wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: americana

Sharing ecology. Social objects.

Epistemic status: Wrote this in mid-2016 but I don’t think I posted it anywhere. It appears to be a semi-hasty first draft (These are a few of my…). At the point where I mention the Great Depression, I found a note from my 2016-self: ‘TK THIS GRAF IN PROGRESS; CONSIDER CUTTING NEXT GRAF OR 2 AND REDOING APPROACH TO THE ENDING ALTOGETHER, MORE IN KEEPING W/THEME OF THE PIECE.’ I’ve disregarded that note for the moment, because revising and rewriting this essay would mean sinking back into these feelings, and right now that thought turns my stomach. Maybe someday. –wgh.

I recently wrote a book about my favourite band, and found myself reliving — and longing for — the early days of my fandom. The band’s reputation rests on their improvisatory live performances, and for their first 20 years fans eagerly traded amateur concert recordings on audiocassette, with the band’s blessing. Walking into an acquaintance’s house and finding a shelf full of Maxell XL-II tapes, each with a handwritten ‘j-card’ listing tracks, segues, guest appearances, and improvisations of note, meant you’d found a fellow obsessive, and probably a friend.

That’s over now. My tapes gather dust in our attic, and I listen exclusively through iTunes and streaming sites. ‘In my day’ you’d arrange a trade with a stranger online — I’ll send you a 1st-generation tape of Amsterdam July 1997 for a clean copy of those two classic Red Rocks shows on your tapelist — and send the tapes bubble mailers, then post a Good Trader Alert to the newsgroup. We shared physical objects which resided in our homes, and our relationship to the music was artifactual, sacramental. You could be ‘in the presence’ of the music in a literal way.

Now, when you want the show, any show the band has ever played, you find the link in a single handy spreadsheet and download it from ‘the cloud.’ This has reduced but not quite eliminated audience taping, but it’s entirely done away with the fan trading network which was the backbone of our community. Once I shared the music with you; now a computer somewhere on Earth shares the music with our computers.

Everything is always available. There’s no need for us to share. There is no one to thank.

Free public wi-fi, streaming HD video, same-day book delivery, timeshifted TV, effectively unlimited free email: the benefits of these technocommercial advancements are so obvious that we needn’t talk about them, and so never bother thinking about them, and so tend to assume that these glorious advances and their glorious advantages are the Way of Things, steps already taken and so either fully accounted for or simply beyond counting. They can have no cost, this non-reasoning goes, because honestly why talk about cost when we finally have nice things?

But of course there are costs. There always are.

They manifest subtly at first.

In recent years the words ‘own’ and ‘ownership’ have acquired new senses: to ‘take ownership of your trauma’ means to acknowledge and make peace with the fact of a bad thing having scarred you emotionally, and to ‘own your privilege’ means to recognize the ways in which you benefit from your social class, and then pantomime remorse. ‘Ownership’ here means something like ‘reckoning,’ usually melodramatic.

And of course there was President G.W. Bush’s ‘ownership society,’ an idea which combined deficit spending (instead of ownership) and further atomization (instead of society).

When I was a kid in the 80s, ‘ownership’ seemed to me much less complicated: owning a thing meant being able to hold it, touch it, and — within reason — do what you wanted with it. If you owned a Nintendo game, for instance, you had a plastic cartridge full of subtle electronics which you inserted into a plastic and metal console in order to play. To share the game meant walking it down to Scott’s house and playing it over there; at the end of the day you brought it home. It was ‘yours’ the way your sneakers were yours. If it broke, it was lost to you, but you usually knew why.

Sharing music meant lending a compact disc or dubbing a cassette tape, and woe betide the would-be pirate who wanted music that didn’t fit cleanly on either side of the tape. Sharing a drawing meant sending it by mail; sharing movies meant inviting Jimmy and Craig over to watch them at your house on a weekend.

This was, I don’t need to tell you, a pain in the ass; and I’m assured that things are Better Now. To ‘share’ a movie with a friend in 2016, you simply point her to where you got it. Same with music and games. Easy breezy: your precious objects never actually leave our hands, and you can share without giving. ‘Generosity’ doesn’t come into it; when your neighbour asks to borrow your copy of the Game of Thrones finale, you either divide it by mitosis (copying the file) and pass along a copy, or maybe email her a .torrent file so she can grab it directly from the 16-year-old who pirated the episode in the first place.

Failing that, of course, you can just give your friend your Netflix or hbogo.com password — both companies have accounted for such ‘violation’ in their business models. The miracle is that she gains while you appear to lose nothing at all.

To borrow terms from computer science, this is ‘sharing’ as reference-passing1 rather than object-passing. The shift is meaningful, its benefits are clear, and we will be paying its hidden costs for a long time.

As Richard Stallman and his cohort have been pointing out for decades, our ‘possessions’ are increasingly rentals — beyond the simple fact that we’re not permitted ‘inside’ the digital tools we rely on, the ongoing shift from local (desktop) computational resources to online services, invisible server-side processing, and remote storage means that it’s typically ‘more convenient’ in the short term to have easy access to digital resources we don’t control than to actually ‘possess’ them. It’s nice not to need to synchronize multiple copies of your email archive, isn’t it? Easier, certainly, to let Google have it, and simply view your messages on a webpage (‘in the cloud’). All you have to do to get access to your most intimate thoughts is this: when the Alphabet corporation of Mountain View CA asks for the magic word, you type it — and it would be helpful if you handed over your phone number too, just in case.

This isn’t about Ludditism, mind you. We’re doomed, yes, and it’s our absolute dependence on biologically incompatible industrial infrastructure that’s doomed us, but: Cloud computing really does make modern life easier; accessing your entire music collection from your phone really is a miracle; not having to worry about server maintenance makes running a website not only easy but possible in the first place. I like being able to stream every Phish show to my phone. No, that’s not strong enough: 18-year-old me would have murdered his friends to get access to the digital tools which 37-year-old me, taking them for granted, finds insufficiently convenient.

And yet.

And yet when we consider whether to buy gadgets or embrace hip new software service, the alternative to Gadget A or Online Service B is always Functionally Equivalent Gadget X or Interchangeable But Less Snazzily Branded Service Y — the alternative is never Doing Without — and the sole reason for this state of affairs is that if you and I Do Without, the companies which sell us things will make a touch less money.

Retail businesses can be divided cleanly into two camps: those that produce truly useful, essential goods, and those that benefit from consumer anxiety.

With a smartphone and earbuds, you can now talk to Aunt May in far-off Osbaldeston anytime, in realtime — but since everyone else is wearing earbuds too, you can’t talk to a stranger on your street. Your teenage kid doesn’t think twice about listening to music across cultural borders, but has also never even heard of ‘social music,’ and probably knows none of the music that kept your parents and grandparents alive. Turn-by-turn GPS directions make navigation trivial, and the only cost is that relying on that technology means you never form a mental map of your city; but then, why would you need that? Why would you need to talk to a stranger, or learn your grandparents’ emotional language? What’s so great about being able to imagine a city without looking at a cartoon map of its streets?

If you’ve ever looked at your year-old iPhone and felt, deep in your bones, that it was time to pay a couple hundred bucks for an upgrade, then the people selling you pills are the ones who made you sick.

The redefinition of ‘sharing’ from transferring to copying is an inevitable knock-on effect of ubiquitous digital networking. When copying is cheaper than transferring, you copy; that’s why every Harvard freshman cheats. (And the faculty blame the kids and their parents, never themselves or the institution.)

But that redefinition, plus the creeping status anxiety and ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) engendered by a gadget/tech culture that’s easy to enter but difficult to leave, plus the ubiquity and pace of ‘social’ media, creates a toxic dependence on corporate media — meaning not only Sony, NBC, and HBO but Google and Apple and Twitter too. There’s social pressure to pay constant attention, and most of what there is to pay attention to is advertising. And while corporations carefully pressure their marks (us) to ‘create,’ to feel ’empowered’ (or else!), they also beam out the false but convincing message that the path to empowerment is consumption, and creativity outside the corporate-media envelope is somehow suspect. Fulfillment can’t be sold, only shared, so marketers forcibly and falsely equate fulfillment with satisfaction — the palliative, the rush of sensation — and ‘sharing’ is reduced to word-of-mouth advertising.

The late Prince famously said that his enormous back catalogue was the result of a kind of odd pragmatism: when he got the urge to hear a certain kind of music, his tastes were specific enough and his process refined to the point where he was better off just heading into his studio and making the music himself. We are told that in the Digital Future of Today it’s that easy for all of us. But when was the last time you recorded a song, actually edited a home video or article (‘sharing’ increasingly also means ‘sharing your first draft’), or built a Lego project from scratch instead of buying a kit? The instant sugar hit of recognition and pseudoconnection that comes from engaging with a brand, a franchise, a ‘magical revolutionary device,’ will almost always overpower the more complex, delicate experience of doing it yourself — and the conscious choice to DIY is short-circuited by the saturated colours, beveled edges, high framerates, and deep bass frequencies of the mediasphere.

This is a new spin on old news: the American public’s tendency toward absolute passivity before the screen has been a problem since the first television beamed out the first time-killing inanity, if not before. (During the Depression, 65% of the American population went to the movies each week.) Never mind that sitting for hours in front of a screen is bad for you, a fact everyone has known and seen firsthand for decades; thinking for hours through a screen is bad for you too. It fundamentally changes how you see, how you want, how you experience Others.

Americans’ democratic rhetoric has never quite hidden our desperate yearning for a strong hand, ideally an invisible one, guiding our choices. Consumerism, conformism, identitarian narcissism — these are such longstanding concerns you can watch expensive cable dramas about them. Madison Avenue didn’t invent the insane notion that happiness means inactivity (‘kick back and relax’), slaves did. And yet Being Able to Accomplish More is the core sales pitch in modern life: enhancing your productivity, being a ‘more effective you,’ decreasing your footprint while ‘increasing your impact’… Accomplishing more while doing less is the essence of the American Dream, which is one reason Silicon Valley’s rapacious technophilia has so thoroughly colonized the contemporary American imagination.

Yet it bears repeating: our tools also constrain our ability to create, coarsely (you can’t do calligraphy with a hammer, or drive nails with a watercolour brush) and more subtly. Tools come with ideas attached, with cultures of practice, social histories, private associations…and many of the ideas attached to our modern digital tools are poisonous to our long-term health. The idea that sharing means referring to Something Neat rather than making something of our own and passing it along. The idea that your urge to hear music is best satisfied by turning on the radio-equivalent rather than picking up a guitar (or even an iPad drum machine). The idea that, because pseudostate corporations can provide essential social services more efficiently in the short term than the actual state, they should do so. The idea that the best of you is what you can broadcast to the world right this instant. The idea that a company that inserts advertisements into your email while pretending not to care about their contents is, in any way at all, ‘on your side.’ The idea that ‘self-sufficiency’ is corrupt and valueless simply because it’s a myth.

The idea that it’s important to find out what other people think about your new favourite show before you ‘support’ it by watching.

The idea that it’s better to let the machine remember for you.

The idea that you can form a human connection with a username.

The idea that ‘curation’ is ‘creation,’ rather than ‘acquisition and accumulation with better branding.’

Blah, blah, blah.

(And now a moment for us: If you’re not blocking them with a clever bit of Javascript, please click one of the ‘Share’ buttons on this page so we can both get a sense of self-worth from this piece.)

We began with ‘sharing’ but have ended up on ‘creating’ and ‘curating,’ which makes sense: in the jungle of the ‘social’ Web, your taste is your identity and everything is a remix, and pointing out that these are deranged wrong ideas — pure ideology, good for business and bad for everything else — is uncool, i.e. irrelevant. The redefinition of ‘sharing,’ the weird felt obligation to point out that we don’t agree 100% with everything we retweet, our gadget anxieties, our self-satisfied consumerism, our literally childish equation of fulfillment with momentary satisfaction, our march toward an imagistic attention-deficit politics divorced from actual economic or cultural or indeed climatic reality…these are contemporary manifestations of our century-long movement toward absolute dependence on a corporate-cultural complex, and if that sounds creepily like ‘military-industrial complex’ then give yourself a gold star.

Our technological dependency makes us dependent in turn on the corporations who sell the technology, and those corporations spend billions to make sure we not only depend on them but feel sympathy for them, expend emotional energy caring about their wellbeing — think of how many hours supposed adults spend arguing with each other about Google’s ‘rebranding’ as Alphabet or Apple’s choice of default system font or whether the repulsive multibillion-dollar oligarchy called the NBA should sully the ‘purity’ of its player uniforms with advertisements that already blanket every unused square inch of every NBA arena. So far, so distracting…but when we treat corporate interests as emotionally equivalent to human interest, we silently accept encroachments on our inner lives, steep cuts to our imaginative autonomy, which we’d never countenance if our acquiescence hadn’t been bought. We learn not to mind Google reading our email, which means the NSA reading our email (and Google providing tools for them to do so), etc., etc., etc.

We’ve outsourced our taste to record labels, our imaginations to movie studios, our memories to email providers, and our creative urges to whatever shiny thing crossed our field of vision most recently; what’s onscreen is real — ‘friending’ a user account is making friends, ‘liking’ something is liking it, a selfie is a memory, the show’s better than the book — so what’s real is onscreen. Who has time for anything else?

And outside the window, just offscreen, the seas rise and the world dies.

We’ve lost (ourselves) and the timing couldn’t be worse.

But surely I don’t need to tell you that. Everything is a remix, after all; you’ve heard all this before.

  1. It’s no coincidence that our art reflects this ideological shift with an aesthetic shift toward relentless referentiality — the bored cynic who first got rich painting soup cans wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised by a cash-in like Captain America: Civil War, which (like dozens of comic book crossover (non)events before it) exists primarily to answer the question ‘What if Spider-Man fought Cap and made a weirdly specific Star Wars joke and we saw Crossbones in an early scene for some reason and The Vision wore a sweater and Stan Lee called Tony Stark “Tony Stank”‘ with a resounding KA-CHING!! From Lost and Family Guy to every Dreamworks movie ever made, from TV-Game of Thrones‘s inept citations of its bestselling source novels to the torrent of swill that is Disney’s ‘secret origins of fairy tale characters’ sequence, from the cloddish point-missing of Sopranos ‘death pools’ to the tiresome pedants who ‘fact checked’ Mad Men by craftily googling every date that appeared on what ended up being nothing more than a (brilliant) work of fiction, the demeaning game of spot-the-reference has become a staple of what credulous academics call ‘active media consumption.’ We could go on, but shouldn’t. 


Content note: Silliness. Only silliness.

Out on the good-natured fringes of conspiracist culture, the number 23 is said to possess cosmic significance — this is tied to the ‘Law of Fives,’ which is too silly to explain.

If you want to understand American counterculture(s), you must understand this:

  1. No one seriously thinks the number 23 is intrinsically significant.
  2. ‘Seriousness’ is beside the point.
  3. Unserious belief can have incredible psychotropic effects.

The opposite of ‘serious’ (when used sarcastically) isn’t ‘frivolous,’ it’s ‘playful,’ and play is the heart of antirational belief and practice. The number 23 isn’t meaningful until you make it so — at which point its presence is as meaningful as you like. Meaning is an effect generated by interpretation, by reading. Antirationalism is playful reading practice.

Apple Computer.

The tally: Apple IIgs, ImageWriter II. Windows 95/98 interregnum. 12″ Macbook. 15″ Macbook Pro, another, another (this one). Three or four iPhones, three iPads. Their devotion to ‘user experience’ misreads as fanaticism, but their products really are that well and carefully made, that different in concept from the Valley norm. Jobs’s weary, unapologetic explanation for Apple’s behavioural oddities remains straightforwardly correct: ‘We don’t make junk.’ I think of Apple as a quintessentially Weird American organization, privileging ‘vision’ over short-term biz dictates. Jobs was a principled, terrible man; in a sane world, Woz would be a saint.

The morning bath.

Wake up, open the laptop, and if Twitter is open (or the compulsion to open it kicks in as usual before good sense takes over) you get your daily reminder that the current president of the USA is the stupidest man ever to hold that office — and strongly favoured to be, by the end of his disastrous time in office, the worst president in our nation’s history.

Every morning.

Today we find that he made this claim in an interview with pretend-journalist Sean Hannity:

The country, we took it over, the last eight years they borrowed more than it did in the whole history of our country. So they borrowed More than $10 trillion. Right? We picked up $5.2 trillion just in the stock market. Possibly picked up the whole thing in terms of the first nine months. In terms of value. You can say in one sense, we are really increasing values and may be in the sense, we are reducing debt. We are very honored by it and very, very happy by what’s happening in Wall Street.

He can’t help but lie — and make elementary mistakes. He makes the mistakes because he’s catastrophically stupid, stupider than George W Bush; he lies because unlike Bush he has no moral compass, no sense of responsibility or service.

People don’t talk enough about his stupidity. I go on about it because it will matter long after he’s gone: he is conditioning tens of millions of gullible, scared people — many of them idiots themselves, but not all — to expect nothing from the office of the president but a kind of ongoing pro-wrestling schtick, devoid of higher thought (systemic thought, rational inquiry, self-correction). I believe this is in no small measure a resentful reaction to Obama, one of the great models of the ‘life of the mind’ in our lifetime, who for all his failings as a chief executive demonstrated the enormous moral value of debate, dialectic, curiosity.

Our current idiot president doesn’t believe in any of those things; he doesn’t think they’re possible. But while he seems to be devoid of empathy, and he’s too stupid to have any kind of rich inner life himself, he could understand his predecessor — he could understand those of us who love to think — if he had even a shred of imagination, moral or otherwise.

Have you seen the pictures of the bedroom he shared with his first wife, whom he betrayed with his second-wife-to-be? With all the money in the world, the best this idiot real-estate heir could come up with was to drape every square inch of the room in gold. That’s not a failure of taste, but of imagination: in this idiot’s mind, the best use of all that money was to see gold when he woke up, went to bed, and (according to her own sworn deposition) raped his wife.

Which is terrible — the raped-his-wife bit, I mean, I don’t care about the gold — but it all speaks to a deeper failure of imagination. He can’t comprehend systems: witness his ludicrous misunderstanding in the Hannity quote. He can’t imagine that the center of a system could be anywhere but the spot where he stands, and he definitely can’t imagine that a system might lack a center, that lawmaking in the USA might involve a public/private/secret apparatus vastly more complex than any he’s had to deal with in private life. He can’t conceive of decisions except in terms of their ‘optics,’ can’t understand history except as a just-so story about how he came to feel as he does today. His myopia is absolute, crippling, because he’s unable to know anything but what’s in front of him. Comey hurt my feelings, fire him. But that would have terrible cost. But that cost is in the future, which does not matter. (And why would it? Nothing I’ve done has ever mattered, really mattered, before.)

His moral failings, his intellectual failings, would be less crippling if he had any imagination at all — if, say, he could imagine Barack Obama as having had his own life with its own compromises and challenges and strokes of good fortune, having arrived at his position(s) honestly. Our idiot president doesn’t seem to have any principles at all; he sees the world as full of (1) people like him and (2) subjects because he can’t imagine any other world. He doesn’t read, he doesn’t study, might never have studied anything in any depth in his entire life. He just stares at the television waiting for them to talk about him, and now there’s an entire ‘news’ channel devoted not only to talking about his every utterance but to glorifying him as a world-historical agent of change, which he manifestly doesn’t understand but it must be pretty great because he keeps hearing his name over and over and over…

The USA is too vast (geographically, demographically, conceptually) for anyone to know all of it, so those charged with its care need vivid imaginations. He has none. For many reasons, this included, he is unfit to hold the office of the president.

The tower.

The tower touches the ground a couple of blocks away but we live beneath it all the same. The entire neighbourhood does. It’s like some Silicon Valley sociopath’s ‘disruption’ of the Eiffel Tower: of course they’d paint it alternating strips of red and white, of course they’d stick blinking lights every few feet. Of course it would double as communications infrastructure and tool of surveillance, transmitting the Unique Numeric ID and occasional bursts of thought or word from every area phone ‘user’ to wherever the monsters are.

‘Text messages’ are transmitted in place of dummy data that your phone would send to the tower anyway — they require no additional bandwidth, only a miniscule amount of additional processing power in the monster room. They used to charge $0.05 apiece for text messages, because they can’t live without your blood, and they want to live. Now we’re permitted to send ‘unlimited’ text messages. We’re grateful for no limits. We’re grateful for permission. We’re grateful. We’re grateful.

Men, man.

Attention conservation notice: Drafty outboard note-taking, of neither use nor interest to other humans, unless you wanna laugh at some dweebs.

The phrase ‘everyday carry’ has apparently come to mean ‘things you buy to pretend to be a real man, y’know, like your grandpa,’ which is a sad thing — when I first heard the phrase it just meant ‘a useful all-purpose knife,’ and the guys using it weren’t styleboy wankers. Here’s the founder of the site everydaycarry.com guest-posting at a site called, I shit you not, ‘The Art of Manliness‘:

At the most literal level, your everyday carry is the collection of items you carry with you in your pockets or in your bag on a daily basis.

You don’t say!

Like the ‘hipster PDA’ i.e. notecards held together with a binder clip, the ‘everyday carry’ kit (penlight, keyring, knife/multitool, wallet, watch, and of course your expensive smartphone — y’know, ‘what’s in your pocket’) is a dumb affectation; unlike the hipster PDA, it’s also a moneymaking opportunity for the kind of guys who carry moustache wax and wear $200 watches to their coffeeshop jobs. The ‘hipster PDA’ was mostly a moneymaking opportunity for Merlin Mann of 43folders.com, but only for about ten seconds.

Which reminds me, as so many things do because I’m wired wrong, of Susan Faludi, whose still-excellent book Stiffed came out around the same time as Fight Club and leveled a related critique of contemporary ‘ornamental masculinity,’ though her hangups are different from Palahniuk’s thank Christ. Faludi holds up the WWII-era G.I. (hey when was your grandfather born again?) as a lost ideal of manliness: stout of heart, simple of tongue, off liberating Auschwitz one day and back to work at the high-rise the next. In her telling as I remember it, a toxic stew of advertising dollars, economic disempowerment, the collapse of ancient social mores, rapid heedless postwar technologization, and good ol’ fashioned late-patriarchy led to the replacement of manliness as community service by, well, The Art of Manliness.

(The Sopranos tells a particularly nasty, ironic version of this story.)

I look at the EDC fetishists and see guys playing dressup. Which is fine, I’ve got nothing against dressup. But you have to acknowledge what you’re doing — and you ought to think a moment about why.

The EDC club use the word ‘functionality’ when they mean ‘style’ which means, basically, game over.

All seeing is seeing-as, or, Why Trump thinks you’re stupid.

I’ve said it before: stupidity is the problem.

Trump assumes that everyone is as ignorant as he is, lies as much as he does, hates as he does, precisely because he’s stupid — and he’s stupid because he’s apparently never, not even for a second, made any kind of intellectual or emotional effort in his life. He’s a xenophobe: he fears difference, newness. He believes himself historically unique, so everyone and everything is the Other, and he hates the Other. Which is why he’s infamously disloyal, a petty backstabbing coward, when it comes to anyone he doesn’t see as an extension of himself/his will.

Trump’s stupidity means that, as far as he knows, he occupies a stupid world — so why shouldn’t he rule it? He doesn’t know how to spot climate change, so climate change isn’t real. He doesn’t have any real relationships with women, so women are trash. Nazis make him feel good by puffing him up on Twitter and at rallies, so Nazis must be good.

Of course he relished a chest-puffing contest with the witless nepotist Kim Jong-Un. I imagine it made him feel less alone.

One of the saddest things I know is that more than 1/4 of Americans don’t read at all.1 Trump is, by his own admission, one of them. He might be a psychopath or a narcissist, but the reason he has such a dangerously, unfunnily narrow conception of the good — the reason he goes on endlessly about ‘deals’ but is incompetent to discuss the content, the meaning, of any of his business — is that he has no intellectual bulwark against the stupidity of the world he alone lives in. He fills up every day with the idiot stories he sees on Fox News because he doesn’t know how to find anything deeper in the world.

Trump can’t see, he can only see-as — not in the phenomenological sense, but in the coarse psychological one. He thinks you and I are idiots because he’s an idiot; he thinks he alone possesses The Whole Truth about this or that issue (the ‘climate change hoax,’ say, or ‘black-on-black crime’) because he can’t imagine anyone having an inner life that’s richer than his. He’s a ‘transactional’ being because any other kind of existence is literally impossible, and you’re stupid for thinking otherwise. (Look at how he treats his wives, at the obvious contempt he and Melania have for one another.)

I feel sorry for Donald Trump the boy, semiliterate, unloved, allowed by teachers and parents to remain forever angry and dumb. I suspect he’s wired wrong, but I’m certain he didn’t need to end up as he did. I feel no sympathy for the cruel ignorant coward he became.

Please, please, please: make sure your children love learning, which is to say, love life.

  1. Some are illiterate. Some can read but find it taxing. Some will tell you they don’t have the time — though I’ll bet you $5 that all but a vanishing minority of our non-readers make the time to watch television… 

Ritual and control (systems): freewrite.

The word ‘ritual’ is overloaded w/judgment because the 20th century was horrible. We have a screwy notion of what time is — the body’s relationship to time, and the mind’s.

Neonates’ hearts have to be taught to beat in time. Ever wonder why they respond so well to bouncing at ~80bpm? Their hearts are learning how to keep a beat. They’re learning how to live.

Technologies collapse space and time, can we agree? One major effect of the Internet is that all libraries are local. My car lets me be 60 miles away in an hour; traveling five miles takes ‘no time at all,’ a unit of time so small I don’t notice it unless I’m in a hurry. Benedict Anderson wrote about this already — the psychic effects of 19C mass media. James Scott as well, in another register. Manovich, Kittler — yr Media Studies 101 reading list, basically.

(The Language of New Media put me off when I read it in grad school; I wonder how I’d feel about it today, where my almost unreadably marked-up copy is…)

What’s ritual? Programmatic action to imbue a moment with meaning: to change the relationship of the mind/body to spacetime. Ritual differs from habit by intention. It differs from ‘process’ in its metaphoricity — rituals aren’t always representational but the action/effect mapping passes through metaphor, which isn’t true of a functional process. How do you make scrambled eggs? Crack, whisk, milk, heat, scramble, no need to pour a ring of salt around yourself in the kitchen. Each step of the process accomplishes something physical, obvious; each step in the ritual (the crimson shawl, the ring of salt, the prayer to Pelor) accomplishes psychotropism.

Psycho+tropism: mind+changing. ‘Learning.’ I’ve been making this point (well it’s not a ‘point’ exactly) in writing for 15 years now.

Science — or no not ‘science’ but whatever hip idiots mean when they say ‘Yay, let’s do science!‘ — is supposed by now to’ve freed us from the Terrible Shackles of ritual. We no longer evoke or imbue or incant or call down the ______ but rather we ‘boot up’ and ‘lifehack’ and oh God it’s too stupid to write down. Point being we’ve replaced magical metaphors with technological ones and have failed to register the implied insult, i.e. that you and I are the same kinds of machines as the ones we serve all day. (On the other hand, given this subservience, maybe calling ourselves ‘computers’ is meant as a compliment? Well: I don’t take it as one.) The idea that you can pop a nootropic or microdose and unlock the awesome power of the human mind isn’t even wrong, it’s a betrayal on another conceptual register altogether — of dignity. The idea, I mean, that there’s nothing else to be gained by taking human time: time at a biological scale.

What am I angry about now. What am I going on about. Please, please look: Western minds have shifted over the last few decades toward a resentment/rejection of ritual, languor, symbol, secret, time as pleasure, mind as space — magic, basically. Magical thought. I mean even the phrase ‘magical thinking’ is a denigration now, as if magic hasn’t been a way of working (in) the world since the dawn of the species, as if ‘magic’ referred simply to the incorrect belief that a fingersnap can make a hated enemy feel pain and not to, oh, the years-long process of careful ego-thinning and -reshaping by which minds open up to an ecstatically imaginative (sur)reality.

Or from another angle: if you drink your stupid burnt Dunkin Donuts coffee-sludge in a hurry on the drive into work, the caffeine will make you somewhat more productive for a short time. There are better habits and worse ones. But you should know that in another world, that drink was part of an inexpressibly more potent behavioural psychotropic, a (don’t tell the boss) ritual of movement from hanging-at-home mode to whatever mode you need to get into to work for those predators at the top of the org chart — and billions of dollars are spent every year to convince you that you don’t need it, that there’s no time for that sort of New Age frippery. For those five minutes of generative peace and wonder and focused consciousness.

So: life gets faster and worse. And the other world, which was only ever within you, a metaphor of unspeakable power, gets smaller and emptier and harder to find.

Four things to read.

Not ‘news,’ still timely:

B.R. Myers on North Korean propaganda, internal and external:

It’s an undiplomatic point to make, but the inconvenient truth is that most North Korea-watchers in the United States don’t speak Korean and don’t read Korean. They’re not able to read even the legend on a North Korean propaganda poster. So they, for decades, have had to depend on secondary sources of information, primarily in English. When they read North Korean materials, they have to read the so-called Juche Thought, because the regime has been careful to put this pseudo-ideology, this sham ideology, into English. So when foreigners want to read about North Korean ideology, they have to turn to these books on Juche thought, which really decoy them away from the true ideology.

Juche Thought is a jumble of humanist cliches like “Man is the master of all things.” This fake doctrine has absolutely no bearing on North Korean policymaking. While people are wasting their time trying to make sense of Juche Thought, the regime is propagating this race-based nationalism. Another problem we have in the United States, a little bit, is political correctness, inasmuch as we are uncomfortable attributing racist views to non-white people.

Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) on motte-and-bailey arguments:

Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.

Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along…

John Holbo’s (nearly 15-years-old!!) critique of David Frum’s conservatism:

The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound. I don’t think Frum is obsessed with beards or anything, actually. He sometimes seems like a pretty sharp guy. The middle chapters – full of history and policy detail, so forth – are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea – or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about shaving beards and the Donner party.

Daniel Davies’s ‘One Minute MBA,’, which may possess more value-per-word than any other blogpost yet written:

Anyway, the secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most collossal [sic] waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed. Here’s a few of the ones I learned which I considered relevant to judging the advisability of the Second Iraq War.

The founders were people, but The Founders aren’t people.

Idle, irresponsible, testy thoughts, unedited and unfiltered and (to be frank) probably un-thought-through.

Problem: The world of the Founders seems impossibly distant from our own, and Americans are pig-ignorant about our history.

Bad solution: Pretend the Founders were essentially modern Americans, somewhat abstracted perhaps, and try to draw political/cultural lessons from them on those terms. (This is known amongst historians of the era as ‘Founders Chic,’ and is popular for boring reasons — cf. Wall Street reporter Ron Chernow’s laudatory book on Hamilton, or the current backlash against Thomas Jefferson.)

Better solution: Treat them as fallible human beings while acknowledging the historical specificity of their time and place — i.e. maintain their status as historical figures rather than mythic characters.

In my family we’ve been listening basically nonstop to Hamilton, which is a great success on its own terms but seems, based on what little guilt-motivated research I’ve done, to be bad history. The play’s full of anachronisms, which don’t bother me because (1) they’re groovy and (2) I’m not a priggish asshole, but the specific recasting of the Hamilton/Jefferson conflict (Hamilton married into a family of slaveowners and himself rented slaves, yet he gets a number of abolitionist applause lines; Jefferson’s genuinely radical democratic ideals are laughed off as aristocratic hypocrisy) damages the history for no damn reason except, I think, to pander to Miranda’s ‘progressive’ audience.

(Testy aside about Miranda’s own background goes here, but I can’t be bothered.)

It’s dangerously distorting to portray humans of hundreds of years ago as basically modern in their outlooks — though I can see why you’d do so; no one would give a shit about Alexander Hamilton today if Miranda hadn’t made that choice. It works, and you’ve got to put asses in seats. Hamilton is a multimillion-dollar business. Yet the cost of that distortion is the audience’s cheaply acquired false certainty, which leads to recklessness:

Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, [Chernow] said, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to.

Sadly, no! It just substitutes a fashionable interpretive matrix for, y’know, actual historical understanding, and piggybacks the noble and correct idea that ‘Anything You Can Dream, You Can Be’ on a sugarcoated misreading of history that shuts down further inquiry. It slots the Founders into contemporary conversations too easily, and the cost to our collective historical imagination will far outlast any tactical gains that one or another side might make in the culture wars. (‘Culture wars’: rather a grand name for local proxy conflicts whose chief purpose seems to be distraction from, among other things, actual wars…)

The Founders don’t need to be mythic embodiments of Good and Evil to be useful to us today — quite the opposite, if they’re to be sustainably useful and meaningful. Our inability to admit that the Founders were complex human beings is part of the reason we have such a childish relationship to our national history. The idea of America is an ongoing conversation, a history of debate between complexly invested humans. We go back to Colonial history wanting it to illustrate a point or settle an argument. But that’s not what historical inquiry does — the past doesn’t settle our arguments, we have to do that for ourselves. And we’re best able to handle our own business when we know where we’ve really come from.

Anyhow, the upshot here is twofold:

  1. You should listen to (or see) Hamilton, which is a great musical on its own terms.
  2. You should ignore the people who tell you it ‘brings the history to life.’ For ‘history,’ there, read ‘mythology.’ Hamilton settles for being a passion play when it could have been something so much more interesting: a problem play.