Wokeness is not a politics
Look at yourself. Look at what you’ve reduced yourself to
In a small glass display case in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum you can see a small black circle made of polished stone that once belonged to John Dee, England’s greatest-ever weirdo. This was his shew-stone, a magic mirror he and his scryer used to communicate with angels. In Dee’s own account, recorded in his Five Books of Mystery, this object was delivered to him by the angels themselves. One of them told him that ‘one thing is yet wanting; a mete receptacle. There is yet wanting a stone. One there is, most excellent, hid in the secret of the depth. In the uttermost part of the Roman Possession… Thow shalt haue it. Thow shalt haue it. Thow shalt haue it. Dost thow see, loke and styr not from thy place.’ But Dee saw nothing. The angels directed him to a point in the corner of his room where the mirror would appear. ‘Then I saw like a shaddow on the grownd or matts hard by my bokes under the west wyndow. The shaddow was rowndysh, and less than the palm of my hand. I put my hand down uppon it, I felt a thing cold and hard: which, taking up, I perceyued to be the stone.’ A mirror made of shadows, calcified out of the ordinary shadows in an ordinary room.
But a few years ago, researchers found another origin for the shew-stone. X-ray fluorescence analysis found that the levels of manganese, rubidium, strontium, and yttrium in Dee’s mirror precisely matched those of obsidian sourced from mines near the Mexican city of Pachuca. This was once an acaltezcul, an Aztec divinatory mirror, and these were sacred to the god Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror. A mirror shows you exactly what’s in front of you, and Tezcatlipoca was the Lord of the Near and Nigh, an everyday god who planted the seed in every womb and ruled over all the small necessities of life—but he was also the god of jaguars, invisibility, obsidian, night, and shadows. Even among the Aztec deities, this was a particularly sinister figure, whose main function in human affairs was as a source of limitless, random malice. ‘His hand was seen most clearly when a man rich in all good fortune, with many sons, wealth and honours, was suddenly, gratuitously, brought low.’ The fickle king of a senseless cruel world. One of his names was Titlacahuan, He Whose Slaves We Are. Another was Moquequeloa, the Mocker. Or Necoc Yaotl, the Enemy on Both Sides. Tezcatlipoca does not transcend the ordinary world; he is that world, and he is your enemy. Still, it wouldn’t be quite right to think of him as something totally external, the bad thing into which we innocents have been thrown. When you look into a mirror, what’s the first thing you see?
I am aware that you did not decide to click on this essay because you wanted to hear about sixteenth-century wizards or sinister Nahuatl gods. You’re here because you are the lowest creature imaginable: the kind of grass-eating mental ungulate that actually wants to read another witless diatribe either for or against wokeness. And I will give you what you want. I will feed you hogs your swill. I will stop prevaricating with obsidian mirrors and get to the actual point. But there’s a reason I started with the mirror, and part of it is that you need to look at yourself. Look at what you’ve reduced yourself to. Look at the enemy to yourself that you’ve become.
You might have noticed that over the last week or so, half the world’s paid and unpaid commentators have suddenly started putting out their own boutique definition of wokeness. Since the precise definition of wokeness is, in 2023, about as relevant as the precise borders of the Aztec Triple Alliance, this seems like a fairly dry academic exercise, but somehow the project has managed to produce a lot of excitement. As far as I can tell, we’re in this hole because some right-wing critic wrote a book decrying the evils of wokeness, and then when she was asked on TV to define what woke actually meant she couldn’t provide an answer. This must have understandably led some people to conclude that woke doesn’t really refer to anything at all, that it’s a deliberately amorphous name for an essentially fictive enemy, to be bandied about by various oleaginously entrepreneurial conservative commentators—because now we’ve all been drafted into this game of pulling out our definitions of wokeness and comparing sizes. As it happens, I do think that wokeness is (or, frankly, was) a real phenomenon, and that it has a definition; I’m going to be showing you mine in just a moment. But it still strikes me as significant that while many of these definitions have been perfectly coherent and sometimes even persuasive, no two of them have been entirely the same.
This is, I think, because all these definitions are based on a category error. According to Freddie deBoer, wokeness is a less descriptive term for social justice politics. According to Wesley Yang, wokeness is a successor ideology to liberalism. According to John McWhorter (and many, many others), wokeness is a new kind of religion. But it’s not a politics, or an ideology, or a religion. If you’ve ever spent any time in a political movement, or a religious one—even a philosophical one—you’ll have noticed that these things always have sects. Small differences in doctrine turn into antagonistic little groups. There are dozens of denominations that all claim to be the universal catholic church. Put two Marxists in a room and you’ll get three different ideological schisms. As Richard Rorty once noted, the split between the left-Hegelians and the right-Hegelians was eventually resolved at ‘a six-month-long seminar called the Battle of Stalingrad.’ Even Scientology has them; there is an entropy that tugs at all attempts to organise the world by thought. But it’s hard to see any such thing happening in any of the movements that get described as woke. Black Lives Matter did not have a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ wing; the different rainbow flags did not belong to rival queer militia; the followers of Ibram X Kendi did not send their most subtle clerics to debate against the heresies of the DeAngeloites. The spaces these movements produce might be the sites of constant churning mutual animosity and backstabbing, but the faultlines are always interpersonal and never substantive. This is very, very unusual. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the woke mind virus is so perfectly bioengineered that it’s left all its victims without any capacity for dissent whatsoever, permanently trapped in a zombielike groupthink daze. This is the kind of possibility that a lot of antiwoke types like to entertain. Let me sketch out an alternative view.