Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Reacting to the Reactionaries: Racism and The Dark Enlightenment

Being the experienced road-warrior of the information highway I am certain you are, dear reader, you’ve probable come across a peculiar online meta-movement known as ‘The Dark Enlightenment.’ If you haven’t been introduced, allow me the honours. The Dark Enlightenment isn’t a political party or a front or even an organisation, it’s a loose collection of ideas and ideologues, self-described as ‘neo-reactionary’, a somewhat paradoxical turn of phrase, to be sure. It is very difficult to define The Dark Enlightenment (though here is an attempt to define its underlying features by a neo-reactionary) but, broadly speaking, they tend to be defined by their:
  •     Rejection of universalism and egalitarianism.
  •          Preference for particularist politics over universalist politics (that is, they ‘accept’ that different people flourish under different forms of government, such as, but not limited to: monarchy, aristocracy, ‘a limited form of politea’ or a corporate-state.
  •          Rejection of democracy as, at best, a dangerous sham.
  •          Belief in the importance of ‘Human Biodiversity’ (HBD).
  •          Tendency towards libertarian economics.
  •          A surprising intellectual streak (these aren’t your run-of-the-mill neo-Nazi thugs).
  •          Insistence on realism.

And much more besides...
Though the movements ideological genealogy can be largely traced back to one 'Mencius Moldbug' the phrase ‘The Dark Enlightenment’ itself is an invention of rogue philosopher Nick Land (I advise the reader to cast their eyes over Land’s original manifesto, as well as his previous essays- as much as you might disagree with what he has to say, one cannot deny that he is an interesting thinker, however misguided). Largely, TDE want to see a return to ‘traditional’ societies, while often also embracing modern technology (‘archeo-futurism’ is the rather pleasing expression they use), on the insistence that these forms of hierarchical, if not outright feudal, societies are the most natural expressions of humanity. They emphasise the differences between human beings, particularly as these manifest between ‘races,’ and their opposition to the present, modernist world-order, ‘The Cathedral.’

This post won’t be a general critique of TDE, as such a thing is far beyond my powers (though another's attempt at that can be found here), rather, I am going to ask one question, focusing on a particular issue.

Should we talk to them about ‘race’?


When it comes to race and ethnicity, TDE insists that it is simply being ‘realistic.’ We accept that genetics play a role in the development of every other species, so why not also our own? This perspective, which they call ‘Human Biodiversity,’ or HBD, holds that racial differences between human beings is more than just skin deep. Rather, different types of human being have evolved, and this is reflected by their societies. For example, Middle Eastern societies tend to be organised along tribal principles. Societies in the Far East tend to be very focused on homogeneity and obedience, while in the West competition and individuality are held in high esteem, and so on.

Why are we so insistent that heredity doesn’t play a role in the diversity of these societies? Why do we insist that the only origin of social difference is culture, choice, and perhaps fate/chance? At most, we might be willing to admit that environment and even climate might play a role, but why are we so afraid that inherited, genetic differences might cause a certain ethnic group to favour individualism, while another will favour the family?

Such are the questions that they ask.

Now, perhaps with clenched fists and through gritted teeth, we do have to admit that we cannot reject the possibility that heredity plays some role in social diversity out of hand, however difficult that is to say. I ask the reader to look over that sentence once more before they continue, to be sure that they understood what I am saying here. I am not saying they are right, nor that ‘progressives’ are wrong. I am merely admitting that, yes, strictly speaking we cannot reject the possibility that heredity is a non-negligible factor in societal development a priori.

I will grant them this, they are entirely right to say that we live in a society where people feel ‘uncomfortable’ when discussing race, even in abstracted forms…

As I said above, TDE insist that they are being scientific about the question of race. And…well, they’re not. They’re just not. I will admit that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that we haven’t paid enough attention to genetics when it comes to human development on a macro-social scale, and a more thorough social science, which includes a look at heredity, might be desirable. But, for the most part, neo-reactionaries seem to just use the claim that ‘traditional societies where right about some stuff’ and 'we need to have a proper debate about race-realism' to, very conveniently, justify their own prejudices. Indeed, there is a vast difference between admitting the possible importance of heredity and then insisting that it primarily manifests racially (and sexually, we must not forget the often outright misogyny of this movement!).

However, an interesting opportunity might have been inadvertently presented to us here: like I said, TDE claim to be scientific, and put a great deal of statistics forward to back this claim up. Their interpretations are dubious at best, which suggests that if we, deploying a rational and more truly scientific apparatus than theirs, were to confront them with overwhelming facts to the contrary (even if we do, under the weight of incontrovertible evidence, end up accepting that we’ve underestimated the role of heredity, it hardly means that no other factor is important, nor is it say that it would even be the most important developmental factor), wouldn’t they have to accept this? 

I like to think that, in such a situation, at least some of the more sophisticated neo-reactionaries would relent to the contrary point, the more intellectually honest ones at least. But, it would most likely be a lost cause. As I’ve said, for the most part, I imagine that many of them had already made up their minds about race and gender long before Moldbug and Land appeared on the scene.
This, then, begs another question: should we talk to them at all?

Do we run the risk of tacitly legitimising a view point when we agree to debate with it? Consider climate change: the evidence that human activity is the primary driver of present climatological changes is overwhelming. And yet, we see an odd insistence by the media, particularly but not exclusively in America, that we should treat this as a ‘debate’ of some kind. In so doing, we run the risk of making the opposition lobby look respectable.
There is a serious point here. Moldbug made a comment about white supremacists that could be well used to describe TDE itself: ‘I can imagine one possibility which might make white nationalism genuinely dangerous. White nationalism would be dangerous if there was some issue on which white nationalists were right, and everyone else was wrong. Truth is always dangerous. Contrary to common belief, it does not always prevail. But it’s always a bad idea to turn your back on it. …While the evidence for human cognitive biodiversity is indeed debatable, what’s not debatable is that it is debatable …[even though] everyone who is not a white nationalist has spent the last 50 years informing us that it is not debatable …’ (Land’s own edits)
How do we deal with this? If we attempt to have a ‘serious discussion about HBD’ with them in order to prove them wrong, we might make them seem credible by agreeing to the debate at all. On the other hand, what if we do the opposite? What if we ignore them, or even make a point of our refusal to co-operate with them? What happens here? Arguably, we run the same risk as before: tacitly legitimising a view point, but what is even worse is that by insisting that it remain unacknowledged we make it look subversive.

A few years ago, in the UK, we were all rather worried by the British National Party (BNP), a far-right party who were suddenly doing quite well, not enough for them to have a serious chance of seeing an MP in the Commons, but the presence of three members of the BNP in the European Parliament certainly spooked the left, centre and right. Things died down, the BNP has again faded into obscurity (and now we’re all deathly worried by the bizarre spectacle that is the United Kingdom Independence Party, but I digress), but that wasn’t before their party Leader, Nick Griffin, appeared on the flagship debate programme Question Time. Things didn’t go too well for him, but that to one side, should he have been allowed on there at all? Didn't his inclusion suggest that he had something to say...?

Žižek, with his usual panache, makes a good point here. Isn’t it a little worrying that we are even considering having a conversation about ‘race-realism’ again? Of course, you might respond to this by pointing out that TDE isn’t exactly well known, but it is still worrying that a group who openly argue in favour of concepts of racial hierarchy and inequality are beginning to come across as even slightly respectable, particularly when we find ourselves being forced to concede them points, even if they are largely only academic. The point, however, is not confined to the neo-reactionaries alone, it is something that all of us who are politically aware must consider: how do we respond to the Fascists today? Do we ignore them, and hope they burn themselves out, or do we confront them and run the risk of rendering them respectable?

Perhaps, more properly: do we dare to ignore them? 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

'Locked In?' Morality and Destiny in 'Locke'

            I recently had the veritable pleasure of watching Tom Hardy in a car doing an extended impression of Anthony Hopkins. Slightly unconvincing Welsh accents aside, Locke (dir. Steven Knight) was possibly the best film I’ve seen at the cinema all year, and Tom Hardy’s screen presence was engrossing, as was the simply beautiful cinematography. But, me being me, I did spend much of the film and the crème de menthe accompanied conversation afterwards considering the philosophical themes present.

            Hardy, who is the only character we see on screen, plays Ivan Locke, a ‘concrete farmer,’ a builder who specialises in laying foundations. He has just finished work the night before a major consignment of concrete is due to arrive, with which he is to lay the foundations for a new skyscraper. However, our hero made an error of judgement some months ago and got a woman named Bethen (voiced by the ever-delightful Olivia Colman in their phone conversations) pregnant. Trouble is, he already has a wife, and Bethen has just gone into premature labour before he is able to tell her what has happened. An interesting point of discussion might be whether-or-not he ever intended to tell her, we do only have his word on this, but perhaps we should leave that question to one side.

            Locke is one of the most fiercely moral characters I can recall ever seeing on the film screen. We might, perhaps, begin to think of the noble heroes of many fine and entertaining films, risking everything for the sake of right, but Ivan Locke is just a man, a normal man. He has a wife, a job and two kids. He has the air of the everyman about him. This is where his power as a character lies, his utterly ordinary life and personality mingled with an extraordinary sense of morality and duty.

            The film follows Locke’s conversations over the phone in his car, as well as slightly badly judged conversations with the imaginary ghost of his late father (these asides, though essential in many ways, could have been handled better in my humble opinion). Over the phone, he is simultaneously attempting to hold his family together while breaking to his wife the news of his sole infidelity (again, we only have his word for this but I am inclined to believe him…call me gullible), organising his work team to be in a position to deal with the approaching consignment of concrete, and reassuring the mother of his illegitimate child that he’ll be there as soon as he can be.

            And, in so doing, he more-or-less ruins his life. His wife tells him he isn’t welcome back home and, because he has abandoned them when they need him the most (it will be the largest non-military or nuclear concrete delivery in Europe), he gets the sack.

            I feel that there are two principle questions to be asked about the character of Locke:

1.      Is this a spontaneous ethical act or simply a reaction?

2.      Is this the right thing to do, and if so, why?

Originally, I was also going to address a third question, ‘Is Locke simply a narcissist?’ but, as this post has already trundled on past the 1,300 word mark, that might be left for another time.


            Throughout, Locke is struggling with freedom and destiny. We learn through his imaginary conversations with his father that he himself is illegitimate, that he was unwanted by his father (who he never even met until he was in his 20s). This begs the question- is Locke’s single-minded, uncompromising determination to see right by this woman and their child an authentic (used in the existential sense) act or is he just being propelled by the sins of his father? Or, more properly, by an overwhelming desire to prove to the world that he is not his father? He certainly makes a point of how much he wishes that he could show his father how unlike him he is, telling his wife that he is doing exactly the opposite of what his own father did, making sure that he is there to deal with his ‘fuck up,’ as he puts it. Wording it in such a way certainly suggests that he has little affection for the potential child, but having an appropriate emotional response is not the entirety of the ethical act.

            All this being said, however, we need not necessarily view Locke as simply reacting to the ghosts of his past, entirely motivated by outside agency (‘fallen’, to use Heidegger’s turn of phrase); rather, we can read his actions as being a transcendental ethical act, in which he risks everything to do the right thing because he has first-hand experience of how damaging doing wrong in this situation is. At one point he tells one of his co-workers about the importance of ensuring that the right kind of concrete is used in the foundation, as a flaw at the beginning of the structure will become a flaw with the whole thing: the parallels here ought to be obvious to the reader.


            Locke has found himself in an impossible position. His ethical duties are pulling him in a variety of different directions, and it is going to be a tremendous amount of work to satisfy the demands that the Good is making on him. He must, simultaneously, do right by: his wife, his unwanted child and his employers (perhaps, more properly, his co-workers). The most frequent ethical act we see Locke engaging in is his almost naïve honesty (he seems virtually unaware of the difference between telling his wife he had sex with another woman and telling her that it isn’t a road closure he’s arranging for work, but a ‘stop-and-go’!); he insists on telling people the truth to an almost absurd degree. For example, when Bethen asks him if he loves her he responds by saying ‘No, how can I? I don’t know you.’ Interestingly, he gives this same response when she asks if he hates her…

            Does he do the right thing?

            I would argue that what needs to be recognised is that he is in a situation where no action can satisfy all parties. Every course of action he can take is ultimately going to result in someone being harmed: if he goes home to watch the footy with his sons and wife, and goes to work the next day, he has let down a woman he did wrong by (though he frequently tells us that he only slept with her out of pity, itself an at least ethically ambiguous action) and a child he is responsible for. In this regard, the film resembles the often-marched-out thought experiments of moral philosophy lectures. ‘If pulling the lever dooms one man but saves three, ought I do it?’ The simplistic answer the baser Utilitarians offer us (although, I’m not sure I’ve ever met one who was entirely comfortable with answering such a question, which I personally take as a good sign for their ethical development) is that ‘Yes, in such a situation the right thing to do is to end the life of one to save the lives of many.’

            That we express discomfort at this formula is evidence enough that treating moral issues in such a simplistic way is at least an incomplete approach, or that it warrants further discussion if nothing else (I reiterate my point that I have doubts that any morally-healthy adult would be wholly comfortable with the ‘logical’ solution, but that opens a whole new can of philosophical worms…), though that is not say that the hedonic calculus ought never to be deployed. However, I fear we are digressing from the topic at hand. This is a glorified film review, not a Prolegomena to Any Future Moral Philosophy.

            I do not have an answer to the question ‘Does Locke do the right thing?’, and I don’t believe that an answer is actually available for that question. Morality is not a matter of reducing situations to easily quantifiable pleasure-pain ratios. That Locke causes more people immediate grief than he would if he had ignored Bethen is simply not the end of the story here (nor is it when we start talking about long-term felicity, the actions of the agent in the moment warrant the attention of the philosopher). There are moral demands made upon us by life, in all its sticky, smelly, messy ambiguity, than any single ethical theory is ever likely to render as a simple formula. Locke as a film might be spoken of as being about the impossibility of the purely ‘right’ action, and this is its philosophical interest and importance.


Thursday, 8 May 2014

Polemical Thoughts on 'Look Up'

It is an assumption in some quarters that one must either be fully supportive or completely condemnatory of technology, with very little room left for the middle ground. One either hears the incessant songs of individuals and corporations lauding technology in a quasi-messianic form, or one hears the equally incessant songs of those who condemn technology as demonic. Why must we only deal with absolutes and extremes? Is there room for a critique that falls between condemnation and celebration?

My motivation for writing this piece comes from the video Look Up, and thus will focus on social media.

Now this is, ultimately, a harmless triviality (we shan’t dwell on the obvious irony of a video that condemns social media out-of-hand becoming widely watched due to that very technology), but it is emblematic of a deeper and far more worrying trend: it often seems that the only people willing to engage in critiques of technology and modernity are fools or, perhaps worse, outright reactionaries.
‘All distances in time and space are shrinking. Places that a person previously reached after weeks and months on the road are now reached by airplane overnight. What a person previously received news of only after years, if at all, is now experienced hourly over the radio in no time. The germination and flourishing of plants that remained concealed through the seasons, film now exhibits in a single minute. Film shows the distant cities of the most ancient civilisations as if they stood as this very moment amidst today’s street traffic.’ –Martin Heidegger
         We might add to this: ‘And now information technology allows for people with whom we would never speak ready access to our lives, to retain connections that would be otherwise sundered, and to engage with and experience cultures on the far side of the world.’

            At a first glance, the above might seem to be an unambiguous praise of the miracles of technology, but we must not let ourselves be deceived: Heidegger’s relationship with technology is most certainly not one of ready praise, it is one of suspicion…but not outright hostility either. In his own words: ‘Technology is not demonic, but its essence is mysterious.’ [own emphasis] The spirit of this expression may, perhaps, be expounded as follows: we are as mistaken in assuming that technology is out-right evil as we are that it will save the world. There are, of course, subtleties to this statement that are lost by my literalising paraphrase (to borrow an expression from Graham Harman), and I advise the reader to find a copy of Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology to appreciate what is meant by both ‘technology’ and ‘essence,’ but for our immediate purposes, we can read the above loosely.
            Before we continue with the more abstract points, let us first discuss the video itself. Questions of its quality aside (personally, I found it laughably trite and obvious), what are the main points to extract here? That social media technology has forced us apart under the guise of bringing us together, that we have lost the simple relationship of the face-to-face and the spontaneity of meeting new people. Now, as is often the case, there is partial truth to all these points (there’s partial truth to most points).

            We should not disguise the problems that social media (or any form of technology) creates, this much is obvious. But, neither must we try and hide from the benefits it provides. I will here direct the reader to this excellent article for a similar discussion of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of modernity.

            Of course, social media now means that instead of going out and speaking with one’s friends it is now an option to simply send them a Facebook message. It is also an option to use Facebook to arrange to meet them face-to-face. Both of these options are always available to us. Facebook hasn’t killed personal relationships, though I would not say that it has necessarily enhanced them either. Rather, it has given us access to new forms of relationships which were previously impossible. I can, do, and hope to continue to maintain relationships with people I care about using social media. I have had friendships begin thanks to this new form of technology. You might respond: ‘Well, you could always write letters to your friends, or phone them, if you want to continue these relationships afar!’

           It is, of course, not a case of saying that all the ‘net has done is allow for a more efficient form of communication than the post, as no form of technology is ‘neutral’ in that way. But the fact of the matter is, as put very well in the article mentioned above, thanks to social media relationships that would have been impossible beforehand are now readily available to be explored. No, having a friend you’ve never met in person, who you know from a forum or a Facebook group, is not the same thing as having a pen-pal you’ve never met, but that is not to say that it is therefore of less worth. It is of different worth, of different value.

            The real problem, and this is what the video is touching on but fails to properly engage with (drowning its point in sentiment and bad poetry), is that we might lose forms of relationship that we had previously, forms of relationship that we ought to protect. The danger that technology poses for Heidegger, and I am inclined to agree with him here, is that the mind-set that technology (here understood to include also science- again, I recommend you read his essay on the subject) conceals from us other potential ways of revealing the world and other people. It shuts off old forms of relationship even as it opens the way to new ones.

            We must, however, remember that Heidegger tells us that the essence of technology is not demonic but mysterious. The last words on what technology means for us are still yet to be uttered.

            And a viral video on YouTube most certainly won’t help us venture closer to them.