And then a man wandered up into the public square. He entered all the while proclaiming that he was leaving. No one had seen him in a year, and everyone was puzzled as to why he was returning just now. He had been expelled a year prior for, to put it lightly, being something of a sex pest, groping and humiliating a woman. And now he is standing in the very centre of the square, announcing that he is leaving it this very moment.
Everyone's eyes turn toward him, some nervous, some amused, most simply bewildered. Some even seem to have forgotten who he is. After he is assured of the whole crowd's attention, he speaks.
That sign made me an idiot.
I began reading Sam Kriss' comeback post slightly curiously, wondering if he was finally ready to accept that he had been wrong, his previous statement was not enough, he had made amends, and was honestly asking for forgiveness. And after one more word, I realised how stupid I am and of course he doesn't mean that, of course he means the old-fashioned term for someone who rejected the life of the city.
The first substantial paragraph of his unusually unwieldy post begins: 'To say that everything is political is no longer an insurrectionary act, not now that everything really is.' I read this line over and over again, amazed. Surely he couldn't have actually deemed this fit for publication. Surely he might reflect on the possibility that everything was already political, but that he couldn't see that due to his privileged background. But he lurches on, producing a list of things that have only just recently, I am now aware, been made political. He concludes this list with 'The personal is political.'
And then, after some meditations on Marxist hermeneutics, he treats us to a dance of his own invention, one that I am obliged to call the 'two steps forward, one leap back':
Walter Benjamin wrote that fascism is the aestheticisation of politics, and communism politicises art. Well, we’ve politicised art; every glue-gun assemblage of hunched material, every glorified mirror in mixed or digital media, declares itself as an affront to Trexit and Brump. But where’s our communism?
It would be foolish to assume not only that there’s still something more profound beneath it all, but that what lies beneath is still more politics.
Today, to abandon the world of politics is the last, the only, and the truest political act.
However right the first two paragraphs of that passage are, they seem to mask something. The man standing in the public square has proclaimed the public square a monster and announced that he is exiting it, leaving its horrid oozing tentacles to grasp at the rest of us. But there is something truly off about him, something strange about the way he speaks…
Yes, we know. Complacency is a luxury. Irony is a luxury. In this moment of crisis, in this moment of opportunity, to do nothing, to fail to have a position on the political shoes or the political sandwiches, to not preen yourself into a Good Person in a cruel world, to not talk about the latest deprivation over coffee and wine and hemlock and sewage, to let each dumb moment fall through our fingers, and not try to grab at it, to not fix its dwindling in the aspic of thought while every day people are suffering, is a luxury. May all luxuries belong to the working classes.
No, we don’t know a thing.
Sam Kriss here appears to be using the royal 'we'. I know this because his style is to use 'I' when referring to himself and it seems unlikely that he would so suddenly change to the editorial 'we'. And I know this further because this is the only point in the text that he becomes truly defensive. What kind of person would charge him with being complacent for attempting to withdraw himself from politics? Or, more specifically, with having the luxury of being able to be complacent in the first place?
Why, someone without that luxury, of course. Someone who is only empowered to speak for themself, unable to credibly invoke nameless multitudes—a silent majority, shall we say—to bolster their claims.
And he confirms my suspicions again two paragraphs later, implicitly comparing himself to Prince Myshkin in his explanation of what makes an idiot. 'An idiot is never fungible. An idiot is absented from the system of values, exchange-values and political values included. Not a separation from the tissues of the world, but an approach on a different register. Prince Myshkin does not close himself off from society; he simply doesn’t understand it.'
Section 3 is blatantly, loosely as it may be, quasi-autobiographical. It is an intricate pseudodiary of what 'the idiot'—referred to with 'they' and 'them' pronouns, as if to emphasise his detachment from himself and demonstrate his progressive cred all at once—does, or at least wishes they could do. As is usual for him, he mixes reality with fantasy, creating a magical world in which the mundane is itself enchanted. This makes it all the more amusing; he lapses into using the language of magic realism to conceal impotence: 'Actually, I've been having a great time without all of you.' (It is not a great leap to suggest that 'the idiot has never been any good at dancing' is a veiled reference to his 'not being properly attentive and not picking up on her signals', which he confessed to in his 'apology'.)
(I used to love Sam Kriss' writing. He is a very good writer, a rare breed who can effortlessly mix contemporary politics, philosophy, personal narrative, and fantasy. His language is flowing and precise at once. Shame that he threw away his talent so carelessly.)
The article closes with a tacit admission that becoming apolitical is never truly possible: he confines himself to smaller and smaller spaces until finally he is crushed to death by politics besetting him on all sides, realising that even the experience of pure nothingness is political. (He leaves out that last part; the fact that it is the logical conclusion of his movements escapes him.) Only death can remove him from the political, or so he thinks, as his memory will surely be used for political purposes.
Sam Kriss introduced himself in this latest essay with apophasis, a rhetorical technique of bringing something up by dismissing it. He is a political writer, announcing after a long absence that he is leaving the political. Apophasis has been used since ancient times, by Cicero ('I now forget your wrongs, Clodia, I set aside the memory of my pain') and by Trump ('Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?"'). The technique is central to the great tradition of apophatic theology, initiated by Philo of Alexandria, carried on over the years by Orthodox Christian mystical theology. Since God is perfect, we may not understand Him by saying who He is; rather, we must approach Him by grasping who He is not.
St. John of Damascus: 'The Divinity, then, is limitless and incomprehensible, and His limitlessness and incomprehensibility is all that can be understood about Him. All that we state affirmatively about God does not show His nature, but only what relates to His nature. […] Moreover, there are things that are stated affirmatively of God, but which have the force of extreme negation.'
By introducing himself with an apophasis, he has also brought up the political, and that he is always already a political figure, someone who not only writes about politics, but who is, like all other subjects, a political subject. But the political is not so easily banished. When he says, 'But in the end, it matters less that I dreamed I was consoling Barack Obama over the phone, and more that I did so in a cottage cut directly into the bedrock of a Hebridean crag,' he fails to banish the political; he unintentionally uses another rhetorical device here, litotes. Like a vampire, once you have invited politics in, nothing short of a stake to the heart will suffice to remove it. And by dismissing it, he has only made its presence here stronger.
Sam Kriss has raised his shouting in the public square to a shrill scream. His seeming death drive is starting to worry people. He is screaming about how he will not hallucinate if placed in an isolation tank, how he will be buried in peace when he is dead. He is attempting to negate the political, but in his most forceful negation, he has accidentally stumbled onto his god, and because his is merely an idol, he has grasped its nature. He has seen the Inmost Light ('…all we see, be, and are is Imperium, Empire of Nothing…').
He points at the edges of the public square, shouting that the tentacles are grasping all of us. Most of us had accepted this long ago; we were never pointing out the tentacles as an 'insurrectionary act'. He is getting more and more agitated. 'They are everywhere! I cannot escape them! A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim!' He lunges forward at the crowd but suddenly stops.
His face has come off. Beneath it lie a writhing mass of pitch-black tentacles oozing a putrid substance like melted asphalt. They quickly writhe out and cover his body. His figure starts to disappear as it is digested; occasionally a bone snapping or a mouth slurping can be heard.
Underneath the arms of the beast, Sam Kriss smiles. For now that he is blind to everything, he is finally at peace.
There's nothing inherently wrong with any of this, and indeed there are many books that you really should read and there's a lot of music you should listen to. But the issue is that in our capitalist culture, each one of these is produced as a commodity that must be gulped down before rushing on to the next.
This creates a huge cultural problem, which is that many people view works of culture as hurdles to jump over until the endlessly-moving goalposts are reached, at which point one can finally listen to things one enjoys, but through somehow more refined lenses or whatever. This is, to put it lightly, the absolute motherfuckin' worst way of enjoying things possible.
When you do this, when you take on this mindset, you're not really enjoying things and you're not even teaching yourself to enjoy things. You're essentially taking military-industrial education and applying it to your own enjoyment of things—you're treating every work as a lesson to be done with instead of a lesson to enjoy. You don't really want to do it, you want to have done it.
Well then, you say, you want to enjoy things, but you also want discipline in your enjoyment. How are you to develop a taste? —The only advice I can give here is what Ram Dass says: Be here now. If you're subjugating your enjoyment of something to your wish to have accomplished it, thus subjugating the present to the future, then you're not going to get anything out of it but further alienation. But if you're balancing the two, understanding that your present enjoyment is what leads to that accomplishment afterward, then you're going to get both.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to listen to a lot of music or reading a lot of books, but when you listen to music because you actually want to listen to it, or when you read books because you actually want to read them—or hell, when you write things because you actually want to write them—it becomes a lot more fruitful. And, even more, practising at actually enjoying things changes your mindset for the better; when you start to take a little more enjoyment in everything, you start to accomplish things too.
These truthful allegations do not matter, as the conspiracy theorist is not engaged in the business of uncovering suppressed facts as ve would insist, but in the repetition of a particular rhetorical structure. This structure as it exists today borrows elements from classic antisemitic tropes as well as from British and American security culture and from certain forms of academic historical revision as typified by Carroll Quigley. Aside from the antisemitic tropes, many of these other origins are respectable in their own right. It is their mixture and dilution into a particular structure of thinking that makes them conspiracy theory, thereby divorcing them from legitimate power analysis.
That structure is this: For a certain period of history, normal operations in a particular realm have been compromised. There is an organised group of people who have compromised this realm. This group manipulates the information regarding this realm in order to maintain the appearance of normality. However, they have particular signatures that give their activities away. The solution to this problem is personal awakening through a search for truth.
That last bit seems like it is incongruous with the rest but that is because it fulfils an important function in the structure. The conspiratorial structure is merely the inverse of technocratic liberalism and thus it reinforces the fundamental premise of capitalist realism: that there is no alternative. Where technocratic liberalism posits that existing institutions are basically good and that any problems with them are generally caused by bottom-up corruption, conspiracy liberalism instead begins, like radicalism, with the premise that existing institutions are basically corrupt and this corruption is thus top-down. The major difference between conspiracy liberalism and radicalism, however, is that the principles underlying these institutions are never questioned. The institutions thus require total restructuring to remove the malign influence but never truly radical change or abolition.
Thus, the conspiracy theorist takes on the function of controlled opposition to liberal society. Ve is not necessarily paid or controlled by the institutions ve rails against; in fact, this is most likely a very rare occurrence. Most conspiracy theorists are, in fact, relatively regular people. Rather, it is vis position of faux-radical posturing against institutions when in fact vis function is to safeguard them from truly radical critique that makes ver such. As August Bebel said, 'Antisemitism is the socialism of fools,' we may similarly say that conspiracy liberalism is the radicalism of fools.
Furthermore, the structure contains a important internal contradiction that underlies the logic of conspiracy liberalism. Let's take a moment to analyse a typical conspiratorial statement from a pseudonymous poster on a popular conspiracy forum:
I don't care who Q is, some saying he is an AI, some saying he's propaganda, etc... IF someone drops a name and I can go look up that person on my own, and see they are a bad person or into some shady shit, then that, to me is someone trying to get to the truth. You can't fool yourself if you do your own research.
The structure of this statement is personal and individualistic. It is framed in the first person, save for the last sentence, which is in the second person. The lack of third person language is important. It suggests not an impartial analysis of actually-happening events but rather a kind of occult initiation which happens through the personal transmission of information. The information making up the conspiracy theory is not presented as given factual information but rather takes the form of an arcane mystery. The message does not lie in the content of the conspiracy theory. The message lies in its form.
What, then, are we to do? The answer lies in the repetition of an idea that is phrased in three different ways. The first form is the phrase, phrased in first person, 'I can go look up that person on my own, and see that they are a bad person or into some shady shit'. The second, phrased in third person, is 'that […] is someone who is trying to get to the truth.' The third, which has become something of a meme to sceptics, is 'do your own research,' phrased in second person. As if it's a magical invocation, this thought is repeated thrice and in a different person each time, practically performing an alchemical transmutation.
The fact that it begins in first person and ends in third person is not coincidental, as this establishes a chain of initiation, a personal bond which is relevant to the propagation of the conspiracy structure. (This perhaps makes the conspiracy structure a good, if not perfect, example of a hyperstition: its purpose is primarily to repeat itself as much as possible.) The addition of the third person in between changes its form from the particular to the universal: not only are you and I trying to get to the truth, but anyone can try to get to the truth, and indeed, as the anonymous 'someone' suggests, it's a general law that there are people trying to get to the truth. Neither is the fact that it transitions from the third person in the middle to the second person at the end coincidental, for this immediately grounds and relates the universal back to the particular. You are joining with many others in a special journey of trying to get to the truth. Yet simultaneously this ends up being very individualist, as you must get to the truth by trusting your own intuition, your own judgement, your own research first and foremost. The neophyte is not expected to rely on the magus, but to become vis own magus.
This produces a fundamental contradiction. Although the conspiracy theory is presumed to be an objective and scientific body of information, access to it is primarily subjective and mystical. Thus the contradiction may be seen between the conspiracy theory as objective and final fact and the conspiracy theory as a subjective process of self-discovery.
Given the constant and unending nature of this self-discovery, the observed phenomenon of conspiracy theorists not being satisfied with one conspiracy theory but choosing to believe in many even when they contradict each other at the objective level begins to make sense as the necessary action of the subjective element of the conspiracy structure. In the structure, the objective element is subordinated to the subjective element. The 'search for truth' trumps the actual details of that truth, and as such the conspiracy structure draws into it all of history and all of culture as an attempt to satisfy this 'search'. The most sophisticated conspiracy theories are those which end up reinventing Gnosticism by positing the fundamental conspiracy as a metaphysical conspiracy—at this level, the nature of conspiracy liberalism as liberalism protecting itself against radical critique is fully disclosed, as the understanding of liberalism as natural law remains unchallenged and is, in fact, rendered fundamental. The conspiracy is no longer required to exist in a way that its existence can be proven by objective research, but it is shown to be a metaphysical construct which is presumed to exist before any evidence of it is presented. The only possible solution here is Buddhist-like transcendence of the world.
The conspiracy structure is endemic to liberalism; it is in fact required for liberalism to continue to reproduce itself. Although previously it was more moderated and empirical and helped to sustain republicanism, with the collapse of republican government and the triumph of technocratic liberalism, it has transmuted itself, joined with its purely reactionary twin, and become a stumbling block before those who would analyse systems and institutions for a truly radical critique.
That said, I have no plans to quit blogging any time soon, and as a matter of fact, I've been planning to write more.
Thank you for being my friends and readers!