The Blackpill | Adam Lehrer
Guest Column #007
The blackpill can be swallowed, crushed and snorted, or dissolved and intravenously injected. One’s preferred method of dosage and ingestion is consistent with the depths of one’s hopelessness; the higher the dose and the harder the hit, the blacker one’s outlook.
The blackpill’s effects include: euphoric clarity, analgesia, inner quietude and self-acceptance. (Its side effects include: dejection, demoralization, and emotional stagnation).
The blackpill irreparably alters your neural pathways. It is highly addictive. Its withdrawal symptoms are emotionally tumultuous, and even physically agonizing; if you try to sweat the blackpill out of your system, you run the risk of having hope rise to the fore of your psyche. A liquid society will shit on your hope, your hope will then devolve into despair, and the blackpill will be there, waiting to reel you back in when you’re ready.
In my analysis, I’ve tended to think of the blackpill as a metaphysical medicine. It seems like not a day goes by in which the world doesn not become perceptibly more terrifying and confusing. The alienation that Marx theorized as being the primary consequence of life in a class society has been somehow heightened and evolved into a kind of spiritual disconnect. (And Covid, having forced us deeper into the recesses of our screens, has clotted this condition).
This spiritual disconnect may result in physical and mental symptoms: boredom, visceral anxiety, nausea, fear, panic. It’s a disease! And where there is a disease, there must be medicine. Prozac, nicotine, heroin, however tried and true, don’t treat these symptoms with the potency of the blackpill.
The unnamed protagonist of Hari Kunzru’s latest novel, Red Pill, is an esteemed and progressive member of the professional class. A writer and cultural critic, he receives a grant to write a book at a German retreat. While there, he finds himself incapable of writing as he is sucked into binge-watching a dark and nihilistic cop show (think The Shield written by Cioran). He eventually comes into contact with its showrunner, a charismatic man named Anton, who it turns out is a card-carrying white nationalist. This encounter sets the protagonist on a quest to madness as he realizes that, beneath his life of bourgeois liberal respectability, a visceral contempt and rage begin to surface. His bubble bursts, he combusts. The novel ends on the night of the 2016 election, with his wife and their well-heeled friends watching in despair as Trump ascends to power. But the narrator, having accepted the reality and terrifying complexity of the world, is strong for the sake of the woman he loves. Has he swallowed the blackpill? Kunzru leaves it unclear, though his book—one of the only works of “mainstream fiction” I enjoyed in 2020—sent me down the rabbit hole: what is the blackpill?
Urban Dictionary defines the blackpill as “a catastrophic prophecy or spiritless prophesying for the future that is not necessarily grounded in reality.” The key here is “not necessarily,” for is “catastrophic prophecy” ever not based on reality? Philosopher Thomas Moynihan’s new book X-Risk theorizes that the ability to analyze “X-risks,” or risks that present humanity with the threat of extinction, is an essential component of enlightened and modernist thought (and extinction assessment differs from apocalyptic prophecy in that it requires that we understand ourselves scientifically as finite beings in an infinite cosmos; it cannot privilege mankind as special or construe our demise as a grand, deific event). Extinction isn’t a prophecy, it’s a certainty. So is the blackpill a delusion? I don’t think so. I think it’s a tendency that can be embraced or resisted, passed over or shot up.
If we’re talking about Covidian Aesthetics, then we must examine the blackpill. Over the last year, it is offered to us everywhere and it is often the only conclusion to everything. Though coronavirus failed to live up to its predicted deadliness, it exposed the frailty of our political, economic and social order in ways that might have been unthinkable before it, demonstrating weaknesses in global infrastructures that could be our undoing. The decay of the civic landscape became utterly transparent and turned the great American cities into macabre mirrors of themselves. Neoliberal New York has become its Jungian shadow, with its stately mask of antiseptic banks, Starbucks coffee shops, haute petty bourgeois stores and every signifier of contemporary prosperity that capitalism once used to conceal itself now empty, regulated, or outright boarded-up. The crime, drugs, and dereliction that Giuliani and Bloomberg made it their mission to reduce (albeit “brutally suppress” may be the more appropriate term here) have been rendered visible once more. Homelessness has skyrocketed, and a wave of deadly shootings has resulted in New York’s violent crime rate increasing by 120 percent. As unquantifiable as this statement might be, you can feel it. A kind of paranoia, an uncanny force, has seeped inside the city’s social order.
I assume this feeling is not alien to you, regardless of where you’re experiencing this new organizational structure. And whatever opportunity Covid seemed to present at its outset for working people to make organized political demands of the state, whatever hope it seemed to offer in terms of resurrecting some form of left populist politics, has been destroyed by an almost nonstop set of spectacles and psyops of controlled dissent or managed opposition.
With these dynamics illustrated, it becomes easier to imagine the blackpill as the real specter haunting late capitalism. The blackpill is the only thing that makes or helps make any kind of sense.
While the idealists of Antifa and Black Lives Matter—and their equally ideologically incoherent antonyms, the Proud Boys and their ilk—may be the predominant images at the surface of the spectacle—a hopelessly reactionary culture war that functions increasingly as a smoke screen behind which the status quo can insulate itself from real dissent—how many people are out there, putting a match to the bowl of nihilism and spiking their drinks with blackpills? Burning working class neighborhoods to the ground (without coherent political demands) and storming the Capitol building while wearing Spencer’s Gifts Viking costumes (without coherent political demands) might invoke readings of implicit nihilism and, thence, of implicit blackpilling.
But these culture war outbursts are less blackpilled than they are expressions of confused resistance towards the blackpill’s allure. These collective actions manifest as the aestheticized alienation of people who know there is something wrong, but who lack the means and methods to express their dissent in ways that might actually challenge the power they intuitively oppose. How many people are genuinely swallowing the blackpill? How many people are quite simply hopeless and exhausted, apathetic? To know the answer, we must define the blackpill in a way that’s easier to pinpoint and communicate. Let’s dig deeper.
Urban Dictionary’s founder Aaron Peckham is worth over $100 million and surely has his own motives and agendas, so I can’t take his website’s definition as any kind of last word on this topic. So, I turned towards the people (or in most cases, their avatars) and asked them what their personal appraisals of the blackpill were.
@boozewight tweets: “Any revealed ‘truth’ that causes you to view your hopes, dreams, and even your underlying motivations and thought processes, as a farce. Frequently untrue or less grim than imagined, actually, but they become blacker and more frightening the longer they go unaddressed.” In a follow-up tweet: “Like other types of ‘pills,’ it is the ‘truth’ concealed by commonplace fictions, and one abruptly awakens to it.” Already, we have a blackpill that is derived from a hidden truth, and not constructed on a false reality. Interesting.
@___hauntology tweets: “to me the entirety of the -pilled lexicon just invokes extreme inceldom, social maladjustment, and an inability to get laid, but the ‘blackpill’ is the worst of them all,’ before apologizing to me and clarifying that the tweet is not a personal dig. What we have here is a more rigid understanding of the blackpill’s semiotic sourcing in 4Chan’s alt-right pages, and though this isn’t incorrect, the term has entered the lexicons of people that have nothing to do, and no ideological affiliations with, the alt-right.
@BoonSardonic tweets his belief that the blackpill is “the realization you have no actual control and give up your illusions of control.” I think this brings us closer to a proper definition of the thing: the blackpill is nihilism, and to swallow it is to embrace that nihilism, and to dwell in it, perhaps permanently. In post-digital late capitalism—a culture simultaneously drowned in transparent information and conspiratorial unknowability—the blackpill may be the apotheosis of philosophical inquiry in a civilization that has evolved past the point of being sustainable. You simply can’t examine global politics, understand ecological trends, or attempt to pierce beneath the lies of the mainstream media without feeling the blackpill’s calling. Whether we’re being told that Epstein killed himself or that the lockdowns are “working,” we find ourselves in the bleak stasis of simultaneously knowing we’re being lied to and knowing that we’ll never know “the truth” in any satisfactory way. Contemporary life is a prison of unknowability, and for some people, the blackpill must feel like the only rational escape hatch from the spiritual gulag.
The BBC series Utopia, originally released in 2013, was remarkably prophetic in its illustration of dynamics that would continue to accelerate throughout the decade: a major pandemic, controlled and orchestrated by powerful shadow organizations within the British government; the dissolving of reality beneath Baudrillardian conspiracy and unknowability, with its characters confronting bleak secret knowledge that forces them to choose between taking the blackpill and embracing nihilism, or doing something about the vast, civilizational threats that are revealed to them, in the only ways they know how to. Both choices—taking the blackpill and resisting the blackpill—have vast ethical and moral implications.
The show begins with four friends who correspond with shared enthusiasm over a rare comic series called The Utopia Experiments, that begs conspiratorial intrigue in that it has seemingly predicted epidemics like mad cow disease. Taking on the roles of cryptographers, the friends slowly decode the images and symbols hidden in the comics and, the more they learn about them, the more secret knowledge they uncover about the British government and what it protects. Their discoveries put them in the sights of a shadow organization known as The Network, who systematically murder their family members, frame them for assorted heinous crimes, and generally ruin their lives. This brings them into contact with Jessica Hyde, who has been on the run from the organization her entire life and has a skillset that is useful in thwarting the Network’s violence.
In the second season, which ended up being the show’s last due to a premature cancellation, the audience finds out The Utopia Experiments comic series was created by Jessica’s father, a brilliant scientist who is tortured by his knowledge of overpopulation and projected ecological collapse, and who works with an agent named Milner to contrive a morally odious solution to the problem. Over the course of decades, Jessica’s father and The Network engineer a pandemic that will be used to justify the distribution of a vaccine that will also covertly sterilize the majority of the world’s population and relieve the Earth of excess mouths to feed. The comic strip is the mad scientist's cryptic way of documenting his work and role in the conspiracy.
The show is a stunning example of how complicated blackpill dynamics can be. A plot so nefarious must surely be blackpilled—or is it? The answer is, again, both yes and no. From the conspirators’ perspective, to not sterilize the population would be blackpilled, because for them to allow the human population to grow knowing what they know about the world’s ecological projections would be to let us plunge into extinction. But showrunner Dennis Kelly never lets his characters off the hook. He questions all their motives and choices, leaving one with the impression that the blackpill might be a subjective entity, and that nihilism and the resistance of nihilism manifest differently from person to person. Because surely these scientists and bureaucrats are limited by the systems they’re embedded in—and the show foregrounds the notion that being a functionary in a bourgeois state is its own form of blackpill—they decide on mass sterilization prior to questioning the effectiveness and sensibility of the political economy itself. It’s simply easier to imagine the sterilization of humanity than the end of capitalism.
Utopia was adapted as a series this year for Amazon by Gillian Flynn and David Fincher. While the remake is quite certainly worth watching and disturbing, given the Covidian context it was published into, it exaggerates the comic book element of the original to make it palatable to a contemporary American audience. It has John Cusack put in a terrific villainous performance that outpaces the original in terms of action set pieces and violence, while successfully recreating the enigmatic evil atmospherics of its source material. But with its dank, acidic color palette drifting from hyper-saturated greens and yellows to muted greys and browns, and a menacing electronic score, the BBC original provides the better depiction of both blackpill embrace and resistance, and the tensions to be found in the binary. Utopia tells us that the blackpill is a highly subjective experience. One man’s blackpill is another man’s act of hope and resistance.
Bradford Kessler, the New York-based artist, thinks the blackpill is only “the veil of hope removed” when one can see “the web of lies that structures society and politics'' more clearly. As he sees it, the blackpill is not a wilful decision to bask in hopelessness, despair, and nihilism so much as a useful demystification of the political order and an apophatic understanding of how rotten everything in Denmark really is. As an example of Kessler’s blackpill, the “post-left” is an internet subculture of writers, artists and podcasters that emerged in the past year, partly in response to the blackpilling failures of the Sanders 2020 presidential campaign and Corbyn’s 2019 bid for Prime Minister.
The post-left is ideologically disparate, with podcasts like What’s Left, The Good ol’ Boyz and my own System of Systems, publications like The Bellows, writers like Shant Mesrobian and Jeff Vandroux, and a horde of Twitter accounts that have been enveloped into the label. Within this sphere, there are left communists, social democrats, Marxist-Leninists and populist right wingers, united behind a shared criticism of the political economic role that “the left” holds in contemporary power structures. The post-left is often accused, mostly by leftist true believers, of being blackpilled. Its detractors will say that its criticism of “the left” is merely useful propaganda for the right wing, but in reality the “post-left” (a label foisted on it, not willingly chosen) is only blackpilled insofar as it is a critique of contemporary leftist politics as being part of the problem, and disbelief in that the left can ever be reformed. It is not an ideology of hopelessness, but an ideology built on the realization that the infrastructure of the left is constitutionally incapable of effecting real change. The post-left is a harsh realization that the left is little more than a propaganda mechanism for the left side of capital, and that it mystifies its true class allegiances to the “PMC” (“professional managerial class”) under vacant pro-worker rhetoric and moralizing “woke” posturing. Though it is slagged off as being little more than an assortment of edgy, angsty hipsters poisoned on irony, its aesthetic is born from a genuine discontent, resulting from substantive political analysis.
Seeing the left for what it is is blackpilling, in that once you see it (take it), you cannot unsee it (untake it). If the blackpill is, as Kessler says, the revelation of the web of lies that form the undercurrent of all our political and social dynamics, then the post-left is certainly blackpilled, at least from that vantage. But once a cogent critique materializes, new opportunities follow. The post-left has swallowed one black pill, but it is trying to expel it from its system by embracing something new. Just because the left is hopeless doesn’t mean the post-left thinks everything is.
Another interesting take on the blackpill comes courtesy of Rafael Foster, an artist and the director of MX Gallery, who told me he has always viewed Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher as truly blackpilled character in The Matrix. In Kessler’s reading of the blackpill, Neo’s choice to take the red pill and know the truth about The Matrix would be the blackpilling event. But Cypher, in Foster’s analysis, has already taken the red pill; he knows reality and his inability to change it, and so he cuts a deal with that system to be made blissfully unaware of its repulsive domination over social life once more. In this take, the blackpill is a process of knowing the truth, coming to nihilistically embrace its total power, and then choosing to resign into apathy. Cypher’s dilemma is the one we all seem to confront now on a daily basis. We know that our political economic system is riddled with contradictions and tendencies towards crises, that our planet is dying, and that we are at the mercy of a brutal structure that seems hellbent on reducing us to what Agamben calls “bare life,” in which our sheer biological survival takes precedence over anything that actually makes life worth living. The system is able to absorb its own dissent, and we know on some level that we are structurally powerless to present it with a real challenge. So we do what we’re told—we stay inside, we wash our hands, we wear our masks; we watch our shitty shows, take our shitty drugs, we go for jogs and stretch and order overpriced delivery from Seamless—because: what is to be done?
The blackpill isn’t a new product, it’s been consumed for centuries. It’s found in Biblical prophecy. In novels like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and poems like Byron’s “Darkness,” it becomes clear the romantics were plagued by blackpilled visions of despair every bit as much as they were nourished by the lust for life and love. But what’s unique about today is the abundance of blackpills we’re faced with. They’re everywhere, in and at the end of everything.
Philosopher Ray Brassier, whose monograph Nihil Unbound ripped to shreds the notion that philosophy had dealt with the problem of nihilism, ventured that it might not be “an existential quandary but a speculative quandary.” If we’ve decided that the blackpill, however fluidly it can be read as a concept, is a manifestation of nihilism, then perhaps it is only the ghost that looms over contemporary society, threatening to materialize at a moment’s notice. If, as Deleuze and Guattari said, capitalism is “the unnamable thing,” the dark potentiality that haunted every previous economic system, then perhaps the blackpill is late capitalism’s great unnamable.
The domination of social relations by tech monopolies, the pandemic that just won’t go away, Biden cruising to the presidency while clearly suffering from cognitive decline: all of these events and more present us with blackpills, and the blackpill would appear to be the logical conclusion of all our downward social trends. Maybe we’re all Cypher, all blackpilled and already living a blackpilled existence. Maybe our lives are defined by resistance to the blackpill, with every political act, every work of art and every declaration of love a refusal of its pull. If the blackpill is a speculative quandary, then maybe all life exists between the lure and defiance of it.
My System of Systems co-host, Ben Pseudonym, says the only real blackpill is to take nihilism to its logical conclusion and commit suicide. Since the anti-natalist philosophies of thinkers like Peter Wessel Zappfe and Thomas Ligotti are still at the fringe of philosophical intrigue, it’s safe to say that all of us are doing our damned best to reject the blackpill. The blackpill might inevitably win this conceptual tug of war, and a time may yet come when we collectively decide to chop it up into some lines, snort it back, and plummet into the abyss of civilizational collapse but, for as long as we keep on trying, and living, the blackpill can still be resisted.
Still from BBC’s Utopia, 2013-14.
Adam Lehrer is a writer and artist living in New York. He is the founder and co-host of the System of Systems podcast, and the founder and curator of the Safety Propaganda collaborative platform. He has been published by Autre Magazine, Caesura Magazine, Filthy Dreams, i-D, Mute Presence, Numero Berlin, SSENSE, The Quietus, and others.
Merciful ‘Evans... Brilliant analysis of the rapier on which each of us is impaled. We have the choice to slash up our hands on the erect blade or slide down to the hilt in hope of strangling the bastard holding it.
Great stuff, thanks Adam!