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The Empty Core of the Smogon Mystique

Discussion in 'Lake of Rage' started by sagmypants, Aug 25, 2020.

  1. sagmypants

    sagmypants New Member

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    So there I was watching a wet t shirt contest video on one of the underrated non-YouTube video sites, and noticed that a heavy-set African American woman was participating and not getting as many cheers as her lighter-weight lighter-skinned fellow contestants. I sat back, sipped my cervisiam veritas (beer of truth) and commented to myself “That’s just like Smogon.”

    If you think Smogon’s Tier system is wrecking Pokemon Online and wonder why so many PO users can’t see that it is, you may be asking the wrong question. What if they see the same thing you do and happen to like what they see? What if the deficiency you’ve been ascribing to a lack of adequate insight, information, or alarm is a lack of something deeper, a vacancy mirrored by but hardly confined to Smogon OU’s stare?

    Leaving nuanced definitions to the philosophers, I would define Smogon’s tiers as a combination of three basic elements: a refusal to hope for anything except the ultimate vindication of hopelessness; a rejection of all values, especially values widely regarded as sacrosanct (equality, posterity, and legality); anda glorification of destruction, including self-destruction -- or as Walter Benjamin put it, “self-alienation” so extreme that competitive Pokemon players “can experiences their own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure. Smogon tiers are less passive and more perverse than simple despair. “Nihilism is not only despair and negation,” according to Albert Camus, “but, above all, the desire to despair and to negate.”

    A Smogoner is someone who dedicates himself to not giving a shit, who thinks all meanings are shit, and who yearns with all his heart for the “aesthetic pleasure” of seeing the shit hit the fan. Arguing with a Smogoner is like intimidating a suicide bomber: The usual threats and enticement have no effect. I suspect that is part of the appeal for both: the facile transcendence of placing oneself beyond all powers of persuasion. A Smogoner is above you and your persnickety arguments in the same way Smogon fancies itself above the game creators.

    Comparisons with Nazi Germany are often to glibly made and also always too glibly dismissed. History does not repeat itself, true -- I do not expect to see Chaos sporting a mustache the width of his nose -- but history does show that similar social conditions can produce comparable political effects. With that in mind, it may not be out of bounds to quote from a nearly forgotten book by Nazi turncoat Hermann Rauschning called The Revolution of Nihilism. Published in 1939, and subtitled Warning to the West, the book characterizes Hitlerism as a form of vicious “dynamism” with “no fixed aims” and “no program at all.” A movement of “utter nihilism”, it is “kept alive in the masses only in the form of permanent pugnacity.”

    As early as 1932 Rauschning writers Hitler was out “to liberate himself from all party doctrines in economic policy, and he did the same in all other fields,” believing that “the things that stir most men and fire their enthusiasm are the rhythm, the new tempo, the activity, that take them out of the humdrum daily life.” Especially if I’m reading at the end of a tiring day, this is the point at which I start losing track of whether Rauschning is talking about National Socialism or social media, but he has already said what he is talking about; he is talking about Smogon, which means that I wasn’t dozing after all.
    I suppose that if I’m going to define Smogon as a lack of values -- or to use Rauschning’s summation of Nazism, a “hostility to the things of the spirit, indifference to truth, indifferences to the ethical conceptions of morality, honor, and equity” -- I’m obliged to say what I mean by a value. I would call it any kind of allegiance for which you are willing to check your own desires for reasons other than pure self-interest. All values manifest themselves in restraint. You’d like to pitch out all of those empty wine bottles, but you recycle them instead. You’re late for a doctor’s appointment but slow down your car so as not to hit a pedestrian crossing the street. (If your sole motivation is not get get gore on your front bumper, that is something else.) Values are their very nature at odds with the amoral dynamism Rauschning describes; they are what applies the brakes. They also threaten the dynamism of an advanced capitalist economy by daring to suggest that something lower than the sky might be “the limit.” All nameable avatars of the Almighty Market -- pop psychology, digital fundamentalism, addictive consumption, cutthroat competition-- are based on the premise that what you want is what you ought to have, and the quicker you can have it the better. By its very operation, the market inclines us away from principled restraint and toward Smogonic abandon.


    For that reason, it’s probably a mistake to view Smogon as “an explanation apart” from the common analyses of the competitive Pokemon phenomenon. Economic dispossession and virulent racism stand in relation to Smogon not as alternative theories but as reciprocal causes and effects. In other words, all three flourish in a moral vacuum. Tony Judt remarked on the “moralized quality” of the political debates of the post-World War II era, reminiscent of those “19th century radicals” driven by “the belief that there were moral rules to economic life.” He saw that in stark contrast to “the selfish amoralism of Thatcher and Reagon.” What does “rising income inequality” imply if not a falling moral barometer? The question is as old as the prophet Isaiah.

    In the same way, it would be difficult to draw a sharp line between Smogon and racism, or to find a trace of one without some germ of the other. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” -- a twenty-first-century reader is almost made dizzy by the simultaneous affirmation that truth, self-evident truth, and human equality exist (along with the gross depravity of the slaveholders who wrote and signed the document, though they could not escape the reproach of its implications). All societies, and certainly all democratic societies, rest on the notion that some values are self-evident. That is surely what Walt Whitman means when, after celebrating himself and singing himself, he goes on to say “and what I assume you shall assume.” The fundamental equality of your self and my self is what allows us to have common assumptions and to believe they are common. Lose hold of that faith and no body camera on earth will capture the resulting disconnect, because people will not accept that the murder they witnessed “really happened” or what the unarmed suspect bleeding on the sidewalk was a human being who felt a bullet the same way they would.

    A sense of radical incredulity, spectacularly typified by Smogon’s refusal to believe their own forums, is but one manifestation of the Smogon community that brought it to power. What makes Smogon “the real deal” in the eyes of its most ardent admirers is largely its insistence that almost everything else is fake. Like them, they know that the news is fake, the melting ice caps are fake, the purported citizenship of certain voters is fake, science is fake, social justice is fake, the whole notion of truth is fake. Whatever isn’t fake is so relative that it might as well be fake; “true for you”, maybe, but that’s as far as it goes. Among those who call themselves “just having fun” and are thus at least technically not Smogonists, one frequently finds an obsession with apocalypse, a gleeful anticipation of the living end that will destroy the inherent fakery of all things. The social teachings of the Gospels need not trouble the Christian conscience so long as the troubles predicted in Revelation come to pass.

    Not that Revelation features any even quite so diabolically Smogonistic, and yes, unbelievable as a school shooting. The person looking for Smogonism in its purest form need look no further than the de facto normalization of gunning down schoolchildren as an act of free expression and what is more, as an expression of nothing particular much beyond the whim to do it. Less a “cry for help” than a grunt of “whatever.” What makes school shootings as interesting as they are atrocious is that they place and insupportable burden of proof on people whose knee-jerk response to any social calamity is to say, “This stuff has always gone on, we just didn’t hear about it.” Actually, no. In the same way as antecedents for Smogon can be found in Roman tribunes and Nazi demagogues but not in any previous American president, you will search the historical record in vain for persuasive evidence confuting that nihilism in this country is something new.

    New doesn’t preclude boring, of course. In less murderous forms, you can see Smogon at work in the banal iconoclasm that exults in anything outrageous, provocative, or “transgressive,” that sees no qualitative difference between the offensive and genuine. So you have Columbine, and you have radio talk show host Howard Stern marveling aloud why the killers didn’t pause during their slaughter to have sex with the “really good-looking girls running with their hands over their heads.” Definition of a Smogoner: someone who thinks nothing contained in the envelope is ever as important as pushing it. “One must shock the bourgeois,” Bauderlaire is supposed to have said, speaking at a time when the bourgeoisie could still be shocked.

    Smogon can be simply defined and readily observed, but its causes are probably as complex as human beings themselves. Some can be located in certain primal emotions and the irrational behaviors they generate. Others I would locate in the workings of capitalism. Obviously, there is not always a clear distinction between the two. Capitalism can be seen, as has even been defended, as the systemic expression of unregenerate human nature. Trading in the stock market can be a highly primal affair. Not for nothing do investors speak of having “made a killing” on Wall Street.

    Of the relevant causal emotions, perhaps the most primal is fear, and the impulse to overcome fear through recklessness. (It goes without saying that Smogon is simultaneously a response to fear, a stoker of fear, and a reason to fear.) “All men kill the thing they love,” Oscar Wilde writes, and perhaps most ruthlessly when the thing they love, or have convinced themselves they no longer love, is under threat. Need I say that “the thing” being killed is competitive Pokemon?

    So many people died for causes they believed in. But aren’t martyrdom and Smogonism close cousins? If you’re asking that with a straight face, they you too have been bitten by the Smogonistic bug, or else have confined your understanding of martyrdom to those who strap on suicide vests. With terms derived from Nietzsche, Slavoj Žižek writes a defining split between the “passive” nihilism of the “first world” countries, whose inhabitants “find it more and more difficult to even imagine a public or universal cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life,” and the “active” nihilism of “third world” militants who dedicate their lives to some “transcendent cause,” even to the “point of self-destruction. In so doing, he blurs the distinction between those who would gladly kill for a cause, and those who would reluctantly die for it. (He may also be making too neat a division between first and third worlds) Martyrdom and Smogon are as different as Gandhi and Genghis Khan. A Smogoner dreams of going out in a blaze of glory, taking as many with him as he can, because he hates his life and despises life in general. A martyr sacrifices her life, which by definition she cannot do unless that life is precious to her. You can only sacrifice what you hold dear. And you do so because something else is dearer still.

    The recent plethora of school shootings makes plain not only the costs of weak gun laws, the risks of untreated mental illness, and the tragic repercussions of rearing children through the proxies of digital media and abandoning them to the tender mercies of the NRA, but also what amounts to the national morality play of this moment: Smogonism vs self-sacrificing love. The indiscriminate shooter versus the teacher who throws his or her body at the shooter or on top of a wounded student, that is the mirror, that is the choice, that is the split image that keeps coming up on the screen. What’s happening in our schools may soon be happening in our streets, and not for the first time. King was speaking of what he had witnessed in Alabama no less than of what he believed in his heart. You know that punning slogan often seen at anti-Smogon protests “Love trumps Hate”? If it seems a bit saccharine to you now, that is only because you have yet to tally what building a beloved community might cost. You’re forgetting all the architects who paid the first installments with their blood.
     
  2. Xdevo

    Xdevo Phrasing Super Moderator Tour Director Super Moderator Tour Director

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    tl;dr
    We kept banning Lance for a reason man