be cold and calculating trying to sit down and have a beer with me?
If epistocracy is the best system and you can convince voters to elect it using “reason” then you’re proving the inherent reasonableness of democracy, i.e. very confusing reductio there. Either Brennan doesn’t think he’s an epistocrat (dismiss that out of hand), or the book and its article are selling something else. You might say that only the elite will read it, and he’s trying to appeal to them, but why do vulcans need cutesy metaphors? Things get weirder when the New Yorker goes into what exactly makes up an epistocracy:
He sketches some options—extra votes for degree holders, a council of epistocrats with veto power, a qualifying exam for voters—but he doesn’t spend much time considering what could go wrong.
Actually, he does. No, I have’t read the book. No, I won’t. But what he just described is America with extra steps.
Replace “Council of Epistocrats” with “the judiciary” and you’ll see that Brennan’s book is critiquing the exact system that produced the critique in favor of the system that he’s critiquing. This fucking book came from Tlön, it’s so meta that I barely believe it exists in this plane.
I know this so fact checkers at the New Yorker definitely know it. That no one sees fit to mention it is highly suspicious, as is the New Yorker’s ridiculously weak defense of democracy. Not to mention: Jason Brennan is a libertarian. 95% of the readers “compelled” by his “cogent points” actually agree with the non-voters Brennan wants to keep non-voting instead of him.
So this is classic narcissism, from identity protection (New Yorker=elite and liberal; not responsible for 2016) right down to the absurd power fantasies and intense paranoia that “everyone else” is somehow fucking your life up. It’s a defense against change, all the more so because if Brennan gets his system it will look identical to our own. The only difference is that believing this is currently all the plebs’ fault punts culpability somewhere away from you. Fine.
I understand that people are tiring of the essays on narcissism. I think it’s a good heuristic, you don’t, I don’t know what to tell you. I can’t give a billion examples of this to try and explain how common it is, the Last Psychiatrist already did that. Start here. This is the last piece on Lasch, but it’s the critical one. It’s about how to create your own world, and why that is bad.
The pizza effect is a sociological observation about cultural transmission. Pizza comes from Italy, but it wasn’t really “pizza” as we think of it now. The thing you order for a party – decide your toppings, etc. – was developed by Italian immigrants in the United States, working alongside all the other multicultural pizza engineers. The pizza developed here was then exported back to Italy, where it was held up as an example of quintessential Italian culinary expertise. This is a whimsical example (see the section on the caste system in India for a less whimsical one), but the format is what’s important. Group 1 develops [thing], Group 2 adopts it and changes it, and then Group 1 reintegrates it as their own invention, somehow forgetting that it’s actually from an alien source.
Lasch thinks American democracy degraded pretty much like that. Here are the three steps:
Step 1: Various groups decided that the people were too stupid to take care of themselves and took matters into their own hands. Doing this concentrated both power and knowledge among what I’ll call “the competent” (their word). This process destroyed earlier metic practices even as it failed horribly. Engineering good citizens with pseudo-Freudian knowledge + factory drudgery doesn’t really work.
Step 2: The adults this created were incapable. Pretty much period, but we can break that down. The loss of knowledge and, more importantly, the loss of a sense of independence, made them reliant on the competent. They’d spent their whole lives under the warm glow of taylorist programs, and they weren’t about to just stop using them, were they? A bizarre mix of political action demanding more such programs coupled with a reliance on what are essentially self-help books sealed the deal.
Step 3: Because of this, the competent got the message that the people really are incapable. They really don’t have any idea what they’re doing. You can’t get rid of metic practice and expect people to. It was also confirmed by people’s demands for more social engineering. “We really should be in charge.”
(Another way to interpret this is: the people view themselves as weak [step 1], elites take that in and spit it back at them with taylorist programs [step 2], the people reabsorb that view [step 3]. I think the original formulation above is a more helpful metaphor, for reasons below.)
This is how Lasch describes it:
The family’s dependence on professional services over which it has little control represents one form of a more general phenomenon: the erosion of self-reliance and ordinary competence by the growth of giant corporations and the bureaucratic state that serves them. The corporations and the state now control so much of the necessary now-how that Durkheim’s vision of society as the “nourishing mother,” from which all blessings flow, more and more coincides with the citizen’s everyday experience. The new paternalism has replaced personal dependence not with bureaucratic rationality, as theorists of modernization (beginning with Max Weber) have almost unanimously assumed, but with a new form of bureaucratic dependence. What appears to social scientists as a seamless “web of interdependence” represents in fact the dependence of the individual on the organization, the citizen on the state, the worker on the manager, and the parent on the “helping professionals”. The “consensus of the competent” as Thomas L. Haskell refers to the professionalization of social science, came into being by reducing the layman to incompetence.
You’re wondering about the metaphor. If “the competent” are Group 1, and “plebs” are Group 2, the pizza effect suggests that Group 2 changed something, right? They gave it “toppings”, but so far it only looks like they accepted the arrangement.
Lasch points out what in retrospect is obvious. American society is reliant on “the consensus of the competent”, but we’re still a consumer society and we’re still a democracy. The “competent” are powerful merely as objects of consumption. They don’t have the ability to command allegiance, and their role is largely ceremonial. The ceremony is telling us what we want to hear, but now with authority, science, and maybe highly-respected watermarks on the slogans. The moment they say something we dislike, they’re gone. So we’re an elitist society, and one that obeys all the requirements of an epistocratic elite, but that epistocratic elite is only there in the employ of our narcissism. You bought them, just don’t argue against them.
What makes this really weird is that it’s totally decentralized. “Alternative facts” or whatever, although there are generally broad narratives that America accepts. I don’t think “propaganda” is a very useful metaphor, but if you wanted to use it, we’d be choosing the prop ourselves. And then declaring it official, again by ourselves. So… why? And then Lasch’s answer: because it protects identity.
There’s no American narcissism czar. The consumption is of things that build brands, protect identities, is inevitable. I’m not talking about “rampant materialism” as a bad thing in itself, but it starts to become bad when every aspect of our reality is only there to confirm our identities. It makes changing things hard, at the very least.
A side note, which helps to explain the New Yorker article: what does this do to the elite? Makes them incompetent, of course. But it also means a social invasion, and what do people under social invasion do?
We’ve talked about paternalism without fathers. Now we talk about elitism without expertise.
I have a strong suspicion that the strongest identity is political. My proof is [everything].
Narcissism comes from a kind of hyper-dependence. Action is compromised because you don’t know the standards or because there are no standards. One relies on opinion, but since opinion is always external and never has an objective reference (below), that means image. Hence one becomes dependent on the very thing that made them over-dependent in the first place, which is exactly why the common phrase is “defense against change.” The defense against change is a defense against not being a narcissist. But in so doing you’ll be defending yourself by reifying the power of whatever made you dependent. In the classic narcissist, this is a father-figure, paternalism, etc. But for a society, it equates to “whatever made society narcissistic.” And here, that means the “consensus of the competent”.
That might be a demand for taylorist programs, but it might equally be a demand for brand-recognition. Sometimes that’s good, as in: “Isn’t [activist] such a good fighter for the cause?” Sometimes it’s the need to affirm identity by their spite.
A billion years ago now I wrote the following about losing metic control and that devastating a local social group. I then hypothesized about what the group’s protest would look like:
How do you think the State is going to explain it? I don’t just mean in propaganda – I mean newspapers, because most journalists are trained in universities and tend to think in the state’s logic. “It’s because these [reactionaries] are obsessed with their [reactionary] culture.”
Ok, now let’s look at it from Culture A’s side. From their perspective, all of that culture disappeared and that’s the most obvious difference. The epiphenomena that they’re really missing are not only unstudied – they’re explicitly denied by the entire intellectual apparatus. All of us a sudden, it starts to look a lot like the culture itself – and preferably the most chauvanistic type available – is the exact thing that will solve all their problems. Note that in Scott’s analysis (and my own), this should have been avoidable. And yet…
How is the interplay going look between Culture A’s complaints and the mockery of State B’s newspapers? The most obvious answer is the right one: it will strengthen Culture A’s belief that their current, fallen state can only be reinvigorated with… Well, what kind of politics develops out of that?
The media and universities playing an integral role in that wasn’t an accident. Here, they create a caricature of [culture] one way (Step 1), and [culture] promptly absorbed it and spat the same structure right back out (Step 2). The media now affirms their first impression, which affirms the identity for Culture A, and that’s all they really want anymore (Step 3). The media, in turn, has their identity affirmed. These people really are barbarians, and “We really are the elite!”
(As with the first one, this example can also be viewed in reverse: Christians create something, media reforms it into something else, Christians readopt that view. The problem with this is that it will look like the media doesn’t get their reaffirmed view, which I think might be the critical step.)
Culture A’s entire identity is now dependent on “the enemy”, which is bad, true. Still worse is the fact that previous metic good is now lost for forever. In adopting the media’s tropes of them, all they’ve done is further eliminate the metis for themselves. I’ve sort-of gained the reputation as catch-all defender of weird religious groups, so it might sound strange for me to be bashing them now, but don’t misunderstand: what makes religion – metic practice – important has a whole lot to do with action. Everything good that comes out of a church requires you to go to church; everything good that comes out of Christian behavior requires you to behave like a Christian. It has nothing to do with simply “being” one, where “being” a Christian means…. well, whatever it is that protests “the war on Christmas”. I assume there will be a pushback, but even if they win whatever “wins” is not the culture that started it. The Desert Fathers are never coming back. Instead you get televangelists.
It should be noted here that society is inevitably going to mock these people and that is precisely their point. For the believers among you: “sign of contradiction” except channeled through narcissism, but that’s bullshit. What’s happening is that they’re trading force for political image, for spectacle, and they chose that.
The same happens with the left. You trade power for the image of power, trade practice for the image of “the kind of person who does [practice]”. At all times you’re adopting the stance of “radical critic of society” while relying on that very same society for the identity you so desperately need to protect.
I already wrote a series on identity politics, and have no desire to repeat it. Yes, of course it’s narcissistic, of course it’s defense of identity, of course it’s adoption of image over action. What good would it do to launch another thousand words into the frothing void about “intersectionality” or whatever your hang-up is?
I’ll just note that a whole lot could be made of three aspects of the modern left: a) identity (duh), b) reliance on academia, and c) protest as “meaningful action”, where protest = asking the competent for something or “being seen”, i.e. assuming the bog-standard social image of “rebel”. Every single one of those things points up, and that should confuse the hell out of you for any movement based on “grass-roots, people-power.” Whatever, I’ll address modern protest in a separate piece sometime in the future. It’ll only confuse the point of this essay.
One last: if their identity is based on society’s attack, then incentives are to do nothing and protect their identity as attacked-by-society.
As a side note, this is what makes branding so incredibly effective for politics and also a reliable heuristic. Most people play into their brand, which means that journos can use it to peg people and you will know people exactly like that. Pattern match = a go, and now you never have to treat another human as real.
So those are the Morlocks. How do the Eloi respond?
‘Malignant Narcissism’: Donald Trump Displays Classic Traits of Mental Illness, Claim Psychologists; Donald Trump’s malignant narcissism is toxic: Psychologist; Donald Trump has ‘dangerous mental illness’, say psychiatry experts at Yale conference.
One last, helpful font stylings via Psychiatrist warns Trump is a ‘psychiatric Frankenstein monster’ who is at war with ‘imagined enemies’:
Sorry about how meta that got. No, I don’t care if Trump is a narcissist. I care about the words in bold.
Everyone knows that expert opinion is biased, but that doesn’t change how we use it. Dr. John Gartner must know this because he’s capitalizing on it. Fun fact: he’s trying to start a field called “psychojournalism” and his first patient was Bill Clinton.
First point: The classic narcissistic defense is projection. Heh.
Second point: If you depose a president based on unsolicted expert opinion, what does that do to democracy? It seems obvious that “unelected figures sans check and balance trying to oust elected officials” is bad, but I’m also not a political scientist. Maybe a vulcan would disagree. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have expertise on your side. I’m just saying that Brookline, MA, has more signatories than your change.org petition, whatever.
Third point, scarier: What does this do to the sciences? Like it or not, the ivory tower is as contingent on the will of the people as anything else. Forbidden areas of research, yeah, but more important are incentives. Are you more or less likely to get tenure from the front page of Time Magazine, or if the Atlantic slithers onto your Vitae, or if your book is a bestseller? Dumb question, we all know the answers, but who chooses who to put in Time, and who to put in the Atlantic, and buys shit from NYT? It’s certainly not a peer reviewed process, and even if journos had the credentials they’re putting those articles there for consumers.
It’s 100% logical to me that the most important fields for policy analysis are also the most fucked up at the moment, by which I mean: psychology, economics, and sociology. “Money” and “lobbying” is part, as is citations (i.e. you’re barred from x before the funeral that advances it all) and I’m not saying those are unimportant. I’m saying it’s equally important to recognize that extracurricular activities help academics, and most of them have ambitions outside the academy anyway. Universities are commodities, kids want to study under names they know. “I know them, so they must be the best.” What incentives do universities have, who do they want to hire?
This explanation scares me way more than any Ivy Conspiracy. It goes like this: in a market place, whoever best provides the needs of the customer will better the competition. What do narcissists want? Protection against change, and affirmation of identity. What sells? Things that tell them what they already know.
“Competence becomes image,” certainly, but those people are still powerful. They’re who we go to for any given policy analysis. They’re the ones who decide what is “objective analysis” and what isn’t. When you subject knowledge to supply and demand, you remove all barriers for objective knowledge to solve anything. If the only way to argue is with Science on your side, and you’re able to buy whatever Science works best, then how motivated are you to find carefully argued cases against your own?
I get that this all sounds a bit over the top, but maybe we’ve become a little too desensitized to how catoonishly terrible the replication crisis is. It would almost feel like cheating to bring that up if Lasch didn’t predict that that exact thing would happen.
This is a top-down structure, but somehow it’s adopted the worst of both worlds. It’s neither authority with expertise, nor is it totally open debate. And, it should be noted, how do you fight it? All the experts are there, giving you the reasons that you’ve been right all along. No, they may not have the data worked through carefully. Are you going to check?
I would be remiss not to note: how does this look to good, sober newspaper readers the world over? “Ah, I was right this entire time. We should do x.” But all you’ve ever found was yourself. Snap back around, and we arrive at the New Yorker article above. You begin describing a world to yourself that has nothing to do with the world as it is. At the craziest, your fantasies begin to look like this actual breathing world, and yet somehow… You’re better, stronger. And this world still fails to satisfy. Sooner or later, those defenses themselves become a reality. It will also fail to satisfy.
Related. Yes, all of it.
I wrote this before google guy googleguyd, and I really don’t want to get into that debate. I’m unqualified to comment on either side, and the entire thing is such a colossal shitshow that it might best be avoided. Still.
Other writers have pointed this out, and I don’t mean to steal their thunder, but one line in the favored response is genuinely jarring. It’s this:
(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.
I’m not going to spend any length of time on (1); if anyone wishes to provide details as to how nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect, and flies directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades, they should go for it. But I am neither a biologist, a psychologist, nor a sociologist, so I’ll leave that to someone else.
This might be the right time to point out that when Gizmodo published the manifesto, they removed all of its citations and charts. Those citations were, in fact, to mainstream psychology papers. This is definitely the right time to point out that facts don’t imply value nor anything about what you should do about them, that statistical group difference is not applicable to individuals, etc. I know everyone is saying it, and anyone skeptical will just guess that I’m just doing so to cover my ass. If you doubt my sincerity, note that I first wrote about the fact/value distinction many months ago contra my ingroup.
Damore’s values aren’t mine. His subsequent actions (and choices for interviewers) are making it hard not to peg him as the classic Aggrieved White Male. I know that at least some of the cited research is controversial. All of that is irrelevant to the response, because the response was an assumption that because Damore is [identity], he is wrong. Because you are [identity], you are right. This is insane. Zunger is explicitly stating – assuming – that the physical world will conform to his identity. Better: that there will be researchers to back him up, regardless of what is “real” and what isn’t.
Then again, insanity might be the wrong word. So far as I know, Zunger is 100% correct to assume that, because that assumption is how America operates. It hasn’t stopped us yet.
A friend, otherwise quite sympathetic to social justice and the American left, said the following to me:
I still think it’s bizarre to see people on the left gleefully singing the praises of a billion dollar company for being able to fire whoever it wants without suffering any consequences?
Like, there is a thread going on right now making fun of people who want to boycott Google, the punchline of which is “hahaha ha, this corporation has infiltrated every aspect of your life and you couldn’t kill it if you wanted to, market activism against capitalism is a dead end…yay?”
I’m actually pretty sure that market activism against capitalism is a dead end (whether or not that’s a good thing undetermined), but whatever. Ignore the object level politics. Also, it’s pretty obvious that this particular power play just handed the right a stupid amount of power and pushed whatever 40% agreed with James Damore towards them. Great work, bozos.
My friend says “bizarre” but I say “completely consistent”. It is “bizarre”, inasmuch as it’s “bizarre” that the same movement that created the unions now praises the limitless power of corporations. “Consistent” because that happens when you adopt certain tactics and views:
First definition: “democracy” is what allows different people to take a piece of the pie, i.e. the already-existing power structure decides to share its spoils.
Second definition: “democracy” is only possible, is merely the expression of, equally powerful people.
I think a common response is going to be that “of course it’s good when [powerful entity] does something in our interest. We don’t have the power ourselves!” This is both entirely true and entirely missing the point. Why are your politics not about taking power then, why do you not recognize the issues of massive undemocratic power structures, why did you pizza-effect the first definition’s view of democracy into your life?
Don’t bullshit me about “private company” vs. “the state”. The left position, the left’s entire reason for existence, is in the claim that there isn’t a difference between state control and capital’s control, that this very distinction is bourgeois idealism. It’s power, you have none but you like how the big boys look. You’ll let them control it all just for a wink in your direction. It may give you a nice image (“they do things for us!”) but it’s only ever an image and that power is real, it won’t go away when it stops looking at you. Related, of course.
Here we have the confirmation, right? “We should be in charge, because you want us to be.”
This is going to get me in hot water, but fine. “This is about marginalized commuities!” It always is. Every single development that Lasch describes comes from elite attempts to “better” the poor. See how the American education system developed to “empower” immigrants. Or note the following on, yes, Italian immigrants:
Convinced that poor immigrant parents exploited their children’s labor at every opportunity, they demanded not only state prohibition of child labor but the placement of the child under the custody of the school. Similarly, those who dealt with juvenile delinquency saw “broken” or otherwise flawed homes as the breeding ground of crime and tried to bring the juvenile offender under the custody of the courts. Parents’ rights in their children, according to the new ideology of social reform, depended on the extent of their willingness to cooperate with officials of the juveinle courts. “To the competent parent all aid should be given,” wrote Sophonsiba P. Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, but “to the degraded parent no concessions should be made.” By the same logic, as another spokesman for the helping professions explained, refusal to cooperate with the courts and other welfare agencies proved that a parent “has a warped view of authority and is thereby unable to make use of social resources,” thus forfeiting his right to his children […]
“Oooh, sounds…” Yeah, that’s what it looks like. Try this one:
Florence Kelley, a noted socialist, complained that a typical Italian girl, even when exposed to years of schooling, forgot everything she learned as soon as she married and proceeded to bring up “in the most unreasonable manner the large family with continues to the second generation in the Italian colonies. She will feed her infants bananas, bologna, beer and coffee; and many of these potential native citizens will perish in their first year, poisoned by the hopeless ignorance of their school-bred mother.” Such reformers, despairing of the school, hoped to make the family itself one of the chief agencies of enlightenment – but only after overhauling it according to the latest principles of marital interaction and childcare.
Missing from that list is pizza. “We aren’t elite, we’re the left!” Nonsense.
The question that not one single person asked themselves there is: “What if we are wrong?”
Ignore Damore, he’s a distraction. Yes, it’s bad that companies should censor speech, there, I said it, happy? Move on, stop focusing on what men can say or not, stop focusing on what you can say or not. What’s the most obvious problem here that isn’t about your hypothetical rights?
Look, I’m pro-diversity, generally of all kinds. I think it would be fantastic for there to be a more even split in tech if people want to be there. I also have zero trouble believing that sexism plays a role. Still. Ask the question that’s obvious.
If even one piece of his manifesto is correct, what does this do to women? No, not like, the feelings of someone who makes six figures at a company with global power, I mean just some regular woman. If we’ve decided as a society to blast women with the message “you aren’t good unless you’re into STEM” (what else could they get from this?), what about someone who doesn’t want to go into tech? What is society telling the average woman her worth is? Moreover, what does this teach about power? You’ll be defended if you’re in an industry that we consider important enough to merit it; remember, if you aren’t interested, that’s bad and possibly defective but it’s not your fault. Even then, don’t defend yourself, there’s a CEO to help you out, just ask the Boss. Keep in mind: it’s not a biological problem. Stop focusing on the dude with the manifesto, stop focusing on your elite feelings. What does this mean for actual people?
If one single study in that guy’s manifesto is true, then there are a whole lot more of the not-into-STEM women than into-STEM women, and what you just told them all is that they’re –
if anyone wishes to provide details as to how nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect
Yeah, but what if you are wrong?
“Wait – are you a commie or a reactionary, I don’t get it?” Lasch essentially views the New Left as the culmination of American narcissism (I’d add newer identitarian Right movements into that). I like Lasch, so that triangulates me to…. anywhere but the New Left. I suspect you already knew that. Or: Neither, both, shut up, you’re missing the point.
The easy critique of consumerism is “the poor can’t join the orgy.” That’s true, and I’m not here to say whether orgies are good or bad (to judge from my experience: unsatisfying). The better critique is that they cover real holes with nonsense patches. Sad? Buy this widget. Angry? Watch [action star] mow down a zillion baddies while he hollers “You! Are! Powerful!” Existential catastrophe? There’s an app for that.
This is all true. Still, there are worse things.
The real critique, the real problem with consumerism, is that it’s a Maslow trap. You can only buy a patch for a hole you know you have, which means you can never advance. The only way to get better, the only way to become who you are, is to do something, to grind against a problem. Consumerism avoids all that. So you’re caught, crystalline, at whatever stage corresponded with the doldrums of satiety.
Sometimes people wonder “If I could become part of a virtual world, why wouldn’t I? Everything would go my way!” That world would be hell. The only things populating it would be whatever you could come up with at the time of entry. Someone at stage 3 only gets that, someone at stage 4 only ever gets that. Maslow’s hierarchy is probably pseudo-science, fine, this is just an image. Anyone asking the question about the virtual world is thinking this: “I don’t like my life or how I am in it, but if I made a new one it would be better.” Translate this: I don’t like myself, so I’m going to trap myself with myself for eternity. Yeah. Sounds like a great plan.
You might get sick of it, but how would you know what else to make? There’s a real world out there, and it’s full of things you’ve never considered.
On an individual basis, this is bad. On a social basis, it’s apocalyptic. You know the old phrase, “If you owe $100 to the bank, the bank owns you. Owe a billion to the bank, and you own the bank?” It’s kind of like that. A narcissist individually only harms themselves. Socially, they recreate the world in their own image. And all they are are image.
Yeah, the state was the problem originally, and factories were the problem initially, and elite schemes for control were the problem initially. None of this is the fault of the people perpetuating it. So? What does that do to help anything? They’re only Stage II of the pizza effect. Is that stage unimportant, or is it the critical one?
This probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the issue with narcissism is that it’s a lack of standards, an inability to know where you stand with the real world, which is why Lasch focuss so intensely on consumerism. He comes off like a moralist, but I really don’t think he’s trying to say “buying is bad, be an ascetic.” The point is that modern capitalism allows one to entirely disassociate, to create the world in their image, i.e. never have to leave their identity. That this infects the sciences is genuinely terrifying. The closest thing we have to “objectivity” is the natural sciences (and philosophy, but on that another time), so when those get mutilated we have no way to stop this. Nothing can be held up to measure yourself against.
Yeah, yeah. Other beliefs have messed with science, “catholicism and heliocentrisim”, etc. Whatever. Science isn’t the point, there was still an outside measure for the Catholic Church, and it was the Catholic Church. What makes narcissism a problem now is that it’s the first time that all objective knowledge has been tainted by our own whims, all standards are as arbitary as our egos want them to be. All you need to find is an expert, and there are a billion of those excitedly telling you exactly what you want to hear.
In other words: nihilism.
A reader asks me why narcissism and nihilism are tied. The answer is “standards”. The other answer is that I haven’t really gotten into nihilism yet.
Here’s the immediate, easy definition of nihilism. It’s incomplete, it’s exactly what you expect, and it should make the relation obvious (I’ll do the real one in another piece): it’s the point at which all truths become relative to the eye of the beholder. It’s a loss of faith in the outside world and our actions in it, which devalues both action in the outside world and ourselves for being dumb enough to live in it.
From where I’m standing, just about all of this comes from a lack of faith in action. You’re going to ask “what do we do” and I’m going to say the same thing I’ve always said: this is about pointing out problems. I have the whole rest of this blog’s life for solutions.
Here’s the last problem: Narcissus dies. No matter how well you hide, no matter how constructed your reality is, there’s a whole world out there. It’s waiting to pounce.
Narcissus dies, and this is strange. Theoretically he never “knows himself”, right? Sure, maybe, unless his parents misunderstood the prophecy. They thought “knowing yourself” was some ineffable construct, something hidden away that would be revealed. So they made sure he didn’t look into mirrors, made sure he didn’t test himself to “reveal it”. But.
If your “self” is nothing other than what you do, there’s nothing to reveal. No secret self is going to pop out of the whole, there’s nothing to hide. It’s right there on the surface. You’re already being yourself right now. Narcissus was being himself every day that he did nothing but be himself.
When he looks into the pool, he sees an image. There’s nothing else there, nothing behind it, the image has never done anything with its life. It has no other story but that which it tells itself, and what it tells itself is all images.
The prophecy was “narcissus will live a long life unless he knows himself.”
Narcissus is a young man when he looks into the pool. He sees an image of himself, and nothing besides.
And then Narcissus dies.
Part of the Uruk Series
top/bottom images Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild