Friday, December 19, 2014

Moloch Demands Fresh Blood To Maintain The Appetite Of His Mechanical Heart

Which means that it’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship case for fighting police brutality and racism is the flagship case that we in fact got. It’s not a coincidence that the worst possible flagship cases for believing rape victims are the ones that end up going viral. It’s not a coincidence that the only time we ever hear about factory farming is when somebody’s doing something that makes us almost sympathetic to it. It’s not coincidence, it’s not even happenstance, it’s enemy action. Under Moloch, activists are irresistably incentivized to dig their own graves. And the media is irresistably incentivized to help them.

Lost is the ability to agree on simple things like fighting factory farming or rape. Lost is the ability to even talk about the things we all want. Ending corporate welfare. Ungerrymandering political districts. Defrocking pedophile priests. Stopping prison rape. Punishing government corruption and waste. Feeding starving children. Simplifying the tax code.

But also lost is our ability to treat each other with solidarity and respect.

Under Moloch, everyone is irresistably incentivized to ignore the things that unite us in favor of forever picking at the things that divide us in exactly the way that is most likely to make them more divisive. Race relations are at historic lows not because white people and black people disagree on very much, but because the media absolutely worked its tuchus off to find the single issue that white people and black people disagreed over the most and ensure that it was the only issue anybody would talk about. Men’s rights activists and feminists hate each other not because there’s a huge divide in how people of different genders think, but because only the most extreme examples of either side will ever gain traction, and those only when they are framed as attacks on the other side.

People talk about the shift from old print-based journalism to the new world of social media and the sites adapted to serve it. These are fast, responsive, and only just beginning to discover the power of controversy. They are memetic evolution shot into hyperdrive, and the omega point is a well-tuned machine optimized to search the world for the most controversial and counterproductive issues, then make sure no one can talk about anything else. An engine that creates money by burning the few remaining shreds of cooperation, bipartisanship and social trust.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

Have you ever wished you could drop some change in a tip jar here, or buy me something off an Amazon wish list in appreciation for all I do to stimulate and entertain you? Well, I appreciate the thought, even if I invented it on your behalf, but I'd rather urge you to put that generosity toward a more worthy cause. Scott and Mary's shitty autumn has gotten a whole lot shittier, and they could use your help. I kicked in some of the extra money I earned this week, because I wouldn't ask people to perform charity that I'm not willing to do myself.

Scott gave me one of my earliest blogroll links, which has brought me at least a few of my most dedicated readers, and he's a better and funnier writer under extreme duress than I am when completely relaxed and carefree. Plus, here's a bonus fun fact: of all the blogs I was reading back in 2003, World O'Crap is the only one that is still worth reading today. Go make good things happen to good people for a change.

Not About The Thing Observed But About The Observer

Roger Scruton:

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera made a famous observation. "Kitsch," he wrote, "causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!" Kitsch, in other words, is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this - it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, "Look at me feeling this - how nice I am and how lovable." That is why Oscar Wilde, referring to one of Dickens's most sickly death-scenes, said that "a man must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell".

"Look at me tweeting about this — how nice I am and lovable." Seriously, this old concept gives me a whole new way to think about the way people perform on social media.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Buzz Lightweight

Rebecca Koenig:

Mark Marino wants to shake up academic publishing. To declare his intentions, the associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California chose a format both fitting and provocative: a BuzzFeed listicle.

Posted on Thursday, Mr. Marino’s piece, “10 Reasons Professors Should Start Writing BuzzFeed Articles,” serves as a “manifesto” for BuzzAdemia, a new journal he’s creating to encourage “BuzzFeed-style scholarship.”

To banality and beyond! I shared this with Arthur for the lulz, and he responded:

Good idea, but they'd better start improving their writing style: be deep, but make it snappy, is the Darwinian directive, or else large numbers of the academic species will be eliminated by the competition. How catastrophic! Will self-referential pedantry survive the epochal shift from academe to acadeMEME? Who gifs a damn!

He then asked if I had been click-baited into the linked article explaining post-structuralism by means of hipster beards. I hadn't, so I went back and checked it out, and, you know, I have to say, I'm all in favor of this idea now. Stripped of all the mystifying jargon, it's somewhat bracing to see just how trite these struc/post-struc "insights" really were.  

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

If You Sweep Up This Mess I've Created, Nothing's Left To Show I Existed

Twenty-eight years ago on this date, Matt R. and Anthony S. got into a fistfight in the locker room after gym class.

I've mentioned before that I have an unusually strong and detailed memory. My mother wrote a note in my baby book excitedly saying that I appeared to have total recall (I don't). As I often tried in vain to convince my parents, though, who seemed to think a fantastic memory should directly lead to effortless A's in school, I don't really have any control over it. I don't try or choose to remember things like the above factoid. I rarely ever need to employ mnemonic devices. It's not so much that I have a mind like a steel trap; in fact, it's more like a flytrap. Names, dates, images, sensations and thoughts flutter into my awareness and get stuck fast to the adhesive. Years later, I might be wandering the neural pathways on an errand, turn a corner, and say, "Well, hey, wouldja look at that!" And there, held in place against the association of December 9th, is a brief video snippet of Matt's fists flying wildly as he valiantly tried to dislodge the bigger, stronger Anthony from his perch across Matt's chest, where he likewise was trying his best to sneak a fist through to Matt's face.

There were maybe a couple dozen kids in that locker room. I'd be willing to bet that I'm the only one who remembers that fight, even including the participants. And I'd be willing to bet a thousand times that amount that I'm certainly the only one who remembers the date. (At the time, it was almost a shock to my youthful innocence that anyone would be fighting so close to Christmas. It's the most wonderful time of the year, guys! What is there to get mad about?) Not that it's a particularly important or impressive fact, but I'd say it's a safe bet that were it not for my memory, that incident might as well have never happened. I may very well be the only person on earth keeping the fact of that incident alive.

The point of all this is simply that I think it's profound and humbling to meditate on things like that. The vast majority of all things that have ever happened, uncountable trillions of vignettes, were completely forgotten within — what? Days, months, years? What I know about my own great-grandparents would barely fill a paragraph. Most of us will be similarly forgotten within a generation of our own passing, seven or so decades of constant thoughts and experiences vanished as if they'd never been. And yet they did exist, they did have ripple effects, however slight, effects which can be traced by those capable of seeing and remembering. The world incessantly renews itself from the rich soil of its own neverending decomposition.

Ceteris Paribus

by Alexander Bastidas Fry

"Philosophaster" was's word of the day today. It means "a person who feigns a knowledge he or she does not possess." That is certainly a cool term, but it's not one I can claim for myself. No, like my brother in ignorance, Sam Cooke, you could write a pop song about all the subjects and disciplines about which I have absolutely nothing informed or interesting to say. Economics and political science, for example. I don't know diddly about them. Thus, when Arthur shares with me an essay by David Graeber in which he expounds upon the possible successor systems to neoliberal capitalism and the technological inventions they might enable, I just have to shrug and profess an inability to compliment or critique it in any meaningful way. I dunno, I guess what he says is plausible, but is it likely? How would I know? And so I suppose the socialist future will have to find a way to produce itself without my theoretical assistance.

One big-picture political issue I do spend time thinking about is the fact that, as Dipesh Chakrabarty put it, "the mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use." I'm a comfortable and privileged Westerner. I thank the nonexistent gods for air conditioning, satellite television, online shopping, mp3s, takeout pizza, and all the other amenities of middle-classish existence, and I would dearly love to believe that they will continue to exist and even be made available to anyone else in the world who wants them. My conscience, however, forces me to consider the possibility that I may simply be lucky enough to be living somewhere in the middle of a several-hundred-year-bubble of extremely unusual prosperity brought about by billions of years' worth of Gaia's frugal savings. Like I said, I don't know enough to judge the accuracy of this glum vision, so I tend to read every article I can find that offers me even a slight chance of becoming better informed. Thus, when I visit 3QD in the morning and see this article, I am intrigued. That certainly sounds confident. Has someone discovered a decisive refutation of the doomsayers? Are the days of decadent consumption going to continue indefinitely?

I meant to click the permalink to read more, but my cursor skittered away from its target and landed on the link to the comments instead. Imagine my surprise, then, to see not only people taking the author to task for failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room, as one of them put it — the possibility of non-negotiable ecological limits to human population and resource consumption — but the author himself graciously acknowledging the point. What? You come out swinging against modern-day Malthusians only to have to admit that you completely ignored their most pressing point?

My search goes on. I may never find anything more substantial than blithe, overconfident assurances that humans will continue to invent new technologies to fix the problems caused by old technologies, and I may even live to see the beginning of a return to a pre-industrial standard of living, but if nothing else, I saw an example of someone admitting being wrong on the Internet.

Friday, December 05, 2014



Rolling Stone published a mega trending article last month documenting the story of a horrific fraternity gang rape of a freshman student at the University of Virginia. The rape victim herself shared her story of the cold, calculated, and brutal events that took place upstairs at a UVA frat house and the almost more sickening callous fallout as friends, classmates, and the university seemed to gang up against the victim in the favor of not making waves. This story so perfectly fit into the current rape culture on rich kid college campus meme that it quickly went viral around the net, around the world, and smeared tons of people both named and given modest cover in the long form article. Except, yeah, the girl at the center of the story lied.

Rolling Stone just issued an apology.  It’s not the kind of apology one traditionally makes after accusing the members of a specific fraternity and students and faculty at a specific university with gross charges of sexual assault and coverup. Like, my bad for calling you a rapist in an 8-page blowout article where we forgot to fact check the single most important underlying fact. It’s more like the, we tried our best but this chick just lied so good it’s not really our fault.

It's just like the man said — as you go around the web, looking at what all the usual suspects have to say, you can't help but notice that very few, if any, care about the specifics of what happened in this particular case. What they care about is how this specific case can be used to buttress whichever meta-issue they're more concerned with, whether "Patriarchy and rape culture are real and they kill!", or "Feminists are a bunch of obnoxious, whiny, man-hating bitches." Whether she lied, or whether she just fudged some of the peripheral details (innocently or maliciously), having to admit that would feel like having to give ground on every major contentious feminist issue. It's psychologically easier to try and rationalize this away instead. Thus people will continue arguing past each other, accomplishing nothing. Like the circus, they'll just pack up the tents, travel to the next location, and put on the same show again. If, for you, the tragedy here isn't that innocent people might have been publicly smeared as violent felons, but that your online enemies will be insufferable in their gloating, you are, as the saying goes, part of the problem.

As for this case, well, eternal optimist that I am, I'd like to think this might severely dampen the enthusiasm for all this faith-based "believe the victim" dogma (a perfect example of what "begging the question" means in its strict logical context, by the way) and the repulsive naming-and-shaming, trial-by-social-media phenomenon. (Even I, the eternal optimist, won't go so far as to hope that "journalists" might learn a lesson about doing their job thoroughly.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Trickster Makes This World

Georg Diez:

In the literary milieu where he is ignored more than despised, John Brockman is about as well known as the first three digits of the number Pi.

"This crowd sees everything through the lenses of culture and politics," he says. "But an understanding of life, of the world, can only come through biology, through science."

Ebola, stem cells, brain research—Who needs the new David Foster Wallace, the new Philip Roth?

"The great questions of the world concern scientific news," says Brockman. "We are at the beginning of a revolution. And what we hear from the mainstream is: "Please make it go away."

...As man slowly seems to turn into an algorithm, this is then a consequence of the cybernetic thinking that has influenced and sustained Brockman in the world. 

I shared this article with Arthur as part of an ongoing conversation we're having about scientism, reductionism, and the popular modern delusion that life is essentially a problem to be solved by means of the hard sciences. All of this is itself part of our intelligence-gathering operations as he and I formulate plans for a possible Winter Offensive against Less Wrong-style rationalism and its Saint-Simonian underpinnings. (By "he and I", of course, I mean that "I" plan to cheer him on as "he" sallies forth to wage intellectual warfare for which I am sorely lacking in weaponry.) From there, you'll never believe how the conversation turned to mythology, Alan Watts, and surprising confessions of faith in trickster deities!

(Am I doing this clickbait thing right?)

We Were Certainly Uncertain, At Least I'm Pretty Sure I Am

Ryan Simonelli:

Philosophers have lots of tools and tricks up their sleeves. They, of course, can use formal argumentation, they can employ all sorts of thought experiments to elicit various intuitions, they can lay out examples, dilemmas, dialectics, and do a whole host of other things. But I want to talk about one particular trick that only a select few philosophers have employed. This trick involves wrapping everything up in a philosophical system only to have that system knock itself down by its own internal means, and doing all in order to produce some sort of anti-philosophical result. I’ve come to call this the “looping” trick, and it’s one of the most philosophically curious things that I’ve ever stumbled upon.

...Here, my concern is with philosophical strange loops. If you were to find yourself in a strange loop of this variety, it would seem as you are going farther and farther down a particular philosophical path only to end up right where you started. I’ve found that this strange looping structure is a recurring pattern in a certain type of philosopher: the systematically unsystematic philosopher. It is an odd stance to be in, but there’s been few philosophers throughout the philosophical tradition who have taken this stance, and they’re rather interesting.

He goes on to trace the outlines of an almost-mystical outlook at the heart of Nagarjuna, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Rorty's philosophies, one in which language and concepts will always fail to totally capture the entirety of our experience, and does it in an interesting and readable way. The post is also a finalist for 3 Quarks Daily's 2014 Philosophy Prize, in case you need further encouragement to read it. There's some brain-bending logic involved, but I trust you have enough cerebral flexibility to avoid serious injury. If not, well, you have my permission to stay home in bed for several days without mentally lifting anything heavier than Salon or HuffPo articles.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Andropovs And Brezhnevs Of The Soul

Scott Alexander:

When I read Marx, I thought that his key mistake was a negative view of utopia. That is, utopia is what happens automatically once you overthrow all of the people and structures who are preventing there from being utopia. Just get rid of the capitalists, and the World-Spirit will take care of the rest. The thought that ordinary, fallible, non-World-Spirit humans will have to build the post-revolution world brick by brick, and there’s no guarantee they will do any better than the pre-revolutionary humans who did the same, never seems to have occurred to him.

Kerouac was a staunch anti-Communist, but his beat philosophy seems to share the same wellspring. Once you get rid of all the shackles of society in your personal life – once you stop caring about all those squares who want you to have families and homes and careers and non-terrible friends – once you become a holy criminal who isn’t bound by the law or other people’s needs – then you’ll end up with some ecstatic visionary true self. Kerouac claimed he was Catholic, that he was in search of the Catholic God, and that he found Him – but all of his descriptions of such tend to be a couple of minutes of rapture upon seeing some especially pretty woman in a nightclub or some especially dingy San Francisco alley, followed by continuing to be a jerk who feels driven to travel across the country approximately seven zillion times for no reason.

Like the early Communists, who were always playing up every new factory that opened as the herald of the new age of plenty, in the beginning it’s easy to tell yourself your revolution is succeeding, that you are right on the brink of the new age. But at last come the Andropovs and Brezhnevs of the soul, the stagnation and despair and the going through the motions.

If you have any affection for Beatnik scripture in your heart, you might be offended by the brutally biased and uncharitable review Alexander gives On the Road here, but I thought this part made for an intriguing rest stop. That tends to be my opinion of Beat-style "liberation" as well — it comes off as compulsive, not joyful. As Camus said about the Marquis de Sade's celebration of all things subversive and corrupting, it strikes one as "the fury of a man in chains". It appeals to "the weak characters without power over themselves that hate the constraint of style", as Nietzsche put it. Boundaries must be demolished for daring to exist, until the boundaries of one's own selfhood are added to the ruins. Alan Watts was specifically critical of this unenlightened rebelliousness in Kerouac in his essay Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen:

Beat Zen is a complex phenomenon. It ranges from a use of Zen for justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life to a very forceful social criticism and "digging of the universe" such as one may find in the poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and, rather unevenly, in Kerouac, who is always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.

When Kerouac gives his philosophical final statement, "I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't make any difference"  — the cat is out of the bag, for there is a hostility in these words which clangs with self-defense. But just because Zen truly surpasses convention and its values, it has no need to say "To hell with it," nor to underline with violence the fact that anything goes.

...In the Dharma Bums, however, we are seeing Snyder through Kerouac's eyes, and some distortions arise, because Kerouac's own Buddhism is a true "Beat" Zen which confuses "anything goes" at the existential level with "anything goes" on the artistic and social levels.

Still, if you'd like to find a more sympathetic perspective on On the Road, here's one at...The American Conservative.