In 2009, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin published a memoir entitled Going Rogue: An American Story capitalizing on a go-your-own-way narrative that would justify her political lampoons as merits under the bulwark of a certain American ideology of the rebel. It was a tale of her political path to potential vice-presidency alongside her “maverick” running mate both purportedly unharried by the norms and mores of the political class. And they were not alone. A grassroots movement calling itself the “Tea Party” emerged roughly around that time in the US, subsuming an anti-Big Government and anti-immigrant agenda within the historical banner of revolutionary defiance. Clandestine dumping of imported tea into Boston harbor turned patrolling the south side of the national border on lawn chairs whilst attempting to keep their hard earned money out of the clutches of regulation and taxation.
Laughable, contradictory, inarticulate -- they were left to their rural enclaves of RV parks, social security benefits and a forthright conviction that they, as citizens had been wronged. Or so it was then. Maybe many even see it this way today, suggesting that these “deplorables” are the scourge against the liberal progressivism we had (apparently) all agreed on. But in truth, they were vanguard. Not laughable but instead the prods that would usher in the very strange and fragile geopolitical situation we in the global north now inhabit. They were, and still are, the “anti-establishment”; the deviants, those marginal geographically and socially.
What I mean to say by this is that the current political situation along the North Atlantic -- with its new political ecology of populist movements now taking the helm -- are, for all intents and purposes, a product of this deviant rhetoric. That while some of us might sympathize with the often rural, often poor and yes -- often ignored -- defiance of these folks, we could only do so at the pitiful admittance that theirs is a rebellion we hope to extinguish. That is: Here Comes Trouble has now become Here is Trouble, only this trouble is more troublesome than we hoped, or even imagined it to be.
Surely many will disagree with me here, suggesting that the figure of the deviant is something irrevocably allied to historical accounts of admirable outcasts whose struggle and marginality point to the lamentable state of our situations, eventually undermined by influences it hoped to keep at bay. It’s a deep seated idea in the European traditions afterall. Founded in Socrates and transubstantiated in the figure of Jesus; its as if the history of the West were a litany of deviant humans saving us from the tireless habituation of institutions and their governance. Agents of change; progressors of history.
While I would never deny the importance of these type of laudable acts nor the humans and the risks associated with them, it seems essential to also acknowledge the great many horrors wrought by the less savory deviants throughout history. Your fascist revolutionaries, “communist” tyrants, your seclusive-right-wing-unabomber types -- all of whom have probed the depths of human depravity. Theirs is a deviancy against the state of things from the egregious fringes of what many would see as aimless misanthropy. They are those figures we hope to extoll from our list of triumphant deviant figures, romantic and libertine. But should we -- could we -- avoid drawing equivalence? Does deviance go both ways?
It is perhaps too apt in this case to bring up the case of the lefty darling turned feudalist nightmare of a thinker Nick Land. Famed for his early work, Fanged Noumena, he himself knew just how dangerously ambivalent ideas are when left to their own devices. That once conjured, many of the best sounding ideas of democracy, freedom, Enlightenment and even rebellion live well beyond the phenomena or context they were first attributed to. They have a rather ambling, vampiric life of their own well beyond the pale of our own moral retribution and to deny this fact would be to turn a blind eye to the justificatory regimes and equivocations of the ambit of discursive regulation. Which is out and out to say that our conceptual tools are not saviours in and of themselves; they are merely tools that parasite off the lifeblood of new phenomena wanting and waiting to be written.
Land himself seems to have fallen prey to his own hyperstition as he moved from being a rather outsiderish academic philosopher to a reclusive neomedivial ethno-nationalist blogger of the NRx movement. The question remains as to how exactly that shift occurred, yet in hindsight it is easy to see how his conceptualizations of nihilism, acceleration, and a “thirst for annihilation” might very well have come to fruition in less savory formations over time. And this begs the question: did those of us influenced or vexed by his early work simply not heed his own purportments? Did we, in our haze of excitement over the creative destruction of acceleration -- of our hatred for this world as it is -- fail to see what dangers could potentially lie ahead?
Maybe. But in this regard it seems most important to think about the operation and mechanics of how these problems have been framed in the first place. At its base, that means the complications are placed in a time old political problem of whether or not the ends justify the means of any strategy for social or philosophical change. Or, better yet, how we manage and think through particular goals, shared aims, and projects as translations between generalized theoretical discourse instead of leaving concepts untethered and wandering into the ambivalence of interpretation. This is precisely the trap I think an idea of deviancy risks overlooking. Without specific and context particular aims, it lends itself as a conceptual device too malleable to be operative for any political or ethical aims. Instead, it runs dangerously close to equivocating marginal positions and beliefs -- for flattening out their topology -- that have gained their outsider status for highly divergent historical reasons. How is it afterall that we could or would discern the difference between forms of life (or thought) that are excluded from our societies (state spaces) because of their vulnerability as opposed that have been excluded through a willing and collective ethical injunction on something seen as inadmissible? There seems to be a lot of terrain between the refugee and the Nazi, despite the fact that both can and have been pushed out of normative positions and afford a moment of radical change within a liberal consensus.
Theories are powerful in that regard. The concretizations of theories in our material world shape themselves so strangely it’s often difficult to trace them. Particularly when one uses metaphors across disciplines or out of context, we often fail to attend to what it is we are actually aiming at when we try to transpose the metaphor into the particularity of that which we hope to define. Philosophical and political discourses -- even those in this book -- are full of metaphors that provide an elegant image of organizational principles too immaterial to picture otherwise. In that way, metaphors are powerful heuristics. They are discursive technologies and as such they may be handled in very different ways, often to the dismay of those who invented them. That needs to be considered. Also, the limits of our heuristic metaphors are equally important. Taking the physical law based descriptions of physics as a metaphor, for instance, will necessarily have a rocky ride once translated into a norm based system such as culture or politics. They are, at the end of the day, fundamentally describing different types of things. Law based systems are enforced by what is physically possible, norms are enforced through the will of another (or group). Moving between these types of systems in metaphoric description, therefore, requires the careful gesture of translation that can describe and make useful how the heuristic metaphor operates in parallel and to what extent or limit point that holds true.
Norms and prescriptions in a society are tricky in that regard. Conflating them is at constant issue within idiomatic language and, more incredulously, often underlies the trenchant political projects that have come to foreclose our ability to think of another world. Mark Fisher’s work on capitalist realism is a great example of this effect. Norms become “naturalized” as if they were physical laws; understood as if they were, for the most part, unchangeable, inherent, and not subject to determination by values. At the same time, norms simply as norms -- as qualified aims of a group of people -- can and perhaps should play a large role in advocating for a better world. I guess the trick is to state it like that; that these rules are not metaphysical, not “natural,” not manifest or necessary but instead form the armature with which groups of humans (or perhaps even humanity as a whole) could find fungible ground to negotiate their values. And with that in mind, one can begin to unpack the very serious differences in a mathematical catastrophe or a change in state space from the tides of political and social upheavals driven by emboldened outsiders. And to no longer enable this conflation, makes us accountable to the very real consequences that general theories have when they are not coupled with an aim.
I feel our time is poised to deal with these question more bluntly if only we give ourselves the space and paucity of mind to reflect on ourselves. The “rogue” and the “maverick” and all their vigilante friends who have subsequently come to power have made dealing with it essential even. If we ascribe any reality to their claim for deviancy, for their own romantic ethic of marginalized outsider salvation, then we might want to reconsider this deviancy thing altogether. And by doing so, whatever we’s we are, will want to truly engage with what it is we are willing to cede from misgivings in our own political desires and mythologies. Would it be worth it to discontinue the figure of the romantic deviant in our political theology?
With rising tides between an (hopefully) emancipatory Left and an ethno-capitalist Right both positioned to dismantle the liberal consensus -- a consensus I firmly believe only actually lived in the minds of career politicians and elites -- the iron is hot once again for articulating aims for what form of deviant disruptions we are actually interested in supporting in either minor personal or large geopolitical iterations. History has shown deviancy is not enough of a concept to assure the success of any one political aim. And despite even my own subcultural proclivities, those of us on the side of emancipation ought to think about the antimony nestled between staying radically “marginal” while still advocating for general equity and inclusion in the very same social structures we hope to deny. We need a new metaphor. Afterall, doesn’t being merely “against” the state of things suggest that we have no stake in getting rid of those structures once and for all? Something doesn’t match up. Instead I wonder if we could focus more on aims. Could we, for instance, try and think of what an abolition of the deviant could look like? Not in the form of excluding but of there being no possibility for such a distinction, kind of like similar claims made for prison, gender, and work abolition. What would such a social system look like? Or, to think in another direction, what would it mean for the Left to embrace the creation and negotiation of norms for more universal and emancipatory aims? After decades now of the feckless breaking down of social structures, could it be worthwhile to begin thinking about what structures might work toward these aims, whose protectionist and enabling infrastructure could only lament the incursion from some deviant undermining it?
Nick Houde - Summer 2018