In 2018, the writer and chaos magick scholar Gary Lachman (previously a member of Blondie) published a book called Dark Star Rising—that traced the influence of occultists within modern right-wing politics. In it, he observed that interest in a belief system known as Traditionalism unites several major players in the reactionary ecosystem. Common to Russia’s Aleksandr Dugin (an esotericist and fascist writer often referred to as Putin’s Rasputin) and Trump’s onetime right-hand man, Steve Bannon (a devotee of the Italian reactionary occultist Julius Evola), Lachman claimed, was commitment to Traditionalism’s core tenet: that a single font of secret knowledge, passed down through select initiates, lies behind all the world’s major religions. For Lachman, as for the occultists of whom he writes, the world of magical and mystical forces and the world of elections and propaganda are inexorably intertwined. The magic of memes, like the chaos magick of an Aleister Crowley or the theosophy of a Helena Blavatsky, is a powerful, unseen force sustaining the universe.
At the core of Lachman’s argument is the figure of Donald Trump himself: not as magician but rather as golem – a man-made being, common in Jewish rabbinic mythology, who exists to do the bidding of his makers. Catapulted into office by meme magic, Trump, Lachman argues, is less a human being in his own right than an amalgamated avatar of cultural consciousness, brought into being by the force of our collected cultural hunger for chaos—for a destruction of the old neoliberal order and its attendant institutions.
Whether or not we are occultists, we can see in Lachman’s interpretation of propaganda as a form of magic something about the world of modern Internet culture. Even as it (somewhat mysteriously) influences our “real-world” economic and political lives, contemporary Internet culture is itself governed by unseen forces: literalizations of collective conscious and unconscious desire.
I do not mean this merely in the sense famously promulgated by Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote in 1962 that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Magic is not simply what we call technology before we understand it.
Rather, in modern internet culture, in the creation of digital avatars, in the freewheeling veneration of self-making, in the “attention economy” that has come to permeate nearly all aspects of our social, sexual, and economic lives, we see a literalization (and an exteriorization) of a truth already inherent within the liberal-capitalist, post-Enlightenment understanding of the self. Our essence, on this account, is want. Our desires render us more than merely machines.
Without making any claims about the metaphysical status of this desire, we can nevertheless argue that, from a functional perspective, want takes the place occupied in other religious or spiritual semiotic systems by the soul: an unseen but constitutive force of the self. The forces by which it manifests itself in society are likewise invisible, but they are the foundation of our cooperation with one another. They are functionally equivalent to magic.
In this ostensibly secular modern vision, we do not have souls, exactly—in the sense of something entirely separate from our bodies, or as something embodied but nevertheless not purely material. So what, in this view, makes us human beings, rather than simply human animals? Where is the ghost in our machines? The answer, in late Internet culture, is in our aspirational selves: the selves constituted by our embodied present, rather than our imagined futures.
To this inchoate quality we grant a kind of mystical power, a metaphysical weight. Our desires are at the core of our “authentic” selves: they make us who we “really” are. This quality is not static but dynamic: it is what we want, what we hunger for, what we desire, what we aspire to, in the sense of what we breathe life into, and what breathes life into us.
This aspirational self is the apotheosis of the capitalist project: the self whose desires govern not merely its own action but the entire social and economic apparatus
If we have a telos, in this schema, it is to achieve that which we aspire to. It is, furthermore, to decide—through the magical action of will—what we aspire to in the first place. Self-making is our ultimate aim: deciding what to want, and then pursuing that desire.
Under the rule of the aspirational self, we are “authentic”—most ourselves—when we embrace and celebrate our desires, which are more true of us than those qualities that are seen as contingent (given to us by circumstance—such as class, gender, or culture). In The Ethics of Authenticity, the political philosopher Charles Taylor argues that the tensions of contemporary modernity are defined by such romanticization of the “authentic” self (and by the link of this authentic self with our aspirations). I want to go even further: While this “authenticity” is akin to a secular soul, with both a concrete non-physical status and distinct creative powers, it is not only a part of ourselves as human animals, but the prime non-physical motivating force within our world. Aspiration, in other words, is magic. Magic, but of a daemonic kind: it creates from nothing; it transforms; it allows us to remake ourselves in the images we crave. It is the hidden hand. It is the glamour that transforms. It is the very breath in our lungs.
Enter the World Wide Web. An entire system predicated on the illusion of disembodiment; a space for avatars and memes, online shopping and catfishing; for swiping and sexual gratification, divorced from the flesh. Online space is where our desires take shape, if not weight. It is where we can be anybody, where we can buy anything, where we can transform our faculties of attention into a commodity, through advertising and the clickbait economy that accompanies our entertainment. Here, attention is bought and sold: through clicking on the right kind of articles, through sharing the right kind of headlines to the right kind of friends on social media, through posting photographs of ourselves or pithy career-boosting jokes. Or else, through the no-less aspirational pleasure of subscribing to a beautiful woman’s OnlyFans—burlesqueing intimacy as she allows us to imagine ourselves in her company. It is a carnival funhouse universe: a place where desires—untethered from geography or facticity—can be, if never fully fulfilled, at least temporarily sated. It is, no less than Avalon, Atlantis, the Goblin Market, or any other parallel fairyland that one arrives at by mistake, a magical universe. But, like all fairylands, ours has a catch.
The daemonic deal is never resolved in our favor. The fantasy of the aspirational self is that we have ultimate freedom: freedom to decide who we will be and to live our lives according to our wants. What could be truer to ourselves? But do we really decide what we want? Are our desires really the most authentic parts of us—the arena of life in which we are more concretely free? St. Augustine, for one, did not think so. For him, as for centuries of Christian theologians, it is precisely in the disordered nature of our desires, the way in which we want what we should not and will what we do not want, and do not understand why we want what we want (at all), that we find the root of sin.
Whether or not we agree with Augustine, we must confront the fact that our desires are never fully sui generis.
We never know if what we want is what we actually want, or what we think we want.
And what is the difference between the two? Is our desire to smoke a cigarette more real than our desire to be able to run a marathon? What does desire mean when desires are conflicting, or when we want something in the short term that we know is bad for us in the long-term?
Beyond this, we are all taught what to want. Despite the fact that we often code desires as primordial or intrinsic—setting them up in a Freudian binary against the “civilizing” repressions of culture—our desires arrive mediated by that same culture. We are, after all, contingent individuals who live in a society where the understanding of ourselves, our neighbors, and our surroundings is mediated through a cultural repository (of stories, images, and narratives). We access our notionally ‘primordial’ desires only through the refraction of the narratives we have available to us. Few people would want a blue ribbon or gold-colored trophy in the abstract. What is important is that they represent the winning of a first prize in a tournament. It’s the same with the coded language of status symbols—the Rolls Royce, the Birkin bag—where desires are only legible in terms of our shared understanding of what they represent.
But less obvious desires function this way, too. Consider a man who falls in love with a conventionally beautiful woman who possesses a degree from a name-brand university. He may experience his love for her as genuine; his sexual attraction may also feel innate. But is he even able to recognize her? Does he love her for who she is, or simply because she conforms to qualities that he knows are valuable, and which in turn render him valuable as her ostensible conqueror? We often want what others want—that which we learn is good (or prestigious) to want. Our desires—as René Girard has so often written—are mimetic.
In the world of memes, where we can see this desire distilled into easily calculable likes and follows, we are all the more vulnerable to the formation (and reformation) of our desires. We learn what is “desirable” on a mass scale, and it shapes what we, personally, want. In this, we are aided by the algorithms that follow us around the internet, coaxing us with images of products that other people in our marketing demographics have wanted in the past. In this situation, whatever authenticity our desires might have had in a hypothetical state of nature is already lost; our aspirational souls have already been enchanted by forces outside ourselves.
Today, we define ourselves by wants that we do not, in fact, control. Far from being our souls, our aspirations have become our chains.
At first glance this state is nightmarish. It suggests that we lack any will or autonomy. But such bondage to desire doubles as a potential for intimacy. We are all, as the mystic Father Zosima tells Alexi Karamazov, responsible to one another for everything. We—perhaps even without meaning to—shape the desires of others, even as our own desires lie beyond our exclusive control. It is a power much greater (and more dangerous) than will alone; it is one we did not (and cannot) choose.
The great irony of the aspirational self is that our power to self-create is limited, while our power to form others is terrifying. We are at our most powerful not when we create our own images, but when we meme others into beliefs, desires, realities. A recent Huffington Post article, chronicling the ubiquity of FaceTune (an app that edits photos, largely to make its subjects adhere to conventional models of beauty) among young women reports that nearly all of those who got addicted to the app did so after seeing it used on perfectly-proportioned women online. In this respect, each woman who went on to post a FaceTuned selfie became part of a demonic multi-level-marketing scheme—responsible, in turn for those who went on to use the app.
It may be difficult, in today’s Internet-saturated attention economy, to escape this cycle altogether. But in recognizing the responsibility that we have, for and to one another, we may be able to re-conceptualize our relationship with the Internet, learning to relate to it not as a canvas on which we can create ourselves, but as a web through which we can work to liberate one another, a vehicle for social rather than individual transformation.
In shaping others’ desires, we shape part of who they are. It is a magic power we did not ask for. But it may be the one we have to use.