wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Irreal Life Top 10, 2 June 2023.

Attention conservation notice: It is what it is.

  1. Software, remastered ‘World’ compilations. The German synthdweeb duo SOFTWARE is, for me, the archetypal ‘Berlin School’ project: endless portentous minor-key analog synth arpeggios with goofy sfnal album/track titles (CHIP-MEDITATION PART II, ELECTRONIC-WORLD, DIGITAL-DANCE, etc.), working at the lab-tech end of the ‘New Age’ spectrum. Their later music goes further afield, as far as the dreaded saxophone and even monkish chanting — their 1995 Heaven-to-Hell sounds like an EECS major’s tribute to Vangelis’s 1975 Heaven and Hell — but the early stuff is perfect of its melodramatically austere kind. In 2017 group member Peter Wergener put out a batch of remastered Software compilations, each themed: Sacral World, Ocean World, Erotic World, etc. These reissues are commercially motivated and add little to nothing to the band’s story, even for new listeners; Software’s albums sound good already and each has its own immersive vibe. But the comps’ taxonomic quality fits the group’s overall sfnal aesthetic even where the music is better served by the original setup. Makes sense, of course — the idea of the Encyclopedia Galactica is thrilling, the actual text would be an indigestible info-slurry (cf. Robert Graves’s Greek Myths). So the remasters fit Software-as-multimedia-art-project just fine. And if you buy the band’s whole discography at Bandcamp you effectively get the comps for free — so go do that and may the digital-god continue, or more likely begin, to bless you.
  2. Kailh Copper. After perhaps six months in my office ZSA Moonlander, some of these otherwise lovely mechanical keyswitches (short travel, light touch, very noticeable tactile bump) are squeaking a little bit. This is the worst thing that can possibly happen to a human in America. Presumably they just need a touch of lubrication, like the rest of us.
  3. Marvel cinema. Sampling Joss Whedon’s two Avengers flicks, which rise well above their station, reminds me that the median/modal Marvel movie is expertly crafted trash — an astounding stable of actors putting their hearts into films devoid of poetry, accident, insight. One reason Hollywood is so eager to embrace AI ‘creativity’ is that the lack of any human soul has worked so well for Kevin Feige and his popcult strip miners.
  4. ‘Serving cunt.’ The best thing about being surrounded by 24yr-olds at work is that I’m picking up so many youthful phrases, applicable to a broad range of social situations.
  5. All night. Drowning in dreamlike memory and struggling to remember the name of a girl I knew briefly in college, I ended up combing through a digital archive of embarrassments, rereading emails from my junior-year ‘lost semester,’ (Here’s how old I am: they were Eudora .mbx files from 1999. But MacOS Mail opened them just fine in 2023.) Later I tried to explain to a Gen-Z work friend that In MY Day you’d flirt by sending long late-nite emails from the desktop PC in your bedroom: ‘…”online” was a specific state you could be in or not, so every time you read an email from someone, that was the one thing you were doing at that moment… There is a real hallucinatory intensity to pulling entirely away from normal interactions and into “online stuff.” You could take all night to think of something complex to say…’ And that was How We Got It On, before the Y2K bug ended the world. I did figure out her name, by the way; she was stone crazy but I was a depressed bore and we drifted off none too soon, Back Then.
  6. First class on United. Worth the extra money only because the alternative is the misery of Coach seating, but the only good thing about United is some adman’s decision to appropriate Gershwin for the soundtrack, 40 years ago — since soured by some other adman’s decision to run dipshit rearrangements of Gershwin under every piece of United audiovisualishness. What a shambolic fucking mess of an airline.
  7. Chicago cabs. Going from O’Hare to the burbs? How about we just slap a quick 1.5x multiplier on that meter of yours, because ‘guild’ is a handy term meaning ‘price-fixing cartel.’
  8. The Office (USA). We’re still watching, and it’s still bugging me. The natural tendency of the USA workplace sitcom is to descend into sentimentality and ideologically repellent ‘coworkers are family’ bullshit, and The Office got there after three seasons — tellingly, everyone interviewed for Brian Baumgartner’s enjoyably rose-tinted oral history sees this as a strength of the show. (It’s a strength of the commercial product — but of the art? Really?) This isn’t a problem for absurd or fantastical series, but The Office dangerously aspired to emotional realism; this is related to what Ken Hite calls the ‘dire Bochco-ization’ of 90s/00s serial TV, by which natural transformation and comedic-episodic restoration almost always end up in destructive tension. I’ll watch TV characters return daily to a torture chamber…as long as no one’s pretending it’s really a space of love and familial affection. Seasons 7-8 of The Office were a fucking mess, and the loss of the miracle-worker Steve Carrell was fatal to a show that was centrally about the complex tension between the boss, the salesman, the secretary, the toady, and the circumstance. But on rewatch it’s more solid than I remembered, at times really excellent, and though the relationships in later seasons are undercooked the ensemble remains versatile and memorable — with a handful of masterful performers, particularly Rainn Wilson and Ed Helms, to anchor the group. Still, it’s telling that while the greatest moment of the UK original is Gervais begging his boss not to fire him, the sublime peak of the USA adaptation is the smile on Jenna Fischer’s face after Krasinski finally asks her out. Carrell’s beautifully acted goodbye, four years later, is only metatextually affecting; the show should have ended on Pam’s ‘I’m sorry — what was the question?’ The hyperextension of this genuinely wonderful series is an ordinary sin against extraordinary art.
  9. Pat Benatar, ‘We Belong.’ Someone asked on Twitter what was the greatest ‘power ballad,’ and for people of strange distinction (i.e. me and you) only one song comes to mind, 3:40 of unbroken aesthetic misjudgment brought to unsettling kaleidoscopic climax with the words ‘I hear your voice inside me…I see your face everywhere…‘ Benatar might not be known for anything but this now, never mind 20 years from now, and the words aren’t hers anyway, but she carries this ecstatic derangement from ‘Don’t wanna leave you, really’ through ‘Have we become a habit?’ to ‘Clear your mind and do your best to try and wash the palette clean’ — as realistic a depiction of middle-aged love as we’ll get. ‘We Belong’ came out in 1984; Patricia Mae Andrzejewski was 31 and recording, as she still does, under the last name of her high school sweetheart Dennis Benatar, whom she’d divorced 15 years prior. I don’t know if that matters, or how it might, but ‘We Belong’ was the greatest, maddest ‘power ballad’ of all time even before the daft counterpoint vocals come in under (I mean miles above) the outro choruses.
  10. Analysis. Seen on Twitter: ‘republicans: fuck you eat shit & die … democrats: fuck you eat shit & die, performed by john legend & beyonce’
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ignorance and locality.

From the manuscript-in-progress, dated March/October 2022.

This thought came to me in the shower this morning:

Practice your ignorance in private, to minimize the impact of discovering it in public.

I was thinking about an embarrassing post on one of the ‘rationalist’ online fora — let’s not talk here about the hellscape known as ‘rationalist’ subculture — in which some adolescent dude asked a question that revealed that he knows nothing whatsoever about sex. He was pilloried and sneered at. I pity him.

‘Self-soothe, man!’ my beloved doctor friend Jeremy says, when I anxiously ask him health-related questions I need to learn to answer for myself.

Christopher Alexander died this week.

I wrote the other day:

Imagine if local traditions stayed local

My wife asked what I meant.


One of the casualties of the internetwork era — every machine-eye all-seeing, broadcasting to screens we carry everywhere we go — is smallness. A musician like Lil Nas X, whose shitty novelty song ‘Old Town Road’ blew up online a few years ago, might in other times (even two decades ago) have been expected (even encouraged) to take a few months to write and record a followup, ideally while working new tunes out in practice rooms and onstage; instead, he was exposed at the beginning of his career to an audience much larger than his music was ready for, and a guy who couldn’t fill a nightclub (or a setlist) was suddenly Internet-famous. He never had the chance to be a local celebrity, and in the rush to become a national one he ended up trading on the least ins, though his music has never held any interest, middlebrow ‘hey look it’s country-rap!’ thinkpieces notwithstanding, even middle-aged Twitter users are cursed to know that he’s a gay black guy who did a song in a ‘predominantly white genre.’

(Most people don’t know that he spent years obsessed with ‘going viral,’ started making music only after his online video comedy and violations of Twitter’s spam/botnet rules regarding his attention-whoring Nicki Minaj fan accounts failed to pan out, and paid $30 for the song’s instrumental track on a website called beatstars.com. We use the term ‘novelty song’ advisedly and…diplomatically.)

Which is to say that Montero Lamar Hill never had the experience, the combination of burden and responsibility, of smallness.1 He skipped from being a nameless hustler to being a brand (complete with the requisite ‘team’ of predatory managers, overseers, hangers-on, etc.), never passing through the stage of being a working artist. So we’ll likely never know if he’s capable of saying anything insightful or irresponsibly exploring a musical idea, or even having such an idea in the first place, because he’s now just another Overexposed Internet Thing, an Online Presence that occasionally generates new Content. And crucially, this overexposure has nothing whatsoever to do with the art that he makes: his media personality is driven by a demand for spectacle from people who have no deep connection to him in any way, only the pitiful parasociality of online spectatorship.

The first time I heard ‘Old Town Road,’ I figured that it and its artist held no secrets, no promise. The difference between him and William Hung, elevated to ironic ‘stardom’ precisely because he was a passionate but haplessly terrible singer, was that Hung was delusional and Hill is cynical. Cynicism doesn’t play well on a local stage, where you look your neighbours in the eye while fleecing them and everyone senses what’s going on. This is something different from good ol’ ‘one-hit wonders,’ doomed to decades of Playing Their Hit for festival crowds who only want that one song. Most one-hit wonders actually have other songs, after all, which for one reason or another don’t quite work. Hill has gone on to make other music, which serves primarily as the nondescript soundtrack to his videos; think Madonna, if Madonna came from nowhere and worked with ‘producers’ instead of ‘songwriters’…

Imagine if Hill/Lil Nas X, who obviously has some talent for something, had spent a year sharing music in a small community — even online! — before his kitsch bullshit became Internet-famous. Maybe we wouldn’t have Lil Nas X thinkpieces to keep us lukewarm during this long dark night of the national soul, maybe he’d’ve thought better of halfassing a song like ‘Old Town Road’ and instead worked it to death, maybe he’d have learned to sing, or to find quiet. Maybe he’d have gone back to school to finish that CS degree…but for sure he’d have been forced into the human connections (and judgments) which for thousands of actual existing years have tested, deepened, confronted, and affirmed the work of art — y’know, that ‘art’ thing we now experience mostly as commercial spectacle, cf. the actual existing work of Lil Nas X. Imagine if his art had grown rather than been manufactured. But of course it didn’t, there was no time, and in the hell known as The Pop Music Media Industry there’s no incentive for him to grow beyond pseudonovelty, which might be the something he obviously had some talent for all along.


There is no essential difference between the media stardom of Lil Nas X and an Internet pileon, except the zip codes of who’s making money.

The underlying dynamics are the same: rip something out of context, dopamine-farm by sharing it, escalate to increase the rush (he’s a crusader for gay liberation now!) until autocatalysis permanently sunders the frenzy from its supposed object, talk about the talking-about as a second-order profit center, then casually turn to the next novelty when the excitement wears off a few minutes later. This is how the ‘news cycle’ works, how Bernie Sanders ended up forced to run against largely nonexistent ‘Bernie Bros,’ how Justine Sacco’s life was destroyed, how ‘young adult’ book publishing was eaten by a tiny group of obsessive online scolds, how ‘incel’ went from self-identifying emotionally sick young men to labeling a supposed ‘hate movement,’ how ‘CRT’ implausibly became the label for an expansive pan-cultural transition, etc. Lil Nas X recorded a novelty song and The Interet somehow made him and it into A Whole Thing, completely replacing the material context of the song with whatever Social Context is most useful to the click-farming industries for whose sole benefit the Whole Thing is carried out.

Anything good or healthy that comes out of it — including Lil Nas X and the Dutch kid making lots of money — is a side effect of the coherent autonomous phenomenon of group (mob) participation.

The part of the creative process where meaningful connection happens, where the real social/conceptual/human action is, is the collaborative or cocreative stage: small audiences, mutual benefit, the point in (before) the Hype Cycle where the people most excited about the Whole Thing are the ones actually making it.

The part where it grows without being watched, where it develops a self to grow into, which can in turn be presented to the world as something other than food. This gestation and exploration and delicate growth is absolutely the most important aspect of becoming-visionary, releasing the hold that received knowledge and practice have on you. (That’s why you go into the desert alone, enter the green world with an invisible guide, stand naked at the threshold of Chapel Perilous: the gift is bestowed in secret, and the culmination of your trip is to return in your own power to give it away, in turn, to the mere mundane world, rejoining and strengthening the social macrobody. Coming down to us.)

There’s a whole host of reasons why Hollywood’s child stars mostly turn into addled wrecks later in life, and that might be the biggest one: the way nationalization, or more generally the transformation from person into image which we sometimes cynically call ‘celebrity,’ robs them of opportunities for the developmentally essential encounter with the self only possible when things get close and present and weird, when it’s you and the one or two people who get it, and you begin the process of reality-testing which will armour you against certain profitable(-to-others) delusions.

And predation.


Tourists ruin their destinations by turning communities — complex emergent phenomena born of simple local interactions — into fixed sites, expecting (then demanding) that that they stop changing i.e. stop adapting, stop serving ever-changing local community needs. The archetypal rural tourist destination is the natural wonder where, if the local Tourism Board doesn’t install railings and bins and signs everywhere, people will fill the grandest canyon with trash; the archetypal urban tourist destination is Boston’s ‘Cheers,’ once a tavern known as the Bull & Finch, now a kitsch-purveyor with trademarked napkins and employee uniforms. Seeing the world is good but conversion to a tourist site destroys the evolved meanings of a place, as tourists arrive looking for the prefab Experience they’ve heard about and grow disappointed, indeed angry, when the thing turns out merely to be itself.

This has all been well understood for ages. A place ‘loses its charm’ when the tourists come in droves, but much worse, it loses the mutability and responsiveness to human need which made it possible/necessary in the first place — everything that has a charmless commercial end had a local beginning, serving some need internal to the community.

The presidential election is largely an activity for tourists: a hundred million people who know nothing whatsoever about the actual positions, history, institutional affiliations, and even recent voting records of the candidates Pop By for a Vote every four years, then retreat to complain about the outcome while maintaining no connection whatesoever to the process of actual governance, beyond occasionally donating money to the millionaires who get the most TV time. (The money won’t help: they’re bought and sold already.) For a half-century and more, the presidential race has been a staged-for-TV miniseries set in a nonplace called ‘Washington,’ which bears no resemblance to the actual den of thieves and bureaucrats by that name (never mind the actual city full of disenfranchised, uncomfortably brown people). That’s bad enough, ‘President of the USA’ is actually a pretty important position it turns out, but the awful sclerosis in American national politics is due to the similar nationalization of state and local elections — the influx of national-party money and poli-tourist interest in things like, say, Senate contests in swing states, whose chief consequence is tightly binding once-local, potentially ideologically independent candidates to the national parties’ predatory agendas. The parties go beyond their coordinating functions to serve as ideological police, constraining their members to provide voters the Experience they expect: the Republican theme park, the Democratic support group. Historical alliances — e.g. between the Democrats and, believe it or not, lower- and middle-class working people — fall away as the organizations become, not autonomous, but subservient to the whims of conceptual ‘out-of-towners.’

(See too the way half the NYPD doesn’t actually live in the city: tourists licensed to kill locals.)


The Internet is for tourism.

The primary mode by which Extremely Online people — a group which is coming to include every American who isn’t a Luddite, whether we like it or not — ‘experience culture’ is through little screens. We don’t even watch movies in theaters anymore, that’s what laughably named ‘large screen’ TVs are for.

One of the central features of Internet anticulture is the way it paradoxically heightens physical isolation even while collapsing physical space: from your online perch you can see and be seen by everyone, Internet privacy is effectively impossible and any two points on the Internet are the same fixed click-distance apart, yet the intangibility of Internet pseudo-experience intensifies the isolation and myopia of staring down at the screen in your hand. Everything is available and nothing is intimate. Ordinary Internet use moves too quickly through the shallows to make the kind of intense somatic impression of, say, absorption in a novel; you almost never ‘sink in’ to contemporary online experience, ‘social’ media is too transient and gameplay too jumpy and skimming articles is, well, skimming. The datastream passes before you, you pass through it, and afterward you return to your ‘real life’ barely touched by what you’ve seen, but able to declare — when the gatekeepers demand to check your status — that ‘I understood that reference.’

Which is to say that the (pseudonymous, impermanent, exploitative, simulative, performative, cyclical, hyperreal, status-seeking, prematurely exposing) commercial Internet is obviously for tourism, the hell of which is that all tourism actually occurs in the same location, the prefab nonplace of stage-managed experience and packaged ‘takeaways’ and microdosing unlife. On Twitter, instead of conversations you have…Twitter, a (stupid) thing unto itself; rather than conversing with one another on Twitter you just ‘do Twitter’ at one another; this goes beyond medium==message to a deliberate destructive replacement of meaningful (self-determined) interaction with the advertising category ‘engagement.’ Which buttons you’re permitted to press; which pellets they deliver. You don’t interact with nature at the Grand Canyon, you engage with the destination travel experience. Also the gift shop.

When something on the Internet ‘goes viral’ — odd that we still use that metaphor — gawkers pass by in a compulsive antiritual of checkmark tourism; no one in the world is looking for the Cutest Ever Cat Video but half the morons in the western world can be roped into joyless pursuit of it, or its equivalents for people who aren’t young flyover-state moms, by simple status-games specifically designed to generate and monetize compulsive behaviours. ‘Virality’ not only denotes ‘what everyone is looking at’ but, more pressingly for nearly all users, what you are expected to (want to) look at. If you were capable of deciding for yourself what’s interesting, you could travel to any neighbourhood in any city and be guided by your instincts, follow your bliss, but bliss can’t be regulated — why do you think psilocybin is illegal and booze is a ‘rite of passage’? — so you’re coerced into accepting the losing bargain wherein They decide for you what’s ‘hot,’ i.e. urgently pointless (‘Y’all, we need to talk about ABC…’) and you get a prepackaged ‘curated’ experience that leaves more time in your schedule for work. Participants in this opt-in infantilization resist hearing about it because, while it’s easy to acknowledge being punched in the face, it’s extremely hard to admit that you begged for it.

(And you’re not to point it out when someone does.)

One dark fuckism of contemporary ‘social’ media is this: when something goes viral, you’re not expected to have an opinion on it beyond ‘Oh, neat’ — you’re to register your approval by passing it along, but unless you’re part of the thinkpiece (‘content’) industry, it doesn’t matter what you think of the datastream, even its astroturfed/corp-sponsored elements. Indeed, thinking is the precise opposite of the point, because to think is to run the risk of spoiling the fun, i.e. interfering with business. The point is to be part of ‘being part of things,’ not even to photograph The Most Photographed Barn in America but to have done so — your reward is a feeling of fitting in. This was always the reward-structure for watching hellish nonsense like the Oscars or the Super Bowl ads; now we skip straight to the ‘talking about watching the Oscars’ part, or save time(!) by watching the ‘best’ ads compiled by clickbait websites (‘content aggregators’), but the disintegrating effect is the same: we are aggregated but can’t ever integrate, aren’t allowed to become whole, which — see above re: bliss — poses the risk of autonomy. To truly be where you are, to think (and then maybe act) about your situation, is to extend and strengthen the nature of that place or community, that macromind or macrostate, and They don’t want that for/from you; much more cost-effective, from Their perspective, to subsidize tourism and transience, to push Easy In/Out and encourage you to Participate in consumption-modes that don’t generate inconvenient gestalt effects or counterforces.

You can visit, see, but stay out of this neighbourhood; it’s Not Worth Seeing, or else it’s Unsafe for Foreign Travelers, or else you could pass through for a Taste of Authentic $city_name but you’ll have a better time in this Up-and-Coming $bourgeois_attraction newly opened by an international $synonym_for_cabal that’s $synonym_for_gentrifying $neighbourhood while preserving its $ethnic_feature Character…

Yet real things — living things — happen out of sight, go on unfilmed and uncommented upon, variegate, recombine, build up steam, theorize, weaponize, realize.


Cooking rice is a misery for certain people: it takes a longish time and you have to leave it closed, out of sight, and not fuck with it. It’s a trust exercise and it’s awful.

The upside is that you get rice.

To our central point: The modern world is increasingly hostile to letting things grow and develop out of sight. Pseudoconnection is too easy, too tempting; publicity is too cheap; ‘virality’ can hit unplanned, unintended, uncontrollably, with disastrous consequences (like ‘popularity’); geographically/temporally distant environments are too easily misperceived as ‘nearby’ in the media nonplace. And of course, surveillance by government and corporate (bad) actors is omnipresent, even without panoptic self-surveillance and -censorship violating self-sovereignty and cutting off experimentation at the source.

We can’t healthily get big, public, ‘finished’ without going through a long period of being small, private, provisional — can’t skip from childhood to adulthood without the yearslong hell of adolescence, that inflection point between proto-ego and the (hopefully) sane social self. Sanity is path-dependent. Forcing new people and new projects into widespread pseudonymous exposure, where jeering is free and meaningful support is extremely costly (therefore rare), where unfiltered antisocial feedback is the norm… This is so obviously destructive and deranged that it must be profitable, though not for us. Subjected to merciless scrutiny and arbitrary judgment by forces completely removed from our own lived experience, how can we ever feel safe? How can we not develop a defensive crouch? Someone wants you that way; maybe your misery at the constant surveilling violation of your imaginative sanctity isn’t the ‘cost of doing business’ or a side effect of the present order but rather its essential nature. Maybe it’s impossible to grow up healthy as a subject of this system; maybe that’s a feature not a bug.

The system (broadly: stateless capital) hates locality, self-determination, true autonomy — resistance to total assimilation. It wants contributors and will force you to become one or punish you for failing; no other options exist unless you’re willing to go ‘off the grid’ to a greater or lesser extent. ‘Social’ media systems oscillate dumbly between ‘viral’ popular events (most of them now astroturfed, but who’s counting?) and pileons of extraordinary emotional violence and damage to the material wellbeing of both victims and participants, but these two phenomena are essentially the same: homeostatic corrections against unsustainable, unwanted local autonomy. Say something outside the window of the acceptable and watch the volunteer brigade step in to ensure conformity; begin to develop any remotely individual perspective and watch the business bureau immediately co-opt it or choke it in the crib; seek to rule yourself and draw the gaze of the rulers. The key feature of all ‘viral’ phenomena — ‘sensations’ is the unintentionally appropriate term — is that they rise and fall quickly, unsustainably. It’s not intended that they mean anything.

Think of the way Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ was kept off the Billboard Country charts (there are people who care about this sort of thing, among them Billboard and Lil Nas X and his ‘team’), the rationale being that it’s not a country song, it’s a novelty trap song (a children’s song!) with a NIN banjo sample meant to evoke country music. Which is correct as far as it goes — even with Billy Ray Cyrus guesting — but it hurts your case to have parochial racist morons be the main ones making it…plus, none of this surface controversy matters at all. The deeper problem is the way artificial genre-segmentation fundamentally (mis)shapes the industry, so that even bullshit like ‘Old Town Road’ is seen as a threat to that problematic system. Of course, the system absorbed Hill’s tune and (after providing Lil Nas X and his team with tons of free publicity) neatly slotted the hardworking arriviste in next to Frank Ocean and company on the ’emergent black bourgeois’ shelf; problem solved. The most interesting thing about this mini-tempest is its intimations of the unvenly distributed future: ‘Old Town Road’ first got radio play in the form of audio rips from Youtube, because it wasn’t initially distributed to stations as HQ audio…

The system works. It encapsulates and co-opts anything that might violate its boundaries or force an uncomfortable transformation ahead of schedule. Lil Nas X got a record deal out of the whole mess, of course; according to the head of the Amuse indie label/network where Hill initially distributed his songs, Hill insisted he wanted to go fully independent, even rejecting a million-dollar offer from Amuse. Insisted, that is, up until the moment when Columbia offered him major-label money — and perks, including the ‘Old Town Road’ remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus that catalyzed sales. (The remix is more popular than the original recording.)

The system works — but not for you.

Think now of Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who briefly became a lightning rod in the ‘debate’ over marriage rights and religiously motivated conscientious objection when she refused to be personally involved in issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, and ultimately agreed that she could do her job in good (extremist Pentecostal) faith so long as her name wasn’t on the licenses. The case drew popular attention primarily from media figures happy to exploit culture-war topics for short-term gain, and online mobs excited to feel one of two things: anger at the ugly Bible-thumping homophobic hick, or anger at the family-hating anti-Christian capitol bureaucrats. There was effectively no coverage of the only important questions, over the role of religious objections in cases where legal contracts and the social contract meet (and collide). Davis briefly went to prison for her beliefs, and the outcome of the case was that gay couples in her county can get married and she’d just stay out of it, leaving the legal necessaries to her deputies. None of this mattered to either ‘side’ on the ‘social’ media networks, and crucially, the complex and genuinely interesting yearslong legal proceedings (e.g. over whether the state of Kentucky should pay her legal fees, and whether Davis can be sued individually over the matter) received no coverage at all, beyond brief back-page mentions.

The visibility of Davis’s case, her/its importance, is essentially 1-bit: either The Main Character on Twitter, the top story of the day, or else nothing.

In the context of the present work, Davis2 should be understood as an emergent local phenomenon quickly exposed to social sanction from distant judges (in her favour or not) as part of the media-political system’s immune defense against local autonomy. The details of her decisions never mattered, the complex legal proceedings that ensued didn’t matter: once Davis was inflated in Significance, with attendant distortions and simplifications and trivializations, the features of her story were made simple enough to be subsumed in a prefab culture-war media narrative, at which point the usual wolves and sheep could continue to operate as planned. That’s her public function: fueling the media machine which demands ‘engagement’ (occupying attention) only and precisely insofar as it prevents action. What no one tried to do, of course, was change the way stories like Davis’s are covered. That ship, as they say, has sailed.

Kim Davis doesn’t matter but her individual conscience does, it’s a (legal!) threat to the system, which is why it’s so handy that the arc of her brief media ‘celebrity,’ the ‘viral’ phenomenon she became (or rather, for which she served as the unwitting pretext), both abstracted away her identity and neutralized her individual conscience. For her supporters this was God’s doing, for her ‘critics’ she’s a hateful rube, either way she’s gotten the message loud and clear — with all of us overhearing — what she doesn’t deserve and will never get is anonymity or invisibility. She’ll never just be a rural county clerk that her neighbours have/get to live with. The release valve blew; a local problem, which might have put pressure on the system in reaching local solution, was elevated to Significance and the possibility of any self-organized solution (any community sovereignty) thereby eliminated. Davis could and perhaps should have stepped aside from handling marriage licensure and found, with input from her own community, the solution that she eventually agreed to; at the same time, she was an elected official with responsibilities to the county and its citizens, and she’s the one who decided early to appeal to the Supreme Court. She made her bed — but it’s only her bed, it didn’t need to be a ‘flashpoint for contemporary debates about’ whatever we’re pretending to have reasoned opinions about, this week.

Ask yourself why and how the system has now eagerly embraced the dangerous vagueness of ‘the personal is the political.’ Which interest is being served.

Think of this chapter, first, as sketching a thoroughly depressing sort of ‘Gaia hypothesis’ for the corporate media-politics megamachine, the System: the late-capitalist behemoth seeks its own systemic interests, without individuals necessarily deciding to serve those interests (ha — as if humans could ever really understand how money thinks). Think too of this chapter extending the present work’s argument for the value of smallness, provisionality, locality, ugliness, invisibility, secrecy, insignificance. The line between Montero Lamar Hill and Kim Davis née Bailey isn’t so bright; each of them did something a tiny bit brave and uninteresting, both of them experienced a shocking depressurization, ‘the bends’ as useful but potentially fatal network effect; Hill’s getting paid on it as long as he keeps up tacky media stunts and Davis is likely to get sued out of her home, but from the perspective of the system, in each case a little money moves around and nothing happens where the system can’t see it. Always, at every step, the system brings far-from-equilibrium self-organization and/or -determination into the mainline, resorbs weird growths, favours caricature, self-multiplies. It watches and it eats.

We ask you to see Kim Davis and Lil Nas X as diminished in their humanity, their imaginative freedoms bought at variable cost, by the ‘viral’ process of inflation which swept them both up in turn. Imagine what each of them might have been capable of with time to think. Or even — if you don’t think this is stupid and pathetic and contemptible as you, Reader(s), quite likely do — time to pray.3


  1. He was and remains young — ‘Old Town Road’ hit in 2019 when he was a 20-year-old college dropout — and did spend three years in the projects before he turned 10. And I imagine he got messed with as a kid for being gay in a smallish town north of Atlanta. But that’s something else. His art is trivial but his work was never productively constrained, forced to remain small, unknown. He never thrived in secret, and we should be mature enough not to simply mistake ‘getting rich and getting laid’ for ‘thriving,’ in public or otherwise. 
  2. Because it’s widely considered necessary, now, to opine ‘one way or the other’ on Davis, here you go: she’s neither hero nor villain, but appears to be a principled person with what I take to be merely incorrect beliefs, some of them grotesque. The legal questions raised by her case are interesting but I can’t muster up enthusiasm to read about them; more than anything I’d love to know precisely what she meant when she said she ‘sought God on it’ (i.e. prayed for guidance on how to balance her felt personal, religious, political, and professional obligations). This is one of those things were ‘everyone knows’ what she meant, but of course no one but her fellow believers actually knows: for someone like Kim Davis, what is it like to kneel down in the dark and look to an anthropomorphized inner voice, the voice of ‘the Lord,’ for guidance on a pragmatic question of local governance? If we don’t dismiss her as a nut but won’t naïvely grant primacy to her interpretations of such metaphysical encounters either, what precisely does ‘seeking God’ consist of? But then what’s it like, afterward, to go from total anonymity to millions of strangers suddenly having strong opinions about how you do your job — and what’s it like to experience absolute certainty, not just informed and learned and epistemologically humble confidence but divinely inspired certainty, that only one opinion really matters and it’s the one in your head? What kind of disgusting, fucked up lunatic asshole must you be to have faith in yourself? These things, I want to know. But we don’t need to chain Kim Davis naked to a rock in order to find out those answers. 
  3. I don’t envy Montero Lamar Hill, as should be clear, except that I wish I too were rich. He’s better off in an environment free of sexual repression, he’s getting paid to make art, all of that is good. He doesn’t interest me but other people like his schtick; I’m happy for them, having something they like. This chapter returns repeatedly to him only because of the nature of his popularity, which stems from a bad novelty song and has continued through a run of middling music and videos that barely register to someone who came up in the era when not just dimwit politicians but entire church hierarchies cared about music videos enough to get angry at, say, Madonna (whose influence is all over Lil Nas X’s ‘Call Me by Your Name’). He’s become familiar; maybe that’s why they call it ‘fame.’ 

Futher on difficult meditation.

Note: The post isn’t really about what its opening sentence might suggest, to the sane and normal reader, that it’s about; I didn’t make even the most halfassed attempt to maintain such smallmind-hobgoblin-consistency. It’s all — really all of it; this is how much of a degenerate wordcel I am — it’s all about getting to write and so hear the phrase ‘misery-fuckery’ in the trip-o-let rhythm of ‘jiggery-pokery.’

Thinking this morning about the notion of the ’emotional journey’: spatiotemporal metaphor for a shift in your inner landscape.

A couple of years ago I wrote a book ostensibly or pretextually about the major arcana of the tarot, working through the cards in order — starting and ending with the zeroth trump, the Fool — as if they recorded or allegorized a trip or transformation. I decided over the course of the project that the traditional image of the ‘Fool’s Journey’ was the wrong organizing metaphor, and it was more fertile for me to think of the Fool/querent/seeker/human undertaking errands with the intention of returning each time, if not to where she started, then to the next starting point. The ‘Fool’s Errand’ makes fractal sense to me: coming home changed — and so to a changed home — in order to set out on the next errand in a series, which together make up a deeper project of…y’know, whatever.

This shift — from thinking of the Journey as delivery mechanism for transformative psychic reward, to seeing the Errand as a recurring/ongoing project of engagement with change and uncertainty within and without — played out textually in that book as, if I’m being frank, a maddening fucking inconsistency of tone and viewpoint. Well, it is what it is. But the book was about midlife transition, really, and I’m pleased with the way tone and topic shifted together. Or so I console myself.

A friend who shared a little of what she knows about contemplative pathwork once told me her goal in meditative practice was to ‘realize nonseparateness,’ a phrase and concept which echoes throughout the present work. She was admirably clearheaded about a concept I found intellectually intuitive but at times emotionally forbidding: it was the realization itself, opening and maintaining connection itself, that was of value — not the specific emotional colour/content of the connection or of the thing connected to. ‘Nonseparateness’ was, in the terms of yesterday’s post, a peaceful dynamic of which (inner) conflict is always a part. ‘Peace isn’t quiet’; peace is ongoing resolution and restoration. Conflict can get you there (‘winning the peace’) and in any case conflict is coming.

This seems to me a vital distinction with both obvious and subtle political implications. You ‘realize nonseparateness’ even when what you’re connected to is difficult or painful; there’s a surface analogy to, say, democratic pluralism — which we might call a (possibly doomed) politics of willful nonseparateness, i.e. endless negotiation and compromise — but we should be careful not to stop at the superficial ‘stay connected to people who suck in order to improve/surpass them.’ It seems to me, a disintegrated and basically fucked person, that ‘nonseparateness’ isn’t tolerance. You tolerate someone because it won’t last forever, but I think real connection is undertaken without selfish hope of reprieve: it’s your responsibility to maintain a sense of the Other as fully itself, exactly as real as ‘you,’ even when the Other is a painful imagining or a difficult experience or (say) a dipshit ideologue. Relationship built on outlasting the unwanted will encode a dangerous destructive tension — cold war, so to speak. ‘Uneasy coexistence,’ and incidentally ‘unease’ translates as dukkha

Authentic engagement is both means and end, because — I guess this is one of my foundational assumptions — no one is an island; human minds and bodies being what they are, we realize our full humanity only in ongoing relation with others, and find peace only in peaceful relation (to circumstance, interactor, self, etc.). ‘Not all those who wander are lost’: an invitation not to tolerance but to an affirmative relation to inbetweenness, transit, search, the Errand as its own reason and reward. I have such a hard stupid time recognizing a process or transformation as a reward in itself, and I can hear echoes of this failure in so much misery-fuckery in my own life—

When I can remember that I’m not out to purify my own state or activity, but rather to be more authentic in my participation in ongoing processes at a scale I can’t easily/always perceive, I know I’m happier and closer to peace and ease — irrespective of the difficulty of my work.

It’s certainly possible this is an optical illusion, or One Neat Trick to pull on my easily manipulable consciousness. Any Fool knows that.

On difficult meditation.

Recently I’ve experienced a series of challenging, frustrating breath meditations.1 In the past I’ve come away from such sessions disappointed, hopeless, but these ones have, so to speak, sat differently with me.

My notes from the most recent sit read, in part:

5/10/23 — 15-20m sit (turned off timer) … caffeinated, head full of attractive fantasy, pulled repeatedly out of restful focus. after ~10min some words entered my noisy head: ‘i can’t manage my concentration — i can — i am.‘ process not result. then relaxed into the difficulty; the rest of that time felt like surfing, or floating down a crowded sidewalk: effortful, mental muscles working, grateful acceptance of chaotic oscillation

Experienced meditators doubtless recognize this as a 101-level realization, a knight’s-move expressed in ‘legacy’ egoic terms: first the lateral shift from despairing of ever attaining some outcome (successfully ‘managed’ concentration), to accepting both its possibility and the limits of my own perception/projection, and then a step further in, to a (temporary) new relationship to the meditative work which responds to the realness of the process rather than the desirability of the outcome. No sign of breaking the doomed imagine/desire/satisfy cycle here, just a local detachment of a certain imagining from a certain experience.

What’s interesting to me this morning, as a semi-experienced but very low-skill meditator, is the mindset — the mind-as-process — which opened up after I turned this corner several minutes into a sit. ‘Effortful…acceptance of chaotic oscillation.’ In other words: ‘surrender to the (turbulent) flow.’

One of the purposes of breath meditation is to realize (not ‘understand’) freedom from identification with the endless stream of mental activity, the burbling polyglot discourse of what my old professor Marvin Minsky called the ‘society of mind’ and Buddhist tradition calls ‘monkey mind.’ Heads are noisy places, the concerted work of mind emerges from a noisy knotty crosshatch of contradictory and coincidental impulses, and peaceful clarity or ‘awakening’ is both a natural state and a fleeting, rare one — e.g. look at everyone who’s ever lived. One of the states (processes) that open up in ‘successful’ breath meditations is a calm ego-detached awareness of the contingency and transience of such mental activity; the popular view mistakes this peaceful resolve for quiet, a standard dumb fuckup for human beings across experiential domains,2 but the ‘content’ of my sitting realization can be reduced/expressed as, ‘Whether or not this experience is “managed” isn’t a matter of quiet output but of persistent undertaking.’ Once I imagined myself participating in the activity, rather than imagining myself failing to ‘succeed’ at it, I was able to embody a new mode of relation between self and act, and between act and circumstance and outcome.

Again: yes, the fictional self-provision remains. But after all it was only 20 minutes of sitting down in an unused office at my workplace; we shouldn’t expect miracles in that setting, at that rate.

This is akin to going ‘off the grid,’ psychologically speaking, if only for a few minutes: after that moment of reframing, I was still working hard without satisfaction, still conscious of the fact that my mind would not quiet the hell down. (Yes, sitting down to meditate is hard work.) But that awareness and lack of satisfaction temporarily stopped generating that familiar emotional cocktail of self-loathing and despair — instead of the meditative work being a pretext for going into a tailspin, it felt like its own reward; it was real in itself.

Of course this echoes the Buddhist practice of referring to seated meditation as ‘sitting’ per se.

From that point in the session onward — and here I’m conscious of, but can’t be bothered to avoid, certain tiresome therapeutic/’productive’ connotations of the word session — I experienced the same ‘failed’ submergence/surfacing cycle that’d been pissing me off previously, the rise and fall of attentional waveform and whatever others. But instead of judging this oscillation, I was simply there for it. What ‘quiet’ occurred was a quality not of the mental ‘stream’ (which never quieted at all) but of the observing/judging faculty, the egoic ‘I.’ That relinquishing of judgment/control was unconscious despite my Beckettian internal utterance (‘I can’t, I can, I am’), but afterward I was no less aware of what was going on. Nothing like no-mind or no-self here, only a clearer sight of my set, setting, volition, activity.

For years I’ve told writing students and mentees, ‘All edits are clarity edits.’

Sometimes I’ll walk down a bustling sidewalk and experience an intoxicating stillness, keeping my head still relative to the sidewalk (like a camera on a dolly) while moving my body ‘around’ it to compensate. My subjective experience — not just in its visual aspect, the camera-eye, but in terms of the kinesthetic music of my whole mind/body system — remains smoothly and pleasurably continuous even while something akin to automatic error-correction goes on handling navigation duties. You can see the same effect in the flight of a bird whose body continually adjusts its movement so that its head can remain still enough to pick out prey on the ground far below, or indeed in surfers whose centers of mass move smoothly across wavetops while their legs pump irregularly to compensate for the dynamic curvature of the water below. Stillness not motionlessness — peace not quiet. The air and water and the madding crowd don’t stop flowing by in their chaotic turbulence; these bodily practices seeking stillness do not quiet the world’s noise. But in each event, the body that makes the mind — remember that the Spanish for ‘to make,’ hacer, also translates as ‘to do’ — ‘rests transparently’ in its moment, it experiences a reconciliation of set and setting.

Sometimes the V7 chord is exactly how you feel and not just a tool for getting back to the superegoic I.3

An altered relation to effort, and thus between effort and its output, isn’t a precursor to this experience of clarity — it’s it. In Alcoholics Anonymous they say you can’t think your way to right action, only act your way to right thinking; this is a pragmatic and sober articulation of our perhaps more abstract, fanciful notion that they’re the same thing.


  1. The proximate causes of the difficulty are irrelevant here. 
  2. See also the democratic realization, ‘Peace is not the absence of conflict but its resolvability.’ 
  3. This use of ‘I’ is one of those jokes that probably incurs a clarity-cost but I can’t bring myself to cut it. ‘Superegoic I’ is meant to play ironically after the earlier ‘egoic “I”‘; the idea here is that prefab psychological resolution is a social convention, etc., etc., and we come back to ego-pattern partly because there’s no room for other shit. But as primed by the notation ‘V7’ earlier in the sentence, ‘I’ also means the tonic major chord — harmonic ‘homebase’ so to speak, the resolution of the V7 and, in Western music, the fulfilling contrast-move that gives V7 its meaning, makes it OK. In jazz and other 20C western musics you’re surrounded by unresolved seventh chords, internal tritones allowed to both embody and signify ambivalence, i.e. those musics open up a new unconventional subjectivity that doesn’t just collapse mindlessly to the (egoic) I. See?! I went to graduate school, motherfucker!! This is way, way, way too much pressure on what’s ultimately just a coincidence of notation, and I’ll stop here. Thank you for reading this footnote. I went to graduate school. 

temporary autonomous imaginative zone.

Quick thought on Hakim Bey, Robert Anton Wilson, and hip phrases with ‘ontology’ in them.

Bey’s approach to all belief-systems, including anarchism, is to seek to channel their vital energy — their ‘life-forces, daring, intransigence, anger, heedlessness’ — while discarding their spooks, or fixed categories. This leads to an approach in which he loots or appropriates from different theories and traditions, without endorsing their foundational assumptions. Bey terms this ‘cultural bricolage’, or as ‘thieving’, or ‘hunting and gathering’, in an informational world. He takes, for instance, passion from revolutionary socialism, grace and ease from monarchism, self-overcoming or higher awareness from mysticism.

This description immediately brings to mind the other Wilson’s (RAW’s) ‘guerrilla ontology,’ that writing/reading-practice of taking what you need from an ontological frame but coming away immediately with (1) whatever contents are good to/for/with you, and eventually with (2) a deep active sense of the provisionality and transience of even ‘foundational’ concepts and states. The purpose of ‘guerrilla ontology’ isn’t to convince you of any particular idea, but to alter your relationship to convincing, i.e. to freedom.

Lately I’ve been mulling over this analogy:

place : space :: polity : population

A ‘polity’ isn’t a group of people, it’s a collectively imagined and centrally organized process they enter. A multi-user shared hallucination, as we used to say. By analogy, I’ve lately been using ‘place’ to mean something like ‘situation,’ mixing that latter term’s situationist and jazz-improvisatory senses: both circumstance and its conception, a moment bound more or less tightly to a space (as to a time). I’m trying to account for, among other things, the way ‘sacred spaces’ lose their power when the ritual-memory that impregnates them with meaning is lost — it makes sense to me to think of them as ‘sacred places,’ which combine what psychedelic culture calls set and setting, i.e. mental and physical circumstances. A space is sacred while and how you’re in it.

Now, because I’m intellectually irresponsible and into New Age synthambient music, I’ve also (thus) been thinking about ‘guerrilla ontology’ — RAW’s textual practice of serially springing textual traps to engender a radically skeptical reading-posture — as the establishment and dissolution of what we might, borrowing Bey’s terminology, call temporary autonomous imaginative zones: cognitive playspaces to be taken in (by), explored, and drifted from or been kicked out of, Eden-style. Inner landscapes, leaning heavily on the psycho- part of psychogeography. Here I’m turning over the idea of a ‘textual situation,’ a fictional proposition be picked up like Yorick’s skull, looked at, laughed over, thought through, and then cast back into the grave…

Which is partly to say I got introduced to reader-response theory at a tender age and it’s still latent at the base of my spinal cord, like herpes.

OK but now put on your Generalization Hat if you haven’t already: mindstates are temporary autonomous zones. They come and go — minds come and go, ‘mind’ is to the content of thought as place is to space — and in each passing (subjective) moment you’re able to live out certain forms of freedom but only temporarily, transiently, limited by the provisions of set and setting. The fictional proposition constrains imaginative response and/but affords, offers, an opportunity to realize a form of imaginative freedom outside otherwise-existing category.

Of course, this describes not just Bey’s subject but his own intellectual practice: the encounter with an idea, or indeed with a megatextual tradition, generates tools (affordances) for imaginative free play, which are taken up and put down according to a private associative logic which we sometimes call (creative) vision. The ‘foundational assumptions’ of an intellectual/wisdom tradition include its own originating set/setting, which are unrecoverable but in any case remain peripheral to the meaning we make with it — the reader’s vision isn’t itself the text but it dominates the textual encounter (well beyond whether it’s a ‘good time’). What Bey describes in quasi-mystical terms as ‘ontological anarchy’ is the realization of true autonomy, ecstatic and tragic and drawing meaning from its unsustainability:

The logic of Passion leads to the conclusion that all “states” are impossible, all “orders” illusory, except those of desire… [B]etween the lonely awakening of the individual, and the synergetic anamnesis of the insurrectionary collectivity, there stretches out a whole spectrum of social forms with some potential for our “project.” Some last no longer than a chance meeting between two kindred spirits who might enlarge each other by their brief and mysterious encounter; others are like holidays, still others like pirate utopias. None seems to last very long — but so what?

RAW’s ‘guerrilla ontology’ exhorts an analogous nomadic reading practice, and HB’s pirate-sociality shares with RAW’s pirate-textuality a model of playful mind passing through thought-structures the way the situationist passes through the city-structure in the dérive, engaging with one ambience and then an adjacent/overlapping other.

The process is harmolodic.

Irreal Life Top 10, May Day 2023.

May 2, fine, you know what I mean.

  1. Crowded House, WOODFACE. Brothers Neil and Tim Finn collaborate naturally, effortlessly, on an album of warm welcoming quietly masterful pop tunes: Neil at the height of his considerable formalist powers here, the brothers’ sweet harmony vocals lightly seasoned, the band building up each song from formally sly miniature to unabashed mezzoforte singalong bliss. How many lads-with-guitars LPs contain this many perfectly realized songs — strewn across this wide a stylistic range — of grateful darkening and maturation? Take out the seven best songs and the remainder would be the best day of a better-than-average songwriter’s life.
  2. Jung on meaning. ‘The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.’ Jung’s reputation as one of the 20th century’s most influential psychologists may fall away; hopefully then we can acknowledge him as one of the 20th century’s most influential mystics.
  3. Frasier and Lilith. The French farce Frasier (1993-2004), a tonally distant three-camera sequel to Cheers, gave its hugely talented stars meaty scripts to work with and let them go in front of a live studio audience. The virtuosic Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce as the Crane brothers were the show’s most purely pleasurable double act, but the production hit a new expressive range whenever fellow master Bebe Neuwirth showed up as Frasier’s ex-wife Lilith; their duets and trios might represent the last gasp of an old-fashioned strain of theatrical performance on American TV. The writers — several of whom were old, old hands — clearly relished the task of scoring those ensemble pieces, in their fondly remembered highbrow-screwball register. (Lilith introduces her date: ‘Brian is a seismologist at MIT.’ Frasier, twinkling: ‘Oh, that’s perfect! Brian being a seismologist and you having so many faults.’) An evolutionary dead end, irresponsible to the Discourse, weekly delivering a measure of flawlessly executed classical comedy. Revisiting the Grammer-Neuwirth duets on Youtube has been a recent joy.
  4. Jim and Pam and Michael and Dwight. Because its influence is everywhere, easy to forget, now, that The Office dramatically altered TV comedy overnight — the Gervais/Merchant original and then Greg Daniels’s USA adaptation mixed single- and multi-camera style and the documentary get-the-shot-framing-be-damned ethos to initially startling effect. The pilot of the USA show adapted the first UK script, and it just doesn’t quite work; I remember hating it when it first aired, and on recent rewatch it stayed disappointing. By the second episode, the comparatively well regarded ‘Diversity Day,’ it had already started to find its own perspective on its setting, and the brief first season closes out strongly with uncomfortable episodes ‘Basketball’ and ‘Hot Girl’ (w/guest star Amy Adams). The unlikable Season One version of Michael Scott is much closer to Gervais’s David Brent, which might be why the show was bombing in the ratings. But in Season Two the show compromises on tone, becoming much more ‘viewer friendly’ by moving the romance plot quickly forward and making Carell’s character an idiot savant rather than a clueless self-dealer. It works, at cost. Seasons 2 and 3 are perfect on their own terms, and the show should’ve ended on Jenna Fischer’s impossibly radiant smile. Seasons 4, 5, and 6 are way above the network-TV average, particularly the strongly serial, Paul Lieberstein-run fifth, but with the end of the overripe Jim/Pam story the show’s basic formula has been fundamentally altered: Michael is now the sympathetic victim of Corporate, the office is a family united (except for increasingly tiresome chaos agent Dwight), and the postwar USA workplace-story message of grotesquely grateful recidivism has been (well) told for the thousandth time. Carell’s lead performance is one of the greatest comic turns in the history of television, and the decision to keep going for two seasons after his departure is an embarrassment.
  5. Cassandra Wilson, ‘Last Train to Clarksville.’ Maybe there’s another layer of meaning in the extra beat the band gives this lightweight Monkees hit between verses, transforming common time into a private nine that signifies not just ‘jazz’ (funny that odd meters have come to do so for what was once dance music) but the darkening distance between 21-year-old Mickey Dolenz — on sublimated ‘departing soldier seeks quickie’ vocal duty — and 41-year-old Wilson, a middle-aged black woman singing about ‘coffee-coloured kisses and a bit of conversation’ like she knows exactly how rare such nights are and how few might remain. Parts of New Moon Daughter are too carefully managed, neither a new nor a solved problem for Wilson; in that regard she prefigures the more talented but less hip Janelle Monáe, whose winning strangeness can’t hide her flop sweat or obvious desire to be doing musical theater. But Wilson sings ‘Clarksville’ like she’s been there, with a wry unforced smile, and her odd-meter scatting brings across the feeling of a good time that hasn’t been easy. Which maybe it actually has, for her — this isn’t biography — but you don’t sing the cynical McCartney-imitating ‘Oh no no no’ with all those slow evening colours unless you’ve felt them. A quietly beautiful song.
  6. Academia. Publication history of a recent humanities paper chosen at a random: submitted 26 May 2019, accepted 29 April 202, published (online) 22 March 2022.
  7. Doomers. Everyone who attended college knows That Asshole who read The Fountainhead at a tender age, didn’t have friends to treat the poison, and went on to disappoint several undeserving women while being a minor political menace. AI doomers are like that, but swap in ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘sexbots.’
  8. Phish at the Greek, 17 April 2023. Tweezer (43:39) > flawless improvised segue > Simple (19:10), every minute of both jams genuinely compelling. For a band in its autumn, Phish sure do play like the best value-for-dollar in popular music — like the secret of the universe might actually be as simple as loving what you do and who you do it with. Woo.
  9. The indignity of the boiled frog. ‘Choose a delivery option: (1) 4/17-4/19, $10.50 (2) 4/16-4/19, $24.99.’ (Amazon)
  10. Raving. Mackenzie Wark in The Nation: ‘Raves aren’t all that hard to find, but there’s a bit of a learning curve, and an establishing of trust, to find the good ones. … You can read [Wark’s Raving] as a book about the art of constructing situations more generally where we can reduce surveillance, consumption, the hustle, find forms of collective joy, or if not joy, ways to endure the pain of this dying world.’

JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD, by Michael Crichton.

Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is one of my favourite movies, and I compulsively reread Crichton’s original novel instead of doing schoolwork when it first came out in paperback. I remember looking forward to the sequel — there was a long waiting list for a copy at the library in Jamestown — and I remember, upon reading, feeling nothing at all.

This month, like an idiot, I decided to revisit both novels.

JURASSIC PARK (1990)

Brutally effective, strangely shaped — the weirdly downbeat ending in the velociraptor nest is infamously structured not around thrills and chases but around Grant’s realization that the dinos are not only breeding but migratory, which feels like a metatextual revelation rather than anything to do with plot. Ultimately Jurassic Park, which was adapted into one of Hollywood’s greatest action/adventure movies, is an anti-scitech polemic in the form of a technothriller: a paranoid, pedantic, mean-spirited rocket ride by an author whose technophilic and technophobic impulses war throughout, with ‘plot’ tending to lose. Not to say it isn’t a great book, in its way — it’s just not great (it turns out) at being the thing it was sold as. Or maybe it is, and I couldn’t tell because my attention was totally focused on its explicit sermonizing.

The true focus of the book turns out to be right there in its ‘documentary’ introduction, a short lecture on the dangers of unregulated genetic research, a greater-than-atomic power in the hands of the worst species on earth; as the book steams toward climax and anticlimax, Crichton devotes many pages to Ian Malcolm’s rants about the dangers of untethered science, forgivably but testingly stopping the action. One of these is actually a wonderful argument: ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is a form of intellectual inherited wealth, each generation of scientist more cocky and less grounded in where the knowledge actually came from — and everyone knows that being born rich makes you stupid and venal. This is a fine bit of agitprop, actually.

And Malcolm’s deathbed ‘beyond paradise’/’beyond paradigm’ is a good gag.

Well, I enjoyed it — as I did when compulsively rereading my mass-market paperback copy in middle/high school. And now I think I won’t have to read it again.

THE LOST WORLD (1995)

Not only crudely misanthropic and pedantic, not only a pale rewrite of the original, not only — it’s believably rumoured — partly written by a team of uncredited assistants, but a bad book: lazy, repetitive, boring hackwork. A combination lecture/movie treatment masquerading as a novel. This time the intermittent lecture-breaks, in which characters (particularly Ian Malcolm, Crichton’s wearying Marty Stu) deliver preposterous uninterrupted monologues while facing mortal peril, are focused on ‘extinction,’ with which term Crichton figures both species-death and the collapse of modern culture. There’s even a broadside about ‘cyberspace’ destroying human potential by cramming too many cooks into the cultural kitchen. Jurassic Park‘s sledgehammer polemic was palatable because the thriller plot otherwise worked smoothly throughout; The Lost World is too thinly imagined, its story too halfhearted, to bring across its angry-blogpost-level complaints.

I was bored before the end of the first chapter, annoyed before the end of the second, and by the final page I wanted to throw the fucking thing and the corpse of its author into a fire.

Irreal Life Top 10, February 2023.

Focusing on the mundane this month, with the sublime never all that far off, as you’d maybe expect from the title of this recurring ‘feature.’ –wa.

  1. Kailh Copper vs Silver. In mechanical keyboard land it’s important to carefully choose your keyswitches, which determine much of the ‘hand feel’ of the board. After trying Cherry MX Browns — a little stiff for me — I picked up two sets of Kailh switches: tactile Copper (a noticeable tactile ‘bump’ between touching/actuating and bottoming out) and linear Silver (no bump, ideal for gaming etc). The nominal actuation force and key travel are the same for both, but they feel completely different: though the Coppers are noticeably lighter to the touch than the Cherry Browns, they’ve still got that chunky I’m Really Typing feeling that’s part of the core appeal of the mechanical kb; meanwhile the Silvers are so light they go off when you breathe on them. I use the Silvers at home and have the Coppers in the keyboard I bought for work (reimbursement pending). The differences are instructive and, for the kind of fetishist I’ve evidently become, weirdly exciting.
  2. Wallis Buddhist translations. Glenn Wallis’s translation of the short collection of sutras/suttas called the Dhammapada — subtitle: ‘Verses on the Way’ — is one among increasingly many and the best I’ve read, graceful and clear. His collection of Basic Teachings of the Buddha in translation is even better, and certain thoughtful interpretive choices (e.g. his shift in translation of dukkha from ‘pain’ to ‘unease’) open up the latter text in subtly profound ways. But better than his translations are his notes and reading guides, which together constitute a parallel Buddhism 101 that illuminates existing scholarship without ditching the practical for the esoteric. That Wallis has since left ‘straight’ Buddhism behind doesn’t in any way devalue this rigorously welcoming work; as with Robert Graves’s Greek Myths, the ‘primary’ text is the whole slightly mad thing, and I’m grateful for its weird truth-telling.
  3. Sigil and mandala. From my notes, which may or may not reside in a zettelkasten: “Sigil work [making a diagram from e.g. the nonrepeating lettershapes of a written statement of desire, then ‘energizing’ it by thinking hard about it while e.g. jacking off] is about intensely focused engagement with an iconic representation, not so as to ‘do magic,’ but to radically transform your attention in accordance with your intention. The outcome is the same as for any magic: an alternate [not solely post-orgasmic] form of seeing-as. … The difference between sigil magic and mandala practice is one of degree(s). Different timescale, different mode of focusing, different relationship to desire (none of the explosive expression of sigilization), but closely related, and potentially mutually reinforcing. … Crucially, both sigil and mandala work are in a certain sense ‘aesthetic’ experiences — though you might say the latter is a deliberate cultivation and the former a purgation. Earth/water and fire/air. … TODO: Think about the metaphoric role of entropy in magical purgation. Its link to emptiness/spaciousness. Well, if we weren’t hippie dipshits before…”
  4. 76 Patrons. One of the best-loved supplements for the early (indeed primitive) Traveller science-fiction roleplaying game is this short 1980 compendium of ready-to-run ‘patron encounters’ following a simple template: a contact, a job offer, a paycheck, some complications, and a d6 table of twists and answers to the question of What’s Really Going On. Pound for pound, one of the most useful gamebooks ever published, its plots varied and the simple prose keeping the imaginative space wide open for the Referee. The ‘lack of style’ comes to feel like a show of respect, like the book and writer Loren Wiseman know how hard it is to run an improvisatory campaign, have been there before, and know just how to help.
  5. The Fire Next Time. Lives up to its title and reputation right away, but in the climactic sequence — as Baldwin grows uncomfortable with his long conversation with the evil piece of shit Elijah Muhammad, acknowledging the Nation of Islam’s appeal and pull while rejecting its implied criticisms of his own urbane way of life — it surpasses the reductive identitarian reading that’s rapidly become bourgeois orthodoxy. An astonishing work.
  6. The Banshees of Inisherin. I’ve seen Irish viewers criticize its Oirishness, which is fair, as well Irish-British writer-director McDonagh’s weird treatment of the Irish civil war as something inexplicably distant from the seemingly bucolic life of the island. Very well — but this stagey film may as well have been set in the same nonplace as Waiting for Godot, its allegory is so broad and its story so tightly focused on darkly absurd central conflict. Banshees isn’t as good a time as cult-favourite In Bruges, too cruel, but it’s the better film and the more emotionally mature, even if its pseudoprofundity confirms McDonagh as a minor writer with a knack for dialogue. Bit of a dilettante too, maybe. Farrell and Gleeson do their beautiful double act — is Colin Farrell, seemingly a sweetly decent guy with a sound head on his shoulders, our most underappreciated great actor? — but the finest moment of Banshees is Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon’s scene by the lake, with that one heartbreaking line. A very fine film, but not, I think, destined to become a ‘classic.’
  7. Brooklyn 99. OK, you win. The middle seasons of this middlebrow middleweight are so consistently enjoyable, in their way, that the collapse of the final season into pseudopolitics feels less like a shame and more like a sin. (Bonus: in the moments when they let Stephanie Beatriz do something closer to her real voice, you see how good she actually is; in the moments when they let Andy Samberg try to ‘act,’ you see how far he had to go (with the writers’ help) to be more than the Jerry Seinfeld of the cast.)
  8. Phil and Friends, April 1999. Phil Lesh’s first shows after a life-threatening illness and transplant were an extraordinary moment for the ‘jam band’ community: half of Phish (Trey and Page) joined stepped in to join Lesh, guitarist-ally Steve Kimock, and drummer John Molo in a supergroup for three nights at the Warfield, uniting Deadheads with younger heads and starting to build a bridge between first- and subsequent-generation improvisatory rock musics. They opened the 15 April show with a 34-minute ‘Viola Lee Blues’ that was worth the night’s ticket cost all on its own, then went deep and stayed there (with help from welcome guest and den mother Donna Jean). The final night’s setlist really does open Dark Star > It’s Up to You, Days Between > Dark Star > My Favorite Things, with a 20+ minute Terrapin > Down with Disease at the show’s center and an all-time great Morning Dew at the climax. Lesh is in fine form, Anastasio might be at his career peak, but the whole thing is Zero cofounder Steve Kimock’s coming-out party — this triumphant run introduced what Phil called Kimock’s ‘antigravity guitar’ to the national audience, his passionate melodies weaving through Anastasio’s virtuosic second-lead matrices like air and earth. It’s a shame they haven’t paired again, though Kimock’s subsequent career has been hit-and-miss. (Fans of his performances with Phil will enjoy KVHW and the perfectly named Marijuana Jazz Band.)
  9. Silverview. John Le Carré’s posthumous novel, largely finished at his death a couple of years ago, is a sweet slim valedictory in the mode of A Legacy of Spies, his 2017 farewell to Smiley. Silverview feels like a farewell to everything, though that’s a common theme with Le Carré. Again it’s aging cold warriors looking back on the damage they’ve caused — this time the traumatic wound is inflicted in Bosnia, evoked as distant background rather than fully imagined setting — but this minor book contents itself with personal rather than political accounting. There’s a surprise ending too, quiet and sweet and slightly clunky, as if the master didn’t quite want (or know how) to end on such a hopeful note. I loved that and the rest of this muted autumn novel, which I read in a sitting. (Somewhat against my will and expectations, I recommend reading his son’s afterword before proceeding to the story itself.)
  10. Condensed Chaos. Phil Hine is one of our most humane occult writers, a real model for me, which might be why I’d avoided going cover-to-cover through any of his books before last month. This work, along with recent essay collection Hine’s Varieties, marks him as a lucid, sane, and empathetic practitioner and theorist of magic — two rare things — plus funny, which might be rarest of all in the po-faced world of occult bullshit. The remarkable thing about Condensed Chaos isn’t its accessibility or breezy tone, though, but rather Hine’s excellent pedagogical approach. Beginning with DRAT (discipline, relaxation, attention, transformation) and working his way slowly toward step-by-step instructions for invoking particular ‘chaos servitors,’ he lays out a program of magical self-inquiry and -transformation which foregrounds the practical (Sorcery) but acknowledges, as responsible adults must, that it’s all fundamentally an oblique approach to self-refashioning and imaginative exploration. His candor, pragmatism, and good humour serve a method that takes the Path (but not itself) seriously. And his worked examples of ‘pathworking’ are clear as day. Well, here’s how good this book is: it made me want to do magic in a group of committed practitioners. This is of course madness, but there’s a method to that too.

On ‘flow’ and the distinction between spaciousness and emptiness.

1.

Think of ‘flow states’ not as forebrain-free experiences, but rather as those in which thought, meta-reflection, and action are experienced as integrated. This might not be the right model in terms of neurobiology but experientially I think it makes sense. You act, think, think about thinking, conceptualize — and the different frames of experience seem to align. This is the prize. In flow you’re not just empty: you are spacious.

This superposition of experience is also known as the ‘oceanic’ feeling: borderlessness, fluidity. This is the nature of that specific heightened state, in which imagination is in alignment with outward/physical experience. It’s the (sometimes) poetry of psychogeography.

The setting (the City, say) is a somatic component of the spell; the spell is cognitive in fundamental nature.

2.

The spaciousness/emptiness distinction is an important one. In flow states we don’t experience empty mind, but rather an inexplicable facility — we know where the ball is headed before the opponent hits it, we hear the next phrase before our musical partners play it, we improvise entire stanzas instead of individual verses. This is obviously not empty-headedness! Nor is it as simple as ’emptiness of ego’: we’re aware of our bodies, our minds. We have self-consciousness…but not ego-attachment.

(Recall DFW’s observation about Roger Federer and what it means to be perfectly in command of your instrument, about the tennis ball looking to him like it’s as big as a basketball. The world slows down for you, but it doesn’t hollow out in doing so — you can just take it in, seemingly without effort.)

In a flow state, the world is positively full of spaciousness. What’s ‘missing’ is barrier and imposition. But so much more is present — even as we sense that there’s suddenly so much more room.

Again, note that this is a description of experience, not neurobiology. I’m only talking about the subjective experience of flow. You really do feel perfectly capable, alive to the moment. What you don’t feel is the vestigial attachment to the idea of the moment — or to the past, the self, imagined futures never to be — holding you back from the present. ‘Single-point awareness’ isn’t necessarily simple. The moment is complex, awareness the same.

All spells are cast on the caster.

Because magic spells fail, magic is widely and incorrectly understood to fail. But all magic spells work on the magician — and on the others in the circle, connected to the working. Parts of (because party to) the transformation.

A magical working is a fiction. (Reader-response!) Is ‘paracosm’ the right word? Ludocosm? Thaumatocosm? Ugh, maybe. It creates a space in which new practice is possible. This is why you wear a mask and practice improvisation: radical listening. Radically intense experience of that private fiction. The privacy it affords makes it possible to explore something deeply, to access impulses and inhabit personae.

The fictionality unthethers the context, the surroundings, from the binding consensus-reality — but also untethers your own actions and their effects. Within the fiction, magic can work. The spell is the fiction.

We keep two sets of books; we can live inside a fiction, many fictions. That’s what fiction is for. It begins with radical acceptance in the reader/listener/magician: agreeing to the premise, the provision, the proffer. Letting yourself be welcomed (answering the Campbellian call to adventure, with the final/ultimate adventure being living toward death). That’s the outset of the Errand, of course — choosing to set out, accepting limitation. Becoming foolish, becoming the Fool. You have to get humble (fuck around!) before you can find out.

All magic spells work on the magician. Which is to say: one way or another, they all work.