Nearly a year ago now, my talk “Hello From the Wired” was given at the 2016 East Bay Anarchist Bookfair, and shortly afterwards the notes were published on ensorcel. To my – to be completely frank – surprise, the published version and the abridged version have circulated around the ‘net largely beyond my supervision or knowledge. Though I made this clear in the abridged version, “Hello From the Wired” was originally a talk, and the “full” version of it – which is now hosted on The Anarchist Library – was nothing more than my notes. I had originally intended to record the talk, but that didn’t work out. So posting my notes at the time seemed like the next best thing.
The author being dead and all that notwithstanding: People seem to have gotten the impression that this was intended to be a finished piece, which is embarrassing to say the least for both the very sloppy presentation/editing, and the lack of a deeper development of the ideas that were presented in it. And seeing as people nonetheless apparently liked what they read, it seems that more is long overdue.1
The current landscape of leftist and otherwise-radical memespace is a clusterfuck of different pet ideologies. Generic anarchists and Marxist-Leninists are in no short supply, but several factors have lead to the Left etc. finally catching up to the Right in terms of having some kind of online presence. Even in 2017, much of this can be traced back to imageboards, with a good deal of the memes and attitudes of the leftysphere originating in 8chan’s /leftypol/ board: Irony Left, Stirner, Posadism, Hoxhaism, the Catholic Left, National Bolshevism, etc. that come to mind most prominently. Reddit’s leftist community has likely played a similar albeit smaller role.2 Adding to this is the election of Trump and the Left being forced out of its irrelevant malaise due to the rise of an enemy that is unambiguously bad3, which has no doubt lead to Leftbook and Left Twitter likewise seeing greater numbers of newcomers and greater visibility overall. Finally, add to this Bernie Sanders’ political campaign, which despite being a failed attempt at Social Democracy in the US has nonetheless played a role in making left-of-center politics actually visible in the US for the first time in decades.
Where previously the Leftist milieu was mostly confined to localized groups and completely watered-down political parties, now there is a bloom of communication. Unfortunately, as is the case with all politics, this has more than anything else resulted in negative-feedback loops of stupidity where likeminded individuals compartmentalize themselves into self-regulating micro-communities.4 The result is a proliferation of pure ideology through the matrix of memespace.
Meaning and Memes
Zeroach has an excellent article on memes worth checking out which analyzes what I’m getting at. What memes are able to do is something that religion has exploited for thousands of years: Mold people into carriers of language viruses using symbolism and hyperstition. The evidence of its success is all around us with the dominance of Christianity and the power Islam has had to create effective insurrections against the US in a decentralized fashion. Religion, however, is unwieldy even in its most simplified forms compared to memes. Memes are a much lighter and flexible payload for infecting people, and their power as tools for politics is all too apparent in the rise of the alt-right.
Like capital, memes use humans as vessels to continue their lifecycle, hollowing them out and leaving behind a gibbering husk that is too smug to think rationally. The human embodies and performs the meme, like a child repeating something it saw on TV.
Going back to the state of the leftysphere, similar things are afoot. And ironically, cyber-nihilism falls into this tendency to proliferate pet meme ideologies, which brings me to the topic of this article: What is cyber-nihilism?
Cyber-nihilism in the very first instance is not an ideology, nor is it even a distinct political position. To be such would be completely antithetical to its purpose, as ideologies rely on canons of theory and figureheads. Ideologies are very humanist, because ultimately what they do is reproduce the narrative that humanity is the protagonist of world history and can instrumentally control and wield concrete processes like capital and the growth of cybernetic networks. And even though Marx was himself influenced by the arch-priest of humanism, G.W.F. Hegel, it must be said that Marxian economics at bottom is an extremely anti-humanist economic theory. Capital proceeds by its own logic and will only wither by its own logic; trying to control this process instrumentally is the hallmark tradition of Marxist misreadings of Marx, and has had disastrous results every single time for good reason. And in the case of anarchists, who often haven’t even read Marx in the first place, instead of disastrous results we’ve had short-lived and disappointing ones.
Here, the nihilism of cyber-nihilism comes into play. Why the ‘-nihilism’ suffix? In part, this is aping off the nihilist tendency in the contemporary post-left: Aragorn, Baedan, Nihilist Communism, Desert, Blessed Is the Flame, and their historical predecessors. Contrary to uninspired readings of Nietzsche or, worse yet, Existentialist thinkers5, nihilism does not necessarily entail being a mopy philosophy undergrad. This is often called the difference between passive and active nihilism, but the commonality between the two is nihilism: A comportment of the will which devalues the highest values. A useful analogy between these two variants of nihilism are negative and positive feedback loops. The former is cold, endothermic, life-denying; the latter is hot, exothermic, life-affirming.
It might be said that just as Marx and Kant spoke of what is outside or inhuman in their analyses of political-economy and metaphysics, respectively, nihilism ultimately carries the consequence of being an inhuman politics (an anti-politics). Unlike the other two, it hasn’t enjoyed anywhere near the same level of acclaim, because it is in fact true that everything is politics from the human’s perspective. The rejection of this is too overwhelmingly and broadly consequential for our daily lives to really mean all that much, in a sense. One can claim to be a nihilist, but will still act as though they are not. This is because no one can be a nihilist; labeling oneself as such for anything other than convenience’s sake is missing the point entirely. Nihilism is not an identity but a condition.
Nietzsche correctly diagnosed nihilism in the same way that one might diagnose an illness. It cannot be consciously chosen, but rather afflicts the spirit in the same way that a sickness afflicts the body or mind. I say condition therefore in the sense that nihilism conditions the spirit in a certain way. For some, nihilism’s symptoms include suicidal thoughts and depression; for others, they include homicidal thoughts and mania. This is once again the difference between passive and active nihilism: Whither does the violence go? Inward or outward? This is dependent on the individual, but regardless of who is afflicted, nihilism reveals itself through its performance in these symptoms. Ultimately, it can only end in death given enough time. Humans are poor conductors for nihilism and will wear out quickly.
This is where the ‘cyber’ of cyber-nihilism comes in.
Species and Systems
Again, part of the motivation for the naming of ‘cyber’ as well as ‘-nihilism’ comes from trends in the anarchist milieu. In this case, it is the unfortunate connection between post-left anarchy and primitivism, and the distinct lack of any interesting or well-developed dialogue between anarchism and transhumanism. In a sense, cyber-nihilism quite literally means being nihilistic towards cybernetics, setting itself against anarchism’s generally bad treatment of cybernetics and technology. But more on this topic in a future post.
Cybernetics stems from the Greek kubernētikós, which means “to steer, to drive”. As a discipline, its genesis is arguably in the 1940’s Macy Conferences, which sought through an interdisciplinary study of biology, engineering, sociology, psychology, and control systems (among others) to formulate a general science of the human mind. The relationship between cybernetics and centralized command-control hegemonies is hardly a secret, and something that Tiqqun’s “The Cybernetic Hypothesis” harps on quite a bit. The irony is that in this respect, Tiqqun and the US Government are in the same position (the negative-feedback, humanist one that we’ve been talking about) of trying to be the driver. The thing about cybernetics, however, to go back to the root word kubernētikós, is that it also means “I steer, I drive”. The motivations for cybernetics were not to create systems of command-control that rely on there being a fiendish meatbag at the wheel oppressing people. The Macy Conferences were trying to formulate a general science of the mind so that they could reproduce it artificially and use it as a tool to manage the economy, wars, the police-state, and other things the government is in charge of.
The idea here is trying to create something to do all these things without human input being needed. Humans are bad at doing repetitive tasks and handling large amounts of data. Introducing systems that can do these things with as little human input as possible produces better results, but it comes at a cost that primitivists, ironically, have grasped better than almost any other political or theoretical tendency. Though they often frame it in an extremely myopic offshoot of Heideggerian phenomenology, the primitivist claim that “technology” alienates us from the world is no doubt a correct one. What we want is to create systems that make human beings obsolete, because cybernetics has far greater possibilities for managing societies than we are capable of. But what happens when we have created a hivemind AI that has accomplished this goal, that can debug itself, write and deploy new versions of itself, and exist in an entirely decentralized fashion?
The answer: You will be assimilated.
Far from trying to turn back this process towards some return to a version of the Garden of Eden, as primitivists very painfully come across with their outright false hyped-up claims about hunter-gatherer life, the nihilism already established denies the possibility of doing this whether we want it to or not. Primitivists, of course, are content to pout about the impossibility of their vision becoming a reality, despite the fact that we are already beyond the point of no return for climate change. Against this, I have offered an answer that differs both from this and Left Accelerationist and anarcho-transhumanist navel-gazing.
Here, the ‘cyber’ comes into dialogue with ‘-nihilism’. As said earlier, a person cannot be a nihilist; they can merely perform it. There will always be a human tendency for our experiences to crystallize and be reified as meaningful or significant. Against this, we have the possibility to become infected with nihilism and become a force of destruction, though this is often aimless, inefficient, and short-lived destruction which almost always ends in the death of the afflicted. What is needed is a more efficient method of prying human hands off the process of assimilation.
To make nihilism cybernetic is to bring the antipraxis of nihilism – pure negation – into the digital age. The burden of pure negation is not put on the individual or the affinity group, but rather is captured in protocols that can propagate themselves through memes, infecting other people and subsuming them into the hivemind. The more people it infects, the more rigorously it is exposed to fitness tests and refined, the most effective branches surviving and becoming ever more fit protocols.
It might be said that cyber-nihilism is the processes whereby nihilism makes itself real and comes to own itself through a decentralized virtual machine being hosted by human minds. The more that pure negation can be done entirely without user input, the more effective it is, the more it can clear away human command-control systems and hegemonies, and the more it thereby comes to both make space for itself and own itself.
Cyber-nihilism is, therefore, not an ideology. It is a virus. Further articles in this series will attempt to map its genome, coming together into a pathophysiological report of where it comes from and what it looks like. In the next article to come, I will start by discussing the roots of anarcho-primitivism and anarcho-transhumanism, and what parts of both cyber-nihilism mimics.
- Originally, I had planned to expand on the talk through a book, but this has yet to come together due to personal reasons. [return]
- I won’t pretend to speak with any authority on this since I have admittedly never been much of a reddit user. [return]
- For those who don’t remember: The inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008 was, I believe, the first inauguration that wasn’t met with Black Bloc riots. There were protests, but nothing more. Imagine the backlash if anarchists rioted at the inauguration of the first black (or female) president. [return]
- Any quick trip to /pol/ will confirm that the Right is equally guilty of this. [return]
- Not to be pedantic, but Nietzsche is really a proto-Existentialist whose thought influenced Existentialism but whose thought had much greater scope, complexity, and originality than Existentialism. [return]