Saturday, February 28, 2009

All Your Books Are Belong to Us

Wow. This kind of techno-gadget triumphalism makes Thomas "Moustache of Understanding" Friedman look like Ned Ludd. Kind of reminds me of the glory days of the mid-nineties when people would gush about how the Internet would allow ordinary people to access the Library of Congress, when, as it turns out, it just gave most of them more convenient ways to jerk off to porn and stay au fait on all the latest inane jokes.

But that's all fine. I'm only bothered by the, well, Friedmanesque way she just blithely burns tons of working-class jobs on the glorious altar of FutureProgress (even uses the line about the world getting flatter in there somewhere). I suppose those lucky duckies can just take out some exorbitant student loans and go back to school to learn some useful skills, after all, like how to speculate on trillions of dollars of imaginary money. But I digress:

Why go to Barnes & Noble when the digital download will always be pristine and Kindles on the same account can read the same book at the same time? Households of multiple Harry Potter fans, sorry, those are still not available in digital format. There would be less mail through our postal service, fewer delivery drivers of many flavors, the people who run the giant printing presses and sawmills will find themselves out of jobs. The demands for water, wood pulp, and oil would drop and a great deal of our quasi-recyclable trash would disappear. An argument for smaller home footprints could even be made, for as the iPod decimated the need for a home CD collection, the home library would also disappear.

I have an iPod and I love it for its convenience. Yet I still have a huge collection of CDs, which I use to loan to friends as well as pop into the CD player when I'm working, and I always still buy the actual disc when my favorite bands release new material. The only real advantages to downloading for me are the instant gratification (which any adult can admit is a fun luxury, hardly a necessity) and the ability to perhaps find old, out-of-print music that isn't considered worth putting out in new disc form -- although it's often just as likely that no one will bother putting those recordings on iTunes, Napster or eMusic, and you'll have to find it on LimeWire where someone has uploaded it actual CD. I remember one thread on a music site about downloading where a woman talked about how her CD collection was her equivalent of a trophy case, something to show off and take pride in. I feel the same way -- I like the actual, physical look and presence of my wrought-iron CD rack with hundreds of discs lined up. It's just not the same thing to scroll down in iTunes over thousands of mp3s.

I suppose if you have a severe reductionist attitude that sees books as merely serving a utilitarian purpose of transferring information from point A to point B, then a more streamlined, faster way of doing that would seem like an improvement. But for me, the whole "book" experience is much more than that with so many intangibles involved that form a greater whole. I like to go to Barnes & Noble (and almost any bookstore, really, especially little hole-in-the-wall stores specializing in old, used books) just to browse and enjoy the atmosphere. I love the smell of the coffee bar, the sound of the classical music playing, and the sight of thousands of books lined up on shelves. Even a misanthrope like me can feel a sense of kinship among other people there for the same purpose, or even enjoy vaguely overhearing people chattering to each other about this author or that series. I love the smell of brand-new books and old, musty ones at a library basement sale. And, of course, I love the sight of my own books on their shelves in my house. I could see possibly owning a Kindle one day, though I have no burning desire to get one now, but as with the iPod, it would supplement, not replace the existing format.

The author had to go to the publishers; they had the presses, the publicists, and the access to the public via television appearances, contacts with wholesalers, etc. The new digital stores, a relatively unknown author can get his/her work before the audience quickly. They can self-publish on a Web site or contract directly with a store and be instantly available to e-readers around the world. Now the publishing houses own some very expensive scrap metal and logos.

Sigh. Yes, they certainly can publish a blog or even a book through a place like, but as anyone who has toured the blogosphere knows, there's a whole lotta nobodies out there with a whole lotta nothin' to say (and I certainly include myself in that description). Nobody has the time and patience to sift through the oceans of misspelled and poorly crafted essays and novellas online, just like nobody sits and listens to countless thousands of mp3s of various garage bands online. Anyone who does will be quickly begging for editors, publishers, anything to force some sort of Spencerian survival of the fittest into effect.

But again, that kind of optimistic "behold the power of pure, undiluted democracy" rhetoric is more amusing than anything else. The thing that eats at me is the relentless speeding up, the need to cram as many objects and as much action as possible into the shortest possible time and smallest possible space. I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it many times again, but I really wish people had a wider perspective that would allow for things and activities to be enjoyed for their own sake, not as means to an end.
It shouldn't always be about the bottom line. Enough already with the incessant, obsessive drive to make everything sleeker, faster, shinier, more efficient. As shopworn as the saying may be, oftentimes half the fun is getting there.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Your Religion - Yes, Yours, Specifically - is the Most Infandous, Disease-Ridden Piece of Ideological Excrement Ever Shat Into the World

Come and get me, muddafuckas.

Odium Scholasticum

Above all, I object to the abuse of the word tragedy. Every time some asshole stops breathing these days it's called a tragedy. The word has been devalued. You can't call every death a tragedy and expect the word to mean anything. For instance, multiple deaths do not automatically qualify as tragedies. Just because a man kills his wife and three kids, her lover, his lover, the babysitter, the mailman, the Amway lady and the guy from Publisher's Clearing House and then blows his own brains out doesn't mean a tragedy has occurred. It's interesting. It's entertaining to read about. But it's not a tragedy.

The death of a child is also not automatically a tragedy. Some guy backing over his kid in the driveway is not a tragedy, it's a bad, bad mistake. A tragedy is a literary work in which the main character comes to ruin as a consequence of a moral weakness or a fatal flaw. Shakespeare wrote tragedies. A family of nine being wiped out when a train hits their camper is not a tragedy. It's called a traffic accident.

- George Carlin

Listen to George, people. He speaks the truth.

I don't recall where I last saw an instance of the word being misused like this - after all, it's hard to go a day without hearing at least one - but it reminded me of that rant. I would add that one of the crucial characteristics of an actual tragedy is fate or destiny. It's pretty much inevitable that things would turn out as they did, and extra poignancy derives from the crushing self-awareness a character experiences as the grinning unknown makes itself apparent to them.

Yet the popular usage tends to refer to incidents notable precisely for the fact that they coulda/shoulda/woulda been avoided if only... Accidents, in other words, as the man already said. Not tragedies.

For god's sake, stop it.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

When Fish Jump Into the Boat

Some days you write the posts, and other days...well, it's like Ed McMahon shows up at your door with a big gift-wrapped box with a shiny bow on top. You find a silver platter inside. Upon which sits a post like this, already written and ready to go:

Newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele plans an “off the hook” public relations offensive to attract younger voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, by applying the party's principles to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”

The RNC's first black chairman will “surprise everyone” when updating the party's image using the Internet and advertisements on radio, on television and in print, he told The Washington Times.

Could it be? Will he finally reveal the secret of why he's never been seen in the same place at the same time as Shock G?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Roi Fainéant

President Barack Obama gave a cool welcome at his Monday night press conference to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy's (D-VT) call for a "truth commission" to probe alleged abuses under George W. Bush, offering a fresh signal that the new president may not be interested in investigating President Bush.

An attorney for President Obama's Department of Justice has told the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that it supports the Bush administration's controversial state secrets defense in a lawsuit over the prior president's "extraordinary rendition" program.

Let's not lose sight of the big picture here, though. As long as Olympic swimmers are punished for smoking pot, and as long as baseball players are pelted with garbage and obscenities for using steroids, God's in his heaven and all is right with the world.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Yorick's Skull

That's the way I like it, baby
I don't wanna live forever

- Motörhead

I don't either.

For we are all insulted by
The mere suggestion that we die
Each moment and that each great I
Is but a process in a process
Within a field that never closes;
As proper people find it strange
That we are changed by what we change,
That no event can happen twice
And that no two existences
Can ever be alike; we'd rather
Be perfect copies of our father,
Prefer our idées fixes to be
True of a fixed reality.
No wonder, then, we lose our nerve
And blubber when we should observe…

- W.H. Auden

As was so often the case for me, it was Alan Watts who said it perfectly: there is a world of difference between having all the time you want, and having time without end. It's easy to imagine lying on your deathbed lamenting the fact that you left too many things unfinished and unattempted, but wouldn't knowing that you could never die actually be a form of torture? An American Buddhist writer I like a lot, Steve Hagen, used an example of real flowers vs. artificial ones to illustrate how the fact of mortality is what makes a flower (or life itself, of course) precious in the first place - "we want it because it dies, because it's fleeting, because it fades." When it becomes plastic and predictable, it loses meaning and we lose interest. I can't even say I want to live to old age itself, let alone hang around for millennia.

So you want this lovely consciousness of yours to last forever? Is that not immodest? Are you not mindful of all the other things which would then be obliged to endure you to all eternity, as they have endured you up to now with a more than Christian patience? Or do you think to inspire them with an everlasting sense of pleasure at your existence? A single immortal man on earth would be enough to drive everything else on earth to a universal rage for death and suicide out of satiety with him! And you earth-dwellers, with your petty conception of a couple of thousand little minutes, want to burden eternal existence with yourselves everlastingly! Could anything be more importunate! Finally, let us be indulgent with a being of a mere seventy years! He has not been able to imagine the everlasting boredom he himself would experience – he has not had enough time to do so!

- Nietzsche

Friday, February 06, 2009

On Being Large and Containing Multitudes

A good friend recently said in a conversation that she was making an effort to write without cursing or being misanthropic. I laughed and said that for me, that would be like trying to write without vowels. Then I started thinking more seriously about being "misanthropic" and noticed something interesting.

The intellectual conscience.— I keep having the same experience and keep resisting it every time, I do not want to believe it although it is palpable: the great majority of people lack an intellectual conscience; indeed, it has often seemed to me as if anyone calling for an intellectual conscience were as lonely in the most densely populated cities as if he were in a desert. Everybody looks at you with strange eyes and goes right on handling his scales, calling this good and that evil; nobody even blushes when you intimate that their weights are underweight—nor do people feel outraged: they merely laugh at your doubts. I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward—the most gifted men and the noblest women still belong to this "great majority." But what is goodheartedness, refinement, or genius to me, when the person who has these virtues tolerates slack feelings in his faith and judgments and when he does not account the desire for certainty as his inmost craving and deepest distress—as that which separates the higher human beings from the lower! Among some pious people I have found a hatred of reason and was well disposed to them for that: for this at least betrayed their bad intellectual conscience! But to stand in the midst of this rerum concordia discors ["Discordant concord of things": Horace, Epistles, I.12.19.] and of this whole marvelous uncertainty and rich ambiguity of existence without questioning, without trembling with the craving and the rapture of such questioning, without at least hating the person who questions, perhaps even finding him faintly amusing—that is what I feel to be contemptible, and this is the feeling for which I look first in everybody:—some folly keeps persuading me that every human being has this feeling, simply because he is human. This is my sense of injustice.

- Nietzsche

Two of my most important intellectual influences are Friedrich Nietzsche and the more Western strain of Zen Buddhism, which I'll personify for the sake of convenience in the form of Alan Watts. Both were intensely anti-theoretical or anti-abstract, if you will; both in their own way stressing the need to focus on the way things are rather than allowing ourselves to be deceived by projecting our own feelings onto them, or allowing our perception to be refracted through the prism of our hopes and fears. Yet both also seemed to betray some hints of an inability to fully embody what their intellectual consciences told them.

He has fled,
My only companion,
My splendid enemy,
My unknown,
My executioner-god! ...
Come back!
With all your afflictions!
All my tears gush forth
To you they stream
And the last flames of my heart
Glow for you.
Oh, come back,
My unknown god! my pain!
My ultimate happiness! ...

- Ariadne's Lament, from Dionysus Dithyrambs

Nietzsche came from a very religious family and was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfathers and become a Lutheran minister. Despite his notoriety as the anti-Christian philosopher of atheism and nihilism, it's clear to anyone who reads him that his enmity for Christianity is the kind that can only be held by someone who once loved the object of his scorn with all his heart, the jilted lover.

One day the wanderer slammed a door behind himself, stopped in his tracks, and wept. Then he said: "This penchant and passion for what is true, real, non-apparent, certain - how it aggravates me! Why does this gloomy and restless fellow keep following and driving me? I want to rest, but he will not allow it. How much there is that seduces me to tarry! Everywhere Armida's gardens beckon me; everywhere I must keep tearing my heart away and experience new bitternesses. I must raise my feet again and again, weary and wounded though they be; and because I must go on, I often look back in wrath at the most beautiful things that could not hold me - because they could not hold me."

In addition to his famous essay attacking the scholar David Strauss, he frequently heaped scorn on ordinary Christians who only mouthed the words while changing nothing in their behavior or thinking ("there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross"). If anything, he constantly took believers to task for not being worthy of their belief, for not treating it with the respect and seriousness he felt it deserved.

And here is where my disgust commences: I look around me – there is no longer a word left of what was formerly called "truth", we no longer endure it when a priest so much as utters the word "truth". Even with the most modest claim to integrity one must know today that a theologian, a priest, a pope does not merely err in every sentence he speaks, he lies – that is, he is no longer free to lie "innocently", out of "ignorance". The priest knows as well as anyone that there is no longer any "God", any "sinner", any "redeemer" – that "free will", "moral world-order" are lies – intellectual seriousness, the profound self-overcoming of the intellect no longer permits anyone not to know about these things… All the concepts of the Church are recognized for what they are: the most malicious false-coinage there is for the purpose of disvaluing nature and natural values; the priest himself is recognized for what he is: the most dangerous kind of parasite, the actual poison-spider of life. We know, our conscience knows today what those sinister inventions of priest and church are worth, what end they serve, with which that state of human self-violation has brought about which is capable of exciting disgust at the sight of mankind - the concepts "Beyond", "Last Judgment", "immortality of the soul", the "soul" itself: they are instruments of torture, they are the forms of systematic cruelty by virtue of which the priest has become master, stays master. Everyone knows this, and everyone none the less remains unchanged. Where have the last feelings of decency and self-respect gone when even our statesmen, in other ways very unprejudiced kind of men and practical anti-Christians through and through, still call themselves Christians today and go to Communion?.. Whom then does Christianity deny? What does it call "world"? Being a soldier, being a judge, being a patriot, defending oneself, preserving one's honor, desiring to seek one's advantage, being proud – the practice of every hour, every instinct, every valuation that leads to action is today anti-Christian: what a monster of falsity modern man must be that he is none the less not ashamed to be called a Christian!

It's been pointed out that he never fully escaped the teleological Christian worldview, as he still felt the world needed to be redeemed - in his case, by an Overman who could show the way towards transcendence, not of the pain and suffering that made this world a vale of tears according to Christianity, but of the weaker, sickly qualities of human nature itself. And of course, his life was for all intents and purposes over by age 44, so we can only guess if he would have eventually overcome even that aspect of his thought:
For me, they were steps, I have climbed up upon them – therefore I had to pass over them. But they thought I wanted to settle down on them.

Alan Watts, in his dozens of books and countless lectures, elucidated an understanding of
Eastern religion and philosophy that had no need for elaborate rituals or pretensions of secret, esoteric knowledge. His sort of Zen was playful, not ascetic, and his genuine love and passion for the subjects he focused on made him a joy to read and listen to. And yet...

"I'd say to him, 'Dad, don't you want to live?', and he would say, 'Yes, but it's not worth holding on to.'"

- From Genuine Fake: A Biography of Alan Watts, by Monica Furlong

The man who showed how so many existential dilemmas would simply vanish if looked at from the correct angle drank himself to death by age 58. I certainly am not one of those who think being "enlightened" means someone floats around on a cloud, impervious to life's slings and arrows, but it does seem a little odd that a man who preached such an accepting philosophy, one that didn't try to explain or justify suffering away, but simply acknowledged it as the other half of the same coin with joy, only seemed to be able to live in the world while falling-down drunk.

"I must make one confession" Ivan began. "I could never understand how one can love one's neighbors. It's just one's neighbors, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love those at a distance...One can love one's neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it's almost impossible."

- The Brothers Karamazov

You might not know it from some of the things I've said over the years, but...I like people.

- George Carlin, It's Bad For Ya

I see the same sort of inconsistency in myself. I'm politically left/liberal, but I don't have much faith in human nature, and I don't often think very highly of my fellow shaved apes. There are times when I'm fully in agreement with Ivan above, and I find myself disgusted with individual people and their weaknesses and flaws while consoling myself with thoughts of a better potential for humankind, and then there are times when I treasure individuals while damning the species as a whole to hell. Most often, though, I find it almost impossible to truly forgive people their frailties and failures, which is only somewhat ameliorated by the fact that I'm even harder on myself. Why this insatiable drive for a perfection that I know full well doesn't exist? Why do I berate myself and others for allowing the passions and inconsistencies of everyday life to overwhelm abstract philosophical principles? I understand what Nietzsche and Watts were saying in this regard, really, I do, so why do I fall prey to the same tendency to disparage what is in favor of what might have been or could be?

I wonder what it would be like to truly embody this mentality:

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.

- Spinoza