All Heil the Emperor!

I had something else planned for this month, but with the recent turn of events, with our dearly beloved neighbor, Russia, (read: not neighbors, not the people of Russia, an important distinction to keep in mind here), inviting itself to one of its other neighbors, Ukraine, I thought it would be apt to comment on it. But me being me, this is not your usual stuff. I’m sure there’s no shortage of hot takes, of all kinds, mixed with mis- and/or disinformation, nor of ethnonationalism, promoting one party over another.

This is, however, a kind of a rehash. It combines elements from some older essays, namely from the essays that deal with imperialism, or, better yet, with an imperial state of mind, an image of thought or a way of thinking that is, in its core, imperial. To be clear, it is not limited to this or that person, to an emperor or to people who wish to be the emperor. It is a much more expansive notion than that. It’s collective and social. It appears as a given, like how things are, not only here and now, but how they were in the past and how they ought to be in the future. That said, there’s nothing simply given about it. There’s no reason for things to be the way they are, nor for why they were the way they were, nor for why they’d be the way they’ll be in the future.

While this is a rehash of stuff that I’ve covered in the past, I’m sort of driven to to do that in the current situation. I think this will help people to understand these things better, because I’m not relying on random examples or the ones in the originals. It should also make it clear that while I may come across as obscure, it’s not because I happen to hold some arcane knowledge. A lot of what I know and how I make sense of things is just a matter of familiarizing yourself with what I’ve read and/or experienced and then just going with it, riffing a bit, not afraid of messing things up here and there. You don’t need a fancy degree or anyone’s blessing for any of that. I’d say it’s more of an art that way, doing things the way you want, at your own leisure, for your own pleasure. If someone finds something in it, for themselves, great, if they don’t, well, too fucking bad.

I’ll weave that with Mark Lanegan wrote about three years ago on Twitter (March 6, 2019), in reply to what appears to be a random person (I won’t name the person, no offense meant by that, because I can’t be sure the person would want that). The person wanted to know what Lanegan thinks of self-doubt, to which he responded that, in his experience, it is “a toxic mind-fuck” and that it not only applies to artists, like himself and the person he replied to, but also to anyone. I concur. Been there, done that, and it will make you a total train wreck. The worst thing is that it’s you all along. It’s what I call the doubled subject. That’s cruel all right. Hot and cold and the same time. Passionate about things, while at the same time ice cold and calculative. It’s the ‘I’ promoting itself, declaring itself, while also doubting itself, so that nothing ever appears to be in order. You’ll never reach the standard you’ve set up for yourself, because you keep comparing yourself with it. The person asking about this mentions that, how no matter how you try, the self-doubt creeps in, so that you never appear good enough. Ah, that’s actually quite perceptive. Kudos. Lanegan replied to this (March 8, 2019) in the form of a question in order to question the purpose of the endeavor: “Good enough for what?” Indeed, what will be good enough? That’s the trap. He added to that, noting that if you do it just because it’s what you do, because that’s what you desire, that’s all you need. That doesn’t mean that you can just wing things, nor that you shouldn’t be critical of yourself. No, no. It’s rather that if you think your work isn’t up to scratch, as set up by someone else (it could, of course, be set by yourself, but that’s the social/discursive aspect of this, that peer pressure to conform to what is generally considered the standard, so you or them, it’s all the same as you participate in it all, just like everyone else), you’ll end up making what he calls “the fatal mistake of comparing it to someone else”. It’s fine to be critical of yourself if it is about knowing that you can do better. You’ll be driven to do better, on your own terms, without any external pressure to meet some supposed standard. That’s not self-doubt because it’s just that you did something and realized that you can do it even better.

Late last year Lanegan had the same to say to Anton Newcombe, when he agreed on the absurdity of (some, but not all) criticism. People had been sending Newcombe some messages, indicating that he isn’t on this and/or that list because he isn’t doing what they want him to be doing, to which Lanegan replied (November 2, 2021), stating that the whole thing is absurd. Like it’s one thing to not like someone or someone’s work, without knowing them or their work, and ranting about it, on your own, that’s fair, feel free to do so, go ahead, but it’s another thing to track someone down just for that purpose, to let them know that you don’t like it. It’s as he puts it, “ludicrous”, “a fucking joke”. His “[f]uck them” is only appropriate here.

Anyway, not only was that relevant to my approach, but, if you haven’t been keeping tabs with what else has happened, Lanegan died, so I thought it’d be appropriate to give him some credit, not for the sake of it, like a fanboy, but because I think he deserves it. Gotta approve someone who is willing to point out the obvious and be blunt about it, instead of hiding in some ivory tower or expressing things in sanitized ways. I think it’s better to be blunt, when you really want to get the point across. I have little interest in civility and propriety. I can’t stand verbal hygiene. It’s a ruse. Oh, and it’s really, really boring. Also, he has a song ‘Emperor’, so I guess this is quite fitting. The song and the video are actually relevant to this essay. Anyway, that doesn’t mean that you should simply agree with people and flatter them. Nah. I also like people who don’t try to hide that they aren’t always right and that they’ve done things that others didn’t like. He certainly was no saint, but he didn’t expect people to think that he was. To be honest, I have little tolerance for grandstanding. That’s why I don’t make a fuss about myself. I don’t expect to be showered with recognition. I couldn’t give a damn about milestones, medals and awards. It’s like great and now what, what do I do with such? I don’t believe in comparing myself to some made-up standards. That’s, perhaps, the worst thing you can do to yourself, as also noted by Lanegan. I just do stuff and move on.

If you don’t like what I do, you can keep it to yourself. If you tell it to me, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Sure, you can criticize, but then you should be constructive about it and be willing to let it go if it appears that I was right about it all along. I’m more than happy to have people chip in, to contribute something, but if it’s just nay-saying, telling me what to do and how to do it, without taking into consideration what I want to do and how I want to do it, yeah, then I’ll just ignore you or point out why what you tell me just doesn’t stick. It’s just that I rarely run into such honesty. Why? Well, because people want to have their cake and eat it as well. They really aren’t willing to put their neck on the line. They want to win, at all cost, without being willing to pay the price if they end up losing. There’s always some recourse to something or someone else, for example to their authority, which is, of course, just BS.

I think I could also explain that in terms of authenticity or sincerity, as I’ve done in a past essay while examining Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology’. That said, I think I’ve already gone on a tangent, so I think it’s better not to go on a tangent of tangent. Okay, I’ve done tangents of tangents in the past, probably even tangents of tangents of tangents, but I’m trying to keep this short and sweet.

Anyway, so, the imperial state of mind, what it is it about? You might guess it already, but Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari cover this is ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. To summarize it, without getting into the details, there’s the one on the top, what I like to call the emperor, and the functionaries who make things happen for the emperor, in exchange for a comfortable life in the court. The emperor is the one who decides everything and the functionaries just do what they are told. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the emperor as the despot or as the despot-god, but, well, it doesn’t matter what you call that role or position, inasmuch as you get that it’s the role or position that gives you the final say on everything. It’s that gig that the ruler claims to be his or her god given right, god being the almighty and the ruler being the fellow supposedly chosen by the almighty, in its absence, so, technically, a viceroy of sorts. That said, as viceroy doesn’t have a great ring to it, the ruler presents him- or herself more as an embodiment of the will of god. I’ve gone with the most general of monikers for those who are in the emperor’s inner circle, functionaries, because it’s not that context specific as, for example, priests as Deleuze and Guattari keep mentioning them in the book. Bureaucrats is also good label for them, as mentioned by them (114), but I think functionaries is even better.

They (116) warn us not to think of this arrangement as limited to situations where you have some despot and some priests:

“This excessively hasty overview is applicable not only to the imperial despotic regime but to all subjected, arborescent, hierarchical, centered groups: political parties, literary movements, psychoanalytic associations, families, conjugal units, etc.”

To which they (117) add that this can be found everywhere, even at home, in all kinds of domestic squabbles, and in state institutions. The thing to remember here is that you a have clear structure with one on the top, accompanied by a small circle of people who seek to retain their positions and all the exclusive lifestyles that come with it, regardless of who they serve. This social system is that simple. No one else matters. They are the expendables. They have no say on anything. The on the top is the god figure who decides everything and, by the will of god, is never wrong, no matter how the others think otherwise. Those in the inner circle, the functionaries, interpret that, what the ruler says or does.

It is only apt that they (114) state that “signifiance and interpretosis are the two diseases of the earth or the skin, in other words, humankind’s fundamental neurosis.” The former is the play of signifiers, how instead of going from a signifier to a signified you land on just another signifier, unless you somehow manage anchor it, as discussed by the two (114-115). That anchoring point is the master-signifier, what they (115) refer to as the center of signifiance. More commonly, they also refer to this as the face, which, according to them (115), “crystallizes all redundancies” of the signifiers, emitting them and receiving them, releasing and recapturing them, nonstop. The idea here is that the signifiers are deterritorialized, jumping from one to another, in a never-ending sequence, whereas the face is all that what gets territorialized or, to be more specific, “the reterritorialization  internal to the system”, that is to say the thing that halts that chain of signification, setting limits to it, making that process relative rather than absolute, as they (115) point out. In other words, “[t]he signifier reterritorializes on the face”, as explained by them (115). This is the point where the latter kicks in as it is reterritorialized signifiers on the face that fuel the process of interpretation, so that, in practice, when certain facial traits appear on the face, when the facial expression changes, we get a new interpretation, as they (115) point out. So, in summary, when the face of the one on top changes, when the emperor raises his eyebrow, or the like, the functionaries around him make note of this, interpreting it as this and/or that, as they (115) go on to specify.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing to be interpreted here as the center of signifiance, that master-signifier, that face, is never a given. They (114-115) indicate this by noting that the center of signifiance is the personification of the signifier, which is then crystallized as the face as it appears to us that our voice emanates from the face. It’s pointless really, a mere empty abstraction that means nothing in itself as it has nothing to it, lacking nothing and having extra to it, as they (115) go on to specify.

In a summary, in this arrangement things are the way they are because the emperor says they are so. Sometimes it’s not at all clear what the emperor means, if anything, but that’s where the functionaries come in. They claim the exclusive right to explain to others what it is that the almighty emperor wants. It’s a sweet gig. They make good money while they are at it. Nothing about this is, however, fixed. It’s all made up. It’s all smoke and mirrors, “[l]ies and deception”, as Deleuze and Guattari (115) point out.

Oddly enough, while it is all a big fat lie, it’s there, in the open, as noted by Deleuze and Guattari (115). As its all about the emperor, as the emperor is the embodiment of the will of god, “the face of god”, if you will, the emperor has nothing to hide, as they (115) go on to add. That may seem contradictory, aye, I get that, but just think of it. Nothing is hidden, nothing can be hidden when it’s all a lie, when there is no truth, except that the is the emperor is the one in charge.

To exemplify all that, think of the history of Russia, first as the Russian Empire, then as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and, finally, as the contemporary Russian Federation. They all work the same way. You have someone at the top that embodies the state, as the head of state, and gives it a face, something that the people recognize. It doesn’t matter what we call that person, the Czar of Russia, the Soviet leader (as the Chairman and/or as the Party General Secretary, if you care about the titles, for some reason), or the President of Russia. Then you have the functionaries, the state bureaucrats and adjutants who are responsible of running the show, perhaps sometimes even showing initiative, but who are, nonetheless, expected to toe the line. They can, of course, be politicians or party members, but they don’t actually function in some sort of parliamentary capacity, at least not in the sense that we think of them, anyway. They are part of the system and are expected to do as they are told, top-down, and not to speak their mind, bottom-up. So, if you are wondering why no one did anything, it’s because the on the top is the one who has the final say. The others are there to manage it all accordingly, while enjoying privileged positions in society. The one on the top technically doesn’t need this and/or that functionary, they aren’t irreplaceable, but they do market themselves that way. Okay, sure, people are needed, but they could well be anybody. They are just clever at solidifying their position, claiming to be irreplaceable, which is why the people accompanying the one on the top tend to be out of shape older men, at least when you look at official state photo ops. Oh, and they always claim that they serve the one on top and only the one on top, but they say that to anyone who happens to be on the top. They might not even agree with the one on the top, fair enough, but they know it’s a sweet gig, in a sense much sweeter than the gig of being one on the top, because there is no shortage of people who’d love to be the one on top, whereas your job is secure. Do a bit of browsing and you’ll be surprised how common it is for functionaries to slink from one arrangement to another, as if they didn’t serve the previous person on the top or the previous political system. The Bolshevik leadership was alarmed by such opportunism, only to not notice that they themselves were more of the same, a man on the top, accompanied by a cadre of opportunists. It’s the same with when the system changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s just old men who sought to maintain their status in the new system. It’s not like you had fresh faces with new ideas.

To explain where most people are, you have this center periphery setup where the one on the top is also the one in the center and those functionaries are close to the center, whereas everyone else is somewhere between them and the periphery, as explained by Deleuze and Guattari (34). In addition, people are to identify with a group and the group with a leader and vice versa, as they (34) point out. To reiterate an earlier point, one is expected to be part of the group, of a mass of people, and to be close to the center (even though one is never allowed in the inner circle, as that’s for the functionaries), as well as to steer far from the fringes, expect, perhaps, to repel those from the fringes and those from the outside, as they (34) go on to add.

Then there’s also the issue of paranoia. They (112) characterize it as highly paradoxical as it comes with a feeling of impotence, that doubt that seeks to undermine one, mixed with a feeling power, that you must find out what it is that you don’t know or don’t know what it means. In their (112) words:

“The paranoid despotic regime: they are attacking me and making me suffer, but I can guess what they’re up to, I’m one step ahead of them, I’ve always known, I have power even in my impotence. ‘I’ll get them.’”

If that seems familiar, matching the one currently in charge, well, it’s because that’s how it is. That’s paranoia for you. The emperor is the one in charge and thus has the last say (even though there’s no guarantee that he or she is right about anything as the emperor is just like anyone else, flesh and blood), but he or she fears nothing more than being assailed. Every window, every balcony, every staircase, every meal, well, just about anything is potentially lethal to the emperor. What keeps the emperor going is this sense of power that he or she gets from staying one step ahead of the assailants, regardless of whether they are real or imagined.

They also (113) also capture the problem of this kind of regime quite well:

“Nothing is ever over and done with in a regime of this kind. It’s made for that, it’s the tragic regime of infinite debt, to which one is simultaneously debtor and creditor.”

Ah, yes, the emperor is self-centered, and someone is always out to get him or her, so everything that happens revolves around him or her (although at this stage I feel like I must point out that it’s typically a him, not because it has to be, but because typically it is, men and the fear impotence, what can I say about that…).

They (114) also make note of how this regime or system must constantly expand because of the paranoia of the emperor. Everything must be made part of the empire. Why? Well, because the fringes must be kept in check, from falling to the wrong hands, and what remains outside the borders of the empire must be made part of the empire in order to prevent it from assailing the emperor. The emperor must know everything that happens in order to stay ahead of his or her assailants.

This paranoia is what they (119) call a paranoid, interpretive or ideational delusion. They (120) note that the great difficulty of this kind of delusion is that people who suffer from it are not, in fact, batshit crazy, but appear to be so. How so? How is a paranoid person not crazy? Well, while they are self-centered, and fixated around ideas, like what is this and what does it mean, is it out to get me, they are actually highly functional. That’s certainly deeply troubling and problematic, yes, but that has to do with the regime and being placed as the leader in that regime. I’m pretty sure most of us have been this way, a bit paranoid about something, but life has still gone on. It happens. They contrast (120-121) this is with active or passional delusions in which the person appears to be fine, happy, content, not at all investing its time fixating on some idea, like what something is or what it means, but is actually just batshit crazy, which we come to notice when such a person suddenly loses its temper, doing something unexpected (death, arson and the like in the extreme cases).

Now, to be clear, they do not, strictly speaking, endorse either kind of delusion. Neither is great to be honest. What they (120-121) are saying, however, is that we tend to let the paranoid people off the hook, because they do alright, whereas we lock anyone who appears to lose their marbles all the sudden. We condemn the latter without really knowing what it is that they protested, whereas we are fine with the former, which is why we find such people on the top.

To wrap this up, if you’ve been wondering why Vladimir Putin (or any other self elected leader) acts the way he does, like a delusional paranoiac, it’s because it comes with the territory. The regime has been like that since forever, really. If it seems archaic, out of date, it’s because it is. It’s as simple as that. While it may help to replace him, I believe it does, but you really should the change the whole regime, the whole system, while you are at it. The thing with that is that it’s easier said than done. That regime is everywhere, albeit not in such pure form. Most organizations are run that way, with someone on top, for life, or for way too long, surrounded by a select few who are there for the ride. So, if you run into some organization and you notice that their chair or president, whatever you want to call the one on the top, has been in that position for decades, just stop for a moment. How messed up is that?


  • Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Lanegan, M. W. (2017). Emperor (A. Johannes and M. W. Williams, Wr., A. Johannes, Pr.). London, United Kingdom: Heavenly Recordings.
  • Sartre, J-P. ([1943] 1992). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.