A Note on the Abuse of Esotericism

I’m still receiving messages about the drama surrounding two of my recent posts (here and here). A few DMs just didn’t get what all the fuss was about. One email said it was all wishy-washy vagueness without any real point or critique made and therefore it was bad philosophy.

It is clear that, as much as the original argument is over, plenty of people are still pushing for further clarification. I’ll simply say this:

If those blogposts were confusing to you, I don’t know what more I can say. My initial reason for writing the first one was that I found great irony in the invocation of a “principle of charity” from someone who has exhausted that principle in a lot of people I know. As such, there appears to be a gulf between the person and the work. The problem is that, given the liminal nature of the gulf, all critique falls back onto anecdotes that would be inappropriate to repeat. I acknowledged this whilst still trying to engage at the level of philosophical discourse. It was a position doomed to failure. It was never going to convince anyone who wasn’t already aware of the particulars.

Because of this, I do understand the outrage expressed from some corners who would prefer to protect the accused’s plausible deniability against the nonexistence of hard evidence. I also understand how these posts may seem like an unnecessary assault on a person. In a somewhat related conversation the other day, someone said to me: “There’s a line I dimly remember from Herman Hesse about how it’s a kind of unforgivable assault on someone to try to pull the mask off their face…” I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I wonder if the question of whether or not to pull off another’s mask in this day and age, and on the internet in particular, is the defining gesture of cancel culture. To be cancelled is to have a self-constructed image torn down absolutely. For some, it looks like doxxing; for others, it’s just calling time on their bullshit.

In another conversation, someone else was recently explaining the alt-right’s Straussian tendencies to me. This brought to mind Strauss’s explorations of esotericism in philosophy — the use of esoteric writing (knowing contradictions, elusive complexity, impenetrable prose) to retain philosophy’s distance from politics so that the two do not corrupt one another. This sounds all well and good until we consider who has relied upon such a principle the most over the last decade.

The disarticulation of philosophy from politics today is most often sought by those who wish to obfuscate the material consequences of their words. I’d argue esoteric writing is impossible today because of this. Many still engage in it — and it has been telling that many of those best known for doing so have signalled their support for those who’ve supposedly been cancelled — but esoteric writing does not exist today in a space outside of the mainstream. It is the mainstream. Nothing defines our “post-truth” moment more damningly than the co-option of esoteric writing or speech by neoconservatism.

In this conversation, this charge of esoteric edgelording was place firmly at the feet of Bronze Age Pervert — an unambiguous example if ever there was one. But I see it reflected in the writings and interests of Nina Power and DC Miller also. (When DC rejects labels like “fascist” and “neo-nazi”, for instance, and instead describes himself as a “surrealist”, this is why.)

Many on (or adjacent to) the alt-right live on this foggy plain of plausible deniability. To still call it “esotericism” is a misnomer, of course; it is little more than dog-whistle philosophy. This is why the insistence upon a “principle of charity” was offensive to me — because that is precisely what an alt-right MO depends upon to function. It requires a pliable audience to manipulate and convince of their virtue against the unthinking leftist pitchfork-wielders. But are those who denounce them really just reactionary philistines? Or do they see through the fog? I certainly feel like a fog has been lifted. It’s like Trump screaming fake news to cheering crowds of blind admirers. Many might see it for what it is but plenty don’t. Why do so many people trust a liar’s accusations that others are lying?

If you think that’s what I’m doing too, congrats, you have entered the hall of mirrors. But I do have reasons to question the narrative. The reasons for sharing this now are, for Nina, no doubt careerism or virtue signalling for likes. I have little interest in either. This isn’t a tell-all book written about the ineptitude of a regime; “once wrote a blogpost denouncing Nina Power” isn’t going to boost my CV. Nevertheless, the response is the same. Anyone who opposes a muddying of the waters of thought in paranoia is seen as being against their right to rational dissent and walking blindly into agreement with the hoard. I think these are little more than delusions of grandeur. I shared a public warning to compliment the many private ones I’ve received. It wasn’t fully packaged as a scorching philosophical critique or a outright trashing of another person because it was never my intention to construct such things. Indeed, to do so would be impossible. My point is simple — don’t trust them or the narratives they peddle. If that isn’t detailed enough for you, it’s because it’s Twitter. To get down and dirty in the particulars is an ugly process that will lead to mud getting on far more people than those directly concerned. As such, I’m limiting by disavowal to an expression of resentment; I resent the game being played.

Is this going to have any real impact beyond upsetting someone who assumed I was a friend? I doubt it. I’ve skirted the edges of cancellation for far too long myself for anyone to take me as a moral authority on anything. Furthermore, I doubt my little blog is going to have any impact whatsoever on the standing of an opinion piece published in a national newspaper. (Whilst some may disingenuously quibble about bullying, given the size of the platforms in question this is unmistakably an instance of punching up.) If I want to “cancel” anything, in the sense provided by Nina on Twitter — “late 14c., ‘cross out with lines, draw lines across (something written) so as to deface'” — it is my own previous defences of her reputation. That is all. I would happily cross out those words of support.

This act may be meaningless to many and cruel to some but it feels important and right to me. It has become clear that, for a blog that contains so many writings written in emphatic support of trans people in general and my trans friends more specifically, the lack of a retraction has been unfortunate as Nina’s TERFy tendencies have become less and less ambiguous.

The article about JK Rowling felt like as good an opportunity as any to kill two birds with one stone and make my own position clear after a few elusive years of my own: fuck TERFs; fuck manipulative appeals to ethics.

2 Comments

  1. The obscurantism and obfuscation is simply part of the territory of the reactionary mind. It’s closely related to the reactionary co-option of rhetoric and tactics, like a crab attaching bits and pieces to its shell to camouflage itself. The reactionary is a virulent mind virus that draws people in. It’s largely irrelevant to what degree those infected are consciously intentional in what they are doing..

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