Anti-cringe, by Udith Dematagoda
Negation, Technological Pessimism and the Aesthetics of Obscurity
The Japanese novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows, published in 1933, was critical of the shortcomings of technological modernity, yet was nonetheless expressive of a certain late modernist impulse and deeply enmeshed within its (still) unresolved conflicts. This short and innocuous work was considered a convivial if somewhat chauvinistic rumination on Japanese aesthetics; beloved by western orientalists of the past, today it is mostly favored by interior designers arguing for the benefits of indirect lighting. The work contrasts the supposedly occidental emphases on order, light and solidity, against the ostensibly Japanese aesthetics of shadow, shade, transience, impermanence and imperfection. We need not concern ourselves with Tanizaki’s immediate and paltry motivations to realize that beyond the banal nationalistic, anti-western and supposedly anti-modern sentiments expressed in his work – something thoroughly modernist and universal attaches to it nonetheless. Indeed, Tanzaki’s work is, in my opinion, merely a reconfiguration of one of the most important concepts of Buddhist metaphysics, namely, that of meaning achieved through absolute negation. Zen Buddhism, although a syncretic religion heavily influenced by the indigenous Japanese religion of Shinto, nonetheless took from China (aside from the more well-known influence of Taoism), via the San-lun Tsung school, the principle of negation – traces of which can readily be discerned in Japanese aesthetic concepts such as wabi sabi and mono no aware. It is interesting to note in passing, as Slavoj Zizek has done, that western Buddhisms invariably tend to obfuscate the central importance of negation in favor of the bogus promises of actualization, individuation and personal enlightenment that allows their subjects to function under capitalism.
Tanizaki’s essay was a modernist work of anti-modernity, or more accurately, anti- technology. It embodies the modernist impulse but rejects as false what are its most obvious and misleading physical manifestations. In my view, the most brilliant European modernist poetics and visual aesthetics of the 19th and 20th centuries were similarly attempting to parse the concept of absolute negation. Although thoroughly “modern,” it was not a novel concept. Its origins perhaps lie in the Buddhist thinkers of the Śūnyavāda school, foremost among whom was the 1st century Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna. The Śūnyavāda was known by other names; the ‘emptiness school’ and ‘the doctrine of the void.’ In common with the most novel and historically unsettling strains of philosophical discourse, it was inherently anti-foundationalist – as Nāgārjuna’s treatise attests:
The true nature of the event is marked by
No origin, nor extinction;
No permanence, nor impermanence;
No identity, nor difference;
No arrival, nor departure
This form of negation somehow goes beyond a purely metaphysical utility and functions instead as a means of freeing consciousness as a desideratum for creation; summoning the void so that something make take hold. Many European modernists intuitively attempted to acknowledge this vital debt in their work, but since then, as scholarship has become more atomized, interest in these interconnections has waned. They have, moreover, been distorted by more recent discussions of “culture appropriation” and “decolonization” which sometimes seem gleefully ignorant of the irrefutable fact that all culture is, in essence, appropriation. We need only note, in passing, that Nāgārjuna may have been influenced by texts which came to India from the Greek skeptic school of Pyrronism – which was in turn was influenced by the Indian Gymnosophists, under whom Pyrrho studied when he came to India as part of Alexander the Great’s invading armies.
A rich strand of negation exists too within Christian theology, and its traces are most apparent in the Quietist faiths. These were dedicated to contemplation, inner serenity and abandonment of the will. They were invariably deemed heretical and suppressed because they were of little use to the functioning of state power. Within the secular philosophical tradition Louis Althusser is, to my mind, the most prescient European philosopher of the void. (It can be argued, however, that since Althusser came to Communism directly from Catholicism, this only technically made him an atheist – and in practice he simply exchanged one form of faith for another. Indeed, one of Althusser’s closest friends was a catholic priest and philosopher, Father Stanislaus Breton, and it was reported that he often secretly visited a cloister of nuns close to the Rue d’Ulm throughout his life). Althusser’s late essay The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter, published posthumously, is considered by some to be the ravings of a madman, or more charitably, as a repudiation after the fact of everything which his philosophical system had heretofore attempted to explicate. It is now acknowledged as the one essay that ties all of his previous work together. His concept of aleatory materialism – a materialism born from the void and one opposed to dialectical materialism – may yet prove the most significant philosophical concept of our contemporary moment. Written after he was released from psychiatric prison for the accidental murder of his wife whilst in a medicated fugue state – the work is brief, ambiguous and fragmentary. This was its purpose. In this work, Althusser posits a hidden, repressed and unacknowledged current throughout the history of (European) philosophy, glimpses of which appear in the work of Epicurus, Spinoza, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Heidegger.
Althusser’s aim is a curious one, but entirely apposite to the febrile and speculative nature of this work. Having spent his entire life dedicated to the epistemological break within Marxist thought – he finally sought to express what he felt Marx had tried, but ultimately failed, to say. For Althusser, aleatory materialism is the only real form of materialism since it is one based upon contingency and chance, and the premise that existence has no origin, contrary to all existing materialisms in the rationalist tradition, which, because of their inescapably teleological function, were merely disguised forms of idealism. Aleatory materialism is the negation of all other materialisms. There is nothing anterior to the void and chance – there is no progression, no synthesis, no march of progress, no late capitalism, no eventual utopia, no happy ending. Indeed there is no end at all, because there is no beginning. Either something takes hold within the void of history or nothing does. If something doesn’t happen, then nothing will.
There is, I feel, an important aesthetic lesson for our contemporary predicament to be derived from the doctrine of the void in its many, often hidden, global repetitions and manifestations. In Praise of Shadows posits that ‘beauty’ obtains from obscurity, from the indistinct glance, from the furtive gaze and peripheral vision. The aesthetic considered in this way is an aleatory category, a chance encounter within the void. In the present terminally online atmosphere, such encounters are effectively becoming more or less impossible. Indeed, Tanizaki was also attempting through his critique of garish western technologies – and along with them the brash and self-conscious western influences that were creeping into Japanese culture – to speak about something which was only in its infancy then, but is now ubiquitous within contemporary techno-capitalism: Cringe.
What is Cringe? “You’ll know it when you see it,” is the best and only answer to this question. It is an objective fact dismissed as subjective opinion. Cringe is the dominant aesthetic mode of the world created for us by the tech nerd plutocracy. In many ways, this is unsurprising: the touchstones of that particular type of culture were always cringe, and it only follows that a society built around its image will be so too. By this point, we have surely come to the realization that the ‘innovations’ of Silicon Valley are merely novel and amusing ways of disguising rapacious asset stripping of the most egregious kind. Yet some of those nerds actually believe in their missions, as we can gather from a cursory glance at Cringe’s modern day High-Church, the TED talk, and the pronouncements of one of its High Priests: Elon Musk. Behind the laughably naïve desires of the libidinal engineers of Tech Capital to make things more “open,” “welcoming,” “seamless” (and not “evil”) is the persistent anxiety of the outcast who desperately wants to be included but would rather the whole world changes to accommodate them. The text message was invented by maladroit Scandinavian engineers who sought ways to ask women out on dates without speaking to them in person. This entirely surmountable insufficiency has now been transposed onto all of us, creating a false universalism which cynically pretends to liberation. But the value of the outcast never derived from their eventually coming into the fold, but through the sublimation of their experience and ultimately through its transcendence. Instead, we have all been transformed into outcasts – and as result none of us are. The latest frenzy for NFTs and the art produced and traded through them is just the latest manifestation of the all-encompassing Cringe inculcated by the tech world. But beyond the artistic deficiency of such works – which are mirrored by that other legitimized money laundering operation known as the Art World™ – is an incontestable lesson about the internet and social media, and its recuperation of every form of expression, which in the end, it inevitably returns to the realm of Cringe.
Cringe is all around us – it is seemingly unavoidable. My contention is that it is related to what I have described as the Ideological Aesthetic - where ideology, the political as an epiphenomenal inevitability, is indistinguishable from its aesthetic effects. Both aesthetics and ideology have become equivalent to each other. To some extent this is a recrudescence of the political and aesthetic antagonisms birthed by the early 20th century, an era of comparable technological advancement. Fascism, as its many expressions prove, was the first properly ideological aesthetic. It possessed a surplus of signs, symbols, aestheticized behaviors and modes which were utilized to compensate for the widely acknowledged lack of coherency within its actual political and economic program. This is because the ideology of fascism was equivalent to, and interchangeable with, its aesthetic representation. The contemporary obsession with uniformly labelling all aberrant and ludicrous expressions of vulgar populism as “fascist” is only half inaccurate, then. Everything is “fascist,” in a manner of speaking, within this contemporary predicament: its ideology is expressed solely through its aesthetic representation. Needless to say, all such representations (clichéd, trite, hackneyed), across the political divide, adhere to a similar pattern. Richard Spencer’s “HailTrump…Hail Victory” and Amanda Gorman’s Hill We Climb are merely two parallel expressions of a comparable form of ideological aesthetic, both of which (needless to say) will never be anything other than Cringe.
What is to be done? The only thing which will counter Cringe, is Anti-cringe. What then is Anti-cringe? Anti-cringe is nothing less than the ineffable quality of authentic art in all of its manifestations. It has had many previous terms, but more often it has had none at all. Anti-cringe is negation, it is an encounter occurring within the void. Anti-cringe is at perpetual war against reification, against Cringe and against itself – for it is unceasingly self-critical and never self-satisfied. It is a quasi-mystical phenomenon vaguely familiar to anyone who considers themselves to be a genuine artist or spectator. It is, after Nietzsche, the only thing which makes existence and the world eternally justifiable. Walter Benjamin spoke of mystical auras diminished by mechanical reproduction; Vladimir Nabokov, similarly inclined, proposed a counterintuitive form of proto-Cringe in Poshlust as a good indicator of what it was not. Kasimir Malveich’s White on White was its false apogee. It is Hilma af Klint painting a thousand paintings unseen by anyone in her lifetime, if not all of the actual paintings themselves. It was the raw modernist vitality of Bebop against Swing, Musique concrète against the confected melody, and the entirety of Scott Walker’s back catalogue not produced out of contractual obligations. To reiterate, Anti-cringe is also an objective fact; it accounts for subjective taste, yet remains universal insomuch as it’s possible to acknowledge its presence grudgingly. Various terms have attached to it but none have stuck. Anti-cringe is merely one more, and for now it is as good as any other. We need not concern ourselves with attempting an exhaustive definition, because it is impossible. In contradistinction to Cringe, it is only possible to think you know it when you see it. You can never know for sure. Within this indeterminacy lies its primary value. Anti-cringe is a wager against time and the encroaching forces of Cringe, a belief that the structural integrity of the artifact will hold against the tide. It is a slightly embarrassing romanticism and earnestness in the face of universal ironic detachment. It thrives among the initiated, but is undiminished by popularity or the populist gaze. The risk, of course, is that everything in the end will turn out to be Cringe. Including this very definition, these notes, and their author. But Anti-cringe is an act of devotion, and as such will always entail an element of risk. Above all things, Anti-cringe requires us to summon forth the void as its only precondition.
There will forever be a distinction between art and entertainment. There will forever be a difference between the artist and the “creative.” The former only has one allegiance (to art itself), the latter has entered into an accord (sometimes out of necessity, but willingly nonetheless) with Cringe and have thereby become its functionaries and lackeys. Anti-cringe demands their exclusion. There remains nothing more powerful, defiant and offensive to the lackeys of the status quo than to be excluded – for often their motivations are embarrassingly obvious, propelled by ressentiment and their trifling ambitions. Their reaction to this exclusion will no doubt be petty or perhaps hysterical, but it will only serve to highlight their growing impotence. Yet, despite this nominal ‘exclusion’ Anti-cringe cannot be other than objectively egalitarian. There is nothing prejudiced or elitist about Anti-cringe. It should only demand that one possess a certain degree of faith (of whatever persuasion) in the sublime, in the persistence of the artistic urge and its capacity for invention, and in the abilities and talents of those whom we respect as artists. Like the true modernist impulse, Anti-cringe will be by necessity a form of negation. It will require disconnection, removal from the social media panopticon, withdrawal from that unyielding and desultory blue tinted mechanical gaze in order to negate its totalizing illumination.
The internet never invented Cringe, but it has made it ubiquitous. It is thus irremediably Cringe; something to be embarrassed about, despised, scorned, to be used privately, anonymously and flippantly if at all – but ideally: not at all. A golden age of Anti-cringe will not be live-streamed or retweeted; it will, by necessity, be the esoteric domain of those who have put their faith in the void. This will inevitably entail material sacrifices - but these will only hasten the possibility of rediscovering the forms of solidarity severely lacking at present, namely, those born of necessity and camaraderie. The avant-garde movements of the past were primarily conspiracies of the like minded. Their fatal mistake was to become publicists also. Narcissism is the enemy of the Anti-cringe. Anti-cringe will require the embracing of obscurity, disorder, reveling in the shadows, rediscovering the thrill of sedition – but redoubling commitments to creation, to evolution in isolation, and to communication through measured and patient forms. It must be a genuine attempt at capturing the real against the untrammeled disorder of the imaginary unleashed by technology – an attempt made in the full knowledge that such a thing is ultimately impossible, but made in good faith nonetheless. This is the only way to attempt anew, the revolution which the ill-fated and unfairly maligned Luddites were incapable of consummating.
Udith Dematagoda is a Scottish writer and academic based in Tokyo. He’s currently finishing a book on the confluence of masculinity, technology and fascism within modernist narratives, considering work by Wyndham Lewis, Louis Ferdinand Céline and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle - among others. He is also editor and co-founder of the experimental fiction publisher Hyperidean Press. He has a new Substack that you can find here. You can download his recent novel, Horizontal Rain, here.
Hilma af Klint Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece (Grupp X, nr 1, Altarbild), from Altarpieces (Altarbilder), 1915