Swords Against Nerdery: A Khaldunian Theory of the Sword and Sorcery Genre

swords against wizardry

I’ve been a stalwart fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre and its iterations for a very long time. It is second only to horror and weird fiction for my fictional genre enjoyment. I have also been just as much a foe and hater of high fantasy for an even longer period of time. I never really gave much thought as to why this is until recently, assuming that the rank corniness and ethical Manicheism of high fantasy as compared to the more ambiguous and earthy nature of sword and sorcery were alone enough to clinch the deal for me. But my recent discovery that cultural commentary need not all be a horror show of religious fanatics, entertainment industry neoliberals, and blue-haired-septum pierced woke scolds jarred some thoughts about this topic. Indeed, the people mentioned in the sentence above-the ruiners of cultural critique-are a big part of the difference between traditional fantasy and sword sorcery, and more importantly, the kinds of people each appeals to. Plus, if your rivals are going to use such language in the real world, ridiculous as it is, you might as well be able to meet them on a level they can understand. Much like a sophisticated vocabulary is not a good idea when speaking to children.

What makes S&S what it is are protagonists with base motivations, magic being rare and mind-bending if not outright a cosmic horror, glories being relegated to a mythical past if even mentioned, and above all the love of a good tale about powerful outsiders, usually barbarians or criminals, and the decadent magical and political forces they often find themselves at crossed swords with. There are no grand battles of good vs evil or light vs darkness here. Large conflicts tend to be one local petty kingdom vs another with the protagonist happening to find themselves on one side or the other through chance, personal vendetta, or mercenary motives. This is the stuff of Robert E Howard, usually considered the inventor of the genre (as well as the maker of its two greatest incarnations, Kull and Conan), not of Tolkien or his many many increasingly terrible imitators. This is the less famous and far more interesting world(s) of Imaro, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Kane, Jirel of Joiry, and Nifft the Lean.

What I like most about the genre aside from its general fun, of course, is its Ibn Khaldun-derived general view of human nature and of societal processes. Unlike the dominant ideologies of our time (which are reflected in our dominant fantasies apparently), history isn’t a teleology. It isn’t going along some pre-determined path. It is rather a series of competitive crisis managements that fail or succeed to different levels amongst a series of cultures and societies that were born into some form of success or stability and have been declining towards their fall and replacement ever since. Then the cycle begins anew. This is neither the reactionary thought of a Burke, the Catholic Church, or of modern-day patrician centrism, where a magical tower is continually built towards the heavens, nor is it the edginess of the pure radical, who revels in the demolishment of all for a wholly new leap in the dark, but rather sociology as a natural process. In fact, both of these extremes are often the antagonists of S&S stories. The first as the cloistered evil wizard or decadent king in their ivory or onyx tower, the second as a re-awakened cosmic horror or the monsters that dwell out in the wilds. Often, one is summoned by the other.

The protagonists of this genre tend to share things in common too. An outsider status, tight but rare friendships in an untrustworthy world, and a disdain for declared authority. Most importantly, many of these characters follow the Khaldunian path of barbarian nomads by eventually leveraging their advantages into kingship, toppling the old order but replacing it with a new and more vigorous one. Conan, the most famous hero of the genre, becomes king of Aquilonia. Kull was king of Valusia aeons before him, both were barbarians who started out fighting those very kingdoms. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser eventually end up as the local bigwigs on a subarctic settlement, Imaro as a legend across the lands with a mixed reputation. All come across dark entrenched forces that more live by inertia in entropy than by dynamic action. Most importantly, the various wizards, sorcerers, and the like are usually not world-threatening menaces but rather merely another cog in some kingdoms political machine, or a criminal guild’s most prized member, or the secret forces behind events within kingdoms. The decadent throne of Valusia was only given vigor by Kull, and first he had to survive assassination attempts by literal lizard people who had secretly controlled the kingdom and held it in bondage to old ways by puppeting previous kings. If that is not a conspiracy theorists fever dream come to life, I don’t know what its. But symbolically it resonates much as Pizzagate is obviously an (ironically hilarious) farce that no one should actually believe, but it speaks volumes about how many view our present ruling classes. It was after all only after the various housecleanings of Conan that Aquilonia entered its golden age, even if this, like all times before, could not last.

kull

S&S is, in effect, the Virgin vs Chad meme of fantasy genres. Cold steel always outperforms the elaborate machinations of a bunch of tower-dwelling neckbeards, court eunuchs, and inbred aristocrats. In a temporary, ever-fluctuating world, only the right use of force and alliances can see you through. This is not a glorification of violence and always taking the offense either. The vast majority of S&S heroes, when not being thieves, are usually wronged before they act. They do not seek fights, but rather respond decisively when such battles are forced upon them. The kingships of Kull and Conan are remarkable for how much less warlike they often are compared to their neighbors, with the real battles being keeping the decadent dying courts of rivals at bay.  Meanwhile, all of these outsider protagonists tend to be extremely well traveled, multiple language speaking, highly analytical thinkers. The Nerd-Wizards, on the other hand, so haughty and proud in their rote-learned intelligence, are almost helpless without prestige, ceremony, and dependency on established power networks. Their lack of contact with the brute reality of the world is their undoing.

It all reminds me of recent commentary I read somewhere (source presently slips my mind) about the superiority of speculative realist philosophies against correlationist ones, with the hobbies of the thinkers compared with their thought. It basically broke down that the realists tended to like hiking, travel, adventure, while the correlationists and idealists were often desk bound thinkers. This was shown by the nature analogies used by each, with correlationists tending strongly towards inanimate solitary objects like furniture and the realists using animals, plants, ecosystems, and weather.

And look, there I managed to tie this post into my fascination with Speculative Realism too. Anyway, back to the point.

It is these decadent courts whose thumb we presently dwell, tolerant as they are of neckbearded nerd-wizards in their towers and court lanyards that are the most aggressive threats to the world arise. Lacking true fortitude and strength as intrinsic character traits, they must rather pretend they have it through fraud and posturing- a far more dangerous proposition. Fantasy Bill Kristol types in effect. And if some group or leader came about who actually was interested in changing these entrenched interests they would face plots and palace coups aplenty from the dark forces that fester in the shadows of the kingdom. But that’s no reason not to try anyway. Even if you fail it will make for a good tale around a few pints, anyway. And someone needs to Hold the Sword against this high fantasy loving nerd tyranny we live in, where neoliberal nerds who identify their politics with the entertainment they consume are the predominant cultural force of strange cosmic horror summoning sorcerer class. If we must live in a nerd-dominated culture, then we can at least speak the language of the Chadliest of nerds…and that is of Sword and Sorcery. It is not like high fantasy represents anything but the pathologies of both liberals and reactionaries alike and their presently collapsing world views.

Anyway, here is a picture I did for a Mandy style movie poster (Mandy may take place in the 1980s but it is very much a S&S genre film-trust me) of Tulsi Gabbard clearing out the wretched dungeon of the Democratic establishment (special guest MBS, with Hillary, Booker, Harris, Podesta, Biden, and Power all thrown).

Tulsi Mandy Style Dungeon

But seriously, read nonfiction first for real commentary, people. Actual history and philosophy will always rule at the end of the day. But maybe…maybe sword and sorcery can help on the propaganda front anyway. It certainly can break up the high virgin fantasy monotony.

 

 

Black Mahakala: Macro-History as Annihilationism

mahakala

I just finished reading Speculative Annihilationism by Matt Rosen, the newest entry of note in the growing canon of speculative realist philosophy. I have posted on this subject before, in particular about my working side quest of integrating Object-Oriented Ontology and adjacent thought into geopolitics. But Speculative Annihilationism (let’s use SA from here on out) is something that works with macro-level history in general at least as well.

A short summary of Rosen’s argument is that materialist archeology shows the way to handle the snuffing of anthropocentrism in philosophy across the board. So much of what we study at the archeological level is already extinct. Australopithecus, the dinosaurs, civilizations whose genetic descendants may still live but whose cultures, languages, and cities do not. The extinct lack the ability to engage with correlationism and phenomenology, yet their existence is undeniable if there is enough evidence for the archeology of their past to even happen. Therefore, we are forced to reckon with extinction, no matter our feelings about it. To quote the author:

‘SA’s dark perversion is this: deterritorialization always has the upper hand over reterritorialization. At the core of every assemblage-materiality is an unavoidable fragility, a tendency towards discontinuity, disparity, and extinction, a becoming-nothing at the core of every becoming-something-this is what it means for a species to be a species-towards-extinction. Cataclysm, annihilation, and extinction are the rules; assemblage, coming-together, and being-something are the strange, uncanny, and interruptive exceptions.’

Rosen’s argument has many facets and subtleties that someone like me who views metaphysics are largely back burner stuff to policy and scientific questions is inadequate to fully explain. Suffice to say that it is worth reading in its entirety and also a powerful case that extinction, entropy, and the like is the ultimate reality. If one takes casual time as a measuring stick we are all already dead in a sense, since death is the inevitable end process of life. So too is it for species and the self, all of which are in fact reducible to breaking down physical processes whose intangibles we construct outside of science as the humanities. Whereas much of currently existing speculative realism is constructive, hearkening to process theory and seeing a culmination of material events, SA brings us back to decay as the norm and construction as the outlier. Extinction, in the end, for everything. In truly and unambiguously material terms.

I believe this is incredibly useful as a philosophical and linguistic tool for deep history, particularly for the materialist. If we view all states, nations, cultures, cities, religions, and artforms as dead on arrival-or more practically always living on borrowed time-with extinction the only given, we are liberated from the curse of teleology and trying to make sense of every societies place in history and better able to appreciate it on its own terms. Terms that do not need to be those of the purely subjective and idealistic such as found in postmodern schools of thought. It also levels the playing field between long-dead states and currently living ones for the purposes of study. They are subject to the same overall experience of unexpected rise (most attempted state formations fail after all) and predictable decline and fall so it is just as enlightening to study civilizations across the world that lie in different ecologies and time periods no matter where they are. A wide knowledge base across the board gives you a vaster repertoire of case studies and minutia even if you know how it all turns out.

It is also worth noting that SA, much as it does on the individual level, provides a great counter-example to the hubris of presentism. Something all too common in current dominant cultures, as well, no doubt, as future ones. I often speak of my favorite historiographer, Ibn Khaldun. One thing about his evolution of thought that is often overlooked is that he grew up in North Africa in the late Middle Ages. North Africa’s heydey of global relevance had already come and gone. The Sahara was already growing and the crop yields shrinking, even then. In such a setting there were as many ruins as there were currently occupied cities and buildings. The leftovers of numerous cultures dotted the countryside and signs of a glorious past leered mockingly through the dust of time at the less prosperous present. It is easy to see how Khaldun was molded by this experience to help him come up with a cyclic theory of state formation and state death. One I think is still among the most accurate macro-historical thesis of all time. In his works is implicitly a shared assumption with SA-that construction is more the outlier, and degeneration the more common norm. Entropy is ever present and can only accelerate due to time unless a very unlikely event interrupts it. State formation is so fascinating and impressive precisely because it is so rare compared to state degeneration, be it dramatic degeneration or slow motion.

Unlike many other speculative realist philosophers, who betray their continental roots by more often being Eurocentric to the extreme, Rosen draws some direct comparisons to Hindu thought in his conclusion. This is long something I have advocated. Though I am neither Hindu nor Buddhist, certain branches of these religions philosophies overlap with many trends in speculative realism. Over the past few years-my most intense time brushing up on that philosophy-I have also been re-engaging with reading about these religions as well.

The figure that best shows the overlap of Speculative Annihilationism in particular with these thoughts is Mahakala. In Hinduism, Mahakala is Shiva’s most wrathful form, the ultimate destroyer, and consort of Kali. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is the ultimate meditative figure for contemplating the void and the eminent entropy of all through time. Whether taken as a literal god or a symbolic figure of a process, Mahakalan History (I’m now coining this term) is applying the concepts of SA to macro-history. Especially, in my case anyway, to the macro history of states and civilizations. The end point is taken as an unavoidable extinction, but the process of getting there, of engaging, in Rosen’s terms, with ‘the putrifying other’ is always enlightening. Beneath the facade is the degenerating process, past, present, future, other and self. We are, after all, along for the same ride they once were.

Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography-a Review

Bust_of_Ibn_Khaldun_(Casbah_of_Bejaia,_Algeria)

I mention Khaldun enough so it is about time I review a book about him.

I have to admit, Robert Irwin’s ‘Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography’ did not immediately meet with my approval. One of his earliest statements is that the great historian’s views of the cycles of nomadic Bedouins coming and going in power in North Africa is not applicable to many other places on Earth. I disagree entirely-with the added proviso that as long as one is aware of the local histories in detail-and I myself came to Ibn Khaldun through matching his thinking up with my first historic love: the Turko-Mongolian world. Though the author later quantifies that to some degree. But I would add also that Khaldun’s thought does in fact become more universally applicable to the cycles of history if one looks for the equivalent of nomads in these settings-potentially powerful outsider groups with strong in-group cohesion. A society with no nomads still has the underclass, highly traveled professional workers, diplomats and mercenary generals for hire as was common in Enlightenment Europe, privateers and upstart naval powers, and the like. One could, and in fact I feel like perhaps later I should, write the history of naval power from a Khaldunian perspective. All show the upstart but well organized outsider taking over the decadent wealth which often was not made by its present adherents but rather inherited by them, setting up their new, more youthful, and vibrant regime in its place or at its expense, and then succumbing, with the passing of generations, to the same maladies of their former foes and who are in turn replaced by new upstarts on their own periphery. So did it go with Venice, Spain and Portugal to the Dutch and then the British and then the Americans. So will it be again.

But this criticism aside, the overview Irwin gives us of both Khaldun’s career and the life his works have taken on since his death are both critical and laudatory, and put the man in context. As a thinker who is often projected by moderns to be one of them, it is important to see his historic context and actual views (including now laughable ones about sorcery and supernaturalism) restored to discussion of his record. Additionally, Irwin retains enough detachment to be able to postulate about the normal human foibles that Ibn Khaldun suffers from. He also retains a very even overview of later thinkers, both modern and not, who interpreted the thinker for their own ends. Most interestingly was his apparent growing popularity in the Ottoman governing and thinking classes that showed they were far more aware of the potential of their decline than most empires at their height are. I am very tempted to think that the nomadic Turkic background of the state contributed to this self-awareness and critical openness. It was also interesting having his time in the Mamluk Sultanate covered, as it was both a government that reflected some knowledge of the need to keep the ruling class recharged with fresh blood (Mamluks were imported Turko/Circassian/Balkan slaves who had been raised as nomadic cavalry who were then drawn into the military of Egypt under Sultans also descended from such stock) but also one which by Khaldun’s time was starting to degenerate even despite this caution.

Still, all things political being either in a state of rising and falling-with falling more commonplace-one can say that the Mamluks were in fact enormously successful compared to most of their contemporaries as well as a rare medieval state that could long term sustain being both an art patron and a vigorous military power. And its fall had more to do with the technological changes elsewhere invalidating the nomadic cavalry focused military than internal factors when the chips were down. Firearms matter and it was the Ottomans who jumped on that wagon first as a way to organize the core of their armies.

The best part of Irwin’s work, however, is in recognizing the pessimism of Ibn Khaldun. Here was a man born and raised in 14th Century North Africa who all around him saw signs of ruins of richer and more powerful civilizations long dead in the past. If Carthage and the Almohads could fall, why not the Hasfids who he worked for? Why not everyone else until the end of time? Though nomadic regime change could bring in fresh blood for a time, it would only be for a limited amount of it. Meanwhile, the Sahara grew and prestige of the region shrunk. This was the core of Ibn Khaldun’s work…work that would go on to influence such fiction greats as Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune. And in a remarkable in-person meeting years after most of his writings, Ibn Khaldun would meet Emir Timur outside of Damascus during the very siege that the Turkic conqueror was conducting, and in so doing get to see the only example of rising in his lifetime and discuss theories of history with him-an academic case study made real in the flesh.

Would all us scholars be so lucky.

Ibn Khaldun vs Washington DC

 

ibn khaldun

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a historian and social science theorist from Tunis most famous for writing the Muqaddimah, a work of historical theory which sought to explain the cyclic nature of politics, its benefits and drawbacks, and how best to ride these changes for certain fields like medicine and scientific exploration to keep growing even while the regimes they required to support themselves kept inevitably declining and/or collapsing. He traveled widely, found employment in many places, and even directly discussed Emir Timur’s role in history with Timur himself during the siege of Damascus. There are few examples of primary source research so direct and enviable as that.

He was a bit of Gray and a bit of Marx and a bit of Smith and a bit of Diamond and even a bit of the contemporary IR theories of both neoclassical realism and world systems theory long before any of those things existed. He pioneered materialism in historical research and advocated political policies ahead of their time for his context. His work is widely available and translated in many languages so I need not go over it in detail. It merely needs to be stated that he is probably the single most important social theorist in my life. No one individual has ever, to me, made more sense of history and politics on the macro scale. I read and cited him extensively while I was working on my doctoral thesis.

For the sake of this post we need now only deal with one of his thesis, perhaps his most famous. That all regimes and governments become corrupted with incompetence, nepotism, and laziness with time. The longer they are around, the worse it becomes. They lose all their ‘asibyyah’ (group-feeling) while forces opposed to them will unite and therefore gain asibiyyah. In Khaldun’s world these were nomadic and tribal people, be it Bedouin, Turks, or Mongols. They had the practical skills and solidarity enough to eventually capitalize on the rotten empires, come in, and take over. For a few generations the new ruling class would re-invigorate society combining the best of the outsider’s abilities with the resources and learning of the establishment. Then, they too would begin to be subsumed into the conventions, rote thinking, and petty factionalism of the society to which they had integrated into to rule. Then the cycle would begin again.

Demographic changes over centuries ending in the industrial revolution abolished the power of nomadic societies but kept the privateering naval oriented ones going strong in this way, though states that survived industrialization became too strong to fall to outsiders so easily unless said outsiders were more powerful established states themselves or were internal mass revolutions. This in no way invalidates Khaldun’s thesis to be a relic of the medieval past, however. I would argue it merely shifted who the outsiders were. One could bring in Marx here and say it was the working classes who could play this role now. Mao would say it was the rural peasants. Marxism, however, at its core remains an often Hegelian and almost always eurocentric philosophy (particularly when discussing history-just look at the farce of Hobsbawm being taken as a great insightful thinker for a more modern example) in both theory and historical assumption. Perhaps Marx’s theories would have been better off at the bat had he been able to  engage with figures like Khaldun. As it is, the promise in Marxist theory has yet to be fully realized and work there still has to be done by those so inclined. Still, the fact remains that the ‘lower orders’ of society might very well be the invigorating invaders we need to topple the status quo.

Or just as easily, perhaps not. Perhaps the people who have the luxury to not have direct regional attachments will be such a force, or perhaps disaffected and disillusioned former establishment operators will be it. Or an alliance of some or all of the above. Perhaps an anti-populist reaction against purist movements will one day grow and demand to seize the power from the complacent classes which in America have certainly built around them webs of true believers and ideologues capable of nothing but posturing their supposed purity in front on each other like Calvinists and Wahhabis at a theological convention.

Edward Gibbon once theorized that Christianity itself was the root cause of the decline of Rome (at least in the west). While I am far too much a materialist to agree entirely, I would say a values system that prioritizes feelings over action and moral posturing over civic duty is surely no positive introduction to society. We have seen waves of this moral absolutism and internal purge-culture throughout societies since that time, and now in the form of faith based economic models and appeals to identity politics of all stripes it still rides a high horse through the land, motivating politicians obsessed with election cycles to harness this ignorant mass in order to ensure little gets done while their positions (and book deals) are secure. It is a government by the elect, for the true believers. Thus, it is really no government at all.

One of the many disturbing things I have learned since I moved to DC is that the more insider to DC culture one is and the more educated they are, the more likely they are to adopt rote thinking on major issues since they have lost the ability to see any issue as anything but a well-oiled cog in the machine which is exposed to a very small array of mandatory socially acceptable opinions. Most of these people are liberals and centrists and feel that merely by being more intelligent or well read than a Trump supporter or a Tea Party fanatic means they are in fact extremely enlightened and virtuous guardians of rationality. It would be much the same as an uncoordinatated dweebus such as myself who has no aptitude for sports claiming to be a better basketball player than Stephen Hawking. I mean, yes, it is technically true, but it effectively says nothing of substance or offers an interesting comparison.
 
It must be apparent to an outsider that this limited multiple choice test of right-on opinions as the baseline of public discussion is increasingly the problem rather than the solution, the defensive entrenched class circles the wagons even further. They admonish us to be ‘centrist’, ‘sensible’ and ‘not to rock the boat.’ Of course, they never say that to the far right, useful idiots and all, but now they have let the asp into the bed and cannot control it. But we should still trust them to be ‘sensible’ anyway.
 
Leaving aside for now the quite obvious counter-point of pointing out what a thin substance-free gruel ‘centrism’ and ‘sensibility’really is by merely asking them questions like ‘what is a sensible centrist in Saudi Arabia?’ ‘What is a sensible centrist in Iran?’ ‘What is a sensible centrist in North Korea?’ And ‘What was a sensible centrist in the Axis Powers of World War II or during the times of the Inquisition?’ ‘What was a sensible centrist in the vote to invade Iraq?’ We should move on to another point-why are you all so short cited? The obvious answer is addiction to fashion and the need to posture rather than to act. Needless to say, these are all symptoms of a regime in decline which-technology adjusted-Ibn Khaldun would have recognized in a heartbeat.

It is the shame of the legislative branch of the United States that so many people can be part of such a powerful institution with access to so many resources-including intellectual ones, I became an official card carrying ‘Reader’ at the Library of Congress just last week-is so short term and factionally driven. Much like the nonprofit sector which grows around the establishment and feeds off of its divisions, petty media-driven battles are considered good politics in America rather than the act of actual governing or planning beyond an electoral cycle. Otherwise thoughtful people tow the line on ideological package deals when cherry picking would be more admirable and honest of a course to take.

Just take one sad, sorry, drawn out example is that of the US response to the Syrian Civil War, to look at how much nonsense such a dysfunctional regime can produce. In a zealous quest to overthrow a government of the country where Khaldun once met Timur the establishment found itself arming effectively Al Qaeda affiliated rebel groups and even ‘moderate’ rebels who have no room for sectarian and ethnic minorities in their new order. This toxic combination helped lead to the rise of Daesh, which now is every (sane) person’s enemy. And yet, an accommodation with the (relatively secular and multicultural) regime is still avoided because the Washington Consensus from congress to its mindless town criers and prophets by the names of Dowd, Friedman, Kristol, and Will somehow believes the fundamental values of not rocking the boat of the establishment is worth upholding. Indeed, even extolling in moral terms.

To say that the building forces of accumulated history which may as well be the ghost of Ibn Khladun himself will one day lay down the vengeance on this order is to be as polite as humanely possible. And not just the United States. I feel like we are living in a collection of powerful societies unwittingly and even proudly reenacting the death throws of Late Imperial Russia.

But even within this sad state of affairs, one heroic figure has emerged from the most unlikely place-inside of congress. Outside of shunted aside realist academic thinkers and a kooky quixotic Rand Paul presidential campaign, no one has come from the inside to really challenge the ossified orthodoxy on foreign policy-until Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard that is.

From challenging the internal incompetence of the Democratic Party (currently seeming to be throwing away all its collective advantages and surrendering all power locally simply to hold on to the presidency-a bad long term strategy if ever there was one) to the inability of people to state that radical Islam itself is a problem, to the neocon establishment that lurks in both parties, she takes them all on. Here is someone who made it to the inside but retained the more sober and less fashion-prone perspective of the outsider. If Americans do not make a concerted effort to support people like her in government they may as well give up on retaining opinions or participation with the government as it is in any shape or form. People like her are our last best hope in the system as it presently is.

The question is, where do we find our own new outsider-based regime? This is ‘The outsiders guide to geopolitics’ as a blog after all, but I am still trying to figure this out. We need more tricksters. We need an Age of Tricksters. And not just hovering outside poking fun-though that is always necessary-but inside. We have to figure out how to remake governments with those immune to its faddish complacent tendencies directly in power. Inevitably, over time, they will integrate and the process will has to be repeated of course, just as Khaldun said. But only fools think history progresses along a linear path to a predetermined end point after all.
That is the challenge to ponder for the future.