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Step 74: Symbolic Victory

Symbolic Victory

Symbols function in society to unite us and drive us forward, but when symbolic victory trumps reality, we encounter a reversal that dismantles order. We exist in a simulacra, full of false reputations.

Symbolic gestures (such as the rancher abandoning his home to chase a rustler) can provide symbolic protection through irrationality.

The issue is that the amplification of “grievance” (for power and reputation) dissuades reconciliation for either side, leading to prolonged and continuous conflict.


  • 0:00 The contradictory injunction of double binds.
  • 2:15 The death drive of determinism.
  • 4:44 How the capitalist system capitalizes on our stress.
  • 6:33 Intro to the show.
  • 8:55 Virtue signaling to win elections.
  • 10:58 Trump’s anointed tool.
  • 12:54 How symbolic acts can function in reality.
  • 14:30 Protecting your reputation through overreaction.
  • 16:10 You become what you fight.
  • 17:47 How we grasp and use models.


Richard NEsbitt, “Culture of Honor” (’96)


Part 1: Into the Symbolic

Part 2: reversal: winning is losing

Part 3: reputation, the symbol of honor

Part 4: reversal, “going native”


Brief Introduction

We continue to challenge the persistent “binary trap,” recognizing the contradictory nature of our engagement with the world. By shedding light on these systemic operations and personal impulses, the podcast aims to empower individuals to make conscious choices in response to the allure of binary systems, both on an individual and societal level.

Binaries (didactics) atomize and fragment us while also binding us together in opposition. However, they will not vanish or be overcome, so we must discover alternative approaches to maintain social institutions and foster community without succumbing to hyperbolic division and estrangement.

We begin our journey from the realm of political symbolism and signaling in America to the functioning of reputation in the Wild West. The next episode will extend these notions into the enigmatic realm of subjectivity, where symbols (such as Christianity) hold both the power to realize ourselves and the potential for danger.

Step 74: Symbolic Victory

Part 1: Master Servant

Michael Cuenco and Peter Thiel in different articles say that post-World War II America was making stuff, making physical and technological changes that were astounding, and we started to become optimists… but we traded our goals for Financial Security, where we didn’t make things anymore. Instead, we relied on the market: our risk was moved from reality into abstraction. 

Cuenco says about this time, late 70s and early 80s, politics shifted from Material concerns, where even the most ridiculous seeming political challenger would have an ‘economic plan’ for Real Change. 

A realpolitik agenda one could interrogate: politics was a way to make structural systemic changes to better the citizens and nation, and politicians were judged on the feasibility and virtues of these plans, and the ability to execute them. But, let’s be honest, is harder to win on intelligent foresight.

To bypass the merits of the argument the Left began indicating that they represent “progressive moral virtue.” The argument is not about feasibility, but what kind of person are you. To which the Right quickly responded by jumping into the same game, claiming superior virtue. What this means is that with our material conditions mostly satisfied, being the most prosperous and powerful country in the world a the time, we moved into virtue signaling to win elections. 

On top of losing reality to virtue signaling, the politician elected often bypasses (ignores) meaningful action on the very platform that got them elected. 

For instance: Trump had a chance to pass immigration verification for jobs, yet he didn’t… it would have done much more than “a wall” to halt immigration.

But his action, or inaction, says he only used immigration as a rallying point to get into office: he never cared about immigration or keeping his promises. 

The goal is to win, which requires wielding the right symbols as tools and then discarding them. 

Step 74: Symbolic Victory

Part 2: the reversal: winning is losing 

David French on the Making Sense Podcast discusses the problems of grievance and an “ends-means politics”: you remove considerations of character to ensure immediate victory.

Trump was considered by many Christians to be foul but a necessary evil versus the demonic portrayal of Hilary Clinton. Trump was proclaimed an “anointed tool” for God’s will. He was a weapon sanctioned; a tremendous compromise to achieve victory. 

It fueled a toxic symbiosis using Trump’s amorality to lash out at the liberal left: a lack of virtue to counter excessive virtue signaling.

The attack was what the right wanted, a retaliation for perceived (and real) grievances against the elitist, globalized left. 

Getting the WIN is more important than maintaining dignity. OR more accurately, we have redefined dignity: we have reversed the order, where once having dignity or honor was the win, now your win to have dignity. 

Albert Camus says the very idea of winning dignity is absurd. To echo Bratoon and Watts, it is a morality play in which you act, and yet, act we must. 

Step 74: Symbolic Victory

Part 3: Reputation, the symbol of honor

Going back to “material conditions” and how the symbolic act functions in reality (both as coming from and shaping reality) let’s consider the Wild West Rancher. 

In Richard Nisbett’s 1996 book “Culture of Honor,” this is called “reputational honor.” When the rancher who has his cattle rustled has a choice: he can realize it is an inefficient and dangerous gambit to track down the rustlers. However, in not extracting “justice” he opens himself to future theft. He is “soft,” and thus an easy target. 

On the other hand, the rancher who stakes his life on the “principle of the thing” will track the rustler for 3 months and kill him. Maybe eat his liver, I don’t know… I bet he was hungry after 3 months.

Any slight to reputation, any grievance, is amplified into an attack on livelihood, that is material conditions. A tribal war ensues. This excessive reaction makes sense by setting a precedent of insanity or irrationality. Protection through overreaction.

The problem here is that everyone has a grievance if you dig back far enough, which means everyone’s reputation needs defending and propping up (from the Hatfields and McCoys to the Egyptians and Jews).

Your symbol, that is your reputation, becomes winning, which creates losers, and there seems to be no space for forgiveness, just perpetual grievance.

Step 74: Symbolic Victory

Part 4: Reversal: “going native” 

If there is no forgiveness, only winning and virulently spreading your symbolic reputation in everyone’s face remains. So we establish a binary again: winners and losers at odds, circling and fighting. 

As we discussed in step 65, the interesting, and often unseen, aspect of antagonistic opposition is that by distinguishing yourself as different from the other and trying to create a distance between each other, you bind yourself to them. 

The attempt to go to an extreme distance forces the other to extremes, and for defense, all you can think about is the battle and your differences, which becomes a claustrophobic deadlocked dance. 

 For the sake of continuity, let’s say our reputational rancher, after fighting the Native Americans for years develops a deep respect for them, over time flipping his allegiance from our civilization to theirs: he has gone native. 

You become what you fight. 

Recently, hyperbolically, it was pointed out to me that our nation has a patriotic contingent that has a very similar value system to the Taliban. And while this seems blasphemous, the point of the last few episodes is to see how we grasp and use models available to us… perhaps blindly, unknowingly. 

Our proximity to an idea, even if we hate it, once we understand the model, we have a mimetic urge to dis-simulate our thoughts into the real: as Bratton says, to produce the image/form, the simulation in our head, into the real. 

So, as a nation, we went from “real production,” having our material needs met, to producing “the real” (that is an economy based on abstraction). And yet now we are left re-creating our world from Baudrillard’s third-order floating simulacra and signifiers: production without purpose, chasing the win to gain dignity, which in turn produces retroactively the character you wanted. 

What this all means is that the symbolic comes from a system, it is useful, it is OF the system, but it is not always smoothly functional. Because by its nature the symbolic is a translation. This amalgam fails when relied upon to utterly transpose. That is, the symbolic is an idea, not flesh, and it can transcend (and become transcendental) but we are still left in reality. 

While reality and symbols affect each other, symbols can also become affectation: a type of camouflage. This is a survival strategy we apply, or (as we will look at next) perhaps applied to us. 

But, and this is the point, symbols are dangerous because they fluctuate, they are slippery, and yet necessary to move. 

What we will talk about next time is how the symbolic provokes mystery, which drives us, and produces unity, in large part due to sacrifice and scapegoating: due to pain.

Step 74: Symbolic Victory

Thank you!

The next episode will extend these notions into the enigmatic realm of subjectivity, where symbols (such as Christianity) hold both the power to realize ourselves and the potential for danger. To do so, we will look at Slavoj Zizek and George Bataille, counteracting the 1 becoming 2 as sacred versus the all becoming 1 as the secular, and what those choices offer.

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Richard Nesbitt, “Culture of Honor” [link]

“Theorizing the Culture Wars” Michael Cuenco [link]

On Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One” _ “Pessimism, Optimism; Definite, Indefinite: Societies According to Peter Thiel” by Zak Slayback [link]

Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (’83)

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