Thursday, February 1, 2018

Followup to Twitter, January 2018

As I compiled yesterday's Twitter roundup, I remembered there was one particular series of tweets that was too complicated to include with all the others, so I thought I would focus on it all by itself for today.

Michelle Allison (@fatnutritionist) describes herself as a registered dietitian who is half American, half Canadian. Her website is

Anyway, here's what she had to say on January 15. It's a bit of a hard start, because she's in conversation with people who already know about her work generally. She's interested in what she calls terror management theory (which I have never heard of before, but it's about the conflict between the human drive for self-preservation and knowing we're all going to die): 

I've spent the last year and a half kicking myself for choosing terror management theory as a framework to analyze popular diet culture, not because it doesn't work (I think it does), but because it applies so well to our current political situation that I can't sleep at night.

It's hard to stay narrowly focused on nutrition and related stuff when larger themes of neoreactionary thought and autocracy and the dismantling of democratic institutions keep intruding, over and over. It's hard to ignore the obvious immortality project staring me in the face.

I guess I'll write about some of it here, though Twitter is a cesspit. IRL people look at me like I'm off my nut when I talk about this, except for my incredibly kind and patient friend Mel - shout out to Mel for letting me ramble about immortality over nachos at Sneaky Dee's.

I first made the connection between social hierarchy, health, and the fear of death many years ago, as a teenager, but it became really explicit to me in online arguments about body weight and health just a few years back. It was so obvious that people constructed hierarchies of "better" and "worse" people (along lines of body weight, presumed lifestyle choices, and other health indices) as a way of convincing themselves that they wouldn't ever do something as gauche as GET SICK AND DIE. A lot of this came from various alt-right types and corners.

I remember one of my twitter friends responding in the most perfect way ever to these attempts at bullying with "That's right, in this land of immortal highlanders only the weak die," or something like that. It cracked me the hell up, but it also pointed to something crucial, which is a theme running through alt-right and neoreactionary ideas, a sort of ubermensch or superhuman ideal, but in the updated format of transhumanism or the technological singularity. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, it's okay, I kind of wish I didn't.)

I became aware of actual neoreactionary philosophy a few years ago, in a random thread on Metafilter, where the weirdest internet troll ever came into the comments to school us all about the coming Dark Enlightenment (and used a lot of gratuitous tildes which made us laugh.) It's basically the philosophical underpinning of Bannon et al. It includes 1) the dismantling of the state, 2) the dismantling of democracy and a return to a sort of feudal system or even monarchy, and 3) a broad denial of egalitarianism and other Enlightenment ideals.

It would include returning women to "traditional roles" (you can fill in the blanks) and is cozy with white supremacist ideas, e.g. that slavery is a desirable way for humans to relate, and that some groups of people make better slaves than others (again, you can fill in the blanks.)

I didn't make the connection between what I was studying/experiencing (people using body size and health to form social hierarchies that allow them to suppress the fear of death) and the weird stuff I'd run into online by accident (neoreactionary philosophy, alt right) until 2016.

I had understood that there was some serious social Darwinist thinking at work underlying all forms of hierarchy and oppression, and that this was the alt right's "we hate everybody (except cishet white men) equally" stock-in-trade, but that was about all I had pieced together.

It didn't fully click until 2016, as I was taking notes on Ernest Becker's writings, watching the U.S. election unfold, that neoreactionary, anti-democratic thought as a whole is a massive immortality project, and THIS is what it has in common with my topics (fat stigma, diet culture)

Basically my weird, fringe-y interest (diet culture, terror management theory) was connected to the weird, fringe-y stuff I'd stumbled upon online (neoreactionary philosophy) and it was no longer just weird, fringe-y stuff at all — it had resulted in a massive political upheaval in my home country.

Whenever I say "immortality project" everyone's eyes glaze over, so let me explain a little — you could say immortality projects are humans' attempts to "leave a legacy" that endures when they are gone, or belief systems that offer the possibility of an afterlife in some form. Becker, I guess, states that all cultural production and norms and technologies and institutions are immortality projects, because they are objects, or even ways of doing things, that get passed down from one generation to the next, that endure beyond a single human's lifespan.

The immortality projects that fascinate me, however, are the ones that create systems of inequality, and use the strategic oppression and marginalization of a group of people as the foundation upon which those who think of themselves as superior can stand and reach for eternity. (You might argue that ALL culture production/technologies/institutions are inherently hierarchical, I dunno, I haven't looked into them all...I just know that the part where some people get shit on and other people get a path to heroism and leave a legacy is what interests me.)

Okay, so where was I? Well, this morning after I woke up from a night of twilight sleep where my brain kept gnawing on neoreactionary thought like a cud, I sat down in my thinking chair and noticed the index card sitting next to me on my bookshelf.

It says, "The gauge of a truly free society would be the extent to which it admitted its own central fear of death and questioned its system of heroic transcendence — and this is precisely what democracy is doing much of the time. The free flow of criticism, satire, art, and science is a continuous attack on the culture fiction — which is why totalitarians from Plato to Mao have to control these things, as has long been known." (Becker, Escape from Evil, p. 167)

It grabbed me because I woke up troubled by one question: Why, in a supposedly egalitarian democratic society that is quite hierarchical and unequal, would those resting near the very top of the hierarchy (largely white, male technophiles) be the ones clamoring for more?

Why are the Peter Thiels of the world obsessed with upending the (barely functioning) democratic institutions that extend to the rest of us a tiny, imperfect modicum of liberty in favor of an explicitly autocratic vision that would have us be serfs and slaves? Like WHY do the people who have EVERYTHING in the current system, WHY must their shitty futuristic fantasy influence an election, when there are tons of people who have more ethically defensible visions of a future with expanded rights and equality for all people?

Why do the people who have it all, who live on the bleeding edge of technological advancement, contribute in massively influential ways to our culture, who are massively financially rewarded, NEED EVEN MORE? To the point of doing away with enlightenment ideals and democracy itself?

It seemed impossible to understand, and then my index card reminded me: because when you can't navigate your fear of death, can't even SEE it, nothing is ever enough. You can reach the top of the existing hierarchy and at the end of it, you're still human, still going to die.

Thiel is terrified of dying, openly invests in technologies that offer immortality. The neoreactionary platform has several literal immortality mechanisms baked in: futuristic AI, the technological singularity, transhumanism. It's The Highlander all over again. Nerds.

But the current system doesn't offer as direct a path as they would like to this glorious, immortal future — even though it's the one the rest of us need (and need to fight tooth and nail to expand, given how un-egalitarian it actually is) in order to have any rights at all. They've climbed to the top of the shitty hierarchy we currently have, that is at least democratic in name, and now demand an even less democratic, more hierarchical system. Because even though they have every systemic advantage a human can have, they're still not quite immortal.

The antidote to this is MORE democracy and egalitarianism, not less, and the hierarchical structure of our current system is what enabled these people to climb to the top and ram through their vision of an even less equal future, while others fought and died to have basic rights.

If you give people a ladder to climb to be nearer the gods, they will climb up it, realize the gods are still not near enough, then set the thing on fire until it consumes them like a pyre. This wouldn't be too much of a problem, except usually the ladder is made of other people.

I don't believe in immortality, and I don't consent to being a burnt offering. That's all.
So, needless to say, I love that, and it reminds me why Twitter is worth reading, despite everything wrong with it. Thoughts like this are offered for free, right there where you can find them. Sometimes, it's exactly what the interweb was supposed to be like.

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