Fear and Loathing on Planet Urbit
Probing the depths of the downtown scene with Wet Brain and the "Mars Review of Books"
Last Monday I got a text from Walter Pearce of the Wet Brain podcast inviting me to a tea party that Friday. This event was part of "Urbit NYC Week," which is a series of parties thrown for the downtown scene world to promote Urbit’s "decentralized personal server platform." With the invite he added "Don't write one of ur gay little stories about this just come and say what up." Obviously, this meant I was expected to write one of my gay little stories.
This gay little story of mine isn’t a grand takedown or anything, it’s too sprawling for that. I started writing this so that I wouldn’t have to retell the whole Urbit Week story to my friends over and over, and then realized even that was too ambitious. This is a world overflowing with strange characters, each with unique backstories and delusions, which are often cultivated full of innuendos and plausible disavowals to be as impenetrable as possible. I won’t get to the bottom of how and why exactly the fascist tech oligarchs are bankrolling the downtown scene here, I just show what it looks like to me from one day of going to parties. I’m aware that this sort of writing is probably “complicit” on some level, glamorizing even, so please forgive me. It’s a chapter in a broader arc.
A bit about my connection to Walter and why he invited me to this. Last year Walter DM'd me on Twitter asking me to go on his podcast, Wet Brain. Wet Brain has been described as the zoomer Red Scare: deep in the "downtown" social world, embracing an aesthetics of reactionary edginess against the stagnant, sanctimonious politics of the "Brooklyn scene," all with a ditzy affect that says they don't take any of this too seriously. Walter was a casting director for Hood By Air and his co-host, Honor Levy, has a reputation as a downtown “it girl” who writes sometimes. The podcast's structure consists of loose and informal chats with guests they call on the phone, and the only direction Walter gave me was his interest in my writings about incels and alt-lit. This was still several months before I would move to NYC, but I had already started writing some of the stuff I'd consider part of my "New York phase" (when he mentioned alt-lit I think he was specifically referring to a piece I wrote about the latest Tao Lin book). We recorded a pretty strange episode in which I defended the “proletarian uprisings” of the George Floyd movement against their pure, mocking incredulity. As I’ve explored New York, I’ve come to realize that I would end up writing about them sooner or later. People seem to be interested in them and in what they “represent.” I wrote a bit about Honor’s poems, which I found surprisingly compelling, in my Substack post about Forever Magazine. My praise would turn out to be controversial: any so-called “it girl” is bound to have many haters, and I realized this unexpected position from the irreverent critic suddenly thrust me into scene politics more than I anticipated. One day last month I saw I had a missed call from Walter and a text that said “call back m crumps we’re talking about ur twitter threads,” but I was way too stoned to deal with that at the time. The next day while scrolling Twitter I saw pictures of Walter dressed in a duck-hunting camouflage suit getting married at his compound in the mountains.
Urbit itself is harder to describe concisely. According to Wikipedia it is “a decentralized personal server platform” that “seeks to deconstruct the client-server model in favor of a federated network of personal servers in a peer-to-peer network with a consistent digital identity.” The platform was developed by neoreactionary thinker-blogger Curtis Yarvin, who is also known by his pen name “Mencius Moldbug.” The project is wildly ambitious and sets out to basically re-invent the internet with an all-encompassing communication protocol as fundamental as e-mail. Curtis Yarvin has distanced himself from Urbit so that it can grow without the political pressure associated with his controversial persona. Still, his idiosyncratic technolibertarian/cryptoreactionary ideas are baked into the protocol’s quasi-feudalist hierarchy, and if Urbit were to become as successful as it aspires to be, Yarvin’s ownership of digital assets in the Urbit system would make him wildly powerful in the Web3 future. Fortunately, Urbit is so deliberately obtuse that this future will probably never come, but Urbit’s real world soft power is expressed throwing these parties to manifest Yarvin’s dream of creating a serious intellectual space for his brand of reactionary politics by connecting the venture capitalist tech oligarch class with downtown Manhattan’s “cool kids.”
THE WET BRAIN TEA PARTY
Friday afternoon, 214 Lafayette St in SoHo. A fin-de-siecle power station that had been renovated into a large five-floor townhome now used as an event space. Ascending the building’s floors, I passed a large indoor pool on the way to the main party area. The juxtaposition of the dark industrial brick framework with the old-world antique finishes: a Bruce Wayne vibe fitting for a meeting of postliberal venture capitalists entertaining vague dreams of vigilantism and blackpilled jokermode niche internet microcelebrities. As I walked up the stairs, I passed an enormous poster for Michelangelo Atonioni’s Blow-Up.
It was at the top floor of the whole place I finally came across people I recognized. Someone who looked like she could be Honor Levy scurried past me as I was coming up the stairs, and not far behind her was Walter Pearce in his unmistakable redneck high fashion style. I said “Yo Walter, what’s good” and dapped him up, and then he continued on down the stairs behind Honor. The two of them had just come out of this room on the top floor that was mostly empty except for an armchair, a small table with recording equipment on it, and two people sitting on the floor. These people were my friend Max (@reality_gamer) and Kaitlyn, a journalist for The Atlantic I had talked with the previous day. Max was drinking a beer he had brought into the alcohol-free event (I suspected this had something to do with Walter’s sobriety and conversion to Christianity). I deviously told the Atlantic journalist about the event beforehand because I wanted to maximize the chaos of the scene for my own writing.
Max, Kaitlyn, and I were all writers on the job, in our own ways. Kaitlyn was the old-school type of reporter, with her notepad and tape recorder and business cards she handed out to us. She had to figure out a way to pitch to her boomer editors whatever she was going to write about this corner of the downtown scene, “Dimes Square,” “angelicism,” and so on. She had to figure out how they were newsworthy—not just epiphenomenal bourgeois dilettantes, but people who actually should be read about. “Newsworthy” in this case has typically meant overdramatizing the connection to Peter Thiel in a way that the scenesters have become accustomed to laughing off—less a fault of individual writers so much as the structural demands of their platforms. I told her I didn’t envy this part of her assignment, which I’ve mostly managed to sidestep by framing my writing in this serialized self-referential Substack personal narrative in which I’m drawn toward the mayhem of the reactionary rich kid avant-garde world but disappointed in its inability to deliver on its promises. The Atlantic wouldn’t run this. Still, on some level I certainly envy the status she has as the representative of an institution that goes all the way back to Ralph Waldo Emerson. And although Kaitlyn is young and presumably more “with it” than her editors, she was definitely an outsider at this party—a straight journalist rather than an eccentric, irony-poisoned character—and I found it comforting that someone else was there to see this whole thing as the freak show it was, even if she probably saw me as just another one of the freaks. Kaitlyn is “cringe.”
Max is the opposite kind of writer—he had been writing about the Remilia Collective and their Milady NFTs in a kind of esoteric-hyperstition fiction form on Substack, and he has some real financial interest in the value of the Milady NFTs, even if it isn’t that much (he’s told me he’s more interested in this on a conceptual/artistic level than as a big investment). Max is inspired by and sees himself as a part of this art movement, he finds its obscurity seductive and playful, which is also to say that his writing “hypes” it up, even though he’s internalized some of its paranoid tendencies and has an insider’s tragic awareness of the decentralized network-spirit’s unconscious drive to turn against itself (through doxing, harassment, and so on). He’s not sure if some of the anonymous haters that send him discouraging DMs on Twitter are from the Remilia Collective itself (the haters’ main criticism is that his writing is too clear, too simple—they want him to be more obscure). Max’s street style echoes Walter’s, in that they both look like hillbillies, but with the Carharttcore cultural-conservative signifiers toned down a bit and ever-so-slightly genderbent. Max was wearing a forest camouflage baseball hat with a smileyface logo and these glammed out metallic studs that gave the impression of some pansexual drug dealer selling research chemicals at a truck stop somewhere in the Rust Belt. Oddly enough, Max doesn’t like the classical psychedelics, such as LSD, and considers them tools of CIA mind control (true to the scene, he prefers ketamine). Max is “based.”
The Wet Brain people came back into the room with a starstruck squad of college-age members of the Wet Brain Discord channel. They all sat down on the hardwood floor with Kaitlyn, Max, and I, and then Walter turned on the recording equipment to start recording material for a special episode of their podcast. Honor passed her microphone around to the group and told us all to introduce ourselves, starting with the young fans and then coming around to the writers. After the introductions, we were supposed to start some normal conversation, but no one, including Honor, seemed to care enough to actually speak into the microphones. Walter’s newlywed wife came in dressed like she just came out of an episode of Gossip Girl. She brought a little dog with her and gave it over to Walter. With the dog now sitting in his lap and quietly whimpering into the microphone, Walter looked frustrated that the group was clearly not making the podcast-worthy conversation they had hoped for, and the whole endeavor quickly fell apart. Kaitlyn was trying to get in a few questions to Walter while he was still there, but he was standoffish. Apparently sometime before I had arrived, he had told Kaitlyn to put away her journalist notebook because he felt sketched out by it. I didn’t come to the event expecting to get a real interview anyway, and the only question I had for Walter was about where he lived, which I knew from Twitter was somewhere in the mountains, and it appears to be a very intentional branding decision to distance himself from being seen as just another downtown scene kid. “Usually, I say that the location is [REDACTED] but I’ll tell you that it’s somewhere in the Catskill Mountains by the New York–Pennsylvania border,” he answered. He told me he was going to be driving back there in a few hours and wouldn’t be at the other Urbit party later that evening, the Mars Review of Books launch party. The Wet Brain crew and their followers disappeared as quickly as they came in and then it was back to just Kaitlyn, Max, and I in the room. We figured there wasn’t going to be much more going on in there and got up to check out the rest of the party. Kaitlyn had enough and dipped out; she wouldn’t be at the party later that evening because she had an international flight coming up and couldn’t risk catching Covid—the ultimate giveaway of her outsider status and concern for so-called liberal pieties.
Max gave me an extra certificate he had for an Urbit “planet” that the Urbit people had been handing out earlier—with this I would be able to start using Urbit without needing to go through the hassle of buying a planet with Ethereum. It’s hard for me to imagine ever paying for that otherwise. The hosts were also giving out white Urbit-branded balaclavas and swimsuits. They ran out of men’s swim trunks so I could only pick up a bikini, which they only had in extra small (no doubt an intentional and deeply ideological decision).
We encountered an excited young guy who was starting a Spinoza reading group within Urbit. The guy said that he understood Spinoza as a small-c conservative, a reading that supposedly holds up if you “go back to Genesis.”
We ran into Rob Mariani and Jordan Bloom, the former editors of the moderate neo-reactionary online magazine Jacobite that had published my early writings on weird fascist subcultures from when I still lived in Washington, DC, which kicked off my humble career as an internet culture critic. Rob wants me to write for his current project, Return, which was also holding an event the next day related to Urbit Week. His offer is tempting: these magazine projects get generous funding from Thiel and Yarvin and whoever else and pay better than most left-wing litmags that aren’t as obviously complicit in fascism, I could probably write pretty much whatever I want, and it would give me this edginess and credibility as the ”based” leftist that opens doors to probe deeper into this world people are interested in reading about. Cloutwise it was good to disregard concerns about being complicit in the budding fascist intellectual world to write for Jacobite in the first place, a decision that was made easier at the time by my personal feelings of inadequacy and sense of distance and alienation from the (now-mostly-irrelevant) Brooklyn social-democratic writer-podcaster world. Jacobin never responded to my pitch about incel psychoanalysis and a critical exegesis of the Elliot Rodger manifesto, so into Jacobite it went. And, for example, that writing was the stuff Walter Pearce was interested in hearing me talk about when he invited me on Wet Brain. In other words, writing in Jacobite gave me a way into the nascent “downtown/Manhattan” scene, even though I didn’t know it at the time. To people like Rob and Jordan, what I offer their publications as a self-proclaimed “leftist” writer is the semblance of intellectual diversity that provides cover for some of the darker technoreactionary ideas that they run. (This is basically the same issue with the cryptofascist inclinations of Slavoj Zizek, who was interested in affectionately plagiarizing my own writing because I presented myself as “a leftist who publishes dialectical-contrarian takes in right-wing publications” when I reached out to him.) These guys are smart enough not to publish real lowbrow hatespeech, putting them at odds with some of the rabid imbeciles that populate these online spaces, such as the diehard Bronze Age Pervert fans convinced that Jordan doxed their hero (presumably because Jacobite published my mildly critical review of his book, rather than a more fawning one). To those types of people, Rob, Jordan, and I are all one species of “glowie” federal agents born from the same test tube somewhere in Langley, VA with the existential purpose of sabotaging “dissident right movements.” It’s true, at least, that I know both Rob and Jordan from my life in the DC area long before I came to New York—I would sometimes come across Jordan while walking around the suburban professional repressionscapes of Arlington, where he still lives. Rob got a job at Urbit, which no doubt had to do with how his ideological labor in Jacobite had won him the favor and patronage of Yarvin and took him out west, bringing him face-to-face with the pure autistic mania of the tech industry. (Rob no longer works for Urbit and now works full-time for Return.) Here in New York I see them in kaleidoscopic contrasts, where they fully embody the crossroads of several worlds: the carelessly overflowing coffers of the Silicon Valley oligarchs with their Bond-villain dreams of world domination, the prolific and misunderstood cultural production of anonymous incel troll channers, the vapid reactionary salon culture of the downtown Manhattan influencer bourgeoisie, and most of all, the organic intellectual striving of the DC-area deep state’s own children.
Before I left the tea party I watched Rob and Jordan and some other guys strip down to their boxers and swim in the pool.
I went back home to Brooklyn after the party. While I was on the subway I noticed that Walter had tweeted at me, “@mcrumps why didn’t You come to our party?” I responded, “I was there lol I was sitting with u guys as you recorded your podcast.” He then texted me telling me that he must’ve been dissociating from overstimulation at the party and didn’t realize I was there.
I got home, dropped off my backpack, ate a quick microwave dinner, and told my roommate about the strange events of the day so far (the day was far from over). Then back to Manhattan.
MARS REVIEW OF BOOKS LAUNCH PARTY
The next event was at a townhouse in the Lower East Side by the Delancey Street/Essex Street station that had been sold for $7.5 million in 2021. This was the launch party for the first issue of the Mars Review of Books, the intellectual magazine of the Urbit project. “Mars” in the title refers to the Urbit’s scifi mythos, with its hierarchy of galaxies and planets and comets. I hope that the contributors to this magazine were generously compensated for their work.
As I got in, Justin Murphy, author of the seminal theoretical text Based Deleuze, was reading a short story about Martin Shkreli and rare “Treblinka Miladys” and Effective Altruists, and I was overcome with a profound disgust with myself for being there. Justin is a promoter of the Remilia/Milady NFT project even through its collapse as it’s revealed to be a groomer suicide cult whose own cultists make fun of him and call him a fraud. The other readings seemed to touch on similar themes: celebration of edgy NFT projects, everyone-I-talk-to-online-is-a-fed psychedelia, complaining about cancel culture, it was incredibly boring and I was coming up and nauseous and couldn’t focus. I was sitting in a chair in the back corner of the room and Honor Levy was trying to get my attention because she hadn’t realized who I was when we met earlier at the tea party, when I had just introduced myself as “Mike” rather than as “Crumps,” which I never do. She was restless bouncing around on a couch next to her boyfriend, a Nordic-blonde guy named Duncan. Honor started barking like a dog and Duncan gestured as if to say that she’s just being her crazy self and that he has everything under control. When the readings ended Duncan and Honor left their copy of the Mars Review of Books on a table, which I took (these were being sold for $20).
“Did you see what Christian Lorentzen wrote in the Mars Review?” my friend Nick Burns asked me as I was flipping through the pages. Nick is a young writer who reminds me a bit of a younger version of myself, in that he’s a New Left Review writer who finds himself in right-wing publications like American Affairs out of circumstance or opportunism. Nick is from Ventura, California, he’s probably more booksmart and articulate than I am, and his style a bit more professorial-intellectual (a rebellion against his west coast origins?), which makes him seem a bit older than he is. Nick is also at a lot of these literary parties, as a fellow observer of the New York scene, and he’s lived in New York throughout the pandemic, which is much longer than I have. Nick is mildly sympathetic to the downtown Manhattan world as opposed to the apparent stagnation of the Brooklyn scene (he thinks “they’re on to something,” but not yet sure what exactly), whereas I’m more inclined to just throw bombs around and call people fascists. He has a good eye for situating all this in a broader class context. I have found his insights valuable. “He reviewed the BAPbook and Selfie Suicide.”
Christian Lorentzen has become a Twitter nemesis and object of ridicule in this Substack ever since I did my drive-by shooting of Matt Gasda’s Dimes Square play, replacing my old Twitter rivalry with Logo Daedalus. Lorentzen is a more worthy target than Logo, the next boss (though still near the bottom) in the great Mortal Kombat tower of contemporary letters. Lorentzen’s piece in the Mars Review is a double book review of Bronze Age Pervert’s Bronze Age Mindset (2018) and Logo Daedalus’ Selfie Suicide (2019). I reviewed the former in Jacobite in 2018; I never wrote anything official about the latter, but my tweets making fun of it and arguing with him about his pathological misunderstandings of Spinoza from years ago could probably fill a whole book. When I was feuding with Lorentzen on Twitter he sarcastically called me “the future of American criticism,” which I guess he meant seriously enough to try to copy my stuff from my youthful “extremely online” pre–New York period. Lorentzen is more favorable to Logo than he is to BAP, presumably out of the solidarity of cranks, and he’s unable to see Logo’s boundless delusion for what it is (Logo thinks that he is Nabokov). BAP doesn’t lie to his readers in the way that Logo does—at the end of the day BAP is just writing a work of fascist propaganda that celebrates genocide, which is why it was orders of magnitude more successful than Selfie Suicide and has found a real audience among young GOP staffers in DC. I’ll admit that Lorentzen’s review of the BAP book is more formal than mine in Jacobite—it looks like it was written by someone who is used to writing book reviews in “real” publications—but that’s also what makes it look even sillier. The best way to roast the BAP book is to infiltrate niche neoreactionary blogs and call the readers gay—and that can only work at the very peak of its hype bubble. I imagine Lorentzen chose these books from years ago because nothing else worthy of criticism has since come out of the now-irrevelant Frogtwitter crowd. I mean, that’s why I’ve moved on from trolling Logo Daedalus to trolling the New York Dimes Square people. I guess something like the Mars Review of Books owes an intellectual debt to Frogtwitter, or at least it thinks it does, much in the same way that the Angelicism guy thinks that the London LD50 gallery Frogtwitter exhibition was some watershed moment in the history of contemporary art, its “cancellation” the ultimate embodiment of angelic extinction. I was amazed Lorentzen would choose to write about this because he had to know that I would grill him for it, and that I would find it flattering how his attempts to stay young and relevant would lead him to adopting the parts of my online brand I’ve left behind.
Matt Gasda also wrote something about PMCs and Catherine Liu in the Mars Review that I won’t make fun of too much here, since he recently extended the olive branch and we’ve agreed to get drinks sometime. I’m guessing that’d be at Clando or something, which I’ve only been to once (with Dean Kissick, before I started writing things here) and will only return to if invited by some VIP regular. I wouldn’t mind smoking the peace pipe with Gasda, but I want to keep feuding with Lorentzen because he makes it so easy. I usually stay away from the literal spaces that comprise Dimes Square because I know my haters have shooters there, and people look at you funny if they can tell you don’t belong. Our meeting didn’t happen at this party because I want to build up some dramatic tension—and had I met him, this post would be even longer. I get the sense that Gasda is going to get some stupid huge book deal from all this, which I do genuinely respect because I respect ambition. I remember telling Logo Daedalus he should try to communicate his story about the whole Frogtwitter “spirit of 2016” to a broader audience but he always gave me excuses—it would never be published because the publishing industry is so woke and pozzed and captured by SJWs and will never appreciate his genius and all that, no point in even trying. I can’t stand that attitude. But that attitude is far more common among the reactionary Frogtwitter hermits than it is among the reactionary downtown socialites they inspire. All the Dimes Square (the play, I mean) people were at the party, and they had done a performance of the play in that townhouse the previous night. Nick had gone to that performance.
On the crowded rooftop where the party really was, Nick and I ran into Honor and Duncan again. She was still as “quirked up” as before and apologized again for not recognizing me at the tea party, there were so many people there and she must’ve been dissociating like Walter, just like there were so many people on this rooftop that “it’s like AstroWorld.” She said she liked my writing even though she disagreed with some of the specifics, like my take on the Betsey Brown movie, and she said that even though Walter had warned me against writing one of my “gay little stories” about this event, they actually wanted me to write something after all. Right next to her was a tower of large outdoor-size Jenga blocks that caught her attention, and from which she clumsily pulled a brick, bring it crashing down, crouching down like a child she started playing with the blocks of the collapsed tower, and holding a block she looked at me and said that she liked this view, this smallness, “I like seeing Crumps this way,” and with a sudden sense of superegoic purpose she then shot back up turning to Duncan, “but not in a sexual way!” and she started giddily kissing him, they were kissing and giggling and then they both ran off into the crowd, leaving Nick and I stroking our chins the way I’d imagine Freud and his homies must’ve looked in his dream of Irma’s injection.
Earlier in the day I had met a writer from Mexico City named Pablo who Nick and I then encountered on the rooftop of the Mars Review party. Pablo considers himself a traditionalist and an admirer of the writings of Peter Thiel, who he considers one of the greatest minds of our time (possibly influenced by Thiel funding Pablo’s writing project). Pablo and Nick got into an argument about The Great Gatsby, which Pablo claims is the greatest American novel and an exaltation of the American dream, and that Gatsby is a heroic figure who stays true to his noble desire to return to the past, a hero sort of like Thiel. Pablo castigated Nick and I for our apparent lack of faith in the American dream, our privileged American nihilism, with a passion I found amusing. I never argue with people at these things because it’s usually not as fun as just listening to them talk, and it typically means outing my own antagonistic literary intentions. Nick had started to mimic Pablo’s passion with as he offered his own interpretation of the book, one about regional differences within the United States, a story of the naïve westerners who come back east to New York City in a reversal of the frontier migration only to get ripped to shreds by the ruthless metropolis. At first I thought Nick was mocking Pablo, the point about regional differences seemed to suggest that Pablo only saw America as some monolith that represented everything Mexico isn’t, but its coherence coupled with Nick’s own California background made it feel earnest by the end. I wondered where I fit into that. I just remarked that I found this whole discussion very fitting for the sort of party we were at, at whoever’s house it was or if it even was anyone’s house at all, it was too perfect, one of those moments where you feel like all history and art and experience happening at the same time, and that me and Nick and Pablo and Honor and Walt and Logo Daedalus and BAP and Lorentzen and Gasda and Max and Kaitlyn the Atlantic writer and the Jacobite guys and Justin Murphy and Yarvin and Thiel and all my haters and lovers would never really die but just be reborn as many times as it takes the brush of a feather to erode a mountain and come back here and do the same exact thing for karmic eternity, arguing about The Great Gatsby.
Home in Brooklyn as the sun came up, I activated the certificate for the Urbit planet I got from Max. (Hacker voice: I’m in.)
Edit: I originally wrote that Honor’s boyfriend’s name was Dagsen, not Duncan. Dagsen was a friend of theirs at the party who resembles Duncan.