american nihilism 1: pure heroin, short circuits

February 15, 2022

Our ever-complexifying world is producing not more complex, but less complex human beings. The libertarian ideal of a free society rests on the possibility of absolution for a moral agent within a set of bounds. As the world continues to complexify, the freedom of the moral actor leans more and more heavily on technosocial apparatuses with shorter and shorter circuits to which we can outsource responsibility for more and more complex tasks. This is to an extent a legacy of the liberal, Cartesian subject whose being begins with thought.

This is the first in a three-part series on the chore that is thinking in America. The first two installations explore common philosophical ground between the two present-day political parties. It is not a history, but a critique focused on diagnosing our endemic poverty of thought. The last installment will remember the Cartesian subject to try and forget, then consider an alternative way to think about thinking.

Consider my fictional history of the roadway. 

At first roads were dirt. People and horses went slow. Surely there was courtesy, etiquette, signs and symbols used by two individuals on the approach. The complexity of the interaction is bound up in the mind in large part because the technology of the crossing is vanishingly simple. The mechanical carriage (read: cars) hits the scene, and starts driving on roads. They didn’t belong. Noisy, smelly and dangerous, the roads were for pedestrians, and cars always yielded. Cars got faster, and the technology of the road was complexified. We outsourced a simple decision to the architecture of the street: sidewalks and vehicle lanes. Roads were made stronger and smoother, for vehicles to go faster without thinking and then cars were made faster because there were stronger, smoother roads. Now the intersection is a crossing of multiple paths: vehicles and pedestrians (eventually bikes), and the vehicles are going faster. “Let’s put a sign in: no matter what you’re doing, stop first before going through the intersection.” 

You can see where this history is headed: slowly but surely, the complexity of the interaction and speed at which a proper decision needs to be made requires finer and finer increments of decision-making infrastructure. With each consideration accounted for by another technology at the intersection, the human has one less factor to consider to make a judgment. This history culminates in what I see as the most ridiculous invention of all: the digital “no turn on red” sign to which I will return in a future installment.

Responsibility for determining whether it is safe to enter the intersection is outsourced to the sign and signal. This outsourcing is upheld by a social contract that binds everyone approaching the intersection.

Outsourcing responsibility for complex decisions-making tasks requires finer and finer surety of judgment in decision-making tools. As society complexifies and accelerates, we continue to build out this infrastructure. Even willingly: technophilic self-help is now the norm. The modern American intersection outsources as many decision-making tasks as possible to make the intersection safe for all those who enter into the contract of approach. Meanwhile, an individual agent proceeds as fast as possible in whatever direction the self determines by taxing their judgment as little as necessary.

There are many material examples of our decision-making processes being shoehorned into ever-shortening circuits. While I will return to the roadway in the next installation, let’s see this essay out with another technology we are all too familiar with: in vitro diagnostics.

The in vitro diagnostic test (read: COVID-19 or STD test) offers us terms for short-circuiting decision-making responsibilities. More and more, in vitro diagnostics serve a function—and therefore follow a similar history to—the intersection. The physical proximity of bodies is simply a biological intersection. One line, two lines, green light, red light—these serve as signs which indicate a shared contract giving all individuals a simple binary to follow.

For the libertarian subject neither the test strip nor traffic light is freighted with the complexity of its scientific or operational minutia. The agent approaches the test the same way a car approaches an intersection seeking a binary judgment: “may I continue?” The desire to continue on unencumbered, in an unbroken affective flow uninterrupted by diverting mental and emotional resources to judgment centers outsources responsibility to the test strip. Once responsibility is outsourced, the immense psychological investment necessary to empower the negative result grants us the freedom we desire requires the positive result hold an equal and opposite captivity. (Green lights are no less simple: vehicles run red light, traffic backs up into intersections, pedestrians walk into crosswalks).

The practiced biochemist or the medical practitioner may know the complexity of what’s happening on the test strip and relate to it as a tool. They may know intimately in many iterations what lies behind and through the test strip just as an experienced driver relates to the traffic light. On the other hand, the professional may not: squeezed by the burden of standards, regulations, insurance, and guidelines they may lean into in vitro diagnostics with as much responsibility outsourcing as the layperson. 

Protracted judgment is antithetical to the raison d’etre of the American libertarian subject. The green light and the pink lines are both examples of technologies which short-circuit a network of factors and variables to the most elementary binary possible. These binaries are accordingly systematized and reinforced as social contracts. In doing so, they free the agent from the burden of complex decision-making endeavors (i.e. self-diagnosis, symptom monitoring, and limiting exposure risks), optimizing for greater libertarian self-determination. Instead of bolstering our capacity for judgment in an ever-complexifying world it is optimal to outsource responsibility. No one is innocent.

This is our social contract as Americans: limitless acceleration, frictionless coexistence. As we continue the rapid expansion of this libertarian infrastructure we find ourselves in increasingly unstable, unsettling relationships to the world.

This seems like the opening of a critique of the Democratic left, but it’s not.

In South Carolina midterms, Representative Tom Rice voted with former President Trump more than 90% of the time, but is facing a number of Trump-endorsed primary challengers as a response to Rice’s vote for impeachment (the second time, but not the first). Clearly the issue in this instance is not the applicability of the less than 10% of legislative or ideological differences with Trump. Instead he has determined to vote with a slightly more complex framework for decision-making—and that’s being exceedingly generous—outside the short-circuiting between the GOP and Trump.

Ostensibly, Rice would have voted for nearly all the same things Trump supported without Trump in office. Maybe, he thought, Trump was a risk to the political agenda they both share. If this is true, he is an even more reliable supporter of Trump than Trump himself.

He cannot be trusted by right-wing voters precisely because he is thinking, not in spite of it. The mass political will-to-power requires shorter and shorter circuits of judgment in order to consolidate power by limiting friction while maintaining acceleration. The constituency willingly undoes its own critical faculties because it perceives that the satisfaction of political desires can be accelerated the shorter the circuit of social responsibility and judgment becomes. As a result, the party continues to empty itself into the political desire-satisfaction apparatus of Trump because in doing so it shortens the circuit of political terms such that they cannot but be satisfied. 

To submit oneself to the shortest political circuit available is to defer responsibility for the monumental lift of developing a nuanced political consciousness in an ever-complexifying world. Trump is the green light and the pink line of the American right. Now, the party has vested itself so completely in the political promise of Trump’s salvific appointment that the negative result of the election is bound up in the Gordian wager. Just like the test strip, the problem began with the totalizing effect of the political judgment’s reduction to a binary. And we watch the party continue to short circuit.

This is what the Democratic left is having trouble understanding, and why its political jousts and lunges never land. Trump’s influence arose not because of his ideology, nor is in spite of it, but precisely because he is devoid of ideology. He is the perfect inkblot on which a populous having come of political age indulging in news media affect consumption can project its will “democratically” (that is, the purported “democratic” ontology of capitalism: consumerist) and engage politically with perfect, or near perfect, rate of success.

There is something terrifying which shares in these ever-shortening ontological circuits.

Trump is, in the final constellation of things, an addiction. He is a political addiction with the same complexion as the opiates which ravage his base. He is the heroin of an American right which has opted for nihilism on all intellectual accounts to serve an ever-shortening circuit of self-interested opportunism. It is not “political” in any historical sense of the word, but is masked in the political insofar as it can purport to serve traditional political goals: social and intellectual responsibility in a complexifying, unstable, and ever-changing world. I have sympathy with right-wing, anti-globalist, and even populist critiques. Those rationalizing Trump usage may be doing so with sound mind, but nevertheless find themselves in the precarious position of trying to discuss the medical benefits of over-the-counter opiates with heroin addicts.

Inclination to retreat into conspiracy at first seems to be the embrace of a complexifying system. However, it follows the same short-circuiting rules simply by moving on to encode broader and broader swathes of information into shorter and shorter circuits. Conspiratorial right-wing thought begins with the same short circuit as Trumpist thinking but is not satisfied by the world delimited by mainstream media. It proceeds straight to cosmological frameworks and completes the grotesque mutation of the Cartesian subject: a fully metamorphosed American libertarian consumer. It wants therefore it thinks and it thinks what it wants.

Spawned from Evangelical gnosticism, conspiratorial thinking forever lifts its eyes to the next incoming download qua second coming: final revelation, paradisal satisfaction. The feed is divine messenger, “I bring you good news, the most joyous news the world has ever heard!” Information is gnosticized as desire recreates itself. Salvific proclamations break in and bubble up dissatisfactio ad infinitum ad absurdum. Using arguments from silence, with circuitry wedged firmly in between Popperian notions of both falsifiability and verifiability, the conspiracist rides not with Apollo, but mounts the demon of epistemological nihilism. It sets impossible terms of epistemological satisfaction not only so that others cannot intrude, but because the appetite grows for what it feeds upon. It is a kerygmatic neurosis mediated by a technological infrastructure and data marketplace premised on information addiction. Conspiracism is an addiction that can only exist in a society where knowledge itself is bound by the logic of consumption. “Knowledge,” quite literally, is governed by the physics of information bought, sold and transferred in an online economy.

Epistemological nihilism is the value nihilism of capitalism in the marketplace of ideas. Whereas the commodity’s value has no apparent ground in a stable system of real values—for instance use in a concrete social relationship—now ideas exist in the marketplace of ideas with the same ontology: exchange-value has untethered from use-value. Words, ideas, and ideological anachronisms all do (through exchange) far more than they even care to mean or refer to. The only “use” for any of these intellectual tools in the current state of affairs is to relentlessly accumulate mass through accelerating exchange via frictionless virtual mediums such that political affect can be consolidated and rammed against political opponents.

In a frightening twist of fate, knowledge itself and the whole human enterprise of knowing has been put in service to the libertarian consumer’s raison d’etre of self-determination through desire satisfaction. This epistemology has metastasized throughout the circuits connecting the Capitol building to the rest of our City on a Hill and beckons outward to a globe of humans reeling as we tumble aimlessly through space.

Whereas both parties load different value circuits (and both are anachronisms) they occupy a shared epistemological space.

The existential nihilism of the heroin addict and the epistemological nihilism of American party politics are one and the same (now I am talking about both parties). It soothes one’s political angst as history progresses into the unstable unknown to cultivate desires which can be so easily satisfied and near at hand: fed intravenously from a glossy morphine drip with a home button.

Consumer and market ontologies which birthed opiate epidemics and the virtual golden eggs of crypto-currency have now metastasized into the political via the techno-social joint. Just as the technology of IV injection gave way to the disposable sterile hypodermic needle, what began as media resulting in social media accelerated the same short-circuiting of the consumer-political being. Heroin and Trump may only have parallel histories, but they share precisely the same ontogeny.

It’s no wonder, then, that the value differences in the American right and Democratic left appear arbitrary. We too, are increasingly afraid of recognizing the ungroundedness of contemporary political rhetoric in any substantive telic historical or metaphysical plane. Both parties are extraordinarily comfortable flourishing antique political ideals at each other to preserve the appearance of a democratic process when no one on earth has even the slightest sense of what we’re trying to accomplish together as a globe. We are tumbling together into the future, playacting the melodrama of our great-grandfather’s politicians out of fear and avoidance that neither party—no one—has an answer to our real, shared philosophical problem: the annihilation of stable epistemological and value systems by the market and commodity ontologies of capitalism run amok ad absurdum; cannibalizing all objects, value, and the relations between them. In an ironic turn of events, while we were afraid The Blob and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were parables for our future should communism be allowed to infect us all, it was capital which silently metastasized to a terminal stage.

To say we are getting stupider is somewhat unfair. We are—to be sure—but we are also getting faster. If we want to live faster we have to be able to think faster. But the problem is, it takes a long time to have thoughts worth thinking. Some people live their entire lives and never have any.