Neoreaction and the Hyperreal

A short Twitter thread, expanded on the blog for posterity:

Charlie Kirk warns “the transgender movement is an introductory phase to get you to strip yourself of your humanity to mesh with machines,” adding “if you stop being a man, then maybe you can stop being a human being”

Originally tweeted by Jason Campbell (@JasonSCampbell) on February 2, 2022.

The video attached to the above tweet is intriguing. Charlie Kirk’s fear-mongering about the “transgender movement” and its “transhumanist” attacks on “reality” reveals the bare face of mainstream neoreactionary ideologues.

The knowingly embraced paradox of neoreaction is, of course, that it is the new face of traditionalism and conservatism. It is conservatism but bigger, better and more postmodern. Though it denounces “postmodern neomarxism” as an attack on reality as such, it is driven by a complementary demand for not just the protection of “reality” and its norms, but the generation of more reality — a reality that is often nebulously defined, gesturing towards vague traditionalist tropes and exaggerated aesthetics. (Think about the much-memed figure of the “trad wife”: a beacon of “natural” womanhood with bleached blonde hair, big hips and big boobs — like a sort of European-coded fertility idol who cooks you dinner.)

This is what you find in the neoreaction’s renewed enthusiasm for high Toryism, Christian fundamentalism and seasteading Randianism on the blockchain. Each of these things fit the Classic Liberal pattern of beliefs and behaviours, albeit enlarged and emboldened. When they demand the return or preservation of law and order, they mean more law and more order. It is a conservatism that ironically progresses by generating more and more exaggerated responses to its own ideological supernormal stimuli. It generates moral panics by exaggerating social phenomena or events in order to legitimize its own exaggerated responses. The strange paradox of postmodernism is most visible through this knowing taste for an exaggerated reality. It’s what makes the familiar feel new (and vice versa), giving form to our accelerated phase of capitalist realism and its associated stasis. It is a quintessentially American preference for hyperreality — political reality as Disneyland.

We can see this clearly in Kirk’s exaggeration and conspiratorial conflation of motives. “[I]f you stop being a man, then maybe you can stop being a human being, maybe you can just plug into some sort of machine”, he says, assigning motive to “the trans lobby”. “This is where their control, their profit motive, is coming down the line.” It is especially telling that the only way he can understand the very idea of transgender identities is as just another form of “business ontology”.

Note how he conflates trans “control” — supposedly of opinions and behaviors through political correctness — and an assumed trans “profit motive”. This is how most major companies function, of course. (Though he seems to be against tech monopolization, casting aspersions on the assumption we’re all going to be controlled by “five companies” in our VR pods, Kirk is an unabashed capitalist.) The exaggeration of health benefits or prestige of certain products is a way to “control” consumers, convincing them to buy things, and subsequently driving profits. It’s the basic nefariousness of marketing. But it is telling that Kirk cannot think of any other reason why a group of people would collectively want something. He cannot compute the desire that transgender people have to just exist without concluding they must also want people to buy stuff. He has no conception of a “post-capitalist desire”; on the contrary, desire for anything must proceed in capitalist terms. Ergo, transgender people are in cahoots with a transhumanist Silicon Valley to get you to change your gender and buy VR headsets. (It’s called syzygy! Look it up!)

But this conspiratorial conflation and inflation of trans rights with big tech’s profit motive does nothing other than provide us with mundane insight into how Kirk constructs his hyperreality. By defining “transgenderism”, as an apparent political project, through his own closed capitalist mindset, he seems to tell us more about what he would do than what transgender people actually want. And the way he inflates and conflates is an integral part of that process. He extrapolates outwards from the logics of his own worldview to disparage the presumed outcomes of his ideological enemy’s desires.

“If I were them, I’d do this.” “God, that’s evil.” “I know right.” Not a single ounce of self-awareness is to be found anywhere.

This is, of course, how capitalist realism has always functioned. Though it may be ideologically static, it is not productively inert. When Fisher talks about our “frenzied stasis”, this is what he is talking about: the churning hyperreality of postmodern conservatism and neoreactionary politics, albeit at a time when things were a lot less explicit than they are now. (That being said, we find it presciently described in the work of Baudrillard, who Fisher has drawn upon from the beginning, before he’d even appropriated the term “capitalist realism”.) As he argues in an unpublished essay from 2013, “Rather than being defined by the disappearance of reality … the hyperreal is instead characterised by a claustrophobic excess of reality. Change can be imagined, but only as a metastatic expansion of that which already exists.”

This is how Kirk understands trans people. If they want change, it must only be through this same kind of metastatic expansion, but not of their world — of his. Unable to see outside of his hyperreal capitalist perspective, he tells us far more about the world he’s trying to protect than the new world his “opponents” desperately want.

7 Comments

  1. Offhand question, but what are your thoughts on transhumanism? (…as a possibly leftist program)

    1. Reply to ramjet_oddity: Transhumanism is not and cannot ever be a leftist program; it is the paradigmatic opposite of posthumanist thought, a (supposed) techno-deterministic transcendence of human limitations rather than an acceptance of humanity’s position as one agent among a universe of others. That the terms have become confused and interchangeable is entirely down to the careful and intentional work of transhumanists to blur the distinction. No philosophy which counts among its devotees Peter Thiel, Max More, Nick Bostrom and Steve Fuller, which is more or less openly a defence of eugenics with added free markets, can have any claim to leftism of any type. It is a scene of highly advanced hucksterism. Avoid.

      1. Inclined to agree here, although it is worth noting that Kirk’s usage is as vague as anything else he mentioned in his little speech. His panic seems to be that, when we augment our experiences with technology (which is seemingly always biopolitical), we distance ourselves from our humanity — a point he makes whilst holding a microphone to artificially amplify his all-too-human voice, of course. There are important questions to be raised about the terms we use — I know a few self-described “posthumanists” who are nonetheless a bit TERFy — but capitalism is the real enemy here, and what parts of these discourses it chooses to accept and reject, and on what terms, tells us more than anything else. That’s the real question here: to what extent does the “trans” or the “post” nonetheless remain a “humanism”, as a pillar of liberal thought, with “individualism” and “capitalism” its natural bedfellows.

        1. I totally agree with the issues with Musk et al., but I’m not so sure I see the problem with Nick Bostrom. He’s a liberal, sure, but he does investigate rather important and interesting questions – Christ, he was even interviewed by Collapse twice, I mean. Sure, I suppose that his work can and is assimilated into some sort of capitalist realism, but all the same a post-capitalist socialist world and a neoliberal hell would would be equally destroyed by an asteroid strike or a gamma-ray burst.

          But what I was thinking was your old post AI Is Good Really, on capitalist realism, AI and Reza Negarestani. Sure, actual transhumanists end up reifying the human, but at the same time the technologies themselves do in fact deconstruct the notion of human themselves. I mean, I cannot see a firm dividing line between AI in Negarestani’s Intelligence & Spirit and say, cryonics and nootropics and stuff. I mean, there are things like bodyhacking that exist outside capital so far, and could be aligned with leftist and feminist/trans/disability liberation goals. (I was thinking about magnetic implants, which is not quite possibly pure expenditure in that it does not actually create surplus value for some corporation.)

        2. Yeah, I agree with you there. Not too familiar with Bostrom, although Thomas Moynihan’s now at his research centre for existential risk, I think, so there’s more to that than meets the eye. I think the persistent intervening of people like Negarestani and others counts for something. Whether they’re firmly aligned to a popular leftist vanguard is another question, but they’re asking necessary questions that problematise it’s easy co-optation by capital. Far from perfect, far from pure — a lot more interventions are needed to make good on it, that’s for sure.

  2. You write that, “By defining “transgenderism”, as an apparent political project, through his own closed capitalist mindset, he seems to tell us more about what he would do than what transgender people actually want.” I’m all too familiar with that. I have a good friend who is a refugee and never got much education. Since residing in the US, he started attending a fundamentalist church and it has pulled him into reactionary strains of politics. He is a nice guy and generally opposes authoritarianism, but he has few if any intellectual defenses against reactionary rhetoric.

    Repeating what he has heard, he believes that a LGBTQ movement exists with the primary purpose of turning the whole world LGBTQ, a truly bizarre sense of reality. But it makes sense within the reactionary mind. That is what reactionaries would do if they were LGBTQ, as that is what heteronormative reactionaries want to do in enforcing heterosexuality. You go on to say, “He extrapolates outwards from the logics of his own worldview to disparage the presumed outcomes of his ideological enemy’s desires.” I’ve often written about that tendency to project onto others and turn their views into a caricature. And it’s related to something I recently posted:

    “Here is the observation. Reactionaries only perceive the other side’s beliefs and views, values and principles as ideological, that only those other people’s ideologies are radical and extremist; that other’s politics are a religious faith, other’s political actions are nihilism and anarchism, other’s religions are cults and myths, other’s rhetoric is propaganda, other’s fears are moral panic, other’s behavior is mass formation, other’s governance is authoritarianism, on and on and on. Basically, those other people are bad or evil, whereas reactionaries are confident that they are on the side of Light and Righteousness. There is a lack of humility and introspection, mixed with projection and caricature.”

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2022/01/07/what-the-right-fears-the-left-desires/

    All of that, of course, is projection. Let me touch upon the first point you made: “The knowingly embraced paradox of neoreaction is, of course, that it is the new face of traditionalism and conservatism. It is conservatism but bigger, better and more postmodern. Though it denounces “postmodern neomarxism” as an attack on reality as such, it is driven by a complementary demand for not just the protection of “reality” and its norms, but the generation of more reality — a reality that is often nebulously defined, gesturing towards vague traditionalist tropes and exaggerated aesthetics.”

    Reactionary postmodernism is among the most fascinating phenomena. Many others have noted the postmodern and relativistic rhetorical patterns of diverse reactionaries, from Russell Kirk to Jordan Peterson. According to Corey Robin, this is simply because reactionaries arose with modernity and were opposed to traditionalism right from the start. The incorporated modern thought early on, just as they continue to co-opt new rhetoric as convenient. There is no substance to the reactionary mind since it is simply defined by whatever it is reacting to.

    Actually, that is not quite right. There is an underlying motivation, that of defense of hierarchy; but it is not traditional hierarchy. Also, it’s not merely a defense of what already exists as established conventions, as social norms and social order. More importantly, what defines the reactionary is that it seeks to generate the new. Those trying to understand this might be wise to study social science research and theory. The reactionary style, although drawing much from right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), might be more strongly informed by what is called social dominance orientation (SDO).

    I was looking at studies and commentary on those who measure high on SDO. So much of it sounds like the reactionary mind. They are truly bad actors with much overlap with the Dark Triad (authoritarianism, narcissism, Machiavellianism), demonstrating a cynical attitude of opportunism and realpolitik (e.g., low on HEXACO honesty-humility; hence, the correlation to Machiavellianism). Let me make a couple of points about SDOs.

    First, the SDO7 scale shows that there are at least two strains of SDO, SDO-D (dominance) and SDO-E (anti-egalitarianism). Individuals might have both or only one. SDO-Ds are more akin to what some think of as old school authoritarians; and, when combined with RWA in the form of Double Highs, these are the worst of the worst in being the most virulently bigoted and often found among leaders of far right groups. They want naked power and are willing to be aggressive, even violent, in gaining it.

    But SDO-Es can be much more subtle and sophisticated, as they seek to maintain stratified hierarchy and elite control without necessarily enforcing domination on any specific group. This is how Democrats can support capitalist realism of plutocracy while promoting diversity through tokenism, and a similar thing is seen with neo-reactionaries who might genuinely deny past forms of overt bigotry even as they are all on board with authoritarian-style class war and oppression.

    The thing is, as research shows, SDOs not only want to defend already existing hierarchies but to also create new hierarchies where it previously was missing. This is why they aren’t traditionalists. They don’t care so much about what was true of the past, as they can reinvent the past as needed with nostalgic historical revisionism and invented traditions. They don’t constrain themselves to social reality as it actually was for, as you say, they are constantly generating ever more broad claims of reality, new and better realities.

    SDOs are very different from RWAs, even as the two tend to overlap in modern Western societies. Basically and primarily, RWAs are just conformists. Yes, they can be prejudiced in their in-group demands, but it’s nothing quite like SDO dominance. Non-SDO RWAS will fear and hate perceived outsiders for being unable or unwilling to assimilate to the normative identity and groupthink; and this would be true of how a high RWA in a Scandinavian country would most likely uphold social democracy and only attack those who don’t likewise conform to a specific Scandinavian identity that is enmeshed with that social democracy (e.g., immigrants who fully assimilate would be held up as ‘good’).

    That is where SDOs clearly diverge. To the SDO mentality, no low status person is ever good and is always a threat to dominance and hierarchy. Opposite of RWAs, SDOs will fear and hate the others to the extent they have or might assimilate. That is because assimilation would destroy the distinctions upon which dominance and hierarchy are determined. SDO-Es, however, are a bit more tolerant and flexible in that it would be fine for a few racial minorities, immigrants, etc to rise up into the ruling elite, as long as the majority remain in the oppressed permanent underclass.

    An RWA could conform to almost anything, even an egalitarian and low inequality social democracy, but that is not true of SDOs of any variety. So, although RWAs tend toward reactionary, this is largely context-dependent; whereas SDOs will carry their reactionary tendencies with them no matter the social conditions and no matter the kind of society they are in. As such, SDOs are always going to try to subvert any non-dominance and egalitarian system into its opposite, which they could do by co-opting the rhetoric of non-dominance and egalitarianism. An SDO will never conform to anything that isn’t structured according to SDO dominance and/or hierarch, and they will use any means necessary to that end.

    Non-SDO RWAs lack much capacity of self-aware honesty-humility, but they also lack the deceptive and manipulative Machiavellianism of SDOs and Double Highs. The bluntness and simplicity of RWA behavior, as straightforward authoritarianism, makes it easier to identify and hence less dangerous. What we need to worry about is SDO and that seems to have more to do with what we mean when speaking of reaction and neo-reaction. The RWA masses only become a threatening concern when they are led by high SDOs and Double Highs.

    Those like Trump are more mild because, not only in being a bumbling buffoon, he is high only in SDO but not in RWA. The Double High demagogues are the truly scary figures, from Josef Stalin to Adolf Hitler. Among the neo-reactionaries, I’m not sure how many would be Double Highs. It doesn’t seem as common, though. Most neo-reactionaries are probably just SDOs with more emphasis on SDO-E anti-egalitarianism than SDO-D dominance.

    That isn’t to say that neo-reactionary movements couldn’t help create the conditions for old school SDO-D bigotry to come back into power, in the way that SDO demagogues like Trump are happy to drawn upon such prejudice, as that is what Machiavellianism is all about. So, all of this creates the conditions where it is more likely a Double High could come along to take advantage of the weakening of egalitarian norms and increasing inequality. Neo-reactionary rhetoric is problematic, if only in how it further psychotically disconnects social, economic, and political debate from meaningful reality; i.e., false consciousness.

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