by ,
Teddy having his axi booled

People Don’t Die, People’s Bodies Die. He Taught Me That.

Jung says—or if he doesn’t, all but does—
That God and the unconscious are one. Hm.
The lapse that tides us over, hither, yon;
Tide that laps us home away from home.

-James Merrill, “The Book of Ephraim” from The Changing Light at Sandover

You see a small man on a rather tightly laid out stage, surrounded by plastic potted plants and pale blue and white walls that he is barely shorter than. His shirt is salmon pink, his sandals are fake leather brown, his pants are dad jean-adjacent, and he’s so excited to be here. What he lays out is a product that seems beyond belief, and he presents it with the calm buoyancy of a discount Steve Jobs as the pastel yellow and pink lights behind him frame his face. He tells you that he has found a way to upload you, your entire conscious being, into a computer so you can truly live forever, never having to leave your family and loved ones behind. This copy will be exactly like you in every way, and it can be yours for just a few small payments. His name is Alan Resnick, and he will save you from your own destruction.

Released at the end of 2013, Live Forever as You Are Now stands as not just the funniest and most subtly moving piece of media in Adult Swim’s catalog, but perhaps the definitive work by Alan Resnick (the creator, not the character), one of the most fascinating voices in contemporary horror and comedy. Rising from the modern tradition of surreal absurdity made famous and exemplified by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Resnick pushes that sensibility into odd, uncomfortable areas, and in doing so makes text what Tim and Eric made as afterthought, or just as part of the form: the confronting of the grotesque parts of modern capitalist life. Combining the disquieting horrific normalcy of This House Has People In It, the social commentary of Unedited Footage of a Bear, and the performance-art influence and offbeat timing of his Alantutorial series, Live Forever as You Are Now corrals Resnick’s strengths into one funny, off-kilter, haunting package that ends up explicating a particular moment in time.

That moment—the one we are still in—is the death throes of capitalism as promise of prosperity, the unmasking of the gears that turn underneath the invisible ideology that has pretended for so long that it was bedrock truth. It is the free market morphed into not just a system of exchange, but a system of being, a structure that undergirds every moment of our lives. The technology Resnick (the character, not the creator) claims to have access to is nothing less than the full market capitalization of the individual human soul. It presents itself as dream tech, but underpinning that dream are the unsettling implications his sloppy presentation can’t help but highlight, the ways in which the promises we receive are more than empty marketing bluster—they’re skin grafts on the decaying body of modern society. Live Forever as You Are Now is one of the finest satires and expressions of neoliberalism precisely because it expresses how this ideology is communicated to us in the internet age.

You Make Me Like Charity

There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this, they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. When the economists say that present-day relations—the relations of bourgeois production—are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature. These relations therefore are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus, there has been history, but there is no longer any.

-Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy

Although a complete discussion of what exactly neoliberalism is could take dozens and dozens of books, our working definition is something like this: Neoliberalism is the ideology that says every human interaction functions as a capitalist market exchange, and therefore all conscious human life is best understood as the interactions of rational individual actors within a market system. Or, as Margaret Thatcher once succinctly and noxiously put it: “There is no such thing as society.” The individual does not have duties to the world outside themselves—to society—beyond those that are also beneficial to the individual themselves, precisely because there is no society, simply individual rational beings. Rising from the fringes through that diptych of 80s demonic evil, Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the neoliberal is ideologically wedded to capitalism because it thinks every human action—from interpersonal relationships to family to religion to ideology to entertainment to work to, yes, economic engagement—operates like the free market.

As an extreme example, the neoliberal might look at a mother feeding her child and see a rational actor—the mother—choosing to exchange her work right now in raising this other soon-to-be rational actor in order to receive both personal emotional satisfaction in the moment and a measure of security in her old age when the child, indebted by this exchange, is required to pay back this debt by caring for her. The word “debt” here is not metaphoric, really—under this ideology, this truly functions as an economic debt. Many of the words we take as metaphors become literal under this belief system. Peter Coffin, on both his YouTube page and in his book Custom Reality and You, routinely looks at the phrase “social capital” as having this literal meaning under modern capitalism—your social capital is treated and functions as if it were actual capital, that being (very roughly) the use of ownership over the means of production of wealth to create further wealth through the circulation of the same. In short, neoliberalism takes the old liberal way of looking at capitalism—as an economic system of rational action between individuals—and extends it to every freely willed conscious action, regardless of system or context, because it is simply “the way things are.” Crucially, the neoliberal sees this way of looking at things not as an ideology, but instead as simply “the facts,” data analysis and statistics pushed into mystical realms where somehow the simple existence of some numbers saying something happened is expected to logically find the reason that thing happened. The numbers aren’t just the effect—they’re the cause, no ideology required to explain it. Alan Resnick’s tech bro archetype serves as an embodiment of this invisible ideology, peddling a product that has as its core the neoliberal human self.

Growing out of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs of the early 70s tech boom, our archetype of the tech bro started out ostracized, too nerdy to be popular, but very, very rich regardless. Although certainly innovative and forward-thinking in their own way, this culture of constant growth and improvement bred, almost without fail, hyperindividualists who would invariably describe themselves with some sort of hyphenated libertarian ideology (despite the quite obvious fact that the most successful of the Silicon Valley vanguard were teams, all reliant on each other to accomplish much of anything). The insular tech community even then was filled to the brim with devotees of Objectivism who viewed themselves as heroes. They saw themselves as great men of history, individuals with the power to move mountains, and this self-regard and selfishness would come to be the greatest identifier of the archetype soon after. But where did this conception come from, and how did it grow to be one of the most powerful cultural forces in the modern billionaire age?

Who Was John Galt?

Whereas in the primitive phase of capitalist accumulation, “political economy sees in the proletarian only the worker” who must receive the minimum indispensable for the conservation of his labor power, without ever seeing him “in his leisure and humanity,” these ideas of the ruling class are reversed as soon as the production of commodities reaches a level of abundance which requires a surplus of collaboration from the worker. This worker, suddenly redeemed from the total contempt which is clearly shown him by all the varieties of organization and supervision of production, finds himself every day, outside of production and in the guise of a consumer, seemingly treated as an adult, with zealous politeness. At this point the humanism of the commodity takes charge of the worker’s “leisure and humanity,” simply because now political economy can and must dominate these spheres as political economy. Thus the “perfected denial of man” has taken charge of the totality of human existence.

-Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

A novelist and “philosopher” born in the Russian Empire to a bourgeois family and coming of age during the Russian Revolution, Ayn Rand emigrated to the United States in her early 20s and spoke routinely of how her life under the early Soviet Union inspired her to develop a philosophy completely opposite the ideas of communism (and all “statism” as she termed it) and worshipful in an almost religious way to the free market, finding egoism and pure rationalism to be the only worthwhile stances to take. Through her immensely tedious non-fiction work and somehow even more tedious novels, she developed a system that she called Objectivism, an outlook that openly detested any and all altruism, helping of others, or even love as we would traditionally see it. Instead, all human beings were considered rational actors, and the greatest good would be to live as selfishly as possible—when everyone focused on their own self-interest, she reasoned, the free market system would be at its most efficient, and the greatest amount of good could take place. If I oversimplify, it is only barely: Rand’s philosophy, such as it it, is wildly inconsistent and utterly lacking in rigor, and outside of the conservative cults she ran in, no respected philosopher took it very seriously during her lifetime. Even libertarian academics, the people who would seem most sympathetic to her ideas, most often took to her work just to dismiss it.

Where Rand was successful, however, was in two other realms—that of popular culture, and that of the new conservative movement that was forming during her heyday in the American right and would ultimately lead to what we today consider the neoliberal ideology, solidified with the election of Ronald Reagan. The ominously and ironically-named “collective” of Rand devotees (and Rand herself) that first formed in the 1950s included Murray Rothbard and Alan Greenspan, two of the most important and devastatingly awful economists of the 20th century. They were synthesizing the outward presentation and moral concepts of the traditional American right wing with the Austrian school of economics, bringing the ideas of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek into the fold of the changing Republican Party. I am abbreviating a lot for the sake of not making you, dear reader, have to learn about Austrian economic theory and the evolution of modern libertarian economics, but the important point is that although almost no one took Rand seriously, the “almost” is an important caveat. “Almost no one” is still someone, and the right few someones would bring Rand from the dustbin of bad philosophy to the highest stage of politics just as the soon-to-be modern day four-eyed robber barons would push her ideas from the margins of popular culture to the center.

To fast-forward through years of pop culture depictions, slowly but surely, the computer programmer, gadget inventor, and science dork went from looking like Minkus in Boy Meets World to looking like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The core of the character hadn’t significantly changed—even in the 80s, as the nerd character developed into the tech bro and away from the pocket protector geek, the models were almost universally self-interested, arrogant, rich, and kinda awful (also, with very few exceptions, white and male). The change from nerdlinger to Valentine Michael Smith-esque individualist playboy was the result of two commingled trends: one was the rise of computers, especially the rise of the internet, suddenly causing popular culture to be utterly reliant on nerds, incentivizing their integration into coolness. The second was the growing necessity of nerds to capitalism itself, staving off both inefficiency and the already apparent environmental crises through realms traditionally associated with the dorks of the world. The Steve Jobs image grew out of this rapidly changing landscape, and we land quickly at Iron Man (specifically the version in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the simplest crystallization of this developing idea in modern popular culture. The optimism of the 90s American boom economy expanded to the new internet technology, and even the dot-com bubble couldn’t slow down the complete integration of the once-marginal tech world with the cutting edge of the mainstream. Tech CEOs became to the contemporary American the same as captains of industry were to the rapidly industrialized late 19th century—awe-inspiring, terrifying, immensely powerful, hucksterish, and seemingly unstoppable. And just like the working class then, facing the awesome power of automation, mass production, and the sudden and irreversible change in the nature of work, we give the tech bro their cultural savior status because we are similarly afraid, and we feel similarly powerless. The 90s promised utopia, and we ended up here? Every day seems to be spinning more and more out of control—can’t the most powerful men in the world invent us a way out of this?

Live Forever as You Are Now is a just barely pushed satire of this character, taking the Peter Thiels and Elon Musks of the world and seeing where their outlook on things might go to. We are promised a vision of utopia—a world where the brilliant science man will science his way out of every problem, whether that be climate change, renewable energy, the instability of currency, or, simply, death itself. At the risk of explaining the joke, what makes Resnick’s pitch so funny is the ways it is clearly failing to live up to its promises. His own perfect avatar calls himself Teddy, for no reason Alan can guess. Teddy routinely fucks up, glitching out and talking about his wife (an undulating blob of flesh-colored CGI), and even when he doesn’t derail the entire presentation, he is barely more than a chatbot—sometimes, no matter how much you like football, your copy likes boogie-boarding more. The dream is, of course, a lie, but it’s a lie the audience never stops clapping for. It lines up with the invisible ideology of neoliberalism that our entire culture functions on top of; there is no need or desire to question it. Indeed, no one even sees that there’s a question available. The illusion of the product is enough to sell the product—or, more accurately, the illusion is the product, a product we think is real because its reality coincides with the base assumptions our lives operate on top of.

The tech bro posturing Resnick adopts to make this point has only become more relevant in the five years since Live Forever as You Are Now premiered, with the reinvigorated rise of the techno-savior archetype in Elon Musk’s frankly embarrassing public persona. There have been plenty of utopian visions of technology before, but as they come closer and closer to the future, they move away from the science-fiction vision of togetherness and limitless possibility and coalesce (or coagulate) into a vision of endless personal satisfaction, of individual gratification that doesn’t need to stress about its costs, an endless consumer dreamland. What Musk promises is just as unreal as Resnick’s self duplication engine, but people believe it because believing it would mean the comfort of not having to change anything you do, to not have to think critically about why the system is failing around you. Instead of investing in public transportation, we can invest in incredibly expensive electric cars made in factories where talk of unionization is (allegedly) reason for termination. Instead of seizing the thousands and thousands of empty unused homes in this country for the homeless and poor to live in, Musk wants to bore a giant tunnel under a major city and sell the dirt leftover to poor people to make Lego brick houses. There is no such thing as society, after all. If your entire ideology sees every individual human as an island unto themselves, unable and unwilling to do things for others, of course you call a rescue worker a pedophile when he criticizes you—it’s not just that your ego is bruised (though it’s certainly that too), it’s that you simply cannot comprehend that a human being would do anything without a profit motive. The idea doesn’t even exist in your head. And a step beyond that, in one of the massively wealthy’s strangest pipe dreams, we find the most grotesque expression of this ideology, where the foul odor of the tech bro becomes apparent- the technological singularity.

Yudkowsky’s Shadow

So we see what we need to see, hear what our needs make us hear. Something deep in the flesh-strips of some of them required a vision, a man-like thing smiling, reassuring them, and so they “saw” a smile. Some needed a nod, a fatherly wave of the hand, and some required words even from essentially a silent god. But for me it was enough to behold- silent, adamant, marvelous- the calm strength of the moveless voiceless gleam and be reassured. Yes, he was our silent great god on the wide plastic plain of the Dream Realized, a massive reminder to homage, and our guide star since a time when New Process Land was very new. And when you think of all we are delivered from by his wonderful workability and help, you will not smirk at that gleaming presence, that shining shimmering wonder, the very substance of Deliverance, tall and pure. For a tall god stands in our country to remind us always of the greatest deliverance from fear ever conceived in this world.

-David R. Bunch, Moderan

The technological singularity is what happens when supposedly “rational” people find themselves with a need for a new vision of heaven—when the desire for meaning overrides the desire for function and creates structures to justify itself before erasing the marks of those structures, rendering them perfectly invisible. For those not in the know, the singularity is the idea that, at some point in the near future, computers will advance to such a degree where they can begin to update themselves, and in so doing move beyond human programming constraints and begin to self-improve and self-replicate. When they reach this point— the singularity— their ability to think so many infinitely times faster and better than us, combined with their ability to constantly improve themselves to think even better and even faster, will cause heretofore unthought of possibilities to happen. Whatever we can consider, it must be beyond that, because the computer will have progressed so far beyond the constraints of the comparatively ameboid human mind. Generally, most utopian visions of this think that the computers will then meld with us, or have us ascend to some non-embodied consciousness—much like Resnick’s incredible invention, we will be able to back ourselves up like our best favorite MP3 file and live forever in the cloud, unbounded from the limitations of the material human form.

Yes, this is deeply silly, and yes, many people truly, deeply believe it will one day happen, and some of those true believers just happen to be Silicon Valley millionaires. It doesn’t much matter if the brain actually functions like a computer or not, what the circumstances of phenomenological experience really are—they believe that if you just put enough faith into the idea, it will come true. Does something make absolutely no sense logically? Well, humans are just too dumb, but the computers will figure it out for us, but, of course, those computers will come to the same ideological conclusions as us anyways. In neoliberal terms, if the way all life functions is as rational extensions of the free market, then we must be designed as free market replication and interaction machines, and any machine, given enough intelligence, would self-program towards the efficiency of this ideal—after all, there’s no ideology involved, right? Just the cold hard facts, which say here I need, deserve, and will receive a magical computer heaven if I just pay enough for a Tesla.

Early in Live Forever as You Are Now, we see a DVD case advertising some sort of program by Alan called “Unlocking Your Inner Machine: Transhumanism from Desktop to Your Brain,” an item to be sold that can unlock the machine already living inside of you. The machine, an individual and perfectly rational construction, is the neoliberal subject in perfection. War, torture, pain, suffering—these are all glitches in the system that are caused by not letting the machine of the god-like market function as it wants to. Release the individual from the illusion of society, we are told, and the mechanistic decision trees of the rational actor will sort themselves out. The libertarian cultists of the technological singularity (be they reactionaries in the Nick Land mode or the “socially liberal” Cory Doctrow post-scarcity disciples) see this computer-modeled fetishized future because they are unable to see anything besides the market because they can’t even conceptualize the non-market subject. Nick Land infamously views capitalism as a sort of platonic concept, a non-human living idea that humans exist merely to bring into the world, grist to the mill for the eventual takeover of our very being, an assured destruction of life with capital as the earth’s inheritors. The market sustains the market in perpetuity. There is no such thing as society—there aren’t even people.

Even the less-extreme want to accelerate, to consume and build and consume and build quicker and quicker until we somehow reach escape velocity from suffering, until somehow their science-fiction wet dream makes itself real. Resnick, the perfect smiling face, is selling something so appealing, its maliciousness can slide under the radar, can sit comfortably in your brain rather than in the pit of your stomach, but it’s maliciousness all the same—when all we see is the market, a market savior can hide their naked contempt in plain sight. Let’s bring that phrase back again: “Unlocking Your Inner Machine.” We want to believe we can do something about our bodies, something about our selves, and become the rational actors that we are told are inside of us, waiting to burst out. Alan Resnick has created a perfect pitch to satiate that need, that want, that desire—freed from the constraint of the body, the self can indeed live forever, can become permanent instead of unmoored, confused, and anxious. We can only think of ourselves as atomized individuals, so when we die, there is nothing left. There cannot even be a legacy, a community, or a family. Without a market function, we stop existing. The promise of permanence, the promise of not having to fear being lonely, the promise that you can just keep going, and going, and going—these are fulfilled by the promise that you can be converted into a machine language, and that you can be repaired just like any computer. Replace some parts, move some data around, and voila, it’s the same you, but better, less breakable, less mortal. Unlock your inner machine. What we are being sold is the message that there is an end to suffering, and that this end will come through the immortal digitization of the self. To look at this deeper, to see why this promise is both so appealing and so impossible, we have to take a trip away from Resnick for a bit and into the core substance of our discontent: suffering, and the way we come to be in pain. Come on, it’ll be fun!

The Oldest and Strongest Emotion

Since there can be only a limited number of ways to face the ultimate problems, the mind is limited in its expansion by that natural boundary which is the essential, by that impossibility of indefinitely multiplying the capital difficulties: history is solely concerned with changing the aspect of a sum of questions and solutions. What the mind invents is merely a series of new qualifications; it rebaptizes the elements or seeks in its lexicons less eroded epithets for the one immutable pain. We have always suffered, but our suffering has been either “sublime” or “legitimate” or “absurd,” according to the general views which the philosophic moment maintained. Misery constitutes the texture of all that breathes; but its modalities have changed course; they have composed that series of irreducible appearances which lead each of us to believe he is the first to have suffered so.

– E.M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay

Anyone who looks into four things would be better off if he had not come into this world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.

– Talmud, Hagigah 2.1

The vital consequence of rationalism would be suicide.

– Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations

Albert Camus famously begins his essay The Myth of Sisyphus with the statement, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” At the risk of quibbling slightly with such a killer opener, I think there is a better way to orient ourselves within the problem he expresses, that being the problem of the absurd person. The condition of the absurd, as Camus describes it, is a condition of knowing that one’s place in the universe seems to have no external meaning or purpose, but that the desire for those things does not go away—the absurd subject finds themselves in a world that does not hold any solution, but they also find themselves with the desire to solve it. Meaning, as the absurd subject previously understood it, is revealed to exist only as constructions of truth and belief that base themselves in assumptions and urges. It’s not that all of these constructions are, of themselves, bad, it’s simply the realization that you are living in an immaculately decorated Hollywood set. Push too hard on a wall, and the whole house might tip over.

Camus is, of course, not the only person who has found himself in this situation. In fact, it seems a natural result of most modern philosophical inquiry. As Camus said in his review of Jean-Paul Satre’s Nausea, “The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning. This is a truth nearly all great minds have taken as their starting point. It is not this discovery that is interesting, but the consequences and rules of action drawn from it.” We can characterize essentially all human culture and attempted creation of meaning to be drawn from this same starting point, either consciously or unconsciously. As successful as human beings have been in surviving, the absurd problem never seems to go away, so human consciousness must, to continue to survive, create new illusions whenever the old ones cease to have persuasive meaning. These illusions can take immensely varied forms—for instance, the previously-mentioned spectre of neoliberalism—but their core use is the same: to explain and justify themselves as non-illusive, to provide a speculative solution to the absurd question that promises a better world. What ends up happening is the fetishization of the symptoms of suffering, offering sublimation of this suffering through some sort of action or feeling, or denial of it through rules, structures, and communities. This reproduction of structures of meaning happens because the conceptual limit cannot move beyond the suffering of the absurd. This limit is an aspect of our core problem.

Although the absurd condition, as expressed by Camus, is experienced most acutely as a conscious condition—Camus described the knowledge of the absurd conflict, once known, to be the most harrowing of passions, and it is certain that is the vantage he spoke from—it is also important to recognize that every phenomenal being exists within the absurd world. It is not something that simply materializes once known, like magic, but instead from the fabric of conscious life—the essential limits of our own mind’s ability to think is what creates it. The absurd is conceptualized by the mind, and from the mind it must be born, and it constitutes the fabric of our experiential world. Therefore, from living in that phenomenal world, every conscious being on some level knows the absurd, even if they don’t recognize it as such.

The knowledge of death forms the core of this subconscious absurd condition—the self continues to try to actualize directly in the face of the knowledge of death. It attempts to create meaning, knowing that the inevitable end will always be the extinguishing of the self. The fear of death is an absurd fear, even the absurd fear in the mortal being. The very existence of the human brain is the result of an evolutionary process that used it to prolong life and increase procreation—essentially, the purpose of the brain is to not die, and therefore the core of the absurd condition is the knowledge and fear of death’s inevitability combined with the hard-wired survival instincts of millions of years of evolution. The brain, through the simple efficiency of the formulation, evolved as an absurd conflict creation machine, the creation of the self that can suffer. What the absurd describes, and why the absurd being contemplates suicide in the first place, is the interior conflict of these desires and realities and the anguish they cause. There is an eternal unrest at the center of the realized self, because the realized self ponders that which causes distress.

What this leaves the absurd man with is a sense of a hole that cannot be filled, an emptiness that calls out for something instead of nothing, and what the absurd man hears back is no satisfying answer. The core problem of the living being—suffering, in another word—is a problem that can be ameliorated, but never solved as long as the root cause is not dealt with. The fear of nothingness, this existential dread, exists most of the time unconsciously, and we suppress it, we distract ourselves from it, we build communities to explain it, or we sublimate it into something else that can be understood, can be comprehended, can be touched. These defense mechanisms are crucial to our survival as a species, after all—our conscious minds have adapted to not think about it (because what living being, possessed with full and complete knowledge of the absurd’s totality, would not be consumed by it?), but the substrata, the underlying layers pulsate with this terror. The absurd anguish is omnipresent, is undefeatable, because the latticework of conscious suffering is this anguish. Life that survives to reproduce itself takes as its core substance this same mad desire to reproduce, and it builds its adaptations around the ability to, collectively, not die. The knowledge of both time and death is what provides us with the self, and the self provides us with suffering, yet we understand the world through this self. All we perceive is understood through the self’s lens, and therefore the lens of the absurd, and therefore again the lens of suffering. This is what I mean by the fetishization of suffering.

So let’s rephrase Camus: There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and it is suffering. The conscious human being is defined, in all aspects, by their capacity to suffer and experience of the same. It is this self that we are confined in, trapped in the prison of our material selves. Outside of the very special biological happenstance (cases of which are so exceedingly rare, varied, and impossible to replicate that they cannot serve as realistic praxis), the simple knowledge of the self is an experience of suffering. This is where, perhaps strangely, we are in luck: the experience of the self confines us to suffering, but the experience of conscious suffering is also confined to the self. Therefore, if we can escape the self, we could at least escape the existential suffering in which we stew in for our entire lives. We could break free from prison, so to speak.

Now, don’t get too excited—the prison bars of the self are immensely thick and more or less impenetrable by any one person, contained as they are in that little box of consciousness. However, through the bars we can glimpse, momentarily experience, and act on the truth we can see outside of them. We can glimpse it through community and philosophy. We can experience it through art, through love, through spirituality and nature and, yes, the occasional hallucinogenic drug trip (not that I’ve ever condone doing something illegal, of course). And once it’s seen, we can begin to act on it regardless of the restrictions that may seem insurmountable. What it ends up being is the ultimate useful truth of materialist philosophy: the self does not exist. Though we may spend our lives behind them, the bars are a powerful illusion—there is no self at all.

I Do Not Exist

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

-Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, “Only Breath”

What do I actually mean when I say the self does not exist? What I do not mean is, “Your physical body does not exist,” nor do I mean, “The sensations you experience as a living being are not real.” The self is simply the idea of “You,” the way that our minds combine countless physiological sensory responses that are localized in the physical human body and aggregate them into a person. The reason I say “idea” is that ideas, as we understand them, exist entirely in the mind and have no material equivalent, which portrays the way I wish to speak of the self. “You” are your perceptions—the way you think, the way you feel, centralized within this particular form. This interior, introspective conceptualization is often referred to as the phenomenal world, which is contrasted with the noumenal world—also known as the world as it exists whether it is perceived by us or not. In many ways, when we colloquially mention “the real world,” what we are talking about is the noumenal world—oceans and rivers and mountains and planets and galaxies continue to exist, we assume, when we stop perceiving them. I am taking as a central assumption that the “real world,” our ontological basis for all things, is this material world, the world that exists whether we perceive it or not. This stance can be roughly correlated with the philosophical idea of materialism, which is the belief in philosophy that what exists is matter, and there is nothing non-material.

If I am to justify why I am taking this materialist standpoint as a base assumption, it is worth in brief explaining why. The problem with phenomena and noumena is that we only have access to phenomena. Everything we experience is experienced through sensory perception, and sensory perception can and does vary wildly between each person. A common enough question about perception-“Do you see the same color green as I see”-can be laughed off as a way for two stoners to pass a few hours away, but it can also give us some insight in a simple sense to the ways the phenomenal world can be challenging. When I look at, say, a green wall, what is happening? Well, the rays of light are bouncing off of the wall, some of them being absorbed by it, and the non-absorbed rays of light hit my eyes, and my eyes give sense data to my brain that I interpret as “green.” If any of those factors are changed–say, it’s morning vs. midday, the subtle variations of photoreceptors in every different human eye, the specific physiological connection that transfers the data from my eye to my brain—we will agree that the wall is still green, but the simulacra that our mind “shows” us will vary wildly. And it goes beyond that as well. In a subtle way, the rest of my life informs what my interpretation of sense data will be. If I grew up in a green house, and you grew up in a blue house, then I am going to associate the wall, subconsciously, with home, where you are not, and the interpretation of this sense data is thus going to be wildly different.

In a more concrete sense, to demonstrate how this difference in perceptual information is a real problem and not a fun bit of first-year philosophy wankery, we should look at the case of someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder. Let’s say, just for example, that we are looking at a person who has PTSD, and their anxiety attacks related to this are triggered by loud cracking sounds—such as the sounds of fireworks. On the Fourth of July, this person and their partner, who does not have PTSD in this way, are existing within the same material, noumenal world. The sounds they both hear of these fireworks are, more or less (excluding the minuscule fact that their ears are at physically different places in the room and therefore experience ever so slightly different soundwaves) exactly the same, and we can even assume for sake of argument that the physiological structure of their ears are identical—even accounting for the external, material nature of things, the sensory data their brain receives before bringing the raw data into the phenomenal space will be interpreted in fundamentally different ways for each person. It’s not just that they hear the same sound but one is disturbed by that sound due to past memories, it’s that the person with PTSD hears a different sound. The sound may be the same when we speak of noumena, but it is fundamentally different when we speak of phenomena—when we put the external world through the ringer of perception.

The reason this difference is important to explicate is that it shows the phenomenal world to be incredibly lonely. There is no person, no matter how close or dear to you, that is both a.) physically identical to you in every single way, to every last cell, and b.) has had the exact same experiences as you. The simple fact that you would exist within two separate points in space, and therefore are receiving fundamentally different sensory information makes truly identical phenomenal states impossible—however small each moment-to-moment difference may be, in aggregate the total difference becomes immense. Therefore, when we communicate with each other, when we try and tell each other what our phenomenal state is, there is no way to ever fully let someone else know what is going on in your head. This is one of the many traps of consciousness, and one of the aspects of the suffering I discussed at length before. If we get too deep into our heads here, if we take as fact that the noumenal world may exist, may not exist, but it is pointless to try to access it as such access will always be flawed, we end up at a nihilistic solipsism—hardly a way forward for anyone, not even the solipsist.

A Glass Can Only Spill What It Contains

“You see, Casaubon, even the Pendulum is a false prophet. You look at it, you think it’s the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conservatoire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same. And there are other pendulums: there’s one in New York, in the UN building, there’s one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others. Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it.”

“God is everywhere?”

“In a sense, yes. That’s why the Pendulum disturbs me. It promises the infinite, but where to put the infinite is left to me. So it isn’t enough to worship the Pendulum; you still have to make a decisions, you have to find the best point for it.”

-Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

So what way forward do we have? I think this is precisely where the second discussion over the metaphysics of materialism come into play. If we assume that there can be an agreed-upon noumenal world—even if we do not have phenomenal access to it—we can begin to find a common ground that the phenomenal cannot create. This is an incredibly functional assumption. Let’s go back to that green wall. We may not be able to agree on what we perceive, but it seems that empirical testing and observation of said wall will result in us achieving the same results. If we both use spectroradiometers built to the same specifications on the same part of the wall, it is safe to assume we would receive the same spectral power distribution information, and that is something that can generally speaking be agreed upon. This shared agreement over the “reality” of a thing is immensely valuable because this agreement implies a shared noumenal world that exists outside of ourselves. The material reality of this outside world allows us to begin to make decisions about what we value and what should be done, knowing at least to some extent a more real version of the world outside our perceptions. This is achieved through the aggregation of empirical data as interpreted through the phenomenal subject. The state of the mind is a black box, and we can never open it to others. Maybe you see an elephant in the room, sitting next to you on the couch—the only way to know if you’re hallucinating or not, if your senses are deceiving you, is to ask others. The search for agreement is the search for a noumenal world, and to the best of our current knowledge, the only thing that exists for all, regardless of phenomenal experience, is this measurable material world.

If we agree upon materialism, at least to some extent, then we must attempt to look at the self outside of the phenomenal world of the self and ask questions about it. What are phenomenal states? Is the phenomenal world “real,” i.e. can it be defined and agreed upon by others who do not exist within that particular phenomenal mind? And most significantly to our question, what is the nature of physical cause and effect upon the functioning of the individual self? If we are assuming that all that exists—that which can be agreed upon and measured—is the physical world, then we have to ask questions about the physical makeup of our body and its relation to the noumenal world around it. Is personhood a “thing in itself,” something that continues to exist regardless of observation? I would argue no—the creation of the self requires observation, either by the subject or by an outside observer who bestows the concept of “self” on the observed amalgamation of particles. If a being cannot call itself a “self,” and there is no one around to call it a self… what is it? It still physically exists, but the physical existence of it does not require the self. In short, the self is not materially self-evident.

When we get down to the core of the “real” world as we understand it—particles, energy, waves, maybe strings underneath all that—and build upwards, there is a simple continuum from the smallest particle to the whole of everything. From particle to atom, from atom to element, from element to compound, from compound to a human organelle, from the organelle to the cell, from the cell to the body, from the body to the environment, from the environment to the planet, from the planet to the solar system, to the galaxy, to the universe. Why do we stop ourselves midway through? What material justification is there for the grounding of selfhood, of the separation of the human part from the broader continuum? Why isn’t the cell the self? Why isn’t the community? Every particle within that self functions on the same rules of physics as everything else, so why does the human body get special treatment?

There is no material justification for the self. Certainly, the human body can be seen as a coherent collection of particles, much the same way we can classify an atom as a collection of sub-atomic particles, but that atom is not reflexive, nor does it gain sapience through the combination of particles that create it. The human body is a category, but the human body is not equivalent to the self—the self is just in the aether. The only reason we discuss it is because we perceive it, constantly (or rather, we perceive through it, and it perceives for us). It cannot be agreed upon in a standard sense, it cannot be materially observed. It can only be created through introspective knowledge, which is knowledge that cannot be shared and, for all we know, might not be true. So where did it come from? Why do we perceive something that, in the sense we understand it, isn’t “there?”

Thinking Like a Mountain

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined. Thus an infant believes that it desires milk freely, an angry child thinks he wishes freely for vengeance, a timid child thinks he wishes freely to run away. Again, a drunken man thinks, that from the free decision of his mind he speaks words, which afterwards, when sober, he would like to have left unsaid.

-Baruch Spinoza, Letter LXII

Given all the causes, all that happened
between aye and nay, night and day-
who would not have been me?

It’s one of the inevitable sorrows

stirred by the telling of a story
or the singing of a song.
It’s true, the wise and good
do perform heroic acts, but

when something contrary to wisdom or goodness is
that’s an act of fate. I ran

but I was chased.

-Laura Kasischke, “Gingerbread”

To answer the question of perception and the unreality of our self illusions, we have to examine the ways in which evolution works, as well as the physical structure of the brain. Obviously, as a movie critic, this is something that I am eminently qualified to do. Although evolution is part of the common vernacular, it’s worth restating its most important premises here. We talk about evolution as if it is a force governing the life and death of species on this planet, but it would be more accurate to frame it as a descriptive theory that seeks to provide a framework with which we can understand processes that are constantly happening. When we talk about “survival of the fittest,” one of many problems in our popular discourse is we make statements like, “Evolution chooses the fittest to survive,” giving agency to evolution as if it were a natural thing with agency. Really, what is happening is simply a logical way to frame a simple process. Assuming normal circumstances, the species that are best suited to survive… survive. It borders on tautology—that which survives and reproduces does so because it could survive and reproduce. Future adaptations which allow the adapted to survive longer and more often than the non-adapted move forward, and the maladapted do not live on to continue their genetic information into the future. The reason I am taking time on this very basic point is that it is necessary to frame this process as not moral, not immoral, but amoral, and completely without thought or intention. It simply is, because it is the simplest reduction and explanation.

The human brain, like any other adaptation, continues to the modern day because it allowed the species that had it to survive better than those that did not have the same brain. Adaptations that were maladaptive are, generally speaking, discarded, and we can with some confidence say that the brain (and, therefore, the structure and nature of our conscious lives) is a successful adaptation that improved our chances of survival. What is essential to it is problem-solving—the ability to look at an issue and plan out ways to tackle it, to use past information and future ideas to piece together solutions that maximize efficiency and success. In short, problem-solving requires the creation of temporal knowledge—the knowledge that things have happened in the past, and that, given cause and effect relationships, we can reasonably predict certain aspects of the future based on the actions we take now. Humans are not the only animals with this capability, certainly, but to the best of current scientific knowledge, we seem to have the most advanced ability to contextualize events in this way currently known in the animal kingdom. It is precisely this evolutionary adaptation that has allowed humans to spread and thrive to a degree no other vertebrate ever has. It is this successful temporal thinking that becomes the issue at hand.

It seems like, based on what work has been done with other seemingly conscious animals, that this temporal thinking and ability to problem-solve necessitates the invention of a self in order to process higher order problems. The evolution of this ability to conceptualize abstractly seems to require the creation and development of a brain that has a sense of self and personal being, a sense of separateness. This can be seen when we observe other seemingly “intelligent” (an imprecise word that we are using to mean “able to problem-solve at a high level using feedback from sense data”) animals, as they all display characteristics of self-knowledge. Dolphins, great apes, African grey parrots, and the like are able, to greater or lesser extent, self-recognize, and interpret language in a specific way. That is not to say that they all conceive of language and time the way we do—indeed, it would be more or less impossible to test something like that anyway, and it seems the connection between response to language and interpretation of language is murky at best—but it is to say that, in all cases I am aware of, increases in conscious manipulation of cause and effect (i.e. problem-solving) correspond to increases in the idea of selfhood.

Regardless of the universality of selfhood in conscious beings, what is important is that we acknowledge that our sense of self is not innately given, but instead a developed product of evolutionary action. Note that I say sense of self, and not self, because (and here is where I press against the limits of my own research and knowledge) I will contend that the phenomenal state of the self we observe is the brain’s way of retaining the illusion of continuity between moments, and not an actual structure of the being. This continuity and sense of time is a construct, not a material fact. In order to retain the sense that “we” are one person, continuous through our lives, we suppress the experience of being different selves, of ways in which we could grasp the arbitrary and false nature of the single personhood. Joshua Foa Dienstag, in his book Pessimism, said (with an assist from Cioran):

Extending our thinking across time is false to our temporal experience of thought appearing (and disappearing) in the moment, but even more false to our temporal experience of being. Not only do we not care about yesterday’s thought, but “we are no longer the same.” Yesterday’s thought belonged to someone else; it was someone else.

In other words, this concept of continuity which is the self is the obfuscation of a mechanical function. It is a coping mechanism for multiple problems that arise with the development of temporal thought and problem-solving. The mind that develops those abilities but does not develop the self becomes something entirely different, something that, at least in evolutionary terms, is not adapted to bring its unique mutation to the gene pool. The knowledge of abstract time creates purpose, and the creation of the self creates fear, which functions as its own kind of purpose. The purpose is a more conscious knowledge of the goal of procreation and continuation of species, as well as the ability to execute on that purpose, and the fear is the fear of self-death which provides a greater incentive for self-preservation (indeed, self-preservation can only exist in the context of the self). This fear of death is, obviously, the central fear we discussed earlier, and it is one that innately exists within the sense of self—as long as we exist as individual beings, such fear is inescapable. We may distract it, justify it, sublimate it, but the fear will always be simmering beneath our conscious thought—it is structurally necessary, and it is inseparable from the self that gives us problem-solving in the first place. We are doomed to fear by our own success—the existential fear we outline above is an aspect of the absurd.

U.G. Krishnamurti, a man who was brought up from a young age to become a spiritual leader, experienced what he called for others his “calamity,” which he describes as the complete death of his sense of self. He described his state most acutely as the disillusionment from the concept of continuity—from one moment to the next, he did not survive, and instead a new him was created. Although I cannot speak to the physical structure of his mind, he seems, based on his own observations of his phenomenal state, to have genuinely removed himself from the idea of selfhood, and with it lost both a.) the continuous personhood and b.) the fear of death. With it, he gained a sense of universal being—he describes seeing a mother hitting her child and gaining welts on his own body. Now, whether we think that is true or not is mostly unimportant—phenomenally, he felt it to be true. On biological accident, he escaped the prison of the self, and displaced his being into the wider world.

I am not asking anyone reading to immediately buy into this way of thinking. What I am asking us to consider is what “real” means in this sense—I am asking us to consider ontology. Can we justify the self as a coherent piece of reality? I answer that it is illusory—a useful tool, an adaptation that allowed the one being adapted to survive better and procreate. This is what I mean when I say the self does not exist—not that we are not physical bodies, but that the perceptual world in which we live our lives is ontological sleight of hand. The physical structure that creates it is real, but we do not experience reality, only a simulacrum created by the incredibly complex interaction of sense data and sense memory. Just as what we see through our eyes is an approximate illusion, so too is what we think. When we ground ourselves materially, the answer we get often ends up being the knowledge of illusory barriers in the phenomenal, between the “real world” and us. So that tells us, in a shortened way, what the state of the world “Is.” Now, how do we decide what “Ought” to be done with that knowledge?

Unreal Realism

Needless to say, what counts as “realistic,” what seems possible at any point in the social field, is defined by a series of political determinations. An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact. Accordingly, neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a “business ontology” in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.

-Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

The natural laws of the economy, which appear to exist by virtue of their own efficiency, are in reality nothing but projections of social-power relations which present themselves ideologically as technical necessities. The consequence is that it cease to be understood as a capitalist economy and becomes “the economy,” pure and simple, while the social struggle against capitalism is replaced by a political and juridicial struggle for democracy.

Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?

The individual rational self is the locus of the neoliberal market. If neoliberalism is to function, it must have rational self-interested beings who act purely on the nature of their self-interest, and through the aggregated actions of the individual, the unreal market reifies itself to function as if it were a material thing, creating policy and politics by sheer force of efficiency. This requires not just the false self spoken of previously, but an extension added to that falsity—the idea of rational self-interest as an organizing concept. In that sense, where capitalism merely required the self, modern capitalism in the form of neoliberalism requires a “market self.” Where Marx spoke of the alienation of the worker from their labor, we speak of another, even further remove that requires the groundwork of the original alienation. This stretches the tension between the created and the real to a breaking point even beyond industrial capitalism. The breakdown we are currently seeing in this system is due to the fact that neoliberalism and market capitalism work off an assumption that does not actually pan out. No matter how hard libertarian philosophers try to bend the world to make every action an egoist fulfillment, people still end up acting on desires beyond their own self-interest. The atomized “market self,” at least in the way we understand it, is an invention of systems that require it to work, and that discourage collective thought that might intervene on the function of its economy. It speaks “economy,” and so creates it, the bourgeois myth of God as Adam Smith.

What we end up with in neoliberalism is a hardening of the walls of the self through the creation of new, higher walls—a reinforcement of the superstructure, pouring more concrete in its base so it can withstand the weight of the removed market self that is built upon it. Given this context, it makes sense that the things that can and do allow us to see the universal body outside of the phenomenal—art, community, love, spirituality, the earth outside of human modality—are routinely disempowered, destroyed, or made so economically unfeasible that the average worker cannot reasonably participate in them fully. The creation of the market self requires blinders as tall as the Empire State Building. Capitalist realism, as Mark Fisher called it, is this building up of the market self to the detriment of the communal being and the removal of alternative thought. Where previous capitalist work used the useful side effect of alienation to prevent pushback, contemporary capitalism has ascended to the active removal of all other options. We are taught to view all relationships as if they are transactional. Love is not love—it is a transaction between economic entities who engage in it to satisfy their own wants and desires. The parent takes care of the child not out of the goodness of their heart, but to have someone to take care of them when they get older. The prosperity gospel preachers of Evangelical modern Christianity become vanguards of the market—you praise God not because He is worthy of praise, not because of love and a personal relationship, but because if you pray a lot, God will literally give you money. If the individual self closes us off from the idea that there is more beyond us, it is the market self that closes us off even further—there is nothing beyond the economy. There is nothing beyond the market.

In this analysis, the individual self serves a function to create a base for the market self. At least in Western markets (I cannot speak on this subject for anywhere but the culture I live in), the self is constructed and deified in order to try and force the square peg of human connection into the round hole of dispassionate Objectivist fantasizing. The question, “What do I want?” is the central doctrine of all individualist philosophies, because that self-interest is fundamentally necessary to the function of their ascended free market. The question, “What do we want?” functions on arithmetic completely alien to this point of view. Maybe what we want is not efficiency, but security. Maybe what we want is shorter work days, the end of unnecessary production for some boss in some faraway city who makes one thousand times what we make for much less work. Maybe what we want is the end of homelessness, the use of the estimated 19 million vacant homes just sitting around the United States to help people maybe, I don’t know, not fucking die. Maybe what we want is pooling resources to help those that can’t work, that can’t be turned into little machines of profit creation. See what I mean? The “We” interrogates the market, and the market will always come up short. Better for the economy’s sake we divide, divide, divide every cell and divide that cell again until the idea of functioning beyond that cell becomes not just unpleasant, but literally unthinkable.

If we want to resist neoliberalism, we have to resist the foregrounding of the self, and we have to acknowledge all beings as materially inseparable. Effective radical action should not solely attack the higher-level market self, which can just be replaced by another kind of atomization, but destabilize its base, the false self of phenomenal creation. Union action, community organization, mass protest, even united revolutionary violence—these things (among others) all hold within them ways of glimpsing for a moment that self-less experience. They resist separation, division, and neoliberalization because they cannot be accomplished alone by the Randian superman of modern capitalist myth. Popular media has shown us, unceasingly, that goodness is the result of Great People only, individuals who rise above the restless throngs of the hoi polloi to become mythologized Übermenschen. It is the fantasy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of every glamorizing war film that shows the few perfect soldiers who get the job done, of every fantasy film protagonist that shapeshifts into Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Live Forever as You Are Now itself is a direct mockery of this Objectivist fantasy. Leftist action cannot base its heroism on the lessons of capitalism—it should find its victory in empathy, in community, in the transformation of the individual into a part of something larger than themselves, of their sublimation into the endless expanse that is the death of the ego.

If you delete “I,” then what can “I” be sold? When we embrace “We,” we can realize that community can be the center of our worlds, not the lonely individual. We can develop work that has a purpose, that we cease to be alienated from, that can be satisfying and genuinely meaningful. Moreover, we can begin to see past the evolution imposed limits on our conscious thought towards a realization of true selflessness, defeating death through the sublimation of its actuality. If I’m you, and you’re me, and we are all organelles in the community cells in the body of the universe, then we can refocus our existence towards the function of the body and not the organelles, and, if only somewhat, if only at certain times each day, see the existential nightmare of life as what it is—an illusion, an illusion we might be trapped in, but an illusion nonetheless, and we can move forward with clear eyes and full hearts. The deletion of the self from our collective ontology therefore serves two purposes—one is the acknowledgement of that idea’s arbitrariness and the core of existential suffering, and the other is the destruction of the idea that the marketplace is the home of human desire and communication.

The Fire Part of the Fire

You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there’s cataclysm. Like the church we hate, anarchists also believe in another world. Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul’s talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself. And yet, señá, if any of it should ever really happen that perfectly, I would also have to cry miracle. An anarchist miracle.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

What Alan Resnick is selling in Live Forever As You Are Now is, at a base level, the assumption of the self as a coherent ontological category—as something reified, and therefore something that can be commodified into the additional layer of the market self. Obviously, his pitch only functions if we concede that the “self” is real, is a thing that can be recorded and moved somewhere else. It’s like saying a picture of an apple will feed you when you’re hungry. A perfect replica of your consciousness is in a new “body,” made of different atoms, and you’ve done a ventriloquist act of throwing your voice across time, but never as more than an echo in a chasm. What is actually being replicated? You are an illusion, and what we are trying to do is to make the illusion live forever, to Xerox it over and over in hopes of retaining some vague original image so we can sell it over and over again, circling through the market as capital-—becoming the ones and zeroes of someone’s Bitcoin nest egg stored on seventeen servers in sixteen different countries.

Live Forever as You Are Now‘s relevance is in this absurd context, making laughable and oddly distressing that which is sold every day with a straight face. To use the Debordian language, he has created a Situation, or a way in which we can break through the distance and normalization of previously invisible ideologies, break through the market self, and observe it from the outside—to dialectically consider the subject. What I mean is that through its comedic exaggeration, it causes us to look at ourselves from an outside perspective, and in doing so find a way outside of our selves to view the circumstances we are in. It can serve as a destabilizing force against the cultural language it depicts, using a secondary, subversive language made out of the breakdown of the previous language—comedy as a language of corporate failure, as the cracks in the illusory walls we are taught to think are permanent and real. It causes us to reassess at a fundamental level: if the way we view the world is shown to be cracking and dying, if it becomes ridiculous merely through its own language, then the implication is that there is a substrata below it, some other core that exists below those previously assumed first principles, the background radiation of ideology so pervasive that it takes massive spikes in radiation sickness to realize something is fundamentally wrong.

At the end, the problem always comes back to suffering—instead of identifying symptoms, the Situation creates an opportunity to identify the sickness itself. Suppressing the symptoms may feel nice, but inside the cultural body, there might be something worse growing that these suppressions are covering up, that pain management obscures—these surface-level solutions are pain medication for the cancer. The true relief is in the cure, the identification of the individual as something untrue, as something that we may be trapped in, but that we don’t have to act on, and that we can learn to know more often and move ever closer to taking a genuine look at the outside world. It is through this identification of noumenal undifferentiated being that the plight of every other phenomenal being can be clarified, empathized with, and fought for as if it were our own—thinking and acting with the “mind-outside-the-skull,” as Dolores LaChapelle termed it. The disruption of neoliberalism’s atomization with the renewal of communitarian identity and the ontologically self-less ethic hits at the core of neoliberalism’s ever-shifting outward structure, its adaptive success story: when you deny the market’s very mode of operation, you deny its ability to market, divide, and reestablish boundaries of class and oppression. Workers of the world unite—you have nothing to lose but your selves.

Let’s face it: the Unconscious, after all…

James Merrill, “The Book of Ephraim” from The Changing Light at Sandover


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