wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: sex

Sexual identity (politics).

Epistemic status: Thinking out loud, written months ago in what I can only assume was a real bad mood. I genuinely have no idea whether any of this holds up. I’ll note, though, that it’s the kind of old-fashioned blogpost I don’t write anymore, where I hit on a metaphor I like and try to pass it off as philosophy. Somebody give me tenure. –wa.

The funny thing about ‘I’m a sub’ — ‘I’m a queer nonbinary top’ — ‘I’m an asexual furry’ — is the way such declarations assume absolute fixity of sexual identity and ‘preference.’

Wait…fixity? Don’t you mean ‘fluidity,’ oldperson/fascist?

You’d think that, wouldn’t you.

Let’s talk about Magic: The Gathering for a second.

M:TG‘s best trick was to turn deckbuilding into a game activity, a subgame played away from the table. For millions of players over a quarter-century (though by no means all), creating a custom deck has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of M:TG play.

Deckbuilding is solitaire. It’s wonderful, but it’s purely self-centered. Indeed, deckbuilding-by-newsgroup is known as ‘theorycrafting,’ and is a hugely popular activity in the M:TG community — though ‘theorycrafting’ is an awfully elevated term for ‘talking about card combos with strangers.’

The ‘play of the hand,’ meanwhile, is all compromise and reaction and tactical maneuvering and plans not surviving contact with the enemy. What happens at the table is the game itself, and this is where ‘filthy casuals’ find their enjoyment — hence the increasing popularity of the grab’n’go fixed-deck distribution model, even for M:TG itself.

I’ll note here that the term ‘simultaneous solitaire’ is used derisively to talk about games where players choose strategies which are carried out by rote, independent of opponent interaction. Such plans are known as ‘degenerate strategies,’ and they’re major sources of the dreaded Negative Play Experience, because they take the play out of gameplay. They turn it into ‘a piece of business’ (cf. Rob Long’s magnificent book Conversations with my Agent).

For expert M:TG (or Pok√©mon TCG) players, at-the-table gameplay itself is fun — they wouldn’t stick around otherwise — but high-level play is in dispiritingly large measure a quest to create perfectly predictable decks, removing contingency and guaranteeing the execution of a set gameplan. That’s where the ‘customizable’ in ‘customizable card games’ (CCG) comes from — though note, too, that it used to stand for the more honestly nauseating ‘collectible’…

Now, sex, or rather politics:

Sexual identitarianism — e.g. my opening list of taxonomic declarations — is sold to westerners now as a form of freedom. (Never mind that freedom cannot be sold.) Declare your allegiance, align yourself with a group, know your place (and declare it in your Twitter bio), and We will back up your claim. If you like, We’ll even join in deriding those people so uncool that they don’t yet have a paraphilia. ‘Marginal’ identity is seen as a source of virtue — or rather pity, but only fascists split hairs — and crucially you can opt in to such identity by declaring a marginal sexual preference. (Insert dark joke about ‘predictable endpoint of neoliberalism’ here.)

Sexual identitarianism is deckbuilding — no, it’s theorycrafting, simultaneous solitaire. The (let’s dispense with pretense and just say ‘ideological’) purpose of saying ‘I’m an asexual furry’ isn’t to announce the kind of activities you like, it’s to create the conditions for enforceability, i.e. a justification for disconnecting from an uncomfortable situation. ‘Isn’t that a universal good?’ I suppose it would be, yes, if you assumed ‘uncomfortable’ meant ‘bad.’

The ‘play of the hand’ is where the action is, erotically speaking. The good part of sex is…sex, not theory. But sexual identitarianism’s core sleight-of-hand is to displace eroticism, which is all about bisociation and ambivalence and negotiation and suspense and longing (usually unfulfilled, in the aggregate) and vulnerability and story and posture and tension and fluidity and improvisation and performance and drama and imaginative freedom, in favour of what we might well call brand loyalty. In an identitarian-capitalist system, the outcome of the sexual/ludic/social interaction must be preordained, which means avoiding collective improvisation and negotiation to the extent possible, hence Tinder instead of clubbing and ‘I’m an XYZ’ instead of ‘Let’s find out.’ That’s the palliative point of such anxious preemptive categorization: to stave off unpalatable/unmarketable uncertainty in people accustomed to pleasure ‘on demand’ and by design, even if such preemption means chucking out the eroticism-baby with the uncertainty-bathwater.

Yes motherfucker, you just read the best metaphor in the history of metaphor.

(Hey did you know that collaborative board games — people against a rules-system, an AI, an no interpersonal competition to be found — are hugely popular nowadays? Indeed. I won’t say why.)

Deckbuilding is a fun solo activity but every ‘filthy casual’ — let’s dispense with pretense and just say ‘vanilla’ — knows that the play is the game.

Back to where we started: today’s declarations of sexual identity assume absolute fixity of those identities and of sexual ‘preference’… by which I mean they assume the displacement of sexual desire from the realm of imagination — ambivalence, negotiation, play — to the realm of taxonomy and strategy, the business plan, the knowable, the saleable, the prepackaged, the reassuring, the generic. They manifest an ideology that turns bodies into types, into data points. They’re boring, which is not unconnected to why they’re popular.

Yet you must be able to fuck as you please, obviously, as long as you’re not harming anyone, yourself included. And no one should have to hide (from) their healthy sexuality.

So…what?

The next bit’s the hard bit, so I’ll defer (avoid) it by ending here.

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Compromise and happiness; Living space.

(two posts dated 2010, a couple years after I got married but before my son was born. posted as-were, as it were; i wouldn’t write it this way anymore, and reading it gives me that ol’ familiar red-pen-itch, plus a weird sadness (was i always so angry?). but… –wa.)

Compromise and happiness.

Married couples learn to compromise out of necessity, but the scope of this necessity tends to be misunderstood. Compromise is often thought of as an invasion or reduction of personal sovereignty: the up-front price of a marriage’s survival. But in the long run compromise isn’t ‘judged’ correct or successful. Rather, the act of compromise is itself the substance of a successful relationship, which after all consists of (and is expressed in terms of) nothing more than the actions of those within it. Such category errors are common. You might say they’re the most human thing about us.

Some youngsters fear to take naps or relax, thinking they’ll miss out on ‘what’s happening.’ But napping doesn’t recharge you for work or play, it is itself a component of both, just as rests and silence are essential components of music. ‘What’s happening’ is nothing more than: rest. Adults who conceive of ‘me time’ as a vacation from the imposition and inconvenience of marriage make the same error. Time to oneself isn’t a break from the hard work of a relationship, it’s an essential component of it, and spouses who treat time apart as ‘a break from the marriage’ only stress the marriage further, by defining it implicitly or explicitly as the opposite of vacation, or of fun.

The same goes for office meetings and solitary work, or for standardized tests and individual study: the various parts of the job must share a purpose in order to be successful. Students aren’t given detailed feedback on their SAT performance, so the test stands outside the ongoing learning process, indeed it temporarily arrests that process. (Student skill mastery can only be reliably tested in situ, i.e. the best way to know whether you can solve chemistry problems is to solve chemistry problems, not recite vocabulary words.) Meanwhile, the effectiveness of office meetings increases dramatically when workers conceive of them as team work rather than mere institutional obligation. If a meeting is not ‘checking in’ but ‘working face-to-face,’ workers are less likely to shift into passive ‘meeting mode’ when the group is called to order, and can maintain their solitary intensity in the group setting. It’s the shift in intensity that’s costly and prone to malfunction.

The same goes for relationships, of course. If lovers can be honest with one another when they’re together then they can experience the full joy of being apart without assuming that they’re incurring some cost to the relationship. The leering alpha-cretin’s barroom refrain: ‘If only I were still single, y’know what I mean dude?’ The bitterness in his voice is real, but the problem isn’t being one thing or the other. The problem is that he imagines himself as something other than he is, and judges his experience in categorical rather than experiential terms. Of course married men also enjoy themselves in bars, and children wake from naps refreshed, and workers even return to their cubicles with a spring in their step.

Prerequisite to such happiness is the simple but difficult act of abandoning one’s illusions: I could not have been other than I am. I need to be away from you today so that I can be with you tomorrow, the next day I will carry into solitude the memory of our fellowship, what I am flows from what I do rather than vice versa, and no time is uncoupled from any other. John Lennon said something about life happening to us when we’re making other plans, but he had it wrong: life does not happen to you. It is only what you get up to, planning or acting or otherwise. If you compromise in order to be happy later you will never be happy. As someone or other said, be happy in your work (of love, art, labour, learning, etc.). Step one is accepting what you’re really doing and getting on with it. There is no step two. Joy is honesty.

Living space.

Let’s let the idea of ‘killing time’ stand in for the full sweep of modern American cultural thought, shall we?

Americans are raised to believe in the sanctity of work and so forth, but also to be suspicious of people who do nothing but work. The label of ‘workaholic’ combines both admiration and derogation, and adults are expected to maintain a ‘healthy work/life balance,’ as if work were somehow separate from ‘real life,’ whatever that means. Moreover, most adults have at some point responded to the question ‘What are you up to today?’ with a shrugging dismissal: ‘Nothing much.’ In the American language it’s possible to be awake, eat, use the restroom, even walk around town or read a book, yet still ‘do nothing.’ This phrase subtly denigrates solitary reflection and ‘idle’ thought, but such disparagement is reinforced throughout our culture. (The Dutch ride bicycles upright, so as to look around at their cities and countrysides; Americans put on athletic pants and ride quickly with their heads down, so as ‘get somewhere,’ or worse yet, ‘just go for a ride.’)

And so we find ourselves killing time: struggling to fill the minutes or hours between scheduled or anticipated activities. ‘I have three hours to kill,’ we say, and our intonation depends on our attitude — not toward time as such, but toward the actions we imagine we’re going to take in that time. We even reserve a class of actions for ‘dead time’ — the space in our daily schedule not yet full with appointments. Such ‘time-wasters’ or ‘downtime activities’ are less honorable than proper action — picking up trash for one minute (during a TV commercial, say) doesn’t count as ‘real cleaning’ unless it’s part of an hourlong string of such maintenance tasks.

The same dynamic is readily observed in American sexual culture. The adulterer chants to himself that his transgression is ‘only sex’ and not, say, lovemaking (‘I told you, dear, she doesn’t mean anything to me’); the closeted fundamentalist preacher can have sex with his male meth dealer without believing himself a homosexual; more benignly, young lovers go on weekly dates but insist they ‘aren’t dating.’ This self-delusion stems from something like the intentional fallacy: if we don’t ‘mean’ what we’re doing, it doesn’t ‘count.’ The delusion serves to defend against true recognition of our acts, which would induce guilt and despair.

Yet the delusion itself obviously isn’t doing us any favours.

Many (most?) Americans are evidently unhappy, but so much modern experience consists of avoiding unhappiness — or at least putting off confronting it — rather than ensuring happiness. It’s widely known that working in a focused way for long stretches of time on tasks we believe in produces feelings of peace and fulfillment. The arbitrary segmentation of each day into ‘work life’ and ‘home life’ and ‘play time’ and ‘downtime’ and ‘free time’ necessitates jarring mental shifts, which damage our focus (and in turn our serenity). But this segmentation alone is bearable; plenty of people benefit from sticking to a schedule and so forth. Rather, it’s the belief that some times, some actions, are more ‘real’ or meaningful than others — our belief that some time deserves killing — that leads to despair, because when we review the work of the day we can no longer hide behind the false distinction between what we’ve done and what we meant by it. If you work for two hours and end up ‘killing’ three, do you count it a successful work day with periods of waste? Or a ‘lazy’ day in which you managed a little work?

Is a school day ‘busy’ if fully 30% of it is brief idle periods separating distinct work practices and environments? Can that possibly be the optimal way to nurture a child’s vitality?

Taking a nap is a specific, conscious use of time rather than a failure to use it, ‘killing time’ is a conscious decision to perform a specific action — just like going to work, reading a book, plucking a chicken, painting a portrait, or sleeping around. ‘If you choose not to decide / You still have made a choice,’ the man said, and the time we kill is as much a part of our life as the time we fill. We go on dying at the same rate, regardless.

But never you mind! These are only idle thoughts. You haven’t really read them and, honestly, I didn’t mean even a word. I feel better. Do you feel better.

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.

It’s only sex.

Almost everyone has it — frequently and for fun; it’s one of the defining features of our species — so it should be all over the art we make. It should be as strange and varied as it is in life, i.e. endlessly so. It may as well be sexy. And since it’s art, it should be beautiful.

In other words, sex should play as wide a range of roles in art as violence.

It strikes me as pitifully sad to have to put it in those terms.