Haunt the Future

by Philip Sandifer

In an already remarkably surreal US election season, few moments rivaled Hillary Clinton’s campaign issuing a statement in which they attempted to patiently explain why a cartoon frog in an image circulated by the Trump campaign on social media was a symbol of white supremacism. One of the moments that undoubtedly does, however, was the reaction of 4chan’s /pol/ board, where the Pepe the Frog meme got started, and which concluded that Pepe was in fact a modern day avatar of the Egyptian god of primordial darkness Kek, who they began openly worshiping. In understanding this, it is helpful to look at the Tumblr Traditionalists for Singularity, which holds that space-time is inherently degenerate and that, as their About page puts it, “TRADITIONALISTS MUST BE WILLING TO MOVE BEYOND THE EVENT HORIZON, LOUDLY PROCLAIMING TO THE UNIVERSE THAT WE ACCEPT NOTHING SHORT OF GRAVITATIONAL SINGULARITY. ANYTHING SHORT OF ZERO-DIMENSIONAL MASS-ENERGY IS BOURGEOIS REFORMISM.” This viewpoint is expressed through rousing slogans like “DON’T STOP STOPPING,” “DON’T CREATE SITUATIONS,” and my personal favorite, “ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS.”

This raises many questions, of which “why do they call themselves traditionalists” is probably not the most obvious. The answer is that Traditionalists for Singularity is a pastiche of the far-right neoreactionary movement, within which “traditionalist” is a common self-descriptor. Neoreaction is basically the intellectual end of the alt-right1 – it was created by software developer turned political philosopher Curtis Yarvin, who over the course of a bit over a million words of blogging under the name of Mencius Moldbug argued for things like the reestablishment of absolute monarchy (Moldbug suggests Steve Jobs would be a good choice of kings) and slavery (he also suggests that black people are genetically predisposed towards making good slaves). Traditionalists for Singularity simply extends Moldbug’s joke of positioning himself as a Stuart restorationist seeking to undo the Glorious Revolution to a joke of positioning itself as a grand unification epoch restorationist, with its focus on degeneracy (“THERE ARE SOME FALSE REACTIONARIES WHO ROMANTICIZE THE ‘GOOD OLD DAYS,’ BUT THE TRUE REACTIONARY KNOWS THAT DAYS ARE A BOURGEOIS CONSTRUCT OF DEGENERATE SPACE-TIME.”) serving in place of neoreaction’s racism.

But while the parody makes sense, the question of why Traditionalists for Singularity adopts the quippy all-caps slogans as its mode of argument, especially given that Moldbug’s style is decidedly prolix. For the most part this question simply serves to gesture out at the larger “alt-right,” whose style is famously and dankly memetic, hence the guy shouting “Pepe” when Hillary Clinton first brought them up. Part of this is simply down to them being a largely Internet-based phenomenon, but there’s a clear aesthetic to alt-right memes that’s inherited largely through their historic links to 4chan – a tendency towards a sort of baroque ridiculousness that Moldbug’s Jacobitism is largely compatible with in spite of its pretensions.

The interesting part of this is the roots in 4chan’s “lulz”-based culture, which was also the spawning ground for Anonymous, which, along with the longstanding Adbusters group, formed the initial components of the Occupy movement. I mention this not out of some nostalgia for the halcyon days of 2011, but rather because it provides a different way of understanding the alt-right from the usual “old-school white supremacism in a new hat” (generally a trilby) approach, which, while not inaccurate, only tells a part of the story. In this account, the alt-right is best understood as a right-wing counter-reformation to Occupy Wall Street. In much the same way that the Tea Party was in practice a reverse-engineered version of Saul Alinsky, the alt-right is what happened when Occupy’s neo-Situationist tactics (largely introduced by Adbusters, but thoroughly compatible with the Guy Fawkes mask crowd) were appropriated by the right.

But right-Situationist tactics are bizarre even as revolutionary tactics appropriated by oppressive forces go. The core Situationist tactic was détournement, a term coined by Guy Debord to describe the group’s mischievous recycling of familiar images into transgressive contexts, which tied in with their general love of pranks. But this is, at first glance, fundamentally unsuitable for reactionary purposes. If neoreactionaries want to return to what they view as traditional western values, exhuming the past to twist it into subversive new contexts is a poor fit for that goal. As, for that matter, is subversion in general – “IN GRAVITATIONAL SINGULARITY, THERE CAN BE NO ALTERNATIVES,” as one prominent alt-right theorist says.

But in Debord’s theory, détournement is counterbalanced by the hegemonic process of recuperation, in which radical ideas are integrated into the mainstream (the Spectacle, in Debord’s milieu) so as to neuter their transgressive power. For Debord, this turns into an endless race between the subversive left and Spectacular capitalism. For the alt-right, it produces an opportunity. If the transgressive is ultimately reintegrated into the mainstream as the new normal, the alt-right can inject radical views about the supposed genetic inferiority of blacks into mainstream discourse. This was the deliberate point, for instance, when a meme about the casting of John Boyega as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that proclaimed it an example of “white genocide” got considerable news attention in light of its ridiculous offensiveness, thus introducing the phrase “white genocide” into countless morning network newscasts. And more to the point, note that when Leslie Jones was twice hounded off Twitter by alt-right trolls less than a year later it wasn’t even shocking.

Broadly speaking, Situationism is a tough tactic to respond to - just ask Charles de Gaulle. (On the other hand, of course, he won.) The popular mantra – don’t feed the trolls – is plainly not up to the job, requiring as it does a universal consensus to ignore them. Given that this does not in practice exist, their basic goal of getting their message out and recuperated into mainstream culture is thoroughly achieved. Any leftist response is inherently on the back foot, which is of course the point of the exercise. You can see, in other words, why inexorable collapse towards a gravitational singularity is a compelling metaphor for the argument. So what possible response exists? One instinctively promising approach is the same one the alt-right has used, namely appropriating the tactics of the other side. This does not mean returning to hoary old Situationist approaches, which are far from the whole of the alt-right’s bag of tricks. Rather, it means trying to understand the nature of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma that their recuperation-focused tactics create and to see what a leftist version of it might look like. To that end, let’s turn to the alt-right in its most theatrically supervillain mode (and this is a recurrent theme with them - Moldbug, for instance, positively revels in proclaiming himself a Sith Lord) and look at Nick Land.

Land is a fascinatingly pathological figure. He started his career as an academic philosopher associated with the Cybernetic Culture Research Institute at the University of Warwick, where he was one of the earliest advocates of accelerationism, which holds that the best solution to capitalism is to make it happen faster. Land, however, showed a dedication to acceleration that went beyond the merely theoretical and into heavy amphetamine usage, which he freely combined with his quest to hack the “Human Security System” until he had a complete mental breakdown, a process he documented in an essay called “A Dirty Joke” in which he refers to himself in the third person as “the ruin.” Land followed this by quitting academia, moving to China, and enacting one of the most spectacular heel turns in the history of philosophy in 2013 when he publicly came out as a neoreactionary, quickly joining Moldbug at the intellectual forefront of the movement.

The differences between Land and Moldbug, however, are vast. Moldbug is at his heart a utopian, his vision of neoreaction rooted in a Silicon Valley-style idealism that clever people can just engineer solutions to everything. Land, on the other hand, gave his big essay on the matter the deliciously gothically overripe title “The Dark Enlightenment,” and peppers his work with imagery of tentacled horrors and grim eschatology. Indeed, what’s really interesting about Land is that he presents his take on neoreaction as a logical extension of his earlier work. To him, the point is not so much that neoreaction is “correct” in any sense, but rather a sort of cynical pragmatism that views reactionary tendencies as an inevitable force that can be harnessed productively for his larger goal of accelerating towards the bionic horizon where we all grow face tentacles.

This idea of inevitability is, of course, a close match for the dilemma posed by the alt-right’s retooled détournement. Land’s argument is that you’re never going to get rid of racist idiots, which means that attempts at diversity are always going to be doomed to violent failure. The strategy of the neoreactionary meme, on the other hand, is that any attempt to render racist viewpoints as taboo and socially unacceptable is only going to make it easier to spread them. It’s the same basic strategy in both cases - one that Nick Land helped coin back in his CCRU days, when he called it hyperstition. Combining the notion of hype with superstition, a hyperstition is a fiction that brings itself about as reality through its existence as an idea. (For instance, the Trump presidency.) It’s a clear match for what the alt-right memes are doing, but it also describes Land’s larger supervillain tactics, describing the irrepressible nature of reactionaries in part to make them so and bring about his vision of a more tentacular future.

Two can play at this game, of course. But figuring out what our hyperstitious alternative should be is tricky. It’s not as though the litany of failed and abandoned leftist utopian visions is in dire need of new additions, after all. And more to the point, that’s exactly what the alt-right’s memetic tactics are designed to be most effective against. We’re going to need something stranger and more rooted in reactionary tactics the same way their memes are in Situationist ones.

One strand worth pulling on a bit more is the basic notion of ostentatious villainy. In Nick Land’s case, this is firmly rooted in notions of horror - he’s said that he considers his major works these days to be the philosophical horror stories he writes. And more to the point, he’s interested in the general aesthetic and approach of weird fiction – think H.P. Lovecraft and his many literary descendants. Tentacle monsters and unknowably alien horrors abound in Land’s work – a Twitter handle called “Outsideness,” a blog at xenosystems.net, et cetera. But Marxist horror maestro China Miéville argues that the weird exists in a fundamental dualism with the hauntological – a more classically gothic mode of horror rooted not in the unfathomable Other but in the repressed past returning to demand reckoning.

There’s an obvious and appealing perversity here, which is that the hauntological and the reactionary have a natural affinity. Indeed, on the surface it’s surprising that the alt-right would gravitate towards tentacles when the hauntological so clearly suits their “irrepressible reactionary tendency undermining the liberal consensus” narrative. The problem is simply that hauntological approaches don’t work anywhere near as well as they’d like. One need only read Mencius Moldbug’s turgidly facile attempts at revisionist history to see that dealing with the material messiness of the past is not exactly an alt-right specialty.

Indeed, the truth, obvious as it is to point out, is that the entire narrative of “traditionalism” is a clumsy construct of the present day with an at best minimal relationship with the actual past. In reality history is teeming with suppressed and untold narratives ripe for unearthing. The most obvious vector of attack are of course the narratives the alt-right is most visibly paranoid about the expression of - the stories of women, people of color, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and many others whose erasure is, in practice, how the white supremacist history of western civilization gets made into the “traditional” one. Equally important, if not more so, are the stories from outside the scope of “western” civilization, particularly those of indigenous populations whose cultures have in effect been overwritten by European imperialism.

But these are specific examples of a more general approach. Just as Nick Land presents the reactionary tendency as essentially irrepressible, leftist approaches must envision themselves as fundamentally impossible to kill. In other words, the point is not just to tell stories that are erased from the neoreactionary narrative, but to make it so that these stories cannot be erased, and that they insist on their presence and relevance.

More broadly, yes, it’s hard not to feel like Land has a point. In the face of climate change, increasing concentration of wealth, a startling bevy of existential threats, and, oh yes, let’s not forget President Trump, the nagging suspicion that we might be due for a grimly reactionary turn is hard to dismiss out of hand. And in the face of that, there’s an obvious desire to figure out how to save the left from collapse into the absolute and total unity of the zero-dimensional gravitational singularity. (“GRAVITATIONAL SINGULARITY IS THE PUREST HIERARCHY - THE HIERARCHY OF NOTHINGNESS.”) In which case art, with its ability to craft hyperstitions, is an obvious choice. But instead of attempting to dictate the terms of the future as the alt-right does, our goal is at once more modest and more dangerous: to insist that the future remain unsettled and be forced to continue grappling with the unfinished business of the past. Our business is not to write the future, but to haunt it.

1 Contrary to some of my colleagues on the left, I prefer the term “alt-right,” as I think it usefully distinguishes this generation of neo-nazis from previous ones who employed different tactics. Nevertheless, let’s be clear: they’re neo-nazis.”