On the philosophy of political war activism
Estranging yourself from the world to re-encounter it
Philosophy, someone said once (Foucault, maybe? it's annoyingly specific to Google) is estranging yourself from the world and then recording the process of re-encountering it.
An example here could be Hegel's ontology that sets forth basic concepts like existence, nothingness and what it is to be a fact versus an opinion or reading; Hegel starts from a state of assuming as little as possible, and tries to figure out a way of understanding the world from an extremely minimal set of basic building blocks.
On the Asian side of things, the esoteric traditions and somewhat loopy early mythology of the Chan, then Zen Buddhist tradition are, I think, a good fairly example of the self-estrangement/re-encounter idea. So, for hundreds of years of people believed that some guy from India floated across the Yangtze on a reed and brought Buddhism to China, or at least publicly professed that they did; this is the story of the Bodhidharma, or the 'Daruma' in Japanese.
At the same time, the kind of self-abnegating, esoteric traditions of early Buddhism - that whole bit about releasing suffering and desire, for instance - run all the way throughout the entire thing. And you've got to square that with nation-states that ran on state-sponsored Buddhism, like the Indonesian Buddhist state that built the immense volcanic stone temple Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world.
This account of philosophy starts to get into fairly iffy territory when we're talking philosophers, metaphysical thinkers and philologists like the almost impenetrably difficult-to-read Paul de Man, or Judith Butler's work on gender, or even the "philosophy" of the contemptible Jordan Peterson or the fascist Big Al Dugin (I'm just going to call Alexander Dugin that now).
You can no-true-Irishman, as it were, and just say that they're not philosophy, or that there's a different kind of philosophy, and this is fine, and probably sufficient for an obscurantist graduate-school paper or two; but it's much more interesting to cash out this type of thinking into where we are with the naive philosophies of Trumpism and Internet-age reading & discourse. There's a risk you can actually come up with a useful idea, not just an elegant one, engaging with that, especially in the context of an election cycle.
The political strategist Rachel Bitecofer said, on a messaging-strategy Twitter Space that I attended last week, you can't assume that people know everything that we do about all the latest Trumpland scandals and the state of the republic and whatnot (this is not exactly what she said, of course). This is why, as much as I care about the war in Ukraine - there is a lot of tangible residue of this - you're not going to see me use it in political content directed at a domestic audience during an election cycle.
For that matter, despite studying disinformation and reading the odd Russian disinfo guide or NATO strategy work for the past six years while staying fairly active with meme work, I have never produced content specifically about Russian disinformation targeting an election audience, because by itself - just saying, like, “Republicans are colluding with Russia” - is empirically, historically, provably not going to get people to vote.
It's not that I don't think people will care, or aren't patriotic or smart enough to understand the relationship between Russia wanting us to stop helping Ukraine, Russia's interference efforts in 2016 and since, and Russia's historical support for the fringe, junk news and disinformation ecosystem in America. It's that the things that we care about (let's say, trans folks rights, student loan relief, responsible conduct of American foreign policy), and the things that spur us to actions like voting (classically, "the other guys are bad, turn out to vote against them") are not the same things.
It's just like selling an app, I find; you're going to run across a lot of people who say your app is a good idea, and even more who might use it once in a while, but that is a whole different ball game than actually convincing that person to give you money for a thing.
So you go from scratch. You ask users for feedback with open-ended questions, and as few assumptions as possible; you "go through" hypotheses and theories rapidly, discarding the ones that don't work and expanding on the ones that do, continually improving your iterative process as you do so. You can go "lean startup" on the philosophical process, as it were, by re-encountering the political world from someone else's viewpoint, discarding your own assumptions and trying to read the cues they're offering you to see it through their eyes - not just what they say they see, but what they act like they see, what they don't say, the way that they phrase things.
I think that's the way to approach Trumpism as a political problem, right now - as a re-encounter from scratch, without carrying into it any kind of assumptions we might have from the past six years. I called it “agile campaigning” in the context of a Bill Pascrell (!) meme (!!!) advertisement I saw the other day.
This is the residue, I think, of an "agile" campaigning approach.
These are easy memes to make, you can test out multiple strains of messaging and A/B test using different social networks (Facebook vs Twitter have different audiences demographically), and you can rapidly adapt or abandon them. And I think this is smart meme work I'd expect out of a very strategic activist shop, not a campaign.
In terms of visual critique, I see:
sixteen words total in the meme
a very simple stark image in a "flat" graphical style with good "ten foot appeal" on small screens (it looks good from far away)
it's on-message, succinct, and talking about what a Republican-controlled House would do
it's not about Pascrell, he doesn't even appear in it, and it's not about, like, some law he passed or that he's going to pass either; rather, it's about what you are worried about as a voter, which is (to put it somewhat crudely if simply) “a bunch of religious morons want to legislate my bodily autonomy away”.
There's a scrum board, I'd like to think, somewhere in that campaign, and this is a user story that crossed over into the "done, tracking performance" box, alongside another few variations upon the same theme. And watching how each one performs is going to teach that campaign what messaging and what platforms work and don't work.
Like, good job whoever that is, you're killin' it.
Compare this to Ron DeSantis' reportedly $300k "Top Gun" ad in terms of reception and effectiveness.
Given that the Republican machine runs on arbitrary victim-targeting (immigrants, transgender people in the military, Black people, women, transgender people in general, Black women specifically, etc., etc., etc.) and oppositional discourse, it’s somewhat startling to see such a significant spend on such risible content that doesn’t move the needle.
This difference, between the smart, small, fast approach of Pascrell and the big, brassy, stupid, over-committed approach of DeSantis is the kind of practice - “praxis”, if we want to be poncey leftists - that results from a willingness to reconsider and hypothesis-test from a state of philosophical self-estrangement and re-encounter.
It’s like, we can all quote Timothy Snyder to each other or swap our favorite Barack Obama quotes or quibble, again, about the perennial question Are These Trumpers Crazy Or What (YUP) or share our memories of outrages of the '16 to '20 period; but this is a comfort zone, at some level, and I'm generally disinclined to trust comfort zones at times like this. Sure, yeah, I list some of what I consider accomplishments on my LinkedIn - the odd media placement or two, maybe a few hints of the kinds of hyper-partisan "wars" I got into from '16 to '20... but I don't think, like, The Resistance Information Warfare Handbook from '18, or conceptual vocabulary from ‘21, is going to have a lot of useful information right now. I don't think my old concepts from that time period, like ambiguity theory or attacker-agnostic defensive response, necessarily provides the right response for me or anyone right now.
It's not just not inhaling your own hype; it's also that things have changed. Really, the only thing I'm finding particularly evocative and useful out of that theoretical work right now are the identitarian aspects of disinformation that I identified, and maybe my account of disinformation-induced cognitive dissonance as a state of a self-curated digital social self in crisis.
A lot of the world makes different sense when you go back to basics, actually.