Lore as Imaginative Irony
How do you actually craft lore?
Part 2/7 of the On Lore series.
What is the difference between lore as in lorecraft, which we talked about last week, and cringe LinkedIn motivational posts or Instagram1 images with tacky aphorisms or maudlin verses2 superimposed on them?
I suspect lore that works begins to emerge when people inhabit an organization in a mode of what I’ll call imaginative irony. The task of the lorecrafter is to catalyze imaginative irony.
A primitive example (it’s closer to plain cynicism than to full-fledged imaginative irony) is the genre of demotivational posters that was popular a couple of decades ago, when I was getting started on my adult working career. I was surprised to discover these are still available at despair.com, in case you’re feeling nostalgic for the early aughts. Here’s one:
This isn’t lore exactly, but is the sort of currency lorecraft aspires to catalyze in a discourse. If this sort of thing organically emerges and circulates in an organization (the more localized the better), you’ve got the beginnings of lore.
For those who came in late, these posters were a parody of an unironic genre of motivational posters you can still buy at successories.com (amazing how long-lived these businesses are). Here is an example of the real thing, on the same theme of teamwork:
What is the difference between the two? Why does the former succeed in eliciting at least a weak chuckle, while the latter can only make you cringe3 and actually despair?
The difference is almost as simple as the difference between truth and lies.
If you have a certain amount of experience of organizations, the former definition of teamwork will strike you as more true — or at least less false — than the latter. Most of us have been on more bad teams than good teams after all.
Lore primarily emerges out of a shared recognition of the absurdity of engineered, self-serious mythologies and ceremonies of organization. Whether those mythologies originate in Putin’s lurid fantasies of Russia as a modern-day Byzantium, or in an HR department’s endearing belief in the motivational potential of the second kind of poster, the effect is to trigger the impulse towards lore.
But curiously enough, in the process of responding to the fake, lore tends to generate something less fake. Because in seeing through absurdities, you necessarily glimpse the truths they attempt to obscure.
Here, there is an important, rather dark point to recognize: often the transparently false and cringe theaters of absurdity that effective lore penetrates are neither accidental, nor the result of cluelessness. They are deliberately crafted as a test of power. A dictator, or authoritarian head of HR pursuing a political agenda, who can force you to pretend that lies are truths, and behave accordingly (all the way to repeating those lies without smirking), has proof of their real power over you. Trump for example, routinely made people lie for him, as a test of loyalty.
But much more often, especially in organizations embedded in broader liberal cultures, transparently false and cringe theaters of absurdity are merely the product of some combination of lazy imitation, cluelessness, tastelessness, apathy, risk aversion, and overall cultural incompetence.
Hanlon’s razor applies: never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.
But whether they are the result of power testing its own limits, or mere incompetence,4 the result is a campy, cringey theater of absurd falsehoods that demands to be taken seriously. Lore emerges where that demand is effectively rejected and an alternative put forward — an act that always calls for imagination, and sometimes for courage.
Susan Sontag observed in Notes on Camp that camp is failed seriousness. In the spirit of that definition, we can define lore as a generative rejection of camp, rooted in a glimpse, however fleeting and distorted, of genuine truths.
By acknowledging what typical workplace drones actually felt about concepts like “teamwork” that are the themes of successories posters, the Despair parodies help seed a shared headspace that is rooted in a genuine realism — if you can laugh at Despair’s demotivational posters (the jokes feel a little stale now, but still work), you can begin to craft a mythos that actually works — and maybe get to a notion of teamwork that works too.
The challenge of lorecrafting is that you have to get past cynicism, satire, and the deadening sort of irony that conservatives moral-panicking about postmodernism love to hate. You have to get to a kind of imaginative irony that is rooted in realism without being bound by it.
Ironically, the kayfabe aspect of pro-wrestling, arguably a conservative subculture, remains the best example of imaginative irony I can think of. It is the kind of domain lorecrafters should be taking their cues from.
If you fail to evolve from cynicism to imaginative irony, you stall out at what Žižek characterized as “cynicism as a form of ideology”5 — capable of realism, and a knowing, whispered skepticism of power, but not imagination. And without imagination, it too is doomed to degenerate to camp in time.
To get to imaginative irony, you need a baroque sensibility. I often quote Borges on the nature of the baroque:
“I should define the baroque as that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its own possibilities and which borders on its own parody…I would say that the final stage of all styles is baroque when that style only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.”
The challenge them, is to work in a baroque mode from day one, rather than waiting for something else to age into baroque, or for absurdities to become obvious enough to respond to. So the challenge of lorecraft is to skip to the end as fast as possible. As I noted last week in Lands of Lorecraft:
Lorecraft is born baroque in a sense, ironically incorporating its own absurdities as load-bearing elements. Where industrial-era schools of management needed only the weak external force of satirical business cartoons to stabilize themselves, through some occasional puncturing of runaway self-regard, the fluid weirdness of lorecraft calls for stronger measures.
This is hard. But if you can’t do better than creating a strawman theater of cringe for lore to emerge in response to, you’re not actually lorecrafting, you’re accepting wild lore as the only sort possible, and accepting natural evolutionary time constants from camp to lore as impossible to accelerate or leapfrog . A defeatist attitude.
The good news is: the People of Web3 seem to instinctively grok everything I’ve just laid out, and don’t appear to be defeatist about the challenges involved in lorecrafting.
The bad news is: it is not clear whether this is because they have a sophisticated feel for the challenges of lorecraft, or whether it is just a youthful lulz-seeking that has yet to encounter serious tests of its organizational capabilities.
The danger here is that as the amount of money at stake, the seriousness of projects, and the average age of participants, all go up, potential masters of lorecraft will succumb to “adulting” insecurities. Faced with the challenge of leveling up from crude cartoons and weekend hackathons to projects that take a great deal of effort over many years, they just might decide to set aside apparently childish things, and turn into their parents on LinkedIn, reproducing the old theaters of cringe instead of new worlds of lore.
That would be a pity.
But there’s a chance that won’t happen. Even if only a handful of aspiring lorecrafters master the baroque mode, and learn how to consistently craft effective worlds of imaginative irony, there is a very real chance they won’t reproduce the failures of industrial-age management cultures. At the very least, they will invent wholly new modes of failure. And that will count as progress.
I have some thoughts on how do all that, which I’l write up for next week.
Next: Part 3/7 — Raw Lore
Instagram is the LinkedIn of vibes. Many people pretending to be vibe sophisticates from TikTok are secretly from Instagram.
These captioned images are the webinars of vibes
Unless you’re the sort of 19-year-old ingenue-intern character who occasionally shows up in bad workplace movies and shows
The difference is usually the veiled threat of coercive power on the margins of the performance, daring you to laugh