This is a long post about my development, specifically my philosophical development, for the sake of offering a version of the intellectual scaffolding that I built for my self throughout the years in order to climb up to where I am now. Jumping in to a new topic that’s full of expectations of what you already know really sucks, and I wondered what it’d be like, if a philosopher actually showed all of that stuff in a work, how they got there, in stead of diving right in to what was built atop hundreds or even thousands of years of thought as though you too spent your whole life reading in your study or at the university library. Lots of that stuff either is no longer applicable or has since been proved wrong any way, so why bother in those cases, and how do you know which cases they are?
Note 1: I don’t really intend for this to be read to completion from start to finish, certainly not in one sitting. It might be more suitable to skim until you find some thing interesting or unfamiliar, or even just key word search.
Note 2: We remember our pasts differently at different stages of our lives. Different details are important. Different details are forgotten. Even sequence can change. For a 2013 retelling of my early life, go here. To get right to it, get right to it.
Part 1: Gifted Kid|Wonder
My mother insists that when I was five years old I came up the stairs of our spacious, suburban home, sat down on the couch next to her, and asked, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ She used to regularly refer to me as ‘gifted’, thought my creativity and social sensitivity meant I was destined for greatness, or something.
When I was about ten it occurred to me that I didn’t fit in with the other kids. I had friends, but I had to be in a particular mood to not feel disgusted at the thought of giving them my time. I have these vague memories of being a child, hiding between my bed and the wall, sobbing and screaming to my mother, ‘I don’t wanna go!’ as a crude means of cancelling plans with friends. Until high school they were always boys who bullied and harassed each other as a means of grasping some sense of power in a world where most of their decisions were made for them by their superiors. I didn’t like it, and around ten years old it occurred to me that it didn’t feel normal.
Not that the aggression didn’t feel normal, but my submission to it. Even when I played my part and beat up the omega, well, I was only better than the omega, and that still felt pathetic. I must’ve seen faith as a weakness, because I began to use atheism as a tool of superiority. I didn’t always have no faith of my own. I didn’t know how to talk about my social anxiety, so I wasn’t going to try to talk to anyone else about it. In stead I spoke inward, and developed an experimental dialog between my fears and my ideals. A weak side and a strong side. The weak side felt like self, so that was represented by my legal name. The strong side felt foreign and fantastic, so I gave it what is now my real name.
The dialog was frustrating and scary, though, I imagine, so escapism was my more frequent form of therapy. Extended family introduced me to fantasy, to video games, places that felt like more. Stories that made sense, were going somewhere grand. I dove deeper by creating my own stories, in writing, in sheets and sheets of concept art for video games that would never come to be. This was mostly copy-catting, but it was a way to become a part of the fantasies that soothed me, to feel like more than I was, or at least distant from a self full of fear, disappointment, and now rage.
I didn’t feel strong or physically intimidating. Sports intimidated me. Competition intimidated me. Sports carried no interesting aesthetic for me, and the boys who played them were even bigger bullies than my friends. I came to see intellectualism as the opposite of physical ability, and in some way decided that being opposed to sports makes you smart. Those sports kids did things, performed based on rules enforced by their superiors. I made things, and for my worlds it was me who made the rules. I was quietly better than them.
So my rage was fueled by a sense that justice was lacking, that I was better but others were held in higher regard. I felt that I was working on things profound at home, but that I was restricted at school. I didn’t feel like I was winning against the system, but I did feel like the strong, ideal me was winning the battle in my head. The voice of the weak self became quieter and quieter, had fewer defenses. I remember being on roller skates in a school gymnasium when I felt a sudden sense of relief and calm wash over me- I decided then that my weak self had died.
I’m not sure how this was justified, as my social anxiety didn’t go away, at least not for long. Some threshold, some low bar had been met, though, so it was a significant milestone. I was Shyft. I was the change. The only thing I remember doing to flex my confidence was sign a bunch of year books with absurd, violent, or otherwise misanthropic phrases. I remember imagining my physical self as different, with total black eyes, long, spiked up hair, and armed: fantasy taught me that the good guys carry swords. I dreamed of being some thing more.
Part 2: High School, Delusion, and Shyfted Dreaming|Metaphysics, Divinity, Asceticism, Primitivism
I was eleven years old when The Matrix came out, may be twelve when I saw it for the first time, on VHS, on a tube TV, in the basement of one of my jerk friends. I honestly don’t remember my initial reaction, but I do remember the result: wanting to wear black, wanting to own a long, black coat, associating martial arts with intellectualism. The sleek, black shades were not unlike the glossy, black eyes of my ideal physical self. Neo had a secret self that he couldn’t express in the open, a real name only known by the few, like me.
Mind over matter. That was the ticket. If not through warping reality with pure will, then at least mastering the body through martial spirit. Psychic children having first been gifted in artistic and intellectual ways was a familiar media trope, and my mother’s mother had been pushing the indigo child narrative on me. I don’t remember how I felt about the idea of belonging to some secret generation of revolutionary mind alchemists back then, but I know my transformation was very personal to me. I borrowed lots of ideas, but I’d felt alone my entire life; my power was to be mine only.
There was a summer when a newer friend stopped in front of a shop in a mall and said he’d heard he could find a Gizmo patch for his baseball cap in there. Gizmo, from the Gremlins movies. The shop was Hot Topic. I felt like I’d walked in to an other world. A serious and artistic world of black and long coats. That summer two of my friends, my girlfriend, and I became goth together, and it was probably my first real grasp with bonding. For what it’s worth, my then girlfriend seemed to finally find a form of femininity that made sense to her. We returned to school and my other friends, groups of friends, pretended they didn’t know me. I told myself they were afraid, or too stupid to understand, and felt empowered by their rejection. We had our own language, the dark, a powerful language so simple that we could look at a stranger and know that they were our friend too. One other wore black, and he was in. An other wore black, attended his first day of freshmen world history with a T-shirt tied around his face like a ninja mask, neon green and black goggles hiding his eyes- beneath all that his skin was black, and he was so in. Through Hot Topic to goth and industrial music and ninja mask guy to underground dance music, worlds upon worlds of new feeling rushed to me.
An other friend went to a formal mixed martial arts school. I trained with him and cyber goth ninja guy, who was actually a senior with a messy transcript. CGNG was in to the aesthetic, the Zen, man, the body-as-temple. The mind over matter. At this point I developed the idea that drugs, recreational and medicinal, were indulgences for the weak. The mind was all I needed. An other way to feel superior. One of my goth friends introduced me to Fight Club, to Memento, to Dark City, the Gizmo patch guy stumbled upon Donnie Darko… I decided I was a psychology and philosophy person, having studied neither, with an intent to study neither, no… All I needed was a little inspiration and the snowballing confidence in my superiority. Big fish, small pond, never seen the ocean. Sphere actually had folks using their minds to create the world, that word manifestation– that was it!
Fantasy, dramatic, other-worldly music, rave parties, training to be heroes, staying up late talking about ideas… developing personal philosophy. Three of us pushed the long talks the furthest. Three of us invented Multiple Personality Solipsism.
Solipsism is the idea that only the self exists. When only the self exists, every one else is fictional, imaginary, like characters in a dream. When only the self exists, all physical objects, the environment, history- it’s all just dream stuff, projections of the self. Some might imagine the self as a god in this situation, having some level of influence over the shape of the universe. Others consider it to be more of a brain-in-a-vat scenario, with some thing beyond dictating what the self sees, what the self experiences. But what if you have split personalities, personalities that are just as conscious as you are (this was the secular version of ‘all is god’, I guess)? Well, then you’ve got a shared dream universe. And what if your splits can have splits, and that’s what life is? What if, over time, the dream has become so vivid and so scientific, and so many of the first personalities have either died or gone in to a deeper state of sleep, and there’s little reason to call it dreaming any more and no one left who remembers when it was different? Yet the rules are still arbitrary machinations of the subconscious, waiting to be broken again.
I wanted power. I wanted what had been denied me, by people with plenty of it. Cognitive training wasn’t a way to restore health; it was a way to find power. Philosophy as a means to define the method, metaphysics only, and psychology as a means to apply it. I can’t imagine having understood these subjects beyond this when I was thirteen, fourteen. If I could believe that the Universe was made of mind stuff, and only arbitrary rules barred us from manipulating it like a vast dream, I had a chance at finally proving that I was the best, that people ought to listen to me, that they should fear me, not the other way around. Revenge, at least.
I remember assuming psychology and philosophy met most neatly in dreams. I remember vivid, complex, long-narrative dreams, dreams that were sequels to other dreams, discovering and practicing lucid dreaming as a gate way to elemental manifestation… and considering that dreams their selves were a gate way to some other world. My dreams had recurring characters now, with names given by the dreams. Some of my drawings appeared in dreams, and regardless of my wishy-washy sense of whether I believed in fate or conscious divinity, I felt at my core that my drawings had been premonitions of real, magical beings.
Chijirihaden appeared beneath my pencil first, “O” first appearing in dream, then Haden came to life at the end of a dream replica of a neighborhood private drive, after Morpheus from The Matrix walked with me and warned me about gods. My struggle with faith returned, as it seemed to benefit my quest for power. Those who believed a promise of subservience in Heaven were fools; my gods promised me an apprenticeship followed by equality, or their throne, if I could defeat them- I wasn’t sure which.
It was lonely yet; my ambitions were still mostly private. I still felt that there were things my goth friends, my philosophy friends, couldn’t understand. One moved away with his family, and introduced me to AIM, so inadvertently introduced me to strangers on the Internet. Some of them were more radical, pushed by their own mental illness, but I usually regarded their challenges to the boundaries of normal psychology as vain, as attention-seeking; mine was a form of justice. The social alienation felt crippling at times, and I might have given up the mystic quest for limitless power in favor of stronger bonds to real people… and then Alizia appeared.
She too appeared on paper first, and I couldn’t tell you how I felt about it, aside from how proud I was at the realism of her right hand. After she appeared in dream, how ever, in hallucination, the obsession was instantaneous. Her waking me at my bed side, sitting there, looking melancholy, is one of my most vivid memories. I was fourteen, may be fifteen (I’d rather not suffer reading my old journal again just to find a date), and I’d secured my sexual preference for the rest of my life. When would I next dream of Alizia? Could she be a real person, some one I could find on the Internet? Well, this new dream insists that she goes by an other name- could be a legal name! Is that girl with the black bangs at this rave her? Is that one? May be she is the secret to power! She means to help me fight the gods and secure that throne. She needs me, and I have to find her. She is with me always.
I was in deep.
I honestly didn’t think of Alizia Perdue Dergahn in a sexual way until after high school, but she’d made me abandon my disgust for lust and my rejection of love (two absurd moves in an attempt at transcending humanity). It was her what gave me the motivation to finally finish a novel, and that novel became a trilogy (Shyfted Dreaming), portraying my journey from meditations in bed to master of the Universe. A prophesy of my very own, and a work of art, and a playground for my psycho-philosophy.
Despite my transcendent, magical metaphysics, the more practical part of my philosophy, stemming from the body-as-temple aesthetic, drove me in an oddly conservative direction. Sure, strive to transcend human nature… but in the mean time submit to natural selection. No drugs. No medicine. No junk food. Black, sure, but chains, rings, make-up? No monk would wear such extravagant things. I put my skull jewelry away, kept my head shaved, and wore clothes that I could fight in. I came to think of things in terms of whether it benefited transcendence or whether it got in the way or just distracted from it. If we- well, I was meant to transcend, then my body and mind must have developed to do so. I mixed morality with hackneyed evolutionary theory, and now being gay was bad. Not because my friends called things they didn’t like ‘gay’- what did they know? It was because it was unnatural, so interfered with our- sorry- my natural progression toward godhood. Electronics, automobiles, buildings, clothing (technology, but I called it ‘production’ even before I had any sense of economic analysis), all products of a society that keeps our minds dull, all artificial, all impedance to transcendence. And to shame the other animals who live truer lives is arrogance, and to trash the planet that supports us is insanity. This foolishness of course was a burden I believed was held equally by all humans, since it was a society belonging to all of them (‘Them,’ I always said, when referring to humans- I was a temporarily embarrassed god, you see), so the punishment coming to them ought to be evenly distributed. Oh, and Black culture was anti-intellectual, so I guess I was racist too.
So my first passionate grasp of philosophy was with stoner metaphysics and eco-fascism. Alizia was a primitivist and played electric guitar, naturally.
Part 3: High School continued, Being One-Upped|Science, Suicidal Utilitarianism
Opinion blogs on the Internet. Right? Other angsty, young people with their own ideas. I was too proud to pick up a textbook, thought they all had to be status quo bull shit, but I wanted people to read and agree with my ideas, so I had to humor them and read theirs. Well, after Alizia was established as a primitivist in my novels I came across a piece on how ecosystems are violent and chaotic, how all of my romantic beliefs about the harmony of other species were bull shit, and I was shocked. This was the first time that I consciously admitted to being wrong. This was the first time I considered the possibility that some one else might be smarter than me. I believed “O” and Chijirihaden, my gods, were stronger than me, but I never considered their wits. Well, I couldn’t give the credit to that blogger on the Internet. I had to steal the idea, give it to a character in the novels to wield against me, a character I could control. August became my mentor, a mentor of my design, and I never let her contradict me too much. I even had her break character to appear weak before my protagonist, to satisfy my pride (it was bizarre rereading those sections recently. I never remember August crumpling before my pathetic arguments like that).
So now I was humble enough to admit I was wrong once, and I had new rhetorical ammunition to use against new-age hippies. Where did my politics go? Mostly on hold, due to going hard in to apathetic futurism (that is, the view that we don’t have any ethical or political imperative to act, because technological advances will solve all of society’s problems) but the homophobia and the racism began to go away, and I introduced genderless characters in the third novel of the trilogy without thinking. A friend who became more fascist and more susceptible to conspiracy theories than I too quickly turned me off to that direction completely when I saw what it looked like- he was horrible but served as a much-needed shield. I was still spell-bound by that mind-over-matter shit, though, and the more I was exposed to victims of oppression, the more I believed most people were too weak to transcend human nature, so I pitied the disabled and despised the poor and uneducated.
I didn’t have a job and I rejected the teachings of almost any one.
So I was still really angry, and blamed people for their own misfortunes (oblivious to my own privileges- I was suffering!). My morality of retribution for the ecosystems transformed in to an ethics of ultimate harm reduction- a suicidal utilitarianism. The idea of ‘life is suffering, so life must end’ I happened to give to one of my villains, how ever; I was still stuck in the tropes of hero=creative, villain=destructive. An aesthetic derailed my philosophy. When I was no older than eleven I’d written much of a story where the protagonist was first vengeful murderer, later cleverly deceitful, genocidal god. Some elements of this were borrowed for the Shyfted Dreaming trilogy, but I just couldn’t hold on to that hateful protagonist bit. Bad optics. And what would peaceful, affectionate Alizia think? So to save face I began to consider what the gods taught me, that perfection and pace come through creation, the creation of a better world.
I of course let them stay quiet regarding their plans to destroy this one to make way for their paradise.
I was experiencing a fracture again. Feind was the name of the part of me that held on to bitterness, that still rejected love, that wanted no thing to do with bonding, regarding all social benefits to be tricks of submission to others. Vulnerability as weakness, weakness a death sentence. Feind made it in to Shyfted Dreaming also, as a split personality that became accomplice to the final villain, and in the end is defeated by the powers of good.
A lot of things changed for me at the end of high school. I had more face-to-face friends, less abusive ones, making me feel more connected to the world. I wasn’t a wizard or a god yet, and had to come to terms with the fact that I was about to get a job. A temporarily embarrassed god working in retail is just too damn embarrassing, so I was forced to become more practical. I had to shift my ambitions of greatness toward some thing just as unreal but much more useful, not to mention sinister: money. Get-rich-quick schemes. Making it as a musician and DJ. Avoiding college. Remaining independent… in my parents’ basement, paying minimal rent, free food. Is this how all Libertarians began?
Part 4: Adulthood, Adapt or Die, but I’m Gentle I swear|Libertarianism
I’m hazy on the details, but yes, it had to do with adopting practicality in order to salvage some sanity, so betraying my delusions in order to survive in the working world. I retired my hopes of magic and fantastic, alternative Earths to my novels. When Shyfted Dreaming was over I laid to rest my belief in gods and magic… and Alizia. It was dreadfully painful, but still less painful than continuing my endlessly failing attempts at escaping the natural laws and the thought that may be Alizia doesn’t even want me, if she hasn’t come back. Minimizing what’s called cognitive dissonance, which is when, according to Wikipedia, a ‘person holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, and is typically experienced as psychological stress’. I told my self I was being mature, shedding childish things, becoming healthy. In deed, the hallucinations stopped. All of them. The fear of nightmares releasing monsters in to this world subsided. I stopped practicing lucid dreaming, stopped trying to remember my dreams, and they faded, became more incoherent again, shorter, and the recurring characters stopped showing up. It was like watching a whole world die, but better them than me! Better them than me.
I must have identified as a feminist by this point, but I’ve no memory of being exposed to the concept. May be the older, angry, punk feminist at work, that I kinda looked up to? I miss her in a weird way some times. I didn’t know what punk meant back then.
Paying attention to electoral politics felt mature. I felt the need to defend my raver peers, despite still being totally sober, and with my expectations of a better world completely crushed, well, Ron Paul and his ‘end the war on drugs’ bit felt revolutionary. And my father was shifting from Republican to Libertarian, so we had some thing to finally connect through. Ron Paul was also a sort of underdog, a third party candidate masquerading as a Republican, gaining a lot of traction, and that soothed my need for a proper hit to the establishment. I naturally dismissed any and all criticism of him, certain that it was establishment propaganda.
I don’t remember what they all were, but my friends and I came up with some wacky schemes for making money after my pay-to-click empire collapsed. None of them got off the ground. My parents were embarrassed by me, mid twenties and living at home. They said it was get a real job, go to college, or get out. I considered philosophy, then psychology, then history, and would up going for a BS in psych with a minor in philosophy (almost got one in history too) with the idea I’d move on to cognitive science, be a researcher some day.
Part 5: College, Abuse|Plato, Ethics, Existentialism, Nietzsche, Liberalism somehow
I hated it. This was me conceding again. The only way to avoid a deeper depression this time was to swallow my pride and enjoy being taught things by other people… and it worked! My psychology classes were underwhelming, save for one, but finally being exposed to real philosophy opened my god damn eyes, and a lit elective on the Arthurian Legends pulled me out of my ‘the only story books I need are my own’ mentality and I began to read for fun again. Extracurricular philosophy, in addition to different takes on King Arthur, I finally cracked opened some Plato (I’d somehow considered Socrates an important figure for a while before this, due to… being portrayed in Bill and Ted?). My failures had broken me down to a place where I was finally willing to empty my cup, that is, make room for honestly and genuinely learning from others, and wonder and ideas were still my go-to cure for boredom and meaninglessness.
The Allegory of the Cave: Imagine you’re tied up with your head stuck in a forward-facing position. Before you is the wall of a cave. Beside you are others in the same position, can’t move, can only speak, listen, and look forward at this wall. You don’t know what each other even look like. Now imagine that behind you is a source of light, shining on the wall, and between the captives such as your self and the light people are placing and moving objects. You see shadows of these things on the wall, and the wall is your whole world, so you and your peers are inclined to make sense of it. You find patterns of movement, relational meaning of shapes, and so on. With no alternative, you are comfortable in your world of shadows, telling stories about it to each other.
Then, one day, you are set free. You can get up, turn your head, turn your whole body, and see what made the shadows. You can approach them, if you like, touch them, smell them, and inspect the source of the light. You can compare the other walls of the cave to the first, or even walk out of the cave entirely, should you notice it behind the bright source of light. And out of the cave is the sun, an even grander source of light, so bright at times that all shadows cease to be. And there are versions here of the shapes down below that are full of life, more than you thought possible. You can recognize them, despite their differences, and you recognize this world as being more real than the cave, the whole of the cave being more real than the shadows on the one wall.
You haven’t forgotten your friends. You return to the cave, stand before them in their bonds, and they are shocked to see you. They don’t know what you are. You try to get them to trust your voice, that this is the real you, but they are skeptical. Your voice comes from beside them, not in front of them, so this must be some trick. You try to tell them what you’ve seen, but they won’t listen. Their whole lives have played out in the shadows, and it felt complete. How could there be more? They never thought themselves prisoners, and being told that they are offends them. You can argue with them, or you can try to find new friends on the surface.
Reading this allegory for discovery, and the social alienation of the wise, well, I thought that I was already out. I already faced that alienation, and I already felt like I was seeing more of the real than others. The allegory pleased me because I thought it was explaining my lived experience, and it sort of was, but I was still in the cave.
I learned in college that there are multiple, distinct theories of ethics with names and subcategories: cultural relativism, virtue ethics, hedonism, utilitarianism (I now knew what to call my self-destruction theory that I thought I’d invented), deontology, and the ethics of care (there are actually plenty more). I subscribed to a basic utilitarianism for a while; the moral calculus seemed so rational to me. The complexity discovered here and the guilt of wronging others in the past got me to shelve metaphysics (which had failed to improve my life) to focus on how to be the best person… ethically. I realized that good moral character came from practicing and studying good moral behavior, not as just a byproduct of being ‘smart’ or attaining power through discipline. Plato’s dialogues in particular refined my analytical mind, and I developed a habit of viewing all acts and thoughts through an ethical lens.
The Once and Future King got me thinking about politics beyond parties, politics as a proper philosophical study, a thing of theory. When should one go to war? When one has some thing precious to defend. Plato was talking about philosopher kings, how to build a healthy nation (he was way off base, holy shit). I began to understand politics as a discussion of systems of ethics for the macro level. Merlin introduced the logical conclusion of Libertarianism, called it ‘anarchism’, and I marked that page. I came very close here to becoming some thing even worse than an eco-fascist: I was ready for Merlin to convince me to become an anarcho-capitalist, those that wind up believing that markets make right, that rigging markets is fair because any one could do it, if they really wanted to, and all consent is genuine, under any circumstances.
And then some thing horrible saved me (may be Neil Postman’s leftist Technopoly woulda saved me, but I forgot the shit out of that too). I had to abandon macro-level thinking to save my self from an abusive intimate relationship. I went hard in to ethics to understand where my personal boundaries should lie, and forgot all about Merlin and war and having voted for Obama (I honestly don’t remember how I felt about Obama, just that I watched his speeches and debates and then, well, the voting. I also remember ridiculing Obama in 2008, when I was all-in for Ron Paul, so it’s a mess in my head. Hadn’t Obama already disappointed us by 2012?). I needed to know how much was reasonable to sacrifice for love, know when forgiveness became submission. I didn’t quite acknowledge it as abuse, you see, more as the dangerous coping mechanisms of some one who was really abused (and she was, with more trauma than I’ve ever had).
Existentialism felt empowering and familiar. Making your own meaning lined up with my mind-over-matter shit, the hyper-individualism, the history with the Libertarian party, but Nietzsche was big stuff for me because he focused on one’s personal power, self-discipline, and responsibility specifically, and how to turn your pain in to your product. Slaves are defined by their suffering, while masters define their own suffering, that sort of thing. I wanted to give the idea of meaningful suffering, of using trauma as a spring-board to freedom, to my abuser, so that we could be happy together (she never read the book I bought her, and then she lost it). In trying to define what I was trying to fix, so that I could better mend it, I believe I came across Aristotle’s three types of relationships: the utility or exchange relationship, the pleasure or sharing relationship, and the loving or virtuous relationship. I became sensitive to people expecting things in return, because I realized that doing things to earn favors is transactional, not loving. I became wary of getting stuck in merely sharing experiences and pleasures, because I didn’t think a difficult relationship could survive on just that. Then I came to a new division, a hierarchy of feeling:
Appreciation: feeling a person’s value
Infatuation: strong desire toward a person, irrational, can be tempered in to passion; is foolish or unreasoned passion
Passion: strong desire toward a person, but with historical, experiential grounding; more serious
Respect: higher order of appreciation, specifically of a person’s abilities/intelligences (‘esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person’)
Compassion: desire/acting on sharing in an other’s feelings; empathy (yes, I used to think compassion and empathy were the same thing)
Love, sharing type: understanding of mutual needs and desire to meet them simultaneously
Love, giving type: understanding of a person’s needs and a desire to meet them, regardless of a match with own needs
Lots of thinking on the nature of human relationships followed. Sadly, I realized that my abuser lacked the understanding of my needs, and rarely behaved as thought we even had mutual needs, so all this study did for me was show me the door.
Part 6: Finishing College, Polyamory|Compassion, The Third Loop
I’d been exposed to polyamory, or the practice of having multiple, simultaneous, consensual, intimate partnerships, in my search for truths about love and human relationships, but it wasn’t what I was looking for, so I thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, clever argument, get to the point I’m concerned with,’ and disregarded it. I’d actually learned the word when I was may be fourteen, having known some one who’d soured the concept for me by cheating on monogamous people in the name of polyamory, so I was still recovering from that negative bias. Strangely, a return to solipsism brought me to seriously considering abandoning monogamy.
Once upon an online forum, a friend said that some sci-fi author named Robert Heinlein had also invented a theory of ‘all is one, all is dream’, and called it ‘Multiple Personality Solipsism.’ Well, so that’s what we called it, ’cause we hadn’t named it yet. I thought that was neat, but didn’t read books that I didn’t write, so forgot about it. But now I was reading fiction again, so dug up the work that introduced the concept, a book, in the middle of a series, called The Number of the Beast. Turns out my friend was mistaken, and Heinlein called it ‘Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism’ as well as a variation on that term, so MPS was all ours. But Heinlein also wrote many other works, a very famous one being Stranger in a Strange Land (the book my friend thought the solipsism thing appeared in- got that wrong too), and this one I also felt I had to read. Oh boy, did it challenge my values. I finally came to terms with my body shame, with my possessiveness, with my jealousy, and with the last of my romanticization of sex all at once, and became polyamorous purely for ethical reasons, intimacy as applied philosophy.
I was developing a lot of respect for an academic philosophy friend that I connected with through the rave scene, as I struggled to understand their advanced language and more nuanced perspective. I believe it was they who introduced me to intersectional feminism, the study of how social issues are all connected, how all parts of one’s identity can impact how they are treated by society. If not them, then just liberal/progressive social media. They recommended one of my now favorite books, Compassion and Moral Guidance by Steve Bein. This is where I think I finally started to adopt genuine gentleness, as opposed to politeness out of fear of retaliation. This has to have been where I dumped the last shreds of my tendency to picture all other people as non-player characters in my game. Ethics isn’t a math problem, I realized; it’s a concern for others. A sense of self can not exist for us social animals without social comparison, social interaction, so self-absorption and ethics from “pure reason” is absurd. We have scientific evidence that we subconsciously treat our future selves as separate people, so empathy and compassion for other people literally makes it easier to meet our own future needs. Beyond serving the vanity of being needed, providing care for others is good for our own mental health. Our general learning is stunted when we only care about people who reflect our selves too.
Further study of compassion of course led me to the topics of attachment and impermanence. When we become attached to people, we are attached to their present states at best and idealized, false versions of them at worst. The current state of a person’s personality is impermanent. People grow; people change, and we have to decide how much change we can bear, and whether to grow along with them. Attachment is a belief in permanence, and permanence is an illusion, so attachment causes cognitive dissonance (an other way of thinking about cognitive dissonance: inability to reconcile a contradiction between belief and reality), and cognitive dissonance causes stress in the form of anxiety or even despair, so attachments must be challenged for the sake of our mental health. And we get attached to more than just people. We get attached to possessions, to memories (even memories fade and change), to places, to routines, to comforts, to ideas. Imagine how much more easily we might grow and change, if we weren’t so stuck, if we didn’t have such rigid expectations of the world. Think about how bad it is for an adaptation machine like the human brain to become afraid of change. Consider how much more vibrant the world would be, if you didn’t take it all for granted through attachments to things that you perceive as wholly concrete and static. As an artist, at least, I needed to not take things for granted.
In order to make meaningful my suffering, I needed to better understand my suffering, where it came from. Intersectional feminism was the tool for the job. Where did my particularly male problems come from? Where did my pain stemming from not identifying with typical masculinity come from? Why did my mental illness make me feel separate? How could I explain my growing hatred of white people as a white person? It’s all there. With context, with history, a coherent story for your pain, your pain is given meaning.
But I couldn’t stop there, and I had to reconcile my ethics of personal purpose with this compassion stuff, so I invented the Third Loop.
But wait, back up. What’s the first loop? What’s the second? Time and space, my friend. I wasn’t gonna return to MPS again, ’cause fanciful metaphysics is for babies, but you’ve asked for it. A mind feels like an ultra plastic but ultimately closed system, and its space can be full of tricks, so why not curve back in on its self? Space loops. And time is just easier to think about, if its beginning is its end, perfect repetition solving the paradox. These were just ways for me to feel like I existed in a sensible, ordered universe, one that I could understand. MPS, as far as I know, does not require them. It does, how ever, require the Frame: the idea that time and space are both illusions (are imagined sequence and the memory of spaces in your mind real?), only perceived as having depth. The name the Frame comes from a metaphor we used to describe it: imagine each frame of a film reel cut apart and laid over one an other. Fix these in a picture frame and hold it up to the light, and you’ll see an icomprehensible mess that is all of them at once, and that’s what the universe really looks like, with the illusions turned off.
So the first loop is spacial, and an illusion. The second temporal and illusion. The third was a loop of ethics, a cycle of goodness, arranged on a sort of wheel:
This I’ve taken to calling the ‘Shyftus’, largely to erase from my mind the stupid wheel of emotions I developed as a child to somehow serve as a theory of every thing. You have a ring of virtues: wonder, wisdom, temperance, courage, compassion, and justice. Outside that there’s the ring of intimacies: intellectual, emotional, experiential, (shared) purpose, physical, and grokking (a Heinlein word for complete and intimate understanding, in a general sense, sort of like ‘being one’ with some one or some thing). Beyond these are the romances, as discussed here: knowledge, creation, wonder, passion, power, and awe. The idea is that virtuous people will be the most successful at intimacy (people who try hard to be good, who build good character, will develop good relationships through good behavior), and with social needs being met, with profound social experience, one will best be able to serve the romances, things used to inspire virtue in others- this is why the romances appear again as small, close to the center.
Compassion and justice are both on there both because there’s a feeling and a thinking part to ethics and because ethics is really important. Wonder is on there twice because you can hold the virtue of wonder (the ability to experience wonder, necessary for philosophical and artistic thinking) and you can create the wondrous, serve the wonderful, spread wonderful things to others. I was painfully aware how the human being is a social animal at its core, that art and science are meaningless without society, that language would not exist without the social nature, and I’d subsumed my individualistic moral principles of discipline and purpose to this via the Shyftus, the Third Loop. Things were starting to make a sensible whole again.
Interlude: Words and Motivations
So that’s already a lot. Right? A metaphysical theory dictating the relationship between all things, a complete rejection of this foundation, an embrace of a political theory that pushes for small government and market freedom, and then abandoning this too. Primitivism, a moral rejection of technology, to futurism, a moral rejection of primitivism. Was this just a game for me? Were intellectual pursuits only tools to combat my boredom? Polyamory betrays one of the heaviest foundations of our culture; people find it viscerally offensive- was this all just an extension of my gothic rebellion? Was the need I was satisfying just a need to find a category of person so strange that only I could occupy it, that it could be all my own? Well, I was stubborn for a long time about learning, and for many things, the primitivism, the Libertarianism, the monogamy, utilitarianism, I refused to discard them until I hadn’t a single defense in their favor left. The ethical implications of social possession and exclusivity in particular nagged at me for some time before I decided I needed to try some thing new in order to behave based on my knowledge.
So I wasn’t just bored. What else was there? Problems. Ethical studies solved problems that I had. Polyamory solved the problem of my cognitive dissonance concerning possession and exclusivity. Existentialism solved the problem of my cognitive dissonance concerning meaning and meaninglessness (we make our own meaning). MPS had once solved the problem of not knowing my place in the Universe. Now I was starting to become aware of what I didn’t know, the ‘known unknowns’, and this suggested that there was more than I couldn’t even see, the ‘unknown unknowns’. Plato’s Republic was an authoritarian, self-absorbed state based on bad science. The US Libertarian Party’s idea of small government was an idea of big business, of money dictating what’s right and wrong, and very little buffer between the weak and the greedy. How do you make a world full of billions of people good? Why was it bad? In how many more ways was it bad than the ones that I’d noticed? What events are responsible for this, and who set them in motion? I felt like I was still in Plato’s cave.
Specific definitions for words are useful. Deciding their meaning contextually, or from your gut, or even from their entries in popular dictionaries, is not always helpful. When I first learned that some words have both common definitions and technical ones, I began to realize how use of language shapes our perception of reality. If ‘theory’ can only mean ‘guess’, you aren’t capable of thinking about the real state and process of science, for example. Here are some that I’ve picked up along the way that seem particularly helpful in orienting ideas and having a grasp of my experience:
Philosophy: Literally, the love of wisdom. Philosophy includes fanciful ‘what-if’ statements, as well as deliberately designed logical systems for interpreting the world, as well as rules developed by those logical systems for how to behave in the world, as well as the practice of those rules. ‘Western philosophy’ does not refer to one idea. ‘Greek philosophy’ does not refer to one idea. Wisdom and faith are very different things, the former built from the ground up, and the latter built from the clouds downward. You can make observations, ask questions, test ideas, see how a system of concepts works in practice, and wonder what you ought to believe, and that’s doing philosophy, or you can decide what to believe based on feelings and traditions, see meaning in the essence of things, and that’s doing religion. Philosophy, from my perspective, breaks down in to six major categories: logic, epistemology (the study of knowledge, how to define it, how to acquire it, how to be confident that you have actually acquired it), metaphysics, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.
Shit, I never actually explained Metaphysics: From Wikipedia: ‘examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word ‘metaphysics’ comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean ‘after or behind or among [the study of] the natural’.’ This is why questions of god and whether we’re all dreaming are at home here. Metaphysical ideas can clash with scientific theories of the universe or complement them or just try to explain them, or fill in the gaps left by them. None of this is very practical: there is no metaphysical practice.
Empathy: ‘Fellow-feeling.’ An experience of having your emotions reflect the perceived emotions of others, giving you the sense that their emotions are being shared with you. Since this can be practiced and be more or less accurate, empathy is considered a skill. Empathy can be used to emotionally ‘put your self in an other’s shoes’ to better understand them (by route of how they’re feeling), to share sorrows so that others do not feel that they are suffering alone, and to share joys in order to escape malaise or sorrow of your own. Empathy can be experienced while observing some one you know, a character in a story, or strangers, victims on the news… pitiful actors of corporate campaigns. It also has a tendency to induce bias.
Compassion: Not to be confused with empathy. Compassion is a sense of care based on a general understanding, that understanding per haps informed by empathy, but it could be empathetic experiences long past. While empathy can make you feel what ever you are perceiving others to be feeling, compassion elicits a feeling of care. Where empathy is ‘feeling as an other’, compassion is ‘feeling for an other’. Feeling for an other can be a precursor to empathy, but feeling as others also informs compassion. Caring for others suggests a sense of responsibility, and is easier to experience in a broad sense (caring for every one) than empathy (imagine trying to fellow-feel with a dozen or a hundred different people at once). This is because compassion can come from a general understanding of what it means to be human, or what it means to be an animal- it’s much easier to acknowledge what every one’s basic needs are than it is to grasp what every one in the world is feeling right now. There is an intellectual debate between those favoring empathy and those favoring compassion. Those prioritizing empathy as a response to suffering find compassion to be too impersonal, too distant, or even uncaring, while those prioritizing compassion as a response to suffering argue that empathy is blinding, exhausting, and makes suffering spread. The goal, after all, is to end the suffering, not merely help them carry it (I don’t think I’d picked a camp at this point, but you can tell which one I’d eventually chose).
Love: Understanding others with a depth on par with understanding your self, so that you can intuit a person’s real needs (and their specifics), and feel compelled to provide for them (time, care, support, concrete resources) like you would provide for your self. Self-love, then, implies that you have a grasp for your own needs and particularities, are more or less at harmony with your self, and wish good to come to your self the same way you’d wish for the protagonists in your favorite stories to succeed. Love is like a personal compassion, a fine-tuned compassion based on your relationship with an individual, different per individual.
Existentialism: ‘Existence precedes essence.’ This is a broad range of study, but all existentialists agree that meaning is a (very useful) social construct that is fluid and impacted by many factors. Meaning its self is a slippery concept, containing the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of things, people, and events. It also contains the ‘what should we do about this?’ and the ‘how should we feel about this?’, which are deeply connected to the initial ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of things, people, and events: if the meaning we choose is to be coherent, our actions ought to reflect some historical context of the situation, and historical context contains philosophical and scientific context.
Intersectionality: This one I’m just gonna copy/paste from Wikipedia: ‘Intersectionality is a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities (e.g., gender, Caste, sex, race, class, sexuality, religion, disability, physical appearance, height, etc.) combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.’ Using this as a foundation, appreciating the complexity of people and their experiences, I began to see how theories, ideologies, and cultures intersect too- how context is key in every situation. ‘No person is an island,’ they say, and neither is any culture or nation. One nation is shaped by events that occur within, but those events can be triggered by the foreign policy of other nations.
Politics: Speaking of nations, politics is the study and practice of macro-level answers to the question, ‘What should we do?’ Partisan politics or electoral politics is just one facet of a particular political structure. Some folks differentiate between political philosophy and politics proper by saying the former is the study and the latter is the practice, but this alienates behaviors from ideas and has tricked millions of people in to believing that politics is just powerful people making decisions for us, so boooooo!
Determinism: This is the philosophy word for fate, and as such has a far deeper meaning (and is a big topic in existentialism, what it means to be a ‘free agent’). This is where we consider how events are linked, and how much freedom is left for us after we’ve analyzed all of the pressures on us to act in certain ways. Do our social and economic needs and limitations determine how we think and behave (social determinism)? Does our biology, and so the history of how we developed, determine how we think and behave (evolutionary determinism)? Does the arrangement of the universe, so the way the Earth was shaped, how chemicals developed here, determined by how the solar system formed, determined by the shape of the galaxy, determined by all events back to the Big Bang (whether this first event was triggered by a conscious entity or not), determine evolution and social structure (physical determinism)? And is being ignorant of most of this history, unable to use it to make accurate predictions down to the atomic level, render us effectively free? Long before I knew the word, I was considering how gods could predict the future, not because they ‘just knew’ but because they could see all events, past and present, in the most objective light, at once, and I was considering what this said about the authenticity of our experience.
Part 7: I Care About People, God Damn It!|Progressivism
Aaand I was feeling ready to engage with electoral politics again. It was 2016, and Bernie Sanders was the candidate of compassion, of social values, while Hillary Clinton seemed mean and Donald Trump just plain was mean. I was living with one of the co-inventors of MPS in a new place, and we were both starting to see how the systems of oppression work and who they really work for, and Bernie was trying to expose them, and challenge them. I saw too many people suffering meaninglessly, but thought I saw reasons why, beyond their control. Did I trust big government? No, but I didn’t trust big business either, and since the government was already huge in the USA, I figured, why not make it work a little more for the people and a little less for the corporations that abused us?
I still wasn’t sure how I felt about democracy either, because I was wary of stupid people mucking up results (‘the tyranny of the majority’, which is basically just a fancy way of saying that poor people are inherently untrustworthy). The difference now, though, was that I was beginning to understand that people aren’t just inherently stupid or smart; people are made to be stupid or allowed to be smart based on the limitations of their environment (how their socio-economic class is treated by society, their access to formal education, their access to nutrition necessary for good brain development, the level of stressors in their lives, whether their basic needs are met securely, et cetera). Foolishness, simple-minded-ness, ignorance- what ever you call it (I started to refrain from using terms other than ignorance, finally really believing what Plato said about how all evil comes from not knowing), it is very profitable. There are people that benefit from the ignorance of others, on grand scales, and those people have the power to maintain systems of ignorance.
Now’s the time to jump back to conspiracy theories. My history with ideas of ‘powerful people pulling strings’ came from a place of schizophrenic paranoia and desiring to show I had special knowledge. Conspiracies about 9/11 got so steeped in tales of extraterrestrial alien weapons and magic so fast that I felt the need to abandon all inside job arguments just to wash my hands of the supernatural claims. The person who’d gone deep in these that I mentioned earlier held them in the same hands he held his bigotry (and I found out later that bigotry is baked right in to many popular conspiracies [Jewish cabals and what not]), and that tainted ideas of ‘evil global elites’ for me further. So how did I return to a belief that evil psychopaths in suits controlled the whole world? Well, I got some clues that helped me disentangle myth from truth, and realized that the real elite masterminds didn’t do it in secret, and that they were backed up not by black magic or alien weapons but centuries of culture shaped by their predecessors’ propaganda. The violence of the media and advertising against culture and personal identity occur in the open, the abuse of electoral systems and laws in broad day light. Ancient, ever-changing systems of social organization, our subconscious belief in them, and so our subconscious reinforcement of them, at this moment in history produce such elite masterminds, so they’re not really masterminds at all.
So now it sounds like I’d returned to placing equal blame on all humans for our suffering. Right? Which is it? The ruling elites control us all, or our homogenized hyper-culture that we all participate in gives our control away? Well, it’s not so black-and-white. This is what philosophers refer to as a synthesis, which necessarily provides a new, more complex idea. There exists a feedback loop between the greed of powerful people and society at large. The powerful business people and politicians push their boundaries and adjust to the response of the people again and again, whether in quick attacks or across long campaigns, in order to maximize their profits. Will fighting the will of the people directly make the dollars go up this time, or does the social climate call for a compromise in order for the elites’ ratings to go up, and then the profits? The system controls us more than the elites do, but the elites are the ones that benefit from it. The system also controls the elites, but those few have more freedom to augment it from within with their money and their platforms, and when it’s the people that make the major changes to society with their social movements, well, it’s the elites that choose to allow it.
So what is the system? What structures was I identifying as large, historical, and influential? First it was racism, how we’ve developed a nuanced and semi-flexible hierarchy of people based on skin color/ancestry. Then it was sexism, as I didn’t realize its full implications before either, that even white women existed on a separate but overlapping economic plane from white men. A hierarchy of sexual orientation was obvious, of subcultures, but the hardest one to see was that of economic class, or, traditionally put, just class. If poor people were placed in poverty by oppression or lack of support given to others in stead, then I had grown up hating poor people because rich people wanted me to. But why? Aren’t the homeless and the jobless just a burden to these people? Wouldn’t rich people make more money, if every one was employed? How do racism and sexism benefit capital? Wouldn’t it be easier to defend the American Dream, if more of it were true? Bernie Sanders wasn’t answering these questions, at least not explicitly, and then, he wasn’t a philosopher any way, so it was time to do some more reading…
Part 8: The Rabbit Hole Goes Deeper|Leftism, Gender Theory
I was still in touch with the friend who’d recommended Compassion and Moral Guidance, and was still learning from that friend (with difficulty), so when they began a statement with, ‘Well, as an anarchist,’ I was, like I often was when listening to them, feeling the sting of cognitive dissonance. ‘But anarchists aren’t serious people!’ I thought. ‘They’re just rebels without a cause! How can such a rational, caring person desire chaos?’ Then the room mate mentioned above asked me to take a political compass test. To quote my post that focuses on this subject, this test ‘claim[ed] I was a libertarian socialist…Turns out, ‘libertarian’ was appropriated by the American Libertarian Party from a very different set of beliefs, and ‘libertarian socialism’ is anarchism.’
Anarchism? So I had to figure that out, on top of figuring out why the status quo was inefficient and violent. The two questions seemed related, and they were. Starting with the Wikipedia page on libertarian socialism, branching out to related articles via links, moving from there to on-line literature giving much more detail, then moving on to books on anarchist theory, Marxist theory, anarchist science fiction… I could feel my brain being rewired as I learned to perceive the world in a new way, and this time it was scary. No one is offended by Plato (though, considering the proto-fascism and the hackneyed spiritual map to tie all of his ideas together, they probably should be). History has neutered existentialism in the public eye. Feminism was in style… but I did not want to be caught reading a book written by Vladimir Lenin.
The general capitalist ideology insists that history is over, and only plans for greater progress for the corporations, efficiency and expansion of wealth. Socialist ideologies claim that, despite social progress, in many ways we’ve reached the worst point in history, and need to press on to a completely new era. I could tell that from the start, but I couldn’t imagine it. Democracy? But the USA already has that, and it sucks! Community? You can’t make people get along! The communists want to abolish money? Well… that idea always did tickle my fancy.
Leftist plans for the future confused me, but I was intrigued by the challenge of understanding, and I was understanding all this other great stuff along the way. The capitalist class, historically, has taken many measures to prevent and subdue revolt, to preserve their power. This is how they benefit from a divided people. They manufacture social ‘wedges’ between races, between cultures, between sexes, and so on, to fracture the masses to reduce their strength in numbers. If the people won’t cooperate with each other, any of their threats to the ruling class will be a fraction of what they could be. Also, if they are placing blame upon and fighting with each other, they are less likely to think about how the far away oligarchs are the real trouble-makers- and even less likely to have the energy to push those thoughts very far. Classism, racism, sexism, ableism- all of the prejudices are like a stack of myths told to distract us from the man behind the curtain.
So is that why poverty and homelessness exist, so that we hate the poor we see in stead of the rich hidden away? These things serve that purpose, but they also deter in an other way: poverty is a threat. Poverty is what you get when you don’t play by the rules, or if you deviate from the Path to Success and fail, having wasted your resources on other things. The myriad division and this threat of poverty work together to solidify the capitalist mythology of competition and failure- competition between social beings of the same species and failure in societies of plenty. Manifest Destiny or die.
People misinterpret science all the time. Social Darwinism, the idea that competition between humans functions similarly to (and with the same benefits of) natural selection, is absurd. You do not improve society by simply killing off the weak or the stupid; you improve it by helping them (and, regarding the disabled, our population and reserve of resources are too great for a minority to be considered a weak link any way). You certainly do not improve society by making their lives more difficult, by punishing them for lacking in privilege. Early humans did not thrive just because they could make complex tools and outsmart their opponents; they were largely able to thrive based on cooperation, both as tactics in combat, sharing labor, and caring for each other. Wars were not what spread our species around the globe, and were certainly not the primary motivators of innovation. A species does not develop the faculties of empathy, compassion, and love, if these things do not significantly benefit the survival of the species, and anthropologists paint two very different pictures of humanity before and after the first kings…
Speaking of bad science, I was also exposed to gender theory during this time. Fitting, since I was learning about how people are fooled in to hating their neighbors. Multiple friends had come out as gender nonbinary, and liberal social media was hyping it up, and I was all for destroying traditional norms of identity. Turns out, gender and biological sex are both spectrums, and gender doesn’t map neatly on to biological sex because it’s a socially constructed set of categories once used to explain male-ness and female-ness when science was lacking. ‘What gender am I?’ is essentially an aesthetic question, concerning how you categorize your traits, and your choice might not make sense to some one else regardless of how clearly you explain it, because they might simply categorize what you consider to be feminine traits as masculine ones and vice versa. Is it feminine to get ornery, or is it masculine? What if I used the word ‘moody’ instead?
Like my exposure to polyamory, the idea that I could have been tricked in to identifying as a man by omission of alternatives became more and more compelling. It called up many memories of being younger and not feeling good about performing the masculine cues. Of being called girly or gay, as if these were bad things to be, so pressured to behave in a more masculine manner. I came to realize that I’d never, except when pressured, categorized my personality traits in terms of masculine or feminine. Being a martial artist was not a masculine thing to me. Being an intellectual was not. Being compassionate did not strike me as being feminine. Being interested in fashion was gender-neutral to me. I didn’t listen to metal and heavy dance music because they felt manly. I was raised in a time when being artistic was girly, and I was studying times when being artistic was manly. And, socially, I was feeling I had less and less in common with others simply because they were men… I realized that I am agender (without gender), and always have been. Why bend and strain to fit in to prefab boxes just to fit in? This is America; be your self!
So it was easy for me to understand that profit is the money scraped off of the value of labor that’s collected by the owners of the business, who do not make the products, who do not design the products, who do not market the products… they just own all of the means of doing so. It still blew my mind, that it never occurred to me that a business could never be profitable (for the bosses) unless it took most of the money my work was earning/preserving for them. A lot of people get hung up on how aspiring capitalists apparently deserve more money due to the risk they take in owning a business… but exploitation is exploitation to me. You don’t get to own slaves just because you’re bold enough to buy some land that might fail to produce good crops… and that says no thing about the expectations of a successful capitalist who inherited or was promoted in to ownership of a long-time, multi-billion-dollar company. How small a fraction of the revenue do wages have to be before we call them ‘slave wages’? Eh? So what’s the alternative? Cooperative business models, of course! Shared responsibility, shared risk, more generalized skill sets, rotating leadership, even pay. If wages need to be cut to expand the business, then the workers vote to cut every one’s wages evenly. Very simple, and with lots of contemporary and historical data to back it up (and yes, the data accounts for what ever ‘but what about?’ thought you might have).
The difficult part for me was imagining how this cooperative structure could be used to organize all of society. A democratic military? Voting in and out police officers? People participating in politics without compensation, and opening every topic to vote? Are we just gonna be voting all the time? Despite identifying as a philosopher, an author, a martial artist, and a musician, I was still indoctrinated with specialization propaganda, the idea that the best work comes from some one with a singular ability, some one who pours all of their time and effort in to a single skill. TURNS OUT, all skills inform each other, some thing I’d actually learned from the Sword Saint of Japan, Mayamoto Musashi, in his Book of Five Rings, years before, but I’d been too small-minded about it to apply it to economics (I guess I was too caught up in trying to figure out how, if one sword could do one thing, two swords could do four things). This part I failed to understand until I saw it illustrated in anarcho-communist science fiction. I needed examples. I needed emotional impressions. And I’m not about to write a novel about it here, but I highly recommend Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. It touches on so many political topics so well. If you want some thing (much!) shorter to get started, I recommend The Last Capitalist by Steve Cullen.
In stead of a novel, it’s definition time again! Understanding accurate definitions of these terms was critical for my progress through this stage:
Neoliberalism: Here we have the prevalent body of ideology in the West, which includes both liberals and conservatives (and centrists, but many radically left and radically right folks refer to liberals and conservatives and any thing in between collectively as centrists). Neoliberalism is a political and economic perspective that is anti-regulation, anti-welfare, anti-workers’ unions, and pro-free market, pro-financial bureaucracy (and independent financial sectors), and pro-tax cuts, tax cuts largely for the rich. If those all sounds like exclusively conservative values to you, well, you’ve no idea how conservative liberals actually are in the grand scheme of things.
Progressivism: The left wing of the Western status quos, pro ‘social progress’ in the form of human rights, personal freedoms, and welfare. These folks are painted as radicals by politicians and the media so that liberals remain comfortable embracing economically right values, and convinced that liberal policies aren’t just compromises with fascism.
Social Democracy: Many progressives fall in to this category, hoping for reforms to make the capitalist system more ‘benevolent’. They are insane people.
Leftism: This is a vague term, often used to refer to the left-wing of the status quo, but leftists tend to use it to refer to every one that is economically left of social democrats, so every one belonging below this entry on this list.
Democratic Socialism: These folks believe that the state can be reformed through its own policies in to some thing that it is not, either a stateless, communal, classless, money-less society or an ultra-welfare state (and yes, these two conclusions are wildly different). An incoherent compromise between broad centrism and socialism.
Socialism: Socialism encompasses any of many related ideologies that generally believe social/political revolution (likely violent, like with a civil war) is the only way to pave the way for a better society. The desired result of the revolution is the elimination of the wealthy and ruling classes and a redistribution of resources based on individual needs and sharing. The aftermath of the revolution? Either a stateless, communal, classless, money-less society or some thing close to it.
Anarchism: Anarchism is a set of socialist ideologies that at least share this one thing in common: anarchists believe that the revolution must result in the dismantling of the state by the working class to make way for permanently stateless and classless society. They usually have communal values and wish to do away with currency too (anarcho-capitalism is not a form of anarchism). Anarchism is also known as libertarian socialism (though, for some anarchists, ‘libertarian’ is a term so tainted by the US Libertarian Party [the close neighbors of anarcho-capitalists] that they refuse to use it).
Marxism: Marxism is a set of socialist ideologies that at least share this one thing in common: Marxists believe that the revolution must result in the seizing of the state by the working class to make way for a permanently stateless and classless society. They tend to value community and hate money more often than anarchists do. They also aren’t great about deciding when to let go of the state apparatus, and are more willing than anarchists to justify human rights violations ‘temporarily’ in the name of progress. Some say this is practical, since war is hell, while others are wary of founding a new world on brutality and betrayal. If anarchism is libertarian socialism, Marxism and its neighbors are authoritarian socialism.
Communism: Forget all of the knee-jerk emotional reactions to this our society has taught you. This is the stateless, communal, classless, money-less society. Anarchists generally want not chaos but this. Marxists discuss waging war on profiteers until the last capitalist is gone, and this can be built. It’s a society based on true democracy and mutual aid, where bureaucracy is replaced by trust, specialization replaced by general intelligence, administration done a little bit on the side by most people in stead of by the few, and every thing is voted on unless it’s particularly time-sensitive. A representative sucks? Vote to replace them. The voting system for upper level issues isn’t working? Vote to change it. Personal property still exists but private property does not. You can’t own a business, but you can shape how production is handled. Communist economic scientists over a hundred years ago calculated that this system would bring about tremendous efficiency (social animals governing socially, huh!), so much so that the average work day would be reduced to four hours, five days a week- a hundred twenty years ago. Imagine how much more efficient we could be today.
Okay, so I bought the idea that the ruling class won’t let us vote their power away, and that compromise with the devil is, well, half devil shit or what ever. But, shit, the answer is physical violence? The answer is war? They say, ‘When you go far enough left, you get your guns back,’ and this is because the real left believes in an armed populace, not unlike the very US American value of being prepared to overthrow a tyrannical government. Sure, on paper that makes sense, but in reality it’s terrifying. You don’t just bring your guns to a protest to prove you mean business and then the government realizes they’re tyrants and slink away in shame. You threaten the government with force, any government, and they’ll fucking kill you. The military and the police exist to protect the interests of the wealthy and the state, and even in the ‘land of the free’ the police have tortured, bombed, and just plain disappeared dissenters. They’re just glorified, upgraded slave-catchers in the US Empire, after all.
If you’re openly thinking these thoughts and haven’t been beaten, imprisoned, or murdered yet, it’s because they don’t take you seriously yet. Freedom of speech, like any other concept of law, can be easily twisted when a politically powerful (this could just mean wealthy) person wishes to punish some one.
Part 8: Context is Key, We Understand Through Narrative|Working Class History
The peace was always a sham. All the proclaimed golden ages of history were lies. No-one knew any better when slavery was commonplace in the US? The slaves sure did. Other countries sure did, and there were always white slavery abolitionists making noise. People didn’t want to listen.
Human history, real, raw human history, is a fucking nightmare. And I’m not even talking about the endless wars or the madness of Roman emperors. I’m talking about the every day dehumanization of the regular, working class person. The brutalization of the working person. The commodification of the working person (to be commodified, in the political realm, is to be treated as some thing with exchange value, some thing that can be bought and sold. Food, animals, minerals, land, art, ideas, people: we sell our labor, done with our bodies).
Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the US took things that I thought I knew and added just enough depth and context to make me want to scream with fury. I can’t explain the gravity of what I learned, can’t properly sum up, or illustrate the horror and rage I felt at uncovering this past, but I’ll say this: the founding of the USA was a tax evasion scheme for wealthy, white slave owners. It wasn’t a people’s revolution, but a power grab between two small, elite groups on opposite sides of an ocean- all dressed up as a people’s revolution for the sake of preserving the legitimacy of the power of the elites.
When the Declaration of Independence was first announced publicly, followed by a declaration of ‘every one of you will have to fight in the coming war… unless you can pay your way out like us’, the resulting peoples’ protests turned to riots.
Just like how the USA seems to always be at war, its people are almost always protesting against inequality and other injustices, and people who claim protesters and police are violent now really ought to look up some of the old ones.
Most public schools and universities in the US Empire were founded by wealthy elites as centers for the anti-union and anti-strike propaganda necessary to turn the working class’s children against them. ‘These people may revolt against our harsh conditions, but their children will not.’ Ever hear the idea that schools only teach you how to get a job? Well, the original plan was to teach you how to be an obedient worker, and hopefully a patriot too.
Check this shit out:
Hellen Keller was a socialist, 1911, page 345:
‘Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee… You ask for votes for women. What good can votes do when ten-elevenths of the land of Great Britain belongs to 200,000 and only one-eleventh to the rest of the 40,000,000? Have your men with their millions of votes freed themselves from this injustice?’
When she became active and openly socialist, the Brooklyn Eagle, which had previously treated her as a heroine, wrote that ‘her mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.’ Her response was not accepted by the Eagle, but printed in the New York Call. She wrote that when once she met the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle he complimented her lavishly. ‘But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error…’
Woodrow Wilson was an aggressive imperialist, page 362:
Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, while a believer in neutrality in the war, also believed that the United States needed overseas markets; in May of 1914 he praised the President as one who had ‘opened the doors of all the weaker countries to an invasion of American capital and American enterprise.’
…Back in 1907, Woodrow Wilson had said in a lecture at Columbia University: ‘Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process… the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down.’
…[In] 1914 [Woodrow Wilson] said he supported ‘the righteous conquest of foreign markets.
Being anti-war is anti-American, page 366:
The Espionage Act, thus approved by the Supreme Court, has remained on the books all these years since World War I, and although it is supposed to apply only in Wartime, it has been constantly in force since 1950, because the United States has legally been in a ‘state of emergency’ since the Korean war. In 1963, the Kennedy administration pushed a bill (unsuccessfully) to apply the Espionage Act to statements uttered by Americans abroad; it was concerned, in the words of the cable from Secretary of State Rusk to Ambassador Lodge in Vietnam, about journalists in Vietnam writing ‘critical articles…. on Diem and his government’ that were ‘likely to impede the war effort.’
The Espionage Act of 1917, still on the books, applied to wartime statements. But in 1940, with the United States not yet at war, Congress passed the Smith Act. This took Espionage Act prohibitions against talk or writing that would lead to refusal of duty in the armed forces and applied them to peacetime. The Smith Act also made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence, or to join any group that advocated this, or to publish anything with such ideas.
Minorities didn’t see Hitler as exceptionally evil, page 415:
Was the war being fought to establish that Hitler was wrong in his ideas of white Nordic supremacy over ‘inferior’ races? The United States’ armed forces were segregated by race. When troops were jammed onto the Queen Mary in early 1945 to go to combat duty in the European theater, the blacks were stowed down in the depths of the ship near the engine room, as far as possible from the fresh air of the deck, in a bizarre reminder of the slave voyages of old…The Red Cross, with government approval, separated the blood donations of black and white.
A student at a Negro college told his teacher: ‘The Army jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat upon. What more could Hitler do than that?’
The atom bomb was not used to end the war, page 422:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the [United States Strategic Bombing] Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been panned or contemplated.
But could American leaders have known this in August 1945? The answer is, clearly, yes. The Japanese code had been broken, and Japan’s messages were being intercepted. It was known the Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies. Japanese leaders had begun talking of surrender a year before this, and the Emperor himself had begun to suggest, in June 1945, that alternatives to fighting to the end be considered. On July 13, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: ‘Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace…’ Martin Sherwin, after an exhaustive study of the relevant historical documents, concludes: ‘Having broken the Japanese code before the war, American Intelligence was able to–and did–relay this message to the President, but it had no effect whatever on efforts to bring the war to a conclusion.’
If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender–that is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender, that the Emperor, a holy figure to the Japanese, remain in place–the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war.
When they say ‘big government’ they just mean ‘let the poor die’, page 650:
Clinton and the Republicans, in joining against ‘big government,’ were aiming only at social services. The other manifestations of big government–huge contracts to military contractors and generous subsidies to corporations–continued at exorbitant levels.
‘Big government’ had, in fact, begun with the Founding Fathers, who deliberately set up a strong central government to protect the interests of the bondholders, the slave owners, the land speculators, the manufacturers. For the next two hundred years, the American government continued to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, offering millions of acres of free land to the railroads, setting high tariffs to protect manufacturers, giving tax breaks to oil corporations, and using its armed forces to suppress strikes and rebellions.
It was only in the twentieth century, especially in the thirties and sixties, when the government, besieged by protests and fearful of the stability of the system, passed social legislation for the poor, that political leaders and business executives complained about ‘big government.’
So, well, pistol grip pump on my lap at all times.
Part 9: Welcome to the Desert of the Real|Postmodernism
Oh no. Why did I go this far? Why didn’t any one warn me that at some point philosophy stops being fun and starts being horrifying? I have read some lines from the postmodern body of philosophical thought that have made my eyes water. If not at leftism, then definitely at this point you’re only still studying philosophy if you feel that it’s your civic duty.
Postmodern philosophy (beyond this point I’m going to just call it ‘postmodernism’ as I remain in a philosophical context; the word means different things in different contexts) gets a bad rep for being so nuanced that it gets mistaken for looking like moral relativism (the idea that objective morals change based on the situation, usually the culture you inhabit, or that there’s no sense in discussing ethics at all because it’s a purely subjective, personal experience)… even when it’s not making moral claims, I guess. In truth, postmodern philosophers typically have very strong, specific, reasoned values- like any philosopher, really.
The Wachowskis insisted that the stars of The Matrix read Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. The text even appears in the film, as a fake book with a hollow space for hiding things, a simulacrum of a book. Is the book about phony realities concealing the real reality? Yes, but not in the sense that we’re experiencing a literal computer program in stead of the material world. There is a postmodern analysis of just about every thing, but for me it all revolves around this book.
Its first and longest chapter describes the idea, coincidentally beginning by using a piece from one of my favorite fiction authors as a metaphor:
If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts–the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging)–as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.
Yes, that’s how the book opens, after an Ecclesiastes quote. While you’re still trying to parse this metaphor, may be wondering if reading Borges’s story will help, Baudrillard immediately tells you to forget it: ‘Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance.’ Oof. Okay. ‘It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.’
There is a reason why most of this book is chapters providing examples of what the hell he’s talking about, but even those are so poetic that it’s difficult to grasp. I personally read this book as though I’m swimming through a dream that harbors moments of clarity, those moments being more clear than any aspect of my waking life. You… have to be in the right mood for it.
There are multiple approaches to the idea of hyperreality, and here’s the first that comes to mind: language is a tool for explaining the world. It is through language that we relate to others and our environment. Categories don’t exist without language. Math is a language (even emotions are a form of communication, internally and externally). As you probably know, language can be used to deceive, both intentionally and unintentionally, and two different people can have different understandings of what the same words and phrases mean. With a murky, ever-developing foundation like that, culture and politics and economics can come to be extremely detached from reality, since they reference their selves and each other as they develop just as much as, if not more than, the real world. No one wants to start at ground zero every time they want to form a new idea, after all- hasn’t most of the work been done already?
But, if some where between the real, material world and our perception of it lies some real bad intellectual/emotional filtering, such as a story that the world is flat or that the greedy founders of a nation were benevolent, our perception is further distanced from material reality. If we do not challenge the parts of our culture and personal beliefs that interfere with our ability to understand the world, we might as well be dreaming, or plugged in to the Matrix, or sitting in a cave, watching shadows on a wall. A dreamer still exists in material space and time, but only believes the dream, vaguely informed by reality.
So let’s think of it that way for a bit. Imagine you have been living your life to, say, age twenty, and then you suffer an accident and fall in to a coma. In this coma, your first dreams are inspired by your real life, and the media you consumed in it. You don’t wake up to add more of this data to draw from, and you don’t reset your expectations, so your dreams only have that set, finite pool of information to draw from and no thing telling them that they’re wrong, no thing recalibrating your expectations with the real world. You have more and more dreams, inventing places and scenarios and people, and your pool of information for the dreams to draw on does grow- but only in fictional information invented by the dreams. After a time the pool of dream information, of dreamed experiences, characters, and rules, dwarfs the pool of information directly pertaining to your real life, and whole new structures might form, new patterns, as referencing what was real becomes less and less necessary to weave these dreams. Let’s say you dream all day, every day, for twenty more years, and then you wake up, having developed expectations wildly different from how people behave, what people value, even how simple causality works in the real world. The real world is no longer familiar, in fact it seems bizarre now, and you reject it.
Now imagine that our culture, economics, and politics are shaped this way. ‘But these things aren’t developed randomly,’ you might protest. Well, neither are dreams. Both are driven by invisible forces. Our subconscious mind has to be subject to cause and effect, just like every thing else. We just have difficulty studying it. The history of culture, politics, and economics, how ever, can be studied much more easily; if you buy in to the leftist stuff, they are driven by power, by profit, by capital. And the narratives that these forces weave are as nonsensical as dreams because they undermine all of our most basic human values and insist that they are rational regardless of what truths they defy.
Now, in a sort of return to the beginning, what if I told you that The Matrix was a metaphor for neoliberal capitalism? What if I told you that it was using a digitally simulated reality to represent a culturally simulated reality? And not just some isolated part of it, like how ‘red-pillers’ have hijacked the metaphor to refer to specifically feminism and ‘politically correct’ culture, but the very foundation of our society. That’s not just artistic speculation on my part. Look it up. The machines are fucking capitalists, politicians, marketing firms, religious figureheads, every body in power who wants to keep you jacked in to their simulated reality so they can continue to drain you of your energy (literal life energy in the Matrix; labor value in real life). There’s a reason Morpheus drove it home by holding up a recognizable, household battery that any one can buy in bulk at the store: our masters have transformed us in to commodities. Agent Smith is some one who sees the truth but can’t recognize it (he knows the shapes on the wall are just shadows, but he still hasn’t found the exit to the cave), becomes nihilistic about it, because he only knows enough to know despair. He knows that even he has been manipulated, but he doesn’t know what the alternative is, or what was really stolen, so he decides that death is the only way out (he represents the short-sighted ‘red-pillers’ more than any one else in the film). The deal made at the end, that, if Neo takes down Smith, the machines will let Zion live, is not a plot hole, as I’d previously thought. Of course this compromise is absurd, just like compromising with the ruling class at any point in human history has been absurd, ultimately leaving them in power, allowing them to rebuild their empire at any moment. The elite will always let us fight for them, but our rewards are always on their terms.
For years I’ve been critical of The Matrix, even trying to fill in the plot holes in literal ways by considering fan theories. It’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s not about machines and cyberspace. It’s about postmodern society (the era after modernity, today’s era) and subversive identity (the film’s concept of residual self-image, how Neo never refers to his self by his given name, and corrects Smith when Smith does so). The efficiency of human bodies as batteries- that’s not the point. The desert of the real isn’t a literal, physical waste; it’s the abandoned, material foundations of our culture, the use value of things superseded by assigned exchange value and sign value, our social animal values replaced by competitive, capitalistic ones, our sense of wonder replaced by the ultra-literal, bland, quietly violent neoliberal aesthetic. The antagonist is depicted as faceless machines as well as a baby-faced… thing to represent the hybrid nature of our own antagonist, a combination of self-referential cultural/political/economic system and powerful masters. My obsession with literalness, my belief that metaphor belonged to the realm of spiritualism, used only to obscure the truth, had prevented me from understanding this excellent explanation of our society for half of my life.
So, shit, what does it mean when our relationship with the real is so distorted that we can’t even recognize it? It means that we can’t properly orient our selves, can’t tell accurate stories about our past, can’t understand how power dynamics work, can’t identify the sources of our cognitive dissonance. Postmodern philosophy talks about our relationships with power and structures a lot, about how subtle yet abusive hierarchies can be, about our relationships with art and technology, how subcultures are appropriated by capital to fit neatly in to the major culture, stripped of their subversive natures, stripped of their politics, making them superficial and marketable to a more general public, and many other topics. It follows poststructuralism, so has a habit of orienting every idea in greater context, analyzing its place in history (how it came about), its place in psychology (how we think about it), what its most superficial aspects imply, and what subtext there is to its message. Yes, it’s largely about how we need to unlearn every thing that we’ve ever learned, both consciously and unconsciously, if we hope to find some semblance of the truth, but it’s also about finding new ways to appreciate the world and live authentic, more meaningful lives.
Part 10: And Deeper Runs the Labyrinth, which only Obscures Our Despair|Cyberpunk, Stoicism, Aesthetics of Cognitive Mapping
So we have a status quo that either rejects subversion or recuperates it. What does this mean? The status quo is a set of accepted norms, regarding all subjects. Subversion is the act of resisting this status quo or rebelling against it. Recuperation is a process by which proponents of the status quo neutralize and absorb subversive ideas and culture. This is why Martin Luther King Junior, for example, is now a mainstream cultural icon, even though he was an enemy of the state in his day, and was assassinated for it. That is a story less about society becoming more tolerant and more about the elite adjusting the rules in order to benefit from the movement- that is, a watered-down, neutralized, fantasy version of the movement. The status quo is not based in reality, remember; it is founded on myths. It recuperates all that antagonizes it and regularly revises history to suit these myths.
The opposite of recuperation is détournement, or the hijacking of status quo aesthetics, ideas, commodities, what ever, and making them counter-culture, making them subversive, changing them in to tools of resistance. This could be recovering stolen cultural elements by reinjecting them with working-class values, or pushing common ideas and aesthetics to their extremes in order to display their absurdity.
Like I said, I’d associated metaphorical language with the ‘magical thinking’ logical fallacy, and liked philosophy because it was logical, and I thought to be logical meant to be literal, exact, precise. I liked psychology because it obeyed the scientific method (kinda, sometimes). I was a ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ kinda person for a long time. I rejected parables and fables as too open to interpretation, and as a result failed to see what was ‘shown, not told’ of many a story. I realize now that lots of people are drawn to philosophy, particularly being critical of popular politics, not by being told things are wrong or that there’s a better way, but by seeing, by experiencing contradictions in the world- fuck, my self included.
The Allegory of the Cave was obviously a metaphor- when you’re buried in contradictions every day, you’re bound to make some your self. What can I say? The map of the empire replacing the empire is a far more effective tool than trying to explain what culture is doing literally. What does this have to do with the status quo and the resistance dynamic? Much of the meaning in our lives is symbolic. The way we dress says things about our socioeconomic class, personal identity, and world view, but silently. Much of the content of language is body language and tone, and short-cuts like idioms and, well, metaphors. The manner in which we speak is part of the message. It can communicate our background, where we were raised, our level of education, and so on, and we often judge a person’s message based on what kind of person we interpret them to be. Film scores help convey the emotions being communicated in scenes, and work even if you can’t explain how. It is through aesthetics that we make sense of much of our world.
There is style to politics. There is finesse to ethics. Systems of logic have their own clunky or dexterous feel to them. Ideas can be met with different attitudes, different both as you agree with them and as you disagree. The study of aesthetics isn’t just the study of what colors and styles were fashionable here or there or then; it’s the study of what, how, and why colors and styles mean certain things in all sorts of contexts. It’s the study of the political nature of art, as every thing is created within a political context, so every thing is political- even being apolitical is political, because neutrality makes way for the status quo.
I grew up in the nineties, but was exposed to lots of eighties media at the time. It left a lasting impression on my tastes for fantasy and science fiction. I was an early fan of the band The Birthday Massacre, a synth rock band that, despite NO ONE saying so, was a serious precursor to the synth wave genre, a diverse revival of eighties synth music. I tried to read Neuromancer shortly after I’d finished Once and Future King, I think, but I couldn’t get in to it. The atmosphere was lost on me, and it was boring without that. I didn’t really develop an appreciation for cyberpunk proper until after I was reintroduced to its most superficial values through synth wave music, and then through philosophy Youtube channels remarking on its cultural significance, and then through a revival of the genre in indie video games. This is how I came to realize that aesthetics not only contained political content, but that they could be deliberately and extremely political, as well as being beyond that, all-encompassing.
But, alas, the social alienation of getting this deep in subversive ideas and dead or Frankensteined culture, seeing how deep the violence of the status quo goes, realizing the political and cultural roots of mental illness, being bombarded with my alienation from my own labor every day, and my disgust with being immersed in corporate lies every day was wearing me the fuck down. I needed to work on my mental health, rebuild healthy habits, and a partner recommended Stoicism to me, particularly Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic.
In the past I might’ve looked up a dictionary definition or read the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on this thing, and/or had it come up contextually in studying Greek and Roman history. I felt like Stoicism was familiar to me already, with Seneca in hand, but I wasn’t sure why. I think before even opening this book I ordered my self a copy of The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by Donald Robertson, having certainly read the Wikipedia article on Stoicism now, and discovering CBT’s relationship with Stoicism. I read this and Seneca back to back, and realized a few things:
-Stoicism is not just a cognitive/behavioral tool; it is a life style, with pro-social instruction.
-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is just data-driven, apolitical, aesthetically and even mostly ethically neutralized Stoicism. This isn’t a comparison. The developers of CBT consciously copied Stoicism, the same way the developers of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy copied Buddhist and other Eastern philosophies in regard to mental health (also neutralized).
-Like every thing else in the postmodern era, when psychotherapy became mainstream it became a commodity, designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (who could afford it). I say appeal to, not work for.
-Good mental health can not come from talk sessions and work books and little bits of mental gymnastics. Good mental health only begins with a new set of tools. It is maintained with a holistic manner of living, a life style that better suits our needs. With the exception of conditions like brain damage or deep-end schizophrenia, therapists and prescriptions and self-reflection work sheets and meditation sessions are merely jumping-off points.
I’m not a hyper-individualist any more. I acknowledge the need for social support, how poor relationships and a bad financial state can impact mental health. I don’t really blame individuals for believing mental health is some thing that you have to buy a subscription to, because it’s a part of our nasty culture. I’m not saying it’s your fault, if you’ve been fooled, but you are the one most likely to get you out of it. Genuine social support is sadly not some thing to expect in a society where our competitive and stressful culture atomizes us. The people who do care are likely to be folks who are the most stressed, and won’t always have the energy to support all of their friends and family. Also, you can’t really give some one lasting mental health any more than you can sell it to some one, unless you count giving some one a book demonstrating a life style that is more conducive to mental health. Mental health has to come from a place we can control, which is often times only a place within our selves. Much of our suffering comes from letting out side forces shape our perception and our expectations, loading them with contradictions, values that are counter to our needs, prejudices that fill us with meaningless stress. Three simple take-aways from Stoicism (that need to be studied, not just read as three simple take-aways! This is an advertisement, not a lesson) are these:
-Figure out what you can and can not control, and stop trying to control what you can not control (many important projects can only be tackled one tiny step at a time; this tenet has been borrowed by a lot of Western traditions, and is also present in at least Eastern and African traditions as well).
-Contrast your immediate perspectives with an ‘observation from the perspective of the universe’, or ‘view from above’. In other words, put your situation in cultural context, in national context, in global context, in universal context. This not only helps minimize the urgency of your situation, but also helps you to see how most things are determined by out side forces and are not your fault.
-Stoicism is some thing you are, some thing you do every day, like eating and sleeping. It is not a treatment, not a reaction to suffering; it is a way of life.
-All things are transient, changing, finite. Do not take the ‘constants’ in your life for granted. Cherish them, and take for granted that they will all be lost some day. Discover what it means to care about people, to want to love people, not limiting your expectations of love and care to any specific individuals. All people have things in common. Discover what you are without your possessions, without your relationships. Our environments make us, but we continue to exist when removed from them. What core values remain when our out side influences are minimized?
…Would you be offended, if I told you that I did not completely adopt a Stoic way of life? Well, may be it was complete back in the Roman Republic, but it does not feel complete to me in postmodernity. Mainly, Stoicism would push you to ignore mass media, avoid the ocean of INFORMATION that dominates our present culture, but, if I want to make a difference in this world, I need to know how to interface with these things. The hyperreal is not going away, and Stoicism doesn’t have the language to talk about that.
Like the punk rock scene that formed during the death throes of modernity that it gets its name from, cyberpunk is an aesthetic as life style. It is some thing you either tour or become, and to properly study it is to become it. It was pioneered by white men, so started with some significant blind spots, but was always meant to be inclusive of all working-class people, and in fact couldn’t have driven its message home without the acknowledgement of the more obvious violence of the system against minorities. There are obvious philosophical roots to this genre, but it’s an aesthetic, so it preserves and proliferates these traditions of thought through visuals, through tones, through manners- it is an expression of its philosophical foundation.
Unlike previous forms of sci-fi, cyberpunk does not glorify the future. On its face, its utopian impulse is hidden. Cyberpunk merely accepts the future, and that a better future will require a lot of hard, violent, organized work on the bottom tier of society. If high technology is going to save us, it’s only because we’re going to steal it from the bleeding edge concealed at the heart of the megacorps, to steal it to defend our selves from it. No, the tools do not make the movement. Those in power do not exploit us and kill us out of necessity. It was never practical to do so, and they’ll continue to do so until we stop them. How can we do this? Cyberpunk’s answer is to observe the inhuman nature of the business class, and develop our own inhuman nature, a posthuman nature, a transhuman nature, that of the cyborg, a blending of social resistance and ascension from material bonds weaponized to tear down the systems of oppression. In this way being a cyborg is less about body augmentation and more about state of mind.
Cyberpunk is necessarily intersectional feminist. You can’t transcend social boundaries when you’re caught up in prejudices and fail to acknowledge difference and the misfortunes of others. Many transhumanists, who have no real philosophy and are still trapped in the messianic cage of ‘technology will save us’, simply wish to ignore social struggles, either rejecting them from the discourse aggressively or patiently waiting for them to be made obsolete by nanobots and 3D printers. Cyberpunk is necessarily existential, as it challenges what it means to be human, and demands to know where our deepest meaning comes from by trivializing our traditions of labor (many cyberpunk protagonists are criminals), life style marketing, brands, and commodities in general. Cyberpunk exposes and identifies the aspects of hyperreality and is determined to march through that nightmare with a sense of purpose.
Like Stoicism, or the neoliberal aesthetic, or religions, or white nationalist mythologies, cyberpunk is an aesthetic of cognitive mapping.
In psychology, the concept of cognitive mapping comes from studies showing that we do not create literal, exact representations, do not draw precise maps, of material space in our minds. In order to navigate our neighborhoods, the city, the country, and beyond, we don’t memorize the distance in meters from point A to point B. We don’t memorize the degrees of angles at every turn. Why would we need to know all the names and shapes of the mountains and plains between one air port and an other in order to ride in a plane to traverse them? In stead of holding in memory one to one copies of our environment in order to get around, we develop maps of meaning. They’re relational maps consisting of personally significant land marks, essentially stories as opposed to what we’d commonly think of as maps. Even when drawing a map for some one else on paper (when was the last time you did that?), you don’t necessarily draw every single cross street, and certainly don’t draw a rectangle to represent every building, and you don’t need to. The whole route can be represented by a few street signs and ‘left’ or ‘right’.
Seems reasonable enough even without the studies, since we all do it, but guess what. We map out our whole lives that way, spatially, temporally, socially, economically, every thing. Our pictures of the world in our minds are just a mess of meaningful icons, landmarks of relationship, like a book of parables that explains our lives. It absolutely does not have to be accurate in order to help us navigate, but low accuracy concerning social matters, you’ll find, leads to cognitive dissonance due to contradiction between our maps and material reality, a contradiction between sensation and perception, as it were, and cognitive dissonance leads to stress, and stress to mental illness.
Cognitive maps aren’t bad. I’m not making an argument for the abolition of this process; that would be both detrimental and impossible. The problem is that, if we’re not deliberately, consciously making our own map, some one else is doing it for us. In my case, that some one is neoliberal capitalism, immersing me in the neoliberal aesthetic map, which is more like a labyrinth than a map: no matter what progress you make in a labyrinth, you never feel like you’re going any where. You are always lost. You are always disoriented. Labyrinths, traditionally, are prisons, and neoliberalism, a map of exchange values linking commodities, social currency, pseudo-democracy, oppression as liberation, like The Matrix, is a prison for your mind.
The neoliberal map is home to endless internal contradictions, and religions have plenty, and are incomplete- which is why, in the West, religion is paired with neoliberalism, creating even worse contradictions (Jesus and competition don’t mix). Per haps this is why right-wingers here are so distraught, why religious white nationalists are so angry and violent: their maps are at war with their selves and reality at once. But we don’t have to start from scratch. The West has Stoicism; the East has orthodox Buddhist philosophy (please don’t select a brand that maintains the caste system); there are plenty of other old ‘wisdom traditions’ that I’m less familiar with that are likely useful, and we have cyberpunk. Fredric Jameson, the one who came up with this idea of cognitive mapping aesthetics, claimed that cyberpunk failed, because the people did not embrace it, and it has been appropriated by capital, neutralized in to the forms of post-cyberpunk and eighties nostalgia. Well, if that’s true, then socialism has also failed, since the people abandoned it and capital salvaged it in the forms of democratic socialism and social democracy. I believe that cyberpunk is still useful, can be recovered, détourned, but if it’s incomplete because it’s not sexy enough to suck in the masses, by all means, create some thing new. Vapor wave? Is vapor wave gonna be the new vehicle for a hybrid Stoic/cyberpunk aesthetic, what with the Roman sculptures and the empty malls?
In any case, adopting a mix of Stoic and cyberpunk mapping has dramatically enhanced my mental health. Sure, I’ve only a few people to share this with, but what it lacks in social connectedness it makes up for in reality connectedness. What I mean by this is that, while cyberpunk and Stoicism alienate me further from those with rigid neoliberal maps (we don’t even see the same world), they harmonize me with reality. Whether good or bad, I am able to accept what is happening around me, and I have a new intimacy with time and space, via a deep understanding of what is happening, what has happened, and why. I am out of the maze-like cave. I know where I stand. I am no longer lost.
Part 11: Home
So that’s the ‘orienting impulse’ of a good cognitive map, but Fredric Jameson said there also had to be a ‘utopian impulse’. I need to orient my self in relationship with the future as well, have hopes, envision where we ought to go from here. But how, when the present and the past look so bleak? Cyberpunk is a dark aesthetic; it is an immersion in the pain and the horror of it all, it is risking its own sanity by gazing long in to the abyss. I’ve been no stranger to the darkness. I used to live a life of nightmares, delusion, and hallucination. I’ve tasted addiction to aggression, obsession with revenge, and spent years desensitized to brutality and gore. After a trip through postmodern-era liberalism I’ve learned that you have to fight aggression with strength, so what room is there for thinking about a kinder, gentler future?
Part of my inspiration for a better world comes from my engagement with the schizophrenia spectrum, actually. In my tremendously vivid dreams during that time I experienced tremendous emotions, and an intense sense of belonging. A connectedness that per haps can only exist in a world all your own, a realm of the mind, a connectedness that Fyodor Dostoevsky called simply ‘loving-kindness’. Then comes my study and practice of compassion, with roots in all ancient cultures. Next comes the leftist concept of camaraderie, of worker unity, bonding over common, primal interests. Then comes the strange parasocial ability of the human brain to ‘sense presence’, triggered by intense social experiences of unity (or by electrode), and is speculated to be responsible for evoking a feeling that a connecting consciousness is present, or god. Our brains are wired for unification, cooperation, and care to the point that they some times feels magical to us. Divinity is just a fancy word for coherent society, it would seem! And do you remember your childhood romanticism? Were you fortunate enough to know what I’m talking about? That sense of endless wonder, before your mind was touched by the structures of division? Some people call losing that ‘maturity’, but I call it ‘romantic suicide’. I’m not the right person to ask about the universal connectedness felt through psychedelic trips, but that’s basically just pressing buttons that the human mind already has. Finally, we are capable of creating art that evokes all of these sensations to some degree- for me, personally, a superb sense of belonging will most likely come from what I refer to as the ‘tender fanfare’, such as many of Avantasia’s songs (like Promised Land and Let the Storm Descend Upon You), Mike Oldfield’s Heaven’s Open, Mägo de Oz’s Mi Hogar Eres Tú, and Battle Beast’s World On Fire (sorry all my examples are guitar music; I listen to tons of trance and hard core dance music that presents the correct feeling too, but my memory is hazy on those titles). I’ve read utopian science fiction, politically, historically, economically informed utopian science fiction. I know what I’m looking for.
When I longed for that feeling of perfect belonging in my dreams to return to me, I said it felt like a yearning to return home. That’s what I think this is, going home, in a way going back to our foundational nature as social animals. If only just one part of the real is still accessible to us, this is the part of the real that we must recover. Imagine a world where we trust strangers, where loving casually and loving intensely can be the same thing. Where there’s no calculus of exchange to manage in every situation. Where society is ordered to benefit human needs, including the social and intellectual, first and foremost. Where, when we sacrifice, it is for the sake of compassion. A world where every where you go, you’re coming Home.
…Or some one is, any way. An other important aspect of both Stoicism and cyberpunk is a fearlessness of death, and in cyberpunk specifically a sense of revolutionary suicide. I’m sorry, but the last bit of individualism that we have to shed is the reluctance to die for a cause, or at least to fight for a world that will not be realized in our life times. The object is to fight for the existence of Home, not for the possession of Home. If we fight to personally grasp it, locked in our individual desires, we will despair at every sign of delay, and we will fail. When I say ‘we’ I don’t mean you and me and the person in the next room; I mean ‘the people’, present and future.
I used to think of transcendence as a personal matter, as a thing I was equipped to do, to escape society and the natural laws. Now I understand that the greatest transcendence can only be done together, as a species, to realize Home. And on the matter of revolutionary suicide, why not think as the Stoics do, that death is a release? You fight hard, you die, you’ve earned that release. And death is always a communal thing. No matter when you die, no matter how fierce the conflict is, there are always dozens of others sharing in your experience as you go: every minute, approximately one hundred six people die, being freed from the earth. And those dying with you, who are still dying after your last moment, become dead as others slip away, who share the experience with others who last just moments longer, and so on. In this way, we all die together. And before that we all struggle together, sharing in the pain of slavery to hegemony. Our lives are all interconnected, cooperation or not; it is not that we must find each other. We all have some idea of some aspect of what Home is, and we all know what death is, and we all know what it feels like to resist power in some way. We can’t think of abandoning the toxic cognitive maps drawn for us by invisible hands as turning away from society, but as embracing the parts in all of us that we share, the parts that are human, so that we can appreciate the connection we have with people that still do not see what we see as we learn to show them, and beyond that…
Ah, fuck it. This wasn’t intended to be a motivational speech, and I’ma stop trying. Hopefully it’s easier to understand where I’m coming from in my other posts after reading this. If not, fuck, read a god damned book. No body’s payin’ me to do this shit.
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