Ralph Waldo Emerson’s self-reliance amidst the epistemic chaos of platform capitalism

I’m currently reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s self-reliance essay having intended to for years. His poetic affirmation of the capacity to form one’s own opinions resonates with me, reminding me of my favourite part of Nietzsche in his reflections on the internal experience of creativity:

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts: they become back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

To “Trust thyself” entails recognising that “no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till”. His point is that we have a capacity to understand and create within each of us which can only be realised through our own action. However comparison with others lead us to doubt the significance of our capacity which leaves it unactualised. I find this all inspiring stuff even if somewhat familiar because it has sedimented into the Anglo-American expressive individualism (see Bellah et al Habits of the Heart for more on this) which has been a feature of my cultural environment for my entire life.

What happens when we see it alongside the epistemic chaos of platform capitalism? Is Emerson’s self-reliance a positive virtue in a world with flat earth movements, climate change denial and the QAnon conspiracy theory? The injunction to ‘Do Your Research!’ has an Emersonian feel to it, even as it takes a completely naive stance towards the platform infrastructure through which the research is being conducted. Are we seeing the unintended consequences of expressive individualism break out? In a recent episode of QAnon Anonymous they compared contemporary conspiracy cultures to the mould which had been growing in the walls of a house, with social platforms hyper-charging its growth and exposing it to light rather than creating it in the first place.

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