Algorithmic Alienation and Transcendence
Posted by <Harris Rosenblum> on 2022-10-15
It seems obvious at this point to say that religion is on the rise in the ‘cool’ places of the internet. From trad caths and God-posting, hustle-spiritualism and the now fully mainstream hyper detailed astrology, it seems like everyone believes in some sort of magic or non-natural force that governs reality. While I think some of these communities are going about it in the wrong way or are just factually wrong in their construction of reality, overall, I am generally sympathetic to these magical belief structures. In my own life there have been times when I’ve experienced a vacuum of meaning. Material conditions are rapidly worsening for most people. Collective belief around normal things feels harder to establish. Reality feels shattered, why not take up the shards and mosaic a new world into being. It's useful to understand the mechanics of this rise in the current moment. In this explanation I’ll try to address what I understand to be the root philosophical causes for this crusade in conjunction with the contemporary media dynamics that make this rise in spiritual identity inevitable. Finally, I’ll give some brief thoughts on whether the contemporary faith centered communities on the internet have the potential to actualize a better world.
When I talk about spirit I generally understand it within a Hegelian framework. For Hegel there are two forms of spirit. Absolute spirit, or God, or some non-natural force, is the thinking substance of the universe. It is unbracketed, objective, all encompassing, and is immanent in all causal activity that informs reality. The second form of spirit comes from distinctions within God’s manifestation. God would not be God without the world. God’s essence requires It to manifest Itself as reality. The possibility of distinction within reality necessitates a recognition of distinction and a reintegration of that subjectivity into God’s encompassing absoluteness. Subjective spirit is the way by which absolute spirit attains self-consciousness, clarity, and conceptual content.
Individual minds are one form of the subjective segmentations of God, but for Hegel, subjective spirit is not necessarily an individual mind. There are spirits of times, places, ideological formations, and cultural subsets. Subjective spirit is just a locus for distinction. It is the medium through which God engages in the project of conceptualizing itself. For example, a national spirit is an intersubjective mind composed of the distinctions, norms, and beliefs of the subjective spirits and effective phenomena that compose that nation. The national spirit locates itself in history by creating its own intersubjective self-consciousness based on these causal effects. The historicization of the nation gives coherent and meaningful content to the absolute.
Hegel’s notion of spiritual experience is one of transcending the division between self
and other. To transcend is to engage with the external world as interdependent with the self. Fundamentally, Hegel understands transcendent spiritual experience as the meaningful communal experience or as being a component of other subjective spirits. For example, I am a part of my village and want it to thrive. The village’s needs and desires become part of my needs and desires. Additionally, my individual needs and desires are integrated into those of the village, just as the norms and collective beliefs of the village I was raised in, informs my fundamental sense of self. Finally, the village is something I care about outside of my own individual interests. I want to build a school even though I have no children or create social programs for those who are less fortunate. When these three components act together to form communities of shared stake and belief there is an opportunity for people to see reality align with themselves. Spirit is just this act of narrativizing our collective beliefs.
Hegel’s model explicitly allows for us to transcend within the strictures of individualism and alienation that accompany modernity. Hegel believes the spiritual experience is just a loving political commitment that transcends reason and reflection. When I speak about spirit in the current moment, I am particularly interested in the transcendental experience of new forms of spirit that are birthed from the alienation of modernity, and require it to thrive.
Alienation is just the result of some problematic separation between a subject and an object. The subject of alienation is often a person or a group. The object of alienation can be an individual, a group, the external world as a whole, or can map back onto the subject. In this section I will summarize Marx’s theory of alienation, which contextualizes the new forms of alienation begotten by capitalism.
Marx posits that there are four forms of alienation in the context of capitalism: alienation from labor, the natural world, others, and the self. Alienation from labor is the separation of the individual from their labor by the machinery and logistics of production and commodification. It is important to understand that for Marx, labor is just the process of value creation. This process of alienation from labor is just the problematic separation between the worker, the value they create, and their agency over their capacity for value creation. For example, I go to the factory to make tassels in an assembly line dedicated to rug production. I have no agency over the tassel design. I am merely a component in the machines of the factory. I never encounter or experience the making of the entire rug, only the single part I produce. I am unaware of the inner workings of the machine I use to produce the tassles. I am unaware of how the machine was produced. When I am finished producing my component, it is sewn on by another laborer operating a separate machine. The rug is sent away to be sold to people I will never meet for a price I cannot afford.
For Marx, alienation from labor is the root of the other complimentary alienations of
capitalism. I am alienated from the natural world by the objects I encounter on the assembly line. The cotton for thread has been mechanically separated and grown far away in soil I will never see. The food I encounter is packaged in plastic as sets of homogenous blends of meat, grain, and expeller-pressed mono-crop oils. The products in my home are covered in catalyzed polymers made by processes I can’t pronounce. Even the woodworker rarely watches the tree fall.
I am alienated from others by the creep of transactionalism and the commodity form into my feelings of love and connection. I come to see others as competitors for jobs with less brutal working conditions. I come to see my friends as networking opportunities. My wife becomes a business partner. Competitive, survivalist drives degrade the possibilities for development of collective spirit and community.
Finally, I am alienated from myself in coming to see myself as a consumer with no productive agency of my own. My leisure time is spent consuming the abstractions of others' labor. I cease to see myself as an agent with will, productive capacity, and the possibility for alternatives. Embedded in all forms of alienation is a lack of meaning.
Thirst Trap To Trad Cath
In the contemporary moment alienation is driven by algorithms. Media platforms play on libidinal impulses in order to increase time spent on the platforms. Over time this leads to a sort of refinement of libidinal excitement. At first, my Instagram Discover page feeds me thirst traps and DIY tutorials. Eventually, I am fed things closer to my conscious and subconscious taste. Before long, I am funneled into a micro-genre of my own libidinal drive. Normative sexualized pictures give way to new physiognomies that resemble something closer to an anime character than a human. Pottery demos dissolve into survivalist vlogs. With increased engagement, the early images cease to be exciting and I become libidinally numb. I become aware of these subconscious algorithmically driven impulses and pursue them further. But eventually there is an end to every rabbithole. The dopamine rush of finding the new refinement eventually runs dry. Interest becomes fetishized, and then an identity, and then the means to alienation in itself.
When there is nothing left to consume, people begin to generate new narratives, aesthetics, and beliefs that extend fandom into ideology. People start to generate ideas about reality that make sense of the worsening conditions of contemporary life. In this space of generation, people begin to brush up against the terms of service. These generative narratives often run against hegemonic ideas about reality and when subjected to low complexity and opaque content moderation standards, they lead to deplatforming that confirms their feelings of alienation. They migrate to anonymous spaces where identity and taste can be played with more freely and with fewer consequences. Alienation from the self allows for irony and sincerity to act in the same breath. New New Sincerity acts in the desperate attempt to feel humanity in the machine again. These new algorithmically determined and insulated social bubbles give people
space to be malleable and suspend moral imperative.
The malleability of identity in these online spaces leads to radical reformations of the self
towards interdependence with an ideological community. The collective creation and archiving of lore and ideology become real vectors for spirit. Micro-communities form their own lore, agency, and consensus all birthed from their dissatisfaction or exclusion from reality and the way the internet indexes us. We all want to change the world. These increasingly visible others have the gall to say it, imagine it together, and exercise the collective will to make their narratives causally effective.
When people exit from the algorithm-friendly way of understanding societal norms and enter these micro-instances of collective spirit, they find themselves better understanding what they think they want, even when that means biting the bullet with regard to certain more stable political ideas and aversions. The rise of traditionalism is an early, prevalent, and important example of this phenomenon. But even liberal media have radicalized into beliefs that have more to do with narrative than objective data. The difference between the two is that one really subverts and shifts the possibilities for reality, while the hegemonic narrative radicalizes against nothing in order to stay libidinally relevant. In the end it subverts itself by falling prey to the hyperstitions of the newly spiritualized.
In these spaces potent ideologies are forming in non-binary political ways. These new political modalities accelerate the contradictions of existing hegemony and are hyperstitionally potent. The spiritual potential of memetic esoteric belief and conspiracy are operationalized widely towards goals across the political spectrum from Qanon to the Steele dossier to Posadism. From the depths of the alienation, I can find friends who believe we are in the same spiritual war. A memetic name for a discord server expands into a set of real principles, beliefs, and political narratives. Those components act in a feedback loop to bring others in and further flesh out the spirit of these spaces. Hyperstition and focused energy become weapons of jihad and the images we make begin to feel like a chorus.
How Do We Know When We Really Transcend
To end a bit critically, I want to talk about whether the rise of these new spiritualisms are actually leading to transcendence. If they are, how can we transcend into a better world than what Catholicism or horoscopes give us?
The answer to whether these new ideologies are actually transcendental comes down to a bizarre maybe semantic or subjective discussion of whether they actually promote a loving political connection with the rest of reality. In the end, this hinges on whether these collective
narratives are liberatory or just explanatory. Both need to be the case for that political connection to be loving. I don’t really think of traditionalism or the revival of old forms of spirit as a viable way of subverting the present.
The success of these communities also depend on whether they are actually effective at shaping reality to coincide with their narrative. None of the current incarnations have broken hegemony effectively without being subsumed. They all just seem to filter back into the same platforms and algorithms that birthed them to begin with. Maybe the half joke of Theil funding is a cue that faith alone isn’t enough to keep these current ideological projects going.
All this said, I’m optimistic that eventually something will break through. Even though many of these new spiritualisms have political upshots I often disagree with or find objectionable, they are forging the noble first steps toward reclaiming our ability to determine our own realities. I am personally drawn to a lot of the esoteric spiritual content I see from GOATed posters like DNR’s own Poorspigga and Vitruvian Grimace. Underneath the word/image combos is often a material resonance which connects my own experience of late capitalism in the internet age with newer or at least less mainstream ideas of spirit. I can’t say that they’re objectively better just because I like them, but at least they’re doing something new. I’d love to be able to say that Gnostic Accelerationism or Leibnizian Calvinism is the ACTUAL spiritual understanding that would lead us towards freedom, but I think the answer to the spiritual problem is probably a materialist solution. It seems inevitable that eventually there will be a narrative of reality that makes sense of the alienation of modern life through analysis of historical/material conditions and understands us all as pieces of God. InshAllah, we all become the cool kids in a heaven on earth.