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.
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
$neighbourhood while preserving its
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
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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.’ ↩