Homo Automatis: the Lesson of the NPC

In 1739, a creative Frenchman played a rather ingenious parlour trick on the public with the introduction of an automaton in the form of a duck which could eat, process, and eliminate corn kernals. Vaucanson’s defecating duck was a vulgar fascination that for a moment threw France into a fit of philistine excitement so great that Voltaire was inspired to quip that “without… Vaucanson’s duck, you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.” The machine was a fake – the “feces” was stored as was the corn. After the craze in France died down, it made its way around Europe. The Germans took the whole thing quite to heart (as they are wont to do with things from France). Goethe was said to be dumbfounded upon seeing it in the 1780s, though in letters he mocked and dismissed it. The combined awe and derision ultimately found its way into the pages of one of the great works of German Gothic, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann.

Hoffmann’s story is worth reading in its entirety, and in fact your author recommends doing so before finishing this piece – there are several twists that will be spoiled here to prove a point.

The focus of Hoffmann’s tale is a young man named Nathanael (“a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile“) whose encounters with a man he believes to be the Sandman – a creature who steals the eyes of children to feed to its offspring – lead him slowly into insanity. He grows distant from his closest friends, who are bored by his fascination with demonology and the occult. Accusing his former love interest of being a heartless automaton, he promptly falls in love with the daughter of an Italian professor, who turns out to be an actual automaton. Nathanael loses his mind at the horror and the professor loses his position for trying to pass off an automaton for a human being. A panic ensues, with lovers subjecting one another to tests to ensure they are real people.

Hoffmann’s tale is on its surface an excellent psychological horror story. It is also, however, a mockery of the Romantics themselves – the naive and impressionable students of humanity, obsessed with the mystical and medieval, boring and nonplussing the normies of their day – who, like automatons, merely followed the contemporary social programming. The frustration manifest again in Nietzsche’s Last Men, who cannot plumb the depths of truth and therefore stand before the truth-teller and blink. The false attraction of Romanticism has long plagued the Resurrectionist Right of the West; we repeat too many mistakes of our 19th century predecessors out of a sense of nostalgia.

The NPC, now more a trope than a meme, is a strange manifestation of this. When it first appeared and was politicized, it was actually rather genius, and without a doubt it is accomplishing the short-term ends of the Dissident Right very effectively. This is not our concern here, though – there’s been triumphalism enough and now that the furor among our traditional enemies has died down, we can be more critical. Lurking behind the meme is a very Romantic, very egalitarian, and, consequently, very flawed idea that the existence of people responding to social programming is in itself wrong or at least contemptible.

Speaking with the Enemy

One of the finest moments in the whole of Classical art is the boast of Achilles from the Iliad that he shall die in one of two ways – scarce remembered but comfortable and long-lived or in glory after a short life filled with accomplishment. Most people throughout history have been forgotten because they chose life, and remained unknown. Indeed, most human beings throughout history have been precisely that: simple people taking their cue from learned, or at least more far-sighted authorities. Why else would Plato be so concerned that his king be a philosopher? Hierarchy is our natural state, the interplay of authority and subservience, not the lex talionis which makes all equal until the jungle draws enough blood to reveal the Overman.

The relationship of ruler to ruled is not merely a matter of power – thought it can often appear so to the resentful and ambitious. The authority of the hierarch in inherent in his office (officium, that is, his proper function as a hierarch, his kathekon) such that the person who occupies that social place is in fact less significant than the place itself. His personhood is derived from his social rôle, in other words; this is most perfectly captured in the ecclesiastical hierarchs, especially the Popes, but it is true of all authority figures in any hierarchical society. Such an arrangement by necessity bestows dignity on any level of the hierarchy which adheres to its proper place, including the bottom rungs of ordinary people to whom the Achillean challenge is fait accompli.

One cannot flee history, nor escape his times. Submerged in Western modernity, we are all liberals insofar as we remain Westerners. The Liberalism of the Dissident Right (when the NPC first entered broader lexicon, we could still call it “Alt-Right”) is as ubiquitous as anti-liberal rhetoric, and the NPC meme reveals this. In the youthful days of the Faustian West, the debate surrounding the individual and free will were already points of contention. From the seeds that grew into Catholic Christendom, the abortive sprout of Pelagianism also sprung, and in answer to the decidedly Magian Manichæan heresy, S. Augustine, the Father of the Western Church, wrote his De libero arbitrio, itself pre-Western but full of the cultural DNA that has defined Western Civilization.

It would take nearly ten centuries for these ideas to germinate into the concept of the individual, which Burckhardt rightly identifies as the the beating heart of the Renaissance.  It was a short step for liberalism in its earliest form to be revealed: the individual man, alienated and alone, a free agent, acts in tandem with others only to his own rational benefit. Thus is government instituted among men; indeed, readers need not be reminded that the great error in the Social Contract is not the notion of a contractual relationship that Libertarians have attacked, but the very notion that societies and cultures are made up of individuals at all. Insofar as the Dissident Right will not part with the Individual as the atomic particle of our mental landscape, it is natural that the programmed masses should be an object of ridicule. Only when we cease imagining ourselves as individuals, can we escape the liberal trap that also blinds us to the necessity of the NPC.

There is no such thing as equality” – one can say those words but never grasp their meaning. The NPC meme is the creation of a mind that assumes equality: that is the key to its efficacy, because it places all on equal footing and then asserts the dominance of one group (the Rightist troll type) over the other (the SJW type) yet based on the core values of the latter – uniqueness, originality, authenticity. If it did not do this, it would not have any effect. But it never extracts itself from that moral frame: it is not a denial of the value of the independent individual, but the affirmation in reverse. It speaks in the enemy’s symbolic language, turning tables but revealing no hidden truths.

But it’s a meme. True, but as Dickens said, the wisdom of our language is contained in its idioms, and memes are semiotic idioms. Our friend Borzoi Boscovic has commented on this – and fairly recently, on The Third Rail, when he talks about the intellectual failure of the ironybros. You become what you pretend to be because you adopt the intellectual shorthand – the idioms – of the reality you ironically dwell in, and which in turn dwells in you. We perceive reality only insofar as we can express it in symbols – be they words, idioms, or memes, and therefore adopting certain symbols means adopting a certain reality. (Ironic, then, that Borzoi also played a major rôle in the birth and propagation of the NPC meme. I credit his intelligence far too much to believe he consciously endorses its implications.)

The idiom of the NPC meme is a liberal idiom, and reveals the latent liberalism alive and well in the Dissident Right – and, therefore, the guaranteed failure of the phenomenon, for no one can offer a better liberalism than the totalizing form that the Neoliberal hegemony offers, and no movement speaking in the idiomatic symbols of liberalism can claim to offer anything more than a better liberalism.

The Heroic Simulacrum and the Conceit of the Player Character

I perceive with my mind’s eye an audience already gathering large rocks in their hands. Indeed, even the more level-headed of you may be looking at my claim regarding the Individual in bafflement, protesting “but the Hero! but the Saint!” We have imagined the hero to possess a sort of je ne sais quoi that makes him a Great Man. Every people has their heroes, their great figures, and these are outstanding individuals who are set apart from people by their deeds, their thoughts, or their legacy thereafter. Odd, then, that the word “individual” enters the English language only in the 15th century, and is not used as a noun until the middle of the 17th.

If we wish to avoid word games, what about it’s meaning? An individual is a unique personality, possessed of an identity and consciousness. Such a being was not the discussion of explicit consideration prior to John Locke in 1690. Prior to that we are left with a being possessing a free will, if we must find a concept to which the later word “individual” might be ascribed. In the intellectual atmosphere in which Western Civilization first drew breath, the air was thick with Christianity – without the mental “gills”, so to speak, bestowed by Faith, it was simply impossible to think in such an environment. What is a willing being but one which exists separate from its origin and able to elect good, which results in its completion, or evil, which results in annihilation.

The willing being and the individual appear similar, but how they behave is essentially different. The willing being, the person, cannot act or think apart from his people and his God – even choosing against them, he only accentuates his connexions to them. The individual cannot act or think but he be independent from the same – the greater his connexion to those around him, the more diminished his individuality – thus the dialectic of the individual and the collective is baked into the individual from the beginning. The person, on the other hand, is part of a holistic perception of wider society. The hero, in most civilizations, is a person: a person who has fulfilled the ideals of his civilization and has become an avatar of that civilization. This is no less true for the Western hero, but as time wears on, the ideal itself degrades to such a degree that the Western hero becomes more and more individual, until he ceases to be distinguishable from the individual qua individual. Thus our heros become their biographies, not figures onto which we imprint ourselves, but figures which imprint themselves on us. Thus the cultus of the Saint ceases, and the Cult of Personality begins. Observe the difference between the devotion to S. Thomas Becket related in English histories and the contemporary devotion to Pope John Paul II, or Mother Theresa, or any contemporary saint. They are altogether different.

What we are left with then, is the Player Character, the heroic simulacrum, who exists apart from and independent from the NPC masses, occasionally relying thereupon but Ding-an-sich needless of them. Indeed, is not the Alpha Male the needless male? Even in the NPC, though, this conceit of the Player Character is revealed, for he is never needless. His existence is not only confirmed, it is created by the NPC, without whom he cannot actualize himself individually (which side quests did you complete, did you complete the main game?) A game with no NPCs is just a playground sandbox: it cannot produce a hero because it creates only alienated individuals who cannot progress, attempting again and again to build a castle with the buckets full of dry sand. If this is true of the Player Character, designed as an individual, how much truer for the real person who aspires to heroism or sainthood.

The NPCs, therefore, those broad masses dependent on a social power structure to participate more fully in their civilizational purpose, are perhaps the most necessary part of their civilization, and especially Western Civilization. If we observe the “programming” of the NPC in this light, it reveals something we already profess to know: Western Civilization as represented by the NPC is not on the side of Truth. In fact, it is hard to conclude that it is anything but altogether evil. Before concluding, though, here is the material point: this has been a reflection on what the NPC meme tells us about ourselves, not a call to abandon it to “fix” ourselves. We’re well past that point. If we subscribe to he liberal conceit of the Player Character, we can reverse this process, we can fix it and return to a “true” Western Civilization and escape this false one. If we consider the NPC historically, however, as the broad masses who reflect and in fact constitute the civilization as it is, aspiring to its ideal and confirming its heroes, we must conclude that there is no way “back”, that is, the God of the West is in fact a Progressive god, and not the True God. We must reject the Western NPC, but we cannot turn them, and we must therefore seek a new beginning rather than an alternative ending, for we are too far into the game now.

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