Scenes from a double life
I have never been susceptible to xenophobic or nativist rhetoric, partially because I come from a family of displaced immigrants. With age, and perhaps with comfort, I am beginning to understand it. I was in a place, let us not say where exactly, that attracts capital and talent from all over the world. Unlike the U.S. Southeast, this would constitute REAL America: the United States of America as people imagine it to be.
In a market, there were people from all over, but mostly Asians. I can only assume that they were Chinese in their majority, and very affluent. I have read in many places that the boom in industry in China over the last twenty years has produced a new crypto-bourgeoisie, one with more money than they know what to do with. The boom that brought us cheap plastic goods at Wal-Mart or similar stores made these people rich, and now they are coming to where rich people flock; this time, I’m assuming, to educate their children. No doubt, those trying to sell them things welcome them with open arms. But having lived a better part of a decade in a place where capital and talent doesn’t flock, or at least not as much, I was reminded about the changing face of hyper-civilized 21st century reality. As in many other instances, there are winners and losers, and this is definitely a place for winners.
But being supposedly a native of this land (though with shallow roots), I can sympathize with those who fear that the reality that they grew up with will soon be no more. At the base of nativist politics is the real lack of control of the “normal” person over their fate and prosperity. As civilization unfolds itself into its most rigorous and logical formation, those who do not “win,” those who are less skilled, less “gifted”, and less affluent will have to take whatever they are offered, and that looks increasingly like serving and accepting a new globalized elite, a ruling class without roots or culture. And they are supposed to love and accept that reality or be labeled a bigot or backwards or worse. And in spite of the Trumps and aspiring cyber-Neonazis of the world, they will accept it, because money talks and rhetoric walks. But like any caged animal, they will lash out, perhaps in self-destructive and anti-social ways.
All of this of course dooms “progressive” politics. The only change people will be able to lobby for is inherently backward and counterproductive. With the movement of goods and capital comes the movement of people, and the most affluent will come first, then the rest. The only way to rebel against this reality is to cling to a world that no longer is and that no longer can be: from there comes the nativism and xenophobia, the individualist crime, the mass shooter, and other anti-social behavior. Unless you win all, and unless you embrace the faceless digital order of innovation and hashtags, you might as well not exist.
This won’t lead to revolution. Revolution assumes an old world of factories and punching a clock, of immobile capital and national markets. The machine is bigger than that now, it is bigger than class struggle or human liberation. We are its servants, and those who are useful are rewarded, and those who aren’t will be disposed of. Soon there will be no middle ground.
The real enemy of Wild Nature is not technology or even humanity specifically. It is human excellence. Let us go back to Homer: aρετή is a term found in ancient Greek that initially meant excellence, usually in battle or other bellicose arts. If I am able to conquer and slay my enemies, I have aρετή in its initial sense. This passes into the Latin alphabet with the word virtus from which we get the word, “virtue”. In the Great Procession of Civilization, qualities found in Homer’s Achilles or in Seneca’s Hercules were less and less coveted, and those which were more coveted are self-control, humility, thrift, and above all, obedience. Obedience is the first and most important quality of machines, and machines are found to be the most powerful means to get things done. The sword of the ancient Greek hero is nothing compared to the drone that destroys from afar thanks to an algorithm developed by engineers with inferior physical capabilities. While the warrior might be a better subject for an epic story, it is the obedient soldier, as part of a mass (see my references to the factory above) who has won the most battles of the past few hundred years. Though some may invoke ideas of courage or heroism out of nostalgia, the reality of the modern army for many centuries has been obedience with some training plus technology.
The genius of civilization then is to assume all forms of human excellence into itself. It still has specialized commandos, perhaps some of the best soldiers who have ever fought, for whenever it needs them. But it also has pacifists who deliver their mail, and people who outright oppose capitalism itself teaching their kids. Civilization works because it can assimilate all forms of human excellence into itself. It is not afraid of diversity or difference (again, see above), it welcomes these as valued contributions to the endeavor of human striving. Even primitivism has been assumed into civilization through fad “paleo” diets and practices like Waldorf education which try to counter the abstraction of modern learning. You can’t really ideologically attack civilization because it accepts your criticism and uses it to improve itself.
That is why there’s no use pointing out how harmful civilization is to the human animal. Civilization wants and actively seeks the well-being of the human animal, it just does it in a way that destroys all other life on the planet. Let us look at one of the Greek words for sin: aμαρτία. Literally, this means, “missing the mark.” If aρετή means always hitting a target, say, with a spear or an arrow, sin means to not hit the target. It doesn’t really matter what target we are talking about, that is for capital and the computers to decide. The goal of human excellence is to accomplish whatever it seeks out to do, without regard for actual cultural content or moral consequences (in many cases).
There is thus no use in proposing alternative forms of community, or criticizing the hyper-civilized as lazy or stupid etc. All you propose as improvements will be assimilated into the vast network of machines known as civilization: machines that think, work, and entertain. That is why nihilism is the only answer, even if it too is assimilated into civilization. There is nothing positive to propose because civilization has won, and even if you try to point out the sliver of authenticity still within the hyper-civilized, it will be harvested as well for the latest app or algorithm.
Here I come to what I am doing here: sometimes I think polemic is a waste of time, because it is argument itself that is the object of my polemic. At the risk of being nonsensical, I know that what I say does not seek to convince all of what I believe or even that what I believe is reasonable. In this sense, it misses the mark of reasoning: to compel agreement by showing that my view better conforms with the state of things as they are. I simply do not think that is possible, especially with seven billion other points of view at play. Even my best dialectic and string of syllogisms undermine what I say, so perhaps it is best not to say it. By showing the fallacies of others, I am participating in the same ritual that I seek to oppose. So there is no use, other than to “test one’s strength” against civilized reason, to show that one does not settle for “cheap nihilism” but rather formulates a robust (if futile) one. Or sometimes you have to learn things the hard way, literally.
The only dignified response is to not participate and/or to attack: non serviam. I will not serve.
Duc in altum.
There are times I still seek authenticity, somewhere. These are my weakest moments. These are the times of doubt and uncertainty. I am not the man I used to be. I used to have wonder. I used to fear. I used to love many and hate some. I am getting older I suppose. Life has blunted the spear of my heart like a stubborn stone.
Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens? Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants? Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?
It is alright in the end if we bow to idols, even if we hate ourselves for doing so. We must have great patience with ourselves. It is not that we are “doing the best we can”. That’s an idiotic statement. But what can we expect of ourselves, if we chase after the handiwork of man, if we cannot distinguish between awe and infatuation? If we are drawn to the Glories of Progress as to the enchantments of a whore? We only have one lifetime, and we are not that wise, nor is there anyone there to teach us. Only understand: this isn’t it. There is more to it than this. Hate all you want, smash everything, perhaps even dream of starting over. But this is not all there is. You will not see all that there is, but it is still out there. Open your heart to that, and despair not.
So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.
There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
How am I to guide this little one, if I am so lost myself? She sleeps on me and I hear her breath again. When they are first born, you wait for their every breath, and little by little, you come to expect it. It is not an easy process to get to that expectation. Often you wake up in the middle of the night just to see if they are still breathing.
Little one, I love you still. Maybe I don’t know what it is to love anymore. All I know is that I love you now, and I will love you always. All I know is that I love in the present, and love is the present. All reasons fail here, and perhaps my failure is all I worship now. Accept this failure, this uncertainty, and let it be your lullaby until the night comes. We only have today, and I will be with you. This is enough for me.