Hybrid Theory, Highbred Taste: Reflections on Linkin Park


Neither for Chester Bennington of Linkin Park nor in the last couple years for eminences such as David Bowie and Leonard Cohen have I felt a lot of grief about the mere fact of the person being gone, though the circumstances of deaths such as Bennington’s and Chris Cornell’s obviously tug at the heartstrings to an extent. I don’t know, people die, especially musicians; or perhaps for all people I don’t know, I’m totally driven by impersonal equations of justice and stochasticity, rather than personal sympathy or care. However, over the last few days, Bennington’s death has revived memories from my past and occasioned broader reflections on taste and “objectivity” with respect to art that I find worth cohering as follows:

Linkin Park was inexorably popular in upper-middle-class India for teenagers in the second half of the previous decade (at least that is the only period which I can refer to). And I mean, there wasn’t a single other Western music project that was at that status. It was the thing in early high school where and when I grew up—if you listened to Linkin Park, you were cool, it was as simple as that. I think the status has persisted till now, something people of the West don’t really recognize, I think: Linkin Park was the first rock band to reach one billion YouTube hits. As of 2014, it was second-most liked music group on Facebook (curse the Black Eyed Peas…) and the fifteenth most liked Facebook page in general. As of 2015, it was the only band or artist to have two songs (Numb and In The End, of course) in the top ten of Spotify’s “timeless songs” list. All this is completely the effect of the Internet affordances and social media norms of millions of South Asian millennials. In the last few days, so many of the Youtube comment tributes on its videos are from South Asia and other parts of the world whose languages I cannot tell. Seriously, my American friends, I don’t think any of you really get the global sway of this band…

I really liked Linkin Park too, though I never claimed it as my favorite band ever. (The Numb-Encore mash-up between Jay Z and Linkin Park was my favorite song in class IX though; I still know it by heart.) Now I’m in a different place; I diligently follow norms of refinement, so as to have “good taste”—but I did then too! Furthermore, since those days, I’ve come to acquire a stronger belief for than against an aesthetic Good and Bad (though only in interrelation with and contingent upon ontology and history). Which means that when I received news about Bennington’s death and revisited some of his music, given that I was tender about it, in large part due to the circumstance of suicide and the new lens with which his lyrics were now liable to reception, it was tough—why am I reacting with genuine fondness and warmth (powered by nostalgia, undoubtedly, but extending beyond nostalgia) to this music, when I know that anytime in the last few years, I would have scoffed with my friends and its tawdriness?

Death does interesting things—on one hand, rigor mortis; but on the other, correspondingly, a softening of the nerves and cardiac tissues that led not just myself, but others who would have been embarrassed to be listening to Linkin Park in public in the last few years of their lives, to enjoy that music, if not celebrate it. Some musicians who have died in the last couple years were well lauded before death (Bowie, Prince, Cohen). But others were really on some spectrum of a joke—I’m not familiar enough with the in’s and out’s of Anglo-American (white) social life, but I think George Michaels was one of them (though not considered nearly as vulgar as Linkin Park). As soon as he died, though, his music became a serious matter. Now with Bennington—most of the people who posted in mourning about him are connections of mine from India, but even among them, many who have over the years moved onto “better culture”—it’s a similar story. Does death really imbue greater discernment on our ears, such that they are opened to things they had been missing over the years? Does death actually change the music itself, as correlative and intertextual with the stories around it? Or are we just being sentimental, and Linkin Park is still just shitty music that may have affected us when we were stupider, but still has nothing of value?

First a note surmising into why Linkin Park was so popular in India. A big reason I think is major chords and melody; stylistically it bears similarities to the exuberance of Bollywood music, so it naturally fits schemes of “proper music” that are about coded into Indian listening practices, while also, obviously, being in English and of the USA, so as to enable us conferring on ourselves the coolness we still yearn for in our never-ending postcolonial hangover. A bigger reason, though, has to be Bennington’s vocals. They’re clean, in the manner of most South Asian vocals. And for a Western rock vocalist, he’s actually far more capable than average—Rihanna, for example, in her Instagram tribute to Bennington, called him a “vocal beast,” and “[l]iterally the most impressive talent I’ve ever seen live.” That’s a very strong claim to make, obviously, but I don’t find it preposterous; go see, for example, the end of the first YouTube video (from the Road Revolution DVD) that should come up when you search for “Jay Z Linkin Park live,” when Bennington, from the six-minute mark, performs the ‘Faint’ part of the mash-up with Jay Z’s ‘Jigga What.’

Vocal quality is not too important an element in listening practices around Western rock and pop music, or, sorry, white music. (That really is how it is; it’s not Western music, it’s white music. Vocal quality is one of the things you listen to soul music for, and even the bare nature of a rapper’s voice is a big part of enjoying them, but that is rarely an important aspect of rock music, if it were, the names “Bob Dylan” and “David Bowie” would mean nothing to you, and Van Morrison might be on a terrorist watchlist.) There are other elements to white music that aren’t given any emphasis in Indian music, which is the biggest reason why white people find most Bollywood at best for frivolous fun and at worse pure trash—for example, in Indian popular music, instrumentation is typically supplementary, the only time it is really paid attention to, if at all, is between verses, while in rock music, you really are listening for how the various instruments complement each other and the vocals. But technical skill in singing and the sweetness (or other positive distinctive character) of a voice is immensely important in South Asian music, and, indeed, in much of the world of color. One thing both my white friends and my parents have trouble keeping up with is that you’re listening for different things with different musics (and most truly, “musics,” in the plural, is the only correct way to put it) and that different production and listening cultures exist that are sensitive to things other cultures miss. The musical greats have all realized this—Elvis, for example, acknowledged that “[n]obody can sing [rock ’n’ roll] like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” It perhaps is as simple as saying that growing up in a non-European ethnic culture, you simply acquire a sense and will for vocals that you don’t have if you’re of European descent. And Bennington and Linkin Park, probably without having consciously planned for it, stumbled upon that significant divide in listening practices, which made them hugely popular globally.

(Talking of unifying a global audience, a brief digression, perhaps my hottest take here, on another value that stands apparent in Linkin Park and in popular “mainstream” music in general far more than indie: Linkin Park, through its associations with Jay Z, might have brought about more anti-racism than any indie rock outfit I’m aware of, no matter how progressive the values they espouse and how woke the scenes they occupy—over the last few days, I’ve gone through as many Jay Z-Linkin Park live performances as I’ve found, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen music audiences as racially diverse as at those concerts. Of course, temporary integration doesn’t solve systemic racism, but to that, first, what the hell has woke indie music done for that either, and second, there is yet great value to bringing together one demographic that at that time was probably otherwise into Green Day or Korn, and another that featured a preponderance of 50 Cent fans, as one commonly emoting entity; regardless of what leftists of today might say about all that, breaking racial barriers and facilitating racial mixing, whether formally or informally, should be a big means and end of ending racism.)

Popularity in India is the easier part of the puzzle. Okay, differences in listening practices and sociological norms mean that for a South Asian listening subject, Linkin Park legitimately wouldn’t be bad music in the way it would for the Western listening subject. But what of the Western listening subject? After all, the YouTube comment tributes are littered with seemingly Anglo-American fans grieving as well. Are they all plain idiots? I have qualms about being a so-called elitist when it is required, but I’ve been a bit tender in my severity in the immediate wake of Chesterton’s death….

Everything hinges upon the unqualified and overflowing meaning of suicide, the unrepresentable significance of the stark phenomenon of it. There are a few standards, coded into the social unconscious, according to which music (and probably all that is socially understood as “art” in its modern sense) is taken as Good or Bad. The first, most basic one is coarse biology—just as human bodies enjoy certain kinds of tactile sensations and formations, so we like certain kinds of auditory sensations and formations. Music is predicated upon this, obviously, with neat chords and what not, and I think traditional classical musics (Indian, Western, others), function predominantly on the basis of eliciting the most intense biological agitations in humans—a process that requires a consummate optimum of finesse and delicacy interwoven with directness and brawn, once the more crude peltings of chords are all exhausted. Fast-forwarding from Liszt to Linkin Park, with the latter’s power chords and slick production, most of us would fall into the biosemantic trap. It isn’t outright discordant, there are elements that appeal to our brains—basically, it qualifies as music.

That, of course, isn’t saying much. We generally want more than that to consider something Good music. A second standard is the violation of cliché. Caring about this is an effect and generator of modernity. The easiest theoretical instance of this emphasis is in my understanding Adorno’s interest in expressionism (in Western classical music), and his admiration for Stravinsky and (more so) Schoenberg for their work in breaking up set standards in tone and scale. Nowadays many of us are disdainful of top-40 music because “it all sounds the same”—not because it isn’t pleasant in a simple, “primary” sense. This falls under this second characteristically modern standard–nothing new is happening, so it’s lacking in artistic merit. With Linkin Park I at least am not sure able to draw a conclusion. The skeptical assessment of Linkin Park’s compositions would be that either instrumentally, lyrically or otherwise, they don’t really seem to raise the bar or push the boundary for musical innovation. However, within rap rock, the group did consummate the genre markers, while blending it with electronic elements in a way that did represent an innovation. Instrumentally there isn’t much complex going on with Linkin Park, but the interplay between Bennington’s singing and Mike Shinoda’s rap was pretty neat.

But whether on this front Linkin Park is Good or Bad, it’s the following touchstone, heavily interlocked with the prior one, against which Linkin Park fails. Put in primitive terms, it asks the following: does the work of art express or reflect or enable the surfacing of the subjectivity most in line with or true to the social reality of the day? (I’m aware of the philosophical presuppositions at work here: for example a Cartesian distinction required for “the work of art” as an object; the mass constitution of world-historical subjects—which I’d argue isn’t a modern creation—with at least internalized consciousness of that very fact, etc.) To distill most of my thought into an inadequate but simple example, it’s my wager that the biggest reason people with indie sensibilities of some sort or another can’t stand top-40 music, particularly that still cloaked under an ostensible drape of “rock” (for example Coldplay or Imagine Dragons), is because it evinces a degree of exuberance or earnestness about experience that simply is out of touch with existence in postmodernity, that somehow is lost on the atemporality and ennui that should be characteristic of subjects fully awake and aware of the state of things in late capitalism. This is a benchmark of “good taste,” or refinement; indeed, this tendency to always filter the production of objects in the world against the ever-present, a priori sieve of knowing what reality is really like is in my opinion the defining characteristic of hipsterism. Good art, then, captures the register in which we exist today, while bad art doesn’t. If an earnest emotion is to be expressed, then, according to the sense of the well-cultivated, doing so in a style grand or unmediatedly beautiful is considered in bad-taste. For those of us savvy enough about what existence is really like, how can there be an earnest gesture? How can there be anything but pastiche and parody? If we are not to caricature or redo the past, how can we produce anything that is not subdued or has a vein of mildness to it? How can we speak, but with a voice of irony? How can we stand in a political rally and chant a slogan with a straight face? How can we sing along to a power ballad about yearning for a love and a full happy life to be lived with that love?

If such emotions are to be expressed in music, space must be created for them by compensation—bleared by irony, softened by mildness or distortion in style to dull out the passion while it still remains, ultimately, in the lyrics, for those who care enough to understand what is being sung—one must remember that Angel Olsen and Devendra Banhart sing about roughly same themes as Breaking Benjamin and 30 Seconds To Mars; but on top of the alleged lack of musical ingenuity the latter are accused of, it is very much a matter of the tenor in which they lay bare their souls that is deemed uncouth in a world which the wiser know, in sum, that there is no point, no hope, none at all—our lives are going to suck our souls out, our bodies will have nothing left in them by the time we pay off our debts, and let us not even think about whether we’ll have any healthcare when we retire; oh but it won’t matter because we’ll be on the brink of ecologically induced extinction anyway by the time we reach that age….

But if in the end nothing really matters, to say the same in not just a plain fashion, but with puissance, ardency, urgency, with barre chords and ripped-vocal choruses—Bennington and co. didn’t really get it did they? This is fundamentally why Linkin Park has been considered Bad music by those with discrimination and “taste.” Except, of course, till the guy singing all this unwitting stuff kills himself, and then, suddenly, it is Good again. So, finally, is it just us being soft and sentimental, or were we missing something all along? At this point I don’t quite have an answer, but I do see the implications of each of the choices on my understanding of what is considered Good and Bad art.

All great art is ultimately about the personal; even when it is about society, it is through the tales and travails of individuals, from Zola to Grandmaster Flash. But according to Good Taste, the problem isn’t about music being about individual issues, as Linkin Park’s has always been apparent as. The problem lies in the conveyance, the way those individual issues were expressed in a social object, a way that could be described as so “extra,” as lacking an understanding of the world altogether. But against suicide, what does that matter? The guy is really struggling. OK Computer and Kid A may really capture what it means to be a subject in this era, but that doesn’t matter when the chemicals in your brain make being such a subject immediately and conclusively not worth it. Good music knows that it cannot hold itself in such an emo posture, because most of us have something or the other to feel emo about, so chill out man, don’t take yourself so seriously, we’re not denying those emotions but are you so self-important that you’d impose that bearing on us, as if you’re the only one who has issues, as if anything even matters at all, as if there is a greater purpose to our lives and our collective destiny than stock market values….

All this falls apart with suicide. With suicide in the equation, yes, he now tells us from his noose, I do have issues probably more serious than you do, I cannot chill out, insofar as my vessels stay warm, I cannot not take myself so seriously, exist by regarding my existence itself as something so irrelevant as to terminate it, and no, there isn’t a greater purpose to our lives, you’re welcome, hopefully this makes that crisply clear to you.

Then, one way to resolve the bind is to regard death as a special case. If art somehow captures what it is to exist as a subject somewhere and sometime, death, being about nonexistence, overturns the terms. With death, the music retroactively becomes something different from what it was hitherto taken as. Whining is emo and subjective; death is hard and objective. When we now listen to Bennington’s songs, they are no longer whiny, they are veritable swan songs. (It is a similar with Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, or Keep Me In Your Heart by Warren Zevon.) The music is now a tragedy in retroaction. From this angle, Linkin Park itself changes in a comprehensive sense—it isn’t us being sentimental, it is actually good—but we also weren’t mistaken earlier, it was bad then; as the world itself changed to become a scene of suicide, suddenly bringing teleology and meaning to a narrative that otherwise would have been among the undifferentiated mass of narratives of homogenized subjects under capitalism, so also does the art-object in the world. This standpoint would reflect the condition that existence is particular, but nonexistence general—insofar as a premise of an art-object is that is it is about some facet existence (somewhere, somewhen), if it is to be “good,” it is to stay consistent with the mood of that somewhere and somewhen. Now… with the death of the author… as Linkin Park’s songs ontologically become about nonexistence, or at least the drive toward it, they are liberated from those requirements.

But even in writing the above the crevices to that position become apparent, at least from the premise itself that the way the framing of Good and Bad is presented above is actually how it takes place. This is because the Good and the Bad must be universal or general, and the music was technically creating by the living and was about living, even if just hanging in there. This holds fast to the standard—even the most tragic, wrenching emotion must be enclosed in a work of art that remains in sync with the mood of the world, which today, in global capitalism, only has a limited tolerance for over-the-top emotions and earnestness that implies a greater purpose. And after all, suicide rates have risen drastically in the last 30 years in the US, so even that can be subsumed under the general psychosocial conditions of the times.

Now, this isn’t a trivialization of Bennington’s plight. It is more a commentary about how good taste functions, and makes no compromises. If philosophy and theory enable one to view the particular from the purview of the universal, art does the opposite—the particular opens itself up into the universal. And if it does not do that, if the full existence and affect of the created universal does not hold up against other understandings of the universal derived from experience, then it isn’t (Good) art. In “refined taste,” Good art tells the story of a specific subject, but does so in a way that captures the general, in a way that affirms the reality of the most elementary aspects of our existence as subjects.

The interesting implication from this is then not about Linkin Park, but about pronouncing music to be Good or Bad in this way—it demonstrates that Good Taste harbors a certain fidelity to other ontological and historical projects. Insofar as music (or other art) is considered Good for reflecting, through particular narratives, a general experience, it does two things: First, in its own affirmation, on the side of the object, it pushes for a certain understanding of the world, one devoid as it were of false consciousness, one that saw things as they are—yatha bhuta. “Taste,” rather than being a mere means of positioning oneself socially, as Pierre Bourdieu would have it, has critique built into it, which may be erroneous, but may otherwise also penetrating and challenging. Second, on the side of the subject, by positing that there is such a thing as a general experience of the world as such, it calls into being or concretizes that very subject, which, looking at the world according to its vision, experiences reality in such a way. It is thus a means of the formation of a collective subjectivity—which could subsequently find formation as a class, polity or some other social unit. Let me state this what I’m saying plainly and explicitly: The taste of a hipster is of tantamount sociopolitical importance.

Moreover, this is the main point of such “refined taste”—it isn’t to valorize or trivialize the pain of Chester Bennington, but it is to hold in place, against the vagaries and distractions of everyday life and economic flows, a collectivity of subjects that exist in conscious relation to the world as it is. If it makes pronouncements about Good or Bad, this is thus in relation to other necessities that may exist, regardless of somewheres and somewhens, regarding being as subjects, which is to say, regarding existence for us.

I don’t have an answer, ultimately, to whether so many of my friends have just been sentimental in the last few days about Linkin Park. Maybe there is a way to reconcile the contingency-necessity of death and suicide with the other considerations about how we construct Good and Bad, with a full frame of reference on the world and experience at large. In the end, though, if there is some truth to my schematization and train of thought, if nothing can be done to rehabilitate Bennington’s music as Good according to the taste so many of my friends and I have grown into over the years, well, good on him—even if not the archetypical dismal-but-curtailed subject of our world, he proved that he was more like himself, and less like us.

“Elon Musk” Does Not Exist


That perverse expression, “Elon Musk,” has been popping up again in the last day. Something to do with an announcement about a hyperloop between New York City and Washington D.C. that this “Elon Musk” has received verbal governmental approval for. As is typical for this discourse, it really doesn’t seem as if people care as much about this potential hyperloop as they do about“Elon Musk” having said something about it. I have been noticing the usage of this designation, “Elon Musk,” for many years now. It first came to my attention around the start of this decade, at which time I took it to be an aftershave. It was only a few years later that I recognized my blunder and came to the correct understanding, which is that “Elon Musk” does not actually exist.

Legend has it that “Elon Musk” is visionary or a fool, depending on the narrative, along with being possessed with seemingly superhuman capacities to work 100-hour weeks, having slept for decades only six-and-a-half hours on average a night, reading incessantly, and having founded and led companies such as Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring Company; a person who is, depending on whom you ask, precluding the collapse of human civilization with at least omniscience and omnipotence among other merits, or a bastard child of Cervantes and Ayn Rand possessed by the will of a Satan.

Having looked into the matter, it appears that while these companies do exist and have a founder and CEO, who admittedly does seem to work a lot and sleep not a whole lot, the concept that is talked about so much, as described above, bears no correspondence to any existing entity.

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There is first the misconstruction of “Elon Musk” as a creator. Many victims of this fallacy talk about “Elon Musk,” sometimes shortened to merely “Musk,” in a typically positive light to refer to an entity that has created electric cars, solar panels and even rockets. To create a rocket, though, you do need to be a rocket scientist, and so far there are no signs that “Elon Musk” is one. However, even being a rocket scientist would not be enough, as many other functions must be fulfilled for the creation of a rocket. One of these functions may be the organization and deployment of capital—machines, labor, instructions—and official communications about it.

This may well be an arduous function. But curiously, so far no term has come up to refer to an entity who exclusively and exhaustively performs these important functions for companies such as SpaceX. Instead people keep talking about “Elon Musk,” much as they kept talking about that other mystical thing, “Steve Jobs,” as having created iPhones. On inquiring into that, it turned out that workers at the Foxconn factory had not organized into a union of this name. At that time partisans of that term told me to try and locate “Steve Jobs” in smartphone technology itself, not the individual phones. But on isolating the “smart” part of the phones—the internet, touchscreens, GPS—rather than the “phone” part, I was led down a surprisingly short rabbit hole to the Department of Defense, whose scientists had created those technologies, and who also did not collectively go by “Steve Jobs.”

Similarly, on looking into the technology that this alleged “Elon Musk” had built, I found, first of all, $4.9 billion in government support for Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX—for example Department of Energy grants that enabled non-Elon Musk-identifying engineers at these companies to create their batteries and solar panels. In other words, benefits accrued to the investors of these companies in large part from the public’s checkbooks—but on looking inward into my own being, I found that I too do not identify in the slightest part as an “Elon Musk,” and it turned out neither does anyone I know. This lent further credence to my growing suspicion that it does not exist.

Money and technology are the cruder stuff, some people then told me, it’s the vision that counts. And “Elon Musk” has such far-sighted and holistic thoughts about the real challenges facing humanity, such intelligent predictions and the beneficent plans. So I looked into the ideas: for example, the warnings about developing strong AI that were typically associated with this radiant supposed fount of perspicacity. But on that subject, I found “Elon Musk” is used as shorthand for the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, who outlined those views in his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. As for the illustrations of the future of human civilization, I found “Elon Musk” to be a signifier for the entire genre of utopian science fiction. As for detailed interviews about rockets described as “interviews with Elon Musk” and such, I found the ideas contained there to be nothing more than the dissemination of knowledge created over generations by the gradual and social endeavor of science, to which I felt my contribution increasing: “Elon Musk” was indeed becoming apparent as a very weak hypothesis.

But public understanding still seemed to be shifting in the opposite direction. The ontology of “Elon Musk” is on the rise. Not just science fiction, but also, random future-oriented pop dialog emanating from the field of science, technology and society studies is being increasing represented by this placeholder. One would think, if one were to actually believe that “Elon Musk” is real, that every random thing it says becomes a headline. The articles underneath these headlines, talking about how we are all living in a simulation, how we must become cyborgs or how robots will make a universal basic income inevitable, are sometimes accompanied by random photographs of some klutzy-looking South African businessman, but the frequently klutzy ideas themselves I have only been able to trace back to commentators who are not South African businessmen. The mystery persists.

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Meanwhile, there has been a parallel universe of discourse about this conception—against the babbling about an imaginary creator and fount, there are also those who revile the purported “Elon Musk.” This discourse, mainly from the left end of the spectrum, was most recently prominent a couple months ago when the Guardian reported on how workers at Tesla’s Fremont, CA plant are being treated very badly. It is equally erroneous, however, as it ascribes to some supposed “Elon Musk” the agency of exploiting and abusing workers for Tesla and his other companies. But to use the language of Marx for the left, this is rank bourgeois ideology, obscuring the real and systemic workings of a market economy by distilling them into a single entity.

Consider, after all, that the company Tesla exists, to manufacture electric cars and solar technology, for the stated purpose of “accelerat[ing] the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” This is a grand task. Tesla faces great competition from traditional auto manufacturers. It actually makes no profits as of now. It is backlogged on its orders.

In this situation, to ask for better conditions for workers at Tesla—which is for sure a virtuous ask—implies the following, and should be pursued to its end without invoking phantasmagoria such as “Elon Musk” at which action and accountability can begin and end: Depending on how good the conditions are to be for workers, Tesla would suffer or outright cease to be. Every bit of welfare it grants to its workers makes it that much less competitive in the market, where traditional auto manufacturers are brimming to edge it out into obsolescence. This is how the market works, at least in its current intertwinings with specific political interests. To create good work conditions to the full extent the average socialist would want them, it is likely that Tesla would simply go out of business. Which many leftists would be fine with—after all, if a company that mistreats its workers goes out of business, particularly out of pressure applied from or for labor, that would be a good thing by a standard socialist ethos.

But it gets messy when we try to figure an “Elon Musk” into this equation: A world in which some “Elon Musk” thing could actually exist as something with any relevant and realistic agency in improving work conditions on the assembly line at Tesla can only be a world in which the market economy would at least not extend to the energy sector, in which case, then, Tesla itself would not exist, in which case “Elon Musk” would not exist. But obviously, this situation is contradictory, and cannot exist. And in any case, such a world is currently categorically inexistent. So, again, we seem to have reached the same dead end: “Elon Musk” does not exist.

Denouncing “Elon Musk,” then, as leftists get so chubbed up by, makes no sense. It is performativity via a chimerical signifier. When leftists express disapproval about the way Tesla treats its workers, and with that imply that “Elon Musk” stop being like that or that Tesla disappear (the two amount to the same thing, as we’ve seen), they actually mean that they don’t want the overall world as it is. In which case, that is what they should say.

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The distinction isn’t pointless. Talking about “Elon Musk” diverts attention from other crucial topics. In response to the tweet made by “Elon Musk” that it has received verbal governmental approval for a hyperloop, even the typically hog-wild fanatical Wired magazine couldn’t help but point out that building infrastructure “doesn’t work like that,” explaining that in the real world, numerous hurdles including but not limited to political will from layers of geopolitical units, regulations of all stripes, land ownership issues, and, perhaps most significantly, money—which in the United States is usually in ample supply for missiles and tax breaks, but somehow becomes an exquisite, precious thing when it comes to future-oriented, common interest projects. (The more shrewd City Lab seconds the skepticism.)

Similarly, the Guardian story from a couple months ago, for those insistent on discussing solely the evils of companies such as Tesla, most fundamentally only substantiated the fact that the private sector cannot be relied upon to transition away from fossil fuels. In fact, the same day that story was published, the New York Times had an extensive interactive piece on how scientists are fearing Antarctica is disintegrating even faster than they had thought. And just about a week prior to tweet about the hyperloop, a chunk of Antarctica the size of Delaware actually mutinied against the Anthropocene and broke off from the continent. There probably is no better issue around which to make demands than delinking the energy system from the market economy, but even the leftists would rather wave fists at this wad of hot air known as “Elon Musk.”

Both glorying a purported capitalist übermensch and ranting about how capitalists are evil thus not only miss the theoretical mark, but also present practical missed opportunities. On the prompt of a conversation between “Elon Musk” and the federal government, and in general anything good companies like SpaceX and the Boring Company are doing, it is at this point a societal imperative to refrain from ogling over that alleged isolated instance, and redirect the conversation to all the rusty hinges upon which the potential of such projects rest. Even assuming more and more private mass infrastructure is good—although a better conversation from a critical perspective would be questioning the very desirability of having mass infrastructure manufactured according to the vision of the present Silicon Valley billionaire elite, with its particular ethos and sensibilities—it isn’t going to happen with a mere Washington swish of a Silicon Valley wand.

Correspondingly, when stories emerge about how companies like Tesla are doing bad, leftists should talk about how the market economy precludes any moral agency or will in the sector of renewable energy (at the very least), either to have a profitable business that can disturb calcified hierarchies and create a mass market in renewables, or to treat its workers well. In that case, both for the workers and for the very things this notion of “Elon Musk” is supposed to have so many opinions on—the future of civilization—leftists should realize “Elon Musk” does not exist and stop talking about it. Instead, they should be seizing the microphone and directing the conversation toward the necessity of suppressing market forces entirely in the energy sector. There are some issues about which making arguments against the efficacy of markets is more difficult, or having more state control probably even undesirable, but the energy sector isn’t one of them. But the value of this will only be realized if if leftists get over venting their inexhaustible ressentiment at fantasies and throwing shade at shadows.

“Elon Musk” is a false notion. “Elon Musk” has not created cars or rockets, or had any ideas about humanity and its future. But at the same time, there is no “Elon Musk” who has any relevant agency in having a comprehensive and wholesome impact insofar as its companies operate within a market economy. Fetishizing the individual for its faults as an economic agent, such a common diversion of the left, is as foolhardy as its right-wing variant of fetishizing the individual for its will. It is moot to construct such an agent who can or should act more ethically in the market economy. The construct would dissolve out of real-world contradiction if ever it were attempted.

* * *

It is always the zealots who construct a messiah, and likewise, the Church and the Inquisition that construct a heretic. Neither can there be a capitalist savior (or destroyer) except in projection from the fantasies of some quasi-religious dogma cloaked in political terms, nor heresy, except in relation to religious institutions. Enthusiasts of the Boring Project, Tesla and SpaceX, if they care about the renegade visions and productions in the world, and not some figurine associated with them, need to forget their figurine, and start talking about the complexities renegade visions typically run up against. Leftists, likewise, if they have concerns beyond moral crusading, should remember to hate the game, not the player.

The halo of a god shines only in the eye of the believer, and no witch exists except burning at the stake. Neither does the rumored “Elon Musk,” except against the stakes that are currently lined up against us. Instead of further shrouding the workings of capitalism in this smokescreen of a fixation, we should talk about what really exists and needs addressing. Otherwise nonexistence may very soon start to catch up with more and more of the yet-existing world.

Proud and Paltry: The Left’s Ontology Problem


One of the most fatuous of prevalent left-wing norms is the idea that one should not express thoughts about issues that do not directly affect one. Such a norm leads to immediate insularity and imminent implosion. The correct principle should be that one should not be granted the authority to enact policies about issues that do not directly affect one except through the democratic representation of those directly affected; anything further than that grants too much authority in guiding our affairs to solipsism. So, that said, I have thoughts to add to the bedlam over the Pride flag, though I am a man—even if brown—as straight and cis as a fiddlestick.

Much has already been made already about whether or not the two additional stripes (black and brown) should have been added. Briefly, I share the critical sentiment: Given the fairly universal values (or so you would think) already represented by the colors on the various iterations of the flag, the addition of two colors to emphasize racial inclusivity seems extraneous, incongruent and bizarre: “Life! Spirit! Healing! Sunlight! Brown People! Black People!” … Enough said about that, hopefully.

Rather, I find the phenomenon so very interesting because it perfectly showcases the ontological limitations of identity politics, which I have so far been able to explain only in the abstract:

The problem, of which the flag is the best manifestation, is that left-wing politics is becoming increasingly dependent on accounting for or upholding what can be positively affirmed and represented (as opposed to something being defined by a state of negation or unrepresentability or not-yet-being; think of it in the sense of a photographic negative too, on top of the “DC movies suck” kind of negative; “not,” as well as “bad”). Leftism (as prevalent) is about advocating as/for those who have been agreed upon as facing some or the other oppression. This advocacy isn’t just regarding the contingent condition of oppression, though, it isn’t merely social advocacy; it is about the identity in its entirety, to a notional level, so as to fortify the defenses against said condition. In other (hopefully simpler) words, to discourage bad things being done to oppressed peoples, rather than merely saying that one shouldn’t do bad things to people, in the abstract, regardless of identity, a mythos (even if not solid philosophical framework) is created around an identity to celebrate it. The underlying sentiment is – “<insert oppressed group> are good, not bad! Also it is good to be <insert oppressed group>, not bad! <insert oppressed group> should be cherished because they are that, not despite or regardless of it” At the most abstract, this kind of leftist ethos posits and affirms a particular kind of being.

But what about being that cannot, even by the most bewildering discursive gymnastics, be celebrated? Those whose being is in negativity? You can celebrate race, for example—you can say, “the thing about brown people to be upheld is their very brownness, that should be a matter of pride!”—but would you say, “the thing about poor people to be upheld is their very poverty, that should be a matter of pride?” Even religious traditions don’t uphold poor people because of poverty itself, but because of the piety and spiritual purity that condition is supposed to foster. How can you put poverty on a Pride flag? “Oh no, austerity has thoroughly decimated you and your family hasn’t it; you are now so beautiful and inspiring, let us hallow you with a stripe…”

Races are easy of course. You can even create symbolic associations between femininity and pink and re/claim that as a symbol of pride and strength. But what symbolic associations are you going to create for something that is defined by negativity—most prominently, labor under a political economic system in which people are institutionally dispossessed of the land and the engines and the servers? Labor in this condition cannot be defined in positive terms, it is defined by not having and becoming-other, creating-other, by the process and in the product that is not what conducts the process. How can you represent that? It may not be impossible, but it will be difficult. But politics, which depends on simplicity, at least in the open and in “the streets,” will not represent such things. Can’t spin a cool image out of being poor? Too hard to frame something or someone as glossy enough to offer a Pepsi to a cop? Your own racially woke liberal conscience prohibiting you from marketing poverty as exotic and ethnic? Well to hell with it then, let them die.

Which is of course what is happening. Look at Pride itself. In San Francisco, among its “grand” and “major” sponsors are BlueShield and Kaiser Permanante, companies which would not have the clout and resources to sponsor events of this scale in a properly civilized and sensible society, which would have a healthcare system in service of human life, rather than the bottom lines of the insurance cartel. Among its “associates” are the platform powers (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Lyft, etc.) most responsible for fostering homelessness in the city. Among its “advocates” are Wells Fargo and Chase, for whom homelessness has been a direct source of revenue. But all that is at least superficial or simplistic. A rejection of Pride due to such associations would partially be symbolic; the logic of x-washing is totalizing, one cannot help but accede to it even in attempting to escape from it.

More fundamentally, though, the point is the paucity of representation as an exhaustive political strategy. It may be convenient and easy, but it will exclude so much of what it is to be a subject in the world, since there is so much more to existing as a subject than mere being that can be affirmed, represented, flattened onto a fabric and worn. It is not just about the problems that come up (as with poverty) when you can’t say, “You ARE ‘x’, that’s great, let’s celebrate that!” Of course, this defiance of the basic logic of the era and populace—the wholesale representation and curation of reality—is the fundamental reason the very mention of class politics draws such a visceral and resentful reaction from so many liberals and leftists today. But it goes beyond class and poverty, as grave as those matters are. It’s also that forms of existence that we can’t yet represent are precluded when politics and discourses of power proceed exclusively on the basis of forms of existence that already exist. We can explore nothing more. It inhibits us from becoming something else, locks us into identities and forms of being that this POC at least would find pretty boring to define himself primarily by for the rest of his life.

Real freedom—if at all the left still cares about that—lies not in being able to exist as something fixed, but in not being what one currently is. Insofar as identity politics gives people currently being dominated the option to not be dominated, it’s doing good. Regrettably, though, the logic by which it fights for things is extending across the entire terrain of politics. Left politics is increasingly being cordoned off to only those causes in which one can posit and celebrate the existence of something. It’s the Instagrammization of politics, completely in sync with the ethic and technologies of late-but-never-leaving capitalism, an ethos that plays perfectly into the well-being of the dominant order: from its perpetuation and profit based on evermore images and information, to the containment of our being within limited forms that it is accustomed to tending as docile workers and consumers.

We need to think about forms of being that can’t neatly be represented on a flag. Flags are representations of peoples or ideals. It would be a waste of reality and its potentials if we want our existence to lie primarily in representing ourselves as what we already are, rather than lying in what we yet are not, in what could outlive our corporeal forms, our skin and our genitals, in things we create and augment the world with, in being thus immanent to the world itself.

Behind All Post-Truth, A Failed Revolution


While discourse about the era of post-truth politics was in vogue immediately after the election, Left commentary on the topic largely denied that this was really a new thing. The Left argued that the very idea that we ever reached a social state in which appeals to emotion or ideological struggles didn’t matter has been a liberal fantasy, that emotion and projection have always been at the center of people’s decision-making processes, that the hubbub was a paranoid reaction of neoliberal ideology, which had thus far masqueraded as fact, but now found that it no longer commanded faith.

But attached to the very concept of “truth” is such a gravitas, that once it is declared that we have moved past truth, reality becomes a marketplace for the circulation of vacuity and artifice. Following the somber proclamations that we no longer live in times wherein truth reigns supreme, they proved more to be prophecy. After “post-truth” came the brouhaha over Russian interference in the elections and theorizing about a Trump-Putin-Assange nexus, and we found something else to think and talk about. “Golden Shower Gate,” so post-elegantly named, interrupted this talk, or perhaps culminated it, by lifting it to soaring, irrelevant absurdity. Of these matters, we could know hardly anything for sure, making them a better candidate for heralding the advent of a genuinely “post-truth” era. Then, immediately after Trump’s inauguration, came “alternative facts,” surrounded by a rush of authoritarian gestures more sudden than most expected. Within a few weeks of his presidency, it seems that alternative facts may be a mainstay of the next few years, with Kellyanne Conway’s concoction of a Bowling Green massacre to justify Trump’s Muslim ban, and the administration’s chief propagandist Sean Spicer’s baseless accusation that Iran had attacked a U.S. naval base.

It’s clear now that we need to go back a few months and talk again about truth and post-truth. But at this point, if leftists still write off that hubbub as a neoliberal defense mechanism to a mandate of no-confidence in its purported post-ideological “truths,” this would be a paranoiac reaction of our own. Because the proliferation of post-truth in the most appropriate and existent sense—more broadly, through the proliferation of fake and flimsy news sources, and more narrowly in the form of Executive branch alternative facts—can be directly tied to the failure of the Left. Post-truth is the moment of the mirror for the Left to confront its own failures, and then, as if the world depends on it—because it does—self-correct.

* * *

To explore how the Left has been responsible in bringing about this state of affairs, though, first it must be convinced that this post-truth state of affairs does exist as something qualitatively different from the recent past. As pertains to the Brexit and Trump campaigns, with respect to which the term “post-truth” has most been applied, the Left has been correct in that the only difference was mainly quantitative: More fake news, rather than, “oh rats, fake news!” (Which is a serious problem, certainly, but it’s more a problem of digital capitalism than anything else, as Evgeny Morozov explained.) In the Oxford Dictionary sense of the term—“[r]elating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—“post-truth” is indeed whiny ideological obfuscation. Indeed, in this sense, liberals and the Democrats themselves exist in a state of pure post-truth—how could all the liberal delusion, from the psephological pomposity regarding the invincibility of Hillary Clinton, to the Clintons’ own ascription of blame over HRC’s loss to the Russians and James Comey, have come to be, except on the basis of letting emotion and projected desires cloud proper judgment? As liberals calling post-truth themselves show, the question for politics has always been: What are the facts that are used to rouse emotion and build coalitions?

But even though post-truth isn’t valid when applied in its mainstream sense, it has been in a state of becoming. Its most manifest traces so far were visible during the Russia affair. One can see this by understanding post-truth in a more appropriate and ideologically cognizant sense. Put simply, if it is possible at a given context to point to certain claims and authoritatively say about them, “this is true” and to point to others and say “this is false” and have people listen to you, then the context is not yet “post-truth” in the sense that should be most meaningful or comprehensive. In this circumstance, truth claims as socially accepted are still obviously possible.

However, once it is announced that we do live in a post-truth context, the real trouble begins. And indeed, the announcement of tragedy, even if there was actually no unusual tragedy to make a fuss about, was followed promptly by farce: the Russia affair, an interference which, if it is true, is farcical in its scope and implications compared to the tragedy entailed by the election itself. (Recall that the fuss was never about Russia having tampered with the votes themselves, or even that it spread false propaganda , but merely that it had a hand in the revelation of information that not even the exposed party denies as fact.) Tragedy only exists in a context wherein it can be distinguished from non-tragedy—and if we decide that such distinction is not possible, all that remains, and all that will follow is farce, farce and more farce.

After all, regardless of the degree of thoroughness and integrity with with this matter could be examined, satisfying and complete meaning was impossible to cohere out of the situation. All the babble, then, is farce. Even the New York Times couldn’t help but acknowledge that in the declassified intelligence report about Russian involvement ordered by President Obama, there was “no information about how the agencies had collected their data or had come to their conclusions.”

This is proper post-truth—where it is impossible for the public to even know what is going on—and it is increasing: if some degree of belief can be placed in the US government’s assertions about Russian interference, even if no incriminating information has been provided that we can know for sure, what can even be made of the Golden Showers? And right now, all but three weeks of “facts” the Trump-Bannon regime can refer to have transpired in times this regime hasn’t controlled or written the narrative for—but will we even have the means to know in two years whether claims about Iranian attacks on the U.S. have any veracity to them?

Now, this would by no means be the first time the U.S. government has told lies. Most of us in fact remember the most significant previous occasion, when the Bush-Cheney regime concocted vaporous weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. However, one could not as legitimately say that such utter impenetrability into what is going on is the norm of the United States. While bourgeois and nationalist creed are always at play in mediating and coloring news, it is possible with some critical sense to parse through all the bullshit, to penetrate to the nub of all the objects of ideology, sublime or crass, pure or impure, and make out how things really are.

However, there is no degree of Gramsci, Žižek or Chomsky one could read to tell for sure whether or not the U.S. government is honest about the Russian government’s interference in the election, and much less, for those who think it is of any consequence for anything of consequence, whether Donald Trump has a penchant for watching Russian prostitutes piss on blue-ribbon linen. It had been a relatively long time, since the Russia business, that the foremost political or social discourse was about a topic regarding which no civic institution or public mechanism had sufficient power or granted access to ascertain.

Ascertainment by nonpartisan independent institutions, though—since even this isn’t taken for granted by many on the left—is a prerequisite for confidence in the word of the U.S. government. As so many have seemed to forget in terror of Trump, the U.S. government has hardly ever been an institution to be trusted about information otherwise. The second Iraq War was not the first time the U.S. government and its appendages in the media lied about reality for the benefit of empire and business. Nor will it be the last. Still, we could eventually find out in that case that the government lied. There was a democratic minimum we have had.

But even this is now threatened, as the new monstrous swamp in D.C. extends its tentacles across more and more organs of civil society, tightens its grip over our informational founts and conduits, and foists blindfolds over the public. Even if the non-centrality of facts to politics is hardly new and the rise of fake news is a quantitative rather than qualitative contingency, we do live in a world of post-truth in the making, since increasingly, particularly for the most-discussed topics out there, we cannot really tell what the facts are.

The left has hitherto been unerring in pointing out, as needed, that rational, non-ideological politics do not exist, that this itself is an ideological bluff, that the emperor wears no clothes. But that moment has passed, and it has neglected the crucial event, the glaring turning point, the election itself, during which the emperor has gone into the backroom and come out of a different entrance, and the clear view of him has been lost. Now, it is impossible to tell whether or not the emperor is wearing clothes, or really, who even the emperor is. The left, though, is still shouting that the emperor wears no clothes, because what else does it know, what else can it do? So accustomed has it become to there not being clothes on the emperor, that it cannot even think about clothes in and of themselves. But that is what is required now.

* * *

Truth, then.

It would be blustering and starry-eyed to ask what truth is here. The most relevant and least ingenuous question to ask about it instead is, when? When was truth worn, and when is it shorn? The idea of “truth” has existed as a necessary part of all systems of knowledge; however, the kind of truth that we are talking about here, the kind that is being bemoaned, is a particular, historically contingent kind of truth. A media that didn’t depend on being overblown for profits would have talked about the more limited and precise category of “knowledge” rather than the more sensational “truth.” 2+2=4 hasn’t been contested yet, but knowledge about the facts of the physical world has been, including and especially regarding its sublimations into and as society.

This is “truth,” if it must be called so, as in whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, whether Hillary Clinton took money from Wall Street, whether Donald Trump has hands smaller than the male statistical average or has less money than he claims he does. There is only one answer to these questions, and the answer, whatever it is, is the correct answer—and it is in this sense of correctness that the truth we are talking about has existed. In technical terms, this is a posteriori knowledge we are talking about, or knowledge about natural and social happenings that can be garnered from one’s own or someone’s exposure to the happenings, and deductions based on what is known from the exposure.

Now, this kind of knowledge has existed and more of it has been sought since time immemorial, across all anthropological heterogeneity. However, as a process occurring both symptomatic and generative of a comprehensive economic, cultural and political overhaul, the western Enlightenment, epitomized in the French Revolution, does stand as a distinctive moment. Greatly influenced by the spread of printing technology in the previous century, this was the first time that the availability of knowledge, including social information, was regarded as an ideal not just for a priestly or noble caste, as in feudal societies, or for a special business class, as in the prior protocapitalist Europe—but for all. After all, this condition of knowledge for all, another facet of which is informational symmetry, was required for the corresponding ideal of open participation held by the bourgeois revolution, and proper function of the nascent market economy.

The imposition of policy and values, on the basis of mistaking ideals for reality, in the name of this market economy, as has occurred in the centuries since, is another matter altogether. But the point to be pursued here is that our received idea of “truth” is inseparable from revolutionary standards actualized at a significant scale for the first time in the late eighteenth century. As per this idea, maybe not everyone has knowledge, but everyone certainly can or should—a sense in which knowledge cannot exist without democratic ideals, which deny that there can be people who, whether by heavenly mandate or crude tyranny, are more entitled to knowledge or power than some arbitrary others.

Since this moment of modernity, with the global assumption of bourgeois democracy, however flawed and corrupted it has been, “truth” or knowledge as such a social phenomenon has existed in a way it had never in any prior epoch. Through media and scholarship, it has become a premise of civil society that the public can expect to know, if it desires, important things happening in the social world, and through modern science, a premise of civilization that it is moving toward ever more refined and reliable knowledge of the nonhuman physical world. This is the regime of truth, not and probably never as an actualized reality, but always—so we hope—as a real potentiality, and most so, as a constant struggle to actualize the potentiality.

The Left and all who deride the very idea of post-truth because it sounds like the whining of post-ideologues must see that even if not as a perfect regime, we have had truth, or at least had highly encouraging flirtations with it; that truth has existed, in and as imperfection, but endeavored to regardless, and constantly improved upon. It has always had pitfalls and enemies: authoritarian governments, lack of funding for the liberal arts and sciences, laziness and dogma in the liberal arts and sciences, SOPA, intellectual property, the reduction of epiphanic knowledge to anesthetic information in the name of capitalist efficiency, and Ryan Lochte, to name just a few. Still, it has existed, and only a nuanceless, peremptory leftism would shrug away its value because of its association with liberalism. While liberalism may have served as a reactionary force over time, some of its definitive contributions—liberty, egalitarianism, openness—if eschewed by the left, would spell the preclusion of any progressive and minimally democratic social order, let alone an emancipatory one.

But it is because of this reign truth has had—even if saying it has “enjoyed” it would be an overstatement—that post-truth is neither an entirely implausible nor at all a frivolous matter. In this model of understanding history and truth, we have had pre-truth, which was pre-modernity; then we have had truth, which corresponds to modernity—but we may now also have post-truth, which corresponds neither to postmodernity, so easily explainable by the very grand narratives it claims to have transcended, nor to people not basing decisions primarily on facts, which is all of hitherto society—but to despotic and murky caprice, and joyless fascism.

After all, with Donald Trump as President, there are signs that the state of obscurity that has marked this one affair of election interference will only increase. Donald Trump does not believe in openness; he does not believe in democracy. His executive orders have been violating normal chains of counsel and approval. The very fact that we can be reasonably sure about this testifies to there having been some imperfect avatar of “truth,” undergirded by some democratic infrastructures such as the press, which was allowed to report on Trump as it chose. Of course, the biases of liberal media and its fawning, deluded treatment of Clinton were extremely troublesome, but that does not mean that truth has not existed at all; it just means that like all human projects of emancipation right now, it has been a work in progress.

But it is not inconceivable that soon, even more of the phenomena we talk about all the time will be unverifiable by people’s institutions. And in the twenty-first century, this will not take the form of some tenebruous, Gestapo-enforced regime, or a WiFi-enabled 1984. We actually already have this situation wherein the matters we talk about are by necessity those which people’s institutions have no means into verifying. It is called reality TV. In fact, for all the things that he is ignobly inept at, this is one that our new President is very good at. And if the Left, with all the trenchancy of critique and solutions transcending bourgeois governance it can offer, does not recognize that we are on the brink of full-fledged and unequivocal post-truth, then American public matters will very soon take the form of a reality show, a grand, disgraceful farce. The reign of philistines, hitherto spread and enforced only through soft capitalist control, will procure the mandate of tyrannical fiat. But the reality now will not be inconsequential Kardashians or the coloration of an odd coiffure—it will be you.

* * *

All this said, though, given that over the decades the Left has been a social force more in the sense of a train wreck rather than an engine of change, it is hardly a surprise that it has been nonchalant through this ongoing massacre of democratic truth. Indeed, many leftists reading this right now may already have thought, “Why does this even matter? What difference will it make if we knew exactly what the connection between Trump, Putin and Assange is?”

As for that particular nexus, it could have interesting geopolitical implications, including some on the global strength of democracy, no less. It also might not. The very point is, we do not know. The point is that events of arguable significance are taking place in which the only honest reaction of the public would be to scratch its head, and that this is being normalized.

Still, even to this, it is possible that many leftists think that this has no implications on the tasks of anti-oppression to be performed to fight racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, etc. This can be continued by promoting equality and justice through popular movements based on a priori principles, it would seem.

Or can it? Would Black Lives Matter have taken off without information being collected and circulated about police brutality? (And here we can see the pragmatism of believing that at least in a soft sense, truth does exist—or is someone willing to argue that the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and hundreds of other black Americans are subjective not-quite-truths mediated by metanarratives?) Maybe the Fight for $15 would have taken off just by people not being able to make ends meet, but by everyone knowing that minimum wages in the US are subpar by any advanced global standard, does the fight draw no more significant legitimacy and support?

The more telling fact, however, is that in recent times, these are the only two significant movements that can be referred to for making this point. The majority of the Left’s energy has indeed gone to campaigns that are not very much reliant upon current a posteriori knowledge. Principles of egalitarianism, when first developed, must have relied at least to some extent on a posteriori knowledge, but these principles have been resolved for the majority of society, and do not require subsequent and continual empirical validation. It is on the basis of these principles that the Left today conducts most of its activity. Consider, for example, the Women’s March on Washington itself, along with the solidarity demonstrations globally. It was based on strong principles, even if a potpourri of them: Equality, justice, inclusion, love, etc. There is no need for present-day empirical facts to advocate for the implementation of these principles. This advocacy is what the Left does.

However, there is a need for up-to-date knowledge about happenings to take power or acquire agency at scale. There is a need for that to engender infrastructures and effect laws, which at large occasion the application of these principles to people—and this, more and more, the Left does not do.

With this, we can finally specify the direct line between post-truth and contemporary leftist politics. Only in and through struggles to change the world did social processes emerge to produce reliable knowledge. Likewise, it is the abandonment of struggles to change the world—by definition tied to progressive or emancipatory politics—that leads to the withering of these social processes, coagulated over time as a system of norms, protocols and institutions. Put in classical terms, the abandonment of constant and vigilant revolutionary praxis is leading us right back to an age of ignorance and opacity.

* * *

Dub it pre-truth redux or post-truth, it does not matter. Matter is what matters, rather than substanceless “politics” of behavioral correction, which have come to form the preponderance of leftist praxis. As put in a pamphlet on anti-oppression politics written by an Oakland-based coalition of POC, women and queer activists,

“According to the dominant discourse of ‘white privilege’ for example, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to renounce instead of an entrenched material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border. Whiteness simply becomes one more ‘culture,’ and white supremacy a psychological attitude, instead of a structural position of dominance reinforced through institutions, civilian and police violence, access to resources, and the economy. At the same time a critique of ‘white privilege’ has become a kind of blanket, reflexive condemnation of any variety of confrontational, disruptive protest while bringing the focus back to reforming the behavior and beliefs of individuals. We contend that privilege politics is ultimately rooted in an idealist theory of power which maintains that the psychological attitudes of individuals are the root cause of oppression and exploitation, and that vague programs of consciousness-raising will somehow transform oppressive structures.”

The lack of knowledge required for conducting this kind of politics is startling. After all, today on the Left, deeply knowing a person is considered unnecessary for understanding them. Their superficial identity categories say all they need to about them, and based on that, not only are any and all assumptions fair, but so is ostracization based on them. This is the topsy-turvy neoliberalization of leftism, locating problems and solutions at the coordinates of individuals. This is a politics that celebrates and almost exclusively engages in symbolism, as if renaming college buildings or renaming Columbus Day makes the slightest dent in materially felt racism. This is the vacuous moralization of politics hitherto having philosophically weighty underpinnings, be they dialectical or with a view toward indomitable deterritorialization. It works under the historically dozy, feel-good assumption that if we can just change people’s behavior toward each other, the world will be changed.

But one can only hope that young leftists have noticed that if we focus mainly on changing people’s behavior toward each other, the bigots and fascists will take power, and in about a mere week of doing so, begin the rollback of the ACA, resurrect the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, reinstate a global ban on U.S. funding for women’s health programs, remove all references to climate change and civil rights on the White House website, announce the defunding of 17 government agencies (including the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, Office of Violence against Women, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and Department of Justice Environmental & Natural Resources Division), put a gag on climate scientists discussing their research, call the media the real “opposition party” and decide to ban refugees from countries the U.S. is bombing due to their religion.

Be that through college newspaper op-eds or on leftist Facebook groups, the transfiguration of the Left from something that attempts to change the world into a purveyor of stay-in-your-lane politics is starkly clear. Now, these are potentially very fruitful times for the Left, when so many people are coming to check out what we are about, inspired by Bernie Sanders and drawn to the traditions that have historically opposed fascism. However, as soon as they may click on a seemingly leftist article on a millennial-produced mainstream website, or join leftist groups on Facebook or follow leftist banter on Twitter—all of which are natural steps for people in 2017—they will find no significant discussions about socialism or anti-oppression organizing.

They will find, however, a bombardment of exhortation about matters almost completely disattached from those that actually create and bind world-changing coalitions, such as: The genitals a person of a stated sexuality must find attractive to be accepted as a “good leftist”; the cultural appropriativeness of mass interest in “spirit animals”; and the cisnormativity one perpetuates by using the seemingly inclusive enough “folks,” instead of the politically correct “folx.” (The alleged logic behind that one, since one must stay woke, is that “folx” is gender-inclusive, while “folks” is merely gender-neutral.)

Whether or not these are the legitimate positions on these issues—and they may well be—Sanders supporters and fledgling anti-fascists are not venturing to check out “actually existing” socialism in further detail to have individuating, moral reformation imposed upon them. They come to build democratic socialism (at the very least) and prevent corporeal damage caused to minorities by fascists. They do not come to be part of keyboard inquisitions dedicated to set ablaze subhuman infidels who refuse to “self-crit” at the stake of leftist purity, but to be part of embodied, physical movements that change material structures of scale.

To this, one may argue, and think it obvious, that if one actually goes to radical spaces and socialist meetings, one will find discussions about these matters. This is true—but this takes us a layer deeper into the shambles that the Left is in.

* * *

On going to current socialist meetings and seeing the real radical discussion going on, one is confronted with pure atrophy. As a friend recently commented after a recent socialist “What do we do now?” meeting after the election, one could have found the talk going on now, to at least three-fourths congruence, by walking into any arbitrary socialist meeting in the West anytime in the last one hundred years. The go-to instinct of Left organizing is still toward the same modes of affect, organization and resistance that it has used for decades, while social, technological and physical conditions are now drastically different.

This is true whether the Left is on the offensive or the defensive, but then, a prior problem is that most activity today is reactive, on the defensive, looking to stop bad things from happening rather than building new, better things. This is somewhat understandable, since currently capital is enjoying dominance over labor, and other dominated groups are by definition under domination. However, even most resistance here is woefully lacking strategy, and is afflicted by the maladies of semantic politics and obsessive compulsive purity that guide the preponderance of leftist moralizing activity already discussed.

Consider two recent political actions undertaken by the Left: First, the so-called resistance at airports around the U.S. in response to Trump’s anti-immigration orders. At San Francisco International Airport at least, during the first 24 hours of resistance, it was more deemed more important to show that there are a lot of people who are opposed to the immigration ban, rather than oppose and prevent the implementation of the ban. Note, this implementation could have life and death consequences for people getting deported; the stakes were indeed of full substance. But instead of keeping steady pressure and presence around the entrance to the security checkpoints, a node of possible disruption and thus power against Border Control authorities illegally enforcing Trump’s ban (since the court stay halting it had already been issued), the organizers chose instead to have masses gather in the completely inconsequential and nonconfrontational arrivals area. While thousands were gathered downstairs fanglessly at arrivals, the potentially preventable deportation of an Iranian man took place from SFO.

Second, a few days later, the protest against the far-right blogger Milo Younnopoulos, who was going to speak at UC Berkeley. The motivation behind shutting down Younnopoulos was that hateful and hate-inspiring ideals such as Younnopoulos’s should not be given avenues in civil society to express themselves. Which is fair, Younnopoulos’s talks and tweets have inspired or perpetuated harassment and threats of violence. However, if the goal was indeed to prevent such bigotry from having a platform, which is the gist of what everyone justifying the protest has been saying, the execution was completely miscued. As long as the Left doesn’t have the subsequent means to control or occupy the narrative following its protests, shutting down Younnopoulos from reaching a thousand people is inevitably, every single time, going to give him the means to reach tens of thousands—which is exactly what happened after this protest and riot. If indeed the goal was to minimize the legitimacy of bigotry (and legitimacy is largely a function of reach), rather than simply express that we are against bigotry being legitimized, then the Left failed.

But the goal probably was just hollow expression, as it was at SFO. To a great extent, as noted above, this is understandable, whether or not acceptable. So impotent is the Left today that it can’t do anything but express what it’s for and against, rather than go and get what it’s for and directly prevent what it’s against. Essence follows existence, consciousness follows being, the tactics follow the plight. But to the remaining extent, which is also great, there is a common answer to all three problems identified so far—why so little leftist activity is toward bringing about a new world, why so much activity is symbolic and why so much of it is toward legislating individual behavior—which is that, simply put, leftists have lost sight of what things are actually like today. In other words, a problem of good knowledge.

Digitization, for example, is a fundamental facet of reality today. However, next to no leftist discourse today is about the implications digitization is having on our subjectivities, social relations, social units and governance. (A challenge: To find one lefty college op-ed, Leninist newspaper article or millennial-geared, progressive web take on the subject.) The implications, though, are nothing short of profound.

A basic economic implication has been the waning of the industrial working class in North Atlantic nations, and with that, the prime, traditional revolutionary subject of collective politics. And in the absence of a group on whose organization material transformation has historically most depended, is it any surprise that the politics that has replaced it has been unable to focus intently on material transformation? The retreat into sophistic symbolism and paralyzing purity are but a defense mechanism of an ideal without a subject to act through. But much has been written about the subjectivities and classes created under digital capitalism—it is merely a matter of having the will to read what has been written, and applying the necessary imagination on top of it.

Another implication has been the delocalization of our lives, which are dispersed across space, and compressed within time. Our lives are hardly centered around an embodied polis anymore—and without a polis, can there really even be politics, as opposed to frivolous noise affecting to be politics? Is it any surprise that in the absence of a conventional polis around which to structure politics, i.e. the institutionally executed governance over a designated polity, the stand-in for politics has become the legislation of attitudes and behaviors by and between individuals, enforced by the threat of stigma? But alternative models have been created to the modern-era conceptualization of social reality being located in nation-states and social reality being comprised essentially as oppositional states and markets—but the Left would still rather draw its praxis from the diktats of Stalin or the syndicalists.

And this is without even getting into the implications of the Anthropocene, which is no less than definitive of the age, and which not in slightest seeps into considerations of what organizing today should look like. The list can be extended, but it would be too shameful to do so.

* * *

There are a lot of reasons for dearth of imagination about tactics and affects on the Left, but three associated ones can be brought up that return to the theme of social endeavors toward knowledge. First, most relevant to the U.S., are the beasts of McCarthyism and neoliberalism. The former made those who have traditionally written about new contingencies for praxis, i.e., theorists, by glaring, simple coercion, produce ideas of a more tame nature. The latter made theorists, by a less simple coercion, beholden to dwindling funding, and with that, declining freedom for exploring ideas, and with that, were they to explore radical ideas, fear for their livelihoods, i.e., again, coercion.

The second is the distance between theory and practice brought about by the relegation of theorists to academia in the first place, which is a phenomenon extending far beyond the U.S. To compress an elaborate historical process, in the early days of the Soviet Union, many theorists were involved in the Party; indeed, to a great extent, the line between theorist and revolutionary was not that finely drawn. However, Stalinist purges in the USSR and corresponding Communist orthodoxy through parties worldwide during the period expelled many of these theorists from the parties, and many from Eastern Europe found refuge in the West, and in particular, in universities. With this degree of separation between ideas and their application, ideas found the luxury to become somewhat more oblique, and this they did, with detrimental effects for their application, as the people who then became specialists in application, i.e. organizers and activists, found them more and more arcane.

The third reason sees the second from a different vantage point. While the obliqueness of contemporary theorizing about leftist politics is by no means exaggerated, a corresponding shift has also taken place along the opposite vector—were theory today still of the same transparency as a century ago, there would still be less people capable of digesting it, and even less actually taking up the task. The withering of a culture of reading, globally but especially in the U.S., has directly influenced the unimaginativeness of the Left. Put simply, everyone, activists included, read worse and read less. This is less due to personal failure or an “objective” drop in the potential intellectual rigor of this generation, but due to behavioral shifts brought by digital technology and the neoliberalization of education. Consumption through lit screens, infinite scrolling and Now This-styled “news” has destroyed our cultural will for engagement with more difficult writings, be they in the realm of theory, journalism or literature.

Difficulty, though, is but a manifestation or interpretation of other qualities, such as novelty or richness. Works can be difficult because the ideas they present are drastically rich. Sometimes the number of disparate threads being connected per unit content is higher than usual, which makes the work difficult—but another way to look at it is as being more fertile. Length, too, is a casualty of our age of ready-to-swallow media and thought, but some forms of complexity require space for their unraveling. In a prior age, we used to read books; while today, we skim our news feeds. Earlier, we would chew over complexity, and at the end of it, potentially, find profound pleasure and find ourselves, beholden with epiphany over experience; today, if something requires more than two seconds of attention, it will be scrolled over, and if is worth attending to, the most we ever get is a tiny hit of dopamine, with the vigor of a pathetic little burp, at the end of which we return to our default state of numbed null-intensity.

That said, this third reason is one that people can actually act on. Indeed, for the further tangible success of politics vying for the liberty of all rather than the few, it is necessary that organizers demand knowledge. One way of doing this is by going through the hard work of studying political theory and analysis responding to novel times, which, out of the very novelty that it attempts to parse, may be difficult. We need to resume engagement with traditions of history, philosophy, economics and even literature, for we are blind moving ahead without engaging with these. We need to confront our decreasing ability to process knowledge that can’t be represented within a meme. We need to read books again. (This last admonition cannot be overstated. As just an indication of its exigency: a prominent figure on Left Twitter, a blogger at a hip online news website who shall remain unnamed, last month posted a few New Year’s resolutions. One of them was to read a book per month. This is a person who is apparently well regarded in left social circles, and can boast of over 34 thousand followers. However, could one truly take seriously the trenchancy of critique produced by a lefty journalist who struggles to read one book per month? To be heinously prescripitivist, a book per week per capita is a much sounder metric of a civilization healthy and ripe with prospects for revolution.)

It is not just about books and theory, however. It is also about journalism, perhaps more importantly so. Journalism has slowly but surely been morphing into infotainment, much like every single moment of our non-working waking hours. This is fundamentally an economic problem, mediated by new platform technologies, and thus, a problem of collective politics. To condense again an entire discipline worth of dynamics: With the Internet, and particularly, with social media platforms, far more information is out there, and attention becomes the prime concern of creators of information. A good way to do that is to draw immediate reactions, rather than provoke thought, because the latter takes time, while there is so much more content to explore, and so little time. Thus journalism has naturally moved toward producing ready-to-swallow bytes of “news.” It also helps that the more clicks that are generated by continual fluttering between webpages, the more ad revenue is generated. And the ravaging of our scholarly and artistic institutions and innate biological proclivities toward instant gratification haven’t helped the prospects of resisting this cultural decline.

But there are still the age-old standard-bearers of journalism, as well as newer outlets, which are still committed to providing real knowledge, as dry, heavy and sad as it may be. Vox, however obnoxious one may find its incurably liberal stands and tonality, comes to mind as an admirable example of the latter, as does the Los Angeles Review of Books, as a marvelous non-liberal source for depthful commentary on theory and literature. These must be patronized.

Correspondingly, we must desert the circuses of infotainment, regardless of how “fun” they are. For it is not a far leap, when the priority is attention and entertainment, from rendering news cheap and useless, to forgoing veracity altogether—because in both cases, veracity or usefulness is not the primary point of the news.

So, another admonition: do not encourage the bastards. If there could be one good (though late) New Year’s resolution in times of post-truth, it would be to jettison the deplorable exemplars of sensationalizing, depthless and useless news media such as Buzzfeed, Bustle, Daily Dot, Vice, Mashable, Huffington Post, etc. insofar as they offer little more than the tabloidization of real affairs, and corner the space where discussion would be of life and death matters to render it a bog of infotainment. As tickling as it may be, for example, that someone edited the Wikipedia page on invertebrates to include Paul Ryan, it really does nothing but tickle. And tickling accomplishes nothing, except, when the object being tickled is fastened immobile, constitute a method of physical and psychological torture. If all the news we expose ourselves to becomes that which diverts and tickles us, journalism that can provide us with information useful to getting out of our predicaments will be lost, we will be fastened immobile, and then the tickling media that we credit for keeping us sane and jovial today will be apparent as nothing but a torture device.

But personal consumption can only go so far; the real question is structural and political-economic. This truth is starkly visible early in the Trump presidency, as he has announced plans to cut all funding for U.S. institutions such as NPR and PBS. Which leads us back to sine qua non of the day: We need collective organization that can uphold and improve on such institutions. The Democratic Party, as Nancy Pelosi’s honest avowals at a recent Town Hall Meeting should remind one who had not already lost faith in it due to its phenomenal failures of recent times, is not the answer—it is overtly and explicitly a capitalist party, in other words, one that is not fundamentally opposed to the privatization of such institutions; the only reason it wouldn’t support the devastation or privatization of these is if they help safeguard its own socially center-left cultural hegemony, as NPR and PBS do.

But even more than defending such federal level institutions, to explore knowledge for the last time in this inquiry, we need public backing of media at local levels as well. Two simple reasons exist for this: First, this can work toward countering post-truth authoritarianism, because while it may be harder for central authorities to shut down a few big news sources, it is much harder to do so in a flourishing, speckled culture of manifold media. Second, local level affairs are a natural place to begin tangible organizing. Of course, a million disconnected local revolutions aren’t enough. We need cohesion at the scale of our global system to really alter it and all that falls under it. Yet, the identification of crevices in the system can begin at modest coordinates, which could then be mapped together to see and exploit major fault lines. But while subscribing to one’s local newspaper would be valuable, if one can manage it, supporting local and public media requires institutional organization and in neoliberal times, public pressure to maintain this institutional organization. This isn’t expression for the sake of it, or for the sake of correcting individual behaviors, or for reforming language. This is the creation and concentration of power to accomplish real ends.

* * *

Just as politics promoting private welfare needs private agents constantly advocating for their prioritization, politics promoting general public welfare needs a constant force in and of the public upholding these ideals. If the traditional political tendencies that have upheld these ideals gradually retreat from vying for institutional structures that actualize and enforce said ideals, and instead divert themselves in preoccupations of consciousness-correction, or worse, exclusive consciousness-shaming, that amounts to naïvely handing over the instruments whereby society’s goods and bads are actually distributed to the other side.

That is what the Left has done. In the noble name of resisting microaggressions and misappropriations, we have looked past blood-soaked histories of aggressions and counteraggressions, of expropriations and reappropriations. We have forgotten the larger projects of building and securing power for the entire demos. But in forgetting these, we have also shrugged aside social implements, devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, which were developed in complement to this historical task, and which would likely not have been developed were democratic knowledge not required for this task. Post-truth is a monster borne of post-praxis.

Walter Benjamin’s formulation that every fascism is an index of a failed socialist revolution can easily be interpreted in context of truth and facts. Knowledge, however imperfect, as something available and attained to by all has always gone hand-in-hand with left-wing movements for their respective times. Moreover, the creation of knowledge, truth or facts—be that in the form of science, journalism or non-scientific scholarship—takes place through social processes and exchanges. Only obfuscation by the smokescreen of bourgeois ideology makes it seem like anything else. Truth could not have occurred without specific social conditions, institutions and resolve.

The corollary is also true. If we can oversee the renewal of a social resolve that wishes to transform the very skeletal and circulatory structures of the world, rather than one that wishes to only apply misconceived balms to make everyone feel good on the surface, then that resolve will necessarily have to go through the work of creating institutions for this end. This will include creating mechanisms for the creation and transmission of reliable knowledge as well. It cannot occur otherwise.

Rather than denying or ridiculing post-truth and alternative facts, the Left today, cognizant of the exigencies and manifold singularities of the twenty-first century, is to resume its too-long-adjourned task: building democratic power. Then, again, we will live in truth—imperfect, but unmistakeable and in progression.

Why Class Matters


One of the discussions that has emerged since the election is how much focus should be on class in future progressive politics—not only due to the arguable consequence white working class voters had on the result, but also for the broader question about the lines along which a political force—which may or may not be the Democratic Party—should contend for power to counter Trump and the rightward-bound Republican Party. In left-of-liberal, more radical circles, the perennial class politics vs. identity politics debate has gotten further accentuated due to increased criticism of the Democratic Party and liberalism from a class-oriented perspective—and the backlash against this from radicals focused on various anti-oppression struggles. But in the mainstream too, Bernie Sanders fanned the flames of this debate during a recent book tour stop in Boston. When asked by an audience member how she could become the second Latina senator in U.S. history, he took the occasion to remind her that her identity doesn’t entitle her to votes, and wondered whether the Democratic Party would be able to “go beyond identity politics.”

In many left circles—in fact, arguably in the mainstream of the left (the term “left” referring to left of the Democratic Party)—this has provoked another few days of decrying “brocialism.” This is the categorization stamped upon purported blindness to various social oppressions, which supposedly plagues many leftist (typically) white men. Complementing these vilifications, much of the left has been standing up for “idpol” and the necessity of paying heed to the problems that occur on the lines of race, gender, etc. In liberal and radical circles alike, class-focused discourse has acquired a reputation for being merely the odious recourse of white men who don’t like the conversation to not be about themselves. The term “class reductionist” gets thrown around to describe anyone who talks about class in the general context of politics.

However, in these times, marked by the rise of anti-modern, far-right politics around the world, during a civilizational moment of truth with respect to climate change, the exigency of organizing that can yield material impact may never have been greater. There is still much to be said about the sustained importance of class. This can and should be done without de-emphasizing the gravity of issues faced by various subjugated groups and their struggles.

The first thing to note about contemporary discourse is that it’s less that the oppressions of various minorities are being de-emphasized; rather, class is increasingly being abandoned as a terrain of contestation. Intersectionality is frequently used in contradiction to itself, as an excuse to deem someone’s voice illegitimate in a certain context, or irrelevant at large, even if this voice belongs to the great American mass of the downwardly mobile. “Class reductionist” or “brocialist” has largely become a straw man to effortlessly account for the ineffectuality of the left and discredit anyone who might bring up class in a political conversation devoid of it, rather than a pointed and appropriate charge against someone who actually reduces all social inequalities to class exploitation or pooh-poohs the concerns of people of color, women, etc.

Very few people in the left actually do such things anymore. Bernie Sanders was not doing this. Essays in overt class-oriented socialist publications in the wake of Trump’s victory that called for renewed working class organizing did not do this. Yet, the mainstream of leftism is increasingly becoming hostile to any assertion of the importance of class, and in knee-jerk fashion, interprets such assertions as attempted de-prioritizations of other oppressions. (An intriguing exception to this, for some reason, is in the context of environmentalism and veganism: Bring up ecological concerns and animal rights to so many leftists for whom the specter of “brocialists” is otherwise anathema, and the instinctive response to such a large extent will be, “Oh but environmentalists/vegans are classist.”) And liberal social justice advocacy, in the wake of fascistic terror unearthed by the Trump victory, is doubling down on a microscopic focus on the issues facing minorities, but again—and now it’s even more clear, with the vitriol unleashed against the presumed hicks who voted in Trump—to the exclusion of class.

But excluding class misses both the theoretical and strategic mark. It is with good reason that class has been regarded as fundamental to progressive and radical politics—from Roosevelt and Sanders to MLK and Lenin—and that many leftists today still regard it as especially intersectional, as the relation of power that most tints all others. For there is a qualitative difference between exploitation by capital and oppression or domination by other forms of power. The former is based upon extremely real, materially embedded social relations—the ownership or non-ownership of property for societal production is no spook—whereas the latter, though experientially real, are based upon and recreate identities that are at least partially discursively constituted and have as the crux of their existence the social reproduction of the identities themselves; as we know, there is little material or biological validity to the division of races or genders (and thus sexualities). Because of this, simply by the fact that class is grounded more in “objective” reality more than other oppressions, it is inherently more liable to direct and far-reaching transformation.

Moreover, exploitation by capital extracts value (in the ostensible form of profit) from productive labor. And it is with such surplus value—which is to say, on the shoulders of all who sell their labor power for wages, which are necessarily a cut from the total value they produce—that the world, for all its good and bad, is perpetuated. Other oppressions do not make the world go around, they are but brute forms of domination of some humans by others, to be fought against and nullified. This does not mean that they could not exist in some other forms in a noncapitalist world. This does not mean that they do not have their own autonomous (though overlapping) histories. It simply means that in this world, they are powered by the workings of capitalism—because it happens to be capitalism right now that powers, by the generation of economic value, the material transpiration of every social process that occurs in this world.

So, for a politics that is serious about ending all of these dominations, it seems an obvious step to concern itself with reclaiming this power, or at least, being able to call more shots about how it is used. Which necessarily requires focusing in part at least on class. In particular, it requires a focus on the class of producers of value—or in other words, in its precise thrust and extensive guises, the working class. Regardless of the problem to be solved, organizing a body of value-creators wielding the power to hurt the bottom lines of the rich has always been the best bet to get power to listen to us—even if it doesn’t want to. And ideally in this undertaking, of course, the dispossessed—numbered disproportionately by peoples marginalized in various ways—would take control of the productive organs and conduits of society, so as to create a society in which the value and agency created are used not for marginalizing or dominating, but for maximizing and actualizing the value in all humans and the prosperity of life at large.

Even if another way of changing the material realities of the world were possible, out of mere practicality too, organizing along lines of class makes sense. This is because the experience of material insecurity is one that cuts across and unites all other dominations more than any of these dominations cuts across and unites all others. This is not an empty speculation; polling shows that the biggest problems for all people except for rich people—be they black, hispanic, women, or white middle-class—are ultimately problems of money. Without doubt, women are most at risk of being sexually assaulted, black people have to worry about police violence more than others, brown-skinned Asians and Africans are vexed at airport security more than others. But still, in aggregate, each group, on a day-to-day basis, has to worry about economic travails—food, clothing and shelter—more than anything else. In this circumstance, organizing along class lines—if focusing on class weren’t made synonymous with racism in liberal and left discourse—would make sense simply for wide coalition-building. And such a coalition of the economically exploited, again, would be disproportionately flanked by minorities, for it is they who are most dispossessed by the workings of capitalism.

Now, all that said, it is undeniable on the other hand that working class blacks, working class women, working class trans people, etc. face more challenges in their social existence than working class white men, and so, it would be both erroneous and illegitimate to dismiss the concerns of various marginalized peoples. Furthermore, just as it is true that modern races and racism are creations of the modern world, which is to say, of capitalism, so it is also true that capitalism directly benefits from racism, not just in its manifestations as colonialism and imperialism, but even domestically, be that through private prisons or the centuries-old alliance between rich and poor whites, achieved by the former feeding the latter paltry crumbs, while simultaneously pointing to racial Others as potential thieves of these scraps. Categories such as race and gender are surely imagined, but they are not imaginary. Even if not tied in as close a link to physical reality as access to natural resources and technical means of production, the experiences accompanying marginalization and domination through different identities are very real.

Because of the very construction of these categories, and the delegitimization of the thoughts and desires of minorities that found their basis on their very construction, even our processes for social progress, to this day, contain within themselves biases that normalize and reinforce the subjugation of certain peoples under others. If the dynamics governing the imagined realities of race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, etc. are not taken into account, and if more egalitarian norms aren’t actively promoted in all domains of our society, we will likely lug these inequalities into tomorrow’s world, whether that is a world of capitalism, socialism or something else.

And, most simply, the fact that black people are particular targets of economic and state violence, as just one example of oppression, is a serious matter that has tangible impacts on real lives, and it seems intuitive and obvious that efforts should be made to address that in the here and now. The same goes for violence against women, LGBTQ people, etc. When it comes to violence and subjugation, it matters less whether it is the ruling class or men that benefit from patriarchy, for example—what matters are the people dominated under patriarchy, and the fact that they should be championed in proclaiming and instituting their full humanity.


For this, however, identity politics in the form that is increasingly the norm in all strands of contemporary leftism is not enough. This is the politics of moral display, characteristic of twenty-first century campus progressivism and the Clinton campaign alike. Here identity is a matter of individuality, rather than collective strength. And since it is about individuals, it is by logical necessity about subjectivity, or in particular, about pure feelings—as opposed to being about thoughts, which can be identically held across minds or outside of minds, or about structures, which cannot be felt as baldly as insults.

So much of the politics pejoratively labeled “social justice warfare” finds fulfillment in self-righteous public demonstrations of progressive values meant to raise or change consciousness in superficial ways, in the most trivial behaviors and meaningless sensibilities of individuals who are presumed to not be as “woke” as them. Both participants in this activism and the targets of it are made to regard rigidly defined identities as the central elements of their existence, and are taught to affirm their individualities as centrally derived from these identities and to wield them in ways that do not hurt those with identities of less privilege. In this process not only are complex elements of the psyche and individuality that go beyond historically contingent categories of identity overlooked, but as the stress here is placed on rights, privileges and behaviors of the individual, the formation of collective strength is rendered a non-issue—though this would be the only way to actually change the circumstances to which opposition is signified through these gestures.

This type of politics is to varying extents in implicit or explicit concurrence with neoliberal or Democratic Party-type identity politics of representation. In its most base form, which has nettled Bernie Sanders so much over the last year-and-a-half, this is the value-system according to which Hillary Clinton deserved to waltz into the White House just because she was a woman, i.e. a member of an identity group that has been insufficiently represented in society. In general form, this is the idea of justice that Adolph Reed Jr. describes would consider society fair if “1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc.”

What matter for neoliberal identity politics are not the structures in place, but just the representation of identities. Diversity is sacrosanct here, but as Jodi Dean points out, “[t]he missing subtext of the Democratic Party’s embrace of diversity was that its was a diversity of the successful, of the winners, of the multicultural celebrities and photogenic talented tenth who appear as so many talking heads on MSNBC. The Democratic substitution of entrepreneurs for workers under the guise of racial inclusion is class war, a war that leaves in its wake disproportionate numbers of black and brown bodies. White-washing the working class legitimizes policies that diminish the lives and futures of millions of working class people of color.”

Whether it be on campus or on the campaign trail, this identity politics talks about privilege rather than power. As a group of Oakland-based women, POC and queer organizers put in a pamphlet on anti-oppression politics, “According to the dominant discourse of ‘white privilege’ for example, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to renounce instead of an entrenched material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border.” An identity politics attacking this infrastructure, a radical identity politics, would be something to be cherished. Instead, Clintonite identity politics goes the other way. Asking “But will breaking up the banks solve sexism?” is a silly question. Of course it won’t, by itself. But the intent behind the question also is not to “solve sexism”; its point is merely the slick denigration of attempts at the material transformation of society and the cessation of the status quo.

Insofar as identity politics is comprised of tautologically and thus vacuously asserting the identities one is defined by, making a cottage industry of spectral gestures that draw attention to the inviolability and legitimacy of these identities, and framing this as meaningful politics—it is squarely to be dismissed and moved beyond. In its place should be a radical and truly intersectional identity politics. And for the goals of such politics, due to the potency of class in attacking, say, racially segmented labor markets or the militarization of the border, this category too would have a legitimate place. It must, after all, in any form of social progress that actually attempts to substantially and tangibly alter conditions of life. Likewise, such identity politics would have a legitimate place in class politics, as such struggles, primarily meant to improve the lives of socially constructed but materially subjugated minority populations, would necessarily transform systems of power such as the economy and the nexus of governmental institutions.

Class matters, unambiguously, and the left must concentrate on it far more than it has recently. But because it has mattered so much over the centuries, so do racism, sexism, etc. These have been used in the service of capitalism, and also stand to benefit from capitalism. The various matrices of oppression that run rampant in our society are precisely the reason why there should be a greater focus on class, a focus that doesn’t discount these oppressions. The only thing that really does discount these oppressions, in fact—by spurning substantive traditions of radical black liberation, proletarian anti-colonialism and socialist feminism in favor of facile and piddling customs of self-congratulatory privilege-checking, virtue-signaling and tokenism—is today’s prevailing faux-progressive identity politics.

The problem of the election or of politics today isn’t identity politics per se; it’s neoliberal ideology having comprehensively infiltrated the cultural and political mainstream, it’s liberalism masquerading as serious social progress, but in reality shunning material change and manufacturing an identity politics meant to preserve things as they are. This will never be able to win true liberty and security for minorities. But as has always stood in contrast to liberalism (and, for sure, conservatism and fascism), the solution and the ideal is communism. One inclusive of all oppressed peoples and responsive to all subjugations, but still communism—the project of the producers of material reality and economic value, marginalized in multitudinous ways, taking charge of these processes of production, to together create a world liberated by and for all.

Solidarity Is Not Enough


Anti-Trump discourse and activity since the election has taken three dominant forms. The first, probably the most prevalent, is about bigotry and responding to it on an individual basis. Many liberals and leftists have expressed horror and resentment at the bigotry that is reflected by Trump’s victory, acknowledged the privilege they have, and offered to be there in any capacity possible for those who will be most targeted under Trump’s presidency. The second is a more radical form of the same concern and hostility. This is the antifa tendency, coming together collectively in unhesitating defiance of supremacist and chauvinist gestures, mobilizing to protect or fight alongside the minorities who will be most affected by Trump’s victory, ready, if need be, to physically engage with fascistic aggressions.

The fundamental commonality to both these responses is that they are primarily focused on ensuring that minorities are made to feel minimally bad because of dispositions unearthed by Trump. The first one, with respect to the question of whose fault it is that Trump’s our President-elect, has largely tended to blame the racists, misogynists, white people, often white men in particular, etc. The second tends to take it for granted that America is at bottom a hateful and backward nation, and now we just have to get more serious and direct about confronting that. Both have found manifestation in public spaces in the form of the protests that have taken place since Trump’s victory. In itself, all of this is fine.

The third response, though, also arising from the inquiry about how this reality came about, focused on talking about the Democratic Party or Hillary Clinton herself, and pointed to the failed Democratic politics of cronyism and elitist indifference in the face of very real issues faced by the populace. In terms of why we are where we are, this is probably the best analysis. After all, it is not as if significantly more people, white or otherwise, came out and voted for Trump than they had for McCain or Romney. But Clinton did win far fewer votes than Obama did in ’08 and ’12, even among minorities, considerably more of whom voted for Trump than had voted for Romney. Michigan and Wisconsin, two Trump-voting states that generated much shock, cleanly voted their preference for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton during the primaries. In Pennsylvania, the third Trump-voting but traditionally blue state seen as a deciding factor in this election, out of the 33 counties Sanders won in the primaries, Clinton only secured one against Trump.

The results of the election, then, are little short of an expo on the wokeness of working America to the fact that 99% of the Democratic Party’s damns are given for the 1% and 100% of its votes are dependent on people finding Republican social views too repulsive to vote for. Having gotten what had been coming to it since its embrace of neoliberalism under Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party has a lot of soul-searching to do, so it is good that even mainstream, liberal media outlets such as NPR and The New York Times are pointing out how this result reflects the failure of the Democratic Party. If nothing else, all this commentary is good because it counters the narrative that the blame for Clinton’s loss should fall on third-party voters and non-voters, who, again, did not make the statistical difference leading to the Democratic downfall.

But the calls for the Democratic Party to self-critique, move left and genuinely work for the people seem to miss one big point: Even if it were to do this now, that would not be enough to prevent much, if not most, of the likely damage of a Republican supermajority in Washington. It does not matter if a party is well-intentioned if it is powerless—which, by dint of unrelenting cowardice, treachery and unimaginativeness over a quarter-century, the Democratic Party has finally achieved on the national stage.

Donald Trump may nominate up to three Supreme Court justices on top of replacing Justice Antonin Scalia with a wet dream had by Rick Santorum. He will pull out of the Paris Agreement and invest in energy sources that were revolutionary in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He will oversee women’s rights being taken back half a century, and may provoke North Korea into having to liberate American women by nuking some freedom into us. He will cut healthcare and other social programs hand-in-hand with raising taxes on all but his penthouse party billionaire buddies. And the Democratic Party will have little sway to prevent any of this. Even if it self-corrects and regains power in four years (winning back Congress in 2018 is extremely unlikely), Trump may already have set in motion so much social regression through SCOTUS appointments, and forsaken such dire action on climate, that it won’t matter.

In this situation, at least in the short term, the state cannot be relied on as a potential progressive weapon, even if with different balances of power, it could be one. Significant reform through rational, beneficent governance is for the moment an impossibility. The only remaining agent of change, then, will be popular movements.

However, given the dominant left-of-center responses to the election result, this reality seems to have been lost on our discursive first responders. The Michael Moore type of critique correctly identifies problems with the Democratic Party, but acts as if the party would be enough to resume pushing in the directions we need to. And while the first two kinds of responses are necessary and valuable in this context in which many minorities are already been harassed and hurt, they constitute a basic start to what needs to be done—and there lies the mistake of many calls and critiques from the Left which, while calling for movements, place primacy on movements of solidarity and support. There’s nothing wrong with “being there” for your minority friends or fist-fighting with fascists going feral. But none of this would go as long a way as hindering or preventing the atrocious, minority-injuring policies Trump wants to enact—or if possible, even smuggling in or forcing some progressive change.

Labor organizing in particular will be more important now than anytime in the recent past. This is not only because it was the disillusioned white working class that abandoned the Democratic Party. This is not only because enabling the white working class to find a constructive solution to its legitimate problems, whether or not that solution lies in the Democratic Party, would almost by definition entail labor organizing. It’s also because historically, regardless of the problem to be solved, organizing a body of value-creators wielding the power to hurt the bottom lines of the rich has always been the best bet to get power to listen to us—even if it doesn’t want to. And at least for four years, the US government will not want to.

In this context, the liberal outrage manifesting in social media posts vilifying Trump voters for their assumed, extensive bigotry, and proposing as courses of action only self-criticism and care for less privileged friends is doubly problematic—to use that descriptor so dear to this very liberal demographic. First, it misses the empirical mark, since Trump’s victory was not decided by the bigots—who have always voted Republican and would have done so even if Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush was the candidate—but by disillusioned would-have-been Democrats, minorities included, who finally deserted the party that had spurned it for years and culminated its skulduggery by nominating, sans any regard for democracy or the collective pulse, arguably the worst Democratic candidate in decades. But second, and more importantly, this vilification precludes the possibility of the coalition-building and organizing that is the most pressing task of the immediate future.

In a word, liberals need to start taking up real left politics and organizing, and leftists need to realize that only combating fascists is far too defensive a modus operandi for so critical a moment.

Doubtless, there are bigots among those who voted for Trump. But far too many people voted for Trump just because Clinton reminded them too much of their insensitive, greedy boss—and we need these people, and these people need us. And with even less doubt, making sure people who will be negatively affected by a Trump presidency feel good is no deplorable task. But getting caught up in individualized damage control, in devoting all our energy to “radical love,” to creating community infrastructures devoted to aiding people cope, to only organizing antifa groups—this would ironically verge almost on lifestylism, with no small component, never to be admitted, of self-gratification. It would be relinquishing the bulk of the battle. It really can be put in such terms. A belligerent army is coming to do horrible things to us and everything we care about. We know some will be hurt immediately and most. But while some of our energy should go to taking care of those who are scared and are getting hurt, the bulk of it should be going to a counter-offensive.

If we are not to socially and economically regress a century, and ecologically teleport forward along current graphs by a century, in this time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—to phrase it as Mario Savio did—we are going to have put our bodies upon the gears, the wheels, the levers, upon all the apparatus, and indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless we are free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

And for this, we are going to need the right bodies, strategic bodies—proletarian bodies. Liberals’ and leftists’ foremost task, then, is to find, befriend and muster these bodies, and even more so, their spirits. By all means, let us array our unmediated opposition to fascism, and practice solidarity for those feeling distressed and unsafe because of this election. But if indeed every fascism is an index of a failed revolution, as Walter Benjamin diagnosed, let us start organizing with fresh ardency and unseen puissance toward the one political economic system that can counter and heal the enmities revealed by Trump’s upcoming regime: socialism.

On Harambe: Simian, Cyborg, Meme


Can an epitaph be written for a being deceased but not departed? For Harambe is trapped, in enduring memorial purgatory, in the freakish eddies of the never-sluiced memosphere. He is unable to pass into heaven or hell, into peaceful oblivion or institutionally commissioned stone. It took hardly a few minutes on May 28, 2016 for the whole event that took the late 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla to this place: a four-year-old boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden; he grabbed and dragged the boy through the enclosure, be that out of protection, aggravation or confusion; and out of fear for the boy’s life, a zoo worker shot and killed him. With this, almost immediately, Harambe became a subject of controversy, and more consequentially, an icon.

A video capturing how Harambe handled the child was circulated extensively and the incident was covered internationally, sparking a debate over the choice to kill Harambe. A petition demanding “Justice for Harambe” received over 500,000 signatures. There were memes, as there are for most cultural fixations and rages, but these seemed to have been wearing away—until, on July 20, a “RIP Taylor Swift” mural in Melbourne, Australia (referring to the humiliation Swift was said to have suffered due to her feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian-West) was altered into a memorial for Harambe. The following month saw a surge of memes and the expected portion of commentary to go with that. Along with attempts to garner meaning from the phenomenon, the futility of those very attempts was also argued.

But meanwhile, the memes kept coming. The slogan “Dicks Out For Harambecaught on, a salute and self-sacrifice that can probably best be understood as denoting a willingness to forgo one’s position on a pedestal of humanness and become a bare animal. It became a popular subreddit (on top of the regular r/Harambe) and was incanted even by celebrities. A protest sign at the RNC, caught in a fortuitous flash on television, inculpated President Bush (presumably Jr.) for the death of Harambe; aspersions were also cast on Hillary Clinton for the crime. Some voices from the chambers of contemporary social justice gesticulation railed against the meme, arguing it is racist, in apparent oblivion of the fact that all memes are exploited for some or the other bigoted messaging, and more importantly, that the Harambe memes largely began on Black Twitter and Instagram. The Scottish synthpop group Chvrches dedicated a song to Harambe. Streets were renamed on Google Maps. The discourse and content were bottomless. At the end of August, finally, the Cincinnati Zoo released a statement stating “we are not amused by the memes, petitions, and signs about Harambe,” arguably the worst way to get the Internet to oblige to one’s concerns.

Though probably not because of the Zoo’s injunctions, the circulation of memes about Harambe did wane over September, though even now, it still persists, with desperate though not yet inelegant flourishes: late last month, J.K. Rowling retweeted an image in which Harambe had been depicted in an image for a Patronus, ostensibly as one among the available Patronuses in the new feature on her Pottermore website—but clarified, a few hours later, that Harambe is indeed not an actual Patronus. The day after the Vice-Presidential debate, early this month, Fox News came out with a video alleging that “Hillary Voters Know More About Harambe the Gorilla Than Tim Kaine.” After a prudent hiatus off Twitter, Cincinnati Zoo finally returned to the platform just yesterday [Oct. 21], though not without being subjected to another round of distaste. Yet, it does seem that at this point the meme has conclusively waned.

* * *

It is unlikely, though, that the sun will ever set on the gently persisting dominion over our minds enjoyed by a meme that made it to living in strength for a full third of a year. A postmortem can be performed on a body—yes, the gorilla was shot—but a conclusive and concluding purview of the full presence of something or someone who lived as a social entity is impossible so soon. The circulation of the images that we saw as the meme may have seen its day, but given how long this circulation lasted, the relevant inquiry now, in hindsight, is not that of what Harambe meant, but what Harambe has done and enabled.

The question is no longer, and in retrospect surely never was, whether the humor about Harambe the gorilla being shot and killed is “okay.” An intuitive, simple reaction to the memified commemoration of Harambe from an animal rights perspective has been that the memes are not only jokes—by their being memes, by their being created and viewed with some good part of the tongue in cheek—but jokes about the murder of a sentient being, and so, simply and wholly in bad taste. For all its good intentions, the stiff social justice tenor, applied here to animals, would thus consider Harambe (the meme) worthy of conscientious disapprobation at worst, and at best, worth little notice, the frivolous pastime of millennials rendered insensate by the glows of their lit screens. Still, one could agree—when someone jokes about a sentient creature being shot and killed, that could just be in bad taste. But when that goes on for a few months, surely there’s more than just bad taste and shallow fascination with the event—this is a case of a taste lingering into a permanent sensation, and a fascination becoming an obsession. Not even Hotline Bling or Pokémon Go was a big deal as long as Harambe has been.

Contra this unimaginative “natural” analysis that anything being joked about necessarily trivializes its object, the first easy fact to point out, which from the beginning should have prohibited such a knee-jerk objection to Harambe, is that not all advocacy begins with transparent, normative vociferations. Revolutions are presaged by mutterings and acts of insubordination and subversion less forthright than pitchforks and torches. Neither is ordinary, day-to-day communication totally direct. Virtually all conversations involve semi-conscious, hardly calculated phrasings, which are meant to make a point that could be disagreeable to the opposite person without actually directly making it. Communication is more a Trojan horse of insinuations, allusions and subtext than an envoy making beelines between minds and announcing messages with an honest knock at the gates of consciousness. Jokes are a form of this warped manifestation of truth: Oh, I’m not being serious (… except of course I am). And so, they are a means for ordinary people—including omnivores en masse, and in general those who would find it awkward to earnestly take a moral stand over an animal (or anything at all)—to make the case that Harambe should not have been shot, whatever the risk to the child.

Indeed, there is good reason that ordinary people, even, for now, considering humans simply as humans and Harambe simply as a gorilla, would not have wanted Harambe to be killed, regardless of what may have happened to the toddler. 2016, if it has been anything, has been a tragic year in which the approval rating of humanity for itself has taken depressing hits, in which the hopes people have for civilization and human resilience have concretely started to be undone. In the future, it may be remembered as the year in which mass shootings and terrorist attacks really started to feel normal. Bernie failed and Trump happened; with that, the belief that we can really be a democracy, cherished for a moment in an unexpected resurgence orchestrated by the former, took a painful recoil at least in some quarters of our minds. As pointed out by another Internet meme, we have become so disillusioned about the possibility of our society and politics progressing, that falling in line with the prospect of a Clinton in the White House, this year, we even acceded to getting hyped about a new Blink-182 album and playing Pokémon again, preferring a blithe fantasy of the ’90’s over the reality of 2016. So, disappointed in ourselves, in our very species, it was absolutely natural that so many people who don’t generally care about animals might have felt, consciously or unconsciously, “The gorilla’s probably all-round a better bloke than that kid would have turned out to be.”

But how to convey that? Not everyone is a valiant warrior; raising a solemn, objecting fist to established discourse does not come easily to most people—especially millennials, inscribed as we are by self-consciousness, irony and an anxiety toward earnestness. What’s more, this stand defies all anthropocentric standards, still shored up in all their might by expertise and power: all the authorities, from Jane Goodall to Donald Trump, have said shooting Harambe was the correct decision.

It is only natural, then, that most people would come up with indirect methods to express their concern or indignation over Harambe. It takes effort to speak up against power and its discourses directly, and sidestepping that stress, people form conveyances to still get the point across. These conveyances may happen to be new forms of culture; or, they may take existing forms to new extents—here, the meme, which attained to a new stage with Harambe.

In this case, the content of the meme, how exactly Harambe has been represented, does not matter. Harambe has been present in a variety of forms, not even just digital: the mural and the protest sign at the RNC being prominent counterexamples to the typical meme format of, say, Imminent Ned, always with the same still from A Game of Thrones, accompanied by the constant upper line of “Brace Yourselves” and a variable lower line that defines the meme, both lines in capitalized Impact font. The fact that Harambe has been immortalized in the vaults of Internet culture suffices as protest (even if its purveyors would never solemnly call it “protest”). Overall, there is plenty of reason to believe that not only has Harambe been a convenient grieving contrivance for a generation and age of great self-pity and indignation, such that anyone you have ever lost becomes Harambe. Rather, serious feelings about the relative worth of human lives and those of other primates were present through this whole affair, even if latently, underneath the irony and levity of Harambe. But underlying everything, new potential conceptualizations of all these entities—humans, animals, memes—have been emerging.

* * *

The real inquiry about Harambe, then, is not about the genuineness of the sentiments underlying the meme. These exist. Peeling a layer further, rather, would get us closer to the worthwhile depths and dynamics of the Harambe phenomenon, and its possible undoing. This undoing, if at all it exists, must be argued in another way, more sophisticated than the critique from the precipitate moralism that can see nothing more to Harambe than joking about a murder. This next critique, drawing on the Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis, wouldn’t deny that there is something genuine to the sentiments about Harambe, but would raise skepticism about “ironic distance” as an “anti-totalitarian force,” or in general, as a force that challenges or alters discourses or regimes of power in any meaningful way. As Slavoj Žižek, the most famous affiliate of this school, puts it in The Sublime Object of Ideology, “in contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian … cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not to be taken seriously or literally.”

How would this pertain to Harambe? The indignation, at least partially tongue-in-cheek, over Harambe’s death and the demand of various guises of power that he be officially acknowledged constitute the phenomenon of ironic distance toward that which should be viewed negatively—broadly speaking, the exploitation of animals by humans. According to the classic definition of ideology, from Marx himself, ideology in this case would be if humans took part in the exploitation of animals without knowing about what they are doing. Now, though, we are onto the state of things, we know what’s going on—but this doesn’t prevent us from doing it. Because we still participate in it, despite knowing how things really are, ideology has not been overcome; to the contrary, at this stage, it is possible to see how deep it actually infiltrates into our psyche. In Žižek’s words, “The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not that of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself … Cynical distance is just one way—one of the many ways—to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.”

With our jokes about Harambe, even if we express cynicism toward the prioritization of a human over a gorilla (a genuine cynicism, which is rebuffed by those moralistically disdainful of the memes), this does nothing, according to the Slovenian critique, to lift the underlying illusion: that despite our knowledge, we do nothing to alter the hierarchy between humans and non-human animals—we do not even actually take out our dicks for Harambe.

This may be true in an immediate sense – that in our given scheme of distinguishing things, Harambe remains a dead gorilla, other exploited animals remain other exploited animals, and humans remain, for the large part, exploiting humans. However, even if ever so slowly, this scheme of things has been getting scrambled, and Harambe represents a watershed moment in this process of scrambling. The Ljubljana critique would be valid if reality as such remains the same through this instance of ironic detachment.

But here lies the profound wager of Harambe, the real issue raised by the phenomenon of Harambe: The ontological schema and the reality reflected by the schema are getting transfigured by the technic of the meme. “Natural” analyses, relying upon traditional, timeworn ideas of what truly counts as human and animal, what is humor and what is tristesse, simply cannot hold in the context of this tenacious interaction, between a sphere appearing the most “natural” and real, and one seemingly so unearthly and simulative: Internet culture—about a gorilla.

Ontology and the reality it reflects are being altered through two parallel movements. One is the ontological movement itself, whereby the scheme that distinguishes humans, non-human and memes is getting scrambled, whereby Harambe goes from being seen as gorilla to not-gorilla. However, alteration of ontology is not social activity, and pointing out an ontological alteration coming to pass with Harambe does not suffice as refutation of the Ljubljana critique. However, this first movement coincides with a second, which beckons the way to the remaking of reality. This is the movement of memes, which attests to a new social body emerging and finding its first instance of prolonged presence in a singular form through none other than Harambe. Without this second movement about memes in general, the first one about Harambe’s memification and mythification, which requires briefer explanation, would lack a foundation upon which to be relevant. So, this movement of the consciousness of memes would best be examined first.

* * *

“Consciousness of memes” does not imply that the textual, two-dimensional images on our screens are aware. It means that memes can really be understood or seen in their full existence only as a complex in which these images operate in conjunction with the human minds that engage with them. As no text is a text by itself, in isolation from other texts and ways of reading and discussing them, same is it with the meme. (“There is nothing outside the meme” – the epigram of the age?) To understand the movement that has been congealed at the point of Harambe and the phenomenal referents and productions that the meme harkens to, we must situate Harambe-the-meme within a network of other memes, which in retrospect, considering Harambe, also take on new meanings and operations.

Now, within this second movement of ontological alteration, there are two further trends in memes that have to be viewed, for which Harambe represents only the completion of a convergence that had already started to occur in memes preceding Harambe. The first is memes with animals as their subjects. Humans have always had a fondness for anthropomorphizing animals, or at least, for ascribing spirituality to other forms and relations of life. If Disney movies were the epitome of this compulsion in the pre-digital, modern West, Internet memes about animals could be seen to have usurped them, generating a corresponding, disproportional hype, for the era of the Internet. Nyan Cat, for example, on a memospheric timescale, is prehistoric; it broke through in April 2011. Still, most who have even drifted in and out of this sphere would recognize it; indeed, it is one of the most iconic figures of Internet culture in general. LOLCats, even if less distinctive (an image of a cat with white Impact font, rather than the animated form of Nyan Cat) also stand as an iconic early-generation meme. Grumpy Cat is another meme that created far more acutely concentrated hype than say, The Most Interesting Man in the World or Conspiracy Keanu (though the contexts in which the former, at least, can be used is limited by the text “I don’t always …. but when I do ….”). After that, among prominent animal memes, was Doge, another recipient of a burst of popularity other human-centered memes did not receive—there were no first few weeks, for example, in which Sudden Clarity Clarence was all the rage.

Now, the second trend being described was already occurring with Doge, though it probably wasn’t limited to Doge. As condensed by media theorist Scott Wark from its KnowYourMeme page, the common characteristics of this meme include “the ur-content of the now-iconic Shiba Inus breed of dog and the Comic Sans MS font overlay in basic, bright colours; the twisted misuse of the formal grammatical modifiers, much, many, so, very and such (as in typical phrases like ‘very Doge, much cool’); and the related ironic ‘contemplative’ stance that, it is argued, these features engender.”

None of these are as clear generators of humor or meaning as the memes mentioned before Doge. Certain facial expressions usually serve as references to certain sentiments, which is true of Keanu, Clarence, Yao Ming and even Grumpy Cat. The comicality of Grumpy Cat is created precisely by the incongruence and defiance of expectation caused by seeing that very human expression on a cat. The humor of The Most Interesting Man is more clever, its meaning created by the phrases that accompany the meme. In all these cases, whatever point is conveyed by the meme, whatever comicality is produced, is accessible through common human signifiers that can be understood by people who may not be steeped in meme culture. Still, to some extent, the enjoyment of the meme does arise from the fact that these are memes; there is a charm of the meme qua meme, which makes it be understood or found funny just a bit more or with a most distinct nature due to its contextualization in and as a meme. But around the time of Doge, in the second half of 2013 and early 2014, this process was reaching a new degree, and the new consciousness in question had begun emerging.

The camp of the colored Comic Sans is not something everyone “gets” in the way that everyone gets a confused expression. (Otherwise, good riddance, we would see far less Comic Sans in the world.) Doge’s face itself is not something that “naturally,” through commonly transmitted and socially internalized signifiers, conveys some meaning or comicality either. The point is most clear in the case of doge grammar, which involves, as linguist Gretchen McCulloch explained, a defiance of standard “selectional restriction,” according to which, for example, the modifier “such” selects for noun phrases, and “so” and “very” select for adjectives. A non-standard usage of these modifiers wouldn’t necessarily to be perceived as humorous or conveying some other kind of meaning by semantic norms. It’s unusual, but that’s about it. Yet, with Doge, in association with the other elements of that meme, it worked, and created a mania. There was something to it that was somewhat humorous—if one got the irony of using colored comic sans, if one saw absurdity in associating that dog with these emotions—and conveyed that ironic wonder (“wow”; “very thinkpiece”). But this was not something one’s grandmother on Facebook would understand in the way she would understand the emotion conveyed by Conspiracy Keanu or the meaning conveyed by “Brace Yourselves” (even if she didn’t know where the meme originated from). To a large extent, to those familiar with memes, Doge makes sense simply by being situated within the meme-form. It functions through its own memeness.

These two trends, finally, found momentary full convergence in the last big animal meme before Harambe: Dat Boi, the unicycle riding frog everyone loves, or at least loved, until he slipped out of attention, as unexpectedly and suddenly as he had arrived. (“He?” Or “It?” “They?” – if ever we needed a new pronoun, it is now, to designate such not-quite-object, not-quite-subject creatures borne as and of this emerging collective mind.) But before he disappeared, it was noticed at last that he marked meme-consciousness reaching a new stage. As a percipient member of the Internet noted:


The moment is indeed profound. Unlike even with Doge, where there was a subversion of grammatical standards that could cause a peculiar amusement, or the ironic font or emotion, there is nothing about Dat Boi that would necessarily draw a coherent, unperplexed response. With Dat Boi, finally, the memosphere reaches autonomous consciousness.

* * *

A semiological marvel is fulfilled. Here is the creation of a plane of meaning operating seemingly by itself, not needing referents in the humdrum and foul rest-of-the-world. (Not “real world”; with this autonomizing of the memosphere, it is hard to consider it unreal as opposed to any real.) Meme culture, hitherto confined to certain dark trenches of the Internet where it could revel in its own systems of signs such as 4Chan and Reddit, had now surfaced, though these waters would be scaled even more by the next meme in the series, out in the blue open of extensive oceans of media such as Facebook.

As topography changes, so does physiology: With the expansion of the space in which memes can proliferate, new forms of the meme are tinkered with and brought into haphazard circulation. In this the self-referentiality of memes can further manifest and grow. Thus in the last year we have had such a profound shift in what memes could be. Till now memes have largely occurred as an image with some cultural or social reference accompanied by two capitalized, Impact-font lines. Hardly a year ago, Scott Wark began describing them in his essay “The Meme in Excess of its Instance” in these terms. Today those memes still exist, but what works as a meme has just in the last year dramatically expanded. Along with this standard form, variegated others have flourished and started to become normal—which is to say, be understood in and as the mass culture of the Internet.

To all these forms of media that fall under the category of memes, contributing to this situation in which they organically start be understood and enjoyed, there may be certain traits that mark them as memes. For example, an ironically casual lack of concern about low graphic quality or a deliberate effort, even, to use stock images. These function as signifiers of memeness, which in itself draws a certain response from the savvy. However, the cumulative effect of these traits is to create an emergent affect that isn’t a simple memeness, reducible to its parts—what is borne as the fundamental quality of a good meme is dankness, which began as a somewhat ironic descriptor, but since has marked itself as one of those rare signifiers that is normalized from ironicness to wholeheartedness.

It is hard to specify what exactly dankness is in the context of memes (and, to some extent, even in the context of marijuana, which is probably the most important rhetorical predecessor to its current usage). It falls under that category of things that former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to describe pornography: “You know it when you see it.” It’s a generic yet very meaningful word to connote goodness about a meme. A meme is either dank, or it’s not. It’s not quite funniness in a traditional sense, where the humor can be drawn from existing categories such as slapstick or sarcasm. To some extent it is indeed irony, but one gets the sense there is something more—it “overflows with instant humor,” as was remarked about Dat Boi.



(Two creations of ShitpostBot 5000)

What it indicates, in fact, is the creation of a new consciousness with which reality is sensed. It is an expansion or evolution of senses of humor. Obviously there can be disagreement about whether a meme is dank or not. (The debates over certain memes posted in the Facebook group Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash, back in its heyday, served as perfect examples of the subjective nature of what is dank.) But what is dank is not so because of traits that can be isolated. Rather, the whole range of traits that constitute a meme does so by creating something greater than the sum of the traits, which could then be dank, or not be dank.

These traits need not now even include any text. Through their circulation through the common platforms of the meme page and group, memes have further expanded to overlap with other formerly separate aspects of Internet culture: funny pictures, and GIFs, which were earlier in distinct domains of Internet culture from what were considered “memes.” What is common to all these now, though, is that factor of immediately working, of there being something to them due to which those familiar with Internet culture just “get it.” There doesn’t have to be wordplay, or lurid physical humor, or an actual joke in any sense to these images. Yet, something clicks.

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From the theory that humor arises when an expectation is swiftly defied (with the qualification that what occurs instead isn’t tragic), sense can be made of this situation. For so many memes of today, the characteristic operation is, perhaps more than anything else, to isolate a fragment of a fundamentally disenchanted social reality, already created or captured in another form of media, in a way such that the fragment, and hence at least some part of reality, appears at least odd, and even, perhaps, re-enchanted.

The feeling accompanying the appraisal of the meme is “this is not supposed to be like this.” Not in an ethical sense, or in an aesthetic sense, but almost in a socio-metaphysical sense. Against the sleekness and functionality that neoliberalism would like us to regard and accept as both our descriptive and normative ideal, against the status quo itself as status quo, memes show how much of the world is still odd, as are our own reactions to it, inconducive to exploitation for machine learning algorithms and reduction into marketing data. For reality to feel alienated, against our state of malaise and dysfunction, it must seem different, alien, giving of an impression of cold, impersonal functionality. The reality captured by so many memes fractures this situation: the external world loses its facade of rationality and aimless functionality; it is presented such that its tenor can much better be captured as, put simply, “wtf,” “lol wut?” or “whoa”.


The Internet’s creative energies, not just through memes, are directed at making out the world as being consistent with our experience of the general world; or in a utopian interpretation, it makes the world, out of those very artifacts that make stale and tiring otherwise, something amazing.

This is taken to the greatest extreme with Vaporwave music and art. Vaporwave first originated in the early 2010’s—on the Internet. This is the first remarkable fact about it—the first art movement or subculture that originated purely in the virtual realm, without any geographical origin. It is marked by a pastiche (in the Jamesonian sense) of commodity culture of past decades and ages—most prominently the 80’s and 90’s (glitch art, early digital graphic design, nu-jazz-influenced Muzak, distorted soul and funk), but also, in certain more niche manifestations, the commodity culture of different periods, for example Laborwave, which incorporates Soviet products. It also exhibits an affinity for tropical habitats (indicating, to some extent, its kinship with the shorter-lived seapunk movement), Roman busts, Japanese culture (of course) and broadly, East Asian cultures in general. Its insertion of the kitsch of capitalism within surreal, frequently discomforting musical sequences, created out of recycled tunes of yore and accompanied by dreamlike hues, have the effect of both re-appropriating and re-enchanting. It is a movement of pure affect, deliberately taking the sterility of late capitalism and repackaging it as art, as a metaphysical sui generis.

So many vaporwave albums are overtly conceptual—they take the listener to a particular common situation in the life of Homo œconomicus, but by rendering the alienation and deadness of that activity in strange sounds and colors, make it somehow sublime. It is, as it were, showing us a way out of ennui while being forced to live in the same world; it does not try to avoid commodity culture, but reclaims it; it is the vanguard of art, creating the new art of the world and the new world of art out of the shells of the old. And through this year, it has been on a path of mainstreaming—an irritating situation for those concerned about the continued authenticity of any cultural niche, but something that also reflects that the arena and consciousness of the Internet that revels in its areferential ways of understanding is rapidly growing.

But ultimately, keeping in mind the real social activity that could be yielded through the moment of Harambe, the point to be drawn from this narrative about meme culture is that even if such understanding works on its own without prior cultural references, instead merely by taking semantically “free” cultural artifacts and somehow threading them together into meaning, the appreciation of such memes and aesthetics could not occur without a shared consciousness about what the world is. If a meme speaks to us, if Dat Boi makes sense, that sense is ultimately not immediate, it is mediated by an internalized recognition of the content of the meme as being unusual and breaking expectations of what things are supposed to be like in the most fundamental sense.

Thus, prior to that, the sense is mediated by an internalized recognition of existence as disenchanted at best, or hideous at worst, which makes the oddness or freshness of Dat Boi and vaporwave meaningful. For something to stand out as absurd (rather than mere stochastic noise) there must be a scheme of what is not absurd, of the standard that is defied. As different categories of humor work at large because a system of what is normal (say, language, in the case of Doge, or wordplay in general) has been assimilated to an automatic, pre-conscious level in people’s minds, it could be said that as more and more people sync up with the kind of consciousness that understands memes, if not appreciates them, this reflects a general understanding of what constitutes disenchanted, ho-hum (post-)modern reality. Memes, for all the aversion toward political readings of the phenomenon, indicate the growth of a consciousness about present-day capitalist society as what it is: a world generally so boring, so alienating and alienated, that any time it is captured in a frame and held still, the absurdity is humorous and offers solace. The world we live in is so wearisome that defamiliarizing the familiar is therapeutic.

However, this consciousness, though autonomous and engaging in areferential memes in a self-contained semantic realm, is not existent yet in fullness. It is a shadow of the subject it could be, a state for which a requisite condition would be interpellation by society beyond that consciousness. It affirms itself in its auto-processing and enjoyment of memes at the point of Dat Boi, but it has not yet established itself as a real thing as much as the human and non-human units out of whose interactions it arises.

To come fully into its own, it must explore its being yet more, much like a child who comes into being as a member of its species by exercising its species-being for a prolonged period of physical and psychological growth. But the opportunities here are limited. Memes such as those highlighted above are innumerable, but they are too scattered and do not cohere well. Dat Boi was a milestone, but it could not last, for the very reason that it was so disconnected from the greater world in and through which the meme-consciousness seeks full existence. Dat Boi memes could not be created ad infinitum, for months on end. They were too fanciful to impose on society and seek recognition for with seriousness. But the finally-actualized meme-consciousness wanted to affirm “I exist!”—which is to say, “I exist in the world at large.” For this, it had to manifest and exercise this existence—its autonomy as an entity, not requiring reduction or reference to other entities—through something else that need not be restricted by the forced transience of most oddness, something else the meme-consciousness could latch onto and assert itself through for longer than was possible through Dat Boi. Harambe, in this circumstance, was the perfect Trojan horse.

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“Why do you keep bringing up that damn frog?” the world would have asked to the memosphere if that mischief had kept on going. And the meme-mind knew that, and in any case, it would not have been able to give the real answer: “Because I am now coming into existence, and want to exercise this existence.” The only answer it could have given with a straight face would have been: “Because… it’s funny?… because I feel… connected to that frog?”

Whereas with Harambe the situation was different. The element of subterfuge was obvious. Yet as long as it was clung to unabashedly, the world could only allege, but never prove, that it was subterfuge: “Why do you keep bringing up that damn gorilla?” “Because we want justice for him,” we could say. But the truth was more so, though not exclusively, “Because we get this, dammit, because it makes immediate sense to us, and we can only legitimize and give permanence to ourselves as an immense, singular consciousness that can get this by prolonging this moment, so that we can be more than a glimmer.” (Cecil the Lion occupied the pole opposite to Dat Boi. With Cecil, no child was involved, thus no moral dilemma, and so expressing that outrage through memes and subterfuge was not a natural route of addressing the matter, and if pursued, would have been unallowably inappropriate.)

Though there has been some genuine concern about Harambe’s death, even if the ironic mode of expressing this could come across as insincere, the longevity of Harambe has not been because of outrage over Harambe, or because of any greater humor or artistic value to the meme. Rather, this meme was long-lived because it could be, because of the semi-genuine front of the ethical crusade that was an excuse to keep it alive. After all, Harambe memes also fall into the same category as that of Dat Boi: if you get the Internet, you get it, not even requiring explanation of other entities in the memes. Though Harambe has been conjoined with many other figures, iconic and outré, over the course of the memes, the bare fact of Harambe-in-the-meme, the phenomenon that the memes work, is yet another point in the mind of the Internet attaining autonomy from the norms and semantic webs of the larger world it forms part of, but doing so in response to the expectations and normalcies of that world—the perfect dialectical progression.

The slogan “Dicks out for Harambe” as humor is an interesting case in autonomy being sought in return or escape to primordiality. Simple (which, for the record, does not mean invalid) interpretations of the phrase see it as designating a self-leveling or homage, a proclamation that “we’re serious about this; we’re doing something about this,” or the obvious association of the phallus with a weapon to beat the oppressor with, to avenge Harambe with. But consider the fairly well accepted Aristotelian hypothesis that the origins of (Western, at least) comedy lies in phallic processions that took place in ancient Greece as Dionysiac celebrations. While this may seem a primitive form of humor, one could interpret “Dicks out for Harambe” as a spurning of an ever-more gentrifying, bourgeois world in which ordinary people cannot avail of finer pleasures, where good taste comes with a hefty price tag. It is funny to all those united in the necessity of reclaiming fun in a day and age in which each moment must be spent in precarious productivity—unless you’re rich. And almost as if the protest is written into our cosmic, genealogical memory, against the sequestration of pleasure to strata of privilege, it seeks sanctuary and takes pleasure in what is even historically, let alone rhetorically, the most rudimentary form of humor.

The phallus, then, though hidden far and invisible in the unconscious, is the only point of reference from which the birth of this form of consciousness can be traced. As comedy itself, when it first arose, was its own system with its own logics (emerging from a basic relation with the phallus), so now, with that same prop to hold it up initially until it can fly out of the nest by itself and hold its own, a new autonomous system of consciousness is at its germinal point. We are at the point of the ego-formation of the meme-psyche; we are at—or, simply, we are—the mirror stage of the memosphere. What has recently been birthed as an auto-consciousness is now on the path of becoming self-consciousness, même-consciousness (the corresponding point to that from Greek history would have been when the concept of comedy as comedy arose). This process will likely not terminate with the popularity of the meme. Harambe has ceased to run rampant around the Internet. However, the process that brought Harambe has been furthered by Harambe, and will continue to find expression again through other things that can be held under the strobe-light of social attention, to bring even more affirmation and social existence upon the kind of consciousness that forms it. Although it does not know it yet, the machine that is the memosphere, by having kept Harambe going so long, has been saying, “We exist,” but is not done fully enunciating and establishing this. But the movement has set in motion; the meme, as an object understood by subjects drawing reference from the social world, has become meme-mind, object-subject brought together, with its own autonomous, self-referential semantic operations, and a collective journey.


Harambe, then, in one sense is not to be taken lightly: He-They-It has been a seminal moment in the activation of the mind of the Internet; or rather, the Internet as a mind that has its own logics and sensibilities for understanding signs from all over the social plane. Both Internet culture that draws its meaning from specific cultural productions (say, stills from popular movies or TV shows) and long-established signifiers of particular emotions (even if present on the faces of animals) could be influenced by institutions of power. But the Internet of today, the Internet of Harambe, grows to defy the hegemony of any concerted or haphazard vanguard of meaning-generation, be that the culture industry, the intelligentsia or digital platforms.

However, in another sense, to return to the gorilla who has been reduced to an assortment of images on servers, is a tragedy and presents an aporia—because he exists only lightly, in this immaterial lightness drained of corporeality. So what of Harambe, the simian that was in Cincinnati Zoo? Here too, ongoing processes have advanced, but this is a matter of the other movement, that which scrambles ontology, and as pertains to this instance, renders Harambe from gorilla to non-gorilla.

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Harambe, for all he is—i.e., not just the gorilla, but also as he been held in the mind of the Internet and popular culture at large—is neither simian nor meme, but a cyborg, as paradigmatically described by Donna Haraway. In writing A Cyborg Manifesto in the 1980’s, she brought up the ontology of the cyborg as coincident with, emergent of and contributive to three boundary breakdowns that she saw taking place then: between the human and non-human animal, largely due to biological science itself; between the organism and machine, due to cybernetic advances; and between the physical and non-physical, largely both due to physics and cybernetics. If those processes had been underway then, right now they are more than thoroughly established. Our smartphones are extensions of our hands and minds, and in all likelihood, Apple’s new AirPods aren’t the farce they have been received as, and may be remembered as our first widely adopted implants, receiving feedback and whispering information from and to our quotidian activity. And as just one way in which the “animal” as an “animal” in a pristine, “natural” sense keeps on becoming less accurate, more scientific consensus has emerged over the last year that chimpanzees, our so-near, yet still-not-human cousins, are now living in their Stone Age.

In these circumstances, cyborgs are already manifest. But more manifest and concerted cyborgs are post-due—and with them, a “cyborg world [which] might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.” Harambe, in this hope and line, would be best understood as most truly a complex—of gorilla | representations/memes | mass consciousness of representations | becoming of self-consciousness out of consciousness.

Such a conceptualization in which these disparate components are unified in one ontology naturally seems strange. But retrospectively, one day, it may come across as being as arbitrary as one that insists on an inelastic framework in which Harambe, the dead biological unit, is held as separate from the aggregate of Internet culture about it, despite the unceasing connection of the latter with the former. Right now, this latter conceptualization may seem like theoretical fantasization or grandstanding with no basis in an ansatz of “how things really are,” and thus immediately subject to dispute from a fundamentally instinctual tradition of individuating different instances of organisms. But if the Internet can indulge in the same category of memes for an entire summer, then an atypical hypothesis about them surely deserves to be indulged—and after all, hasn’t the intent of so much radical thought been to conjecture toward ways in which discrete selves or subjects as risen from modern discourse can be disturbed, dislodged and liberated into concatenations or unfoldings less liable to existential curtailment or social repression?

The big stumbling block that might be pointed out against conceiving of Harambe as this cyborg or complex is that the gorilla had a consciousness, subjectivity—a good, strong criterion for considering him as something separate and unassimilable into the nexus being proposed here. That is true, and the conjecture is certainly not that that Harambe, with his own consciousness and subjectivity, has at once been retained as a discrete unit and also assimilated into this meme-human-consciousness-nexus. Of course, Harambe as conceived of and existing as that gorilla was finished with the cessation of blood flowing to and from the biological brain in that entity. The existence of Harambe as a cyborg does not incorporate the biological gorilla Harambe as a simple part within a whole.

Still, there has been something of that gorilla in and to the cyborg, in a way that with the memification of Harambe, larger ontological planes have been altered—at once opened, nullified and closed. Harambe existing and conceived as gorilla was annihilated not only in a biological sense, of that one Harambe in the zoo, but also in the sense of what constitutes the bounds of a gorilla, as an object of our thoughts and a subject influencing our thoughts. But Harambe was also created, as always happens when icons are created—and that was a direct transformation arising out of the gorilla, though mediated by planetary-scale semantic, neural and technological infrastructures.

Harambe reverted John Durham Peters’ remark that “ontology, whatever else it is, is usually just forgotten infrastructure,” as we see that through new associations of infrastructure, new ontology was borne. For Harambe-même gave way for meme-Harambe: First, from the gorilla no one had heard of, to the pure subject of controversy, projected with unmediated importance, as is the effect of scandal qua scandal. After this, with traits fleshing him out (ironically, only once his flesh was no longer alive) with traits such as goodness and vengeance through Internet memes. Finally, after the memes had reached a certain mass, after he had been anthropocized to the extent required, at the point the anthropocized version could not contain all that was being wreathed onto him, through the abrogation of this substance into re-immateriality—with godliness, beatified, notionally raised to a reality greater than our thoughts of him: He who died for our sins.

Harambe could become divine and ethereal only by way of being constituted as an entity with substantive, anthropic content, by the gorilla becoming not-gorilla. As Haraway writes, “Cyborgs are ether, quintessence”—but only by way of materiality, even if projected, the case of Harambe demonstrates. But then she also writes, “They are about consciousness – or its simulation.” The question still stands: What is the consciousness being created or simulated here? Not just Harambe-the-simian, what for gorillas at large can come of the greater social phenomenon? What does the cyborg do for the animal?

In a immediate and direct sense, no consciousness has been created here. Harambe is not going to awaken, aware as a great ether-gorilla, regardless of how much he is hailed by the memosphere, just as God does not become real solely (if at all) by His name being taken by billions. But Harambe as has been newly created, from merely “a gorilla” into something endowed as more than that, may well have implications on conscious things such as Harambe or things simulated as being like Harambe. At the most basic level, even if the genuine sentiments for Harambe the gorilla surfaced largely only with a tongue in cheek, even if the grander reason for the longevity of the meme was the memosphere’s search for an outlet to exercise and manifest what it can actually now be, first, there was discussion about the gorilla. The petitions (to rename the Cincinnati Bengals to the Cincinnati Harambes; to secure justice for Harambe by pressing charges against the parents of the child for whom Harambe was shot; to rename Gorilla Glue to Harambe Glue, and hundreds more) were to varying extents serious, and there is something to be said about that. A conservation fund was set up in memory of Harambe. Further down the road, Jill Stein reminded us “to be a voice for the voiceless” to mark three months of his death. The conversation did move forward, and Harambe, as it were, died up to his name, which is a Swahili word meaning “working together, pulling together, helping each other, caring, and sharing.” But the degree of reflection on compassion that was produced wasn’t because of dour animal rights advocates objecting to the memification of Harambe—it was because of the memification of Harambe.

But even apart from such worldly instances in which the posthumous rights and sentience of Harambe have been championed, the memification of Harambe, the elevation of Harambe into a cyborg, has not only marked but substantiated and furthered the erasure of the divide between the human and non-human. Regardless of the sentiment with which it was conducted, the sheer emotion that has been displayed toward the gorilla, literally as if Harambe were a real person, is not something that has happened ever before. But even to this, the question would be, “If the gorilla isn’t being regarded as a gorilla, how is this is a victory for animals?”

There is no way to answer this without returning, finally, full circle in this analysis, back to the Ljubljana critique. If the hierarchy between animals and humans weren’t being altered at all through the process of the memification, then certainly, nothing would happen for animals. But with Harambe, the ontological plane has been altered. Harambe is no longer regarded as a gorilla. Still, surely, that mere regard wouldn’t be enough for to change conditions for animals. What makes the difference, though, as stated earlier, is the coincidence of this changed orientation regarding a gorilla with the other movement that has led to the first prolonged display of the Internet-mind’s areferential self-understanding. The recognition that has been sought with both the movements is not for Harambe the gorilla, but the gorilla as having-become-cyborg; not for Harambe the meme, but the meme as having-become-cyborg. The cyborg is inseparable from the object, in this case the gorilla, and the subject, the consciousness that contemplates it, and with it, forms a full assemblage, autosemiotic and autopoietic, announcing itself, and auguring not only new ontologies, but also earthly cyborgs.

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Thus has a new social body, a cyber-neuro-social machine, come into being. Dear and intrinsic to this new social body—i.e., an entity with potential agency—is another entity’s new conceptualization: Harambe as much more than a gorilla. This conceptualization is coded as if into the very defining DNA patterns of this social body, traceable in its evolutionary path. Because of this, it could only be expected that as and if this social body flourishes and proliferates into broader kin, transsubstantiating possibly the cyber- or neuro- categories, its social actions may well necessarily return to the landmark kernel out of which it arose. If it came into being largely by transanimalizing an animal, why would not much of its future pre-occupations bear some affinity to further operations of unanimalizing, ahumanizing, why would it not foster further aspirations of transanimalizing, transhumanizing, transsundering?

Recognizing the possibility of the cyborgification of life and non-life, it could easily be argued that the greatest victory for animal rights may lie precisely in overcoming the status of animals as “animals” (and ours, correspondingly, as “human”), much as radical critique holds that the only way to overcome patriarchy would be to overcome the category of “woman” itself (and that of “man”). Of course, however, the conceptual level (this not being regarded as that) is only one level of the issue. Can the memosphere come to infiltrate the greater mass of society, acquire agency to influence not just the currency of affects and images, but also their concretization into new subjects?

For the longest time, it seemed that Internet culture would remain relegated to its own disreputable corners. But in the last year, as the Internet has reached new heights in areferentiality and amplified, hardly conscious of its efforts to assert its full existence, it has spilled over into what has hitherto been demarcated as the “real world”—or sometimes just other worlds, such as the planet named Dixout IV Harambe in the video game No Man’s Sky.

Apart from the endeavors involving Harambe, a few of which are mentioned above, other memes and endeavors of the Internet have also pervaded into popular discourse, thus inevitably structuring the latter and rewiring it some extent. Jill Stein has also endorsed dank memes made about her; while Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash, in its prime, became a news topic and much more. Were the world truly democratic, the British research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough would actually have been named Boaty McBoatface, as the will of the Internet pronounced. Much has been made of the Right’s appropriation of Pepe the Frog and its association with Donald Trump; Hillary Clinton even released a statement explaining how Pepe is “a symbol associated with white supremacy,” and more recently, the Anti-Defamation League put poor Pepe on its list of hate symbols. (Since then, the creator of Pepe also created this.) Late last month, the 24-year-old millionaire/billionaire founder of Oculus Rift, Palmer Luckey, came out as a Trump supporter who has been funding a meme-producing group called Nimble America to help Trump’s campaign. A post introducing Nimble America on Reddit, which appears now to have been deleted, said all that was needed: “We’ve proven that shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real.” As of 2016, memes have become a Presidential matter.

Particularly, as indicated by these examples, the precise kind of politicization going along with the spread of meme culture points to the significance of the kind of cyborg being that is seeing its maturation on and as (predominantly) the Internet: memes are being mobilized as weapons of ideological warfare for political tendencies denied voices by “the establishment”—and they are very effective. The memosphere carries forward the legacy of the subversive projects of the past few decades such as the Cacophony Society and Discordianism. Except, instead of going out and themselves creating situations and scenes that make social reality interesting, bizarre and unalienated, the agents of memes, more so on the pulse of popular culture and its sense of humor than their predecessors, simply curate just the right existing text, sound and image from the world into digital bits. “Vaporwave,” the term itself, as an indication of the political proclivity and will of the Internet consciousness that birthed it, is a near-portmanteau of “vaporware,” a business term designating a product that has been advertised but is not yet available for purchase, and Marx’s waves of vapor, designating the upheavals and ephemeral creations engendered by capitalism: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Vaporwave, through its very name, creates a confrontation of capitalist normalcy with Marx.

All these facets of Internet culture seem to endeavor to reclaim reality and re-endow it with a sense that would fly against that which Mark Zuckerberg and other gatekeepers of stale neoliberal cheeriness and amiability would want retained. But the very fact that so many Harambe memes circulated for once in such quantity through Facebook (aside from the usual pastures of Reddit, 4Chan, etc.) and in general, Zuckerberg’s hostility to his platform being rendered a marketplace of memes, reflects the potency of the moment. Of course Mark Zuckerberg would want to censor absurd and politically unorthodox meme pages before outlets of clear hate speech. Facebook’s entire business model is predicated upon relegating and even moulding interactions to the most indexable and commodifiable for revenue-generation, or for utility to governments with whom alliances would allow it to corner vast markets. Oddness is dangerous for such an organ of the dominant social order, whose sensibilities are as clean and conformist as possible, for a website whose every update contrives to direct our expression and activity to forms ever-more harvestable for data and synchronous with the consumer choices it exists in conjunction with.

In this situation, the warfare between Facebook, on one hand, and Leftbook (the lush nexus of leftist Facebook pages) and Weird Facebook on the other—subliminally percipient as the latter realm is toward the violence, absurdity and alienation inherent in today’s society—is not only understandable, but crucial. Facebook (and to a lesser extent, Twitter), so connected to extensive social dynamics, are serving as unwitting mediators between the cyborg of the Internet and the rest of the world that it wishes to infect with its senses. By engaging with memosphere, Facebook has given credence and avenues for it to extend its uncanny vines into the floodplains of society at large.

The Zuckening, then, is no simple protest; it is a representative moment of this new social body exercising its agency as it at once grows diffuse but also more mainstream. This diffusion and mainstreaming does not mean that the same people who made or shared Harambe memes on social media gain power in society; but it does mean that the kind of sensibilities underlying the spread of Harambe memes extend their sway in more and more social units. If politicians address Harambe and Pepe, and tech giants try to restrict them, the process of thinking of them as more than just a gorilla or frog has very much already extended beyond meme pages. The social body with potential agency and a predilection for scrambling and recreating ontologies may be rather near to worldly existence.

* * *

How this thought will be clarified under a coherent banner and how this social body will be concentrated to yield substantive activity is a matter of politics; in other words, a matter of alliances of social production. Something that would only in a vague, genealogical sense be an animal rights movement could come out of this—except it would not involve “animals” as created as an object of science over the last few centuries, but new ontologies.

If Harambe has reached a certain degree of permeation into our psyche, that will proffer energy toward new collective, technical cyborg endeavors. These would not be endeavors specifically to resurrect the gorilla. Rather, they would allow greater immersion of entities formerly regarded as animals into fields of signs, greater immersion of humans into physical forms and preoccupations departing from modern discourse and humanist decrees, and greater experimentation with minds that span the organic and inorganic, the human and non-human. Why not imagine artificial intelligences whose being resides at the point of the membrane—between collective neural network and organic forms, inspired by cultural stepping stones such as Harambe? In the biological triage humans will be bound to engage in during the Anthropocene, why not imagine conjoinments of populations with software, better enabling feedback with human systems of stewardship and self-regulation in radically unstable ecologies? Why not imagine an animal rights movement devoted to the cognitive enhancement of at least some advanced mammals in whom this could be capable, literally giving animals a voice for themselves? If the world out of which this cyborg consciousness arose is so worn out that defamiliarizing familiar elements of that world is therapeutic, then why wouldn’t this cyborg consciousness undertake to materialize the being and aesthetic—or should we say, the a e s t h e t i c—that revitalizes the world? These are all political economic struggles—indeed as all technical endeavors are.

The initial steps for all this have already been taken, though these were possible, with retrospective necessity, only under the sign and sight of Harambe. To all that may come, the techne, logos and polity, the byword will be, even if only as a talisman, a signal toward a cosmos yet to be plied while concurrently a reminder of where we come from—Harambe. The inception point, in terms of how much an animal could mean to us without even remaining an animal, having transcended being an animal, having lifted even that most ethereal of spheres, the Internet, to bring about intrusions into the larger sociopolitical realm—Harambe. The seminal germ marking the memosis—emergence that is characteristic of transbiological, visionary cyborg reproduction, in contrast to the divisionary mitosis or meiosis of genetics—through which this autonomous consciousness came to invoke itself and linger long enough to become a social body—Harambe. This social body, too, forever inscribed, from the initial moment of this memosis with a peculiar, structuring obsession, which will haunt its ensuing consciousness, direct its vocation—Harambe. The folding upon each other of the sign and the signified into a form sublating the distinction of real and virtual, organic and inorganic, reality and consciousness, the named and the name; the calling forth of these two sides, as well as infinite others, rowdy, restless and scintillating, the coming together of desires, ontologies and subjects, as designated by the meaning of—now no different from the matter of—Harambe.