Parrhesia, subversion and piracy: the rise of the cyber-optimists

Parrhesia, from the Greek παρρησία, means literally “to say everything”, to “not hold anything back”. It is used to describe a manner of speaking frankly or boldly, to the point of bringing danger to oneself. The concept was central to the Cynical school of thought, a Greek philosophical movement from around the 4th century BC. The name of this school comes from κύων – kyon (“dog”), in allusion to the frugal and, in a sense, animalistic lifestyle of its followers. The cynics interpreted socratic doctrine as condemning of civilization; the righteous life was the one lived according to nature, because Man naturally carried within all the elements necessary for Freedom, Happy and Good life.

Diogenes the Cynic was probably the most famous example of this thought. From what we know about him, he had been exiled from his native Sinope along with his father for counterfeiting coins. Living in Athens as a homeless man, he dedicated his life to speaking truth to power in the rawest terms possible. He protagonized numerous and provocative shenanigans, a habit he referred to as “defacing the currency” of social customs – the fake currency of morality. This metaphor doubled as a reference to the causes of his expatriation, of which he claimed to be proud. Carrying a lamp in broad daylight, he claimed to be “looking for a [honest] man”. He laughed at Socrates’ definition of humans as “featherless bipeds” by presenting him with a chicken stripped of feathers and calling it a man. The Cynic’s philosophical statements also included public defecation and masturbating in the agora. When granted a wish by Alexander the Great, he told the Conqueror to move out of the way so as to not block the sun, earning the King’s respect with his insolence. All of these anecdotes were transmitted by others, as he left no written works.

The term Diogenes Syndrome, nowadays, designates a mental condition defined by the patient’s tendency to accumulate garbage and useless items in their home, often leading to extremely unsanitary situations. However, the cynical philosopher’s life was one in pursuit of integrity as supreme virtue. Integrity comes from the Latin word integer, used in mathematics to refer to numbers which are whole, intact. To have integrity is to be simple, without parts: to think, speak and act in a unified way. Animals are naturally like this, so according to Diogenes a virtuous Man should embody his animal, “doggish” nature, forfeiting everything else. He had to embrace his visceral, filthy reality, and get rid of all social conventions, masks and chains. Cynics like Diogenes made shamelessness their banner.

Deleuze, when describing control societies and comparing to Foucault’s disciplinary societies, remarked the former’s vulnerability to “jamming, piracy and viruses”. Justin Murphy has pointed to the connection of these ideas with Diogenes’ point of view. In one of his lectures, he argues that a parrhesiastic performance of sufficient gravity is what makes these three subversive elements possible. The danger inherent to “not holding anything back”, like Diogenes’ provocation of Alexander, generates a force capable of forging strong communities and movements. The disposition to die in the name of Truth has unparalleled transformative potential; a phenomenon which Christian apologist Tertullian summarized as “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church“.

The loose constellation of debaters and propagandists around which the alt-right was built tried to play this game. They used their memes about freedom of speech and overt critique of Political Correctness to gain enormous cultural momentum, something the conventional right had never managed to do. Trump’s 2016 campaign brutalized every sacred cow of acceptable discourse. For anyone who had been paying attention, this was a winner strategy. The future President’s announcement to supporters,we’re gonna win so much you may even get tired of winning”, though, turned out to be a grim prediction. As the Overton Window moved right, the parodies of Woke/PC culture became so trite they lost the shocking value they once had. Trump may win 2020, but the cultural momentum of 2016 is gone forever. The alt-right is old news. Those kids turned out to be just another brand of socialists trying to avoid being left behind by the wheel of Acceleration.

The 2016 Meme War, however, was fought under the influence of a dark elixir. During the early 2010’s, neoreactionary, accelerationist, and other fringe-right blogs had sown the seeds of a new Zeitgeist. The bloggers of that corner of the Internet, mostly anonymous, were not exactly martyr material. Many of them had families and careers. Some of the key figures seemed to be on it mainly for the intellectual stimulation, and certainly not down for any political activism; just look up Moldbug’s Steel Rule of Passivism. The scene lacked cohesion, internal coherence, and drive. It was, however, a fantastic machine for the production of parrhesiastic discourse. And on the receiving end of that discourse was a different generation, mostly born during the late 80’s and 90’s.

Not quite native to the Internet, raised during the hangover of the Cold War, and coming of age around the 2008 financial crisis, they got used to the intellectual promiscuity and the provocative tone of the online culture the Dark Enlightenment writers had contributed to generate. While the Dark Enlightenment quietly faded away, a new specimen, better suited for the fast-paced, abrasive exchanges of message boards and Twitter hot takes, was being born: the edgelord. His occasional banality and vulgarity, his directionless trolling, was just the lowest common denominator of a future intellectual culture. A culture of cyber-optimists, like Philosopher-King Kantbot and Bronze Age Pervert, the Prophet of Pirates. Rhizomic, marginal, non-ideological and somewhat esoteric, it has adapted to thrive in the market of attention. It runs on infinite lines of code and biological metaphors. Proliferating under the surface of the Internet’s primaeval soup, shapeless and unnamed, it is now ready to unleash a new era of jamming, piracy, and viral infection on the establishment.

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