The Thresher

simon2

Finale.

“We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence.”
Darwin, On The Origin of Species

I

I wrote a brief summary of the books and terms and the way they interlock. I’ll assume you read it or the series itself and ignore recap.

I don’t think this is even close to a description of modernity (much less a full political theory). I’m personally committed to calling this the Uruk Machine inasmuch as some of these issues are just civilization itself. The only book tied to our era is Lasch, because narcissism is tied to nihilism and those are only possible with a certain amount of tech. Still, if what makes “modernity” modernity is partially in technology, then the Uruk Machine will be updated and whirring at unfathomable speeds, the thresher to Gilgamesh’s sacred club. In other words, all of that but more. And I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what we see.

Still, “modernity” is not exactly the point. When I started this series, I claimed that all of these books were about the same thing. That thing is power, and all of them are about facets that someone else has and you don’t.

II

I’m going to separate “individual power” and “mass power”.

Individual power is self-determination. Power is always over something, and this is “yourself” and also “the outcome of your actions”. It’s incredibly hard to find the right term for it, but everyone knows it when they see it. The best words for it are “agency” and “self-possession”, and those are the ones I’ll use. Of those, “self-possession” might actually come closest, because it implies ability, self-control and political power. It’s the ability to do something on your own, with all the knowledge and confidence that implies. No matter how much external power you have, it’s your foundation. You need to know how to accomplish something to actually accomplish it. On a slightly larger level, it’s the power of a community for self-determination. I still connect this with agency, though, because those smaller communities are self-governing. I associate it with metis, but it’s not limited to that, and episteme provides plenty of agency (depending on context). I think that individual power is pretty obvious up close, but it’s much harder to see from a distance (everyone in a disaster knows who to turn to, but that’s not always the person who actually has a prestigious or political position in the society).

Mass power, on the other hand, is obvious from the outside. I don’t think this is epistemic power (again, there are plenty of people who use episteme for agency), but it tends to rely on it. Mass power is always power over another, the power to make someone do something. I’m going to call it “command”, but bear in mind that that’s imperfect shorthand. Someone with command might be a king, a CEO, an elected official, a [bleh], but they might also be as part of a mass movement. In fact, I’m pretty that command is precisely what mass movements give, and also why most of them fail to cure frustration. (Even moreso if you have some kind of voice over the mass.)

These two things go best together, and when I talk about “real power” I mean both. It doesn’t matter how self-possessed you are, without any mass power a larger entity will prey on you. On the opposite side, being incompetent in a position of command just means that actually-competent people use the slightest weakness to pounce.

There are entire libraries devoted to the observation, “Overpowered people sometimes do bad things.” That doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think it really interests any of these authors. They’re making a different argument: power imbalance isn’t just an issue because the Crown abuses it. It’s an issue because power is a positive good for the populace. The Man could be a lecher or a saint but if he has all the power and the community has none, then it doesn’t matter.

For Scott, power is good because metis is much more adaptive to local conditions and the people who live there. It’s more efficient and generally “pleasant”, while providing people with a more interconnected and “vibrant” world. For Polanyi, power is good because it allows people to maintain communities and enjoy the not-really-priceable goods that that involves. It allows for a kind of certainty, a sense of meaning, and a general traditional safety. For Hoffer, power is good because it allows people to engage in meaningful labor, to avoid frustration and the subsequent madness of the mass movement. For Lasch, power is good because it makes you a full human, and it makes you much less likely to demand the kind of “pleasures” that only entrench you further in the entire epistemic catastrophe. As a bonus, it makes the elites with command more likely to be competent.

The problem here is that “power” has to include both types, and a whole lot of nation building is a trade between agency and command. That’s not bad or good, it just is. I suspect that a lot of political arguments are basically translation issues between these two kinds of power. So Alice says: “The people have no power to do [thing they want to do].” Bob responds: “They live in a democracy! Was it better under kingship?” Both of them agree on centralization being a key feature of modernity (globalization included, inasmuch as it’s one central economy), which is bizarre because that fact alone shows that both of them are right. Even Rome passed out citizenship to save the empire, but that doesn’t mean that the provinces had more autonomy under Rome. Having power over the central authority is different from being your own central authority and really? We’re still arguing about this?

I don’t want to play the “who was happier or freer at [time]” game. I’m not sure it makes sense to compare modern social-contract freedom to whatever liberty meant in 6th century pre-Burma, and I’m skeptical of how we measure “happiness” (Hotel Concierge does part of the groundwork for me; the rest in another post). It should be clear that pre-modern communities were more independent, if not simply because “walking time” was a meaningful measure of distance and it’s difficult to hyper-centralize by foot.

Modernity isn’t bad, no matter how often people want me to be saying [luddite thing], but everything has tradeoffs. Episteme is also not bad, even if I’ve spent way too much time attacking it. Have you noticed how often I rely on epistemic knowledge rather than communal knowledge? As recompense to the gods of book learning: the First Amendment seems obviously epistemic to me, inasmuch as “freedom of belief/speech/thought” isn’t even a coherent thing to discuss in most traditional societies.

I probably don’t need to point this out, but assume that the Uruk Machine basically wants control and knowledge. What limited it before was travel, distance, safety, and wealth. Now add modern tech, a modern economy, the modern-nation state. But if modernity is the Uruk Machine in overdrive, then it makes sense to assume that much more agency is going to get traded for command. The effects of that trade get very weird.

III

One thing that seems notable about the modern political sphere is that everyone is certain that everyone has the power to destroy them, and, weirdly, all of those people are right. The world is flooded with political movements that can do basically anything they want – elect a president, nuke a trade deal, destroy a career, nuke a trading partner – except control their own lives. Not one of them is composed of competent humans who feel in charge of their own fate. You can tell because none of them will stop clamoring that.

Now, I’m going to say that I think what they want is agency. I’m basing that on every one of these books and everything I know about human beings. When someone says: “I feel powerless”, they generally mean “I can’t control my life” not “The various Gregorys of Idaho refuse to kneel.” The problem is that mass power’s use is other people, and all these people are going to get is mass power. This is for one extraordinarily obvious reason: you can’t force someone to have agency. No one can make someone else powerful. That’s a contradiction in terms. If the demand is “[World/government/who cares?], make me powerful!” then they’re already too far gone to save. Don’t let that stop you from trying, of course, I’m just saying it’s going to fail. Feel free to spend however many election cycles America can survive inflicting it on your neighbor.

A) That’s about as stark of a contrast between individual power and mass power as you’re ever going to see, and almost all of that comes down to modern problems (discussed below).

Modern states, to their credit, actually try and respond to this. But all they can do is either accede to demands for mass power or try and fake agency (mostly; there may be a few exceptions). Of course, powerless people – especially those already in a mass movement – tend not to use mass power well. And to beat a dead horse: if someone powerful spends all their time “empowering” you, it generally means you have none.

The fake agency is mostly included in that. I’m going to be talking about nihilism relatively soon, so I may as well telegraph some here. Nietzsche talks about how with the death of the church, all of those religious instincts will be channeled into mass political movements. Surprise, he was definitely right. But “religious” here shouldn’t be understood as “spiritual energy” or [something]. It means metis, basically, in the sense of “habitual use of the power you have left that can provide you with a sense of meaning.” In a totally confusing and convoluted way, the only “metic practice” left is electing who to best episteme over us. “Thing is broken? Vote for The Unbreaker, the politician who knows everything about unbreaking.” And this makes sense. Almost no one understands what will better their own life, because [everything below]. But Unbreakers aren’t real. Not even the smartest person can understand our world, much less tell you how to live in it, much less make that meaningful.

This is connected to the other weird thing about modern politics: the “powerful” never seem to change no matter how much people hate them. In other words, the Unbreaker keeps on getting elected even when those pesky kids show that she’s just another breaker.

IV

In his review of Seeing Like a State, Scott Alexander says: “I am shocked that anyone with an IQ of less than 180 has ever managed to be a peasant farmer.” He was right.

Take IQ distribution and a community of two or three thousand (likely more) over hundreds of years. Include the direct empirical evidence of everyone, plus all the cultural selection mechanisms of that time, and you wind up with ridiculously intelligent shared knowledge. I think it’s more analogous to crystallized intelligence, but since I can see arguments against that let’s just say “communal intelligence”. Of course, this means that not everyone has to be exceptionally bright. They’re living off the brightness of several dozen generations.

That’s good for the individual, of course, but it’s also good for the community. It’s always better to have people who know what the hell they’re doing. Better: no matter how smart you are, a mass group of experience can outsmart you, so those forms of communal knowledge are actually way, way smarter solutions than any single person in the current community could come up with.

But when metis disappears, so does that balance. Its loss was inevitable, of course. Tech along probably took out 80%. You don’t get to retain metis if your community’s tools are a decade old. There certainly hasn’t been enough time to move from “subsistence farmer” to “Tech Support” while retaining the old ways. The economy that pushes along that technological innovation is going to have even more impact. Polanyi, yeah, and so that’s going to have [Polanyi effects]. Simply moving to industrial centers gets rid of communities, families, and [other nice things]. Which is, you know a lot.

Some people are better than others at incorporating radically new information. Whatever individual is smart enough to understand and adopt episteme, not to mention those who can create it, become vastly more powerful than before. Given that metis is all but totally gone, it doesn’t really shock me that modern society has become heavily weighted towards IQ. Hell, The Atlantic knows it and I’m pretty sure that even mentioning IQ is a mortal sin there.

The problem is that the Atlantic assumes that modern technology (and similar) makes IQ uniquely important. No. However difficult you think coding is, farming with bronze-age tools is just as hard. I admit that technology and the sophisticated miasma of information now is the critical factor, but contra the Atlantic there’s nothing inherent to those. Opposite test: If you plopped a bunch of people with no communal knowledge down to farm, I’d expect social inequalities to be much worse than they actually were/are in communal villages. Disparities in intelligence were mediated by tradition, but there is no tradition for modern society. Obvious, but there’s also little incentive to make one and/or share it.

Why is the gap ever-widening between the poor and the rich, and why is it based on IQ? I don’t think this is the only factor, but I’d hypothesize that communal knowledge is actually way more important than “computers are hard”. Yes, modernity is much more complex, more on that later. But anyone who just says: “Being a codemonkey is obviously harder than [pre-modern activity], because [unintelligible murmur], so the IQ wealth gap is only natural now,” has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Have you ever read about the insane level of planning and necessary reactions that go into farming?

This is the other side of mass centralization, and this one is centralization of both agency and command. Sure, people can vote them in, but when it comes time to actually do anything it’s only the people at the very top who can. You need episteme to do anything now, it’s the only agency left, and I’m sorry about how fucking hard that sounds. CTRL-F for non-governmental positions, just with some more woo about start-up grit; further, CTRL-F for communities, given migration to seats of power.

I find it horrifying that we’ve condemned a solid two-thirds-plus of humanity to irrelevance[1], but maybe you don’t. Fine. It still screws you. 1) A single individual is flooded with biases and problems that should be mediated by selection and experience. But given how fragile and centralized our society is, all of that selection is now on everyone’s back. 2) There’s no check and no balance outside of other people who aren’t incentivized to care. When something screwed a community, that hurt everyone. But if something only screws the poor, but repudiating it hurts the reputation of the “smart”, then what’s going to happen? Look, I read the academic insights of Real Elite People more, too, but that doesn’t make me trust them more. Their ability to navigate the map better doesn’t mean they actually understand it, and for a variety of reasons many are incentivized not to say what they really thing. 3) Communal knowledge will always outsmart an individual, and I’d guess that we’re currently running way less efficiently than we should be simply do to size of our pool. It just mean that they can show that they know. This, actually, explains how the Unbreaker keeps getting elected. 4) If people demand power, and what they really mean is agency, how do you think they interpret “only the elite have agency”? You get that people revolt, right?

I have no idea how to fix this. I also don’t mean to say that modernity isn’t worth the trade. What interests me is the explanatory power of this, because I think all of that explains nihilism.

V

Everyone knows that along with modernity comes “existential angst” and possibly “spiritual malaise”, etc. A common explanation is knowledge. I accept this, partially. With the golden exception of every single reddit user, I don’t know anyone who understands the “economy”, which is basically the equivalent of violent, bronze-age storms. Minute changes are ground-level, hard to examine if they’re even properly reported, their effects pile up over decades, we may not even know half the effects because they’re confounded by ill-understood other effects, and [other obvious things here]. Yeah. It’s hard.

You’ll note that this parallels the “computers are hard” argument. It’s actually worse, because I think it’s tripping itself. Modern political and economic circumstances are similar to storms. They certainly share certain characteristics: unpredictability, grandiosity, risk of starvation, etc. But no one in the past understood “causes” better than we do now, where “cause” means “physical process behind an event”. Hell, most kings in the past knew less than the poorest American today. Saying “modernity is much more chaotic, therefore of course moderns are confused and insane” privileges a specific sort of knowledge, and it’s not even right about that one. You’re being tricky, because you’re trying to replace “how to respond” with “why it happened”. Those are different things.

I probably overuse metis, and I promise to continue the trend, but I don’t fetishize it in the sense of “let’s go back to communal farming.” That’s a terrible idea. The past was all kinds of bad: there were famines, and locusts, and other such things inflicted on Egypt. What interests me about metis is that it’s about as close as we’re going to get for “autonomy” and self-possession in the past. That’s communal, obviously, but it also means that individuals in that community were self-possessed. They knew what to do in a given situation, how to respond. Its loss is about as close as we’ll get to understanding why everyone seems to feel so totally helpless despite having more power than any group of humans ever.

Metis is not just “efficient way of doing this thing.”. Ask anyone doing a harvest festival, and they’re going to give you the full run down of its religious and cultural significance. Metis interweaves. It may be a festival for some specific plant, but then that upholds certain community standards, which relate back to the other community traditions, and so on and so forth. In that very motion, you have a movement from agricultural to social to political to x practices, and they’re all bound up in the same thing. Now consider that all of those uphold the philosophical parts. All of your “whys” are bound up in there, every single thing that “myth” says that sounds super pretty: gods and humans and fate and life being important and all of that hippie shit. The stuff you want to believe but just can’t. “Life is worth living” says the myth, and also: “here’s how.”

Past: A storm ravages the crops, and you have to go to the wiseman. He gives you certain things to do. They may be “bizarre” but they’re actually real, coherent responses. They’re metis. (I’m sure there were plenty of groups that actually had bad responses, but they were outcompeted. Selection is, of course, the single most important driver of metis.) Even if the underlying explanation was “irrational”, the response was highly rational. I did a thing, it worked, boom, done. Continuing in that belief system makes a whole lot of sense. The individual with such knowledge is powerful, much more so than an individual who can theorize about a physical event but still gets blown to pieces when he meets it.

Now: the economy goes insane, and so you – …. I’m actually not sure anyone knows, definitely not on an individual level. Even without the economy going nuts, the elite (i.e.those best equipped to handle this earth) ship themselves to college only to find that it means nothing but debt. Then compare that to every other person who doesn’t fall two sigmas to the right, and consider what our world is. With metis gone, our best efforts at epistemic instruction still fail at making habits of behavior in even the best pupils. I’ll risk it and say: almost no one has agency or feels they have it, and I’m guessing that that’s the kind of power most important for psychological well-being.

Ok, but it gets worse.

Metis is totally interwoven, and one of the real dangers of modernity is that the destruction of some of those drives also implies the destruction of others. So you don’t need to perform [ritual] anymore, which means you don’t partake in the same communal efforts. “We did [harvest ritual] because of the gods, but now science shows that gods weren’t involved and that it can do the harvest better. Why should we do this other thing?” This is a great point, and it’s one that no one has any response to. I’m not even sure if there is a coherent response to it.

We can replace farming – we have great epistemic techniques for that. We’re 100% at a loss as to how to replicate those problems in psychology, or sociology, or economics. Doesn’t stop us from trying, of course, which gives us things like DARE. How’d that work out for you? Oh, more kids died from overdose last year than in the entirety of Vietnam and Iraq combined? Whodathunkit.

But most of all, we’re fundamentally incapable of providing any sense of meaning, and I think this explains a whole lot about nihilism.

I know the response to the thing above: “But they had certainty about meanings, because [gods or something].” Well, maybe, ok. How do you think they got that? You can too if you chose to, but why don’t you think that will work? Were they better at tricking themselves than you are?

VII

“Wait – so you’re saying that nihilism comes from local religious traditions being destroyed? That seems… obvious.” Religion is just a helpful byword, but I mean to include anything that was a clear action interconnected with a broader worldview. What I’m saying is that nihilism is connected with behavior, and the kind of behavior certainty provides. The import is not the loss of custom, but the loss of certainty in action. In other words, loss of power.

Start with Nietzsche, because any account of nihilism in modernity has to start with Nietzsche. “God is dead.” He means that to be horrific, even though every edgelord turns it into a T-Shirt. Whatever. The question remains – why is God dead, why now? Did Steve Jobs kill him, or is modernity about more than iPods?

The first thing you should recognize about Nietzsche  is that he’s focused on power above anything else. He’s using a broader definition than I am, but I’m not trying to explain all of nihilism. I’m explaining a piece, because the project was too great for even Nietzsche to handle. Which of course is why Nietzsche went crazy, threw himself on a horse, and died.

Nietzsche leaves behind a whole lot about nihilism and modernity and action, and everyone immediately sets to work fucking it up. Nihilism is now, mostly, a problem of “belief”, i.e. see above. Blame science: Zeus exhibits wave/particle duality, Adam’s rib was a stromatolite, and “the soul” is just a decent Sean Penn film. Can’t trust any of them anymore. Fine, but we only inflicted those bitter truths on some fraction of a fraction of the elite, so that still fails to explain why it became a generalized phenomenon. Further, it definitely seems like it affects people regardless of their state beliefs. Most importantly: this implies that the real problem of nihilism is entirely cogitation, that we should just faith up a new god and everything will be A-OK.

When “meaning” gets severed from action, of course people blame “rationalism” or “scientism”. “Irrationalism” is clearly superior, all except for the fact that it doesn’t do anything good. Plenty of people have arbitrarily decided to believe something. I’m pretty sure that’s called “the 1960s”. How many of them are praying to [exotic deity] now? Every one of them was convinced that the “spiritual deadness” of modernity came from the intellect, and I even agree with them that we’re spiritual dead and that it’s a problem. But you’d figure that after [so many] attempts to “believe” a thing resulted in the exact same spiritual malaise, they’d wonder: “Huh, maybe this solution sucks?”

“We need to believe in something more!” They’d take our primitive man above and have him behave like a modern man, just with a smattering of polytheism. You’ll note that this is insane. Everything good about metis – both for him and for everyone else – has to do with actions. Even his belief is contingent on those actions. It’s not the only thing, but it’s really important. More important for the hippies to realize: all of that is rational, defined as: “If I do this thing, that thing happens.” So you do your weird crop ritual, and lo and behold, the crop thing happens. This, of course, confirms everything else. You do your other festival, and sure enough, life doesn’t fall to pieces. Political struggles are figured out, other such things here. All of these are providing confirmation that the inherent worldview is correct, makes sense, that is has some purpose. And part of that worldview was “meaning”.

What gave meaning to pre-modern man, that assured some purpose to the universe, was the same process that ensured his crops would grow. It also ensured his community wouldn’t crumble, that his political line would continue. The kind of certainty provided by that only makes sense if you understand that his actions were rational and definite. I’m honestly not even sure if we can understand that kind of certainty, but it was definitely there, which probably explains why our best efforts go something like: “The way to solve nihilism is to just make a faith willy-nilly. Like those peasants, acting like lunatics and somehow surviving their lunacy!”

This is horseshit, which is notably not the part of the horse that Nietzsche threw himself on.

VIII

Nietzsche ties nihilism to “loss of confidence in our powers”, and I really don’t think that was a slip of the pen.

Affirming the world, affirming that it has meaning, is insanely hard to do if you have no power over it (“it” here including yourself, of course). To my mind, the very worst response to nihilism is existentialism, because that’s precisely what it asks you to do. “You have to make meaning for the world on your own!” Sounds nice and easy, but how does that happen? Dude can’t even control his Tuesdays, and now he’s supposed to control the entire universe? “No, but it comes from you!” Is he not a part of the universe? Did he just floop into existence ex nihilo?

Creating meaning requires power (duh?), but even trusting in meaning requires it. It’s weird how few people pay attention to just how many religions are essentially contractual. “I do this, you do that, God.” If you do the this and the that happens, that’s an essential affirmation that you have some power. It affirms that your “meaning” isn’t totally arbitrary, it isn’t subjective. You can trust in God for real, serious reasons. Compare that to modern forms of “absolute faith” which are pretty much the opposite.

Look, I’m not saying that belief is irrelevant. Far from it. I’m just saying that belief and action are connected, and trying to conjure up the spectre of “irrationalism” to cure your impotence is just an act of impotence. I’m also saying that recognizing this fact explains the collapse of belief way better than just assuming “nihilism” came along with… what, Richard Dawkins?

Intellectual movements behind it were clearly important, but they aren’t the whole story. They also definitely can’t explain why every intellectual effort to “get faith back” has failed so catastrophically. No, rationality isn’t the only important thing. But it certainly can’t hurt, and it’s weird to assume that it will.

IX

I don’t want to make just about Nietzsche, and I know that I haven’t even bothered to define nihilism. He connects it almost entirely with actions and processes: “making ugly” and “making small” are perhaps the easiest to recognize. Note that those are very different than “nihilism as failing belief”. With the belief definition, it’s not even clear why there should be an external side. But “making small” certainly helps to explain this, because [everything above].

Nihilism is not just existential angst, much less atheism, much less uncertainty. It’s not even the pronouncement of nihilism, which still implies care. It’s a process, the end point of which means that those phrases are meaningless. They aren’t bad, but merely mistakes, not spiritual problem, but incoherence. It is something to be fixed, a mistake, some sort of phonological hairlip.

It is what makes man small, and a direct corollary of this is that the people most focused on nihilism right now are the worst people to try to solve it. Too much shit-talking will confuse the point, so I’ve banished it to the footnotes. But really, other people need to address this issue.[2]

I can’t prove that nihilism is either common or a problem, because that will require a whole other series (internal side of nihilism). I also suspect that a whole lot of my readers are inherently skeptical of it as a concept. That’s fine. I’ll still explain why I think it’s important.

Perhaps the most famous AI-goes-bonkers thought experiment is about paperclips. Superintelligence goes berserk, only values paper clips, turns everything into them. This is taken as an obvious absurdity, because who wants a universe that’s only paper clips? I agree. The AI isn’t the point so much as the issue of value there. What frightens me is that nihilism is humans becoming that machine without realizing it, and it’s the very same process that makes arguments against it look ridiculous. “You don’t want to paperclip Mount Everest? Show me the data that says not turning Mount Everest into paperclips will make more paperclips in the long run.” How can I argue with this? I don’t want paperclips. They’re ugly and small.

Look, I don’t think our society will actually become that, anymore than the paper actually takes Clippy as humanity’s gravest threat. The point of it as an activity, of it existing on a spectrum, is that we slowly approach that, and as we do it becomes harder and harder to argue. Even my essays are like that: show that metis is politically important, so call it metis rather than “world” or “tradition”; show that “virtue” is important for psychology, so call it “pro-social behavior” rather than virtue; “community” is important for the economy, but we call that “trust” now…  No, I’m not saying those are bad, and the issue isn’t vocabulary. Nor is it psych or econ. I love those, data is great, etc. The question is what we measure them by, what are the underlying value judgments? To produce a paper with an argument as to “where we go as a society”, you’ll want to see data. What kind will you accept? What is important to you?

I mean, maybe I’m just a total naif. “Virtue” does sound super provincial. But I fucking hate Clippy.

X

Meaning is actually really important for human beings, and people who can’t have meaning go nuts. As our world approaches meaninglessness, expect more of that. Add in the fact that people have increasingly more command and you do the math.

I get that it sounds weird to say: “Crazed masses of people will be a problem, so they need to have more power.” Sure, it’s of a different kind, and yeah, I have little idea how to do that. Starting a conversation, guys. I don’t make the rules.

No, I don’t think that the entire problem is over meaning. I think it’s crucial, but repeating the same lines:

For Scott, power is good because metis is much more adaptive to local conditions and the people who live there. It’s more efficient and generally “pleasant”, while providing people with a more interconnected and “vibrant” world. For Polanyi, power is good because it allows people to maintain communities and enjoy the not-really-priceable goods that that involves. It allows for a kind of certainty, a sense of meaning, and a general traditional safety. For Hoffer, power is good because it allows people to engage in meaningful labor, to avoid frustration and the subsequent madness of the mass movement. For Lasch, power is good because it makes you a full human, and it makes you much less likely to demand the kind of “pleasures” that only entrench you further in the entire epistemic catastrophe. As a bonus, it makes the elites with command more likely to be competent.

Add to that my own: power gives meaning, and power lets you keep meaning.

All of these interconnect, and nihilism is no different. Power (or lack of it) started the whole mess. But it’s also why it continues. Where nihilism means “lack of values”, it’s very hard for me to see how to return to anything like a better world. “How do you define better?” Precisely my point. “Shouldn’t everyone just be happy?” Depending on how you want to define that, precisely how many paperclips would happiness be?

Nietzsche thinks modernity is great, precisely because it’s the greatest danger we’ve ever faced. It’s this bizarre, accelerative process that breaks down all which went before, and against which all earlier defenses are useless (at best).[3] The Uruk Machine is breaking down, and meeting that danger means becoming large.

I agree. Let the Uruk Machine blaze. I have no desire to return to old metis. We should be better. But that means that we have to follow this one to the end, that there is no going back. Baudelaire, pauper-king of modern life, opens Les Fleurs du Mal  by introducing this danger. Perhaps it’s fitting to close with him, given that his poetry and nihilism started this whole series. It’s fatal to all that lives, but its danger lies precisely in its comfort. From Au Lecteur:

But among the jackals, the panthers, the bitch-hounds,
The apes, the scorpions, the vultures, the serpents,
The monsters screeching, howling, grumbling, creeping,
In the infamous menagerie of our vices,

There is one uglier, wickeder, more shameless!
Although he makes no large gestures nor loud cries
He willingly would make rubbish of the earth
And with a yawn swallow the world;

He is Ennui! — His eye filled with an unwished-for tear,
He dreams of scaffolds while puffing at his hookah.
You know him, reader, this exquisite monster,
— Hypocrite reader, — my likeness, — my brother!


top still from Simón del desierto by Luis Buñuel


Footnotes:

1. It’s actually much more horrifying that we can’t even talk about it because saying “IQ is real” is apparently more taboo than: “Actually, the poor are entirely to blame, because [non-genetic abstract sin].” That a bunch of liberals parrot that argument while somehow thinking that issues of IQ are the province of “Conservatives and probably fascists” is genuinely insane. Whatever, those are arguments for a different day. ^^^

2. There’s a lot of good in some Continental thinkers. They aren’t to blame for the hell demons wearing their flesh.

One group blames science, and I’ll even accept that you believe this. It’s hiding a lot of value judgments, but I don’t mean to call hypocrisy. In this case, the cure is worse than the disease. I don’t want to quibble over whether empiricism has value judgments – let’s assume it for the sake of the argument – what are yours? How small must you consider man – must you make man – to assume that he vanishes at first microscope? And yet you act like that perspective is anti nihilistic?

The other group somehow manages to be worse. They correctly perceive that one has to make value judgments and hold them true. They then, with bovine self-contentment, proclaim that the best solution is: “Being white. But like, really into being white.” Making a big deal of this only feeds into their narrative. One should speak of small things as they are, not how they’d be if they were larger. Spencer et al. can’t even be nazis. What they are is pathetic. Diminishing man to race – and that’s all they do – is an insult, but mostly to themselves. How miniscule must you be to choose that as your best quality? One should well question the spiritual qualities of such a man. ^^^

3. It’s inevitable that this will get compared to accelerationism. I’ll just point this out: Nick Land is not a nihilist. No matter how much he protests, no matter how “virulent” his supposed nihilism, he can’t help but beautify, and beautifying is the anti-nihilist action par excellence. You see it all over his writing, why do you think he’s so focused on maintaining coldness? Erinyes and gnon are in the same general class:

Land is writing tragedy, and tragedy affirms.

No wonder he hates the alt-right more than the left can conceive of. Setting all politics aside, their vision runs counter to his affirmative instinct. ^^^

Author: Lou Keep

samzdat.com

22 thoughts on “The Thresher”

  1. “Being a codemonkey is obviously harder than [pre-modern activity], because [unintelligible murmur], so the IQ wealth gap is only natural now,” has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

    Initially, I thought that being a codemonkey would be harder than [pre-modern activity] simply because we’re less evolved to do math or whatever.

    But thinking again, it seems that the “success space” (the space of what one needs to learn/do to be “successful” or even to see results to avoid being nihilistic) are being pushed further and further by new technology. New technologies can replace existing human activities, limiting or pushing the “success space”. And metis can’t catch up to that, as any new knowledge that creates a technology pushes the “success space” even further.

    It’s certainly an interesting thesis. Back then, everyone had enough metis to act and have enough impact to have meaning. So would you say that if technology stagnated, everyone stayed peaceful, and we had whatever conditions we needed for enough time to develop metis to become codemonkeys (or whatever we needed to succeed), we’d all eventually have enough to act in the world and avoid nilism?

    I’d say that’s a stretch. But possible.

    Awesome work by the way. I’ve read all your posts. I’ve been thinking about the value or religion and this part really hit me:

    If you do the this and the that happens, that’s an essential affirmation that you have some power. It affirms that your “meaning” isn’t totally arbitrary, it isn’t subjective. You can trust in God for real, serious reasons.

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    1. Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it.

      I don’t think it would really solve nihilism. I suspect a fair amount more is required for that, and I’m not sure metis will really help us. Maybe with enough time that whole social systems developed around it, but… I dunno. I kind of think any response to nihilism now is going to start epistemic, because that’s what we have. Labor alone isn’t really enough, even if it’s a crucial bedrock for the power to do [whatever else is necessary].

      I do think inequality would look different. But, of course, that’s just a guess. I don’t think it’s that controversial (it’s essentially saying “if people knew how to do [prestigious work] then they could compete for better jobs), but it is kind of hopeless. Like… epistemic teaching isn’t going to help, which is our best solution right now. I really just mean to point out that acting as though it’s only the difficult of modern tasks is a presupposition and that it really doesn’t fit with how difficult earlier labor was. Something else is happening.

      Your success space seems right. I think it’s mostly a function of time (modernity is just Uruk but faster, perhaps), and time is a notoriously hard thing to stop.

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  2. I feel like this thesis is somewhat undermined, as every internet philosophical screed appears to be, by being so Anglo-centric. You seem to stress a worldwide breakdown of the Uruk machine but to what extent can we observe a loss of meaning, and the rise of nihilism, in the Scandinavian democracies? In the Chinese behemoth? In the slum dwellers of Lagos? Or perhaps the hikikomori of Japan? Is Japan, ever advanced, a step forward for the cultural and social decline of the rest of the world, or is it simply isolated cultural and political factors that drive that particularly society’s troubles?

    Given how dominant culture spreads and consumes, it might be that Anglo issues merely presage dangers yet to come in foreign cultures, as the memes of the US and UK spread to the rest of the world slowly through the language barriers. Still, I am not convinced of this explanation.

    Some other (and weaker) essays on civilizational decline have attempted to sidestep accusations of anglo-centrism by pointing to fractures in other nations; a drug obsessed facist here, a migrant crisis there, the aforementioned Japan, etc., yet I feel this is selection bias. Since the industrial revolution began you could pick out 20 nations in crisis at any particular time. Are the Billion people of India finding themselves sliding towards nothingness? Can you find laments about society crisscrossing the African continent and its 1.2 billion?

    On the other hand, you could make the argument that much of the third world represents a ‘third’ way. Neither metis, nor episteme, but simply chaos. Fling out the bureaucrats and elites of developed nations and you will not rediscover metis, but simply doom your nation to collapse. It might be that a certain amount of nation building is required before you can recognize any sort of power within that country.

    Readers of this post will probably note that I haven’t mentioned China, the opposing superpower to the Anlgo nations. Being somewhat familiar with the country, its language and culture, I would say that it both fits and does not fit with the ideas of this essay. You could fill many books with the disasters of top down state management that have occurred there, but on the other hand in its current incarnation the CCP has managed to maintain a certain level of stability which is lacking in the democracies. At times within the country there is despair at the futures of the young, isolated in urban megacentres, but at the same time you will also find strong Confucian sentiments still guiding some kind of meaning for these masses. The country, I think, sits separately from ideas of globalized nihilism, neither confirming nor denying it.

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    1. I take the objection seriously, although I’m kind of confused. I’m not really talking about what nihilism is or looks like much in this post. I barely mention examples of it, and I don’t think a single one that I did was from the Anglosphere. It’s all Nietzsche and Baudelaire. I also don’t think that nihilism is just from culture. It’s part of a response to economic situations mediated through culture. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s totally deterministic, so it wouldn’t surprise me to find cultures that avoided it or adapted around it (I think synceretic traditions are a very interesting example of this). If I thought it was a death sentence, then why would I suggest it as something we should try and deal with rather than just lamenting? I just don’t know of any that have.

      I definitely think that nihilism is global, and I definitely, definitely think that Scandanavia and Japan are in it. Given that it tracks with (roughly) development, it wouldn’t surprise me if some third world countries were in weird liminal spaces. I guess I’d predict that. But given everything I’ve read from modern developing counties (not to mention having lived in a few), Yes. I’ll stand by my thesis. We are sliding towards nothingness.

      I don’t know if I’d call it “decline” really. But I’ll have to think about that.

      I’m interested in counter examples. What books/articles would you recommend on China that contradict what I’m saying?

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      1. Maybe the formulation goes something like this: when your country (the U.S.) has participated in a kind of illusion of universalism, it hurts more to lose it, because you seem to be losing the cultural technologies which mediate across difference and thus give a kind of Woodstock stardust gleam. China perhaps has no such illusions. The only question which remains is whether those cultural technologies a la Rene Girard every really existed, or whether they were simply reflective of a proper arrangement of society while the United States was incredibly, preposterously rich, and the world was living in the reflective haze following a great world war. America is in dire need of something to unite them, and how ironic that in a world of peace bought by outsourced war, no such grounding force can ever be brought to bear.

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      2. I guess I was just using nihilism as a catchall term for the combination of narcissism, taylorism, frustration and all the rest. In any case, I generally view such ills as being far more anglo-saxon in nature and certainly do not see nearly as much issue with the various things described in this series in European countries.

        i’m afraid I couldn’t give any recommendations on China as that is largely anecdotal, picked up over years of living and working there – I do speak the language as well. Though I suppose this book of Chinese factory worker poems might be a better guide to the country’s nature than what I say: http://lithub.com/the-chinese-factory-workers-who-write-poems-on-their-phones/

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  3. I’m still having trouble following all of the details and jargon. But overall my impression is that the diagnosis is, in broad strokes, correct.

    Now what am I supposed to do, Doc? Is there anything actionable here or is it just insight porn (and part of the problem)?

    I see two plausible courses of action here. In the broadest possible strokes:

    Emulate power, and hence meaning, on the Uruk Machine. The project of rationalism.
    Understand “meaning” in a way that does not depend on either kind of “power” described here. The project of Christianity.

    Legitimately curious: Do you subscribe to #1? Do you consider #2 fatally flawed? Do you see a third way?

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    1. He’s a hagiographer for neoreaction. Their real agenda is so repellent to people that they can’t come out and say it, so they bait you with progressive tendencies. Once you concede a few of his points, his conclusion looks impossible to avoid.

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      1. I second hnau’s request to reveal my deepest secrets to myself. I had a bunch of snarky responses, but I’m honestly just curious at this point.

        If you do actually explain why I’m secretly NRx and why I think that way and how I trick people, then technically that makes you an actual, dictionary-definition hagiographer for neoreaction. Just saying.

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    2. I’m not sure I understand the first – I think you mean something like “we can roughly figure out how human psychology works, and we can put those basic theories into play. That way we hack the system to get get all the benefits of the Uruk Machine but none of the problems. But to do that, we need to be hyper-rational for however long it takes to get the right answers. Later we can be more concerned about using them for things like meaning and [etc.].” Is that right?

      I’m of two minds. On one hand, I think I’d agree with that as an end goal. I like civilization and the internet it gives me. If the alternate is meaning + catastrophic civilizational collapse, then I’ll probably take listless modernity.

      On the other, I’m not sure that all of those can be emulated. I think there might be some serious trade-offs, and some people may not be willing to make them. An obvious one is death. Death sucks. I’m also pretty strongly in the camp that without it, we’ll have really weak, small values. Last man values. That might be an extreme example, but copy paste for whatever. I’m not 100% on this, but I think it’s a serious problem (not just death, of course).

      I mean… in that sense I’m in favor of #3, which is essentially to harness modern power for different ends. Or, well, let that happen anyway (I suspect it will, but maybe not how we’ll want it to). But that might also be #1, just with the caveat that emulation is not possible or always desirable.

      Or I misunderstood you.

      As for #2 – I think another way to interpret Christianity is as taking power. I hesitate to say this, but since I was already talking about Nietzsche – that’s certainly how he interprets it. I mean, he thinks Christ himself was a good form of that. Something like absolute, stoic agency, and haughty contempt for mass power. The church, on the other hand, was the inverse of that – pure command, no agency.

      I’m not sure where I stand. I’ll have to think about it.

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      1. Yeah, that’s roughly right. I guess I was using the term “emulate” loosely. As you might have noticed, I’m as skeptical of #1 as you are.

        To elaborate on #1 a little: you’ve pointed out that most good examples of agency and meaning are based on metis. The exception is a small modern elite that accrues agency and meaning via IQ / episteme. You note that even this isn’t really a good example because it isn’t scalable or sustainable. I’d add– and I guess your comment was getting at this– that it may only work because it’s still working off residual metis. If we really go in for super-rationality, pure episteme, then we’ll do things like get rid of death and fatally weaken our values. Or worse, explain away agency and meaning itself.

        I take the key rationalist claim to be that by the time we get there, we’ll have found something equivalent or superior to human values, which is what I mean by “emulated”. Either that, or rationalism is actually nihilist and believes human values to be ultimately worthless. I’ve found that one can read stuff like http://lesswrong.com/lw/sa/the_gift_we_give_to_tomorrow/ in support of either conclusion, as desired. And, less charitably, I suspect that a big part of rationalism’s success in not collapsing as a worldview is that it equivocates between the two readings.

        Now suppose, for the sake of argument, that the worldview does collapse. What are the options? Not going back to metis, as you point out. As difficult as it is for epistemic elites to conjure belief today, it’s much harder to preserve, let alone serve, human values from the super-rational viewpoint that debunks them. Your proposed #3 strikes me as a slightly more subtle case of the same thing. Whatever your “different ends” are, they’re either metis-based values and therefore not sustainable in modernity (because Scott / Polanyi / Hoffer / Lasch), or they’re groundless and therefore nihilistic / paperclippy (because circular– why those values??– and episteme gives you no help here).

        Despite how it may sound, I’m no more a fan of metis as such, or a detractor of episteme as such, than you are. We’re both epistemic moderns and even if metis is better (as understood on its own terms– epistemically it’s indefensible), we have several excellent reasons not to care: (a) we couldn’t go back even if we wanted to, (b) we have no way of knowing if we’d be meaningfully “happier”, and (c) who died and made metis king anyway? Nihilism is completely unassailable as a modern worldview, precisely because of the paperclip logic you describe. Episteme can’t say anything against it. It’s just the residual metis in our mindsets that rebels.

        Let’s suppose, though, that you’re not satisfied with nihilism. (Which in both of our cases would seem to be true). What are the options? Where do you get your agency / meaning / values? Not from metis, because that ship has sailed, and also ick. Not from episteme, because that only supports nihilism. You need a third thing. (Not, I should note, to the exclusion of either metis or episteme; they’re both perfectly valid ways of knowing, just insufficient.) And as you pointed out, it can’t just be meaning / belief; it has to involve actual power.

        This is where I get to #2. I take theism to be claiming the existence of such a third thing. I take Christianity in particular to be providing a plausible description of how that third thing translates into actual power. The crux of it– I’m riffing / speculating here, of course– is that the power isn’t ours. Never was. Not only is command (our power over others) a trap; agency (our power over ourselves) is too, at least on its own. Power over us, on the other hand– there’s potential there. If that power is applied on our behalf, then we’ve got something that looks like agency. (Not “fake agency”– we’re basically talking about a real Unbreaker.)

        The only major hitch is your line: “Creating meaning requires power (duh?), but even trusting in meaning requires it.” Christian theology usually describes the solution with words like “grace” and “faith”. So one might say Nietzche was right both in ascribing absolute agency to Christ, and in characterizing Christians as rejecting that kind of agency (in and of themselves). But it doesn’t follow that the church is accurately interpreted as a “mass movement” in the command sense, concerned with “taking power”. Instead it’s concerned (in teaching anyway– I won’t speak for my practice or anyone else’s) with something more like “receiving power”.

        Now if the Christian claims are untrue then this is manifestly no help, and the church really is just a pitiful kind of mass movement. (As contrasted with polytheistic metis where the beliefs alone might actually be some help.) And if you’re convinced of that, then I recommend taking a second look at nihilism, since it would seem to be the only game in town. I’m just claiming that Christianity’s understanding of power / meaning / agency is such that, if true, it constitutes a workable alternative to nihilism.

        Hopefully that makes some amount of sense?

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        1. It does make sense. I do think there are other ways to get around nihilism, but that’s going to be a much longer argument than I can make at the moment.
          I don’t really want to get into my own beliefs here (it distracts from arguments), but I will say: I probably read the Bible just as often as I read Nietzsche. I don’t think that makes me a Christian, and I wouldn’t call myself that, but I probably take it a lot more seriously than one might assume.

          If you’d like to ask or discuss more, email might be a preferable form of communication. Not least because the nesting comments here go haywire really quickly.

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  4. As usual, brilliant stuff. I don’t know if you especially care about typos, but I’ll list two anyway:

    “I have know idea how to fix this.” [know —> no, just before part V]

    “I’d guess that we’re currently running way less efficiently than we should be simply do to size of our pool.” [do —> due, just before the previous typo.]

    Anyway, as I said, this is fantastic, and it’s given me a lot to think about. Some early thoughts…

    I suspect that the whole idea of the “search for meaning” is broken, not just the hippie solution of ‘(1) find exotic god, (2) worship it, (3) if life is still meaningless goto step 1’. If your life’s goal is to have a meaning, then nothing will feel meaningful to you at all. Meaningfulness is a byproduct of already having values.

    Which I guess was your point all along! Still, in this case I think the hippie solution has about as good a chance of working as any other. “Those people worship Gryx the Sky-Goat, and they seem to find meaning in their lives, maybe it’ll work for me too”. [Though the fact that nobody tries this with something a little closer to home, like a good old-fashioned megachurch, is quite telling I think. They’re not even searching for meaning, they just want to project the image of living a meaningful life, so a low-status meaningfulness like a megachurch is out of the question.] I get that they’re ignoring all the things that come with membership in that society and just trying to copy the surface; but it seems to me like anything you can try runs up against that problem. If your goal is just “meaning”, then even if you try to fully live the life of Nepalese hermit or whatever, go beyond the surface, you’re still just going through the motions and it won’t work. The problem is that you’re not actually worshiping the Sky-Goat, you’re just trying a One Weird Trick (only instead of losing your unsightly belly fat, the goal is finding inner peace).

    [I’ve related in a previous comment my experience going to a synagogue in Tel Aviv, and feeling like I was on Mars. I’m pretty sure this is what was happening to me. On the other hand, at the insistence of my mother I also once prayed at the graves of my great-grandparents in Taiwan, and while I was terrified it would seem totally meaningless and weird to me, in the end I’m quite happy I did it. It still felt a bit weird, but much less than I’d expected, and I got some meaning out of it. The difference between these two experiences was, I think, simply that the latter meant something to my mother and therefore meant something to me.]

    The question of course is why this crisis of ennui is happening now, and here. It’s not exactly the heyday of mass movements, after all, I’m pretty sure that was the 20th century. And to paraphrase Walter Sobchak, those mass movements don’t seem at all nihilism-driven. So what is the difference?

    Sure, one can always blame modern technology, Facebook, iPhones, whatever. Clearly it has something to do with something, if you took all these toys away maybe we would all start to actually talk to each other, life would regain meaning, etc., what Randi Zuckerberg keeps banging on about. But that’s clearly not the whole story either. Lots of societies seem to be able to interact with technology just fine without suddenly being overcome with ennui. If technology really is eroding their culture, i.e. their inbuilt source for values, it’s because that technology delivers Wonder Woman to them, not anything really inherent in the technology itself.

    In that essay that I linked to a few posts ago (and which is effectively a poor man’s version of this series), I concluded that the culprit was the modern version of the American Dream, i.e. “You can be whatever you want”. It’s very hard to create values for yourself; but it’s very easy to get values from your elders and educators and peers (hence why synagogue meant nothing to me, but praying in an old Taiwanese cemetery meant something). And it’s not like the hypermodern academic culture that sits at the top of America (and hence the world) lacks values. You can be whatever you want, in context, is a very clear statement of values — “be a creative or change the world or [high-status activity], or you’re a failure” — and many people absorb those values. At the very least, the elites inherit those values, and whatever the elite values gets reinforced over and over in the media, entertainment, etc., so that everyone has to respond to some extent.

    But the values involved are very exclusive values; by their nature, they relegate at least 99% of the population to one failure state or another, which is why we need psychological salves like college degrees (“Ok, so you didn’t become a world-famous novelist like we promised you in third grade, but you did get a B.A. in Literature from Yale!”) — because even most of the people we’d call the “elite” fail to live up to these standards.

    [As an aside: I hear people rail against “unreasonable beauty standards” all the time. I say, thank God for beauty standards! At least when someone goes on a diet or starts going to the gym, they’ve set a goal for themselves in a domain that they control. Compared with our unreasonable intellectual standards, which is what I would rail against, this is pure sanity. It’s probably a stretch to say that beauty standards are the only thing shielding us from the abyss, but I think they’re an important part of it.]

    I’d call this “despair” rather than “nihilism”. It’s not that one lacks values or a clear avenue to meaning; I suspect the typical modern “nihilist” knows very well what would give them meaning. It’s that the avenue is unreasonably difficult. Once you’ve set your sights on “world-famous novelist” and spent fifteen years of your life working towards that goal, it’s rather hard to climb back down to “marketing consultant” or whatever.

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    1. Sorry, I don’t mean to spam these comments, but I want to add a few things:

      (1) About that paragraph on iPhones etc., I’m not suggesting that you blame all of this on iPhones, I’m just responding to a common and fairly influential idea.

      (2) Regarding agency and command, it seems to me like the problem is just that the goalposts have shifted. We have more agency now than ever, by any absolute measure — I can go and live in almost any city in the world if I want to. I can find some sort of menial job in Vladivostok and live in some cheap-ass apartment, etc., and have a perfectly comfortable life by material standards. But the standards installed into my brain require me to become a famous mathematician or entrepreneur or whatever, or else I’ll have “failed to live up to my potential”. So agency has fallen relative to modern standards. Hence, people seek out command as a substitute, and our value system allows this (proof: that kid who wrote “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on his Stanford application).

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  5. Have you read Alasdair Macintyre? Many of the major themes of his writing are parallels with ideas you’ve discussed in this series, especially how the form-of-life of a community and/or civilization informs the axiological semantics that population is equipped with.

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  6. Wonderful stuff, exceptionally stimulating. Two quibbles:-

    1) I think you might be conflating freedom with power sometimes. (Funnily enough I’ve just been having a conversation with someone on that very topic.) That’s the baneful influence of the Rousseauian Left on modernity, which induces errors both when it’s accepted and when it’s kicked against. We have to always keep in mind the distinction between freedom as power or capacity, which has only natural constraints, and freedom in a social sense, which involves a shaped lack of constraint by other human beings. The words “freedom” or “constraint” are the same words used in both contexts, but their uses have only a family resemblance, there’s no common essence. If you conflate the two, you have the inevitable trajectory of Left-driven modernity towards a Borg-like civilization, with human beings as meat puppets teleoperated by AI (“freedom is slavery”). The resolution, I think, is the classical liberal idea (as was attempted in the Constitution) where you have smaller metis-fostering groupings with more or less tight constraints voluntarily undergone, overseen by a more abstract set of rules protecting individual liberty which guarantee a right of exit (these are of course two sides of the same coin, “voluntary” amounts to “right of exit is protected”). As an extreme thought experiment: the star confederation might have one or two “BDSM planets,” but so long as the association is voluntary and the right of exit is maintained, it’s all good (bar the tricky question of contractually-undertaken indentured servitude).

    2) I think it’s a mistake to think of either metis, or even episteme, as standalone memetic bundles that are easily transferable between human beings. In one sense that’s true – a thing is true or false on its merits, and anyone can decide that for themselves. However, some genetic bundles are (at the level of populations and averages) more likely to come up with, produce, reproduce, sustain, etc., x memetic bundle than y memetic bundle. IOW, until we become race realists, we won’t really get a handle on any of this, and we’ll always have bad faith around it.

    The upshot is: allow people to “segregate” naturally, don’t force either segregation or desegregation (global unity). For the rest (e.g. elites and IQs, potential redundancy of truck drivers), trust to comparative advantage and a free market. The level of “in your face” governance should match the level of concreteness and voluntariness, the level of minimalist governance matches the level of abstract globality and universality, which is at the same time the maximal level of “atomization” of individual qua individual. This would apply to each level as “more or less” as well. (BDSM planet’s own board of governance adjudicates and prevents bloody turf wars between foot fetishists and pony players.)

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  7. 1) Is the problem of Nihilism really worse today than a hundred years ago? More generally, do you know of a history of meaninglessness, or perhaps you’re working on one? Locating Nihilism as the problem has the pitfall that it’s closely related to leisure and science, which are both pretty great…

    2) If I had written this series, or if I were to plagiarize it in my own words, I believe I would have been less deferential to the books. This has been a wonderful synthesis, and it is more convincing, in a way, because the existence of the four books as discrete, separate works makes it feel like you’re drawing on four independent pieces of evidence. But I think like I would have spent more time intermingling their insights rather than discussing them separately. Did you grapple with this?

    3) One way I’ve thought of this series is as a sort of translation of ideas from the humanities for more analytically minded readers. In particular, this all seems very Foucault-ish, but he barely appears, even though he was also obsessed with power. You can interpret this as a question about your background and views.

    4) I much prefer the Howard translation of Les Fleurs du Mal, and in particular his version of that poem, ending with (I hope I’m remembering correctly) the more intense and mirrored: “Hypocrite reader — my alias — my twin.”

    Anyway — fascinating and insightful writing. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks.

      1) Currently working on one (pretty far down the line, though), but it will mostly be about our times. A shorter sister piece about the ancient Etruscans will be sooner. I don’t think it’s “worse” necessarily. I suspect it is connected with science, but I also think that science (from a certain view) might actually be what gets us out of it. Maybe.

      2) Yeah, I did. I decided that I have all the rest of my blog to talk about my own ideas, and it would be helpful to have a much more carefully excavated argument to refer back to. An unfortunate side effect of that was sheer density. Hopefully later pieces will be less densely packed with arguments.

      3) No comment.

      4) I do prefer that. The Baudelaire was a late addition, and I only have the French, so I just looked up a random English translation (so long as it had facing page). Baudelaire is pretty much translation-proof so far as I’m concerned, but posting a long French quotation was going a bit too far, even for me.

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  8. My response to all these comments (and it’s a response, not a criticism) is a thought I keep having these days:

    “At least the society in Brave New World told the Epsilons they were important.”

    It seems to me that part of metis is what it allows you to do: for one thing, it helps you figure out how to take concrete action, action that has a semi-predictable result. It also allows you to contribute. I almost said “contribute to…” But then I realized that I’m not totally sure how that sentence ends, or if it even matters.

    Anyway, I think that the ability for people to take concrete action which contributes has been heavily eroded in the modern world.

    I think I reject Mr. Stewart’s analysis above for exactly that reason. One thing the dystopian World State in Brave New World does is put a lot of work into telling every caste how important they are. That society has put enormous effort into telling the lower castes how much they contribute. It could, I think, give up on that, tell the Deltas and Epsilons that their actions are irrelevant, and I think this would cause profound pain and unrest, even though it would not represent increased coercion, nor a change in their “natural” (or in this case engineered) capacity to take action.

    In general, a lot of utopian thinking ignores the pretty heavily ingrained desires we have to take concrete action and contribute. The term “race realism” makes me quite nervous, because for one thing, the supposedly enormous differences between the races don’t actually seem that major to me in my personal interactions, but also because in many views certain races are sort of infantalized, and members of those races are then distanced from the ability to take concrete action and to contribute to society, and I think this is very psychologically bad for people, whether it’s enforced through apartheid or through a “benign” neglect.

    Wall-E is another thing that comes to mind for me. That spaceship isn’t a dystopia because the robots in charge are making bad decisions about what the humans need; they actually seem to be pretty on the ball. It’s that the process of being infantalized so thoroughly is itself very disconcerting to an adult human no matter how compassionately it’s done.

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