Samuel Pepes (An AffectiveEphemera Brand)

A Movable Fast


ISSUE 75 | IMAGINARY FRIENDS | MAY 2017


I’m carrying through the motions necessary to prepare for the day: feeding, dressing, bathing, while intermittently I try and convince someone an ocean away not to throw themselves beneath the wheels of a train. I employ logics and platitudes which I know from experience to be inadequate against the sly susurrations of the appealing void and the pain of the thousand small wounds that join and fester.

This has become so integrally a part of my routine that it doesn’t, in itself, occasion overwhelming distress. Another close friend often declares herself to be already dead, and I am continually trying to coax her out of her grave. At first these various conversations were trying, but as time has gone on I have learned to navigate them without being wounded, have begun to look on them as a way of reaffirming the rhetorical tricks that I have used to convince myself that life is worthwhile.

And yet on this occasion it grows irksome, in part because my friend is rebuffing my attempted consolations fiercely, and in part because I’m late. This ungenerous response causes me shame, and yet I’ve learned from experience that it’s also adaptive. The internet is a bottomless well of suffering that no ordinary person can fathom, and a selective jadedness has to be adopted to survive. I finally hit on a line of argument they seem to somewhat accept, and depart, my mind still seeking a better sentiment to transmit.

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I am adrift in a dissolving world, connected to society by trivialities, wage labor, and interactions with the state. My time in the world of affairs is passed like that of a lizard fleeing a circling raptor, flitting across sun-parched earth from shade to shade. Most days, the solace of solitude and reflection I have come to rely on is interrupted only by the small interactions necessary to get on in society, transactions and the pronouncement of the watchwords which signal that one is whole, hale, and present, a member of society deserving of the full rewards pertaining thereto.

On better days my monologue is pensive, a watercolor painted from high parapets depicting the city beyond. On others, it is the hastily penciled reports of a forward observer or garbled shouts through a radio. Even in moments of distress or danger, my response to the world is dispassionate, as enacted by a distant avatar, hellfire missiles streaking across a grainy screen.

Night is the most peaceful time, and harrowing. The noises fall away, and I can hear birds, glimpse stars behind the dull glow of city lights. I become aware of my lot as an atomic individual, alert to the ticking of my steadily dwindling time alive and paltry achievements, which occasionally opens a gulf to a consuming despair. To sit still is to be overtaken, and I crave distraction. In these moments I seek refuge online. The heuristic is as follows: first to dm groups, then to my timeline, spamming the refresh button in the hope of finding new content to fill the nebulous void.

I share my thoughts and affects on the web, fret on the stage of public posts or in the parlors and confessionals of DMs. There I can combine intimacy with the comfort of remove, a constant chatter that I can join while in repose, away from the eyes of others.

It’s not conversation exactly, but it’s an acceptable ersatz. I become heavily invested in the lives of my internet friends, while all the while remaining aware that they may not exist as such, may be sockpuppets for others, and at the very least are a heavily edited version of the self, one lacking the immanency of face to face contact, the tells and tics that all but the most continent reveal in conversation.

I often become ensnared in this cycle, grinding at it until I find some content adequate to lessen my malaise. On other occasions I stagger around the web despondently, stuck in a state of discontent, and linger past closing on social media, eventually turning to news, image boards, and other boundless foundries of distraction.

This state is something like a lucid dream, less conscious and deliberate than waking life, soft focused and restorative. My subconscious takes over, and I’m struck with schizoid associations, connections forming that evade the rational mind. I can resort to this redoubt in any moment of downtime or distress, pulling distraction and the simulation of companionship over myself like a cloak. At the funeral of a relative who died young I find myself reaching for this balm, and am only stayed by a firm rebuke.

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Social media presences range from Apollonian to Dionysian to chthonic, can be driven by ambition or pique, eros or hanatos. These drives mix and collide on social sedia, each motivation, when revealed, the subject of fun to those purporting themselves to be possessed by one of the others.

I feed my death drive into the internet 140 characters at a time. I’ve found out by breaching experiment that wryly deadpanning one’s urgent desire for the consummation of death reliably elicits nervy laughter. In person I am judicious in employing this power. Online, I give it free rein, as it fits perfectly into the norms of Twitter, where suicidal depression is a popular and beloved meme.

Around this time I am besieged by the proliferating discourse on “gender,” which renews questions of embodiment and presentation that have hung around me for as long as I can remember. I began to run my endocrine system manually for reasons of self-actualization, and find other weary wanderers in the uncanny valley of sex dimorphism.

I begin to gain followers, riffing on the many small absurdities and anguishes that visible variation from both one’s self-conception and from the expectations of others occasions. I start to engage with the emerging dogmas and assertions which were competing to be the canonical narrative around the activity of pharmaceutical gender hacking. I am added to DM groups and privately DMed by people I came to know through this game of quips. We spill out our lives to each other, sometimes revealing personal information, sometimes holding aloof in fear of being doxed. I gradually come to know their lives, and they mine. For a variety of compounding reasons, despair is common in this cohort, and I soon find myself skilled in making an argument to others that I struggle to make to myself: that life, for all its tribulations, miseries, and folly, is ultimately worth living.

Suicidal ideation is a gibbering monkey on your back, demanding your extermination. There’s a quieter affliction, one that stares an unblinking challenge at the universe, “end me or give me something to live for.” Doldrums, in want of a wind. Acedia, listlessness, torpor. This state is naturally suited to life in a mediated digital world, which is designed to minimize the importance of agency, issuing forth an endless stream of information that entices and ensnares. It cocoons the ego, serves up lotuses of hyperpalatable distraction.

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From time to time I am called down into the world by duty or by friends, and readopt the identity I’ve devised for myself: donning those clothes least in disarray, performing careful rituals of self-care, seeking to cloak neglect through zeal.

I struggle to put my countenance and visage into acceptable fashion, long isolation having left lingering impressions. My manner becomes odd and fledgling, proceeding haphazardly and manic, sprinting overburdened, trailing unwary disclosures and hasty generalizations, laughing too loudly or too long. At other moments my manner slinks in quiet trepidation, shrinking and quiet, veiled behind courtesy and flat affect. After a few days back in the world these difficulties vanish, but each time I emerge they manifest in new and surprising fashions.

I sit with my friends in a bedroom, and the subject of the primaries comes up. Their response to Trump’s campaign is one of bemusement. They are unaware, however, of the alt-right. I try and explain, spinning out the storylines that I have recently discovered and internalized:

“Mike Cernovich is like Tucker Max, but he thinks he has politics, and is ‘red-pilled.’ He sells ebooks that are basically The Secret, but with some meninist themes and scientific racism added in for good measure.”

“#FrogTwitter espouses the “blackpill” which is systematized Weltschmertz. Also they lift, read Mishima, and espouse putting the cities to flames.”

Statements like these often inspire clarifying questions, but as time unfolds, these memes jump from niche interest to popular awareness. This has occurred with internet phenomena before, but largely in the form of lifestyle pieces or moral panics about the misadventures of the hacker known as 4chan. In this instance, outsider memes begin to percolate into the mainstream where they are taken up wholesale and granted legitimacy.

The New York Times repeatedly uses the word “cuck” in a metaphorical sense. Republican political hack Rick Wilson is seen on CNN bemoaning the influence of internet supporters of Donald Trump, whom he describes as “childless single men who masturbate to anime.” He awakes the next morning to find himself transformed into a hideous meme, made forever a subject of fun by the hive mind he wantonly poked.

A flourishing school of art depicting the character of “Pepe the Frog” in various circumstances designed to shock mainstream sensibilities and reappropriate him as a symbol of pseudo-ironic reactionary élan emerged, (ostensibly a coordinated effort to reclaim him from “normies,” among whom he was becoming increasingly popular.) Donald Trump Jr. posted an image featuring the Pepe among a pack of Trumpian associates, led by Trump himself and together announced by the short sighted Clinton coinage "The Deplorables." In response the Clinton campaign released an “explainer” in which they claimed that “that cartoon frog is more sinister than you may realize,” “he’s a symbol of white supremacy.” The historical details are nebulous, subsequent articles and explainers notwithstanding. For example, the very idea that this conspiracy existed was itself a perhaps a deliberate troll on a gullible media (though this claim may itself be a troll). However it is undoubtedly the case that this change in the collective consciousness was created by the independent actions of individuals inspired by a wide variety of motivations, foremost among them what was once described as acting “for the Lulz.” This gets at the central activity behind most of these actions, “shitposting.”

Defining “shitposting” is like defining a “game”: any necessary and sufficient delineation must necessarily leave out some example. It’s not a conversation, and neither is it writing. It is simultaneously more and less than both, and altogether something different. The primary purpose of shitposting isn’t to convey information or swap affects, though it can do both. Instead it is an activity complete-in-itself, like any art form. It can take the form of breaching experiments, deliberate provocation, or pensive musing. Perhaps there is a family resemblance between all the forms of shitposting, from propaganda-in-the-ludic-mode to von Munchausian literary exuberance. Shitposting includes biographical stories of everyday social disaster and deftly written satirical screeds about “Khoisan supremacy.” Its manifestations range in quality from literary fiction to barely coherent abuse and invective.

The scale of the phenomenon was underestimated at first, and its nature fundamentally misunderstood. To attempt to delineate the different storylines and lines of influence that composed its rise is a task of scholarship, work for archivists delving into the Library of Congress Twitter archives. This effort also misses the bigger picture.

The campaign to promote gleefully accelerationist anti-authoritarian memetic warfare was an emergent product of participants across the ideological spectrum, often acting from motivations which were at least in part “unserious.” The memes it produced took on a life of their own, as content entered a massively parallel process of selection and promotion, whittling down ideas to a central core. The movement has little in the way of ideological dogma, but is broadly aligned against neoliberal globalism and “virtue signaling” social liberalism, as well as a highly subjective and variable conception of “degenerate” influences. It mixes classical conservativism and recent reactionary politics with an anti-elite and iconoclastic attitude and approach.

The strategy of the 2016 shitposting campaign displayed Clausewitzian genius, even while it was coordinated loosely and largely anonymously. It utilized the growing grimoire of “meme magic” which drew on existing theory in academic magic to craft its technology. “Egregores” were created for people to invest psychic energy into, whether by drawing depictions or by sacrificing “life energy,” to them. These actions were undertaken with an ambiguous blend of seriousness and irony. These synthetic egregores included “Ebola Chan,” a deity intended to promote the spread of Ebola in Africa, and “Winter Chan,” a personification of the brutal northern winters its promoters hoped would drive southern migrants out of Europe.

Memes might be said to have a will of their own, as they elude easy control. Sometimes they take the actions of many to steer, sometimes they yield to a single charismatic individual. At other times they any effort at alteration, unfolding at their own pace and by their own devices. They are shambling “leviathans,” composed of psychic detritus and affects. The follies they build and path of destruction they wreak is far from immaterial, however.

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There’s a crackling energy that precedes chaos. It appears in preview, a shadow flickering behind trees, before it pounces. The line for the first Donald Trump campaign rally in Chicago stretches across the brutalist landscape of the UIC campus. Behind a barricade, protesters gather, gradually coalescing into memetic unity via chants. The crowd in line is apparently suburban and mostly demure, but occasionally emboldened, a tall blond wearing the haircut and made to measure suit of a functionary in a downtown office shouts something about “The Wall” at a man bearing the flag of México. A small man holding an GMAT book falls behind his friends, shouting over the shoulder of a police officer to the crowds of protesters on the other side of the separation zone.

In turn, protesters hurl abuse and agitprop. These interactions increase in frequency and vitriol as we approach the starting time. We’ve reached the doors when men in black wearing plate carriers and radios shut the door, placing large equipment chests to block them shut, lowering the protective shutters over the windows. People began to push and shout, shaking the doors, believing that the venue is at capacity. A few moments later, a rumor ripples through the crowd: the rally has been canceled because of the protests. Spontaneous celebration erupts, along with acrimonious conflicts between supporters and opponents of Trump.

We take the opportunity to enter through the exit doors, fish swimming in the sea pouring out of the venue. Inside, pandemonium prevails, as small skirmishes begin and disolve. People repeatedly mount the podium, while police appeal in vain for everyone to move toward the exits, any sense of decorum or normalcy long since vanished.

Outside, protesters are jubilant, chanting “we stopped Trump,” and singing “We Gon’ Be Alright,” while Trump supporters file away, occasionally stopping to shout defiance.

A boy with an awkward manner unleashes a jeremiad about Tumblr.

“What board are you from?” I ask. A pause.

“This isn’t a website,” he spits, “This isn’t your safe space.” “Are you from /pol/?” I press the question.

He demurs, visibly uncomfortable. “The real life isn’t the internet” he says, turning.

I attempt to press the matter once more, spoiling for a fight.

Adrenalin-mania is cool, unlike the undirected burn of rage. It pushes one to action, any action, demanding novelty, and velocity. As the crowd that has driven here prepares to take to their cars, the protesters surround the garage, breaking through police barricades to block the exits. A few of the commuters shout from above, holding up Trump signs and upending water bottles on the protestors. We slip past the police filtering out protestors at the entrance and climb to the top, looking out at the crowds below as they surround exiting cars, spraying them with mayonnaise and banging on the windows. I am gleeful, lifting myself onto the outside wall. “This feels Weimar.”

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The violence of the present moment is vague and inchoate, intolerability building in a thousand small slights. The world is dominated by the banal, bureaucratized systems by which pleasure and misery are generated and distributed. I am occasionally treated to flashes of threat, blowback from the security I usually enjoy: my vulnerability thrown into chiaroscuro by the suddenly blazing floodlights on a police cruiser, palpable in the cold of a knife held against the sprinting beat of my carotid artery. By and large however, my life proceeds in relative peace. The violence on which my security depends comes to me only secondhand, via footage of buildings in rubble, and countryside rendered barren by seeping poisons.

For the past two years I’ve dreamt of traveling to Rojava to enlist with the foreign fighters in the Kurdish YPG brigades. This replaces an earlier fantasy of joining the US military as a grunt, but seems, on cursory evaluation, less morally fraught. This is in part a self-destructive gesture, suicide with ambiguity, the plausible deniability of Turing’s cyanide apple. But more than that it’s a desperate desire for immediacy and investment. The daily tasks I do are trivial and anonymous. I am tied to my location by a lingering bonds and duties, but little affection or joy. I seek something “real,” aware of the absurdity of this drive even as it underpins my every action and thought.

An inherited romance of war: the foreign brigades in the Spanish Civil War, singing songs of solidarity, a tortilla in a knapsack and a Mauser slung across the back. A barricade is something to stand behind.

A heuristic: Take up a Mosin 91/30, rough wood and steel, turned out by the millions for the defense of Russia. Open the bolt and throw it back, pull a clip from your chest pouch and slide cartridges into the magazine, slam the bolt forward and close it. Shoulder the considerable weight of the weapon, pointing it downrange. Focus on the front sight, aligning it with the rear and covering the target. Exhale. Smooth, even pressure on the trigger.

These fantasies aren’t tinged with notions of valor or heroics; I’m convinced that the business of warfare is a grisly, banal obscenity. They’re not even really focused on excitement; my overall response to adrenalin is a deliberate implacable calm, intense focus, and unquestioning resolve. Instead they are tinged with the same workmanlike focus that overtakes me as I clear a jam from the photocopier. A simple task, well trained, undertaken in sequence. The difference is one of meaning. Everything I undertake at my work enables (in a trivial, replaceable capacity) the continual homogenization and vulgarization of the world. Any service I can render to Rojava, however trivial, serves the cause of self-determination, autonomy, and individual dignity. (Ostensibly.) My body, no longer a prison, but an instrument.

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I arrive at the appointment I was preparing from when I first saw messages of suicidal distress from my friend overseas, and attempt to banter with local friends I haven’t seen in a long time, even as I remain concerned over a person I can neither see nor hear. As the last bit of the tab disintegrates beneath my tongue, the dissonance grows too great, and I relate my situation to my local friends against my better instincts and understanding of courtesy. They seem taken aback, and I am reminded of the peculiarity of my affective neighborhood. Their concern buoys me, and I am better able to convey care over the wire, even as coherence leaves me.

I am poking dissolutely at my phone, spinning the globe in miniature and sweeping through icons, an activity which gradually becomes less semantic and more textural, till the functions I’m preforming become ones of color and light alone. I recline among the roots of an oak and let St. Anthony’s Fire wash over me, burning away the trivialities of language and biography. I shut my eyes, leaving only myself, a flickering flame surrounded by flames representing my friends. My connections to my internet friends, or rather the tulpas I have built up of them in my head, fall away somewhat. The distance electricity once seemed to mediate becomes insurmountable as I lose access to my portal to the internet.

I begin to feel fear and dread for the first time in years. The light is changing and dimming, as the sun begins to near the horizon, but in my fevered dreams this fading demands an existential declaration. I watch the flame I recognize as myself flicker, and in that moment, feel I must decide whether to exist, or not. On this occasion, as on prior ones, I am reminded of unfinished business in the world, and pour my energy into the point of light, returning as I gradually regain the powers of speech and navigate the world as a newborn, relearning who-I-am and what is around me.

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There are seagulls that mistake plastic for food, feasting till their stomachs bulge with inedible detritus they can neither digest nor eliminate, gradually growing heavier till one day they land, and, trammeled by their burden, never rise again.

I take this lo-fi damascene moment as a rubicon, an opportunity to reintegrate into the local world, whose grey hue begins to seem less crushing to me. My internet friendships began to become more like actual friendships than an inadequate and secondary substitute. I continue to attend to these relationship and to the riveting progression of memetic metastasis, but at the same time I reintegrate into the physical world. I visit old friends and meet some of the people with whom I have been corresponding. In summer 2016, I wander through the mist in a strange woods, looking for a friend I’ve only seen in photos, initiating a relationship that endures to this day. This is the first of a number of such first meetings, which already bear the legacy of long acquaintance.

My delivery from the purgatory of immateriality is one of happenstance. I could easily have continued to inhabit the shadow world of conspiracy and acrimony, spleen and mirth indefinitely. Digital atomization is nothing new under the sun, different only in details from the famous apparent alienation of Hopper’s diner patrons in Nighthawks or the anomie of an anonymous Roman plebe toiling on a villa. The Web is different only in that it exists as a total form-of-life, the map that can replace the territory, and after a fashion, an escape that can be inhabited.