Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Quiet Life

You're not allowed to live quietly and without ambition in America. Everyone must be Up and Doing, all day, every day, to preserve an instrumentalist delusion. That your circumstances not only may be changed for the better but that You are the agent of that change. Also, it should be changed for the better, no matter how satisfied you are now.

This is the pathology at the root of the American dream. Alexis de Tocqueville saw it some two centuries ago, how Americans of every class were perpetually buying and selling. No sooner did some Ohio Valley burgher purchase a horse or a butter churn then he was trying to sell it again at a profit. One nation under the side hustle.

Even if you think you're getting into a profession - or at least a day job - that will afford you some peace and quiet, you will soon find this not to be the case. As the economy moves more and more away from actual production and into the exponential bureaucracy of managerial feudalism, even the most innocuous activities become charged with a production for production's sake mania. You have to crush that PowerPoint, demonstrate enough can-do spirit to single-handedly build a pyramid, or you run the risk of appearing as a layabout. Not a doer. An un-person, unworthy of friendship or love or your middling office job - where a dozen others also compete in who can best present the simulacrum of productivity.

Because without that job, you're nothing. Without any job, you're worse than nothing. The less America spends on welfare, the more it resents those dependent on such public assistance. Poverty is the one unforgivable sin, so better look busy.

Friday, September 21, 2018

As Above, So Below

Ever since their founding, the American suburbs have been the subject of bitter criticism. We should all be critical - suburbia birthed every wrong-thought from libertarianism to LARPing - but the bitterness is because, even in the wake of financial collapse, the suburbs won. There is no escaping them and half the 20th Century is choked with books and films and records born of resentment at this crushing normality.

He Digs A Hole by Danger Slater is an heir to this anti-suburb philosophy, at least on the surface. Harrison Moss is an average decaying man in an average decaying cul de sac who rebels against this dreadful state and tries to find a way out. So far, so standard. Even the splatter-horror approach is more cosmetic to the story, with Moss shearing off his own hands and replacing them with garden tools. So he can dig his hole and get away from his depressing house and vacuous neighbors.

Except that's only half the story. Literally, as Moss and his wife Tabitha descend down the hole halfway through the book, emerging in a negative universe beneath. A place populated by monstrous horrors and walking worms, but curiously still ordered exactly as the post-industrial hell above. A different, deeper hell but a hell all the same.

This is where Slater's book diverges from the well-worn path of the suburban doldrums tale. It's not a matter of escape so much as transcendence, breaking free of the rut by breaking free of one's own apathy and alienation. This part of the narrative isn't even carried through by Harrison but by Tabitha, who was always the stronger of the two - an excellent twist on what is often a masculine escape and power fantasy. The Mosses do not break free of the hells within hells through more striving - striving just leads back to the cul de sac where this all started - but through each other. For all the grotesque madness of spleen fruits and zombie garden parties, He Digs a Hole is a strangely uplifting book. Even with the world consumed and the sun blotted out, as long as Tabitha and Harrison have each other they have hope.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Contra Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of those favorites among dilettantes because he wrote accessible prose that flatters the individualist yearnings of stunted middle class children. This is not to disparage Nietzsche's very real accomplishments in meta-ethics and the history of morality, just to disparage all the modern fans who take his arguments as an excuse to be conceited dickheads in their Philosophy 101 courses. You know who I'm talking about.

Nietzsche famously differentiated Classical and Christian ethics, defining the former as a good/bad dichotomy and the latter as good/evil. Classical ethics, rooted in a warrior elite from Achilles down to Charlemagne, prized courage and personal honor, using these virtues to define themselves as separate and above the greater mass of humanity and thereby justifying their own privileged position in society.

Christian ethics, in contrast, seek to promote a universalist altruism and therefore concern themselves first with evil, rather than virtue. This evil often constitutes the same privileges enjoyed by the Classical elite - wealth, sensual pleasure, mastery over their social inferiors. Nietzsche saw in this a slave revolt, hence his christening of Christianity as the "slave morality" which shames those who display the Classical virtues.

Nietzsche, being the prototypical angry white boy, bristled at this shaming. And his critique has served as inspiration for alienated youth in Western Civilization for generations. However, as much fault as Nietzsche found with Christian ethics, his own description of "master morality" doesn't sound all that better:

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle which even the apes might subscribe; for it has been said that in devising bizarre cruelties they anticipate man and are, as it were his "prelude."

Much as the abused might come to identify with her abuser, her Nietzsche has fetishized the abuse on which Western nobility built its reason for being. This indeed makes him all-too-human, as it echoes Hegel's parable of two men at the beginning of history vying for dominance. Because, as David Graeber points out, the archetypal everymen "in all such stories, they appear to be 40-year-old males who simply rose out of the earth fully formed." Which speaks more to the historical forces that shaped modern Western philosophy, rather than any essential Human Nature.

Further, this is usually where some readings of Nietzsche identify him as a fascist. And with good cause - his Will to Power and injunctions to embrace an aristocratic ethos is entirely in line with the reactionary tradition as described by Corey Robin, who traces every disparate strain of conservatism, from George Will to Sarah Palin, back to the Counter-Enlightenment sentiment "that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others." A sentiment Nietzsche ran with in his otherwise laudable resistance of Victorian moralizing.

Where Nietzsche identified the pathology of Victorian Christianity, Lewis Mumford identified the pathology of Classical kingship:

Murderous coercion was the royal formula for establishing authority, securing obedience, and collecting booty, tribute, and taxes. At bottom, every royal reign was a reign of terror.

The enforcement of such a reign necessitates the same "submissive faith and unqualified obedience" Nietzsche spurned in Christianity, but instead directed towards the desires of a sovereign, whose very station both breeds and rewards an anti-social neurosis:

The rigid division of labor and the segregation of castes produce unbalanced characters, while the mechanical routine normalizes - and rewards - those compulsive personalities who are afraid to cope with the embarassing riches of life.

To see the apotheosis of this pathology, just look at Donald Trump's Twitter feed.

Nietzsche did necessary work in dismantling the shoddy foundations of Western morality. He just didn't go far enough. Excavating down to the fetid and worm-eaten base of kingship, he declared "This is good!" either out of a limited imagination or the artist's desire to shock the middle-brows. Would that he'd gone further and dynamited the whole edifice, we might actually have tasted that freedom he talked about so often. Instead, we just traded the white collars for power ties, vicars for venture capitalists. The same song of power since Ur, now dumber than disco.

Works Cited
David Graeber. "Consumption." Current Anthropology, Vol. 52, No. 4.
Lewis Mumford. The Myth of the Machine.
Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals.
Corey Robin. The Reactionary Mind.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The World as Won't

"The surest way to fail is not to try." Everyone has heard some variation of that injunction. Every American especially, as the civic religion and mythos of America declares at every turn all things are possible for those with the Will. That "those with the Will" have historically been property-owning white men is often left out of the pithy proverb.

Another such proverb, "You only lose if you play the game," appears at first to be promoting the same can-do exceptionalism. The words are superficially the same, but the core idea is different. Where "The surest way to fail is not to try" compels - commands, even - the listener to go out and seize the day, "You only lose if you play the game" presents the natural state not as failure but as null. One does not court failure except by engaging in whatever pursuit the first proverb commands, and so failure may be avoided altogether simply by not getting involved.

Digging deeper, we find "You only lose if you play the game" further offers a critique of the dog-eat-dog paradigm our opening proverb takes for granted. "The surest way to fail is not to try" presents failure as the default state, the state you're in right now. A state that persists until you actively take charge of your own life and destiny, shaping the world to your Will!

A stirring idea, if you've never worked an office job.

The reality, which we've all experienced, is that the World is not amenable to Will. The World just is. The idea that by giving it the old college try we can rectify this rests in the same instrumentalist view that animates everything from neoconservative foreign policy to new age cults like The Secret.

This is the game that you only lose if you play. A rigged game too, as demonstrated by the continuing foreclosure crisis amidst yet another Wall Street boom. Millions have played this game, or tried to, only to discover that as you try and try you still fail. Because effort does not correlate with success, nor success with righteousness, no matter what Calvin and Adam Smith claimed.

But if you refuse to play - reject the logic imposed by the game - you escape the default failure state imposed on everyone not born into the winning class. It may not reshape the World into something more amenable to your own notions of justice, but it's a damn sight better than being ground under the treads of this awful Megamachine our forefathers have foisted upon us.