Recently a friend of mine confessed that he is one corny, cheesy, sentimental son of a bitch. Try as he might, he said, he cannot pull of that jaded, cynical, sardonic “too cool for school” thing that so many of his friends have down to a science. It seems to me that the “too cool for school” (hereafter TCFS) phenomenon is pervasive throughout the field of radical politics and those branches of the humanities particularly oriented towards the project of critique. Everywhere we encounter a sort of cynicism and haste to dismiss any affirmative claim, any proposal, and any claim that something is the case. Those that are TCFS find a dirty secret behind everything. Every enunciation is said to harbor something shameful and the winning gesture consists in showing that anywhere an affirmative claim is made, there is some sort of moral guilt or culpability.
Long ago Mark K-Punk referred to such people as “grey vampire”. Vampires, of course, suck blood, the force of life. Grey vampires are particularly fearsome because they are like smoke. Mark Fisher referred to it as “the sneer from nowhere”. The grey vampire masters everywhere because he never commits himself to anything. He sneers from nowhere so he’s like smoke. The ultimate Bro. Whenever you attempt to get hold of them they slip away, all the while sucking your blood. The grey vampire’s great advantage lies in being nowhere, all the better to be everywhere. Occupying no position of their own, they can all the better function as the superego. Everywhere they strive to demoralize, to instill guilt, to fill others with inexpiable debt. Their sharp teeth strive to inflict one of two wounds, and often both together.
On the one hand they strive to instill stupidity in the source of their nourishment. The person who has dared to make a claim is treated as being guilty of grotesque stupidity. Only a complete idiot, only someone who is profoundly ignorant, the grey vampire says, would make such a claim. Of course here there grey vampire can always triumph, for the finitude of language guarantees that no one can ever say it all and certainly no one can say it all at once. The moment anyone begins to speak they are guilty a priori, for everything that is said necessarily leaves something unsaid and everything that is spoken or written always leaves something out. Make a generalization about the history of philosophy? Well you left something else out about that history! You are guilty of ignorance, of stupidity. Grey vampires can always win at this game, because it is structurally impossible to say everything. On the other hand, grey vampires strive to instill moral guilt. Every enunciation becomes reflective of the greatest sins and abominations. Claim that being is composed of substances or objects? You are promoting commodity fetishism, neoliberalism, and therefore exploitation! Everywhere the grey vampires find guilt, nothing but sin and moral depravity. The hermeneutics of suspicion becomes a sort of pathology.
It is difficult to determine what creates grey vampires and why they are so pervasive. Is it the result of a certain form of political and theoretical training; a sort of occupational hazard where the project of critique becomes a sickness? Perhaps. However, there is something sad or melancholy about the grey vampire; almost as if he is repressing something. Jameson famously said that we more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. A lot of our problems seem this way. The morally praiseworthy dimension of the grey vampire is that he seems to want to do something about a lot of injustices, yet is filled with the unconscious belief that nothing is to be done. That which is repressed is doomed to return. It’s as if the grey vampire is caught in the midst of a compulsion to repeat, where his ego says “do something!”, but where his pathological form of critique endlessly pleads that nothing can be done. The grey vampire is paralyzed, frozen in a symptom, finding nothing but a world that falls short. In a very real sense, this compulsion to repeat is a repression of finitude and death. What the grey vampire cannot avow is that our actions and the world are finite, that there are no archimedean points. In finding guilt between every affirmative claim– a guilt that really amounts to the guilt of finitude and mediation –the grey vampire finds a sort of immortality and omnipotence, for he will never be done finding guilt everywhere. The cynicism of the grey vampire is a will to power, the ultimate mastery, for there is never risk of not finding a dirty secret behind things. If the world is without foundations– and it is –then there will always be some dark secret. Every move becomes a winning move.
The grey vampire exists in contradiction with himself. On the one hand, he speaks on behalf of justice and emancipatory projects. Yet in finding a dirty secret or shame behind everything, in patiently demonstrating again and again that there are no archimedean points, the grey vampire instills a generalized paralysis. We dare not take a step because each step will merely reinforce the filth, the injustice of it all. We reach a point where we must apologize (confess) for the sin of sincerity, sentimentality, or having some hope. Every action must be confessed and every action must be expiated. We become so obsessed with unearthing our sins and denouncing them that we are unable to take any action at all. The paradox of the grey vampire is that generally their gesture unfolds against the reigning injustice of things but ends up reinforcing that injustice. And perhaps this is a symptom of our time. If there’s anything characteristic of the anthropocene, it’s paralysis and a compulsion to repeat. We know that it’s a mess. We know what the problems are. Yet somehow we seem unable to act, to do anything about it.
However, the other paradox of the grey vampire is that he generally proceeds under the banner of justice and egalitarianism, yet his superegoic operation seems to consist in installing rank and hierarchy. The grey vampire seems to strive to show that he is superior to you, a person of greater moral worth, a being of greater goodness and intellectual superiority. Everywhere there’s a sort of disdain and an air of indifference. You’re not worth his time, even as he spends all this time patiently showing why you’re not worth his time. Here we might think of the grey vampire anarchist that somehow fails to get the egalitarian, non-hierarchical inspiration of anarchism, that everywhere is more anarchist than thou, while simultaneously promoting rank and hierarchy. Grey vampirism is a strategy for attaining prestige. The grey vampire creates the illusion of “knowing it all”– which is different from being a “know-it-all” –without having to know anything. Of course, he accomplishes this by creating an other that knows nothing. If he can show others know nothing, then by the law of the excluded middle he knows everything. It’s a very particular strategy of transference.
Here’s the worst part. In writing this post, I myself have become a grey vampire by finding a dirty secret behind and within the grey vampire. Maybe that’s the worst part of grey vampirism. Maybe grey vampires turn everyone into grey vampires. Socratic irony. I don’t know what to do here. Part of me wants to declare that the truly revolutionary gesture lies in embracing our finitude, that we can’t say it all, that no action is pure or archimedean, and continue to act and speak. Be sincere! Be sincere even while recognizing that your sincerity necessarily contains or hides an insincerity. Derrida’s gift. Another part of me recoils in horror from this. That will to sincerity strikes me as lacking in critical vigilance. It strikes me as naive. I feel that we must enter Ariadne’s cave and unveil the insincerity behind the sincerity to be all the more sincere. Yet then I become paralyzed. How can we speak and act while knowing full well that words and actions will never be enough and there will never be enough words and actions? Perhaps the great health is tragedy or the ability to act in the dimension of this knowledge. Or maybe the great health is comedy, where we know that our actions and words are doomed to error but that occasionally, after the fact, apres coup, nachtraglich there’s an eruption of the real and a little bit of truth, justice, and goodness happen.