John Pistelli


Both Ends Against the Middle

Fredrik deBoer on the phony populism of geek culture:

We’re not even talking about, like, you should try a black and white movie sometime. We’re talking about Rembrandt. Let me ask you, denizens of the internet: are you finding it difficult, these days, to get away from that constant pressure to appreciate Rembrandt? Do you find yourselves deluged under all of the Rembrandt coverage online? Do you feel left out by the constant in-depth conversations about Rembrandt on Twitter? Are you getting a little tired of all those Rembrandt-based memes and reference humor? Does your daily browsing experience involve constantly having to click away from heavy-handed Rembrandt coverage, frustrated with the endless stream of bloggers and aggregators, taking advantage of the latest Rembrandt-related fads? That Rembrandt clickbait! So incorrigible! I mean, lord knows, video games are currently a purely niche aspect of our culture, one that you barely hear about in journalism and commentary, which totally aren’t economically dominant or critically ascendant. Rembrandt, on the other hand. That’s the gravy train.

Take it from someone in the actual higher education system: there is way, way more video games in academia now than Rembrandt. I like video games fine, I really do. But if I didn’t, I could not function in the contemporary humanities. To the degree that any subject can be hot in the humanities under current labor conditions, video games are as hot as it gets. They’re getting job lines and conferences and special issues of journals. And in the way this dynamic always goes, there’s still this persistent notion that video game people are disrespected. It’s the same old two step: “my preference for geek art and media puts me at the heart of the culture and the economic engine that exists to serve it, but I still don’t feel respected, so therefore I’m oppressed and you have to put up with all of my bad behavior.” And as this gentleman is once again demonstrating, facts simply have no bearing whatsoever on this dynamic. It doesn’t matter how ignored and marginal the “high culture” you deride is, or how ludicrously praised and popular the “low culture” you celebrate is. You always get to posture as the underdog, and to treat being the underdog as a get-out-of-jail-free card for acting like a jerk.

deBoer is correct, and not just about this. Hell, I don’t like video games at all; I didn’t even like them when I was a kid and played them for peer pressure’s sake. Lucky for me, I do really like comics, another hot commodity in today’s academe. Given that, I am able to weather the pop culture storm, even though I would, candidly speaking, mostly prefer to address both my criticism and my pedagogy to literature.

There is a solution to this whole cultural crisis, which is the understanding (cf. Leslie Fiedler and Scott McCloud*) that high and low culture share a method (formalism) and an enemy (the middlebrow) and so should fight together. Such a realization even has the potential to resolve the ideological conflicts around something like, dare I say it (I don’t), g——gate: with the wider dissemination of a radical politics outside the ever-more-grotesque middle-class moralism promulgated absurdly under the rubric of “social justice,” a term culturally appropriated, ironically enough, by puritan-statists from us anti-capitalist and anti-socialist Catholic wops. When I was in college, all my left-wing professors, whether male or female, were sixties people who unremittingly mocked political correctness; that generation is now aging out of command and the rising generation seems to be made entirely of pulpit-pounding technocrats, a seeming oxymoron that is the worst of all American archetypes (a German cultural inheritance, vulgate Hegelianism, nein?). I can’t wait until I am old, when their children turn on them, and I will play pied piper, like Burroughs and Genet strolling among the hippies. No, no, don’t worry, I am really not cool enough for that; I am much more of an Eliot than a Burroughs, in the end, though I am just a petit-bourgeois and not decaying old money as both of those strange men were.

What is actually ongoing now, what deBoer notices, is the gentrification, hence middlebrowization, of low culture in its present form (TV, comics, video games); if they were not being tamed, how could they end up on all the trigger-warninged syllabi and glossy-mag best-of-the-year lists? That low culture’s proponents present themselves as victims is the sign of this mainstreaming, for America is a victimology, a culture that began in revolt against real and fancied oppressors when the Puritans fled the official churches. The pilgrims’ struggle continues even today, one hashtag at a time, despite the fact that they and their successors would not recognize each other as partners in a shared struggle for a New Jerusalem on a hill. Anyway, low culture and high culture are rarely self-pitying in this way: they center around works that boldly seize the place of (aesthetic) power and so belie any claims to victimization that might be made on their behalf. So, if comics and video games have become a den of complainers, there must be some other vital source of unconstructed aestheticized social energy out there for the next wave of modernist experimentation in high art to pick up. But where is it?

*My little essay on McCloud contains all the misgivings I have about the opinions I’ve voiced above, for those devotees of ambivalence, moderation, and the inner dialectic. I have my anarchist side and my civic-republican side, possibly reconcilable as some kind of Tory anarchism, and then again possibly not reconcilable. I trust everyone has a similar conflict within themselves between their desire for freedom and their desire for order. This is to be expected because life is life; problems begin when people deny that they are so conflicted and seek to impose their false solution to this insoluble problem on the rest of us, whereas what we need is not an ultimate answer but rather grace in the midst of incertitude, or, as I prefer to call it, art.

8 comments on “Both Ends Against the Middle

  1. Vett
    19 February 2015

    Interesting article. I vaguely remember that this wasn’t the first time deBoer wrote about this (he was even granted space in The New York Times to write about the same subject a few months ago, I think).

    One of the examples he gave was “A Game of Thrones”, the television series, which I think is a fitting example. As a product, it has already bypassed its creator, who, regardless of his acute case of writer’s block, must either provide new material or risk being supplanted by the television writers who can’t wait for him to “unblock” because, well, that fifth season can’t wait, can it? There’s a market for that stuff, ergo that stuff has to exist. If the writer can’t deliver, we get another; if the creator dies while there’s still demand, someone from the estate has to appoint a successor. Which I guess is how you end up with newspaper comic strips, Nancy Drew novels, and most Hollywood fare.

    Regarding superhero comic books, I can’t avoid thinking that this system is firmly in place, with writers and illustrators who, though they might be famous, are for the most part expendable — at least this is the impression I get. Since my mother tongue is French, I grew up reading all the European comic staples — Tintin (including “in the Congo”, albeit the expurgated version, which wouldn’t be translated into English until 1991!), Astérix, and all the others — and a few American comics (the Disney stuff, especially the Carl Barks Donald Ducks, and Garfield). I am just about as unfamiliar with so-called “graphic novels” or superhero comics as I am with manga.

    Perhaps that explains why I can’t understand the widespread appeal for adults (other than an academic interest) of superhero comics: I am under the impression that it is really children’s fare, adolescents’ at the oldest — and by my teen years, I’d graduated to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. As far as genres go, the only one I indulge in is the detective novel; never cared for science fiction, fantasy, or horror. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Stephen King, and I’ve dropped “The Lord of the Rings” about a hundred pages in, long before the films appeared with not the slightest inclination to return to it after them. (And Tolkien, unlike George R.R. Martin, was a good writer; I just couldn’t care. I did see the LOTR films though: most of the special-effects scenes are now painful to watch, and I say this as someone who loves watching old films — glass shots from the fifties look better than CGI barely a decade old. As for the Hobbit films, what few scenes I’ve seen from them are impossible to distinguish from a video game.)

    Which brings me to that movement that you called g—-gate (presumably because you don’t want any attention from the people involved in said movement, so I will respect your choice of spelling). Interesting movement to look at, with all its contradictions. I’m still trying to figure out whether that movement, according to your taxonomy (which for the most part seems derived from Fiedler’s article), would be “lowbrow” or “middlebrow”. I guess you could call it “middlebrow” in that it openly calls itself a “consumer revolt” (what else is that consumer/taxpayer bang-for-my-buck mentality, if not middle-class?); but at the same time g—-gate, self-pitying though it is, is trying to fight off middle-class moralism.

    Recall the gamers’ howls of protest at Roger Ebert when he said video games could never be art, when they could just have shrugged him off as someone who (by his own admission) had only played two video games in the nineties; and besides, did these people protesting loudest at him really think much of Ebert as a *film* critic? Probably too stodgy and uncool to their tastes; he was probably their parents’ generation’s go-to critic. And that was why they couldn’t stand Ebert’s dismissal of video games: it was as much Roger Ebert, Film Critic of Renown and Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, whom they resented, as it was a surrogate Dad telling them that their lifestyle was no good.

    In reality, you couldn’t get much more middlebrow than avuncular old Roger, especially in later years when he appeared to be phoning them in, but I suspect that to many gamers he was the quintessential highbrow critic. Gamers strive for a respectability which they believe their lifestyle deserves but which has been eluding it, and in this, yes, they are middlebrow. But it’s not “fuck Rembrandt”. Middlebrows love Rembrandt, because he has, as Dwight Macdonald would probably say, “been stamped PRIME QUALITY by the proper authorities”. Gamers’ aim is for their favourite video game to be recognized by all as deserving to placed next to that Rembrandt on the museum wall; they want to bring video games out of the lowbrow territory, but they want them to jump straight to highbrow. But they don’t want to have to change; they want games to remain just as they are and as they like them: no artistic aspirations, none of those “pretentious” indie games (which they targeted for ethical breaches while leaving major industry shenanigans unaddressed), none of those obscure games somehow taking the place of a game that sold millions of copies. In other words, they want praise for the kind of games they’d always played, to demonstrate that they, indeed, had been tasteful all along.

    This being said, I’m not quite sure that g—-gate really was after artistic validation at all, perhaps because it knew it wouldn’t be coming, or at least not in a way they would appreciate. What gamers want to avoid, and this g—-gate makes quite clear, is any unwanted scrutiny of video games, not just by the middle-class moralists you mention, but any intellectual inquiry of video games which wouldn’t happen to be 100% positive and lifestyle-validating — in other words, any intellectual inquiry, period. Beyond that, the g—-gate ideology seems to follow the path of what serves it at any given moment (only to be discarded when it no longer does so); there was even that time when it even went flirting with gamers’ old nemesis Jack Thompson because it was useful at that particular moment for them to have a moralist saying that another moralist (Anita Sarkeesian) was a hypocrite.

    I don’t want to sound like a snob (remember, I like Agatha Christie), but I don’t think it’s really that video games and comics and so on have begun climbing the ladder from lowbrow to middlebrow; it’s that the middlebrow, or what used to be called middlebrow, just collapsed, as Ebert did in the last years of his life, to the point where it became impossible to distinguish from the lowbrow. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it’s because my idea of middlebrow is still stuck sometime in the fifties or seventies: Michener, Clavell, etc. What’s left from that era no longer says much; today’s Time Magazine isn’t Dwight Macdonald’s Time Magazine. Certainly there seems to be no shortage of cultural products today that could qualify as middlebrow (practically every British import of Quality on PBS and so on). But it’s a bit of a stretch to say that because something is being discussed by academics means it has become respectable; when Orwell was spending time dissecting “No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, it wasn’t to praise it, nor to canonize it. And maybe there’s something to be said about the 1950s in the United States by talking about Michener or Grace Metalious or some of the authors Fiedler mentioned, and not just the canonical writers. (I realize however that this line of inquiry is probably more appropriate to the field of history than that of literature.) And whether we like it or not, video games are indubitably part of today’s cultural landscape.

    • johnpistelli
      19 February 2015

      Thanks for commenting, Vett–a lot to think about! In reply to a few of your points:

      I wonder whether the collapse of the middlebrow isn’t just an expansion of the middlebrow. If we agree that the term connotes the intellectual/artistic validation of conventional wisdom, maybe middlebrow is like ideology in that it’s difficult to perceive when you are in the midst of it. This is what I suspect is going on, that various works/creators/media are being hailed as revolutionary when they are perfectly in line with the worldview of The Atlantic or The New Yorker. I think this is another deBoer thesis, actually, that the liberal establishment denies that it is an establishment; therefore, its tastes and ideas seem (to it, anyway) bolder than they are. The cachet of challenging the establishment is the high-art trope the liberal establishment borrows. This model of the middlebrow is different, I think, from the 1950s, whose writers drew on an older pre-modernist artistic ideal, but it doesn’t mean it can’t fill the same function. It’s easy to look back at somebody else’s middlebrow and mock it, because those aren’t our values, but our own middlebrow will be, well, our own.

      On the question of g—-gate, I wasn’t even thinking about their view of their chosen artform, just their “authoritarian populism” per Fiedler. You are right to note that it’s more complex than that–that, in fact, it may represent a conservative establishment unwilling to recognize itself as an establishment, like its counterpart among liberals.

      While I worry less about being a snob than you do, I will say that Fiedler is correct to point out the overtly anti-democratic politics of the highbrow. We see this today to a lesser degree, probably more on the political left than the right, and it is a concern…but I do wonder if the most serious art, the kind that will last, doesn’t have to be a little bit scary. (Not that being scary is sufficient, just maybe necessary.) I have no objection to anyone’s studying a broad range of cultural materials (as I said, I teach comics courses), but I do have a no-doubt frighteningly crypto-aristocratic concern for what the best and most vital work is, what can speak to more than just our cherished ideals.

      I hope that’s at least slightly cogent, and thanks again for taking the time to comment!

      • Vett
        20 February 2015

        I wonder if you are familiar with the website HiLobrow, as your argument is not unlike that which is to be found there: not only the necessity of a bridge between the lowbrow and the highbrow, with the middlebrow as a common enemy of both, but also a middlebrow so vastly expanded that it had to be split up between a high-middlebrow and a low-middlebrow (the difference between those two, if memory serves, was, according to that site, that the high half was optimistic and the low half fatalistic, or vice versa). It was when I tried to find examples of what was not middlebrow by that site’s standards that I ran into some falsifiability problems. The highbrow was left more or less intact, but the lowbrow was emptied of practically everything; the only examples they offered of that were the Dalai Lama and Margaret Sanger (on that last one, per the site’s editor, “population control was once a lowbrow idea — empathy was its impetus. But its opponents have successfully branded it an anti-lowbrow idea, a cold-blooded elitist, classist, racialist idea”, as though Sanger’s own writings weren’t there to confirm that its opponents didn’t invent anything). Since those two are not artists, what’s left as acceptable lowbrow (or, as they spell it, “lobrow”) culture?

        Everything I would normally associate with lowbrow has been kicked upstairs into the low-middlebrow category. I suspect that their ideal lowbrow culture is so ideal that it does not exist, or only exists in hybrid form. I suspect this is because their lowbrow culture ideal is centered around naïveté (they say “empathy”, but they praise it for being “irrational, revolutionary, and utopian”), which isn’t easily differentiated from its dishonest middlebrow form, sincerity. Or maybe it’s because they think the only worthy lowbrow art is more or less limited to folk art, never meant for mass distribution; if it exists today, it’s likely that nobody’s heard about it.

        On the question of the middlebrow, I have been a reader of your blog (well, Tumblr) for quite some time, and I recall that you once addressed William Deresiewicz’s article on the “upper middle brow” by saying, if I remember correctly, that it was simply the new middlebrow, nothing upper about it. I wasn’t quite certain about your interpretation at the time, because I still imagined there was still an staid old-middlebrow culture enduring, if only among an older generation, perhaps not as prominent as it once was, but still there if one looked for it — especially in cinema, with the prestige biopic being a good example, or PBS fare, especially British imports like “Downton Abbey”. I’m quite certain that these examples would adhere to the pre-modernist ideal you mention. And Deresiewicz would be quite correct in saying that the difference between this older middlebrow and the new upper middle brow is the presence of irony in the latter, while the former remains oblivious or hostile to it. As a matter of preference, if I had to choose between the two, I would take the older one: there was to it at least a certain sense of propriety that the later one scoffs at, for no better reason than because it thinks it’s so much better that it’s earned that privilege, while it imposes its own standards as to what is acceptable discourse. (From a review of Lena Dunham’s book by James Wolcott: “They like their artists and entertainers to be transgressive as long as the transgression swings in the properly prescribed direction”.)

        I’m afraid you’re right, in that art needs to be “a little bit scary” if it is to have any relevance. The problem though is that today everyone seems to have gotten that message, regardless of talent, regardless of the bravery involved. These days, someone yells “f-cking assh-le” and thinks himself transgressive, like Howard Hughes trying to pass as much cleavage of Jane Russell as possible past the censors, while pretending that this is of as much cultural importance as, say, the Madame Bovary obscenity trial. It’s difficult for me not to think they use as provocative a presentation as possible to better hide the lack of substance underneath.

        Regarding the “overtly anti-democratic politics of the highbrow”: Is there still a highbrow right-wing intelligentsia at work in the United States today that has any sort of visibility? All the ones I think of are dead — Buckley, Allan Bloom, etc., and I don’t think any of them would identify with the populism of the Tea Party Republicans (didn’t Buckley openly repudiate them shortly before his death?). Still, as a non-American, I can only agree that the most stridently anti-democratic Americans I have heard about in recent years are, I won’t say from the hard left (it’s way too anemic for that), but from the liberal left, and not just from highbrows at that. I will add, though, that in an American context, this liberal left always threatens to drift rightward, into neoliberalism if not neoconservatism — in other words, most of the American political spectrum. (Only the hard left and paleoconservatives seem exempt from it, even though I have specific reservations about both.)

        That reminds me of that article you linked to on your Tumblr about Hillary Clinton, about being on “the right side of history”. I find it strange that American liberals would be so certain of this when barely twenty years ago it was the other side who, just as assuredly, was quoting Fukuyama at every opportunity to say why things shouldn’t — couldn’t — change. I see why American liberals now make use of that, though: they can’t expect things to change, and if things fail to change, it’s someone else’s fault: stupid voters, ideological judges, unlimited campaign financing, venal politicians, and I must be forgetting a few. Yet because of this liberal rightward drift, nothing in what they propose sounds particularly revolutionary or threatening to the existing order; it’s only the existing order’s own stubbornness that allows this to fester into a full-scale crisis. Yet these liberals don’t quite seem to want to realize how little they actually challenge, how commonplace their thinking is by the standards of, well, anywhere else. And my God are they technocratic; I’d love to see what they’d do if you dropped them in Ukraine or Greece these days. For all their fatalism about the United States, they seem to have banished from their thought any possibility, probably because it is nonexistent in America, that the institutions they complain about may simply fall apart to be replaced by something far, far worse.

        There’s a liberal forum I read quite a lot — I won’t name it, but I’m sure you must have encountered several like it — where the Greek situation is discussed by exchanging graphs and statistics and the occasional Krugman column, which I guess would be satisfactory if one looked at the matter from a purely economic perspective. Their mistake, possibly fatal mistake, is that, as the perfect policy wonks that they are, they are so convinced of their rationality that they exclude the possibility that other people might consider following a course of action that is not rational.
        What might happen in Greece? I have no idea. All that I know is that Golden Dawn isn’t a figment of my imagination, and if I can’t predict what will happen there, I know what could happen. (Think what you want of Sinclair Lewis, “It Can’t Happen Here” is a masterpiece of a title.) But what these technocrats seem to fail to realize is that they too can pose a threat to democracy, without ever a shot being fired; if you want a historical technocratic anti-democratic occurrence, in which the main lines are eerily reminiscent of the Greek situation, I invite you to look at what happened to Newfoundland in 1933-34.

        Um, okay, I seem to have gone off on a tangent here, but yeah, art that refuses to stand up to anything isn’t art, or at least not my kind of art anyway. The question, though, is where would you take art now that provocation has become par for the course?

      • johnpistelli
        20 February 2015

        I have nothing to add to your tangent: I think we agree on the naivete and dangers of the neoliberal technocrats (though I will confess I have not been following the situation in Greece very closely). And I especially agree that many liberals rail against institutions in a fundamentally irresponsible way, with little sense of how those institutions came into being and what would have to replace them, and this from people who wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if the Internet went out. I wouldn’t either, but then I am not calling for the total overthrow of the culture that built and sustains what I rely on every day. “But this culture is oppressive!” is the just reply, to which I can only answer despairingly, “Find me one that isn’t.”

        On art, I also agree that the true lowbrow is the real victim of the nobrow process. As your Wolcott quote suggests, authentic transgression would have to be transgression largely against liberal pieties, and pitched largely without irony. This brings me to your question: where is the intellectual hard right today? I believe they are attempting to get a movement started largely on the Internet called neo-reaction or dark enlightenment. The main impetus comes from the writings of a man named Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug, a glib and verbose charlatan as far as I can tell. More formidable is the erstwhile cultural theorist, Nick Land. These two are basically radical libertarians who followed their theory to its logical might-makes-right terminus and call for a Hobbesian absolute authority to guarantee the autonomy of economic agents; as for social order, the economy, rewarding the fit and punishing the unfit, will take care of that. Their aesthetic interests: as their “dark” self-appellation implies, they tend to favor a kind of right-wing Gothic. The overrated Lovecraft is big with them. (I have tried, but I still do not understand this writer’s prestige, incidentally. A figure of no conceptual originality turns a few floating ideas into overwrought and lurid cartoons: this is supposed to be an epochal writer? a contemporary of Joyce, Proust, Eliot, Yeats, Woolf? I find it absurd, and I don’t care if it makes me snobbish.) Anyway, I don’t expect great art or much else from the neo-reactionaries.

        Final point: if irony is what defines high art, what separates it from either vulgar art meant to incite passions or propaganda meant to communicate ideas, then the broad dissemination of irony is what has rendered high art vulnerable to the middlebrow process. I’ve never seen Downton Abbey, but my understanding is that while it is not ironic in itself, it is largely consumed ironically, in quotation marks, as it were. Even the most vulgar comedy is defended from its propositions (of racism or sexism, say) as if it were Flaubert. So irony, the defense mechanism of art as such in its modern autonomy since Shakespeare and Cervantes, becomes everyman’s weapon. I think that too is part of this story.

        I don’t understand the whole picture though. I proceed by making certain-sounding assertions, which I’ll qualify later as my thought changes. When I said Moldbug was a verbose and glib charlatan: I guess it takes one to know one!

  2. Vett
    20 February 2015

    Regarding Downton Abbey, I must have seen at the most four or five episodes of the first season, and that was it. Something makes me think you may be right, but I wonder how many people consume it ironically. Originally I thought it was the kind of cultural product made by the British solely for export to the United States (and pitched directly to the public-television racket), which has been known to lap up anything taking place in Olde England; but then I was told that Downton was extremely popular in its home country as well. And even though its creator was only elevated to the peerage (as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford) in 2011, his father was a diplomat, he’s married to a great-grandniece of Lord Kitchener, and he’s currently sitting in the House of Lords, so I can picture some people saying that here is an authentic show because it was written by a Real Aristocrat. So, I would have thought it was enjoyed ironically at home, but taken straight in America; but I don’t know.

    Ah yes, the neoreactionaries. I’m familiar with them, at first from a TechCrunch or Baffler article. The best way I can summarize them is if you replaced Marinetti’s automobile with a computer, but I never sensed there was anything artistic about them. (I wonder if the singularity might not be to them what the occult was to Yeats and others, and that’s as far as I will take the comparison, but I suspect that’s why Lovecraft matters to them). I’ve probably read more Moldbug than I should have, but I never was certain whether he was just trolling when it suited him (then what can you believe?) or whether his body of work was just a long con. I certainly knew the kind of person I was dealing with when he wrote someplace, in a comment outside of his blog, that he was Jewish, that democracy had been bad for the Jews, but on his blog didn’t try to dismiss the Nazis (as some other writers had done) as a liberal or socialist movement (he admitted they were reactionaries, but quick to add that they were “misguided”), and also could be found citing, approvingly, a few reactionary thinkers who were unquestionably antisemitic. Since I’ve always been curious about the French far right, I remember his mentioning of Maurras, and especially his claim that he was now completely forgotten (yeah, that’s why there have been at least two major French biographies about him since a decade, and now Frederick Brown’s “The Embrace of Unreason”). I think it was at that point that I realized that he was not expecting his target audience to know much about what he was discussing.

    Also, for all Moldbug’s Carlylean posturing (not to mention Nick Land’s British citizenship), I don’t think that most of what neoreaction offers has any appeal outside of the United States, and probably not that much more inside of it, except within the tiny, albeit influential, microcosm of Silicon Valley. (It’s because of Silicon Valley’s influence that I bother taking that movement seriously.) When I look at France, I was suspecting that if Hollande under-performed as president, then Marine Le Pen might stand a chance to replace him; but she’s a populist who has time neither for the ideas of her father (whether his Holocaust joke book or his oft-overlooked neoliberal ideas) nor for the kind of Maurrasian tenets (the last of which were, in mainstream political thought, dissolved into Gaullism, which itself went the way of its liberal extreme under Sarkozy) that might have made the Count of Paris expect a phone call as soon as she entered the Élysée Palace, and certainly not for whatever the neoreactionaries might want to propose. Anywhere else, the arrogance of Silicon Valley, and its earnest collaboration with the NSA, is bound to make reactionary movements suspicious of any ideology whose epicenter is located near Palo Alto.

    Neoreaction isn’t really practical enough to be political; it’s not honest enough to be intellectual (you mention Hobbes, yet I think the neoreactionary world would be exactly what Hobbes would have warned against); and it’s not refined enough to be aesthetic. The neoreactionaries are just more of the same technocrats. When I was talking of the “intellectual hard right”, I was not even taking them into account; I’m curious about your point of view about Moldbug, though, especially on which part of his ideology you base your assessment of him as a charlatan.

  3. johnpistelli
    20 February 2015

    Well, that’s the trouble with irony: it makes it hard to tell what people are thinking. I mean, people (on my Facebook, for instance) seem to watch DA in a kind of camp spirit, but maybe they really secretly get a real kick out of inhabiting that world. Maybe irony is the alibi of reaction, as the Marxists like to say.

    Re:neoreaction. I too have read Moldbug excessively; I don’t remember how I came across him, but it was a while ago, before the left noticed (I like to look around in the dark corners of the Internet), and I haven’t read him since then (circa 2011 or so). I think I judged him a charlatan at first for the shell-game he played with Puritanism, blaming its excesses for the disorders of modernity (this is not wholly implausible, esp. in America) and then setting up Carlyle and techno-commercialism (sovcorp) in its place, as if these two were not also Puritan legacies each in its own way (Carlyle’s hero-worship’s being, as I read it, the right-wing endpoint of antinomianism and techno-commercialism’s being the displacement of Puritan Providence into the judgment of the market). And yes, as you note, there is his dangerous mischief around the question of anti-Semitism, allowing his followers to read him any which way on the topic. If this were just an artistic performance, I would not necessarily mind (I think Yarvin had some kind of ambitions as a poet at one point). But as he seemed to generally pursue a guru-like role, I think it is pernicious. He has read a few old books, which fact he uses to intimidate people who have read no old books. I prefer somebody like Mitchell Heisman: he observed the same contradictions of modernity that Moldbug does, but felt them seriously enough to impale himself on them. The only thing I like about Moldbug, as I’ve said somewhere before, is that he’s tricked some traditionalist Catholic types into calling their ideological enemy “the Cathedral,” like a bunch of Protestant Gothic novelists hyperventilating over the tyranny of popery. That is a very high order of trolling.

    Nick Land seems more serious, and I still can’t tell what game he’s playing: he maintains two blogs, one for leftists to read and one for reactionaries, and somehow he gets away with it. I remember him from my days on the Marxist blogs about a decade ago (he was the intellectual master of Mark Fisher, aka KPunk), and his early books are still read by good left-wing humanities grad students, a sight I’ve seen with my own eyes. He makes a good point from time to time; I think a recent (reactionary) blog post showed Zizek in agreement with Marine Le Pen, the point of which demonstration was that populism is populism is populism, or that some kind of national socialism is probably the only kind of socialism there will ever be. I suspect that is true; I am certainly no longer a Marxist of any kind. But if you define the nation broadly enough, it doesn’t have to mean that socialism ends in fascism. It is based on the latter notion that I somewhat desperately retain my liberalism (in the American sense encompassing social democracy), hence why I disdain the “social justice” people, who seem willing to tolerate the most repugnant forms of illiberalism as long as they can pass themselves off as being “anti-privilege” or whatever. The autonomy of art, guaranteed by art’s irony, is integral to this liberalism, because it allows the positing of totalities and the simultaneous constant interrogation and critique of those totalities: the autonomous artwork, whole and integral but also paradoxically infinitely revisable, becomes the model for the polity. I think this remains a good idea, no matter how many academics mock it or activists dismiss it. (But that’s my civic-republican side talking; ask my anarchist side, and you’ll get a different, no doubt scarier, answer.)

    Anyway, I will defer to your expertise on Hobbes (also on Maurras, whom I’ve never read) and say that I agree with your overall verdict on neoreaction. I think a responsible intellectual right in America would not be a bad thing; this is country with a populist right and an elitist left, when the reverse would be almost certainly be preferable. I have found some leads in this area in the writings of Peter Y. Paik (his blog, Let It Read, is on my blogroll). To recur to an earlier part of this discussion, I found him through his literary criticism on super-hero comics! Some in academia may be coming around to this view, too: to give one example, there seems to be an emerging trend in literary studies of sympathetically revisiting Saul Bellow, which seems wise to me.

    • Vett
      21 February 2015

      Regarding Hobbes, I should have included a major caveat lector: the last time I read him was maybe 15 years ago, in the original English, while my own English wasn’t really that good, so I may be severely mistaken about some of his key positions. Still, I doubt he would have much influence today if everyone had interpreted Leviathan solely as a piece of propaganda for the restoration of the Stuarts. Even Moldbug seems to have more of an obsession with his contemporary, Filmer, whom I haven’t read. Just going by Wikipedia, though, I can see why he’d love Filmer: a king “cannot be bound by the acts of his predecessors, for which he is not responsible; nor by his own, for it is impossible that a man should give a law to himself”. Compare that to the view of Hobbes as the proponent of a conservative social contract, a notion which the neoreactionaries in general have completely excised from their thought. They simply replaced the divine right to rule by a meritocratic system where they worked hard to be where they are and simply can do as they please, solely for their own benefit, because they’ve earned it.

      What they did derive from Hobbes was their notion that everyone was in the pursuit of power, and that this was undesirable, making way for Moldbug’s idea we should just stop trying to extend power over others, count our money and give out titles accordingly. Historically, imagine that as a sort of Berlin Conference, and the typical neoreactionary administration as that of the Congo Free State. I know that a few critics of neoreaction have done so already, and it’s a very apt comparison: shear off all the civilizing-mission garnish, and keep the rubber flowing. I remember that another article about neoreaction talked of “The Wired Man’s Burden”, with the difference that contrary to Kipling, they want not to take up this burden, but to take it off: we inferiors are just getting in their way to techno-transcendence (or whatever). Which I guess is where your point about antinomianism ties into this: since the religious aspect has been evacuated from their thought, (and much as I may try to look for a substitute to it, I can’t find one), they think the world has to serve them, but they have removed from themselves any obligation to serve the world. Maybe Nietzsche and his epigones irreversibly polluted that well.

      (On that subject, the impression I have of Moldbug, which makes him all the more toxic, is that, like Nietzsche (and unlike Carlyle, who, forgive me, I find nigh unreadable), he attempts to create between himself and his readers a certain complicity, a certain sense that there can be a shared interest between the two of them; Moldbug’s a guru all right, or at least fancies himself one, but he can’t quite master the high Carlylean imperiousness, or doesn’t quite want to, instead going for pop culture references, e.g. Doctor Watson as a reader of Carlyle, which, far from convincing me of Carlyle’s intellectual heft, only reinforced my impression of that fictional character as a paragon of Victorian morality at its worst.)

      I never quite understood why religious reactionaries, and not just the Catholic ones, would find anything appealing in neoreaction. If you want some fun, read some of the blog posts of one Bruce Charlton, a Christian reactionary — Mormon, I believe — who comes out accusing neoreaction of being Leftist. At the very least, neoreactionaries share with Marxists their materialism, probably the main reason why I’m neither the one nor the other. (There’s the case, almost too good to be true so I cite it all the time, of an editorial writer at one of the local daily papers who’s gone from some variety of Marxism in the seventies to writing books in praise of wealth creation.) Beyond that, is there a spiritual aspect to what they propose? They don’t seem to have much of a unified answer, but it seems to range from some sort of tech-shamanism (I’m thinking of Burning Man for some reason) to a Gothic throwback to “neopaganism”. As a lapsed Catholic myself, I can’t possibly imagine why any Catholic would want to associate with it, especially since the Catholic Church has traditionally opposed many of the tenets of neoreaction (eugenics, for one). Perhaps Leo XIII was on to something when he denounced the heresy of “Americanism”, and perhaps this particularity of American Catholicism is still with us today (how else could its hostility to the more progressive economic policies of the current pope be interpreted?), but perhaps I’m reading too much into it.

      Beyond the irony of getting traditional Catholics to refer to “The Cathedral”, there’s also the irony that Moldbug and Land and the rest of them, who constantly cite, refer to and support one another, form much more of a “Cathedral” of their own than their opponents. Moldbug is well-to-do, from what I’ve read, but probably not nearly enough to expect a crown to land on his head, and the rest of them are probably in a similar situation (or worse), so their only importance to their movement is as the Cathedral of Neoreaction.

      On Maurras: Eliot liked him, if that’s enough of a calling card, but (as far as I can tell) only as a neoclassical aesthete; his politics he had little to do with. There are so many contradictions with him that one doesn’t really know where to begin. Not to psychoanalyze him, but he went deaf in his teens, which precluded not only the naval career to which he aspired, but also a proper academic training. He was associated in his youth with the Félibrige, and through there picked up an interest in the regional languages and traditions of France against the uniformity sought by French republicanism since its beginning. He blamed Rousseau for the Revolution, subsequently extending the blame to all Romantics, especially the German ones because of the Alsace-Lorraine, and finding his theoretical model in that good old Frenchman Auguste Comte. Still, all he could manage to deliver was a romanticized view of the Ancien Régime that did not hold up to scrutiny. Beyond that, he was the kind of polemicist to write in his newspaper that Léon Blum “is a man to be shot, but in the back” (the original is more picturesque, as the word “fusillé” usually denotes a firing squad), but still find a way to get elected to the Académie française a few years later, while the Third Republic was still standing. His actions during Vichy finished off his reputation, but he was too much of an anti-German to actively collaborate with the occupant. Those who today try to carry on his ideas have for the most part completely abandoned his antisemitism.

      When you wrote that you were an “anarchist” and a “civic-republican”, I remembered a short book Maurras had written (“Trois idées politiques”, public domain now) where he dismissed Chateaubriand as an anarchist (for seeking his enjoyment in all things, ruins most of all, political or otherwise — “the past, as past, and death, as dead”), then moved on to the case of Michelet, the historian of democratic republicanism (whom he dismissed as a sloppy thinker overtaken by his sentiments — “thought with his heart” –, if not as a propagandist). Against them, he offered Sainte-Beuve as a thinker more to his liking.

      I remembered Maurras in connection with the neoreactionaries, because for all their usage of him, there is much in their thinking he would have disagreed with. For instance, while he was antisemitic, he was mostly so for metaphysical reasons and dismissed scientific racism as tosh; but above all, he was just as worried by the power of money as he was with that of public opinion. (He didn’t leave much in the way of an economic doctrine, but it was corporatist in character. Outside of French-speaking countries, his main influence was in Portugal.) And it’s when we consider his aesthetic dimension that we realize that the neoreactionaries not only don’t care about that, but aren’t that interested in history. Maurras was enamored of Greco-Roman civilization (he attended the First Modern Olympics in Athens, leaving a series of letters that are still relevant today, especially the parts about sports as politics); if the neoreactionaries are at all interested in the past, it’s probably in the kind of foggy mythical Germanic world before its taint by Christianity, not unlike those guys burning stave churches in Norway. (As for his views on religion, he was agnostic, but had a purely utilitarian role for the Catholic Church to play, as the Church of Order; the Vatican eventually condemned him, which dealt a major blow to his newspaper.)

      He is such a fascinating figure that I still would recommend reading him, if you can find him in English. (I know he’s been translated by exactly the kind of people you can imagine, so caveat lector.) And if someday Philippe Muray is given a translation, I’m sure you’d enjoy him, too.

      • johnpistelli
        22 February 2015

        Thank you for the information on Maurras; it’s funny that you mention Eliot, because I think I have mostly encountered his name in writings on Eliot. He sounds like one of those figures whose conservatism is ultimately difficult to distinguish from some strains of radical thought, in that both posit something essentially wrong with modernity. I think of Lukacs asking, “Who will save us from western civilization?” As for the anti-Semitism of reactionaries, I find it utterly contemptible not because it is politically incorrect but almost for the opposite reason, because it is so laced with resentment. (This is another of my charges against Internet social justice: it seems wholly unaware of how “anti-privilege” politics are adjacent to, necessary to, maybe even definitive of fascism.) Sorry, I have digressed, inspired by your paragraphs on Maurras: I will definitely seek him out, though, as I have a special interest in that period and I take a guilty pleasure in neoclassical aesthetics, though I am a committed romantic. He sounds similar in many ways to Pound, whose aesthetic ideas I find oddly attractive; in fact, if it weren’t for his truly deranged and obsessive and unforgivably ferocious anti-Semitism, even Pound’s cultural politics would not have been so bad, if more impractical than he seemed to realize, not so far from some impossible blend of anarchism and civic-republicanism. How these otherwise intelligent men could go so far wrong according even to their own standards, i.e., become so positivistic and materialistic, when “the Jewish question” arose is a mystery to me. But then I grew up in a time and place where Jewishness was synonymous with culture itself, so I have no inner understanding of anti-Semitism; I am the opposite of an interwar European in that anti-Semitism always sounds to me like an attack on culture, on art, even on tradition. Anyway, your mention of Félibrige brought Pound to mind, since the Provencal troubadours had such a special place in his aesthetic/spiritual pantheon. I am happy to be on the current bandwagon for Guy Davenport, who is like Pound without the fascism (albeit with pederasty, apparently: it’s always something with these people.)

        Neoreactionaries and Hobbes: I too have not read Hobbes for many years;. I think I associated him with Moldbug because of the latter’s idea that the ideal state justifies itself to the subject by the protections it offers, and that, since in Moldbug’s theory the subject can leave at any time, the resulting arrangement would be a kind of contract. I have also never read Filmer (and probably never will, to be honest!), whose name mainly survives in Anglo intellectual history because Locke’s Second Treatise is a reply to him. On Carlyle, I have only read one of his books in full, the brilliant novel Sartor Resartus, which I suspect you may enjoy; his other writings I’ve merely sampled, though I liked them more than you did (I have a taste, when I’m in the mood anyway, for ranting Victoriana, like the didactic passages in Dickens, which Nabokov claims the novelist derived from Carlyle). As for Nietzsche, I read him with strong irony, as a poet or novelist, and what grounds could he of all people possibly have for objecting? The neoreactionaries’ artistic tastelessness is hilarious, these supposed opponents of progressivism who seem unaware that they are culturally trapped in it far more than, say, a brilliant Marxist scholar of Dante would be.

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