Geopolitics and Myth (recap)
This article ran today on The Guardian. I am citing it here more as an example of a type, rather than to pick on it in particular. All you need to do is open a news site or turn on your TV to see these sorts of interpretations of the present moment.
“Those emotions [which Putin expressed in his recent speech] are deeply rooted in history and the historical injustices suffered by Russia. Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, said he saw Putin as a man with “a historical map in his mind and a plan to use his military to achieve it”.
Central to that map is Ukraine, which he has described as an artificial state. “Modern Ukraine was wholly and fully created by Russia,” Putin said in a historical sleight-of-hand, “namely Bolshevik, communist Russia.”
To help picture it, state TV ran a map earlier this week showing Ukraine cut up to represent which parts were “presents” from various leaders, including Stalin, Lenin and Khrushchev. Some commentators said it represents the partition that Putin himself might be imagining if he gets his way.
While once the map may have been viewed as fantasies or media trolling, a western diplomat based in Ukraine on Friday pointed to his speeches and to that map as a serious sign that Putin was weighing up a dismantling of the country.
“He is not pretending anymore. For the first time I think he’s revealing who he really is,” the diplomat wrote.
For the first time? Really? In short, now that Putin has gone too far, we can no longer pretend that he is someone other than who he is, but the line of course is “He has changed.”
For several decades now, my primary focus as a writer and artist has been on the ways that myth (and narratives more generally) interact in the world, and how we (re)construct reality from an assemblage of those parts. So I feel qualified to speak on these points in particular, although surely many others are better qualified to speak on the history.
Particularly I want to highlight some thoughts about this idea of Geopolitics-as-myth, excerpted from Narrative Machines, since the trends I was picking up on then seem to becoming even more inescapable here in the “real” world today… Yet again, everything old is new again.
The Map is the Idea of the Map
The anxiety that underlies the wholesale exchange of the profane for the sacred can produce a nostalgic throwback to the “old time religion.” The yearning for sacred origins has long been a political tool of those who would wield it. The aura of a fondly remembered yesterday drives such cultural movements as we see demonstrated in the movie “Jesus Camp,” and this trend is evident in many revivalist, traditionalist, evangelical, and reactionary groups across the world, not just Christianity. It has a basis of an American mythos that sprang up about the paranoid 1950s, repainting it as a golden age of idyllic family values, “when men were men and women knew their place,” which reach from that time, and before, right up to the present. They were mostly fictional even in their time. Now, they are hyperreal. The Trump campaign’s call to Make America Great Again, strikingly similar to a defunct slogan of Reagan’s from the 80s, is in either event an appeal to an alternate history that never was. Authoritarianism is not an appeal to truth, it is an appeal to power, and fundamentally, the power that imaginal myth can have upon the real.
This defensive reaction, to look backwards in times of chaos, cannot be restricted to one ideology. It is one of the forms of modern mythology that we most frequently encounter. According to Samuel P. Huntington in his (in)famous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the coming world conflicts will be driven along ideological and cultural fault lines, even if underlying motivational factors in some cases include more material concerns, such as territory or overburdened resources, the interests of individual actors, or even blind organizational output. Ideology is generally a distillation of power relations rather than the other way around, so we shouldn’t seek to distinguish our myths and ideology from the real dynamics that they arise in.
Perception of conflict driven by these factors itself can be a veil, as we see further afield in Russia’s apparent insistence on following the mythology of Mackinder’s Geopolitics,
Russia’s push into Georgia in 2008, into Ukraine in 2014, and its recent campaign in Syria, as well as its efforts to consolidate a sphere of influence in the inner Eurasian heartland of the former USSR called the Eurasian Union, all are eerily foretold in geopolitical theory. Mackinder held that geography, not economics, is the fundamental determinant of world power and Russia, simply by virtue of its physical location, inherits a primary global role. Under President Vladimir Putin, the slightly kooky tenets of Mackinder’s theory have made inroads into the establishment, mostly because of one man, Alexander Dugin, a right wing intellectual and bohemian who emerged from the Perestroika era in the 1980s as one of Russia’s chief nationalists. — “The Unlikely Origins of Russia’s Manifest Destiny,” Foreign Policy
If we accept the conjecture that Mackinder’s Geopolitics is central to current Russian foreign policy, and this is no certain proposition, then we must also accept that a purely mythological story about the world is informing what happens in the real world.
Drawing on the extensive twentieth-century literature on geopolitics — and especially on the interwar German school of Karl Haushofer — Dugin posits a primordial, dualistic conflict between “Atlanticism” (seafaring states and civilizations, such as the United States and Britain) and “Eurasianism” (landbased states and civilizations, such as Eurasia-Russia). As Wayne Allensworth noted, once one penetrates below the surface of Dugin’s seemingly rational and scholarly language in Foundations of Geopolitics, one realizes that ‘Dugin’s geopolitics are mystical and occult in nature, the shape of world civilizations and the clashing vectors of historical development being portrayed as shaped by unseen spiritual forces beyond man’s comprehension.’ — Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics, Dunlop.
The map is, literally, the idea of the map. We must also come to terms with the fact that Dugin’s interpretation of this ideology explicitly uses the methods of postmodernism to attempt to strike at the West, or as he calls it, “Atlanticism.” In his words, “Ideologically the problem is liberalism as the unique and only ideology imposed on the Europe and the rest of humanity by anglosaxon world. The liberalism affirms only individual identity and prohibits any kind of collective or organic identity. ”
Perhaps what is most interesting about Duginism is not that it actually directly describes Russian foreign policy, but rather that it invents a myth out of cobbled together parts — a very postmodern gesture — and thereby attempts to retroactively take credit for actions that happen to fall in line.
Though everything else about Dugin’s critique is regressive, a fun-house mirror inversion of theories developed mostly by the Left for decades, he is right about one thing: Liberalism, or specifically the moderate Rightwing neo-Liberalism and Benthamite utilitarianism that has increasingly taken its place, fractures innate community — constructing it instead through reducible and reproducible acts, and individual identity is then lent us purely through our external function and esteemed value.
Not even rebellion is safe from this process, but in light of current events, we need to dig deeper into the political repercussions of a 4th estate based on principles being co-opted by the far Right. Dugin’s prevarications are precisely in line with how myth and ideology collude to instruct, or rather construct, geopolitics, and we can also see in this a glimmer of our methodological objectives. Through the imposition of a mythology, we thereby shape the world in its image. We mustn’t confuse the one for the other, merely because the methodology may have similar foundations. Consider,
Also striking are attempts to identify the continuity of ‘unreason’ in fascism and poststructuralism. In an effort to combat the ‘philosophical anarchism’ of modern social theory, intellectual historians such as Wolin (2004) suggest obliquely that because both fascists and poststructuralists question the premises of occidental rationalism and American cultural leadership, there is an equivalence between the right-wing assault on democracy in fascist and neoconservative ideology and the poststructuralist critique of the democratic basis of western culture. Not only do arguments of this kind ignore the obvious substantive distinction between radical right-wing and radical left-wing criticisms of liberalism in an attempt to implicate the ‘soft totalitarianism’ of the left as an amoral betrayal of Enlightenment universalism, but are oblivious to the real and present danger implicit in neoconservative, neofascist and right-wing fundamentalist attacks on emancipatory politics.— Fascism and Political Theory, Woodley
Postmodernism as “skepticism toward all meta-narratizes” (Lyotard) claims to expose the flaw in both centered and de-centered worldviews. But what does an absolute skepticism toward all frames of reference do but create an unending regress of deconstruction in the hands of academics, while the powerful institutions in society use those same techniques to create a corporatist state that appears in-assailable to traditional methods of cultural subversion? We mustn’t forget that the methods of post-modernism are available for appropriation to any end, as we can see in their use not only by the neo-liberal or centrist corporate power structures but also the authoritarian Right, and in some cases this use is quite explicit, as we see in Alexsandr Dugin’s inversions, subversions, his theoretic propaganda.
The great debate of history is fundamentally literary. While intended to level the playing field and put power under critique, this approach can have unintended effects. All tools can be a weapon. Decentering can also be an implement of the state — one world, apprehended by pure logic. This is how one Gnostic-Transhumanist narrative of the future runs: if we can just find the optimal equations and frameworks, the world will run itself. One of many possible “ends of history,” its true meaning is “the end of progress.” We will have Arrived.
Yet, there is a growing anxiety about how this sort of appropriation is having real effects on our ability to agree on the basic facts. We are, increasingly, not even operating in analogous maps. No longer “Left” and “Right,” it is “Universe A” and “Universe B”.
The Singularity has yet to appear, and the darkness of the past beckons. Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” engages with this concern directly,
…In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact — as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past — but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?
We are instructed how to read the world through our “texts,” and in this sense, we are indebted to the postmodernists, though as we’ve seen this can be taken too far. Myth is neither pure fantasy nor a true material force. For as central as narratives are to human life, gravity is not merely a matter of interpretation. According to DeLanda, only by looking toward a method implied by emergent non-linear systems can we even hope to find a way out of this maze.
One of the ideas that I attack in my book is precisely the primacy of “interpretations” and of “conceptual frameworks.” Ideas and beliefs are important, and do play a role in history, but academics of different brands have reduced all material and energetic processes, and all human practices that are not linguistic or interpretative (think of manual skills, of “know-how”) to a “framework.” The twentieth century has been obsessed with positioning everything. Every culture, given that it has its own framework of beliefs, has become its own “world” and relativism (both moral and epistemological) now prevails.
But once you break away from this outmoded view, once you accept all the nonlinguistic practices that really make up society (not to mention the nonhuman elements that also shape it, such as viruses, bacteria, weeds, or nonorganic energy and material flows like wind and ocean currents) then language itself becomes just another material that flows through a much expanded picture. Language, in my view, is best thought of as a catalyst, a trigger for energetic processes (think of the words “begin the battle” triggering an enormous and destructive process). — Roy Christopher interviews DeLanda
Observant readers might recognize that there is a philosophical quandary here: do we prioritize the myth, or the mind, or the body? Where is the line between mythopoesis and logos, does that “frame” of myth even have an end? The nested holarchy of models, (models all the way down), seems to be a theme with this line of inquiry, but how does one make a model with nothing “real” to base it on? As Nietzsche recognized, philosophy, whether epistemological or ethical, often amount to juggling this hierarchy of values, and that is nothing more than the power struggle which has always defined human societies.
Even resource-driven conflicts are likely to be conceptualized in ideological terms, especially to the people who make up the backbone of any military. The US as a “global peacekeeper saving the world from itself” is such a myth as well, piggybacking on the overarching myth of American exceptionalism. This sort of myth is in no way exceptional. We paint in-groups and out-groups in mythic terms. We might see an echo of this in such disparate times as the crusades of the middle ages. After Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre in 1191, he ordered 3,000 captives — many of them women and children — taken outside the city and slaughtered. Some were disemboweled in a search for swallowed gems. (Spoiler: they didn’t have gems in their bowels.) Rather than being a classic example of the removed brutalities of the past, this is not so different from the rhetoric that is used to embed fear of the immigrant Others of today.
The drive behind fanaticism, and fascism — which is an affliction not unlike fanaticism — is psychological, not material. William Reich explored this in The Mass Psychology of Fascism. And this, taken from a chapter appropriately and perhaps ironically named “Ideology as a Material Force,”
Those who followed … the revolutionary Left’s application of Marxism between 1917 and 1933 had to notice that it was restricted to the sphere of objective economic processes and government policies, but that it neither kept a close eye on nor comprehended the development and contradictions of the so-called ‘subjective factor’ of history, i.e., the ideology of the masses.
The fascism of the state is the fascist within. This alchemy produces poisonous splinter factions, fundamentalist groups that cause many of the pathological habits our cultures otherwise exhibit, in concentrated form. Though always a sort of mass movement, it is contained in miniature within each individual psyche, since after all, the center of the circle around which all turns is only a product of the collective imagination. The extremists at the front lines of ideological conflicts hear the echoes of myths originating thousands of years ago, catalyzing the existential fear, hate, or desire latent in a culture, and more pointedly, within the individuals that comprise that culture. Fascism is, in a striking sense, an art movement gone horribly wrong.
The literalization of a mythical aesthetic can be the first step of this process. Here Lacan’s observation that the unconscious is structured like a language is key. In his words, “You see that by still preserving this ‘like’ [comme], I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say — and I come back to this all the time — that the unconscious is structured by a language. The unconscious is structured like the assemblages in question in set theory, which are like letters.” This has bearing on myth as mass dream, most crucially at the times revolution strikes, or at the point of any state change. Analysis of mass narratives, with the aid of technology, can bear fruit in this direction, though as we will see, it is not an endeavor without its difficulties and dangers.
Politics or even religious ideology shouldn’t form the only lens to gaze at myth in modern culture. Military memetics is itself congruent with notions of the epidemiology of ideas, and the level of scrutiny in this direction has already been considerable.
Using the analogy that ideologies possess the same theoretical characteristics as a disease (particularly as complex adaptive systems), then a similar method and routine should be applied to combating them. Memes can and should be used like medicine to inoculate the enemy and generate popular support. — “Memetics: A Growth Industry In US Military Operations”
According to a memo spread in 2006 written by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the “long war” against terrorism is a war of ideas,
“Today the centers of gravity of the conflict in Iraq and the global war on terror are not on the battlefield overseas. Rather, the center of gravity of this war are the centers of public opinion in the U.S. and in the capitals of free nations. The gateways to those centers are the international media hubs and the capitals of the world. Zawahiri has said that 50 percent of the current struggle is taking place in the arena of public information. That may be an understatement. Osama bin Laden, Zawahari, Zarqawi had media committees that consistently outpace our ability to respond.”
The propagandic methods of ISIS follow precisely from this observation. Though it is a notable irony that they also follow a historical path that Rumsfeld shares some personal responsibility in paving. There are considerable risks contained in the future synthesis of mythology and psychometrics — the measure of personality through scientific means, as we’ve seen in a nascent form in the rise of Trump and other populist long shots, who leaned quite heavily it seems on Cambridge Analytica, and other data firms who have become quite adept at interpreting and manipulating mass narratives. This news story follows what was ‘fictionalized’ before the fact, in House of Cards’ 4th season, where the Underwoods rely on advanced psychological models to structure and simplify their narratives, and ultimately, to win an election.
The age of polling as the leading edge in political analysis may be through. (Or perhaps, our attraction to such narratives drives their own propagation in an economy sculpted by the ad value of a click.)
Trump’s conspicuous contradictions and his oft-criticized habit of staking out multiple positions on a single issue result in a gigantic number of resulting messaging options that creates a huge advantage for a firm like Cambridge Analytica: for every voter, a different message. Mathematician Cathy O’Neil had already observed in August that “Trump is like a machine learning algorithm” that adjusts to public reactions. … The granularity of this message tailoring digs all the way down to tiny target groups, Nix explained to Das Magazin. “We can target specific towns or apartment buildings. Even individual people.” — Das Magazin, translated to English by Antidote zine
Suddenly our “fanciful stories” are anything but coffeeshop talk, and we’re paying a little more attention. Myth is on the lips, minds, and knife-points of those in the midst of active revolution, as well as those working in the media.
Memes influence ideas, ideas influence and form beliefs. Beliefs generate and influence political positions combined with feelings and emotions, eventually producing actions, which inform and influence behavior. Using this logic progression, any attack upon an ideology must consider an assault on a central or transcendent ‘idea’ or group of ideas as means of achieving success. Memes as ideas are then ‘in play’ as tools (or means) to attack ideologies. — “Memetics: A Growth Industry In US Military Operations”
Group narratives are always being re-purposed, whether we speak of the selective use of scripture by religious fundamentalists, or the more bizarre relationship between National Socialism and occultism, which underlined the rise of the Third Reich despite Hitler’s professed abhorrence for the occult. Fringe elements are at most times culturally inert, but have the potential to overcome the whole of a culture during crisis points, as the Nazis did after World War I. Some of the recent concern over the rise of the loose conglomeration of alt-Right, paleoconservative, and various openly white nationalist groups has been along these lines, though the shape it will take is unclear.
However, myth as a whole cannot be considered at fault for such misuse. Religion is not to blame for witch burning or terrorist bombings. Nor can the instinct behind myth be “killed,” in any event. We can replace people’s myths, but we cannot take them away. It can be a healing, as well as destructive, force.
I have made many of the chapters from Narrative Machines free to read on Modern Mythology, or you can buy the full print copy or ebook here. Although written 2014–16, and never meant as a final “take” on anything so much as an attempt to drill down into this idea of the interdependence of society and story, I find ideas from it popping to the foreground quite a lot lately. If they can be of any service, I’d like for them to be.