Review- Carlyle, “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and Heroism in History”

Thomas Carlyle, “On Hero-Worship, Heroes, and Heroism in History” (1840) – There’s nothing quite like “sage literature” to bring out the flippant in me, and Thomas Carlyle was one of the great sages of the Victorian period. “Great” in the sense of major: his hatred of Jews, disdain for black people, and sheer priggishness prevent him from being “great” in the sense of “good.” So I want to start this in jest: talking about the Spanish title of the work, “Los Heros,” and how much more appealing it is than the English original; quoting Sam Elliott in “The Big Lebowski”- “…what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place.”

Sam Elliott’s not that far off from Carlyle’s definition, but of course, being a Victorian sage, Carlyle can’t help but ladle morality all over what’s otherwise a pretty succinct value-neutral definition of a hero. More than someone about whom it can be said “he fits right in there,” the Carlylian hero is the driving force of history; it’s from Carlyle the concept of the “great man theory of history” comes. Heroes set the pattern for other men (gendered pronoun used advisedly- Carlyle doesn’t get near what women might or might not contribute to his schema). They both express the great truth of a given era and shape that truth themselves. They’re transcendent and immanent at the same time. They are the enemies of disorder. Where the sincere beliefs of a supremely capable man meet up with the right context, there we see the truly great men of history, in Carlyle’s telling- though he tends to downplay the “context” bit.

Who are the examples of heroes? Well, Odin, the Norse God, for one, who Carlyle claims was probably at one point a man. The Prophet Muhammad comes next. Luther and Knox get the laurels from this post-puritan Scot. A lot of the examples, surprisingly to me, were men of letters: Dante, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, Rousseau. Finally, we get military men such as Cromwell and Napoleon, the latter proclaimed “our last great man” at the end of the series (these were originally lectures).

Carlyle was equal parts Puritan and Romantic. The Romantic comes out in his finding the definition of heroism in men who operated at cross-purposes: a pagan God, the founder of Islam, a Catholic poet, two Protestant preachers, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau walk into a bar… but this works because Carlyle’s program isn’t any given ideology going in his time but his own crystalizing ideas of heroism as a force in and of itself, independent of program. Indeed, he disagrees strongly with Rousseau’s program, sees him as a progenitor of the horrors of the French Revolution, but he’s still a hero, especially for what Carlyle sees as an eighteenth century cursed by reasonableness and “formula,” an unheroic age.

If the job of the hero is to shape history, the job of everyone else is to recognize, worship, and obey heroes. This is part of where Carlyle as progenitor of fascism comes from. I think this is somewhat overblown from a historical perspective, though it doesn’t help that Goebbels was reading Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great to Hitler in the last days in the bunker. Rather, I think Carlyle was a precursor to and major influence on the irrationalist trends that blossomed in the general bourgeois freakout of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that created the gestalt out of which fascism came. So, a progenitor at second hand, along with a great many figures we’d hesitate to call fascist.

Still and all, a stark vision, where the historical job of the French Revolution was not to liberate anyone but to strike down false forms and “formulas,” ossified deposits of previous orders, allowing for new waves of heroes to arise and instantiate a new order. What Carlyle sees as good about Napoleon was his exemplifying the power of the “career open to the talents.” One gets the feeling that if Carlyle wrote twenty years later he’d have another chapter, the Industrialist as Hero. Not for nothing does “Moldbug” Yarvin, with his desire for a tech-CEO-God-king-manager-to-complain-to, claim Carlyle as a major influence (though that fucking STEM nerd doesn’t get history well enough to understand that Carlyle was also at heart a Puritan, Yarvin’s bete noir).

Obviously, I disagree with pretty much all of this. I don’t want to get into a whole “thing” about the role of the individual in history- it’s a tedious, often fatuous question. We’ll just leave it to say that all of the careers of Carlyle’s heroes can be understood as expressions of larger forces at work through individuals. Maybe this makes me one of the accursed “skeptics,” thinking along the grain of the valets to whom no man is a hero; Carlyle has a lot to say against the type. I don’t know about all that. I think individuals make their impact in some sort of harmonious relationship with larger forces, not that they’re irrelevant. But they also breathe, eat, shit, and die like other people. As De Gaulle, who presumably would have made the roster, put it, “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Moreover, a hero is a thin reed, to which what happened to England after Carlyle’s favorite, Cromwell, died, can attest. The collective can and has acted on the historical stage to move things in one direction or another — even Carlyle gives this backhanded creedence through reference to “ages of heroes” — and you’re better off uplifting and empowering that than relying on individual dudes, no matter how impressive. Still, this was an interesting work, and Carlyle has a strong, compelling voice, if not one I especially like. One of the more worthwhile books I’ve read in my recent explorations in reactionary writings. ***’

Review- Carlyle, “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and Heroism in History”

Review- Yarvin, “A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations” and Land, “The Dark Enlightenment”

Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin, “A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations” (2009) and Nick Land, “The Dark Enlightenment” (2013) – For my sins, I’ve committed to reading the major figures on the contemporary far right. Being me, I made the decision to read the “neoreactionary”/”Dark Enlightenment” writers well after their sell-by date. The far-right kids these days seem to be all about the aleatoric terror espoused in Mason’s “Siege” (which I will also review, so, uh, look forward to that) rather than trying to anoint a CEO-king for America or some secessionist seasteading anarcho-monarchist-capitalist utopia.

In particular, “Moldbug” Yarvin’s late-oughts internet snark has aged poorly. Someone told this dork he was funny, and Yarvin, with characteristic critical acuity, bought it. So you can’t even get your reaction straight. It needs to be hedged in by paragraphs of “ironic” observations, attempting to counter the objections the reader (imagined as an NPR-listening liberal) brings to the table, faux-erudite asides, etc. Another way “Gentle Introduction” has aged poorly is that he brought it out just before actual class politics started to make a comeback in the US, with Occupy (which presumably set off all his neuroses about “disorder”) coming soon on its heels. So he thinks he’s really blowing minds when he insists that the American Revolution wasn’t good, which is just laughable to anyone who’s spent one July on leftbook. He keeps using these exaggerated, supposedly funny medical metaphors for what his “red pill” is doing to you, the reader. It’s like nothing so much as a pseudo-intellectual version of a carnival barker outside of an especially un-scary haunted house attraction.

“But the irony is what separates the new alt-right from traditional fuddy-duddy conservatives!” I remember hearing and at least a few of you might be thinking. No, that’s just marketing. When you get into the stuff Yarvin cares about, he gets very persnickety and pedantic, and the stuff he chooses for that is telling. He was at the time a global warming denier another way this aged poorly even in its own terms- the cool thing for right-wingers now is to admit it’s happening and so we need to kill the brown people and the poors. He comes out of the Austrian reactionary economic camp, and so has a lot to say about inflation and money. And he is shit scared of black people, in that self-scaring way of online conservatives who convince themselves that they’re going to be killed on the way to the Times Square M&M Store, which would be funny if the outcomes didn’t tend towards the tragic.

What emerges from all this isn’t something new, different, or scary. These are all pretty base conservative pedantries and fears. The cutesy writing bullshit is meant to distract you from how banal his thoughts are. What are his recommendations or searing insights? Well, he continually insists that everything to the left of Hitler, more or less, is descended from seventeenth century Puritanism, which isn’t even an original way to be wrong. He goes on to mix the metaphor by referring to its modern-day descendants as “The Cathedral,” which by definition Puritans would have an antagonistic relationship towards, but actual history isn’t this asshole’s strong suit. Being impressed by the resemblance between politics and religion is an undergrad thing. Yarvin’s solution, a pseudo-monarchy of capitalist leaders, isn’t original either. He calls himself a Sith Lord but really, he just wants there to be a manager for him to complain to, presumably, as my roommate put it, to stop girls from laughing at his weird dick. Protecting capital by sealing it off from democratic pressure is the long-term project of the neoliberal right, and it’s a sign of creative decline and poor education that rich idiots like Peter Thiel look to this Yarvin guy for ways to accomplish it. Dogshit. *

Along with Peter Thiel, Yarvin managed to impress Nick Land, at one point a scholar on the frontiers of “cyberculture theory” or something like that. I’ve never gotten what Marshall McLuhan was banging on about, let alone “cyberculture” people, but people I respect seem impressed with Land’s earlier work (which I might look into at some point). Somewhere along the line, Land went crazy, moved to China, and became an anti-black racist, not necessarily in that exact order. His extended essay “The Dark Enlightenment” reframes and extends several of Yarvin and cohort’s arguments.

Land is certainly a better writer than Yarvin, though that’s mostly in the negative sense of not larding himself down with specious humor. He adds an accelerationist edge to neoreaction by joining it more forcefully than Yarvin does with out of control expansion of technology and capitalism (Land doesn’t comment on Yarvin’s climate denialism, but one gets the idea he doesn’t agree with it). Only authoritarian capitalism can meet the challenges of the future, Land tells us, and the only way to do that is through exit, secession, the thing for which the neoreactionaries provide part of the key.

The other part of the key is racism- the most interesting part of either work is Land’s extended meditation on “the Cracker Factory,” a misapplied version of Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald’s Celtic Thesis on the origins of southern white culture. The Cracker Factory is sort of the opposite of the Cathedral: where the Cathedral manufactures politically correct sheep and their masters, the Cracker Factory churns out violent, tribal, but existentially sound men and women who, Land implies, could be the muscle behind some of the neoreactionaries’ secessionist fantasies. Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight, the farce version! He has something of a point there, though, that there’s a social system that manufactures the potential right-wing killers of the future- he just gets which one it is wrong. It’s in the suburbs and exurbs, not the hollers and trailer parks.

In general, Land tracks Yarvin in being redundant. The sort of obfuscatory cultural theory Land used to produce was inimical enough to actual progress to begin with, without being openly racist and antidemocratic, just as there are plenty of xenophobic pedants of Yarvin’s stripe. These people are only a threat insofar as they whisper in the ears of the stupid and powerful among the tech elite and potentially help shape the ways in which said elites look to deal with us regular people. Only time will tell how much it amounts to. *’

Review- Yarvin, “A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations” and Land, “The Dark Enlightenment”

Review- Vinge, “A Fire Upon the Deep”

Vernor Vinge, “A Fire Upon the Deep” (1992) – Hard(ish) scifi space opera “goes to the dogs” in this one! Ha, ha, not figuratively, but in the sense two human children wind up in the clutches of rival factions of medieval dog-like pack-mind aliens. The action in “A Fire Upon the Deep” is split between Johanna and Jefri, last survivors of a human colony that gets eaten by a super-advanced malignant AI, and a crew of spacers hired by a human from the same society, Ravna, who goes looking for the ship they were on. The ship had to bail on dog-alien planet and, of course, also contains a way of defeating the Blight, as the evil AI is known.

This is a big (600 pages or so) book with a wide sweep. We go from hyper-advanced space colonies to dog-alien castles and encounter a number of interesting Vinge concepts along the way. Perhaps the most important are the “Zones of Thought.” As it turns out, Earth is in the Slow Zone- the closer to the galactic core you get, the slower the speed of light is, and in turn the slower do neurons fire and advanced tech becomes impossible even if it could be designed. The advanced space civilizations exist in the Beyond, where faster-than-light travel is possible, and the Transcend, inhabited by god-like energy beings. You have to be careful not to get caught in the “Slow Zone” nearer the galactic core, or in a zone storm, where your tech stops working. Vinge also tells us what the space internet looks like- a lot like usenet newsgroups from the nineties, an interesting take from the pre-social media days. The pack minds of the “Tines,” as the humans come to call the dog-aliens, are fleshed out, with gestalt personalities, telepathic communications (and confusions if packs get too close), and multi-generational layering. This is echoed in the shared mind of one of the human shipmates, who was reanimated by a Transcend god-thing that the Blight kills, and is left with some of the god’s abilities and personalities along with his reanimated baggage. Heady stuff! Vinge takes his time with all this, too, which turns out for the best even if it makes the book a little long and slightly confusing in some places.

Vinge sets up multiple ticking clocks, from the threat of the Blight, to the race between Ravna’s crew and the Blight’s fleet to seize the spaceship with the anti-Blight weapon, to the impending rumble between rival groups of Tine eugenicists (one mean, one less mean) that endangers the human children they’ve taken in. The clocks are always ticking but he still takes the time to throw in other complications: betrayals, horrifying discoveries about perfectly nice plant-people, the imperial ambitions of cute butterfly-aliens, the humans helping the Tines up the tech tree, etc. Vinge throws in a lot and most of it is good. One thing you don’t get a ton of is the libertarian posturing I’m told Vinge indulges in (he’s won the libertarian “Prometheus” scifi award multiple times), and that I can do without. All told, a decent, if perhaps overstuffed, scifi adventure with a lot of neat concepts. ****

Review- Vinge, “A Fire Upon the Deep”

Review- Sundiata, “Brothers and Strangers”

Ibrahim Sundiata, “Brothers and Strangers: Black Zion, Black Slavery 1914-1940” (2004) – I’m fascinated by Liberia and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my fascination with America, Liberia being America’s barely-acknowledged by-blow, in certain respects. A few thousand ex-slaves and free black people were dumped on a shore in West Africa, on the idea that while slavery was either wrong or just not long for this world, black people needed a place to go, as they couldn’t mix with whites… If you ever wondered what sort of thoughts were going on with the people ideologically between the abolitionists and the ardent slaveholders, where the mythical “reasonable middle” was, that was more or less it. It was big in the Upper South, where the largest populations of free blacks were (there’s still a Maryland County in Liberia to this day). And then they were just… left there.

The story in “Brothers and Strangers” takes place around the centennial of Liberia’s settlement. The US had long since disclaimed responsibility for Liberia, though it was associated closely enough with the country that the other imperialist powers in West Africa wouldn’t swallow it up. The Americo-Liberians (as the descendants of the settlers came to be called) formed a tiny elite, five figures worth of people or so, ruling over a small but incredibly diverse body of tribes in their notional national territory. The Americo-Liberians, sadly, reproduced much of the social order they had left behind, complete with vast inequality and an elite that ran plantations based on semi-enslaved local labor. The governing elite also ran up massive debts, mostly to Britain, but to France and the US as well.

Liberia came to the attention of the world due to these debts, and due to their technically joining the Entente during WWI, placing them in the League of Nations. This coincided with the rise of Pan-Africanism as an ideology in the Black Atlantic, from Jamaica to New York and Britain. The increasingly combustible racial situation in the United States and elsewhere encouraged black people to reconsider emigrationism. Pan-Africanism and emigrationism had a peculiar relationship with imperialism. On the one hand, they were opposed to European imperialism in Africa and the West Indies, and were often on the cutting edge of movements protesting white abuses. On the other, they were inspired by imperialist ideas of civilizational uplift and racial solidarity. Africa needed the African diaspora, as far as many Pan-Africanists were concerned, to settle the continent and bring it to it’s true destiny, etc. etc.

The big figure in Pan-Africanism at the time was, of course, Marcus Garvey, leader of the United Negro Improvement Association and a big “Back to Africa” proponent. The Jamaican Garvey looked to Liberia as a logical place to begin a resettlement effort. It should have been a win-win, or anyway a reaffirmation of what Liberia was supposed to be about: a haven for black people, a republic where their voices and talents mattered. Garvey could provide fresh blood and all manner of skilled workers and settlers, Liberia could provide the footprint on the continent.

Alas, the oligarchy in Monrovia had other ideas. To put it bluntly, which Sundiata does a few times, the Americo-Liberians by and large wanted Pan-African money but not Pan-Africans. After encouraging Garvey for a little while, when it looked like he could provide capital, the Liberian government began stonewalling him. Garvey grew suspicious and hostile towards the Liberians, and UNIA became a voice, often a lonely one, for the oppressed native populations of Liberia after the Americo-Liberians spurned them.

Garvey’s arch-rival, W.E.B. DuBois, maintained that American blacks should continue to support Liberia. This became increasingly important as Liberia’s debt crisis worsened. A scandal over labor importation compounded the crisis: Liberian elites were found to be making money by shipping laborers, sometimes at gunpoint, to plantations in neighboring colonial regimes, where they were treated brutally. To complicate matters still further, the Firestone rubber company took over a vast swath of Liberia for rubber planting. The lifeline this extended rapidly became a noose around Liberia’s neck, as the Firestones (father and son) demanded an ever-increasing slice of Liberia’s GDP as “loan” servicing, all while exacerbating the country’s problem with forced labor and generally acting like a miniature imperial in their own right. It began to look like some larger power — the US, Britain, and/or the League of Nations — might take a hand. Sundiata gets into the diplomatic nitty-gritty of what happened across the twenties and thirties, as the Americo-Liberian elite hustled for its life, and won, with at least some help from the African-Americans they generally held at arm’s length. Black pressure on the State Department wasn’t a major force, Sundiata tells us, but given how no one (other than at times Harvey Firestone, Senior or Junior) really wanted the hot potato of the Liberian mess, it was enough. To a certain extent, Liberia was saved by the bell; FDR came in just as the Firestones were ramping up their demands for gunboat diplomacy, and tamped down on that kind of thing. Meanwhile, the League of Nations was a few years away from getting owned by the future Axis powers so they weren’t going to do anything, either.

Was this for the best for Liberia? Probably- it was already a situation of internal imperialism, the Americo-Liberians suppressing the natives. More imperialism is never the solution. But, as Sundiata points out, Liberian history is a brutal, gratuitously cruel lesson in the distance between outsiders conception of Africa and realities on the ground. The original white backers of colonization expected a stable missionary base in Africa and a solution to America’s race problem, and got a black republic instead. The Pan-Africanists envisioned solidarity between black people on the basis of race, and got the cruel realities of class and ethnic division. Various white do-gooders in the early twentieth century expected a pliable regime they could walk over, and got bogged down in the realities of resistance and bureaucratic inertia. Now, when I bring up Liberia, people respond referring to the Vice documentary about how fucked up the civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s were. Is there a lesson here? Ibrahim Sundiata admirably refuses to sermonize and draw some big moral, other than the usual academic thing about how we need a more nuanced understanding of things, and that the Liberians and other peoples of Africa need to work out their own respective destinies. That seems to be a decent place to leave it. ****’

Review- Sundiata, “Brothers and Strangers”

Review- Miéville, “Kraken”

China Miéville, Kraken (2010) – Gotta say… I was always a whale guy in the squid-whale dichotomy. I know, I know, the cool kids are all about cephalopods these days, but that just makes me back my mammal friends all the more. And there’s no “Moby-Dick” about squid. Miéville’s “The Kraken” ain’t it, either.

To be fair, I doubt it’s trying to be, and what it amounts to is something pretty decent. As the back copy will tell you, somebody steals a dead giant squid (and its tank) from a London museum, which sends its caretaker Billy into a world of competing cults, magical weirdos, magic cops, and assorted terrors. The big dead squid has big juju and it’s own cult of squid-worshippers, and so magical London — which is less officially hidden than generally ignored — is all in an uproar over what to do about it.

Most reviews don’t go much past the back copy, and I think there’s two reasons for that. For one, spoilers- there’s a big twist in the end and no one wants to give it away. Second, and I think more importantly, the plot swirls maniacally and is littered with all kinds of stuff China Miéville thought was cool. There are at least five agendas to attend to, including that of Billy, the closest thing to a central viewpoint character, and each of these agendas have assorted arcane obstacles and helpers, all of which require explanation.

What does some of this include? Well: a gang boss who is a sentient tattoo on someone’s back and who makes people-machine hybrids; another gang boss who’s a dead magician; some magic cops, one of which is based on Amy Winehouse, who summon cop-ghosts from old police procedurals; magic Nazis; an ancient Egyptian demiurge of trade unionism who can embody himself in statues (and action figures); a cockney embodiment of evil; an iPod that’s bad at music but good at magical protection; several apocalypses; chronically depressed teleporters; “Londonmancers” who manipulate the city in various ways; were-squid . And I’m leaving stuff out.

When the plot comes together, it ultimately works, especially knowing Miéville’s body of work and his commitments (he’s a big leftie and former ISO member, for those playing the home game). It’s a long, confusing, but mostly fun ride getting there. It all depends on what proportion of and which of the things Miéville throws against the wall make your eyes roll. Without getting into spoilers, the magic in “The Kraken” relies on metaphors, and so the denizens of magical London take metaphor extremely seriously, to the point of silliness at times. But for the most part, Miéville’s storytelling and vast powers of invention prove winning. ****

Review- Miéville, “Kraken”

Review- Scott, “The Common Wind”

Julius Scott, “The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution” (2018) – This one says it was published in 2018, but it had a pre-published life of its own, I’m told, going back to the eighties as a dissertation that historians working on various aspects of the Atlantic world would consult and tell each other about, a sort of underground classic. Why it didn’t get published before Verso picked it up in 2018 is beyond me, especially if there was demand for it among historians. Certainly other, less important, dissertations get published frequently (I should probably see about publishing mine, speaking of which…)

Anyway, one can call “The Common Wind” a social history of ideas, or perhaps more properly of the social life of information. The fastest information moved at the end of the eighteenth century was the speed of sail. And yet, people at the most degraded bottom rung of society — the slaves in the sugar islands and plantations of the Caribbean basin — found out about international news with surprising alacrity and consistency. This became especially true as the news got spicier with the French Revolution and the beginnings of the modern abolitionist movement in Britain, and still more urgent with the outbreak of the revolution in St-Domingue. Despite the best efforts of white authority, slaves found out about — and were inspired to action by — all of these.

According to Scott, sailors and city-dwellers made up the lifeblood of information exchange in the Caribbean basin at this time. Had the technology been more commonly available in the eighties when this was written, perhaps we could have gotten some network charts, but the picture Scott paints is vivid enough anyway. The New World colonies were largely designed at the time to be unsustainable on their own, especially the sugar islands of the Caribbean. Whether through trade with solely the “mother country” or experiments with free trade later in the eighteenth century, the islands and other colonies could not survive without outside intercourse, and were useless to the European colonizers without bringing their products to the international market.

This posed a problem for the slaveholders and authorities of the Caribbean basin, isomorphic from Virginia to Venezuela: how to control the flow of people, goods, and information in such a way as to make their colonies sustainable, but not endanger their delicate social orders resting on massive populations of slaves. They needed trade, and the things that came with it: ships, ports, sailors, cities, in a word, mobility, but mobility threatened them. It soon became a commonplace that urban slaves were unreliable and that sailors were threats to public order, carriers of threats ranging from drunk and disorderly conduct to political subversion.

Scott presents us with a kaleidoscope of efforts to suppress the threat of mobile and often master-less people to the social order of various parts of the Caribbean. Panicky governors from Spanish, French, and English colonies all passed laws restricting the doings of sailors and urban slaves, banning blacks and sometimes people and ships altogether from places seen as “infected” by subversive ideas (especially France once the Revolution broke out), trying to reign in the very active Caribbean press, and so on and on. Scott gives us a picture — limited by the sources but still fascinating — of the lives of masterless black and brown men and women largely through their interactions with the legal and fact-finding apparatuses set up by colonial governments.

None of the efforts to hem in the word of revolution worked. Information still moved, and Haiti especially lived on as an inspiration to blacks and a bogeyman to whites. In the end, the master class had to rely on blunter tools: terror for the black masses, crippling debt and control of trade (with inevitable, and inevitably dashed, hopes of economic development) for Haiti itself. Similar networks of information would form to pass on abolitionist news and sentiments throughout the slave societies that continued to develop, linking Deep South plantations to abolition movements centered in New England (and old England) through chains of correspondence. These, like the Caribbean ones Scott uncovered, eventually came down to mobile, risk-taking slaves, freedmen and other poor people of the plantation lands. Without them and their ability to distribute information in multiple directions, abolition — and revolution — are just ideas. ****’

Review- Scott, “The Common Wind”