Saturday, August 31, 2013

Life Was a Goat-Dance

Nietzsche I feel was often acting out the wisdom of Christ, facing the whole world angrily, as if he had found the moneychangers in the temple. Indeed he loved to hate all 'counterfeiters'. He also hated intellectual corruption, manipulation and lies; he abhorred pettiness, meanness, envy and vengefulness; he loathed mediocrity. Though he could be defensive, blunt, obsessive, and quick to take offense, Nietzsche combined a high, austere intellect with a boundless religious need and a striking sweetness of heart. He was endlessly self-questioning and self-critical.

...The retreat into mind and solitude magnified every common perception Nietzsche had of the foolishness of life, the incongruous judgments, the misunderstandings, the sheer intellectual impurity of the whole martyrous thing, and what came out on the page was laughing contempt and chuckling malice. Wasn't it clear the world was all dressed up with lies and tricks, nothing but tromperie, all its order fake and deceptive? It would take an idealist to fight it, and an ascetic to withdraw from it.

...Nietzsche turned to color and music because of the absence of a suitable response to the death of God. Color replaced sense and meaning. Color and music were what life had to offer. They were the original tragic vision. Life was a goat-dance performed to the accompaniment of pan-pipes. The actors wore masks and walked on stilts. All life was like that, a 'serious joke', or ought to be seen as such; yet most people took it with a seriousness Nietzsche could only laugh at; seriousness which was without foundation and sapped energy. That energy might be better directed into celebrating the rite of existence.

What Nietzsche feared was the growth of a civilization in which individuals lacked the strength to convert the fear and the threat of the irrational into a force for positive living. What he wanted to see was joyous human self-affirmation despite and in the face of an absence of absolute values and fixed answers.

Politics of the Ugly Club

Ruth Graham:

Though to a surprising degree, we agree on who is attractive and who isn’t, differences in looks remain largely unmentionable, unlike divisions of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation. There is no lobby for the homely. How do you change a discriminatory behavior that, even though unfair, is obviously deep, hard to pin down, and largely unconscious—and affects people who would be hurt even to admit they’re in the stigmatized category?

Tentatively, experts are beginning to float possible solutions. Some have proposed legal remedies including designating unattractive people as a protected class, creating affirmative action programs for the homely, or compensating disfigured but otherwise healthy people in personal-injury courts. Others have suggested using technology to help fight the bias, through methods like blind interviews that take attraction out of job selection. There’s promising evidence from psychology that good old-fashioned consciousness-raising has a role to play, too.

...Other ideas, based on traditional legal and economic remedies for unfairness, can seem a bit utopian (or Orwellian): Hamermesh has proposed “affirmative-action programs for the ugly,” or extending the Americans with Disabilities Act to include the unattractive. But without a broad public understanding of the concrete disadvantages of unattractiveness, these ideas sound to many critics like social engineering run amok.

Yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and say that's what it sounds like regardless. Oh, if only people could be purely rational, like robots...


Thursday, August 29, 2013

One More Outnumbered

George Stack:

The social form of the biological defense mechanism of mimicry is the ability to blend in with crowds, to adopt the manners and mores of social groups, to mimic conventional moral or social values. Such cleverness obviously has a high degree of survival value. Sometimes Nietzsche has been thought to contradict himself by arguing that the weaker or the unfit survive and reproduce while the fit and the stronger tend to perish. But there is no contradiction here at all. Independent, self-directed, intelligent, perceptive, creative, and solitary individuals who are able to go against the grain of the majority are stronger, fitter types of human beings individually. But they are no match for cooperative, dependent, uncreative, sociable majorities. Exceptional individuals who are, in the strict sense of the word, "unpopular" have "the majority against them." This is more or less the point that Emerson made when he quoted with approval de Boufflers' observation that the majority "have the advantage of number...It is of no use for us to make war with them; we shall not weaken them; they will always be the masters." Of course, a cultural world in which the majority are the masters is looked upon by Emerson, to say nothing of Nietzsche, as a deplorable state of affairs.

He Wrote the Book of Love

Martin and Barresi:

Religious contextualizing aside, it is clear that a new ideal of romantic love had emerged. What made it new was that it portrayed love as an affair of the heart at the core of which is service to the beloved. In Europe, before this time, love, especially between husband and wife, tended to be thought of as a practical arrangement. While there may have been no precedent for the new ideal, either in pagan or Christian sources, there is a source: twelfth-century troubadours, especially William of Poitiers, who expressed in his love poems that the lover's happiness is dependent on that of the beloved and that service to the beloved is an important component of a meaningful life.

Philosophers, Saints and Artists

Walter Kaufmann:

At the same time, however, it was perfectly clear that Nietzsche looked to art, religion and philosophy — and not to race — to elevate man above the beasts, and some men above the mass of mankind.

Robert Solomon:

Though Nietzsche may shock us with his elitist and warrior language, the Übermenschen near to his heart are his aesthetic comrades, "philosophers, saints, and artists." The unspoken but always present thesis is this: It is in the romantic practice of artistic creativity that modern excellence can be achieved and in an exquisite sense of personal taste and experience that it is realized.

The Centrality of the Contest

Peter Berkowitz:

Neither one side nor the other in these pairs of extremes is correctly designated by itself as "Nietzschean" or as the core of Nietzsche's thought. This is not to say that in the contest of extremes that forms Nietzsche's thought one side does not gain the upper hand. It is, however, to insist upon the centrality of the contest that holds these rival and extreme opinions together and the fundamental assumptions about human beings and the cosmos that generate it.

Julian Young:

Two things are necessary, therefore to social growth: a living sense of community and 'degenerate' natures which help it to evolve. And they are of equal value: "Only when there is securely founded and guaranteed long duration is a steady evolution and ennobling inoculation at all possible." And what guarantees such steady evolution is that the majority of souls remain fettered spirits, since "all states and orderings within society — classes, marriage, education, law — derive their force and endurance solely from the faith the fettered spirits have in them." So what Nietzsche will later call "the herd" is a vital necessity. The fettered spirit must always remain the rule, the free spirit the exception.

Don't Like the Drugs but the Drugs Like Me

That may be good public relations, but it is bad public education. We also argue that it is fundamentally bad science. The brain-disease model of addiction is not a trivial rebranding of an age-old human problem. It plays to the assumption that if biological roots can be identified, then a person has a "disease." And being afflicted means that the person cannot choose, control his or her life, or be held accountable. Now introduce brain imaging, which seems to serve up visual proof that addiction is a brain disease. But neurobiology is not destiny: The disruptions in neural mechanisms associated with addiction do constrain a person's capacity for choice, but they do not destroy it. What's more, training the spotlight too intently on the workings of the addicted brain leaves the addicted person in the shadows, distracting clinicians, policy makers, and sometimes patients themselves from other powerful psychological and environmental forces that exert strong influence on them.

...The brain-disease narrative misappropriates language better used to describe such conditions as multiple sclerosis or schizophrenia — afflictions of the brain that are neither brought on by the sufferer nor modifiable by the desire to be well. It offers false hope that an addict's condition is completely amenable to a medical cure (much as pneumonia is to antibiotics). Finally, as we'll see, it threatens to obscure the vast role of personal agency in perpetuating the cycle of use and relapse.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Music Is Like Our Prayer; It Helps You Reach Somewhere

Nietzsche thinks that music allows us to face the tragedy of human existence, not so much in the sense of a diversion but as a means of "speaking" about life. There are things that can be "said" musically — or perhaps sung — that cannot be said philosophically.

...Since language is always metaphorical — and so never delivers to us the "thing itself" — music is all the more significant. For Nietzsche (like the German Romantics) thinks it has a directness that is unlike language. When Nietzsche contrasts the value to the words of a lyrical poem (and thus the images it conjures up) to the music to which it is set, he makes it clear that music has a revelatory power that language and its images simply cannot have: "Confronted with the supreme revelations of music, we feel, willy-nilly, the crudeness of all imagery and of every emotion that might be adduced by way of an analogy. Thus Beethoven's last quartets put to shame everything visual and the whole realm of empirical reality." So music has a significant edge over words. Of course, whatever it is that music conveys cannot be conveyed by words. So, at a certain point, we are — by definition — unable to "describe" exactly what it is that music says. If it could be put into words, we wouldn't need music.

...Nietzsche is convinced —as were the ancient Greeks — that words sung in rhythm had a special effect upon one that simply was not matched by the bare spoken word.

A Certain Muteness in Existence

Tyler Roberts:

[F]or Nietzsche nihilism is rooted in the attempt to ground and secure one's being, to master it in a way that excludes boredom, suffering and tragedy. But this grasp for mastery is self-defeating, for in the end it leaves one with nothing: unable to acknowledge the reality of this world of suffering, one puts one's faith in something beyond the real (for instance God or Truth), in what for Nietzsche literally is nothing.

...Affirmation, as Nietzsche's response to nihilism, is not a kind of salvation in the sense of a solution or justification of the difficulties and pain of human existence. Nietzsche imagined an affirmation that eschews the need for promises of paradise or purity, certainty and security — or even more mundane promises of "improvement" or "progress." For him, the problem of affirmation becomes the problem of how we affirm a life without the hope that the negative — evil and suffering — will slowly wither away to nothing. To affirm life only in the hope that we are able to end suffering — or to affirm life only from the perspective of that goal ("it was difficult, but it was worth it") — is not to affirm this life.

Nietzsche thinks, therefore, that we must embrace a certain meaninglessness, a certain muteness in existence, instead of wishing it or thinking it away with "solutions" such as God or Truth; nihilism, he contends, can be a "divine way of thinking." But such divine nihilism must be contrasted with the exhausted, life-hating nihilism of the Western tradition. As he explored the nihilism of modernity and imagined a joy that transcends the rational ego-centered consciousness, Nietzsche's thinking recovered certain religious concepts and practices.

The Flow Below

Graham Parkes:

As the play of images on the surface of consciousness is translated into the sounds of words, concepts are formed by abstraction from individual images and are then used to construct a framework by means of which the dynamic manifold of experience can be controlled and made secure. This construction — which Nietzsche characterizes in magnificent imagery of pyramids, Roman columbaria, spiders' webs, and bee hives — comes to stand on a foundation of "running water," over the unstoppable flux of life. Experiential stability is achieved by virtue of ignoring the flow below:

Only by forgetting that primitive world of metaphor, only through the solidification and rigidification of a primordial mass of images streaming forth from the primal faculty of human phantasy in a fiery fluidity...and only through the human being's forgetting himself as an artistically creating subject does he live with any peace, security and consistency.

This is the first full formulation of Nietzsche's radical conception of the phantastic relation of the human self to the world, which will remain at the core of his mature thought. The world of everyday experience is a construct imposed by conceptualization upon an underlying flux of imagery.

With this in mind, it seems clear that Nietzsche is best understood as the John the Baptist of panta rheism then, wouldn't you agree?

Origin of the Theses

Robert Pippin:

Nietzsche's best-known attempt to break the hold that a philosophical or moral picture might have over us is genealogy. At least, genealogy can be liberating in this way if such a genealogy can show us that practices and norms could have been very much otherwise, that some assumption or norm we take for granted as inevitable and unavoidable in fact has a contingent, quite avoidable origin, and an origin considerably more complicated than any notion of "rational commitments" or "reflective endorsement" or "faith in revelation" or the like would allow.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Where I Come From, Nobody Talks

Research shows an introvert is precise and cautious with their language and straight to the big issues, whereas extroverts are vague and abstract. This apparently has the benefit of making for briefer conversations, which is handy for introverts because we're rubbish at small talk. We know exactly what we want to say and then we want out, because being around others can be tiring after such intense interactions.

Online might just be the introvert's natural environment, where conversations can be staged, staggered and stopped at their discretion – all from a distance. Thoughts can be edited to perfection, solitary hobbies and pursuits can be meticulously researched before being shared online, friendships maintained without the obligation to meet face-to-face … plus it's never been easier to uncover other introverts and forge friendships without the inconvenience of meeting. The internet has become an introvert's playground, where they can dress up as extroverts and perform to a captive and sympathetic audience.

Sandip Roy:

It’s wonderful that introversion is shedding its stigma. I just hope that finding your secret introvert does not turn into claiming a moral superiority because now you think you belong to some kind of elite club or as one introvert puts it “a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population.”

Introversion for me was not about wanting to be gifted. I only wanted to build my Asterix village in peace and not have to play with some random boy just because he was my age. That’s all and I don’t need 23 signs to tell me that.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Specious Quantification

Will Wilkinson:

Finally, most work in the psychological and social sciences suffers from a lack of conceptual rigor. It’s a bit sloppy around the edges, and in the middle, too. For example, “happiness research” is a booming field, but the titans of the subdiscipline disagree sharply about what happiness actually is. No experiment or regression will settle it. It’s a philosophical question. Nevertheless, they work like the dickens to measure it, whatever it is—life satisfaction, “flourishing,” pleasure minus pain—and to correlate it to other, more easily quantified things with as much statistical rigor as deemed necessary to appear authoritative. It’s as if the precision of the statistical analysis is supposed somehow to compensate for, or help us forget, the imprecision of thought at the foundation of the enterprise. 

Be damned if I can remember where I read it, but it was just recently that I saw someone lamenting that "we talk about numbers for lack of any meaningful vocabulary to address these issues otherwise," or words to that effect. I can't help but feel something similar is going on when I read an article telling me that I should be concerned about the gender disparity among newspaper crossword editors.

Girls Who are Boys Who Like Boys to be Girls

I've read the for and against, and I still don't understand what it could possibly mean to "feel" like a different gender than the one you were born as.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

When the Proles Came Out to Play, Georgie Bourgie Ran Away

Paul Mason:

Which do I leave first: Facebook or Twitter? I've been mulling that question for about a year now, but it always seemed theoretical. On top of that, it would have been a no-brainer. Twitter is essential for work, while Facebook – increasingly burdened by adverts, security issues and intellectual property disputes – is not. But I am now watching Twitter become morally depopulated and seriously considering how long I'll be on there.

...The solution has to be radical and collective, for the stakes are high. Twitter is the first mass, global conversation, and if it becomes fatally polluted by frat-boy perversity and the verbal spew of sociopaths it will take some time to rebuild elsewhere. Policing it comprehensively is impossible.

I laughed until I nearly choked, I did. Not just at the absurd spectacle of a supposed adult going all garden-of-Gethsemane over such a pathetic trifle, though that is indeed funny. No, my favorite part is that second paragraph — he still holds fast to his utopian vision of the potential for "the first mass, global conversation" even as he's frantically backpedalling in horror upon hearing just what it is the global masses have to say. Ain't that always the way? The starry-eyed morons who wax eloquent about an ideal form of humanity are the same ones who want nothing to do with the way most people actually live. Mass communication would be great if only the masses could somehow be excluded from it. We had to censor the conversation in order to save it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

And Just Last Night I Walked With a Zombie

The biggest problem with the digital zombie is not the walking into signposts. It’s more insidious than that, and involves an incurable disharmony with the outside world. A walker strolling down the sidewalk mulling how many exclamation points to append to his or her Facebook status update about walking down the sidewalk is not really here. Studies suggest that he or she is even more disconnected from the actual world than is someone driving 80 miles an hour across west Texas at two in the morning while cranking Carlos Santana.

...Stopping, looking, lifting your head up, searching around you for something… it’s all part of what being human means, of what we evolved to do.

Yes, Wayne Curtis is back again to remind you that you're doing this walking thing all wrong. Getting to your destination in one piece without causing mayhem isn't good enough; you've got to be absorbing the proper sensory stimuli and thinking about it in the right way to earn his approval. That's all predictable romantic tripe, of course; I just enjoy the facile way he invokes evolution, of all things, to support his rigid, retrograde definition of what counts as "the actual world," when, as far as evolution gives a fuck, humans could end up as half-android beings on spaceships eating freeze-dried nutritional powders and getting all their exercise through use of machines.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Ed Lowther:

"Facial hair for the past century has been thought to reflect a suspicious streak of individuality and defiance," says Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a history lecturer at Ohio's Wright State University.

..."There's a long history in our civilisation of anxiety about facial hair, and hair in general, as being unhygienic: hairs will fall into the chocolate and soil the food," says Oldstone-Moore.

Even in the case of firemen, the waters are muddy. "The mask argument is in part a tool to be used for a larger argument, which is it's just not uniform, it's not respectable, it's not proper, for disciplined professional men to have facial hair. That's the bottom line."

Currently reading Mark Forsyth's The Horologicon, where I happened upon this passage:

Slavery has been abolished but shavery survives. This latter is rather a shame, as it lessens the need for all of the technical beard words, of which there are many. They all involve the Greek root pogo, which is pronounced in exactly the same way as the stick (although the two are etymologically unrelated). So there's pogonology (the study of beards), pogonate (having a beard), pogoniasis (a beard on a lady), and pogonotomy (shaving). As we live in an essentially misopogonistic society of beard-haters, most men must start the day by taking a razor from the pogonion or tip of the chin up to the philtrum, which is the name for the little groove between your nose and your upper lip. Then you have to work carefully to avoid a neckbeard, which the Victorians called a Newgate fringe. Newgate was the name of a London prison where people were hanged. So a Newgate fringe was meant to resemble the rope that was slipped around the felon's neck before he took the plunge into eternity.

Two lessons here, then. One, Forsyth is an immensely entertaining writer, and I have greatly enjoyed his books. Two, the next time you see someone using "neckbeard" as a synonym for a virginal, basement-dwelling loser, you may confidently accuse them of classism before instructing them to check their shaveowner's privilege.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Matter Thinks and Feels

Robert Pogue Harrison:

A profound contradiction, of which he was well aware, informs Leopardi’s philosophy. Although he saw in the will-to-truth the primary cause of the nihilism that he believed was drawing modern civilisation into its vortex, Leopardi fully embraced reason, logic, science and this will-to-truth. He followed the truth wherever it led him, refusing to shy away from its conclusions or to seek refuge in mystifications and self-deceiving consolations.

Leopardi’s open-eyed, disabused thinking led him ultimately to a monistic view of reality. All that exists is matter, he concluded, and whatever the tradition calls mind, soul or spirit is only in effect matter. Yet Leopardi’s concept of matter was so original, heterogeneous and self-expansive as to have little in common with the inert matter of the dualists who believe that mind is one thing, matter another. Late in the Zibaldone he declares that everything points to the conclusion “that matter can think, that matter thinks and feels”. Like many of the other thoughts that make the Zibaldone an ongoing conversation with the future, Leopardi’s inspirited concept of matter is one that calls on us to take it up and give it new life in our own time.

I'd never heard of Leopardi before reading this fascinating review, and while I hate to think of having missed out on something I might have enjoyed, there's also a childlike delight to be had in the continued existence of hidden surprises. How many similar intellectual companions do I have yet to encounter?


Robert Sapolsky:

A recent paper by Richard Topolski at George Regents University and colleagues, published in the journal Anthrozoös, demonstrates this human involvement with pets to a startling extent. Participants in the study were told a hypothetical scenario in which a bus is hurtling out of control, bearing down on a dog and a human. Which do you save? With responses from more than 500 people, the answer was that it depended: What kind of human and what kind of dog?

Everyone would save a sibling, grandparent or close friend rather than a strange dog. But when people considered their own dog versus people less connected with them—a distant cousin or a hometown stranger—votes in favor of saving the dog came rolling in.

...We jail people who abuse animals, put ourselves in harm's way in boats between whales and whalers, carry our childhood traumas of what happened to Bambi's mother. We can extend empathy to another organism and feel its pain like no other species. But let's not be too proud of ourselves. As this study and too much of our history show, we're pretty selective about how we extend our humaneness to other human beings.

My own dog over a stranger? Pfft, it doesn't even qualify as a choice. Even in a case of a strange dog and a strange person, ehh, I'm still leaning toward the dog. Sorry, but the mere fact of membership in homo sapiens doesn't mean anything to me. I refrain from actively inflicting pain or making anyone else miserable, but that's as far as it goes. I'm certainly not moved by quasi-religious exhortations to believe in humanity's elevated importance.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Condemned to Retweet It

You've probably seen a lot of the same articles I have on the web — you know, those achingly stupid pieces about how "the ancient Egyptians communicated in what could be understood as a rudimentary form of social media!" Or, "The relationships between characters in Jane Austen's novels reflect the ways in which we communicate through social networks!" Nothing is too staggeringly facile or utterly uninformative to be published as long as it somehow references social media, because lord knows, Facebook is the teleological endpoint to which human existence has been striving lo these interminable eons, and Twitter is the ground of all being, through our relationship to which we come to truly know ourselves.

Most of the time, I deal with the brainache by making a drinking game out of Maria Popova's use of the word "timeless", and in no time at all, unconsciousness claims me and the torment ends, at least until the next time I open my laptop. But do you know how to recognize when you've really spent way too much time obsessing over gadgets and filtering the world through a narrow, tech-related prism? When you write shit like this in earnest:

This is kind of blowing my mind...because of the compression of history, I'd always assumed all these people were around the same age. But in thinking about it, all startups need young people...Hamilton, Lafayette, and Burr were perhaps the Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg of the War.

Yes. The Revolutionary War as a Silicon Valley start-up. What a totally illuminating metaphor that in no way sounds myopic or narcissistic. Holy fuck. Maria, save me.

Monday, August 12, 2013

I Fought the Monster and Became One

Wow, I've been crazy-busy the last couple of weeks. Plus, the European fútbol leagues have started back up for a new season, the pool keeps calling out to me on these scorching afternoons, and frankly, the bedside tower of dead-tree books I'm slowly working my way through makes for much more interesting reading than most of the garbage I encounter in my web browsing.

That said, I do have time to note the hilarious spectacle of a certain atheist who, ironically, might yet develop a newfound appreciation of the Biblical wisdom about sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.

They Wander in the Dark Because They Prefer Lightning to Light

Radical ideas furnished an entertaining social pastime for the aristocracy, but neither they nor anyone else discerned that all of France's institutions as well as its social fabric would face a devastating assault. When he finished compiling a list of the grievances contained in the Caheirs de doléances (the 60,000 pamphlets written in response to the king's request for comments on the state of the nation), Tocqueville was thunderstruck. "I realize with a kind of terror that what is being demanded," he wrote with stupefaction, "is the simultaneous and systematic abolition of all the laws and customs of the country. I see that it will be a question of one of the most dangerous revolutions that ever took place in the world."

And yet the proponents of this radical change, who would be its unwitting future victims, had no notion of the violence that would accompany such a total and sudden transformation of French society. They naïvely thought that the whole process could be carried out through "reason" alone.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

But You Just Keep On Looking at Me Down Low

William Deresiewicz:

What is it with moral superiority? Why does the need for it consume us? Is it a universal phenomenon, the kind of thing that evolutionary psychologists would concoct an explanation for, or is it specific to a particular time and place—perhaps modernity, the post-Reformation West? Maybe the explanation is as simple as this: it is the only form of superiority that we can all reliably feel, and pretty much whenever we want to. Which begs the question: why must we feel superior at all?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Live Unnoticed

We learn about it from Plutarch, who tells us that Epicurus was famous for the maxim "live unnoticed"...To "live unnoticed" means to live a completely private life, with no involvement, beyond what might be obligatory for all citizens, in the public life of one's community or country, and also with no ambitions for making a mark in any other public realm — in any of the arts or professions, for example.

...It seems obvious that the more exposed one's life is to the attentions of the public, and, in general, to those of any wide circle of nonintimates, the more one risks one runs of potential harmful interference from them. The general run of people are more inclined to envy and ingratitude than honoring honest good service, or simply reciprocating favors...

Thus for Epicurus the default position is to live a life of devotion to one's private affairs, letting public and political interests take care of themselves, or rather letting them get taken care of by those foolish enough to go in for such things. The hope is that by keeping out of the limelight one can live happily, in peace and quiet, surrounded, and both protected and advanced in one's pursuit of pleasure, by one's family, and by a circle of intimate, like-minded friends.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Truth Is Like a Blanket That Always Leaves Your Feet Cold

Richard King:

This is the point Gray elects to miss and has elected to miss many times before. Human beings are social creatures whose sociability manifests itself in feelings of empathy and altruism. But these feelings are not always in evidence and sometimes they give way to hatred and to violence. Hatred and violence are not exceptional. History, as Gray never tires of reminding us, is strewn with the corpses of the murdered and maimed. But nor are hatred and violence the rule. And when we encounter them – sometimes, not always – our better selves are mobilised. Moreover, it is in this spirit – and not in any post-Christian attempt to take a lathe to the crooked timber of humanity – that we try to improve the lot of our species: so that Mary Turner’s descendants are not strung up and emptied of their progeny; so that orphans with tears in their unseeing eyes are taken in and given a bowl of soup; and so that our own children can have a decent education and the chance of a job at the end of it. Is this a hubristic belief in progress? The very suggestion dies on the lips.

Human beings may not develop but human institutions do. Sometimes they develop in good ways and sometimes they develop in bad ones, and whether the development is good or bad it is never irreversible. Of course such freedoms and rights and securities as we have won could all be swept away if another Hitler came to power. That is what makes the fight for justice not just worthwhile but necessary. Gray wants us to believe that this fight is no different from the one waged by Christians and communists alike. He is wrong. To seek to make things better is not the same as thinking that they can be made perfect. The problem we face – that humanity faces – is not faith in the future but indifference to it. Resource wars are already in progress and population growth is out of control. A catastrophic change in our climate, growing inequality, the prospect of a nuclearised Middle East: these problems are not on the horizon – they are upon us. In The Silence of Animals, Gray talks about the ‘current fad for evolutionary theories of society’. I don’t know what theories he means. But there is one thing I do know, or think I do: without a little ‘evolution’ or ‘progress’ in the political sphere our flawed and wonderful species is doomed.

First of all, let me just say that this article was a delight to read. Critical yet fair, it's an engrossing overview of Gray's recent ouevre as well as a specific review of his latest book. I wish that sort of thing didn't deserve special mention, but there you go.

Now, then, let me suggest that, rather than seeking to make anyone "believe" anything, what Gray is doing is giving book-length exposition to the thinking of the Chinese farmer:

The situation we always live in is like the wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off. When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”

When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the foolish neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune.
“Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer.

Then, when the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbor came to console him again.
“Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer.

When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”

Ad infinitum. Like waves, the events of our lives have no true essence of their own; they simply ebb and flow. If that thought depresses you, then you might just share a little more of that faith in perfectibility than you think.

People are very good at identifying specific things that need to be made "better". Often, though, they lack broader perspective, and so the improvements they make in one area give rise to new problems in a different area, and off we go again. Like Todd Anderson in Dead Poets Society, no matter how they pull and stretch the blanket, some other part of their body is left exposed and cold. However much weight you want to give to humankind's sociable nature, we can at least agree that humans are certainly pattern-seeking animals, and with that in mind, it's not perverse to recognize a certain disheartening pattern in the efforts people make to control and optimize their world. No, hatred and violence are not the rule. But neither are empathy and altruism. There is no "rule", only endless give-and-take. Perhaps that's what Nietzsche was driving at in his conception of the Eternal Recurrence — is humanity capable of accepting such nullifying insights that make a mockery of all they hold dear? Are people capable of unhumanizing their views a little along with Robinson Jeffers?

Almost certainly not. A perspective like this inhabits a forbidding perch; the intellectual air is cold and thin. And humans in general are social enough that they will happily stick together on more hospitable terrain, continuing to dream of a blanket big enough.

That final line is the weakest point of the whole essay. The entire species, doomed? You mean every single last one of us? How likely is that? Human culture, as we understand it today, may not last much longer, but even if a mutated supervirus, an asteroid, a murderously enraged Gaia or all-out nuclear holocaust reduced humans to a few million post-apocalyptic hunter-gatherers scattered in isolated bands, the species would likely continue in some form. Even the dinosaurs are still with us in the form of birds, after all. And perhaps that thought scares us even more — even our dethronement as the dominant species on Earth wouldn't rate a Götterdämmerung of significance. It would just be one more wave in the endless flow of history.

Anyone Not Dying is Dead, and Baby, It Won't be Long, So Shut Up and Carry On

Richard Burger:

I have almost no interest in blogging anymore, as I now, like everyone else, use social media to offer my links and commentary. At the same time, I don’t want to shut the blog down (yet), as I still get occasional flashes of inspiration. So excuse me while The Peking Duck continues operating on life support.

Almost three years to the day since I noted him saying the exact same thing. That is one astoundingly long, drawn-out death rattle. Seriously, on the fashion catwalk that is the social web, three years of consistency in anything is mighty impressive. There's life in the old bones yet!

True, though, I suppose; if you see blogs as a rudimentary format for facilitating the efficient transfer of information, then I guess it makes sense to favor social media for that purpose, at least until some tech giant finally figures out a way to implant those electrodes in our brains. Not everyone is a writer or foolosopher for the sake of it; some people have never used blogs for anything but to say, "Hey, look at this." You can do that on any platform.

For those of us who prefer to add even a minimal amount of art and effort to our communication or self-expression, though, the fixation on microblogging platforms is all about fashion, with, yes, all the sneering disdain that word entails. Not in this particular case, but in general, when you read yet another piece claiming that blogging is sooo early aughts, sooo totally over, you know you're in the presence of frivolous people whose greatest fear is being the one left standing when the music stops and all the cool kids have grabbed a seat.

Monday, August 05, 2013

The Night Person

He clicks off the reading lamp, and it is
      almost morning.
Already the crows are calling and answering,
making their own perfect sense, and the sun
is steadily, imperceptibly, climbing the east hills
to wash away the dark night of words,
the ancient litanies of pain and death
scarcely interrupted by the occasional cry
of a neighbor's chained dog or a nearby owl.
Soon it will be safe, for the world will
       step again
into its garments, and light will seek out
every corner, each black universal truth
that haunts him. Has, how long? The day
      will rise
to its obscure bright work, and he can sleep.

— Richard Frost

A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour O soul, thy free flight into the
Away from books, away from art, the day
       erased, the
lesson done,
Thee fully forth, emerging, silent, gazing,
       pondering the
themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

— Walt Whitman

Sunday, August 04, 2013


Nightlong waiting and listening, being schooled
To long lying awake without thoughts,
I hear him calling from the other world.
A long silence, and then two flutey notes—
The cry of nobody, but urgent, cool,
Full of foreboding. He's in the cedar tree
Not twenty feet beyond my window sill;
The other world is very far away.
When, towards morning, he ceases, the
     air seems
More visible, although it's not yet light,
The black sky drained and all our
     speechless dreams
Fading into thought. Lord of the night,
Thy kingdom in which everything is one,
Come, speak to me, speak to me once again.

— Robert Mezey

Pawned Ambition

William Deresiewicz:

All this is one of the reasons that I see the city as pointing the way to the future. We know we need to learn to do without greed, if we’re going to survive on a planet with limited resources, but perhaps we need to learn to do without ambition, too. I know it sounds boring, not to mention unrealistic, but when I look around at what the human ego has wrought of late, I’m not sure how much more ambition we can live with.

Friday, August 02, 2013


Why isn’t the most important financial threshold in the inner lives of many, rich or poor, the subjective notion of fuck-you money, the first thing to study? Why isn’t there a major UN study tracking what people consider fuck-you money? Why aren’t Nobel-winning behavioral economists designing clever experiments to tease out how we think about this quantity? It is, after all, our main subjective measure of how not-free we perceive ourselves to be.

Nobody, other than bureaucrats who fund research and economists, asks the question “how much income is needed to be happy?” We already know that talking about happiness without talking about what trade-offs we are making to pursue it is meaningless. The rest of us real people ask the question “how much wealth is required to be free of scripts that dictate what trade-offs you are allowed to make?”