Read the best essays before next year

Spend a little time before the end, or the new beginning, reading essays on counterculture, pleasure, beauty, pre-state societies, love, cults, and individualism.

These were 2021’s gift to me, now my gift to you. And a happy new year to you, too.

The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram

by Carolina Busta

With digital platforms transforming legacy countercultural activity into profitable, high-engagement content, being countercultural no longer means being counter-hegemonic. What logic could possibly be upended by punks, goths, gabbers, or neo-pagans when the internet, a massively lucrative space of capitalization, profits off the personal expression and political conflict of its users?

Far from the parades, palaces, and outsize girths of present-day strongmen like Viktor Orbán, Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump, the most iconic tells you’ll find among the big tech set are more likely to be a black turtleneck, a Patagonia fleece, and the absence of carrying bags.

It’s a flex to be visually indistinguishable from the crowd. The power of today is firmly situated in minimalism, restraint, and ease—it’s only power under threat that turns to physical displays of strength.

Actual power is controlling the means by which lesser power can be displayed—i.e., congrats on the 500K likes on your polling numbers, @jack still owns all your tweets. Actual power keeps a low profile; actual power doesn’t need a social media presence, it owns social media.

Counterculture requires a group. Us against the world. And the internet is excellent at bringing groups together around collective dissent. But just like the internet, there is nothing inherently socially progressive about these tools.

Instead of attempting to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools, it’s more something like: Let’s pool crypto to book the master’s Airbnb and use the tools we find there to forge a forest utopia that the master could never survive.

Central to this counter-future crafting is a strong belief in impending ecological collapse, rendering all the existing systems of control obsolete—which is a logical work-around for thinking about dissent in a time when the socially and ecologically corrosive systems are deemed too sprawling to effectively counter or boycott.

Rediscovering desire in a panopticon of virtual pleasures

by Dean Kissick

In the years since these products flooded the market, old pleasures such as sexual connection and social interaction have been replaced by an unceasing Pavlovian flow of pings and notifications that hijack the gratification-seeking part of our brains.

They encourage us to abandon biological pleasures in favor of new, virtual pleasures; to nod gently off into what Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)—the meaningless, nihilistic decadence of the Last Men:
“‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’—so asks the Last Man, and blinks. …
“‘We have discovered happiness’—say the Last Men, and they blink.”
What’s left is the new aesthetic of lifelessness and void, a consumer culture of throwaway experiences that wash right over you like an Ambien.

It’s made to be experienced without friction: seamless post-death entertainment from an empire ruled over by a sleepy, old man.

“Avoiding friction,” the critic Rob Horning has noted, “becomes a kind of content in itself—‘readable books’; ‘listenable music’; ‘vibes’; ‘ambience,’ etc.”

And this is in keeping with a generational preference for light demi-pleasures: bumps not lines; microdosing, not getting high; sugary milks made of oats; podcasts, not conversation; the simulated intimacy of ASMR. Each of life’s pleasures in small amounts.

Orwell’s Roses

Rebecca Solnit on How Nature Sustains Us, Beauty as Fuel for Change, and the Value of the Meaningless Things That Give Our Lives Meaning

by Maria Popova

Solnit — who is as present on frontlines as she is behind bylines — writes:

If roses represent pleasure, leisure, self-determination, interior life, and the unquantifiable, the struggle for them is sometimes not only against owners and bosses seeking to crush their workers but against other factions of the left who disparage the necessity of these things.

The left has never been short on people arguing that it is callous and immoral to enjoy oneself while others suffer, and somewhere others will always be suffering. It’s a puritanical position, implying that what one has to offer them is one’s own austerity or joylessness, rather than some practical contribution toward their liberation.

Underlying all this is a utilitarian ideology in which pleasures and beauties are counterrevolutionary, bourgeois, decadent, indulgent, and the desire for them should be weeded out and scorned.

Would-be revolutionaries often argue that only the quantifiable matters, and that human beings should be rational creatures content with what should matter and fit into how things should be, rather than what does matter and how things are.

The roses in “bread and roses” constituted an argument not only for something more, but for something more nuanced and elusive… It was an argument that what makes our lives worth living is to some degree incalculable and unpredictable, and varies from person to person. In that sense, roses also mean subjectivity, liberty, and self-determination.

In a culture that too often sacrifices the timeless at the anger-stained altar of the urgent, thus shortchanging its own durational resiliency, Solnit’s insistence on the value of beauty — this elemental emissary of the eternal — is a countercultural act of courage and resistance, and a humanistic act of generosity to the future. She writes:

Art that is not about the politics of this very moment may reinforce a sense of self and society, of values and commitments, or even a capacity to pay attention, that equip a person to meet the crises of the day… The least political art may give us something that lets us plunge into politics… Pleasure does not necessarily seduce us from the tasks at hand but can fortify us.

The pleasure that is beauty, the beauty that is meaning, order, calm. Orwell found this refuge in natural and domestic spaces, and he repaired to them often and emerged from them often to go to war on lies, delusions, cruelties, and follies.

In a sentiment of particular relevance to the type of durational sustenance we need for facing the ecological crisis before us, she adds:

A Vermeer painting makes the case for stillness or looking at canals or the color blue or the value of the domestic lives of the Dutch bourgeoisie or just for paying close attention.

Close attention itself can be a kind of sustenance… These artworks and the pleasure that arises from them are like the watershed lands on which nothing commodifiable grows, but from which waters gather to fill the streams and rivers that feed the crops and people, or where wildlife lives that is part of the agrarian system — the insects that pollinate the crops, the coyotes who keep the gophers down.

They are the wildlands of the psyche, the unexploited portion, preserving the diversity, the complexity, the systems of renewal, the larger whole as the worked land does not.

Orwell defended both the literal green spaces of the countryside and the garden in which he spent so much time and the metaphysics of free thought and unpoliced creation.

The Dawn of Everything

On David Graeber and David Wengrow’s New History of Humanity

by Justin E.H. Smith

It may be that more or less all societies that appear to us as “pre-state” would be more accurately described as “post-state” — even if the people who constitute them are not in fact fleeing from the center to the margins of a real tyranny, they are nonetheless living out their statelessness as a conscious implementation of an ideal of the human good.

Even if they have not observed Inca ceremonies through the forest thicket from across a mountain ravine, they already know enough about tyranny simply from the expression of innate personality tendencies of individual members of their group —boastfulness, bullying, pride—, and have developed rational mechanisms to ensure that these traits are countered by ridicule, dismissiveness, and other mechanisms that keep any would-be tyrant in his place.

This is the sense of Pierre Clastres’s “society against the state”: societies that lack state structures are not in the “pre-” stage of anything, but are in fact actively working to keep such structures from rising up and taking permanent hold.

They do this to differing degrees, with many societies around the world exhibiting a sort of seasonal duality in which they are subject to tyranny during the months of the buffalo hunt or the rainy season or the period of potlatch or inter-clan commerce, and then the hierarchy dismantles itself again and they all become as it were “anarchists in the off season”. As Graeber and Wengrow write of the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest:

[I]t was winter —not summer— that was the time when society crystallized into its most hierarchical forms, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastline of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over compatriots classified as commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch.

Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, resorting to smaller clan formations — still ranked, but with entirely different and much less formal structures. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter — literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Belief Over Time

by Ava

I think a lot about the fluctuations of belief—the inevitable up and downs of maintaining engagement with something over long periods of time.

Most people seem to think that love is unchanging versus merely enduring, that if you’re really passionate about something you wake up excited to do it every day. I don’t believe that’s true.

In fact, it sets you up for failure—you start out in a manic rush of excitement, believing that the framework or cause or person you’ve found will be your salvation, and after a while you become disenchanted.

If you think disenchantment is a sign of disaster, you’ll probably abandon what you’re doing. In order to stick with anything for a long period of time, you have to believe that disenchantment is a normal, healthy part of experience. Continuity is only possible if change is factored in.

Cult Country

Is this a new age of cultism—or a new cult panic?

by Jesse Walker

America has always been haunted by cults because America has always been a land of cults. If you wanted to find a home for a new religious movement, this spacious continent was a pretty good place to do it.

Some of the first European colonists to put down roots here were spiritual dissidents looking for a place to build an ideal community, and that process of exit and renewal didn’t stop once the first colonies were settled.

A Pietist village in rural Pennsylvania, a spiritualist enclave in upstate New York, a Mormon territory out west, an Iowa town devoted to transcendental meditation: Lots of flocks have found spots to settle.

If you weren’t a part of the flock, the flock might scare you. The Jacksonian era, a period that stretched from the 1820s to the years before the Civil War, saw both a wave of immigrants from Catholic Ireland and a religious revival at home. The latter was marked by frenzied camp meetings and by a wave of new sects; while nativists were imagining the Irish as puppets manipulated by the Vatican, many Americans adapted those myths to make sense of young faiths and new worship styles.

The Individual as Elusive Quarry in the History of Philosophy | Steve Fuller

A response to Ljiljana Radenović’s “A Post-Enlightnment Ethics of the Desert Fathers.” Covidian Æsthetics. Guest Column #015 (24 July).

by Mónica Belevan

In other words, pessimism is not required in the face of this fundamental ignorance— but courage is.

Indeed, Stoics regard courage as the emotional expression of risk-taking, rendering them ‘rational gamblers’ who encounter whatever good or bad comes their way with an open mind: whatever happens, certain prospects disappear, while others come more sharply into view. (It is no accident the Stoics were pioneers in modal logic.)

This openness to risk distinguished the Stoics most clearly from the Epicureans, their rivals in the metaphysics of chance, who held that ordinary experience already reveals the limits of one’s capacities—and that we only court pain by trying to exceed them.

Thus, the ancient Epicureans did not strive to test themselves before the court of public opinion, as the Stoics did; rather, they favored retreating into what may be reasonably called a ‘self-satisfied’ private life. 

Up to this point, I have explored the two main components of Kant’s post-theological philosophical settlement—Stoicism and Epicureanism—mainly in terms of their contrasting conceptions of the individual.

The Stoic individual is a physically indeterminate being that is compelled to act in order to achieve any, if only temporary, sense of closure. Self-ownership is always a project in the making.

Happiness amounts to proportioning one’s actions and assessing their consequences in a way that retains a sense of composure even though the set-points (or goalposts) are bound to shift.

The Epicurean individual is a physically determinate being whose pleasures and pains are knowable to them. Indeed, the individual should monitor their own hedonic states to achieve happiness, which is the ultimate condition of self-ownership: a ‘satisfying life’.

But the Epicurean understands this achievement against the backdrop of a world outside oneself that cannot be known in a way that permits substantial control.

Kant’s schizoid judgement about the prospects for knowledge of oneself vis-à-vis the world outside oneself speaks to the Epicurean individual, whereas the indefinite moral expansiveness (‘magnanimity’) of Kant’s categorical imperative speaks to the Stoic individual.

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