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On Angelicism

12 min

"Strange what a man may do, and a woman yet think him an angel." —Thackeray

A knight plays chess with death in Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal

Angelicism01 is a fascinating newsletter that's enjoyed some well-deserved buzz over the past year. Calling itself “theoretical gossip of the 2020s,” it seems to be attempting a kind of schizoid auto-detonation of academic Theory.

Someone recently asked me what I thought about Angelicism, and then the author replied to my comments, so I’d like to reply to the reply—as an opportunity to reflect on the larger questions involved.

This is about the tradeoff between Apollo and Dionysus, the politics of legibility, and two very different escape routes out of academia.

I recently wrote in the Other Life group on Urbit:

I know the person very distantly from before when they started Angelicism... I have read some of the newsletters and I definitely appreciate it, it's very interesting and cool…
However I must say I am somewhat unimpressed by—and tired of—the fashionable negligence of grammar and spelling. Angelicism and Bronze Age Pervert and many others have this in common... An ironic persona that’s too cool for good English grammar is a little too easy, it can be funny and liberating—it lowers the cost of production and enables fun and loquacious output—but ultimately it's a chilidish cope and a kind of hiding that, ultimately, does significantly lower the respect I have for a person's body of work.
If they go truly wild for a long enough time period, the schizz value can outweigh the demerits, but that only works if the person is willing to run their entire adult life into the ground on the altar of the schizz. If one is not prepared to go all the way, then Apollo beats Dionysus when it comes to theory writing, other things equal. Schizz is fun but if you go too far (without going all the way), it just becames immature brain rot and apophania. Basically the effect curve is a U-shape, where a very small dose can add some vitality and a very large dose can be epic, but medium-heavy doses are short-lived enthusiams that end with brain rot. Perhaps Angelicism is going for the epic dose, and if so I wish them nothing but success, they seem talented and maybe it's possible. But until then, I don't pay too much attention to bad grammar in the short- to medium-term.

Replying, Angelicism writes:

this text i am writing at this very moment is being written at speed and, like much of the angelicism output, will be published immediately without corrections…
the spirit of such a writing is no doubt extinction-primed. all errors our own. if you really believe the time the world is at (radical finitude), why write as if you have unlimited horizons of reading time ahead?
~hatryx-lastud is no less ‘retarded’ than other twentieth century cultural unreading hangers-on who see the job of writing in terms of a battle between apollo and dionysius, as if in 2022 one of these forces can be imagined to ‘win’ and literary immortality still be available…
if writing inside the black box of urbit is, in terms of the grammatical and ontological thought-structures it composes, no different to what is outside, why would anyone be there?
angelicism is written under the psychedelic sun of artificial omnilapse. it writes outdoors, under the sun, under the moon, under conditions of elemental and permanent confusion. angelicism is nothing at all....
it will have been the future perfect extinct. in perfecting all this, it also promotes and manipulates the late pathologies of language, including the mistaken cognition that extinction qua extinction will have been the only post-artistic artefact now worth living for.

These are some interesting ideas that deserve to be reckoned with.

But to fully reckon with the Angelicism project, one has to understand some of the unspoken theoretical and libidinal foundations of the project.

It is in these unspoken conditions that we find what's really at stake.

How Angelicism Functions

Angelicism’s cultivated illegibilities trigger a sense of intrigue, no doubt.

It’s thrilling in a way, and that’s much more than one can say about most contemporary theory writing.

But why, exactly, does Angelicism register as intriguing and thrilling rather than nonsensical and meaningless? Even if certain sentences are, pretty strictly, nonsensical and meaningless?

Angelicism is affecting rather than confusing because the signifiers that Angelicism scrambles—namely, the signifiers of academic literary theory—impress.

One appreciates this writing not because it improves one's command of reality, or because it advances a living research agenda, but because a competently trained practitioner of academic Theory is saying: It's OK to let go.

Improper lowercase letters trigger a sense of interesting relaxation but only because mentions of Paul de Man create an educated tension.

If these proper names don't resonate with you, then you will not read Angelicism for more than a few minutes, before checking out in confusion and boredom.

Now, if a highly educated and accomplished venture capitalist tells a bunch of academic types that it's OK to let go, they'd say no—never.

No matter how smart the venture capitalist might be, no venture capitalist has the bona fides to change the minds or behaviors of those who have delegated their base-layer social valuation processes to Paper Belt power centers.

When a competent practitioner of academic theory says that letting go is a viable strategy within the canons of academic theory, and they do so while flexing the canons of academic theory, it just hits different.

It's music to the ears of academic types who dream of academic theory becoming cool again via the internet.

This is why Angelicism is buzziest among a certain subsection of the post-academic, para-academic, and aspirationally academic scene, disproportionately clustered around Paper Belt centers like NYC. Not necessarily academics, just the types who want to believe that the institutionalized cultural capital they accumulated reading Judith Butler as an NYU undergrad might still possibly retain some cash value in the new internet economy.

Paradoxically, then, Angelicism’s valiant attempt to deterritorialize institutional academic language primarily excites those who remain territorialized—if only vaguely, unconsciously, or sociologically—on a certain fantasy about institutional academic legitimacy still existing.

Angelicism attempts to be a disillusioned herald of absolute extinction, while subliminally reassuring readers that academic literary theory lives on.

Yet academic theory does not live on. It really is extinct. All of the power that once circulated around these names has been evacuated. It doesn’t matter how many years you might have given to reading Derrida—and trust me, I gave all of my twenties to reading all of that stuff (the only reason I can write this is because the whole Angelicism pantheon is so familiar to me)—this cultural capital is no longer convertible. Which means it can't and won't reproduce itself.

Academic culture markets are like accounting systems, and they're more brutal than blockchains because everything is hidden under several layers of ideology: French and German philosophical signifiers in Anglo universities since the 1970s only ever functioned as currency—a linguistic proof of work separating high-value biogenetic material (those who can read multiple languages and charismatically use ridiculous words with confidence and grace) from low-value biogenetic material (the working class blokes who find this kind of thing extremely difficult to fake).

We believed that it mattered because we knew people who got paid to know that stuff. But all of those people got their first job decades ago. Now it’s over, and nobody, except those with the deepest sunk costs, even pretends otherwise.  And this is coming from someone who left a "successful" career as a professor.

That’s not to say that the hard work of cultivation in the humanities is all for naught. But that which depends on familiarity with an arbitrarily rarified set of names teaching an arbitrarily rarified set of literary concepts, which only ever had value as a way to get teaching jobs—yes, that hard work was for naught.

One can still extract insights and ideas and creative possibilities from these bodies of work, but to do so successfully today requires fundamentally novel and creative efforts to communicate real truths to real people through the internet, with at least some reproducible and practical implications. Hence my preference for Apollo over Dionysus at the present margin.

The terrifying disillusionment is that the present generation of thinkers and writers must find comprehensible languages to think and write with, lacking any established or inherited institutional support whatsoever. There are no banisters anymore, there are no longer any daddies we can cite to make our work legitimate in the eyes of a pre-defined group.

Our burden is to protect and transmit everything of value in the academic humanities, without the benefit of its linguistic political economy, simply because that political economy is dead.

If you respect the vita contemplativa and transcending petty market logics—all of the real ideals on which humanities academia is based—I don't think you can peddle a resexualization of literary signifiers that are conditional on dead institutions.

The Political Economy of Depression

Angelicism seems to suggest that the present cultural crisis is a crisis of legibility. That we are overly inclined to be clear, to make sense, to prey on each other with the Queen’s English—all the better to pretend and to surveil and control each other. There is some truth to this, but it’s more symptom than cause. It’s not the most terrifying and profound layer of the problem, so neither is it the most promising place to look. It’s not the supreme danger, so neither will it be the saving power.

The underlying crisis for arts and letters is not that there’s too much legibility, it’s that there’s too much reality. It was once the case that a professional intellectual class was a necessary condition for the construction and enforcement of social reality, but now reality has increasingly effective autonomous enforcement agents. That’s what blockchains are. Autonomous self-enforcing reality systems.

The new “global capitalism” was the boogey man of postwar Western arts and letters, because it was rightly sensed by intellectuals that the increasing efficiency and integration of markets was like a slowly tightening noose around the neck of materially unproductive intellectual life.

The solution, for a while, was to diagnose this trend, as a way of surfing it. All the academic orbiters would buy a book about how exactly the noose was tightening, the idea being (I guess?) that perhaps the most competent readers would crack the code and escape the gallows.

These people would not buy books about how the world is good akshually, or books about how to succeed in any way; all such books had explicitly negative valence for anyone orbiting the academic humanities for several decades. This attitude occasionally persists to this day; I even found it in another comment Angelicism once made about my work, where they find my practical suggestions laden with positivity bias. Any practical suggestion for how to not get rekt is a big no-no for a certain camp of academic theorists. Nick Land called it transcendental miserabilism.

So for a while, you had this increasingly capitalistic competition among theorists and academics, where the biggest winners were those who most impressively showed you how everything good would be totally hopelessly destroyed by markets—unless, of course, a socialist state gives more money to non-market institutions (like academia). Even my old friend Mark Fisher... Looking back, it's clear that his ideas resonated so strongly in part thanks to this dubious political economy of competitive depression.

Mark's idea of Capitalist Realism was that capitalism projects itself as the ultimate horizon of reality, suffocating any number of superior possible futures. The book sold well not primarily because it shook people out of their depressive slumbers, shattering their Capitalist-Realist lenses, but in part because it theoretically vindicated and flattered their depression, saying: It makes sense why you are depressed, it's because of macro forces outside of your control.

Mark critiqued Capitalist Realism, but in a weird way, he also backstopped Capitalist Realism. I liked Mark a lot, he was brilliant and a real revolutionary of the pre-Woke variety, but back then the political economy of Theory prohibited positive and practical implications.

Say what you want about someone like Jordan Peterson, but the contrast is instructive. Peterson also struggled with depression throughout his life, he was also an academic; but, not playing in the political economy of academic Theory and coming into popularity through Youtube, he's had a profoundly practical and positive effect on thousands of people.

Anyway, the depression racket in academic Theory worked, for a while. It was a kind of obfuscated market panic that internalized and dissembled itself, where institutional intellectuals realized their days were numbered by accelerating market efficiencies, and a small number of winners made their names and incomes off of terrifying and depressing maybe a sum total of 10,000 readers, most of whom really just wanted to score a job in academia or some other non-profit.

But that jig is up because reality itself has become too powerful. Fanged noumena are biting back with a vengeance everywhere you look.

The stakes for Theory have never been higher. Theory will either aid survival and flourishing, or it will exit the meme pool. Aiding survival and flourishing does not necessarily mean that theory must be marketable as a commodity; purely detached and aristocratic styles will find financial support in their own way, because true flourishing depends on them.

Legible but Imperceptible Parrhesia

The situation is dire for writers who depend on the old world for their status and income, but it's never been better for genuine radicals. I would bet money that Angelicism has more subscribers than the median Verso book has buyers. But Verso won't tell you this, so people continue to over-estimate the power of declining institutions and under-estimate the power of the insurgency.

We're living through a revenge of the real, which is interesting and exciting and important, and yet Angelicism has this strange indirect effect of making Verso feel cool again and the Substack phenomenon seem marginal. I want an Angelicism that better appreciates its historical potential, which could put nails in a few coffins rather than play life support for the already dead.

If the cultural capital reserves of academia are depleting, what is going to enforce canons of right and wrong, cool artists and uncool artists? This is the intolerably terrifying question for people who grew up believing that academic institutions would backstop their own personal cultural capital.

More generally, the implication is that the True and the Good will perhaps never again be amenable to planned human organization. There will always be social and political organizations, but they will either do well in attuning themselves to the True and the Good (and they will prosper immeasurably), or they will do poorly in this challenge (and know nothing but pain and suffering).

There is the city of man and the city of God. Technological acceleration is the increasingly efficient sifting between the two. We have no need to disrupt language, we need only to read Augustine literally and as a theory of technology.

The Long Run is Getting Shorter
On technological acceleration and St. Augustine’s City of God
Related reading

And yet who among the educated today has the gall to read Augustine literally? It would almost be the opposite of Angelicism, painfully, unfashionably, hopelessly clear, direct, and sensible to all people (and therefore unreadable for the opposite reason, a veritable horseshoe theory of unreadability).

Angelicism's language game is interesting and in many ways compelling, but it's strictly conditional on certain finite reserves of cultural capital accumulated within marginal Continental philosophy departments in Anglophone universities. These reserves are large enough that it will take a long time for them to fully dissipate—they were accumulated over decades, under monopoly conditions, with massive government subsidies (cheap student credit). But they’re done, a fait accompli.

The solution is not to deterritorialize academic signifiers, which produces a kind of alien language from the inside, as it were. The solution is to submit to objective reality—the outside—but tell anyone who will listen as directly as possible and try to arrive before the scoffers and mockers. This produces an alien language from the outside for a self-selected set on the inside. It’s what Diogenes did, it’s what Jesus did, Rousseau and Nietzsche too.

I want to think clearly and openly, excessively so; I want to be legible to anyone, but I want to be so far down an independent path that the only people who take me seriously are by definition the people I want to be on the ark with. And not because I'm special; on the contrary, I think all worthy writers today are converging on the realization of this mechanic. Angelicism as well. All writers produce their own people, as it were, and then some of these people intermingle and some readers will become writers, and so on.

That’s the difference between the Deleuzian imperceptible and the Angelicist illegible.

In a word, parrhesia—that’s the Other Life path.

The truth tellers win and the liars get rekt. It’s really that simple. This has always been destined, but crypto compresses the eschatological timeline. It’s truly miraculous, for those with eyes to see.

I applaud Angelicism nonetheless, and I must thank Angelicism for inspiring me to write this fast, with minimal edits. That's one powerful and positive effect of reading Angelicism. And it's true: In the digital context, one ought to just think, write, and publish.


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