Collective Mnemotechnics: The Neglected Engine of Digital Tribalism

Kerwin Fjøl
25 min readJun 8, 2022

I. Introduction

Here in America, we live in an age of mass binary partisanship enflamed by a growing constellation of digital tribes. Some are benign: destined to hunker down into an online ghetto and resign themselves to oblivion, sufficiently contented by the bonds of friendship. But many are fueled by the zeal of the true believer, and they will not accept cultural irrelevance. They don’t buy the idea that we have reached the end of history, and they want to influence its development. They are not the hippie-dippy “fellaheen” people that Kerouac wrote about, not at all. These are tribes that demand satisfaction, and they will not coolly recede from civilization back to the Earth’s cosmic beat.

In the 1950s, the media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said that electronic media is placing us in a “global village.” This was a seemingly comforting thought for many, because they didn’t notice that he added rather ominously that it was resonant with “tribal drums,” and later clarified that by “tribal,” he indeed meant the kind of tribe wherein the butchering of rival groups would seem a particularly enjoyable sport. McLuhan, like many popular intellectuals, was misunderstood by most who cited him. People preferred to take an optimistic message from his writings despite clear signs of ambivalence even at the height of his popularity.

But as time continues and the partisanship of the televised and print media increasingly pays homage to the sway of the internet, yesterday’s optimists are becoming less optimistic. The digital revolution promised a brand new kind of engagement with the world, but instead it has given us something uncannily familiar. People are beginning to perceive, however vaguely, a return to the agonism once found in the language and rituals of the pre-literate world — the world of a once-forgotten mode of consciousness. And yet, importantly, the internet’s mode of consciousness has not effaced the metaphysical zeal that first emerged in the literate age of monotheism. At once, we have both the tribal thought processes of “oral” cultures and the ideological intensity of the “literate” ones. So while our digital tribes have assumed identities unique to the medium they inhabit, we nonetheless can find echoes of their situation from long ago. And despite the vast expanse of time that separates our current technological conditions from those of earlier periods, the principles that govern a tribe’s ability to survive, and even thrive, still hold true.

II. Collective Memory without Land: The Ancient Israelites

To show you what I mean, I will be discussing the Book of Deuteronomy, a profoundly important artifact that marks a distinct change in consciousness within the history of religions. Nothing like it had ever come before. The Egyptians, from whom the Israelites recount their escape in Exodus, did not write anything nearly so ambitious, because their self-understanding as a people did not rely so heavily upon the written word. Even in their Late Period, the ancient Egyptians used the architecture of their temples and other sacred buildings to preserve various aspects of their own history and mythology. The buildings themselves were symbols of the past, and the ornaments and decorations upon them recounted myths and other significant stories, similar to the stained glass windows on medieval Christian cathedrals two thousand years later. For most cultures following the invention of agriculture, the land being occupied was an integral part of identity. But since the Israelites, newly consigned to the status of desert wanderers, did not have land or temples any longer, they had to exploit the written word to its fullest potential in order to keep their collective self-consciousness and status as a distinct people intact. For the Israelites, the entire Torah had to serve as their “portable fatherland,” as the poet Heinriche Heine once put it.

The Egyptologist and cultural historian Jan Assmann, in his Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, treats various textual features of Deuteronomy as cultural innovations of what he calls “collective mnemotechnics”: a distinct set of practices through which a people remembers itself and retains an understanding of what it believes. Without some sort of discipline to refine their own historical self-consciousness and sense of group identity (for indeed the two are inextricably linked), the Israelites would have been lost to the competing tribes in the wilderness of Canaan.

But what would this discipline look like? Given that the Israelites were using literacy — the most recent form of information technology — to achieve this lofty goal, one might assume that the medium of writing would prompt them to abandon earlier approaches to social organization, identity formation, and collective memory. But not so. Since fixed land and territory had been so universally essential to collective memory formation in the past, Deuteronomy instead shows literacy augmenting older modes of tribal preservation to compensate for their absence.

All of the passages from Deuteronomy that Assmann analyzes show the importance of remaining both physically engaged with the written word and mindful of one’s concrete environment. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are instructed to take its sacred laws to heart, or in other words to memorize them (6:6; 11:18) and then pass down the commandments from generation to generation (6:7). Memorization and recitation are two disciplines that literacy can easily corrupt (recall Socrates’s story about Theuth from Phaedrus), but here the written word is used to demand emphatically the retention of both. The Israelites are next told to place inscriptions of the laws upon their hands and forehead (6:8; 11:18), to write them on doorposts and gates (6:9; 11:21), and finally to write them again onto whitewashed and plastered stones (27:2–8). Deuteronomy also contains precise instructions for observing seasonal festivals of collective remembrance such as the Mazzot, the Shavuot, and the Sukkot. It includes a song, written in poetic form and thus to be performed and passed down via the oral tradition, which warns the Israelites not to forget God’s laws (31:19–21). And lastly but quite importantly, it canonizes the contents of the entire Torah, completely shutting its laws and stories off from any future emendations (12:32). For all of the lofty mythology one finds in the Torah — a text in which God creates the universe simply by speaking it into being — Deuteronomy shows us that it is no mere collection of abstract words.

III. The Internet and Digital Tribes

Regarding our present age of digital tribes, many misconceptions have emerged regarding what this sort of tribalism will realistically entail and how it will function. The misconceptions vary in form, but generally they stem from the assumption that ideas — whether in the form of religion, ideology, conspiracy theory, or whatever — are sufficient to hold the various tribes together. The focus from lay people and self-appointed experts alike tends to be on the ideology of these tribes rather than the organizational and practical competence of its adherents. This is a confused view, and at odds with our historical examples for how tribes are actually sustained. There are some who claim that dangerous ideas, like conspiracy theories, are “memetic,” meaning that they infect people’s brains like viruses in order to spread themselves around. Others say that the major digital tribes are all driven by “memeplexes,” quasi-living systems of ideas that seek to replicate themselves through their human hosts. But what this conception ignores are the processes by which these ideas and memeplexes are fashioned and assembled. The emphasis on memes and ideology, such as it is, absolves humans of responsibility and mystifies the process through which worldviews and thought processes can become formidable.

As a result of this assumption, the internet is excessively scrutinized as a vehicle for ideology rather than a medium whose power relies upon the carnal world that sustains it. Ideology can be a powerful force, but it is not nearly as powerful tout court as some would have it. Nonetheless, as a result of this excessive emphasis, a picture emerges wherein it seems that the internet users who repeat their tribal dogma the most frantically will prove victorious in the end, simply because their ideology will prove so seductive that people won’t be able to help mouthing it off. I would contend instead that the “digital tribes” who prove successful for the long run will not be possessed or agitated by “memeplexes,” but will instead exercise agency over their foundational ideas, essential mores, and important bits of information, in effect pulling them out of the realm of (digital) abstraction, and like the Israelites, bringing them into the realm of physical things and actions.

IV. The Spatiality of Mnemotechnics

Let’s go back to the ancient world. What Moses understood is that simply believing in Yahweh and encouraging the Israelites to talk about Him all the time would not be enough. They would need to use their available resources as thoughtfully as possible to ensure the survival of their tribe. That could only be done through the refinement of a social technology that not only strengthens but also narrows and focuses the collective memory of its participants while bolstering their understanding of themselves as an evolving social unit — a collective mnemotechnics, in other words. So he instructed them to take advantage of numerous media. Not only would the Israelites use writing, but they would also continue to make use of the oral tradition as a means of supporting the written law. They would not abandon the use of festivals, either, despite them being so important to the same Egyptian culture toward which they felt strong enmity. And when they would use writing, they would put it in specific places (the body, gates/doorways, stones), thus turning each of those physical locations into a different medium. Essentially, the Israelites realized that at some point, a belief in something, no matter how abstractly conceived, will eventually have to find its articulation in the carnal world, and it is through technique and carefully planned repetition that this articulation would prove effective.

Think for just a moment about the significance of putting the written laws in different places. One powerful method of remembering something is by mentally assigning its constituent parts to various areas in a well-known physical location, like a house. In fact, it is the earliest mnemonic device described as such in writing. According to a story from Cicero, the ancient Greek poet Simonides of Ceos was attending a banquet and stepped outside for a moment when the building collapsed, killing the other guests and disfiguring them beyond recognition. Amazingly, he was able to remember all of their names because he was able to visualize where they sat. For Simonides, something about mentally placing each person’s name in a discrete familiar space made remembering the names easier. He recognized the potential latent in this otherwise tragic episode, and thus was born “the method of loci,” a memory technique that proved highly influential during the medieval period and renaissance, and is still used by competitive mnemonists today.

But our memories are associated with the carnal world in an even more general way. One common situation that psychologists have studied thoroughly is when someone is told a shocking piece of news, and then she finds that she can remember her exact location upon hearing it many decades afterward. “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is a common question baby boomers like to ask each other, and virtually all of them have a precise answer — even if it is wrong. This phenomenon is called “flashbulb memory,” and it speaks to the tendency for us to recall what was most immediate to our subjective experiences within the physical space we inhabited at the time. Even if we invent imaginary details later, it is nonetheless striking that our brains do this so confidently. The emotions we continue to feel about the event compel us to flesh out a series of location-oriented details to accompany our memory of hearing about it.

Our memories thus stay with us most vividly when they are tied to the spatial world we inhabit, and so cultural practices that remind its participants of their place in the world will be better for collective memory than those that don’t. This principle is probably why oral (or pre-literate) cultures tend to establish specific landmarks as the center of their world, as the religious historian Mircea Eliade has pointed out, and also why designated holy lands still exist today. If you’re a Muslim, praying five times a day is pretty good. But pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca, and now you are really doing something, because you have placed yourself in relation to a fixed point, like the rotating arm of a scribe compass. Wherever you go, in this sense, you are always moving in relation to something that remains permanent, and this simple relationship gives your actions a qualitative significance that they would otherwise not have. So, without a fixed space in which to live, the Israelites used the instructions in the Bible to create the next best thing to preserve their collective memory and identity: they forged a distinct connection between their laws and the physical world, no matter where they might travel.

V. The Absence of Territory in Digital Tribes

For digital tribes, the lack of common physical space, their “deterritorialization,” is a given, and this absence of space puts every tribe in a comparable situation to that of the wandering Israelites. The digital landscape is an abstract one in which ideas of all forms endlessly present themselves to an individual and then fizzle out as fast as they had arrived — not necessarily because they are no longer available, but rather because the individual has become distracted by something else and has moved on. The internet is loaded with nearly all the information from our known universe, but its widespread availability is not conducive to any kind of collective memory. Memory must be limited by the contours of time and distinct experience, and thus it will always stand opposed to the universalism that the “world wide web” entails. Even digital tribes with universal aims and prescriptions, ones that refuse to recognize themselves as tribes, inevitably run into this problem. Without reference points to shared experiences in the physical world, the digital landscape will never be sufficient for the long-term preservation of any digital tribe.

VI. Shared Worldly Engagement as Collective Mnemotechnics

All of this is to say that the internet is not nearly so straightforward in its relationship to tribalism as many critics assume. It can perhaps convulse people with one or more ideas for a brief time, but it does not alone have the ability to inspire longevity. When we look at the most successful and influential digital tribes, we will find that they often do not have digital origins at all, and when they do, they sustain themselves by compelling their members to engage with the offline world in a variety of ways. Think about, for instance, the so-called dirtbag left, a loose affiliation of people politically aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America and the podcast Chapo Trap House. A common criticism they make of one another during internal disagreements is that the other person has never even organized. Organize what, they rarely say. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But being an “organizer” means a great deal to them, because organizing something — a protest, a union, a black bloc, a vegan potluck, or whatever — creates a worldly experience for the individual, one that takes the principles of leftism and anchors it to a specific space and time. It creates not just individual memories, but also strengthens the shared memory of taking on a leadership role and understanding what it is to wield the power of human capital. Just like writing the sacred laws on a door frame or a stone, it takes certain disembodied principles and grounds them in an external space, hardening the participant’s commitment to what he believes and strengthening his sense of identity. The emphasis on organization is effective not just because organizing can get direct results, but also because it is, at least in some sense, a collective mnemotechnics.

Unfortunately, however, not every digital tribe has the luxury of organizing big events in meat-space. For right-wing groups, the risks far outweigh the benefits. Instead, to generate a similar effect, digital tribes inhibited by these practical constraints will sometimes reorient each individual to his own unique surroundings with an ideological motivation. This occurs in online communities that instruct their members to lift weights, for instance, or modify their diets, or opt for alternative medical care, or abstain from masturbation for very long periods of time, or spend their discretionary income on crypto-currency.

Perhaps the best illustration of this approach, from the right anyhow, is Jordan Peterson, who first became a controversial public figure for his opposition to a Canadian law that would compel the usage of peoples’ preferred gender pronouns. He didn’t really foster an online movement until his maxim “clean your room” became well known. It was a piece of advice that young men had heard about a thousand times before from their moms (with whom many of them were still living), but he gave it a novel philosophical justification, one that was presented as part of a broader thought process that treated classical liberalism and individualism as the culmination of mankind’s political evolution. Whether or not Peterson intended it, the combination of self-help advice and meta-politics was highly useful for the development of an online tribe of young conservative men whose lives had been improved by cleaning their rooms every week. The simple act of doing this basic household chore had been newly charged with a deeper significance, one that tinctured each person’s primary living space with a feeling of indebtedness to a greater thought process. And given that so many of these young men stumbled upon the advice in the same way, the act of cleaning their rooms with a premeditated way of thinking held great potential for a shared memory that could contribute to a robust collective identity.

VII. The Body as a Locus of Memory

One major resource for fostering identity and strengthening collective memory is the human body itself. We can recognize this in commonplace items like the wedding ring, which we still wear as a token of remembrance. And indeed, the ancient Israelites also understood the importance of the body as a locus of memory. As mentioned before, in Deutoronomy the Israelites are instructed to place the laws on their hands and forehead. Someone unfamiliar with Jewish custom might think that the law was instructing them to tattoo themselves, another ancient form of collective mnemotechnics. But this assumption would be wrong: tattooing is banned in Judaism. Instead, Orthodox Jews were to wrap themselves in scrolls with scriptural passages written on them during Morning Prayer. At all other times, the scrolls would be stored in black leather boxes known as phylacteries. With this ritual, the Israelites did not altogether discard the body’s potential in favor of the written word, but rather they formed a blend of old and new techniques. They fused the body with new information technology.

Although the specific use of phylacteries is unique, even today there are modern tribes who will “wear” their beliefs on their bodies in similar fashion. The Oath Keepers, for instance, treat the pocket constitution as a tribal symbol. But beyond the mnemotechnic features of Deuteronomy, there is still an even more powerful law pertaining to the body found as early as Genesis (17:10–14), and it corresponds to tribal practices we see commonly today. It is circumcision, and it features prominently throughout the entire Torah.

The Israelites did not invent ritual circumcision, but it is still a big part of who they are, at least judging from its frequency and importance in scripture. In Mircea Eliade’s seminal work Rites and Symbols of Initiation, he claims that circumcision as an initiatory rite of puberty is “extremely widespread, we might also say universal” before he discusses its use among the aboriginal tribes of Oceania. Leviticus tells us that circumcision is to be performed on the eighth day after the infant male’s birth (12:3), which means it was never a puberty rite for the Israelites. But despite being performed on people who would not be able to remember it years later, its lingering effect on the anatomy still serves a constant reminder of its symbolic meaning, in this case man’s covenant with God. Whether performed at birth or puberty, any permanent alteration of the body can be a powerful reinforcement of collective memory if it is accompanied by an agreed-upon symbolic significance.

For some digital tribes, permanent body modification has become an initiatory rite. Transhumanist ideology and transgender ideology both offer their adherents the ability to commit themselves to their entire manner of thinking by effecting it first upon themselves. The transhumanists can implant the body with computer chips and other digital devices (“biohacking”), and the transgenders can change the body through hormone-altering drugs and surgeries that mutilate the reproductive organs. Because of how both ideologies are structured, there is an implied spectrum of commitment in these body alterations. And once the potential for commitment has been exhausted, these alterations will have forced the initiates to reorient themselves to the world under the influence of their now fully consummated new ideology, which will remain “with” them for the rest of their lives. Though they do not literally place the contents of their ideology upon themselves like Orthodox Jews do with their phylacteries during daily prayer, the bodily changes are sufficient to form a robust symbolic connection between concept and flesh. It is thus no surprise that both digital tribes have inspired such steadfast loyalty among their followers with little defection.

The right wing, too, has its own version of this practice in the form of bodybuilding encouragement. Strength is a persistent adaptation, and muscle takes a good while to atrophy. Yet muscle development is not permanent, apostasy from “the church of iron” is quite common, and thus the practice will have a less potent effect than what we find from the transgender or transhumanist movements. Unless, perhaps, performance enhancing drugs are introduced. The right-wing bodybuilders on anabolic steroids might have greater commitment to their digital tribe than those who have chosen to stay drug-free.

VIII. The Necessity of Limiting Information

There is one final mnemotechnic innovation of the Israelites we ought to address that few digital tribes have managed to successfully exploit. It is the discipline of refining and placing limitations upon key information. All ancient cultures have had to contend with the capriciousness of the human brain by controlling how knowledge is disseminated, impeding its unrestricted flow in order to keep the most essential information at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Westerners often look at oral hunter-gatherer tribes and declare that they are “egalitarian” because their physical resources are more or less evenly distributed among members. But this claim depends upon a limited understanding of what equality means. The truth is that such groups rightly viewed knowledge as power, and knowledge was held only by an elite few, so they were in fact anything but egalitarian. If everyone had access to knowledge equally, the potential for bad information contaminating their received wisdom would grow too dangerous. For any tribe worthy of its name, the most essential information, including not only practical information about flora and fauna but also hero stories, proverbs, cosmogonies, cosmologies, and so on, must be tightly guarded.

It is for this reason that that the Israelites developed the mnemotechnic innovation of canonization. By cutting off the possibilities for new laws and foundational myths, and then later on further refining the limits of their own history by canonizing the greater Tanakh, the Israelites were creating the potential for a culture of exegesis, a scribal culture in which rabbis could debate with one other about how to interpret the letter of the law as well as various aspects of their own history. Other cultures during the same time period also created their own canons independently. In India, the Upanishads formed a canon that inspired the six branches of the Vedanta, while in the Greek world, an Alexandrian canon was eventually assembled from a large collection of disparate classical sources. And the Pali canon of Buddhism, for its part, led to a long tradition of commentaries in China. All of these canonizations involved a class of scholars who occupied an elite position much like tribal elders, and so the same top-down dissemination of key information found in preliterate cultures was maintained mutatis mutandis for literate ones.

As Jan Assmann explains (in his writings not only on collective memory but also on Karl Jaspers and the “axial age”), canonization seals off the past, and in doing so it provides a self-contained conceptual framework from which a culture can operate. For the early stages of literacy, it was a necessary innovation for information refinement. Yet the digital world, which allows everyone to “have a voice” and is thus anti-hierarchical by its very nature, is not inherently kind to either canons or any kind of guarded elite knowledge in general.

If digital tribes are to remain intact, they will have to innovate some sort of social technology to either form a canon of essential information in situations where there are none, or keep theirs from being perverted, which would inevitably lead to tribal dissolution. The aforementioned “dirtbag left” has a distinct advantage, given that its agenda is largely set by the tightly organized Democratic Socialists of America. The transgender community also has an advantage in that it relies largely upon a body of critical theory so verbally convoluted that few can understand what it means, and thus little additions or valid criticisms can be made. But for various fledgling digital tribes with very low levels of elitism like, say, QAnon, which seems to have spread both online and interpersonally through evangelical megachurch congregations, the erection of a multi-tiered hierarchy (beyond just the mysterious “Q” figure) seems to be a particularly necessary task if it wants to go anywhere.

IX. Conclusion

To this day, the ancient Israelites cast a long shadow over any group that has conceived itself in opposition to mainstream society. This is especially true for ethnic resistance movements, who will always have them, whether they want it or not, as their primary archetype. But the point here is not to present the Israelites as the perfect model to emulate, or any particular group for that matter. Changes in technology necessitate changes in thinking, even while some rules and principles remain steadfast, and thus the Israelites should not be copied without making some necessary adjustments. Yet we can take some lessons from their example.

Mnemotechnics is the art of giving weight to an idea. And in our information environment in which all ideas equally can be transmitted at the speed of light, this art is more essential to master than ever before. What the Israelites show us is that new technologies must work with old methods to prove useful, and in an information environment lacking physical space, an idea must interact with the world to remain dense in its adherent’s mind. Collective memory is indispensable for having any kind of meaningful cultural or political influence, and digital technologies alone cannot sustain it. The tribes who want to make a lasting difference must look at the potential within themselves to become innovators of their own intrinsic social technology, one that appreciates the carnal world as the ground that sustains and determines the digital world, not the reverse. They must, in other words, build the machinery that will allow their successors to look backwards and remember themselves as the future compels them onward.

X. Appendix: A Tale of Two E-Tribes

(The reader can ignore this section if he’s not interested in a qualitative discussion on internet-based groups with virtually no contemporary relevance)

In 2015, I was paying attention to the alt-right as it went from being a largely inconsequential, big-tent, non-mainstream right-wing movement into a growing, unorganized, and decentralized white nationalist movement. It exploded in popularity because, unlike its earlier instantiation in 2010, it fostered a sense of community. Much has been said about the alt-right’s heavy engagement with the “meme” culture of 4chan as well as its participatory nature, but a neglected aspect of its activity is in how it engaged its followers’ memories.

The alt-right was most effective in compelling its followers to look backward upon their own lives through the new lens of white nationalism. Its content creators engaged in a tactic that they took to be a form of “culture jamming,” in which they would take a recognizable item from popular culture and repackage it with their new message, which would then cling to it parasitically. The most common form of this was through song parody, and the volume of song parodies that they produced was indeed impressive. Even a mostly apolitical friend of mine told me that he could no longer hear a song by Blink 182, his favorite band from his early teenage years, without immediately thinking of Blink 1488, the alt-right band that exclusively did Blink 182 parodies with white nationalist lyrics. The exploitation of millennial nostalgia was thus an effective way to manipulate individual memories.

In fact, much of the alt-right’s media content was similarly backward looking. They made extensive use of podcasts to coolly discuss the past in long conversations. Many of these podcasts deftly exploited the memories of an earlier time, one in which the general population watched the same television shows repeatedly due to syndicated reruns and listened to the same music on FM radio. They were also fascinated by the question of how people got “red-pilled,” i.e. disenchanted by mainstream consensus and warmer towards white nationalism, and they strongly encouraged followers and podcast guests to share stories of how this happened. This was partly for market research purposes, unquestionably, but it also prompted personal reflection among individual members. And since we often recall how we felt during past events through the lens of our current feelings about them, the practice reinforced the sense that conversion to white nationalism was inevitable.

Although the alt-right still exists and we ultimately cannot know its future, it significantly set itself back as it attempted to create new identity-forming memories and social bonds among its adherents. It did start out successfully, though. One effective way that it accomplished this within the digital medium was by setting up “trolling raids,” in which participants would post subversive comments on a comments section for an irritating news editorial, or some other online forum, in large numbers. But it did not take long before the alt-right wanted to do more than just troll online. One effective practice outside the internet was when members encouraged each other to get the same haircut, an ideologically charged form of body modification. Private, unadvertised group meetings in the real world also worked well, and there were almost certainly dozens or even hundreds that we do not know about. But these forms of bonding ultimately pushed the alt-right, lacking a clear sense of direction, to seek out pageantry and exhibitionism right at the time when it should have retreated inward and sought to cultivate better discipline. Had it appreciated its own tactical inability to successfully engage in overwrought publicity stunts, shunned the media spotlight, and focused on the kinds of mnemotechnics described above — particularly the establishment of a knowledge canon and the refinement of internal hierarchies — it would not have committed so many strategic blunders, the most notorious being the Unite the Right rally in 2017. Moreover, it would not have been so badly crippled by the loss of many promising members, opportunists looking to capitalize on its success, extraordinarily costly lawfare, and intrusion by federal agents.

At roughly the same time the alt-right was gaining popularity, neoreaction, or NRx, was also making a name for itself. NRx began as a collection of interrelated blogs during the twilight of blog culture around 2014, and then eventually it turned into a handful of secret group chats right as some of its most popular bloggers were retiring. During its heyday, it got some media attention but never the popular following the alt-right achieved, though this was by design. In key ways, NRx formed the opposite of the alt-right’s orientation to collective mnemotechnics, since it began with something the alt-right lacked: a canon. This canon comprised the writings of Curtis Yarvin (then “Mencius Moldbug”) from his blog Unqualified Reservations and all of the books that Yarvin recommended on it. These included authors such as James Burnham, James Anthony Froude, Henry Sumner Maine, and especially Thomas Carlyle.

To be involved in NRx, a blogger would show a sufficient degree of commitment to studying these materials, and communities formed when a dedicated readership would begin talking among themselves. There was no barrier to entry, nor was there a formally established requirement for how much you’d have to agree with Yarvin or his favorite books, but the intellectual demand was sufficient to keep NRx from excessive compromise. At least one organization with real-life meetings eventually emerged called Hestia, and it had a regimented leadership with big plans for growth. However, it was formed right as NRx was waning in popularity, and it disbanded soon thereafter. The overall trajectory of NRx meant slow, gradual recruitment of members — too slow, in fact, as the amount of people who considered themselves neoreactionary petered out over time with an insufficient number of people coming to replace them.

One of the major disadvantages to NRx’s approach was that its canon was unofficial, and it comprised writings by someone who was still alive and infrequently doing interviews (Yarvin is now even more active and some former neoreactionaries have disavowed him altogether). When the people in NRx would make what looked like an exegetical breakthrough regarding Yarvin’s ideas, he might emerge a few months later with some public comment that would contradict whatever the neoreactionaries were trying to turn into an established position, like, for instance, the importance of IQ tests. There was simply no way such a loose arrangement of blogs and chats could possibly produce anything of long-lasting significance when its chief inspirational figure was still refining his own message.

Another disadvantage was that the core of what NRx prescribed was itself not radical enough to create a meaningful distinction between itself and mainstream academic political commentary. The reasoning behind its prescriptions was offensive enough to prompt the creation of NRx, but it could always be obscured and even forgotten. Yarvin never needed to place himself in opposition to established institutions. Most of the negative media coverage toward him had been due to his insensitively worded claims regarding race, psychometrics, slavery, and democracy. But all that NRx members would have to do to become tolerated is simply stop talking about those things, and that’s just what many of them did after its decline. Some of late NRx’s most significant traits — like its grand vision of cosmopolitan techno-commercialism, advocacy for a corporatized structure of government, fascination with charter cities, and admiration for the leadership of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew — never seemed particularly out of place from what you’d expect to hear some inoffensive eccentric say at a Ted Talk or even a World Economic Forum summit meeting. And as a matter of fact, the World Economic Forum eventually formed a minor partnership with Palladium Magazine whose staff partly includes former NRx bloggers. Yet although NRx wanted its message to infiltrate the elites, it diluted its original integrity instead. Not to put too fine a point on it, but do not expect the WEF to start promoting Thomas Carlyle’s “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” anytime soon.

If the alt-right’s problem was excessive growth at the expense of commitment to stalwart principles, NRx’s problem was the exact reverse. It needed to find a way to achieve some growth while keeping its adherents committed to a clear set of principles. Only then would it be able to do the kind of scholarship and commentary that might turn its foundational ideas into an institution. Instead, it went straight to building a priestly exegetical class without creating the steadfast commitment among its adherents that could allow for such an achievement. Although NRx as a movement delighted in deterritorialization, decentralization, and the metapolitical possibilities of virtual reality, it nonetheless could have fortified itself by compelling its people to recruit the carnal world as a tool for collective mnemotechnics.

Books and Articles Consulted

Daniel L. Schachter, Searching For Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. BasicBooks, 1996.

George Hawley, Making Sense of the Alt-Right. Columbia UP, 2017.

Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Iming theagination. Cambridge UP, 2011 (first ed. 1992)

Jan Assmann, “Cultural Memory and the Myth of the Axial Age” in The Axial Age and its Consequences eds. Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas. Belknap Press, 2012.

Jan Assmann, “Globalization, Universalism, and the Erosion of Cultural Memory” in Memory in a Global Age: Discourses, Practices and Trajectories eds. Aleida Assmann and Sebastian Conrad. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 (pp. 121–137).

Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (trans. Willard R. Trask). Mariner Books, 1968 (first ed. 1956)

Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation (trans. Willard R. Trask). Spring Publications, 1998 (first ed. 1957)



Kerwin Fjøl

Semiotics, media ecology, intellectual history, art & literature.