Elitism

I.

The outstanding problem of civilization is the hoi polloi. As many other matters that interest us, civilization is an axiological affair. It affirms that certain things are valuable (for example, science) and exposes the valuable means (scientific method) of producing valuable things (scientific works). But (again, for example) science is not locum suum: it must be produced somewhere and by something. The alchemy of systems theory is that these are described as the same process and the same thing. But this only dislocates the problem of material causability to the setting (both more abstract and more concrete) where it interacts with the general conditions that make it causable. It is in this setting that the hoi polloi appears as an axiological concern: not everyone who shares in the higher-level axiologies (that produce the quability conditions of science) is able to understand science. The higher-level axiologies are quability conditions on the higher-level chrematistics: no science, no antibiotics. But what links one and the other is obscure, and quability needs to deploy a whole lot of obscurantism (priestly robes, institutions) to keep chrematistics working. All of this is true of art, religion, philosophy, museums.

All of this is also neatly genericizable. Systems theory exposes the quability conditions on quability conditions, generically. For in every example referred or alluded to above, systems theory enables the “switcheroo” between (force of) causability and (constraints on) quability. This does not solve the problem of the hoi polloi at all, but it hints at the radical transform (the image I want to evoke is the Laplace transform, but maybe the best analogy is a change of measure) on actual ongoing affairs that is needed in order for elitism to function. The closest we have to a clear program is: theory is the theory of generic structure. But to become operational, theory must present the technical means for reparameterizing (much like the Laplace transform exchanges time for interest rates) the symbolic deadlocks that prevent us from otherwise speaking of values frankly.

If, following standard conservative theory, politics has to do with the edges that separate friend from foe, the symbolic deadlock has to do with political identification. If, as in standard liberal (details vary) theory, politics has to do with the structure that society consents to structure itself, then political identification is universal. Identification is a judgement with subject and object: I judge mr. Moldbug to be somewhat right of center; some may think otherwise. But our basic tools for surving the contractarian crush — experienced firsthand in every country that sees regular regime changes, from France to Brazil — have all to do with the flattening of identification: thus I will claim to be a revolutionary even if my text often has a reactionary mouthfeel. More simply put: to survive the pending contractarian crush, one must harden an identity that spans at least some of your habitual territory. Thereafter the identity does the speaking for us. Of course, this is where they squeeze you for cash: if you’re an American who made a point of prioritizing the melioration of the “Black condition”, then mr. Ibram has got your tongue. Worse yet, if as a first-worlder you’ve had too much of a conscience for the bitter fruit of colonization, you get a deracinated version of American antiracism. This is the point where Edinburgh renames its David Hume college building after possible-overdose-victim George Floyd.

I have nothing to say about a particular incident like this: you already know how to feel. I know how I feel — but that’s not theory. And I’m a theorist; I deal in theory.

II.

“Woke” is fundamentally a feeling. Good old /r/atheism was naive enough to say as much in their “… and in this moment I’m euphoric” declaration. One could add the qualification that the feeling of woke has to do with being euphoric at social injustice (therefore the apparent manifestation of euphoria as rage), but this seems accidental at best. Surely, manifestations of woke that echo the standard Left scenarios will more easily seep through the institutional fabric on which elitism is deployed, but ratheism is counter-evidence to the identification of woke with its overt claims. Remember, ratheists at one point were suing for the material manifestation of their claim to relevance (by removing religious imagery from public buildings). If they did so through the tortuous circuitry of the courts, it’s not because they didn’t feel justified to go ahead and take religious statues down on their own authority; it’s because no one would have their back — not unconditionally. Currently circulating analogies with the Chinese Cultural Revolution feel a little out of context, but do a lot to illustrate the apparently-uncontrollable nature of woke. To me, the CCR is very alien; I understood very little of e.g. Hua Linshan’s autobiography: the mass psychology it depicts is nothing like I’ve had a direct knowledge of. (I understand McKenosha, on the other hand, viscerally so). I have to guess it’d be actually easier to steer woke toward Beijingcore mass-control politics than it would be to have them accept the strange passions of the Cultural Revolution.

If woke is a feeling, how is it steered at all? This is kind of legible in the news itself, isn’t it? Woke confesses itself with passion. It’s easy to see who’s wholeheartedly in its corner and who apologizes for it in less direct ways. Furthermore: Proud Boys (which always sounded like something out of Achewood) aside, the opponents of current woke causes are never themselves woke. Woke is left-leaning due to the institutional engineering that continually tagets it; but then, as mr. Moldbug and many others have amply documented, everything is targeted by the “Ratchet” — the everpresent complex of forces that stretches the span of politics to the left, only and always. To the extent that woke is even noticeable, it must exceed the natural left-drift of constitutional politics. But woke does not read like a conspiracy, at least not in the generic case: it could be that the Biden campaign has (in a strategy that evades my comprehension, but may well give results) fanned the flames of McKenosha, but this does not explain Edinburgh. Nor does it Brazil, where now football broadcasts are preceded by “Ubuntu Football Club” hagiographies of Black guys who were already widely (and correctly) admired. What political goal is addressed by re-presenting the story of Washington and Assis, telepathic non-twins who were crack strikers in the 1980s, as a story of black men under racial injustice?

Here we must again invoke the switcheroo: on the contrary, little is achieved by getting riled up about the “long march through the institutions” and the drip-feed (Brazilians say: drip by drip, soft water can drill holes through hard stone) of woke cultural presure. A causability structure materially enables woke, but we must become able to focus on the system dynamics that enables its quability conditions. After all: if woke was a virus, the task would be to understand contagion and immune response; if it was an earthquake, to map fractures in tectonic sheets and points of possible shock; if it was an alien invader, to learn what are we — what value we have — in their eyes, and how our planet is in the quability conditions for their larger goals. If these alien invaders were anthropomorphic, we would further have to understand how they impact the structure of our desires and fantasies. We might even have to seduce some of them, see what they’re like in the sack.

III.

Talk of “Cultural Revolution” conflates the euphoric energy of the momentarily empowered wokish youth, and the cynical longer-term goals at the top echelons of the Revolution. In other words, it conflates utter axiologic instability, at one level, with the tectonic, thousand-year thinking of the larger axiology. The “cultural revolution” itself was a sudden and short-lived moment of distension, more similar to Woodstock than anything in our peak-historical moment. Unsurprisingly, whatever “woke” does is profoundly unsurprising and derivative of the ec-static 1960s. Likewise, the fact that this utter lack of imagination has some impact at all with the institutions that woke critiques is commonly associated with the presence of once-rebel boomers in decision-making chairs. Therefore Edinburgh University’s attitudes have probably more to do with lingering nostalgia for the Rolling Stones than any learned appreciation of America woke unrest. In other words: Edinburgh falls prey to woke’s utter lack of imagination because of its own utter lack of imagination. This is fundamentally a failure of elites. McKenosha burns simply because rioters haven’t been hit with the water cannons. Mayors and decision-makers and probably a majority of cops regard the riots with deep (sometimes mixed, sometimes not) feelings of wish fulfillment. I mean, the whole thing sucks — capitalism, electoral democracy, everything sucks. It sucked when I was 20 and it still sucks now — but now I’ve had opportunities to make a dent, and have I?

In a previous generation, the name for this utter lack of imagination was “middlebrow”. It was Rachmaninoff over Hindemith, Ravel’s Bolero over Ravel’s La Valse. Carnap and Elliot and Schoenberg were acutely aware of the heavy baggage of civilization (and its constant potential for horror), but were Cronkite, Ginsberg and Hendrix? Middlebrow was an intermediate step in high culture’s loss of meaning; it made the ritual motions (such as piano virtuosity) of high culture but couldn’t see the once-transcendent nature of high culture. Standing on the shoulders of giants was difficult (slippery: ever heard the story where Heidegger becomes a temporary Nazi?) and dizzying; middlebrow is where high culture sits and starts to slip. Of course, culture is a vortex: in the same few decades separating Whitehead and Barry Manilow, jazz emerges from minstrelsy (low-brow humor) to highly abstract art-form. But have current Black mayors and leaders listened carefully to Cecil Taylor’s “Air”? Do they have the necessary wingspan to meaningfully react to repeat scenarios from their own youth?

From this distance, the problem is no longer whether the Cathedral creates woke insurrectionary theater, or whether it leaves the speaking classes at the mercy of random angry youths. It is: how do we establish a valuable structure and produce the valuable means to maintain it? What is the axiological infrastructure needed so that woke ends up doing (even if indirectly and involuntarily) good? What intermediate questions must be addressed by a theory that spans, in this way, the abstract vectors of civilization?

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