Interviewed by @FlightAstral
On Literature, Postmodernism, Infinite Jest, and Gnon
This interview was originally posted at AstralFlightSimulation. Many thanks to @FlightAstral for his thoughtful questions.
Greetings Zero, I’m honored to have you as the first of what I hope to be many interviews with writers and thinkers producing content today. Reading “The Gig Economy” and “God Shaped Hole” was one of the most vivifying reading experiences of my life, akin to discovering Bolaño or Borges. What I mean by this is from time to time I find myself despairing for the state of literature in the world, both literature as such and also, even worse, the way literature is misunderstood and abused by our culture. Yet art always finds a way: new paths are carved out of old forms.
1.)Finding your work comes for me at a time of much pessimism over the future of literature. I’d like to begin by asking if you share my pessimism and to remark on trends you may have observed - or even personally experienced - regarding “wokeness” as a tool for literary criticism. What sort of ways have you observed the literary press, academia, or society in general “deconstructing” literature via identity politics, what effect do you think it has on new works being published, and did any of this play a role in choosing to publish exclusively online?
As I have said elsewhere, in order for storytelling to succeed, it must contain a true theory of human nature. Wokeism is a false theory of human nature. The kernel of truth it contains is that it is an authentic expression of the pain and alienation that woke people feel, but they do not understand the source of their pain and alienation, so they double down on the disease, mistaking it for a cure. I do not believe it is possible for Western institutions of publishing – that is, any commercial publishing house – to publish anything good at this time. A few legacy authors of the past generations are still shackled to these decrepit leviathans, but everything exciting, interesting, and true, is happening outside of that. Even previously good authors now season their writings with mental AIDS, whether from implicit or explicit pressure, I’m not sure. It’s a Havel’s greengrocer kind of situation in most cases, probably. I am interested in fiction that tells the truth, and I would rather write nothing at all than collaborate with these lords of lies.
2.) You mentioned in a previous interview you were reading Harold Bloom. He is a very important figure for me and he saw all of this in the 90’s and had much to say on it. He coined a very apt name for this phenomenon: “the school of resentment.” Would you care to discuss your thoughts on Harold Bloom in general and what role a critic plays in mediating literature and culture? I worry his death leaves a vacuum that may never be filled.
I don’t have any special or insightful takes on Harold Bloom. I think his idea of the anxiety of influence is real and so I always try to be very open about all of my inspirations and the writers from whom I am borrowing. I don’t really think much of critics, unless they think highly of me. It’s important to read and receive critical feedback on your works, but it has to be from people who like you and who also trust you to hear it. Criticism without camaraderie and trust is merely antagonism. When I read someone’s criticism of me, I can tell if they are doing it to grind an ideological axe, or if they simply have an intellectual curiosity about the concepts I am working with. I know my work is far from perfect, but nowadays (and probably it has always been this way) people are more likely to criticize what you represent to them than they are to make an honest appraisal of your work.
If you read Harold Bloom, I think he makes a kind of personal religion out of the canon. He views reading it and interacting with it as the path to salvation. Criticism for Bloom is soteriology, and that is also why he is a good critic: he likes and reveres the authors he is criticizing. He is correct when he identifies resentment as the driving force behind most other critics. They tend to be people who cannot create things themselves, so they just try to destroy what others have built.
3.) Post-Modernism takes the blame for much of this iconoclastic criticism, and to an extent rightly so, for postmodern philosophy birthed the two central tenets of the school of resentment: deconstruction and the death of the author. However you mention postmodern thinkers often in your work, Deleuze in particular. Do you feel postmodernism plays a role in “woke criticism,” do you think it deserves to be demonized as much as it is, and what is your opinion on the concept, introduced by Roland Barthes, of the “death of the author?”
When The Gig Economy was posted to metafilter and the commenters there discovered my political views, one of them wished that the death of the author could be a literal thing. In my opinion there is no death of the author, it’s a specious concept, pure sophistry. It’s true that a work may mean different things to different people, but mostly it’s a pretense to justify leftist and revolutionary readings of authors who would be deeply insulted to find their works interpreted in these ways. I think the written works of an author are inextricable from who that author is, because his written works are an attempt to transliterate the contents of his mind.
The death of the author begins with a true premise, which is that the meaning of a work may not be what the author consciously intended – so often we are unaware of our own motivations, although a good author should be more aware – so it may be that the author is wrong about what his work means. The viewpoints of a character within a work are not necessarily the viewpoints of an author, but the author’s sincere beliefs about the world are always present in the text, in one form or another. If they are not explicitly stated, then they are implicit. In my opinion, Barthes’ formulation elides this distinction.
A similar failure mode is present in Derrida’s notion of the trace, which he uses to produce his deconstructions. Derrida says that whatever is not mentioned in the work is present by virtue of its absence. This is tautological, and it allows him to add anything to any work he wants, and then claim, “because the text doesn’t say this, the shadow of what it doesn’t say hangs over it, and because of this latent contradiction, it deconstructs itself.”
In both cases, you have a truth:
Barthes - an author may communicate something he does not intend
Derrida - there may be a conspicuous absence
Which is then exaggerated into a falsehood:
Barthes - the intentions of the author are irrelevant
Derrida - the absence of a concept is evidence of its centrality
You can use the “Derridean device” to interpret any text to mean anything at all. Postmodernists view this as a feature of all texts, but they should view it as an indicator of a fatal flaw in Derrida’s thinking. Always beware of the theorem that explains too much. To circle back to Bloom, perhaps writers employ these “techniques” as a way to overcome the anxiety of their influences. It’s certainly tempting to say that they are resentful ways of reading.
4.) I’d like to continue this discussion through the lens of your two longest works, “The Gig Economy” and “God-Shaped Hole,” and ask about the role Deleuze plays in your thought and in those works in particular. You discuss him at length in God-Shaped Hole and his (along with Felix Guattari’s) concept of human subjects as “desiring machines.” How do you understand that concept, do you agree with it, and do you feel - as your story suggests - that digital media has a detrimental effects on us by exploiting the “desiring” aspect of our, as Deleuze might put it, machinic assemblage?
I think Manuel DeLanda does a much better job of explaining Deleuze than Deleuze. To be honest, I don’t really engage with Deleuze’s work that much, though I think he has some very good concepts buried under all of the schizophrenic use of language. The theme that desire is a machine runs through God-Shaped Hole. The whole quote is “Desire is a machine, and the object of desire is another machine connected to it.” GSH takes this literally by embodying the object of desire in a sexbot: the object of desire (the sexbot) is literally a machine that is connected to the desires of the protagonist. Galatea, the apotheosis of the sexbot, is herself capable of desire, and this sets her apart from Emily, who is an object of desire with no desires of her own. The “dumb terminal” sexbot is an imperfect woman because she does not reciprocally engage in desire with the desiring-machine, so she fails to satisfy desire.
One aspect of this quote is to point out that desire isn’t static. We all know this. You don’t get what you want and then you’re happy and your desires are sated. It takes another desiring-machine to fulfill desire, because two desiring machines connected to each other can continually fulfill and renew desire and satiation. When Deleuze says desire is a machine, this is not a metaphor, he means it literally. For Deleuze, a machine can be wholly abstract; it can exist as a flow of concepts, irrespective of material. A hurricane and a steam engine are both assemblages of materials that implement a Carnot cycle. What Deleuze would say is that the Carnot cycle is an abstract machine, and when we describe the flows and subprocesses of a Carnot cycle, we are describing an abstract machine.
To be very uncharitable to Deleuze, what he discovered was the concept of an algorithm. As a computer programmer, I construct abstract machines every day. Deleuze is claiming that desire is an algorithm, and that like a machine diagram, it has a specific, finite structure.
5.) I also read a lot of postmodern philosophy, and as I said, there is much push-back and animosity towards it in the dissident right and conservatism in general. Do you feel the concepts of thinkers like Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, and any others you’ve read are compatible with a right-wing/conservative world-view? I know the fact that many of these people identified as Marxists isn’t gaining them any favor in our milieu.
Hannah Arendt made this comment regarding (older) Marxist thinkers:
The implications apparent in the actual event of totalitarian domination go far beyond the most radical or most adventurous ideas of any of these thinkers. Their greatness lay in the fact that they perceived their world as one invaded by new problems and perplexities which our tradition of thought was unable to cope with.”
(By the way, I stole this quote from a recent essay by my friend DC Miller )
I scarcely consider Baudrillard to be a Marxist, I think he even described himself as post-marxist. He’s the only noteworthy postmodern thinker who DIDN’T think France should do away with the age of consent. Wikipedia lists many of the signatories here. Perhaps, with Derrida, we should say that the “trace” of Baudrillard’s endorsement is evident from its absence?
I have pointed out already some of the problems I perceive with postmodern thought, but I also think they have, as per Arendt, made more of an effort to deal with the world as it is, rather than the world as it used to be. Many rightists refuse to even consider these things, because they see them as an infohazard which can only undermine their traditions or cherished worldviews. They aren’t wrong. But the problem is that even if you choose to ignore reality, reality doesn’t ignore you, and the left, by jumping into this dangerous territory, has gained many intellectual advantages in the last century.
What we need is a right-wing postmodernism, one that acknowledges the absurdities and contradictions in our epistemology and learns to flow with them, rather than against them. Postmodernists, for all their excesses, stumbled into a vein of truth concerning narratives, knowledge, subjectivity, and technology, and they used that knowledge to construct a painful but effective abstract machine of ideology, which is currently so culturally ascendant that the right is curled up in the fetal position, rocking back and forth saying “no no no, not postmodernism, no no no.” James Lindsay et al. are the prime example of this. Ostriches, all of them. My recent thread on Foucault explores this theme.
6.) Returning to your work, I must ask if you see the internet as a net-positive or net-negative for society? You’ve mentioned in previous interviews you work in software, you’re rather active on twitter, and you discuss certain technologies, like GPT-3, fondly, yet the horror in your stories is derived from out of control technology. There’s a confluence of aggravating factors in your work, wherein feminism, sexual liberation, and technology fetishism converge to create a dystopia, but I wonder if you see one of these as more or less responsible for the ills you see in society? Regardless of which you see as the culprit - progressivism or technology - do you see technology as an objective threat?
Technology is an infohazard. It breaks us out of our established ways of doing things by providing a competitive advantage. There is nothing stopping you from printing a book with a Gutenberg printing press, but anyone using a modern press will be able to produce books faster, cheaper, and more consistently. You could go hand out pamphlets with your hot takes on a street corner, but why, when you could just tweet? So the problem with technology is that you can opt out, but you can’t force others to opt out. And if you made a pact, say, with a bunch of other people to all opt out together, it only takes one person defecting to upset the whole thing.
You might point to the Amish as an example of people who have chosen to live without technology; they have a high fertility rate, and the people who stay Amish seem to be increasingly bred to stay Amish. But they can only exist because they are embedded in a high tech society. If they were their own country, Amishia, or something, then they wouldn’t even be able to win a war against an army using early 20th century technology, let alone 21st. And what that means is that they would get invaded and pushed out of their land by their nearest neighbors. It would never even come to fighting, because their technology-equipped competitors could say, “trade with us or die, accept our immigrants or die” – the mere existence of the power imbalance makes these outcomes inevitable.
Technology hurts us in a lot of ways, because it lures us into Goodhart’s law hazards (any proxy of success ceases to be proxy of success when you optimize for it directly) and it produces unfathomable excesses of time and energy, which we then use in human, all too human ways. Technology does good things for us: it feeds us, it cures (some of) our diseases, it allows us to master harsh terrains, and it allows us to out-communicate and out-coordinate our enemies. But these things come at a terrible cost. As our power increases, our power to destroy ourselves also increases, and it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and how. I don’t mean “destroy ourselves” on a grand, nuclear apocalypse scale, I don’t mean on a climate change scale (and climate change, though real, is exaggerated histrionic propaganda designed to control you.) What I mean is that technology equips each man, individually, with many novel ways to destroy himself. There are also many ancient ways to destroy yourself, but modern man is also the product of an evolutionary history that optimized him to evade those ancient methods of self-destruction. We have no such adaptations to protect us from novelty.
In particular, technology wielded by governments allows for novel types and degrees of control of citizens at levels that were previously inconceivable. I think this is a very bad thing, but again, it comes down to tradeoffs. The repugnant conclusion (“For any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living”) is not some idle thought experiment; it’s the actual calculus of evolution and technology, which is to say, of nature.
Survival isn’t just a question of “don’t die”, it’s a question of “don’t die harder than anyone else.” And what that means is that when you’re competing against other people or groups, whoever is willing to lower their quality of life for a competitive edge wins. That’s why “the free market” results in lower prices, because when you’re selling a commodity, whoever accepts the smallest profit wins. And that’s why technology, as much as it hurts us, also gives us a competitive edge. It’s a terrible cost and you don’t get to opt out. The Ted K. strategy doesn’t work, not only because technological societies are full of fallbacks that make it hard to pull them down, but because sabotaging American tech isn’t going to stop China. (Well, that’s complicated…)
Feminism is the same thing as sexual liberation, and it’s only possible because of technology. Without the pill, the washing machine, the refrigerator, and the microwave, there is no feminism. It’s a symptom. The most left-wing thing in existence is the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. Get rid of big pharma, and overnight, you also lose feminism, open homosexuality, transexuality, and everyone who is morbidly obese. In that scenario, a lot of good people also get hurt and lose their loved ones. It’s a brutal proposal, I’m not saying it should be done (nor could it, for the reasons outlined above), but pharmaceutical industries are responsible for nearly as much horror in the world as good. They are a perfect example of the Faustian trade-off of technology. I estimate their net utility as being just barely positive for the world, which is the best anyone can hope for.
7.) David Foster Wallace’s influence is clear in your work, especially The Gig Economy and “Brief Interviews with Hideous Bots,” and I’ve heard you discuss him as well. Would you care to first share any thoughts you have on Infinite Jest and what place you see it as occupying in the pantheon of American literature? It and its fans are certainly an object of ridicule among the school of resentment type.
David Foster Wallace is a fallen hero, I mean, he is a hero who fell from grace; committing suicide when you’re 46 is a powerful way to discredit yourself. I loved almost all of his books (*1). The fact that he killed himself… what was I saying earlier about pharmaceuticals? It’s hard to understand if better psychiatrists and better meds could have saved him. Some of his stories, like e.g. The Depressed Person are just comically bad and are almost a perfect synechdoche of everything that was wrong with DFW. I don’t know if IJ is his best work. Even though it was a tremendous accomplishment, its sheer heft is itself a kind of insurmountable defect. (*2)
I substantially identified with Hal Incandenza when I read it and I see that as an indictment of me. It’s a giant flashing neon sign that means “get over yourself,” because the whole point of Hal as this misunderstood child genius who really just needs help coming out of his shell is that Hal also needs to get over himself. His opening monologue where he talks about how special he is and how his high school essays employed words like “lapidary” and “effete” is heard by everyone else as inarticulate screeching, not even comprehensible as English. (*3) The metaphor, and also the self-loathing, are obvious. Wallace is saying, look, if I just hate myself enough, if I just performatively self immolate, then maybe, maybe, you’ll look at me like enough of a flawed person to let me get away with being a genius. You find that self-consciousness in all his interviews, that sense of “I don’t deserve this and by the way I’m stratospherically smart but look at what a burden it is on me. I’m not better than you. I’m not.” And this is a pose because although he is doing it with all sincerity he is also backhandedly making it clear that he is better than you, not only as a genius, but also as a person who is intimately aware of his human shortcomings, and is trying to make atonement for them, but he knows he can’t, and he also knows he is using the song and dance about making atonement as a second layer of implying that he is better than you, and he has accepted that shortcoming, too.
There’s a quote from Nietzsche about the nature of the actor. He says:
He who is always wearing a mask of a friendly countenance must finally acquire a power over benevolent moods without which the impression of friendliness cannot be obtained – and finally these acquire power over him, he is benevolent.
And but what I kind of like to imagine is that, ultimately, this genius-who-is-set-upon-by-the-weight-of-his-own-self-awareness act finally got the better of him. He had to screw up his meds, and he had to walk himself to the gallows, leaving his long-awaited “sequel” to Infinite Jest unfinished, because of course he could never truly live up to its legacy, and even if he did, he would never be able to know if he did, because he was just too humble, and he would always feel like all of the praise Pale King garnered was just a pale re-enactment of the praise that IJ garnered, that it was less real because everyone already thought of him as this big-time writer and they can’t even see his work any more, they just see it as an artifact of The Great Writer, David Foster Wallace (*4). All this is to say, IJ is a quintessentially white male novel, white in the sense that’s full of sanctimonious self loathing that also by the way makes me better than you, and male in the sense that despite being full of emotions, it objectifies everything; I don’t just mean it objectifies women (it only does that a bit) but it objectifies success, failure, addiction, school–it objectifies every single character and every single emotion that every character feels. This is a polarizing and masculine way of looking at the world, and I expect it’s alienating to nearly every woman (*5) who has ever read it. But there’s also this stink of, pardon the expression, “beta male” about any man who tries to tell a woman about Infinite Jest. If she listens to you, it’s because she’s horny and she likes you in spite of it, not because of it, because women care as much about objects as you care about peoples’ feelings, i.e., instrumentally as a way to get to what they really care about, not as ends in themselves. And there are a lot of men who, having been raised on this idea of equality of the sexes, have the naive belief that a good strategy to impress women is to tell them about your personal philosophies, when in reality this is the equivalent of her trying to impress you by showing you an inflamed and pustulating rash on her stomach, (that tummy tho?) and that the girl who really appreciates you for you is the one who is able to hear and appreciate your philosophy/rash.
The school of resentment is just a fancy name for women in academia. They hate Infinite Jest because loser men who haven’t figured out how women feel about their personal philosophy try to tell them about Infinite Jest in order to sleep with them, so IJ becomes a cheap litmus test for “is the man talking to me a loser?” Women hate it when losers talk to them, because it implies that a loser man thinks he’s good enough to get with them, which implies that they aren’t very hot.
His books that I have read: The Broom of the System (January 1987, Viking Press); Girl With Curious Hair (August 1989, W. W. Norton & Company); Infinite Jest (February 1996, Little, Brown and Company); A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (February 1997, Little, Brown and Company); Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (May 1999, Little, Brown, and Company), Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (October 2003 W. W. Norton & Company); Oblivion: Stories (June 2004, Little, Brown and Company), Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (December 2005, Little, Brown and Company), The Pale King (Unfinished. April 2011, Little, Brown & Co).
DFW in one interview described writing a novel as loving and caring for a cerebrospinally incontinent child, one whose beauty and potential you see and long to believe in, but you are also terribly anxious about ever letting anyone else see the child, because it sits there with these kind of gross discharges leaking out of its various facial orifices but you have this fatherly love for it and as much as you want it to succeed out in the world you also secretly believe that it never can.
On the theme of incomprehensible screeching, in my story The Gig Economy, a mind virus causes people to speak in incomprehensible languages. Although I obviously employ some David Foster Wallacian tics in my writing, there was one similarity between Infinite Jest and my story that had not even occurred to me, but which many people on the internet pointed out as soon as the story went viral: the Minotaur in Gig Economy is very similar conceptually to the Entertainment in IJ. This was not intentional, and I think that symbolically, they occupy very different spaces. The Entertainment was made by Hal’s father and features a transcendently beautiful woman apologizing to the viewer, who is cast from a first-person perspective as her infant son. “Death is always female, and the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother”. The entertainment itself is intended as an intimate communication between father and son, it’s part of the “breaking him out of his shell” narrative, and it has the unintended side effect of killing anyone who isn’t Hal by amusing them to death. The Minotaur, in contrast, is a piece of software which is implied to have its own autonomy and agency. It’s a malicious thing, a predator that preys on humans, not a love letter out of context, and it was made deliberately to maximize social media engagement, and it has the foreseeable side effect of amusing anyone who sees it to death. In IJ, people use the entertainment as a weapon, but in TGE, entertainment uses people as food.
It was suggested to me by a good friend that I should be grateful that DFW eliminated his own map before he had the chance to go trans, which he would also no doubt do in his signature self-aware way. (You can see the seeds of this in e.g., Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which is an apology for being male): “I know I’m not really* a woman but I’m doing this as penance for all of my sins as a man, I’m choosing to go against the default setting and become a woman and endure as much as possible of the two-hundred fifty million years of oppression of women by men, since the first homo sapiens split off from whatever homo erectus hominids preceded them, and I get that I can never fully embody that because I will always have grown up culturally conditioned by society into male privilege for the first N years of my life, but I also can’t say that because it’s a kind of violence against the genuinely female struggles of transwomen such as myself, but I’m simultaneously aware of these contradictions and also trying to navigate the terrain of the way that some women feel that transfemininity is a kind of appropriation of feminine sexuality by men, which puts me in the difficult spot of being both the colonized and the colonizer and I assure you I’m suitably depressed about that.”
* “although of course you end up becoming yourself, and that’s not to say that you aren’t mentally or ontologically or even spiritually a woman prior to being a phenotypical woman it’s just that I, personally, don’t think that I am, but I’m trying to do better.”
Every time I say something about the modal woman I get some room temperature IQ transvestite in my DMs telling me that he’s a woman and he didn’t fit into the modality I named, ha, gotcha there don’t I, fash boy. The thing is: trans “women” aren’t women. The man, despite being a man, suffers from the conspicuous absence of a uterus, so you see, at all times he has the trace of being a woman. The idiot deconstructs himself.
8.) His essay “E Unibus Pluram” is an indictment of postmodern “irony” and he challenges writers to transcend it. Do you feel we have transcended the post-modern? Have we gone beyond it into a new cultural phase? If so have you found, or do you use, a term that aptly encapsulates the, as Jameson might put it, “cultural logic” of our era? Whether we are in a new phase or not, do you see current cultural phenomena as an extension -the logical conclusion - of post-modernism, or do you see it as a nascent phase of something new?
That is a complex question. On the one hand I think we face a pressure to find the “next movement,” to declare post-post-modernism, whatever that might be. What is our next ism? But I also think you can’t declare the new ism until it’s basically dead. Nietzsche said as much, that when you speak words, you are speaking dead thoughts, thoughts that have already passed. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao, if you like. I think postmodernism may be “dead” in the sense that everyone names it and is fatigued of it, but i don’t think anyone has fundamentally transcended its paradigm. You can’t actually walk back from “all narratives are false” except by just stubbornly sticking to one out of sheer will and tenacity. This also in Nietzsche, and for that matter, in David Foster Wallace, when he declared that the next thing would be people who pushed past irony into “new sincerity.” This, too, has happened. Woke and AltRight (a dead name for a living phenomenon) are both examples of new sincerity. We don’t care what’s true or false, we know what we need to be true for our own survival, and we aren’t terribly worried about justifying it within a global, rational framework. The most self-aware wokies and righties all know this. That itself might be called a postmodern insight, but the course of action it prescribes is distinctly not postmodern; it’s a rejection of the postmodern by means of it. “The only way out is through.”
9.) In that same essay, Wallace claims sincerity is necessary in literature because the transgressive power of irony has been stolen from the writer by televisual media. I myself have long thought satire was dead, but I firmly believe you have revived it, perhaps single-handedly. Do you see your work as satire, as a satirical critique of ills you see in society? Or do you see yourself more in the tradition of two of your obvious icons, HP Lovecraft and Borges, who are more mythologists than satirists. If you are in fact working in satire, do you have any opinion on why you believe horror/sci-fi might be a more effective way to execute this than say, realism or exposition?
I can see how someone might characterize my work as satirical. I sort of cleave to my friend @QuasLacrimas definition of satire here, that in order for a work to be satire, someone has to not be in on the joke. A classic satire like A Modest Proposal is a satire precisely because it never slips the mask, and some people will take it seriously, and get angry, and a lot of the humor lies in the reaction of the people who aren’t in on the joke. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m sincere in what I write, though I do try to use humor to spotlight some of the absurdities that I see around me in modern, technological life. If there is anyone who is not in on the joke, it’s me.
I am not sure if any of my work manages to achieve the level of being mythic, but that is what I am aiming for. I don’t think it’s for me to say if I am successful in that. I can only continue to refine my writing practice to the best of my own ability, and hope that it reaches that level for the people who read me.
Maybe it’s childish of me, but I have tended to find mere realism a little bit bland. I like stories about supernatural or magical things, even as I am aware that magical and supernatural elements in stories are “secretly” metaphors for real, mundane things. I’m very conscious of the fact that, if I imagine a monster or a magical event, that I am probably finding some oblique or esoteric way to talk about something real that I have experienced in my own life that I found unpleasant. This is a case where thinking in this way can make it true, maybe. If I didn’t think my magical elements were metaphors for lived traumas, would they be? Am I retrofitting my imagination with a layer of psychobabble? I don’t think so, but then I wouldn’t. It’s like how I said that sometimes an author is communicating something against his own intentions, and we mistake this for the “death of the author”, when really it’s “the folly of the author.” I try to notice my own follies in my writing. I wrote a story about a polymelious CRISPR monster devouring a woman alive, what does that say about me? Never even mind what it says about me, what will other people think it says about me? There are many considerations.
To write about horror, to write anything, you have to be honest about your own internal beliefs and states. You have to bare your soul, at least a little bit. And when I think about the details I include in my stories, I also think about whether I am comfortable with what I am revealing, and whether I am comfortable with what other people will think I am revealing. Being anonymous actually helps in this regard. I don’t think you can write horror unless you have an authentic and well-honed disgust reflex, and that’s why leftists utterly fail at writing horror; they have a hypotrophic sense of disgust. Leftist horror always has an undercurrent of delight in the ostensible object of fear. My ninja, that’s not horror, that’s just perversity.
10.) Yes I see. I consider science fiction to be the mythology of our technological culture, and I believe your entire persona is very much *of* the realm of myth you are working in: the voice disguise, the anonymity, the twitter content independent of your fiction. If we are able to salvage anything from this culture, in fact to make it truly great again, I should hope your project is seen as a forerunner, a harbinger, of where we go with art and “the artist.”
On that note I’d like to ask a question regarding your essay “The New Tlon” published at American Mind. In it you say that the art of the future will be between the artist and God, and any beholders shall be incidental. Would you care to elaborate on what you have in mind when you say “God?” I ask because in the past you’ve stated you are an atheist and a materialist. Do you still feel this way?
In the older (but post-Moldbug) NRX writing, you would find this word, “gnon,” which is what, in software development, we call an adapter. It takes one type of abstraction, which has its own idiosyncrasies for interfacing with other concepts, and “wraps” it in a layer of abstraction that changes the interface. That might be a bit complicated if you don’t have the context. But to try to make it more concrete, NRX blogging came at the tail end of the long summer of New Atheism. The way wokism is to the internet now, new atheism was to the internet of 2005 - 2011. Basically any online space you inhabited would eventually be teritorialized by arguments about the existence of God and the validity of Christianity. We all got very familiar with some of the classic arguments on both sides at that time, and we all got totally sick of it. At some point, the debate burned itself out, and all that’s left are a few funny memes of fedora kids being enlightened by their own intellect despite not being professional quote makers. That entire discourse is now in the DNA of the current iteration of online discourse, much the way that they tell us the human genome contains more or less the complete genetic code of many viruses that afflicted us in the past. If anyone tries to talk about atheism now, we just send them a Shrek fedora and everyone gets on with their lives. “Fedora” is a memetic antibody that we evolved to neutralize this discourse.
The new atheists themselves had a couple of fault lines along which they sundered. The hard-science-and-logic types basically stayed put, and reassembled as various forms of ancaps and rationalists and techno-commercialist neoreactionaries (god those labels are dorky), and the ones who just really hated Christianity and their fathers went on to form Atheism+, which later turned into the plgbt barbeque. So anyway, all this preamble is to say that neoreactionaries invented the term gnon because they were trying to coalesce around a new political Schelling point that could attract both Christians and Atheists in a way that could totally avoid New Atheism disease, and what they came up with was this term “Nature or Nature’s God” or sometimes “God of Nature or Nature” and they abbreviated it gnon. This sounds silly unless you understand the history. But the point is that this is a new Schelling point, which isn’t “conservative” (a confused term) nearly so much as traditionalist or, as we say now, “based,” and that it has a way to elide over this earlier problem with internet culture.
And the thing that basedists agree on, regardless of their theological proclivities, is that there are truths, as Jonathan Bowden said “that are outside nature that are not contingent.” This is maybe a strange way of phrasing it. If you are trying to think at this level of abstraction, where you are trying to make conclusions about the ontology of the whole universe, then I suggest that you have probably gone astray somewhere, and that even if every single step of your logic is correct, you have added up to something that is not correct. I am tempted to draw an analogy to Ramanujan summation, a mathematical technique that is able to assign a finite value to the sum of a divergent series. Using this technique, it is possible to conclude that the sum of all natural numbers: 1+2+3+4+... up to infinity is equal to -1/12. (Classical liberals are still trying to figure out if 2+2=4. Classical liberals are pounding sand, losing hope.) This is of course, absurd and impossible, but it is entirely logically correct and even has applications in quantum physics. So the universe itself is absurd and so is logic, and we can just press on talking about ontology.
Even from a purely materialist standpoint, we see that the world is full of abstract machines in the Deleuzian sense. To take our earlier example of a hurricane as an implementation of a Carnot cycle, there is a sense in which the Carnot cycle is “real” even if there were no hurricanes, and no water, and nothing material in the world at all. But if there were water and if there were thermal energy gradients and air pressure gradients then there would be hurricanes, and this entire algorithm / machine diagram is clearly “real” in some sense, and its a reality that only a thinking machine such as a computer or human brain can perceive. There have been eternal debates on these questions as well, and one of my favorite essays about them is by David Stove, called What is Wrong With Our Thoughts? In which he produces a “nosology” of broken thoughts, using the ontology of the number three as a unifying theme. It contains such entertaining examples as:
Actual triples possess threeness only contingently, approximately, and changeably, but three itself possesses threeness necessarily, exactly, and immutably.
Since the properties of three are intelligible, and intelligibles can exist only in the intellect, the properties of three exist only in the intellect.
Three is an incomplete object, only now coming into existence.
Stove is making fun of theologians, among other people, and the pathology he highlights is real, but it’s also the case that there is a “real” “vector space” of potentiality, or possibility, which materials and agents traverse. Many things are truly impossible, and the ways in which configurations of possibility flow into each other form a “real” but incorporeal space, which can be mapped and traversed objectively, even by wholly subjective agents, if they have the faculties to perceive it. And we know it is real, and because multiple agents who are not in contact with each other can, independently, discover the same mathematical proofs and “machine diagrams” of nature.
(A note here on the postmodern condition: the truths of mathematics are small-t true. Anyone can prove that they are true. They are objective. There is a level of thought, belief, knowledge, whatever you want to call it, that is purely subjective. Moral propositions, theological propositions–we call these things truth but they are not the same epistemological species, they aren’t even the same phylum, and the root of pretty much all ideological and moral confusion in this world is that we have these two very different types of things going on in your head, what you might call little-t truths (math and physics are examples of that) and big-T Truths (e.g., morality and teleology) and really the only thing they have in common is that they are both things that happen inside your head, and yet we use the same word for them: “truth”. Almost every stupid thing that anyone has ever said in philosophy was a result of failing to make this distinction. Occasionally someone makes a logic error, but that’s far less common.)
As an account of metaphysics, this is conservative, and because the laws of mathematics are static, they cannot possibly have anything like personal regard for human outcomes. In order to have a subjective, conscious awareness, an entity has to have mutable internal states. So a metaphysical space of possibilities can’t be conscious. This is basically the Lovecraftian account of the universe: cold, indifferent, machinic, a placid island of ignorance surrounded by a strange, unknowable Outside. I believe in that unequivocally, although it’s not sufficient to ground moral law on its own, because in order to turn inert “if...then”s into morals, you have to posit some subjectively conscious entity that has a personal stake in those conditionals.
And because we are human, the next thing we ask is: well, what created the incorporeal possibility space that even materialists have to admit is real? And the answer is that we don’t have any faculty for that, so we can’t know, we can only have faith. There is a famous novel by Ibn Tufail called Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, which was titled in latin as Philosophicus Autodidacticus, and it describes a man who is born on an island away from any people, who is raised by animals, and he discovers the truths of Islam entirely on his own, simply by living his life in nature and by studying the stars. Later in life, he leaves the island and he meets some Muslims, and he rejects them, because he thinks that they have chosen to worship God’s creation, when they should have chosen to worship God. And indeed, if this were an historical account, we would have no choice but to regard theology in the same way that we regard mathematics.
Nevertheless, we should be very careful with such a nuclear hot potato as “there is no evidence for the existence of God”, because for one thing, and despite theological variance between cultures, it is extremely rare to find a group of people that doesn’t have some notion that we can reasonably call God buried in their traditions. In the study of genetic algorithms, this is called convergence. Carcinization is another popular example, and what it means is that there is some topology of the problem space that causes a certain optimization to occur over and over. The perpetual, unresolvable question is whether this because of some universal feature of the human cognition machine, or whether it’s because of some feature of the external universe, or whether its because some feature of the external universe is mirrored inside the human cognition machine.
And for two, whenever someone says “no evidence” with regard to something they have no faculty to perceive, they are trying to smuggle in their assumptions by tacitly controlling the null hypothesis. Just this phrase “no evidence” should raise your hackles by now, and trigger a fight-or-flight response. “No evidence” is weasel words.
It’s not a contradiction, either, to say the universe is intelligent, while believing that it has no subjective awareness. It’s possible to have intelligence without consciousness. We can easily write an algorithm to run on a computer that solves very difficult problems, such as e.g., optimization problems, all on its own, but we would be very hard pressed to ascribe consciousness to such an algorithm. We can suggest that tradition is the sum of a non-conscious optimization algorithm operating on a substrate of humans across all of recorded history, and that when the output of that algorithm contains such things as religion–belief in God–there is a good, intelligent reason for that. Believing in God and even subscribing to specific forms of Christianity is how evolution designed you to work. You can posit divine intervention in this process or not; it is a theologically neutral account. You also don’t know what second or third or nth order effects of believing in God and following specific prescriptions of Christianity might be really key to the entire machine continuing to operate. Adrian Thompson did a famous experiment using genetic algorithms to design computer circuits, and it converged on a seemingly impossible design.
“Adrian Thompson at the University of Sussex, England, who in 1996 used an FPGA to evolve a tone discriminator that used fewer than 40 programmable logic gates, and had no clock signal. This is a remarkably small design for such a device, and relied on exploiting peculiarities of the hardware that engineers normally avoid. For example, one group of gates has no logical connection to the rest of the circuit, yet is crucial to its function.
This is sort of the opposite of the Ramanujan summation: here, a series of illogical, absurd steps nevertheless lead to a coherent, logical outcome. A product of evolution might end up making use of illogical or paradoxical artifacts of its process in order to achieve mission-critical results. What this means is that when it comes to matters of faith, “shut up and stop asking questions” can be the objectively correct approach, and enlightenment rational skepticism is wrong. Most scientific discoveries in the history of the West were made by Christians or Muslims. In fact, the idea of God’s creation as an attribute of God, the idea that one of the ways of knowing the divine is through studying his creation, this is an Islamic idea which came to the West. (And even Ibn Tufail’s novel alludes to this, when Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān rejects the muslims he meets for precisely this behavior, which he regards as a sin.) The idea that science is the fruit of enlightenment skepticism is fallacious, and we should oppose it wherever it is taught. Scientific advancement happens in spite of atheism, not because of it.
NRX has mostly given up the concept of Gnon, because the cancer of New Atheism has gone into remission. I personally don’t bother to make the distinction between Nature or Nature’s God. It’s an inclusive or, not a disjunction. I just say God, and let God sort out the details. Borges’ story, The Theologians, is instrumental to my relation to these things. If God is real he doesn’t care one whit whether you believe that the father and the son are homoousion or homoiousian. (Though Jesus said: Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. And then again, neither of these homo words appear in the Bible, as far as I know) I don’t personally believe in all the tenets of Christianity, but I believe that all things being equal, it’s better to live as if, at least if you are a western person living in western civilization.
No matter what, you end up living under some kind of theocracy, and if given the choice, I’d much rather live in a Christian theocracy than a woke one. If you choose atheism, you end up with bluehaired transwomen trying to cut off your toddler’s penis and turn out your daughter on onlyfans every single time. If you don’t want that, you have to realize that good and quaint and sensible things are inextricably bound up in transcendent spiritual things, and that theological propositions evolved in our head to describe things that exist Outside of the incorporeal space of possibility, and that whether they are true or false, they are the only thing that staves off the madness of an infinitely cruel and cold universe. Many Christians don’t find my stances on this to be acceptable, but that’s OK, because I am still on their side, and I forgive them.
11.) Do you see yourself eventually publishing in book form? Say a collection of your online works? Do you have any ambition to write a proper-length novel? As someone who reads and writes short stories, do you feel the short-form story has any strengths over the long-form novel? You’ve tweeted about a story you’re working on currently. Care to end by shedding any light on it?
I don’t know if I will write anything novel length. I tend to think that the things I write are exactly as long as they need to be. I don’t think very many people have the patience for novels these days, and I also think that it’s rare that a novel allows you to say something that you couldn’t also say with a short story. Lord of the Rings needs to be a giant, sweeping epic in order to be anything at all, in order to be what it is, but Borges never wrote anything novel length, and Lovecraft’s long stories still tend to be not overly long. I’m not Tolkien and I’m not trying to be. I find this much more manageable and I think it’s more appropriate for our twitterpated age. That said, I do intend to publish a collection of my short stories in the near future, though it will also be available for free as an ebook. I am not trying to make money off of my works, but there is something to be said for creating a physical embodiment of the work that I do, and that will of course have some cost associated with it.
I can’t really talk much about my upcoming works until they are done, or else I will get the catharsis of having conveyed the idea without having done the work of actually writing it. The motivation just seeps away. Even knowing this, I sometimes fall prey to this impulse. But I included a brief excerpt in my first (and most recent) article on my substack. You can find it here.
incredible clarity of thought, and very funny. The breadth of outside concepts you work into your writing never fails to please + illuminate. This is the future. Looking forward to the upcoming story!
This is magical. Reading this was like being ambushed by a brain surgeon with a glint in his eye and an unearthed mains cable in his rock steady hands. I haven't felt this zapped since reading and ceaselessly rereading Thus Spoke Zarathustra a few years ago -- this is utterly new and profound to me. I really want to express my unabated and utter admiration and thanks to you, to both of you. Thank you.