Monday, July 30, 2012

There Is Nothing Either Good or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So

Richard Rorty:

Absolute validity would be confined to platitudes, logical or mathematical truths, and the like: the sort of beliefs nobody wants to argue about because they are neither controversial nor central to anyone’s sense of who she is or what she lives for. All beliefs which are central to a person’s self-image are so because their presence or absence serves as a criterion for dividing good people from bad people, the sort of person one wants to be from the sort one does not want to be. A conviction which can be justified to anyone, which even bad people can be argued into accepting, is of little interest.

I find this paragraph intensely interesting for reasons I can't even articulate yet. So I'm just going to set it down here and stare at it for a while.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Examined Life

Adrian Wooldridge:

Both men specialised in mixing history and philosophy. Berlin abandoned the analytic philosophy of 1930s Oxford for the history of ideas. He wanted to explore the great issues at the heart of political theory by interrogating the great thinkers rather than play games with words. Trevor-Roper believed, like the 18th-century historians who were his models, that “history is philosophy teaching by example”. He argued that historians should study problems that illuminated the human condition, such as the relationship between religion and social change or the state and the society that supported it. And he believed that historians can make a unique contribution to studying these problems by escaping the tyranny of time and place: he viewed Nazi Germany through the eyes of Tacitus, and McCarthyite America through the eyes of Erasmus.

This mix of worldliness and unworldliness—familiarity with affairs of state coupled with philosophical detachment—holds the key to the continued appeal of both men. They chose to address big subjects rather than solve academic crossword puzzles. They wrote for the educated public, not just cloistered scholars. Berlin produced a stream of essays on great political thinkers ranging from German nationalists to Russian novelists. Trevor-Roper roamed across the centuries: though his first love was the 17th century, he also wrote about Hitler’s Germany, the rise of medieval Europe, and, in one of his liveliest books, an Edwardian fantasist, forger and sex maniac, Sir Edmund Backhouse.

I haven't ever read Trevor-Roper—though I suppose I'll almost be compelled to now—but Isaiah Berlin has always been a joy for me to read. Not quite as succinctly quotable as other favorites ("a formidable polymath, and a prodigious, if donnish, talker," as Arthur once said to me) he's still one of my formative influences. I actually had both John Gray's and Michael Ignatieff's biographies of him on the bedside table when I happened upon this article. Serendipity.

A River of Filth


Truly, man is a river of filth. One must be like an ocean to be able to receive a river of filth without being contaminated by it.

- Nietzsche


Walter Kaufmann:


Shakespeare, like the Greeks before him and Nietzsche after him, believed neither in progress nor in original sin; he believed that most men merited contempt and that a very few were head and shoulders above the rest of mankind and that these few, more often than not, meet "with base infection" and do not herald progress. The prerogative of the few is tragedy.

...The difference between comedy and tragedy—as is more evident here than almost anywhere else—lies in the point of view. In essentials, Troilus and Cressida agrees with Hamlet; if anything, the poet's disillusionment has become still deeper in the comedy: he no longer expects anything of men and has ceased to be disappointed by their meanness and stupidity, their lechery and their disloyalty. He almost seems more concerned to show that those who dwell on these faults are in danger of becoming doubly mean by their resentment, like Thersites. The noble man, like Hector, wastes few words upon the wretchedness of mankind and lives and dies nobly.

Cool Heads Have Failed; Now It's Time For Me to Have My Turn

Kelly Bourdet:

Both young men pled guilty to felony sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism charges, receiving what Dietrich called “a slap on the wrist” as punishment for sexually assaulting her.

...Because Dietrich’s rapists were tried in juvenile court — and because David Mejia, an attorney for one of the young men, reported that their motion to hold Dietrich in contempt was an effort to enforce the law that protects juvenile actions from disclosure – I strongly suspect that the specifics of the plea deal classified the boys as juvenile offenders. The details of the young men’s plea deal have not been made public.

...Like other acts of vigilante, social-media-fuelled justice, Dietrich’s actions assure that the names of her rapists will be available to anyone with a search engine.

...Chris Klein, an attorney for one of the young men, said publicizing their names may create problems for them in the future. And that’s the point. There is a sector of society that believes that publicizing the names of sexual predators denies them of their rights and future opportunities. But this point of view only reflects the relative flippancy with which our culture views rape itself. It’s only when individual survivors of sexual assault and our society as a whole can hold rapists accountable for their actions that we can begin to confront the prevalance of sexual assault.

The Internet is proving to be an important means for survivors of sexual assault to reaffirm their own narratives and to hold sex criminals responsible for their actions. An entire cultural structure and, subsequently, the very court system in which she sought justice put pressure on Savannah Dietrich to stay silent about her rape. I’m so glad she didn’t.

I'm feeling very Socratic today. All I know is how little I know, but I'm surrounded by people who know just as little, yet are convinced that they have certain understanding of huge, complicated issues. So, yes, there's a lot that I'm ignorant and unsure of in this case, but then again, that's true of every other idiot with a broadband connection and ten minutes invested in reading possibly-incomplete and misleading news reports of it, so, what the hell, here's what I've been thinking:

As the bolded line above reminds us, we don't actually know yet what their punishment will be. It would be perfectly understandable if anything less than drawing and quartering would feel unacceptable to Dietrich, but, harsh as it may sound, we might want to take her opinion on the severity of punishment with a grain of salt for now. Maybe they are getting off lightly. We don't know yet. Christ, I have yet to even read an article that makes it clear exactly how serious a juvenile felony conviction is, and whether that alone will cause immense educational/employment obstacles for them.

Some reports I've read have indicated that the gag order only holds until sentencing anyway. But even if that isn't the case, there wasn't any immediate need to convene an Internet tribunal. The boys weren't going to escape or be forgotten in the next few weeks. We could have afforded to wait until their actual sentencing before deciding to trumpet their names across the web. And to continue the above point, perhaps we should wait until we know what that sentence is before deciding that they won't suffer enough and casually doing what we can to increase it. Are they remorseful? Are they the sort of kids who might be humbled and changed for the better by community service rather than prison? I don't know, and I doubt anyone else does either.

If, as a general rule, progressives see the "get tough on crime" push toward trying juveniles as adults as lamentable, perhaps they might want to think carefully before deciding that cases like this constitute an exception. And on a slightly related theme, do we really want to crowdsource serious legal matters? It feels like a significant step in the direction of Idiocracy to make American Idol-style online voting a factor in punishing criminals.

Spike Lee's vigilante, social-media stupidity should have served as an object lesson on fanning emotions into mob action within a medium where consequences can easily and quickly multiply beyond expectation. Here's all I'm really saying: what they did was terrible, and they should be ashamed. But I can easily imagine the possibility of a time, maybe a few decades from now, when circumstances will have changed enough, when they will have changed enough, that a fair-minded person would agree that they don't deserve to be hounded mercilessly by self-styled Erinyes anymore. But we don't know yet to what extent such inescapable scrutiny may preclude such a turn of events.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Birdbrains of a Feather

Jonathan Merritt:

Should they swear off the legendary chicken sandwiches to support gay rights? Or could they eat one of the filets anyway, knowing their dollars would be but a drop in the bucket for a chain that has more than $4 billion in annual sales and donated a pittance to groups they may disagree with? I'd argue the latter -- and this has nothing to do with my views on gay marriage. It's because Chick-fil-A is a laudable organization on balance, and because I refuse to contribute to the ineffective boycott culture that's springing up across America.

...I'm flummoxed that so many consumers are so quick these days to call for boycotts of any company that deviates from their personal or political views. For one thing, boycotts rarely cause actual pocketbook - rather than PR -- damage. Most consumers don't care enough to drive an extra mile to get the same product from someone else. And that's especially the case for companies as large as Chick-fil-A, which has prime locations on many college campuses where there is little head-to-head competition.

But my bigger question is this: In a nation that's as divided as ours is, do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed? And is this really the kind of culture we want to create? Culture war boycotts cut both ways and are much more likely to meet with success when prosecuted by large groups of people, such as Christian activists, who are more numerous than gays and lesbians and their more activist supporters.

...From a business standpoint, some might say Cathy's comments were imprudent if not downright dumb. But in a society that desperately needs healthy public dialogue, we must resist creating a culture where consumers sort through all their purchases (fast food and otherwise) for an underlying politics not even expressed in the nature of the product itself.

Someone somewhere on the Internet made the point already: most of the people threatening to boycott probably wouldn't eat there in the first place; the people who do will largely shrug their shoulders and tuck in to another sandwich. More useless theater. But what exactly is it supposed to accomplish? As he says above, do you really think this is going to affect the company's bottom line? Even if it did have a serious chance of doing that, what would be the goal? To put the chain out of business? To make it so that one less conservative Christian has political or economic clout? To convince him to see the error of his ways? To flex some muscle, make an example, send a message? Or is it just to flatter your self-righteousness and give credence to the delusion that much of what you do in your personal life matters at all in the big scheme of things?

Whether the nation is divided or not, I simply don't want to live in a culture where everything from food to clothes to entertainment has to pass through a political filter before it can be appreciated. Politics is a regrettably-necessary evil. It's one of the most disheartening, debasing, unrewarding activities that humans have ever invented, and it seems to be a magnet that attracts a disproportionate number of sociopaths. What kind of warped personality wants to increase its scope and presence in everyday life? Lest you think, though, that I'm simply incapable of idealism, let me assure you that I simply prefer to dream of a day when people stop treating every difference of opinion like a contagion that must be immediately quarantined and stop using economic sanctions as a loophole to reach the same results as literal censorship. I know, right? I'd like to envision a state of affairs where people realize that the fate of the world doesn't hinge on winning whatever argument they're having at that moment. I'm crazy like that.

Leaving aside my idiosyncratic definition of the good life, I agree that most consumer boycotts are ineffective knee-jerk reactions that rarely outlast the temper tantrum that spawned them, and I suspect that they're quickly becoming just one more cynical means of signaling, that is, meaningless in and of themselves, only useful as a way of strengthening group identity. Sort of like any other vapid party where scenesters show up to see and be seen. No one but the most naïve still believes that this week's boycott will actually accomplish anything, but it provides a chance to attract praise from someone important for a really dazzling outfit really stirring blog post or tweet. Dude, Arianna's totally checking your Twitter feed out! You might be front-paging at the HuffPo next week if you play this right!

People can spend or withhold their money however they want, of course. But if you don't want your money to end up being pocketed by conservative businessmen or invested in unpalatable companies and politicians at some point in the financial cycle, you might want to consider going off the grid, making your own clothes, and growing/hunting your own food.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Horde

Oh, my aching head:

As he notes, we’ve got a problem with people who are furious that atheists dare to consider sexism and racism to be serious issues that we should deal with now. He takes the side that I knew he would, that these are problems we should address, because secular thinkers should be best equipped to deal with them.

As skeptics we should objectively examine the impacts of social discrimination, and identify the best ways to promote diversity and inclusiveness. By definition, prejudice depends on not having all relevant information, and as skeptics we are ideally suited to develop and promote arguments for inclusiveness and human rights, based on the evidence of the benefits to individuals and society. We could use this research to tackle the emotional and irrational thinking behind racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices and discriminations. It’s at least as interesting a topic as many we discuss, and a more useful topic than most.

I am fully in agreement. This is the necessary job of this generation of atheists and skeptics, to extend our principles to embrace topics of wider social import... So on one side we have smug jerks who hate the idea of being progressive, but on the other, on my side, we’re quite ready to cut the troglodytes loose, and we’re quite ready to move on without them... Michael has stepped into the no-man’s land between the raging forces, and it’s a gallant effort. But judging by the comments already on his article, he hasn’t convinced the smug anti-progressives that maybe they should embrace a wider scope for atheism, and he really hasn’t tried yet to convince the people on the other side that maybe the angry sexists and racists and sneering self-satisfied libertarians are worth bringing on board. I’m inclined to say they’re not, until they grow up and change.

All right, go ahead and pluck that low-hanging irony fruit. I know you want to. Yes, PZ is actually calling other people smug, sneering, self-satisfied jerks. I know, I know. Get it out of your system.

Now, then. Right away, in the first excerpted paragraph, we encounter his amazingly sloppy conflation of atheism and secularism. As we should all be aware, they are not synonyms, and it does not follow that being either atheist or secularist gives you an intellectual head start in the attempt to end sexism and racism. The Founding Fathers were mostly secular intellectuals; do we want to use their views on race and women's rights as guidelines? Of course, he likely knows better. This is probably just an example of what happens when you form a clique where your ideas are always being reinforced (especially one that takes immense pride in its hostile stance toward outsiders); you tend to assume everyone already knows what you mean, you start using shorthand for convenience rather than carefully spelling out your ideas, which allows misunderstandings, mistaken assumptions and lazy thinking to spread, and whoa, whaddaya know, turns out that even comrades can end up having intense emotional disagreements over who's more deserving of carrying the banner for the cause of rationalism.

Maybe there's a lesson in there about how group dynamics can influence psychology and undermine intellectual rigor and communication. Eh, we can come back to that another time.

You wouldn't know it from the professor's insistence that he's already punched Social Justice into his Progressivist History GPS, so let's go, let's go, we're gonna be late, come on, you irrational reactionary troglodytes, honk honk hooonnnnnkkk, but there's a, uh, rational case to be made that atheism and/or skepticism already have an enormous task in front of them just trying to reduce religiosity and magical thinking, and therefore activist efforts will be more effective with a tighter focus. Too much mission creep, and you end up becoming a vague protest against "everything bad" while accomplishing nothing in particular. There is no clearly right or wrong strategy here. The quickest way to achieve anything like your social justice goals might involve putting atheist agitation on hold and partnering with progressive religious groups to combat sexism, racism, homophobia, militarism, etc. Value pluralism, you know.

Getting back to that startlingly blithe assumption that atheists would make great philosopher-kings, it is obviously a complete non-sequitur that a particular constellation of left-wing political beliefs necessarily follows from one's conviction of the nonexistence of something called God. Having accomplished the relatively unremarkable task of reasoning your way to disbelief in a monotheistic deity, you're not necessarily qualified thereby to design an ideal society, explain how it would operate in practice, or organize all the necessary maneuvers leading to it, even leaving aside the immense problem of accounting for all the variables that could possibly produce a different result than the one intended. Jacobins, Bolsheviks and Maoists all started from rational Enlightenment principles. The fact that they ended where they did should, if nothing else, make one suspect that people too, uh, smugly enamored of how "ideally suited" they are to resolving social problems with their superior reasoning may eventually end up simply rationalizing their behavior in any event.

No, I'm not saying that the FTB crowd is going to eventually seize power and start executing whomever they don't imprison in labor camps. I'm just saying that my 19 year-old asshole know-it-all self could be just as supercilious about all those morons who can't see how obvious it is blah blah blah, and hindsight has shown me what a fucking idiot that guy was.

Come to Praise Paterno, Not to Bury Him


Blurb irony found while browsing used books.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

You Can't Figure Out the Bag I'm In

Nick Hornby:

Wilson asks the question: Why does everyone hate Céline Dion? Except, of course, it’s not everyone, is it? She’s sold more albums than just about anyone alive. Everyone loves Céline Dion, if you think about it. So actually, he asks the question: why do I and my friends and all rock critics and everyone likely to be reading this book and magazines like the Believer hate Céline Dion? And the answers he finds are profound, provocative, and leave you wondering who the hell you actually are—especially if, like many of us around these parts, you set great store by cultural consumption as an indicator of both character and, let’s face it, intelligence. We are cool people! We read Jonathan Franzen and we listen to Pavement, but we also love Mozart and Seinfeld! Hurrah for us! In a few short, devastating chapters, Wilson chops himself and all of us off at the knees. “It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness,” Wilson observes.

...We forgive people who can’t sing or construct a song or play their instruments, as long as they are cool, or subversive, or deviant; we do not dismiss Dion because she’s incompetent. Indeed, her competence may well be a problem, because it means she excludes nobody, apart from us, and those who invest heavily in cultural capital don’t like art that can’t exclude: it’s confusing, and it doesn’t help us to meet attractive people of the opposite sex who think the same way we do.

Do you think I'm smart? Or a good writer? A stand-up fellow, even? Better than average, at least? Well, I'll assume so, if for no other reason than the fact that you willingly return here to read. Anyway, the reason I ask is because I've dutifully taken in critically acclaimed albums and books that made no difference in my life at all. They didn't open up new ways of experiencing the world. They didn't inspire me with new artistic possibilities. The qualities that others praised as innovative and mesmerizing struck me as trivial or overblown. Conversely, I've been lifted into a buoyant mood by simple ear candy, making my mind feel alert and engaged, facilitating the energy and awareness that sometimes leads to keen observation and penetrating insight. I've been inspired by brilliant metaphors and turns of phrase found in otherwise forgettable fantasy fiction. The Muses seem to delight in popping out of the strangest hiding places.

If you like what you see here, you should know that an awful lot of unimpressive pieces helped construct the mosaic, is what I'm saying.

Aesthetic taste just isn't a reliable indicator of overall character, the best efforts of so many pop culture cliques to try to reassure themselves otherwise notwithstanding. I find that most of the people I would call truly interesting are the ones whose taste is scattershot and contradictory without betraying any shame over "guilty pleasures". And I'm bored silly by all those poor little insecure magpies, collecting various pop culture objets d'art, hoping for some vicarious transmission of superiority thereby.

Will No One Rid Me of This Travesty of Justice?

PZ:

I’d like to know the names of the two boys who took advantage of an inebriated minor who was passed out at a party: they apparently assaulted her while she was unconscious, took pictures of the attack with their cell phones, and sent them around to their friends. I guess this was their idea of bragging. I’d like to know because I never want to have anything to do with them, ever.

You know, if you feel they got off too lightly and want to do your part to keep the option of vigilante justice alive, whether it take the form of social shaming or actual violence (it's hard to predict what exactly will happen once you tickle the Internet's amygdala), just fucking say so. Don't disingenuously pretend that your only concern is that two Kentucky teenagers might somehow end up in rural Minnesota one day where you might accidentally hold the door open for them and wish them a good morning instead of spitting in their faces.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Full Of Sound And Fury, Signifying Nothing

Jamie Frevele:

I kinda think Madonna is pushing her luck here. Just a little. As in: Hey, Madonna -- you are just one of the people that history will forever refer to as one of the horrible people in the story about the Aurora movie theater shooting. While obviously not nearly as horrible as the person who committed the crime, nor as horrible as the people who believe that the massacre would have been prevented if the people in the audience either had more guns/religion, or even more courage. (Really.) But as an American musical and pop culture icon with many fans, when you are told that after a mass shooting that injured almost 60 people and killed 12 that using fake firearms in your show for fun is a bad idea, you should get your head out of your ass and listen to them. No one cares if this has been part of your tour since before the incident took place. The incident happened, and you have to do something different for a little while (not forever!), so as to avoid looking like an insensitive dick.

I love the last line: "It's just so...tacky." Madonna! Tacky! The hell you say!

But before we attempt to calculate exactly how long the moratorium on fake guns in stage shows should extend in order to effectively communicate...something, allow me to say this: Madonna is a hollow entity (and why you're looking to her for reassurance and behavioral cues at a time like this is far beyond me). Her performances are meaningless events. Plastic guns are empty symbols that do not contribute to real violence, and renouncing their public use for an indeterminate length of time is an insultingly insignificant gesture that does nothing to reduce it. Either work to change the political reality surrounding guns in America, or grieve quietly and move on, but insisting that everyone else enter your hall of mirrors is useless and annoying. Your tantrum, while undoubtedly heartfelt, is only slightly less unnecessary than a compilation of celebrity reactions to the shooting, the audio clips of the 911 calls, and other self-serving pageview bait. Consider this: maybe what you should really be offended by is the ease with which you can apparently be placated by superficial pantomime.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go organize a moment of silence on Twitter.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Not Your Kind of People: A Play In Three Acts

From the comments of an A.V. Club article smirking at the Gathering of the Juggalos, a classic example of kidding on the square:

Your Revolution Is Over. Condolences. The Bums Lost.


The Onion, once a satirical broadsheet published by starving college students, is now a mini-empire with its own news channel. Stewart and Colbert, in particular, have assumed the role of secular saints whose nightly shtick restores sanity to a world gone mad.

But their sanctification is not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse’s more radical virtues. Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.

Look. The Hebrew prophets used to fill a role in society similar to the one you seem to think Comedy Central is obligated to fill now. But bear in mind, "The System" took the most famous prophet of all, nailed him to some boards, and made him into the mascot for one of the most authoritarian institutions of all time. The game has always been rigged, and the idea that all we need is some hero to "speak truth to power" (oh, how I despise that stupid fucking cliché) to start the glorious revolution is a delusion.

But anyway, there's two basic assumptions I find problematic in these perennial complaints. First, are Stewart and Colbert moderate centrists by nature, reinforced in their boat-stabilizing instincts by fame and success? Almost certainly. Then why waste your time haranguing them to release their nonexistent inner radicals? Secondly, would all the youngsters be singing the songs of Joe Hill while stringing up politicians and banksters on every lamppost if only they hadn't been mollified by the narcotic insouciance of Viacom's court jesters? Almost certainly not. But if they were so inclined, couldn't they find a bunch of camera-phone videos of grad-student Marxists on YouTube to point them in the right direction?

He strangely asserts that the reason Bill Hicks never became a mainstream star is "because he violated the cardinal rule of televised comedy—one passed down from Johnny Carson through the ages—which is to flatter and reassure the viewer," a rule which apparently doesn't apply to South Park, which he lauds on the next page for bravely confronting its audience over the course of sixteen seasons. Personally, in this entire article about comedy, I found this to be the funniest part—I mean, if you want to talk about comfortable poses and niches that don't challenge the status quo, you can't possibly do better than the one favored by so many fans of Hicks and South Park, that of the insufferably self-righteous hipster hiding their wounded idealism under a mask of sneering cynicism, content to live as lords in their petty fiefdoms of consumer taste.

Jackoff Smirnoff (Slight Return)

Arthur and I were pointing and laughing via email last week at Slavoj Žižek's recent press appearances. Here's one of Arthur's contributions to the discourse:

You're right that he's quite savvy, a smart, opportunistic self-promoter who has carefully crafted himself a persona and a celebrity custom-made to appeal to a disenfranchised niche of lefties, greens and aging hippies who still can't believe the proletarian revolution isn't going to happen, that global capitalism keeps blithely and monstrously blossoming like a toxic orchid despite being endlessly critiqued and deconstructed, and are wondering what in the unholy name of Ronald Reagan happened? Isn't he the ultimate Bo-Bo, though? Insisting on being photographed with a portrait of Stalin behind you. Criticizing good ole Uncle Joe (as FDR called him) and Pol Pot for not killing enough people in the name of an amorphous radical break with tradition and a "new form of community" (whatever the fuck that's supposed to be): to engage in this sort of provocation-for-effect, you really have to be either crazy or bottomlessly cynical (I favor the latter interpretation) and to admire him and take him seriously suggests a level of jadedness and/or desperation on the part of the remnants of the Left that is positively ominous.

His rebuttal to Gray's review is more damning almost than anything Gray says about him. To call Gandhi more "violent" than Hitler because he effected a more radical break with established bourgeois-colonialist power is blatant silly-putty word-play and a clear signal that this is a man more to be laughed at than laughed with. But, you know, he's "charming" in person, what with the blow-job jokes with his 10-year-old son and all. If it seems breathtakingly un-self-aware to criticize Americans for telling strangers about their sex lives and in the next breath tell a stranger about your own, that's just the ruse of reason and the do-I-contradict-myself-very-well-I contradict-myself-I-am-large-I-contain-multitudes dialectics. To write twelve hundred pages explicating a semi-charlatan who toadied to state power and reduced violence, blood, sweat and tears to the algorithmic self-solution of Absolute Reason's inner contradictions (leading to the final solution - Absolute Reason's triumph), it helps to be a complete charlatan. But Zizek's offensive clarity only signals in great flashy block-letters what is more discreetly wrong with the Left in general: that uncomfortable (for anyone but Zizek, it seems) coexistence in the same world-view of personal elitism and theoretical empathy for the downtrodden. "Being crazy" and saying "fuck you" to the world below your rooftop Singapore hotel paradise while claiming to represent advanced liberatory post-Marxist politics: the joke about this is that it isn't a joke, just pretending to be. He mentions somewhere that he once put on a mask to frighten his son, took it off and explained it was only a mask, then put it back on and provoked the same frightened response. The lesson he draws from this is that there is no inside, we are only what we say and do. This is ridiculous. Of course there is an inside; it is called introspection, and everything about what this guy says and does indicates he's a total stranger to it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

He Don't Lie, He Don't Lie, He Don't Lie; Montaigne

Dear Michel de Montaigne: I sometimes feel despondent over what I see as the Internet's tendency to broaden one's intellectual horizons while simultaneously, and ironically, facilitating the most rigid groupthink. It's almost as if the sheer oceanic volume of information available to anyone with a broadband connection causes people to band together even more tightly around shared interests and beliefs for fear of completely losing their identities. Even some of the most interesting, thought-provoking writers attract a large number of puerile, sycophantic commenters and allow the echo chamber of praise to reinforce their prejudices and weaken their mental rigor. Am I wrong to think that an earnest truthseeker should strive after contrary voices in order to avoid being lulled into complacency by the flattery and easy companionship of the like-minded?

Montaigne Responds: I enter into conversation and argument with great freedom and facility, since opinions find in me a soil into which they cannot easily penetrate or strike deep roots. No proposition astounds me, no belief offends me, however much opposed it may be to my own. There is no fantasy so frivolous or extravagant that it does not seem to me a natural product of the human mind. Those of us who deny our judgement the right of making final decisions look mildly on ideas that differ from our own; if we do not give them credence, we can at least offer them a ready hearing.

Contradictions of opinion, therefore, neither offend nor estrange me; they only arouse and exercise my mind. We run away from correction; we ought to court it and expose ourselves to it, especially when it comes in the shape of discussion, not of a school lesson. Each time we meet with opposition, we consider not whether it is just, but how, wrongly or rightly, we can rebut it. Instead of opening our arms to it, we greet it with our claws. I could stand a rough shaking from my friends: 'You are a fool, you're talking nonsense.'

In good company, I like expression to be bold, and men to say what they think. We must strengthen our ears and harden them against any weakness for the ceremonious use of words. I like strong and manly acquaintanceships and society, a friendship that prides itself on the sharpness and vigour of its dealings. I like love that bites and scratches till the blood comes. It is not vigorous and free enough if it is not quarrelsome, if it is polite and artificial, if it is afraid of shocks, and is constrained in its ways: 'for there can be no discussion without contradiction' (Cicero, De Finibus, I, viii).

When I am opposed, my attention is roused, not my anger. I go out to meet the man who contradicts me and corrects me. The cause of truth ought to be a cause common to us both. How will he reply? The passion of anger has already struck down his judgement; confusion has usurped the place of reason. It would be useful if a wager were to hang on the result of our disputes, if there could be some material mark of our losses, so that we might keep a record of them. My man could then say to me: 'Your ignorance and stubbornness on some twenty occasions last year cost you a hundred crowns.'

I welcome and embrace the truth in whosoever hands I find it. I cheerfully surrender to it, and offer it my vanquished arms as soon as I see it approaching in the distance. And provided that I am not treated with too imperious and magisterial a frown, I am glad of any criticisms upon my writings. Indeed I have often made changes in them, more out of politeness than because they were improved by it. For I like, by yielding easily, to gratify and foster the freedom to find fault with me, even at some cost to myself.

It is, however, difficult to induce men of my time to do this; they have not the courage to correct because they have not the courage to stand correction; and they never speak frankly in one another's presence. I take so much pleasure in being judged and known that it is almost indifferent to me whether I am admired or criticized. My mind so frequently contradicts and condemns itself that it is all one to me if someone else does so, especially as I only give his criticism such authority as I choose.

Dear Michel de Montaigne: I agree with Maria Popova's ideas about the combinatorial nature of creativity. But then I wonder if I'm only justifying my own lack of talent and original insight. In your esteemed opinion, is originality a prerequisite of valuable thought, or does it have more to do with fashion and a petty desire for distinction?

Montaigne Responds: Truth and reason are common to all men, and no more belong to the man who first uttered them than to him that repeated them after him. It is no more a matter of Plato's opinion than of mine, when he and I understand and see things alike. The bees steal from this flower and that, but afterwards turn their pilferings into honey, which is their own; it is thyme and marjoram no longer. So the pupil will transform and fuse together the passages that he borrows from others, to make of them something entirely his own; that is to say, his own judgement. His education, his labour, and his study have no other aim but to form this.

Let him conceal all that has helped him, and show only what he has made of it. Plunderers and borrowers make a display of their buildings and their purchases, not of what they have taken from others. You do not see a high-court judge's perquisites; you see the alliances he has made and the honours he has won for his children. Nobody renders a public account of his receipts; everyone displays his profits. The profit from our studies is to become better and wiser men.

Dear Michel de Montaigne: People say I'm crazy doing what I'm doing. They give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin. When I say that I'm O.K., well, they look at me kind of strange. "Surely you're not happy now you no longer play the game?"

People say I'm lazy, dreaming my life away. They give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me. When I tell them that I'm doing fine watching shadows on the wall, "Don't you miss the big time boy, you're no longer on the ball?"

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round. I really love to watch them roll. No longer riding on the merry-go-round, I just had to let it go. Should I be more ambitious, more concerned with my reputation, or is it enough for me to be content with tending to the bonsai tree of my life, happy to be forgotten by the world and left alone?

Montaigne Responds: Our life, said Pythagoras, is like the great and crowded assembly at the Olympic games. Some exercise the body in order to win glory in the contests; others bring merchandise there to sell for profit. There are some - and these are not the worst - whose only aim is to observe how and why everything is done, and to be spectators of other men's lives, in order to judge and regulate their own.

Dear Michel de Montaigne: I don't know if I can believe any longer in the hope of salvation within linear time, whether of the religious sort or the scientific/technological alternative. But how can I possibly live in a world that holds forth no promise of evil's eventual vanquishment? Why, then, resist the embrace of nihilistic oblivion?

Montaigne Responds: One must learn to endure what one cannot avoid. Our life, like the harmony of the world, is composed of contrarieties, also of varying tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, soft and loud. If a musician liked one sort only, what effect would he make? He must be able to employ them together and blend them. And we too must accept the good and evil that are consubstantial with our life. Our existence is impossible without this mixture, and one side is no less necessary to us than the other. Any attempt to kick against natural necessity will be to copy the foolishness of Ctesiphon, who tried a kicking-match with his mule.

Balance of Power

Jacques Berlinerblau:

Secularism’s philosophical roots may run as deep as the writings of the Hebrew Bible, Paul and Augustine. Yet for our purposes we should understand modern Secularism as a development whose major architects were Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

A blog post is not the proper place to develop such an argument and I have, fortuitously, written an entire book about this subject. But to put it as pithily as possible, let me note that each of these (religious) men was deeply skeptical of any sort of contact between the State and the Church.

A secularist, then, dwells not in the atheist realm of theology or anti-theology, but in the domain of politics. A secularist asks: how can we get this here Church/Mosque/Synagogue to be treated justly by government? How can we make sure that this here Church/Mosque/ Synagogue doesn’t take over the government? How can we keep this religious group from trying to exterminate that one? How can we assure religious freedom and freedom from religion for all? How can we make it so that Christians and Atheists, Muslims and Agnostics live in peace and order?

You see? You see? The man's sayin' what I've been sayin'! But I also agree with the other theme here: balance. Balance is the key. But it's also a more conservative principle than progressivism. Balance accepts the existence of whatever sort of "negative" principle you define yourself against without seeking to obliterate it.

In this context, that means I'm only interested in making sure that my atheism is legally protected. I have no desire to convince other people to share it with me in the belief that a world full of atheists would necessarily be a better, more rational one. Would the world be "better" without religion? In some ways, probably; but it also verges on being an incoherent question, since we have no perspective from which to judge, and no way to anticipate the ripple effect that such a fundamental change in the world would create. Crusaders for a cause tend to convince themselves that such changes are a simple matter of adding this or subtracting that, while the countless variables that they overlook in their tunnel vision continue to multiply exponentially.

And though I give mainstream Christians a hard time for their intellectual squishiness, it's also true that a Christian who accepts the idea of different religions all being valid paths to more or less the same goal has, as far as I'm concerned, become thoroughly secularized. If they're willing to relinquish the very exclusivity that defines their faith, the belief that there was one-and-only-one son of God, and he brought the one-and-only-one path to salvation, well, then, by all means, they can continue to go through the motions with their churches and holidays and empty rituals! How greedy would I have to be to want to take even that from them?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

No, Teilhard, No

David Rieff:

Why so many people are so convinced of this, and not only in the “first world,” is not entirely clear. Obviously, part of the explanation is the penumbral hold that the Christian progress narrative still maintains over our thinking. On this account, for all the bumps and glitches that humanity is bound to face along the way, history, too, is a progress toward a global society. One does not have to be a person of faith to adhere to this view. To the contrary, it was that stern non-believer Raymond Aron who proposed that what made modern times unique was that they were the era of universal history.

...In other words, almost anywhere on the squishy bog that is the contemporary intellectual landscape—right or left, technocratic or legalistic, unilateralist or post-national—we will most likely find ourselves sinking into the muck of one modern iteration or another of Hegel’s ideas about universal history and the theodicy that accompanied it. That the Greeks, or, indeed, great Renaissance political thinkers like Machiavelli and Guicciardini, who essentially believed that history was a series of cycles, not a progress, would have laughed at such a crude account is worth pointing out, if only as an at least partial vindication of the intuition of educated pagans, like Celsus in the late Roman empire, that Christianity was not going to be an intellectual improvement over Greek philosophy. But as a faith, Christianity can hold that we are progressing toward a day of final judgment and the end of history without having to provide empirical grounds for its claims. The adherents of secular progress narratives, however, can plead no such justification.

The article as a whole is great, but I have my doubts over whether it's really fair to describe modern political progressivism as a direct descendent of Christian teleology. I mean, yes, Christianity envisioned an obvious end point to human existence, located in time, but in practice, "progressing toward a day of final judgment" typically meant sitting around in cultural stasis, watching the unspooling of the world's thread—a state of affairs that endured for much longer than our post-Enlightenment progressivism has yet existed. The Middle Ages (frequently used as shorthand for a representative summary of a thoroughly Christian culture in action, of course) were content with the understanding that since divine truth had been revealed centuries earlier, there was no need for radical social change or technological innovation while awaiting the Parousia, and the Christian view of human nature itself had of course always been pessimistic. Until the empirical fruits of scientific advances began to appear, I don't know that a truly modern sense of progress can be said to have existed.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I'd Studied Your Cartoons, Radio, Music, TV, Movies, Magazines

David Sirota:

Just as so many 1980s pop culture products reflected the spirit of the Reagan Revolution’s conservative backlash, we are now seeing two blockbuster, genre-shaping products not-so-subtly reflect the Tea Party’s rhetorical backlash to the powerful Occupy Wall Street zeitgeist. In the same way Republican leaders have caricatured the “99 percent” idea as a menacing “attack upon freedom” or a “mob,” “Call of Duty” is essentially equating the “99 percent” idea with terrorism, chaos and violence.

Likewise, in “Dark Knight Rises,” though there has been some effort to use the villain’s name to portray him as a stand-in for Mitt Romney, the Los Angeles Times is right to flag the true “Occupy Wall Street vibe” of the bad guys. And though it’s possible that the film will ultimately provide a more nuanced portrayal of such populist outrage than “Call of Duty” seems intent on presenting, the problem remains the same: when villainous motives and psychopathy is televisually ascribed to mass popular outrage against the economic status quo, it suggests to the audience that only crazy people would sympathize with such outrage.

Knowing the teenage audience is right now forming the next generation’s vision of good and bad, it’s a message that the 1 percent must love.

Roy Edroso has a recurring theme where he talks about "The Children of Zhdanov", though he tends to restrict his focus to stellar examples on the right wing. Lest you think, however, that only reactionaries insist on reducing art and pop culture to parables of propaganda, idiots like Sirota (and others) are doing their equal part to make sure that no aspect of the personal is separate from the political.

Again, in case you need reminding, I am a confirmed misanthrope. I do not have a generally high opinion of my fellow hairless apes. But, you know, I came of age during the glory days of the P.M.R.C., and I can tell you that my fellow metalhead teens and I alternated between raucous laughter and indignant disbelief as we listened to the Tipper Gores of America recite lyrics as if they were appliance user guides, while insisting that we were blank slates, too stupid to think even slightly critically about the messages and images we were receiving through our music, and thus in need of incessant preaching and supervision. Yet needless to say, the overwhelming majority of us did not commit suicide, become violent felons or hardcore drug addicts, dabble in devil worship, or court our girlfriends and wives with all the subtle romance of Mötley Crüe lyrics. Somehow, even without insufferable busybodies there to instruct our thinking every step of the way, we made our way to adulthood, no more damaged or antisocial than anyone else. Somehow, I think today's teenagers will be just as capable of eventually forming political opinions independent of whichever movie they last saw.

We Are Changed By What We Change (Slight Return)

Paul Kingsnorth:

Wright is a very thoughtful writer and this is a very interesting and analytical book – it’s not at all a piece of tub thumping. He’s examining the myth of progress. I don’t mean myth in the sense that it’s a lie, I mean in the sense of the guiding story that our civilisation lives by. Wright says that all civilisations live by myths, that we all have stories that we believe in about the way the world is. One of our myths is the idea of progress – that things always get better and that we are moving in a step-by-step evolutionary process towards a better life. In some ways that is true. We can look back over the last 100 years in the western world and see that medicine, science and technology have got better and we have more democracy. So we can look at these and say progress is real. But if you look at the big sweep of human civilisation over the last 10,000 or 15,000 years, then progress is a lot more bumpy. It goes up and down.

The really interesting thing about Wright’s book is his examination of why what we regard as progress happened in the first place. He finds that more often than not it’s an accident, and what we regard as a deliberate step forward to a new and better form of society is often actually something that’s done in order to make up for a mistake that happened before. He sees progress as a series of traps which, far from improving life for everybody, just force us into this machine – this strange civilisation which goes faster and faster. And as it does so, it eats up all its own natural resources, creates a society which grips its citizens tighter and tighter, and needs more and more economic growth until at a certain stage it all collapses and the process begins again.

It's interesting to consider every so often the fact that so much of what we call progress, whether cultural, political, or technological, has only occurred in the last 200 years. And yet, we constantly act as if this tiny little slice of history is representative of anything essential to existence, and we expect it to continue indefinitely. I don't see questioning it as being fatalist, though—we can't help but act, and there's no salvation to be found in trying to live in some equally mythical harmony with nature, either.

Driving the Tractor On the Drug Farm

Brian has convinced me. I'm going to move to Northern California for the climate and become a marijuana farmer for the profits.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sol Vindictus

My central AC conked out last night. It'll be tomorrow before it gets fixed. So, as I sit in front of the one window unit and large fan that I coaxed out of retirement, why, what do I see but the universe mocking me with vicious irony:

Yeah, it’s July, but this is ridiculous. Ri. Dic. U. Lous. The coolest places east of the Rockies are Tampa and Houston? Madness. Yesterday, we only broke eight all-time record highs. Today we’re likely to do a little better.

Which is appropriate! Today, we celebrate an important anniversary: the 110th birthday of the air conditioner.

Oh, isn't that just perfect, fuck you very much. Seriously, I utterly fucking loathe summer. There's not a single redeeming feature of it. I want to hang and burn it in effigy. As far as I care, the months from early May to late September can just cease to exist. Sorry about any birthdays or anniversaries that get caught up in the purge, but even a just war produces some collateral damage.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Startin' Up a Posse

Chez Pazienza:

Now being that this is the 21st century and we’ve evolved to the point where no one should ever be offended by anything, the aggrieved audience member didn’t simply leave the club and tell herself that since Tosh’s comedy wasn’t her particular brand of vodka and he’d been a dick to her, she’d never watch him again — she of course went right to a friend with a Tumblr account and related her outrage over being offended by a comic who delights in offending people, at a comedy show she’d paid money to be at and then took it upon herself to heckle. That friend, offended herself by the comment she didn’t actually hear and wasn’t aware of the comedic context of, immediately banged out a post about what her friend had told her and breathed that fireball right out into the ether, no doubt presuming that others just like her would also be shocked and outraged by the comment they didn’t hear at the comedy show they didn’t attend delivered by the comic they probably didn’t like already. And so it began. And snowballed. Into a fucking ridiculous maelstrom. The way this kind of thing always does.

...I’m not saying that Tosh or anyone else should just blurt out anything and not expect a backlash to it. If there weren’t a price to be paid for it, it wouldn’t be worth saying in the first place. But there’s a difference between expressing disapproval and cranking up the entire concentrated, high-powered outrage industry for every little fucking thing that rattles our fragile cages. The indignation machine quickly takes on a life of its own and barrels out of control, and what you wind up with is what we’re seeing now: demands for an apology that was already given and that wasn’t owed to 99.9% of the people who now expect it; article after article by people who feel that it’s their personal responsibility to educate Daniel Tosh on the right and wrong way to do a rape joke simply because they don’t find his jokes funny (as if there’s ever a right and wrong way to do comedy); the breathless and heavy-handed elevation of a fucking rude comedy show crack into a “teachable moment” about women’s issues; and of course, the inevitable push to get Tosh completely taken off the air at Comedy Central. Because he should lose his job and be forced to wander the earth in sack-cloth eating bugs for 40 years because somebody didn’t like what he said to a heckler at a comedy club.

I was completely shocked when I first read this. I couldn't believe a man could be so harsh and thoughtless with his language. I mean, honestly—a woman breathed a fireball that snowballed into a maelstrom? Get hold of yourself, sir! Think about what you're saying! Imagine some child who looks up to you—what are his parents supposed to tell him when he asks if it's okay to mix his metaphors like that?

No, I largely agree. Of course, it's not a problem if Jezebel and other fine purveyors of tempestuous teapots want to write posts complaining about it; they just provide an opportunity for more posts in return, increasing the number of pageviews, which, after all, is the currency of the blogospheric economy. But I do get sick of the way every instance of hurt feelings and faux-outrage gets turned into another call for somebody's job, another consumer boycott. Hell, I don't think it was a full day before I saw posts eagerly anticipating Tosh's career taking a hit, from people who probably don't even pay attention to comedy in general.

Let me be clear on this, though—my girlfriend came close to being sexually assaulted once at work. My ex was nearly raped on two occasions as a teenager, by friends of her family. A former friend of mine was raped as a teenager before being kidnapped and gang-raped as a young woman. My high school girlfriend was molested by her own father. I take the subject of rape very, very seriously.

And yet, even if I had been offended by Tosh's (disputed) remarks, it would have been enough to just call him an asshole, while continuing to not watch his show or pay money to go see him perform live. The P.C. types don't seem to grasp that this isn't a zero-sum game whereby one offensive remark, regardless of context, that goes unpunished means that in some meaningful way, women's rights and freedom are somehow diminished. Even I, a confirmed misanthrope, can grant that most people are not doltish enough to base their ethical judgement on a comedian's routine, and don't need some excessively literal-minded progressives to help them think their way through it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sans Serif Culottes

Erin Gloria Ryan:

This is far from the first time that a group of allegedly peace-loving left wing equality nerds decided to show their ugly side and gang up on another, more prominent person in the digital realm.

Oh, the digital realm. I was gonna say, that's the strangest way I've ever heard the Jacobins described.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Calvinist Reformation

I've said many times over the years, to any who would listen, that Bill Watterson's comic strip Calvin & Hobbes is one of the keystones of my intellectual development. And I've put idiots on notice that I will not stand by passively while they desecrate Calvin's sacred image in service of NASCAR and bible-thumping.

But after seeing yet another rear-window decal today, I've decided it's time to take the fight to the enemy on their own turf. I'm going to get both a "Pissing Calvin" and a "Praying Calvin" sticker and use an x-acto knife to creatively combine the two in a more accurate reflection of the strip's iconoclastic spirit. A variation on Serrano's Piss Christ, if you will. Honestly, I'm ashamed it took me this long to think of it.

Roid Fatigue

Salon: Reed has described FFC, launched in 2009, as “a 21st century version of the Christian Coalition on steroids.”

PressTV: Joe Biden: Mitt Romney is 'Bush on steroids'

Well, given the uncanny resemblance national politics bears to professional wrestling, I guess it's an apt image, but still, why not show how au fait you are by dropping a reference to bath salts instead? "Folks, can you really entrust leadership of our great nation to a man who is extremely likely to strip naked and try to eat your face? I ask you."

Seriously, it's gotta be exhausting being a partisan political obsessive—no matter what happens, the wolf is always at the door, hungrier and crazier than ever before, and the next election is the most important one in the history of the nation, until the next one. You'd think the amygdala could only take so much incessant stimulation before just burning completely out.

Scratch Our Eternal Itch

Christopher Beha:

Setting aside matters of truth and falsehood, are we not better off believing? Broadly speaking, atheists seem to fall into two camps on this matter. There are disappointed disbelievers, those who would like to believe in God but find themselves unable. Then there are those who find the very idea of such a being to be an outrage. Among the latter camp, Christopher Hitchens famously compared God to Kim Jong Il, ruling the universe like his own North Korea. We ought to count ourselves lucky, Hitchens said, that such an entity does not exist outside the human imagination, because the only appropriate response to it would be fury and rebellion.

I happen to count myself among the disappointed disbelievers, which is why I was interested in the attempts of Harris and Botton to salvage some religious splendor for the secularists. So I was only more disappointed to find Rosenberg’s insistence that such efforts were hopeless far more convincing than the efforts themselves. During an email exchange with Rosenberg, I asked him which camp of atheists he fell into. His response acknowledged my impulse: “There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.”

This post on kishōtenketsu, an Asian style of plot structure that doesn't require conflict, is interesting enough in its own right to be worth checking out, but in this context, I would also recommend it as a parallel illustration of how, in a similar way, the meta-narrative we're all accustomed to, the one that situates meaning out there somewhere, external to us, created and validated by a cosmic authority, is itself a limited, and limiting, way to conceptualize existence.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I Want a New Drug

Tony Dokoupil:

Questions about the Internet’s deleterious effects on the mind are at least as old as hyperlinks. But even among Web skeptics, the idea that a new technology might influence how we think and feel—let alone contribute to a great American crack-up—was considered silly and naive, like waving a cane at electric light or blaming the television for kids these days. Instead, the Internet was seen as just another medium, a delivery system, not a diabolical machine. It made people happier and more productive. And where was the proof otherwise?

Now, however, the proof is starting to pile up. The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.

...Does the Internet make us crazy? Not the technology itself or the content, no. But a Newsweek review of findings from more than a dozen countries finds the answers pointing in a similar direction. Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, argues that “the computer is like electronic cocaine,” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches. The Internet “leads to behavior that people are conscious is not in their best interest and does leave them anxious and does make them act compulsively,” says Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shallows, about the Web’s effect on cognition, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It “fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions,” adds Larry Rosen, a California psychologist who has researched the Net’s effect for decades. It “encourages—and even promotes—insanity.”

Strident fearmongering, brain scans, dopamine, Nicholas Carr; this article is your one-stop shop for all your Zombie Internet Eatin Mah Brainz! needs. And yes, we can now file computers alongside fatty foods, make-up sex, and sugar in the list of Things That Affect Your Brain Like Cocaine. Maybe, given a little more time and some more fMRI analysis, the Internet can even graduate to being the new heroin.

Lucubratio (XIII)

Rosamund Harding, by way of Maria Popova:

Night-time when awake is perhaps the best time of all for the flow of ideas…. The spiritual aloneness that comes over the thinker when the world sleeps, carrying with it the sense of detachment so essential to a creative thinker may account partly for the fascination and spell of working by night. It is, however, a spell, to be resisted since it may lead to practices dangerous alike to bodily and mental health: Byron, sometimes writing on Hollands and water, Schiller on strong coffee, wine-chocolate, old Rhenish, or Champagne, the poet Crabbe at one time on weak brandy and water and snuff, and Balzac on endless cups of black coffee.

True, all true. Years ago, at a crossroads under the full moon, I made a deal with the devil stimulant, caffeine, in exchange for extraordinary intellectual insight and writing ability, and here you see the fruits of that diabolical bargain. Might it shave a few years off the end of my life? So be it.

Also true: the nocturnal musings were intensified further by the time I spent on long, lonely highways, livin' after midnight, rockin' till the dawn:

Harding also points to the importance of bodily posture and the habit of motion that many creators cultivated: Dickens and Hugo were avid walkers during ideation; Burns often composed while “holding the plough”; Twain paced madly while dictating; Goethe, Scott, and Burns composed on horseback; Mozart preferred the back of a carriage; Lord Kelvin worked on his mathematical studies while traveling by train. Harding offers:

It is possible that the rhythmical movement of a carriage or train, of a horse and to a much lesser degree of walking, may produce on sensitive minds a slightly hypnotic effect conducive to that state of mind most favourable to the birth of ideas.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Nostalgie de la Boue

I stopped by a friend's house a couple weeks ago, a semi-professional musician recovering from cancer, and we caught up on what we'd been listening to/recording. He's primarily a hybrid of classical music and heavy metal, and he played me some examples of the latter that he'd written while convalescing.

"My wife's lost her 'metal tooth'. Don't know how that happened. She says you outgrow it. Well—" he shrugged with a skeptical look, wordlessly refuting it thus by the mere fact of his standing there, metal and proud.

I nodded sympathetically, but truth be told, I've outgrown a lot of it myself. I don't mean it condescendingly—there are still a lot of metal records I would claim to like, but I just don't ever seem to be in the mood to actually listen to them anymore, if that makes any sense. They did something for me once. They still have what I would call some sort of objective quality. But they just don't seem to be suitable vehicles for the kind of thoughts I'm thinking at this point in my life. They don't paint compelling pictures in my head. I can't lose myself in them anymore.

Generation X was musically defined, of course, by grunge. That's what the media appointed as the official soundtrack to our lives, the cultural essence of our generation. But really, a large number of us spent just as much time imprinting on heavy metal, from Sunset Strip glam metal to thrash. That stuff didn't neatly fit into any grand sociological narrative, though, so it was given the cultural silent treatment from 1992 onward until it finally had the courtesy to make itself scarce so that everyone who mattered could forget the lost decade between MTV's debut and Nirvana's deliverance ever happened. As Krist Novoselic put it, "a lot of heavy metal kids are just plain dumb." Pariahs within our own pariah generation.

Anyway. I forget what exactly started the snowball rolling, but I spent a majority of my time over the weekend looking up every band I could think of from that time period, on Wikipedia, iTunes, YouTube and Emusic, seeing what had become of them. In many cases, it was, as expected, not pretty. Some cut their hair and got "real" jobs. Some carried on gamely, stuffing their paunchy, aging bodies into the same tasseled cowboy boots and leather pants that lace up the sides, partying like it was always 1989. Some had ridden substance abuse into an undignified sunset. And some had sadly degenerated into feuding camps of the original members, trading lawsuits over whether the singer or the guitarist got to tour county fairs under the official name with hired hands filling in. It isn't really a form of music that ages well, for the songs or the artists.

But imagine my surprise as I found myself missing those days, feeling a genuine surge of affection for them. And especially when it came to the cheesiest hair bands, there was nothing I could point to to justify it. The songs often were terrible. The riffs and lyrics were clichéd beyond belief. The images of poodle-haired drag queens and S&M leather daddies were hilariously over the top. But it's like the shallow inauthenticity has a perverse charm all its own.

What on earth is it that would make me feel nostalgic about those days? It seems trite to call it innocence, but maybe music fans really can't help but feel that way about whatever they spent their adolescence listening to. Maybe despite the fact that many of us as teenagers and early twentysomethings were already feeling some genuine angst and weltschmerz, there really is something irreplaceable in the mindset of someone whose life still feels like, in Rilke's phrase, "the brightness of a new page/where anything yet can happen."