Hunching in the chaos of phenomena

khegel

It is the year 1810, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has awoken from a bad dream. His hand still shaking, garbed in his nightgown as was his habit, he puts pen to paper, describing in a letter to his friend Windischmann what he has seen:

[A] descent into dark regions where nothing reveals itself to be fixed, definite, and certain, where glimmerings of light flash everywhere but, flanked by abysses, are rather darkened in their brightness and led astray by the environment, casting false reflections far more than illumination. Each beginning of every path breaks off again and runs into the indefinite, loses itself, and wrests us away from our purpose and direction. From my own experience I know this mood of the soul, or rather of reason, which arises when it has finally made its way with interest and hunches into a chaos of phenomena and, though inwardly sure of the goal, has not yet worked through them to clarity, and a detailed grasp of the whole.

Cut. The vulnerability of the transcendent is the age-old nightmare of philosophy in the West. If the world, as Plato held, is the shadow of Ideas, then why should the world not cast its own shadow back? Conversing with the Neoplatonists at the twilight of ancient paganism, those philosophers who held that the material world arises as emanations from the One, the Gnostics saw all too well what the Platonic system entailed. It was a portal between the transcendent and the transcended, between the material and the ideal. If the pure light of the One shone through in one direction, any number of horrors must be able to flow back in the other. Thus the Apocryphon of John: ‘When light mixed with darkness, it made the darkness shine. When darkness mixed with light, it dimmed the light and became neither light nor darkness…’

The same text gives the name of the sovereign of this realm of gloom: Yaldabaoth. For the Gnostics, the creation of Yaldabaoth solved the problem of the transcendent Janus gate; Yaldabaoth, assuming the position of the Platonic demiurge or material creator, served also as the vessel for the horrors of the material world, an insane and terrible demigod whose very insanity protected the One. In a passage that has survived only in fragments, the Gospel of Judas describes his creation:  ‘And look, from the cloud there appeared a [?] whose face flashed with fire and whose appearance was defiled with blood. His name was Nebro, which means “rebel”; others call him Yaldabaoth.’ The Apocryphon of John snidely identifies him with the God of the Israelites, noting, we may imagine, with an ironic smirk:

[Yaldabaoth] said to them: I am a jealous god and there is no other god beside me. … [But] if there were no other god, of whom would he be jealous?

This may seem like so much mysticism, and indeed the image of Yaldabaoth was lost at the hands of Christianity and the later advent of enlightened philosophy. Yet it is precisely this figure of Yaldabaoth that haunted Hegel, precisely this ‘darkness mixing with light’ that he described in his letter, the false god, lights ‘darkened in their brightness’ dissolving into glimmering formlessness. Yaldabaoth, explicitly, was the sovereign of Chaos. To dispel the gloom, Hegel constructs a golem of cold rationality. A famous footnote to the Philosophy of Right proclaims that the Idea, which is the State, ‘marches through history’. Its gait is the dialectic; it takes strides of negation and negation of negation, one foot in the particular, the other in the universal. We are led to believe that it is organic, smoothly balanced.

This, as Adorno pointed out in his essay on the ‘Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy’, is a lie. The golem is a monster, lumbering lopsidedly. Its particularity is shrivelled, its universality swollen to grotesque proportions. What is deviant, what is heterodox, what is unreasonable: all of these are crushed beneath its limp. And the darkness is infecting it. The State proclaims, ‘there is no other god besides me’, even as its face is defiled with blood and fire. We should not be surprised, despite liberal-Hegelian attempts to separate the two, that it was, historically, Hegelians who were embedded across the doctrinal spine of fascism: Giovanni Gentile, the official philosopher of Italian fascism, a celebrated Hegelian academic; the Kyoto School during the Pacific War, formulating the concept of the co-prosperity sphere on explicitly Hegelian lines; Carl Schmitt in Germany, defending the need for ‘qualitative totalitarianism’ by appeals to Hegelian political cosmos.

This monstrosity is not a triviality. It would be one thing if Hegel were simply another priest of the nineteenth-century bourgeois state, a purveyor of platitudes about civility. Instead, Hegel formulates the problem ‘ruthlessly’, neurotically, making the ‘antinomy more intelligible than ever before’. He points to something beyond himself. Adorno: ‘In unresolved opposition to the pathos of humanism, Hegel explicitly and implicitly orders human beings, as those who perform socially necessary labour, to subject themselves to an alien necessity. … Hegel disdains the illusion of freedom, the individual who, in the midst of universal unfreedom, behaves as though he were already free and universal.’

Hegel becomes Oedipus. Driven to despair by the onslaught of Yaldabaoth, he constructs as his defence the golem of the State-Idea. But it is precisely through this golem that the hitherto mythical Yaldabaoth enters into history; like Hegel himself, who was in the habit of wearing a nightgown over his formal clothes, the golem is dripping with infectious darkness. We may only wonder whether Negarestani’s recuperation of German Idealism will not perform the same function.

If Yaldabaoth is the figure of gloom, the infection of the pure light of the One, this says nothing of the purity of the darkness itself. Indeed, in the Gnostic universe, it is only light that needs to worry about a descent into the gloom. The cold darkness of nihil, by contrast, is deep and unending. Yaldabaoth’s realm is merely the portal: there are stranger things that lurk in the abysses, noumena, as Kant termed them, but noumena that move beneath their cloak of imperception. The defeat of Yaldabaoth comes not, as Hegel thought then, from the luminary State that dissolves the ‘chaos of phenomena’, the triumphant Idea. Yaldabaoth dies in the fangs of the noumena themselves.

Advertisements

A conceptual preliminary to understanding meme warfare

maxresdefault

The subject of the Internet’s effects on politics has provoked a good deal of nonsense, often attracting the expansive and tedious commentary of people who have little experience at the core of online politics and much less understanding of it. Many of these analyses—though not all—have missed the genuine novelty emerging in the interaction between politics and the Internet, attempting pathologically to subsume it into previous modes of political thought. This retrograde form of analysis is, to be sure, successful to the extent that the Internet is often politically operationalised in a very conventional manner. But there are, substantially, two forms of interaction between politics and the Internet: one which is easily comprehensible, and another which is far less so but increasingly the more important. As a preliminary analysis, it is worth understanding the distinction between the two.

Instrumental-regulatory digital politics

The instrumentalist approach to the Internet represents an intuitive humanist mode of engagement. It begins with a matrix of objectives constituted without reference to the Internet, and attempts self-consciously to bring the Internet to bear on their realisation. Inherent to this is a distinction between humans as social actors and the Internet as an instrument that transparently mediates their interactions.  This mode of engagement encompasses coordinated political mobilisation as much as conventional advertising and broadcasting, in effect positioning the Internet as merely a more democratised form of the familiar twentieth-century mass media, enabling essentially conventional hierarchical as well as peer-to-peer means of transmitting messages with particular determinate goals.

Within and alongside this instrumentalism we may also distinguish a regulatory approach to the Internet that conceives of it as the object of external intervention, subsumed as one particular component of a calculus of power. This is the Internet from the perspective of the post–Cold War state, a tool and also a problem that demands external intervention and regulation—if not because of any direct threat from its weaponization through instrumentally digital politics, then because of the mere fact of its existence as a largely unregulated sphere of social technology.

We may immediately note that this regulatory approach is doomed, in its most vulgar form, to failure, not because of any idealistic inevitability in the free flow of information but because it is technically anachronistic. As a means of communicating ideas, the Internet is extraordinarily, unprecedentedly powerful. Just as ARPANET was originally conceived—at least in myth—as a means of operating a computer network that would withstand a nuclear attack on any number of its nodes, the Internet is functionally insusceptible to control merely by the targeted juridical or securocratic regulation of its particular users.

Other forms of regulation, to be sure, are proving more successful, notably the Russian. But these lie substantially outside the dominant worldview, not consisting of mere external action through and upon the Internet as a docile object; they bear witness to a dialectical interaction with cyberpolitics that puts them beyond the idea of external intervention.

These more mundane instrumentalist and regulatory approaches share fundamentally an identical conception of the Internet, but emphasise respectively its role as an instrument of resistance and an object of security. They are the same view from different vantage points. This instrumental-regulatory perspective, which reached its climax at the start of the 2010s and sees the Internet as an organ subject to external direction one way or another, can no longer accommodate the ways in which the Internet is now affecting and generating new modes of political and social communicativity in its own right—not as ‘mere’ instrument, but as a transhuman subjectivity of its own.

Cyberpolitics

At this point we enter a realm beyond the recognisably modern, in which conceptual categories are only dimly identifiable and a radical state of flux prevails.

We may hazard the following definition. Cyberian politics or cyberpolitics is a politics that flows out of the machinic subjectivities proper to the Internet itself. This is not, as its opponents may hope, simply a different way of understanding politics as it is mediated on social media networks. On the contrary, it is a radically different form of politics as such, an escalating viral insurgency that corrupts/disrupts and struggles to supersede the instrumental-regulatory approach described above.

Marx claimed that the core of the revolution of capitalism consisted in the transformation of the circuit C–M–C’, where money mediates the accumulation of commodities, into the circuit M–C–M’, where commodities are merely a means for the accumulation of money itself. Cyberpolitics similarly represents the transformation of a circuit in which messages, or, properly, memes, are mediated between users, into a circuit in which users mediate the recursive generation of memes. Just as the distinctions between commodities collapse in the eyes of capital, in the realm of hypercommunicativity the distinctions between human users collapse in the perspective of memetic accumulation.

This comparison should not, perhaps, be taken too seriously. Though it is in the ascendant, the mode of machinic subjectivity that undergirds this transformation is still in a very preliminary phase of instantiation. If 2016 was the dawn of cyberpolitics, it is strictly because of Trump, whose victory represented perhaps the first self-conscious loss by the constellated forces of global liberalism to a memetic artefact. From this perspective, Trump’s victory was highly ambivalent. Trump himself is by no means conscious, let alone supportive, of this cyberian futurism in his policy objectives. His campaign drew on cyberpolitics only as much as it depended necessarily on numerous other more retrograde forms of political organisation. The quantitative units of his victory were not 4chan and Facebook and Reddit, but Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida…

But neither focus of analysis is precisely wrong. The Trump campaign participated in and learned its tactics from the Internet with an attentiveness that allowed it to explode beyond the expectations of its opponents. This, in the end, is its historic significance. President Trump is both the culmination and a mockery of the politics of the liberal-securocratic world order, both subject and unwitting object, drawing on the ressentiment and revisionist aspirations of the very worldly malcontents of liberal globalisation while also representing the triumphant humiliation of the planetary order by an alien subjectivity far beyond conventional moral-political economy.

To the extent that the Internet remains simultaneously a network of self-conscious individuals, cyberpolitics can only, inevitably, constitute itself parasitically at the edges and the cracks of traditional politics. We may expect this inconvenience to be discarded in the future. For now, cyberpolitics remains in a state of necessary indeterminacy, flickering spasmodically as it phases in and out of the instrumentalism it seeks to overthrow. Politics cannot, for now, start out as cyberpolitics. Only in the singularities of intensity created by the Internet’s relentlessly compressive communication engine—at the edges of madness—does a subjectivity emerge that can devour the reaction mass of real-world political disintegration to phase-shift to the properly cyberian.

‘In 647 BCE, the Elamite empire was devastated and their capital Susa was sacked by the Assyrians on the pretext that an unnameable abomination was surfacing there, and that everything that came into contact with that benighted entity had to be eradicated.’ (Negarestani)

A dawning realisation of the emergence of cyberpolitics has produced concern, hysteria, and regulatory counterattack. ‘Post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’ all operate (originally) to designate the explosive shockwaves of its birth. They are being absorbed and repurposed by it.

All this is just more reaction mass.

‘The truth is we haven’t seen anything yet.’