The Much Forward-Facing Vibe Shift – a Response
The Distributist is among my favourite content creators of the dissident right, bringing an earnest, mature perspective into a medium that always gravitates towards frivolity and shallowness. Still, despite his overwhelmingly positive influence in our communities, I cannot ignore the problems he fails to diagnose in modernity.
The core of my critique will focus on his thoughts on what right-wing contemporary art could look like, specifically focusing on his latest Substack essay, ‘The (He)art Reset‘.
It is common in our spheres to scoff at ‘cuckservatives’, a term which describes the Boomer generation of fusionist neocons who idolised the policies of Thatcher and Reagan and practically failed to conserve anything of substance. It is also common to scoff at conservatives of every stripe – not for failing to conserve, but for actually managing to conserve things that at their origin were subversive and revolutionary. Dave spares no adjectives when referring to these stuck-up types, who ‘have forgotten nothing and learned nothing from their past failures’, who ‘possess zero ability to appreciate non-representational beauty’. They also ‘bleat tired canards’ like the common sense remark that ‘modern art sucks’. He calls conservatives ‘weak’ and ‘unwilling to grapple with the harsh lessons of modernity’. His name calling culminates with the [sympathetic] declaration that ‘conservatives in temperament will always be backwards’ and that our current age ‘means the death of the Western conservative project.’
After reading the article, one is starting to suspect that this is more than a criticism of neoconservatism; that it is in fact more like a Promethean futuristic dismissal of the past, in the vein of Nietzsche, BAP (whom Dave praises as having good intuitions about the future) or technocratic archaeofuturism.
Prometheans Against Conservatives
If you are not clear about what a ‘futuristic reactionary’ might look like, think about the French Nouvelle Droite. In a scientific paper titled ‘Responses to Modernity: the Political Thought of Five Right-Wing European Thinkers in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries’, Matt Gibson, an academic from the University of Kent, claims that what is commonly understood as ‘right wing’, is in fact a conglomerate of 3 irreconcilable ideologies: Conservatism, Orthodoxy (or Traditionalism) and Prometheanism. Whenever you see twitter bodybuilding reactionaries mocking conservatives, you are witnessing Prometheans attacking Burkean Conservatives. Prometheanism is defined in the above paper as ‘a future-oriented orientation that values creation for its own sake, the as-yet-uncreated precisely because it has never yet existed, and denigrates the past precisely because it has already been’. Burkean conservatives, on the other hand, are defined as ‘a past-oriented orientation that values what is precisely because it is and has been’. Orthodoxy is defined as ‘the ability to connect subjects to a metaphysical realm so as to negate the perishability inherent in the sublunary human condition’, but we will focus on it later.
The core of Dave’s latest criticism against conservatives is an attack on this ‘past-oriented orientation’ lying at the core of their hierarchy of values. His entire critique is encapsulated in the following paragraph:
‘Most conservatives don’t even seem like people who properly understand the old world as it existed with all of its violence, complexity and weird non-representational art forms. I can’t help but feel sympathy, but conservatives in temperament will always be backwards.’
Conservatives are therefore accused of misplaced nostalgia (‘sentimentalism’) and the unjustified sacralisation of a past that was in fact violent and complex.
In the following lines I will offer an answer to his criticism, hopefully showing why focusing on the past is vital to any artistic movement, especially on the right.
Creating New Art Forms
Some years ago, as an architecture student, I was asked to create designs of buildings that could fit in existing urban contexts. I am well aware of the thrill that comes with sitting in front of a blank canvas, with contemplating the birth of your finest creation to this date. The euphoria and daring attitude which makes so many young artists prone to revolutionary progressive ideas. At first I regarded my architectural designs in the way a modern sculptor or a car designer regards his artworks; as voluptuous, shiny volumes, almost like jewels on a pedestal. I turned them on all sides, looked at them from every direction. When I had to create 3d renders showing the buildings in their urban context, I hated any part of the existing that obstructed the view of my magnificent creation: parked cars, lamp posts, people passing by, even trees and hedges. I regarded my art as a pure Euclidean shape that should in no way be defiled by the existing filth.
Needless to say, this autistic attitude is what makes contemporary architects detested by the people who are forced to witness and live with their designs. No one likes modern or postmodern architecture. Here there is no left-right divide; the soyboy, the wine aunt, the screeching red haired activist – they detest modern architecture. They are not vocal about it, but neither are they appreciators, enjoyers or fans. Looking at the Sydney Opera House won’t get them crying like in front of the Star Wars trailer.
While still a student I eventually found a cure for this designer narcissism. Learning about heritage, architecture history, visiting cathedrals, historical towns and villages was like rehab for my design dopamine addiction. I learned about the importance of capturing ‘the spirit of the place’ or genius loci; of studying the slow development of a certain urban tissue, of understanding how Florence and Venice emerged looking like they do. The process is always organic and incremental; small selective filters that preserve a certain building height, a certain building type; making sure the church steeple is not obstructed, that certain iconic street views are maintained or even enhanced. There was a lot of trial and error, with many buildings failing to stand the test of time, or on the contrary – remaining in place with new layers of beautification added by each new generation.
It eventually dawned on me that the work of art is the city itself; that my task as an architect is to engage with this spirit, become one with the land (a stroller or flaneur), understand its aims in a 2nd person approach, and then come up with an offering – my own new design – which modestly and reverently conforms, celebrates and (if possible) enriches the spirit of the place. I would not hesitate to call this attitude sacramental; it always involved the twin sacraments of contemplating the existing and creating something that conforms to it.
If so many are unfamiliar with this attitude, it is because modernity shuns it in all its forms. Those living in modern environments like America or the former Soviet Union are having real trouble even conceptualising it in a world where ‘beauty’ is understood as ‘pleasure’ and equated with dopamine-inducing competitive games. Still, the diligent observer will be able to find relics of past beauty that, if paid attention to, can awaken in him the fascination for the actual. This can be easier done in natural environments. The sublime character of mountains, valleys, fields and forests is easily assimilated by almost everyone; and the secret ingredient behind natural beauty is the same incremental, organic transformation brought about by tectonic plates, volcanoes, rain, erosion. Once you start to notice this, it will be easier to apply it to man-made contexts and will start appreciating the contribution of the elements in ennobling historical buildings and showing their true age. No one likes building materials that refuse to age or do it badly (concrete, curtain walls, stained steel), yet we all love historical buildings of brick and limestone.
Creating new designs in architecture or any other art field – from music to beaux arts – is not antithetical to honouring the past. In fact every artist knows that a detailed brief full of existing constraints in fact enhances one’s imagination and creativity rather than hindering it. Creating something completely new and in the middle of nowhere – say, a city like Brasilia or Milton Keynes – on the other hand turns out to lead to uninspiring or even catastrophic consequences. The following paragraph from T S Eliot shouldn’t surprise anyone who is serious about creating art in any medium:
‘Our tendency is to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. If we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. […] Tradition […] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer up to the present has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order’ (T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood).
Nostalgia – Not a Dirty Word
Every experience of beauty contains a layer of sadness. Have you noticed that? Just as you are standing on the mountain top, contemplating the sea of fog, you realise the transience of your sublime experience. That which you enjoyed is already in the past. Nostalgia and melancholic bliss, a sense of calmness and a sense of rest – these are all markers of beauty. When that which you behold GRIPS you and takes you out of your dopamine-filled appetitive pursuits, you are content to be in the moment, witnessing the smile of your new born child, the glimmer of sunset, the poems of Tom Bombadil for his beloved River-daughter.
I will say it boldly – I’m fucking stuck in the past and will not apologise for it. Every single thing that is good, true and beautiful is part of a concrete, existing reality. Our ancestors are part of it and our artistic endeavour will inevitably be linked to a sense of sadness and gratitude. Thymos and Pistos are not corruptions of truth, like beep-boop Moldbug once claimed. When properly exerted, they form the higher gift of our nature.
The Western Canon
The Promethean attitude is, thus, the Luciferian lie at the foundation of any utopian, left wing or futuristic movement. No one should ‘value creation for its own sake, the as-yet-uncreated precisely because it has never yet existed’ and no one should ‘denigrate the past precisely because it has already been’.
I know that lefties and normies detest history and see no value in conserving heritage. Christians or traditionalists, however, should grasp the value in what I am describing. Hell, even the democratic French Revolution sympathisers Chesterbelloc understood it.
The greatest bulk of your Christian hope lies in the past, in the events of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. If you’re a pagan, you are constantly honouring your ancestors and making them proud. Orthodox-minded people should understand why remembering the past is important. The liturgical calendar with all its cyclical commemorations, the Rosary, the various prayers and chaplets – all these are cycles rooting one in a Past that matters. It matters to such a degree, that both present and future are meaningless without it.
What about the Western Canon, then? The huge corpus of culture, high and low, forming what we are as European peoples? Some Orthodox people will argue that these are dead customs, dead forms which can be dispensed with if we make sure to preserve the kernel of truth, if we make sure to extract ideas that have ‘utility for the right-wing’ or the essentials of a simple life.
To this I would point to the work of sir Roger Scruton. Orthodox-minded traditionalists have a sweet spot for Neoplatonism, for discarding the concrete and tangible, in favour of the pure essentials of ‘mere Christianity’. The Protestant Reformation attempted to strip religion of its embodied rituals, pilgrimages, icons and processions, and the results are abstractions devoid of any strength or creative ferment.
The essence of Orthodoxy is undoubtedly true; we do need to ‘connect to a metaphysical realm so as to negate the perishability inherent in the sublunary human condition’. In order to do this, we need Scruton’s love of the actual; every form of spiritual ascension starts with a concrete ritual; every Eucharist starts with real bread and wine; every idea of a tree starts with noticing the real tree in front of you. And that tree is history. In his book, ‘Culture Counts’, Scruton argues The Western canon was shaped by finely tuned selective filters such as perceptual congruity, elevation and truthfulness, and is therefore a sacrament. The keys to the Kingdom of God are hidden in its songs, stories, towns and natural landscapes. It is literally an icon.
Why are Conservatives failing, then?
Being backwards is not the issue. Every successful cultural movement, every pinacle of civilisation was nostalgic and ‘backwards’ – Rome was being built while looking at the glory of Greece in the rear view mirror; Constantinople was being built while looking at the glory of Rome and Troy. Every solar king was busy achieving great deeds while larping as his archetypal predecessors – Achilles, Macedon, Caesar, Christ, Prester John, King Arthur. Scholars in the Middle Ages were memorising Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Boethius. The Renaissance wuz Greco-Roman n shiet. The British Colonial empire at its peak was itself an unending homage to the Christianised Roman Empire.
What is the issue of cuckservatives, then? Going back to Dave’s quote, one can find the answer:
“Most conservatives don’t even seem like people who properly understand the old world as it existed with all of its violence, complexity and weird non-representational art forms. I can’t help but feel sympathy, but conservatives in temperament will always be backwards”.
Ignoring the East Coast knee-jerk condescension, most conservatives don’t know anything about the old world. The standard neocon outlets are so busy grifting and complaining about the poz, or exalting the revisionist libertarian view of history, that they are completely ignorant of the past. Those who decry abstract art have zero interest in classical painting. Those who decry mainstream pop culture have zero interest in any form of culture, other than podcasts, memes and messaging tools. If instead of generating ephemeral anti-woke content, one were to read something as commonplace as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or the Grail Cycle, they would be nourished by history; they would enter in communion with the higher gifts given to us, and would find consolation for the state of contemporary affairs.
What about the Future? Only the Strong Survive!
One might finally argue that turning to the past is not enough to ensure a right-wing revival, of filling in the cultural vacuum left by the dying modern utopias. That in order to achieve prominence, the right must be Promethean for Machiavellian ends; that we absolutely MUST create some new Warhammer or Cyberpunk universe or some new musical genre, rather than returning to roots and encountering the classics.
That might be the case; we might in fact be dinosaurs in a changing world of mass surveillance and AI. I still prefer to be backwards-facing and immerse myself in the classical canon (which requires a lot of effort to master, considering our educational systems fail to teach it) rather than coming up with experimental avant-garde internet content. Prometheanism always ends in leftism. If you read any Frankfurt school thinker, they were deeply interested in matters of cultural production, belonging, collective identity, nostalgia and the sense of loss caused by the Industrial Revolution. They tried to study these notions creatively and with an open mind; what they ended up doing was to subvert these notions, trying to invent new institutions to replace historical ones; a surrogate for ethnic group; a surrogate for religion; a surrogate for patriotism; a surrogate for family and kinship group. This is where the BAPs, Andrew Tates and Uber-chads are headed. In a couple of years their mockery of ‘backwards-facing cuckservatives’ will have shown their true colours, as enemies and denigrators of the past, ‘precisely because it has been’.