In the 21st century we must always be looking back to Debord.
“Theory” dies on twitter. Theory dies in the media, in town halls, theory even dies in academic journals and well-meaning zines, theory dies in the kaleidoscopic churn of the Spectacle. Of course this text is part of that too, any writing that I might do at all is part of this mass of content, of exposition essentially defused–but that is the problem that philosophy is for, really, to settle the should-I-shouldn’t-I score that our uncertainty finds at the convergence of critique when it inevitably, in this poststructuralist era, turns back on itself, paralyzes itself. Hegel already recognized this as the structure of consciousness itself, this prehension of negativity. This depthless insecurity and anxiety about the validity, relevance, and practicality of our knowledge comes along against the backdrop of a wider picture of deteriorating social practice.
Theory rehabilitation then is a means of opposing the recuperating automata of an alienating capitalist social space by means of clarity, concision, and extension. The last of these involves the adaptation and evolution of a given theory to compete with both its most contemporaneous critics and also–significantly–its own empty doppelgangers in the discursive environment.
Why does theory rehab matter?
Let’s take an explicit practical example. While he may be stuck somewhere between being a genuinely erudite philosopher, a vaguely interesting science-fiction author, and a problematic quack, no one can claim that Nick Land isn’t one of the most effective contemporary philosophers in a socially instrumental sense. If you raised a skeptical eyebrow when you learned what “hyperstition” is supposed to mean, maybe it’s time to take a look at the burgeoning subculture of anti-humanist reactionary libertarians that has emerged from the aesthetic and narrativized ideas about technology, philosophy, and the future he popularized in the late 90s. You don’t have to be a household name (although he is doubtless edging toward that status) to have a marked cultural impact, just a good sense of positioning, some tactical thinking. The man understands the art of making a cult, and not only that but he understands what such a cult might be in this age of profusion, decentralization, and dissemination. In this case, a memetic scourge. Niche? Perhaps. Influential? Unequivocally.
Land makes a good example because he isn’t just a shallow grifter, although those individuals are very much to be prey in this undertaking of rehabilitation. The reason I’m talking here about Land rather than someone with more reach in the mainstream, such as, say, Jordan Peterson, is that Peterson’s arguments are ultimately weak, in fact I would argue that his influence has already started deteriorating due to the theoretical fragility of his whole ideological edifice. As Ray Brassier puts it with regard to Land’s arguments: “no matter how much one might detest their rhetorical animus etcetera etcetera it’s not enough to simply dismiss them as kind of a puerile, indulgent hyper-nietzscheanism, it’s far more sophisticated than that…” Land is an ideologue, but he’s not stupid. Consider how wildly popular Deleuze & Guattari have proven to be, due in large part to the intuitively aesthetic appeal of their ideas. D&G are as open to interpretation as anyone (arguably moreso than most canonical 20th century thinkers) and it is very much their theoretical failures that opened the door to the Landian development of Deleuzo-Guattarian philosophy, because frankly it’s a coherent interpretation, and more to the point it’s an extremely attractive one in our cultural and aesthetic paradigm. Who among us did not grow up with fantasies of our own cybernetic apotheosis, of techno-utopian ambitions, our elevation to some sublime trans-humanity? The fact is, Nick Land is increasingly famous and Sadie Plant is not.
This is in many ways the central problem that brings into play this idea of active rehabilitation. Ultimately D&G’s well-meaning attempt to reformulate and advance our understanding of modern capitalism led not to a dead end (quite the contrary) but to a paradigm that proved very easy to recuperate–in this case in a quite complex and spectacular fashion, since it isn’t just the natural de-rigorization of their program–in a social space that wants to identify with it and turn it to vain ends–but even a formal advancement of their entire system to explicitly advocate for radically pro–dystopian techno-capitalism. If hyperstition was merely a pseudoacademic joke, I imagine there would be far fewer intelligent and articulate millennial and zoomer-aged people advocating for ethnonationalism. Many of these people present apparently sound arguments, have a cultural fluency typified by the layered, purposefully ambiguous and ultimately self-serving ironic, metasatirical modes that this advanced stage of the Spectacle produces, and in spite of their questionable philosophical views, most of them are ethically normative humans in practice if not in theory. Many of them got to where they are precisely by an initially rational reaction to the neurotic and anti-intellectual moral authoritarianism they found among the left. To dismiss them and their arguments out of hand is to surrender. Uncommitted neoliberals and centrists, and, more to the point, people in various stages of intellectual development with increasingly malleable ideological self-conceptions are blossoming in these spaces, watching this stuff unfold.
Theory rehab’s goal is not to oppose the artful propaganda of people like Land with counter-propaganda (although that is absolutely a valuable tactic, and I’ll credit Jeff Vandermeer, Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway, and Timothy Morton here among others). Theory rehab means to do two things:
– Argue for the value of theory in general against the cynicism (particularly that of the radical left) that takes it to be in some substantial sense elitist, authoritarian, and thus useless.
– Interpreting succinctly the meaning, rigor, and practical implications of theories that have been denatured by their own popularity.
– Attempting in some fashion to systematize this body of knowledge so as to make it more holistically intelligible and perhaps, in some way, a bit more practiceable.
Ultimately the goal of any late modern Marxist movement must be to reestablish rigorous discursive practice among progressive-minded individuals in the actuality of capitalist discourse. Given the almost-certain impossibility of mass-scale organizing associated with traditional vanguardist marxism, at least in the current social paradigm, what is necessary is the optimization of a decentralized progressive/left cultural sphere in the interest of emphasizing education, good-faith discourse, stronger argumentation, better rhetoric, and so on. In my gleeful fantasyland this has the side effect of actualizing the kind of protean consensus that might do the work of a ‘postmodern’ democratic centralism, converging motivated individuals on a collective promethean undertaking with praxical consequences. Believe me when I say I am reflexively suspicious of all this glitzy talk and overly ambitious rhetoric. Yet here I am, writing this stuff. We must all generate our own reasons to participate. I think Hegel helps.
In a sense this is really a thrust against the kind of populist progressivism (and often apocalypticism) that exists from the center to the radical far left, typified by righteousness and a general lack of self-awareness in its own reactionary theodicy. There has been a general trend since the brutal critiques of the previous century exemplified by Adorno, Jameson, Lyotard, and Debord to essentially give up the intellectual, practical high ground in favor of the moral, and, often, ineffable. This is an untenable approach. Especially when it comes to individuals like Land, Peter Sloterdijk, or–in a different and perhaps more significant way–Peter Thiel. Their manifest amorality, however central it may be to their worldview, is simply not a weakness in the logic of their arguments. We know this, yet we seem unsure how to navigate between errantly validating problematic points of view by engaging with them (which does apply to obviously shallow or naïve reactionary arguments) or admitting to their logical durability by refusing to: their arguments have to be engaged more systematically, in an effort to universalize the opposing conclusions. It’s true that many reactionary arguments are naïve and thinly coherent, and it’s true that those arguments survive only by their tenacity rather than their efficacy–these kinds of arguments should be brushed aside. But to do that we have to be able to effectively (even intuitively) discern between a coherent argument and an incoherent one to begin with. Ultimately the variegated primitivism, luddism, millenarian chaos-fetishization, and the often naïve and self-serving conception of egoist anarchism we see pervasive throughout leftist discourse all end up revealing themselves as a surrender to the normativity and pathologies of capitalism and capitalist logic, typified by Land’s Darwinian realism. There is a nihilistic vanity at play that is entirely at odds with the values and objectives of the socialist project.
The last century was full of confusedly utopian gestures that failed to provide a strong foothold for scientific marxism in the ideological arena of the 21st century. If there is a lesson to be taken from the SI and Paris circa ’68 it is that intellectualism both actualizes revolutionary potential and defuses it’s proliferation beyond the reflexively elitist circles it creates in our presently identitarian paradigm. What is necessary then is a breakdown of the boundaries of these circles by further systematizing theory in such a way that its rigor can be embedded in its simplification, by re-establishing critical discourse and education as an immanent feature of leftist sociality, in a manner that is neither academic nor blasé. It is the dissolution of the academy into culture itself, rather than the separation of proletarian ideology from the institutional academy. It is ultimately a pedagogical task that is as much about individual self-improvement as it is about culture, intelligence, and solidarity. Self-improvement is genuinely apolitical, and that is important.
These ‘theory rehab’ posts will be an experiment in providing highly paraphrased–thus reductive, thus succinct–documents relating to key topics in critical theory, leftist thought, and philosophy more generally. My hope is that these summaries will evoke a certain kind of intuitive appeal to people who perhaps already see them at work in society, conceive of them materially, in what they see in their day-to-day lives, that these condensed interpretations of mine might help to make intelligible the value of the ideas against the interminable backdrop of neurotic irony and self-doubt, and that this appeal will drive the further work of autodidactic practice capable of banishing the naiveté endemic to such simplified representations of the concepts represented. It is the nature of this era that surface level knowledge of almost any subject is readily available–I know I’m not the only one who spends a non-trivial amount of time on wikipedia, marxists.org, bopsecrets.org, stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, or various forums and discords–the question is finding the specific material that drives our emergent desire to learn more, to do the work involved in gathering more detailed, nuanced, and practical knowledge that lies beyond the vanity our intellects are often made to serve in this troubled time.