Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Anonymity Is a Virtue in This Day and Age

Wow! Anthropologists have discovered another one of those isolated tribes who have managed to exist contentedly all this time while hidden in plain sight. These natives apparently spend their time foraging for practical apps and promotional emails while performing their quaint folk rituals in complete ignorance of the world that matters:

This morning, the Pew Research Center social media report revealed that 73% of online adults now use some form of social networking site. It’s a large figure, and one that continues to show just how well these platforms have woven themselves into our lives. But it also reveals another, possibly more striking figure: that roughly 27% of online adults choose to live a life free of social networks. They’re online but, for the most part, they’re off the grid.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a group composed of luddites or shut-ins but of individuals who see the social networks and, often the internet as a whole, as a set of tools rather than necessities.

I like to imagine being approached by a group of tourist Twittards, whereupon I rush toward them brandishing my poisoned arrows, taking delight in how they gasp and scurry back to safety.

Sport to Us, but Death to You

Andrew McConnell Stott:

Is this true, or had Chaplin fallen for his own mythology? Does a talent for comedy necessitate a tragic life? Are comedy and happiness truly incompatible? Common sense says no—there are countless comedians who have lived normal, well-adjusted lives without succumbing to depression, insanity, or suicide. So why is it so hard to think of one? It would seem that Chaplin, like the many who followed in Grimaldi’s wake, found it hard to resist the powerful narrative that set expectations for his happiness. The comedian’s split personality reveals what we ultimately believe comedy to be. Whereas in the Middle Ages fooling was seen as an expression of the cosmic absurdity of being alive, the modern world views it as a symptom of personal distress. In Grimaldi’s day, misery was the grit in the oyster that grew the pearl and gave substance to the otherwise trivial world of pantomime. Suffering ennobles, and when comedians suffer, we are more willing to see their work as flowing from the same font as the profoundest art. We want our comedians to be tortured; only then can we really laugh.

I hadn't heard of Grimaldi until Arthur explained his choice of avatar to me. Stott is also the author of this article about Grimaldi specifically; both are fascinating and worth reading.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Let us, this December night, leave the ring
Of heat, the lapping flames around the fire’s heart,
Move with bodies tensed against the light
Towards the moon’s pull and the cloud’s hand.
Arms of angels hold us, lend our bodies
Height of stars and the planets’ whirl,
Grant us sufficiency of light so we may enter
The twisting lanes to lost villages.
So we may stare in the mirror of silent pools
By long-deserted greens, deepen our sight
Of what lies beyond the things that seem
And make our vision clear as winterlight.

— Barry Tebb

The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Rhymes

Rich Juzwiak:

But you get what he's saying: Hip-hop has traditionally been an unfriendly place to gay people. "Same Love" was released in 2012, but it didn't break till this year, after Macklemore and Ryan Lewis scored their career-delivering hits, "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us." Had it been written later, it very well could have been different. It's been a watershed year in terms of hip-hop's relationship to homosexuality. It's harder and harder to make the case that "hip-hop hates me."

Finally. It's about damned time. Away with the fear. Down with the shame. An end to the living of a double life, worried about what would happen if the neighbors or one's social circle were to find out. No more channeling that self-loathing into venomous aggression toward those who are brave enough to be out and proud. No more need to bear the insulting jokes, the insensitive questions, the utter indignity of having to pretend that Frank Ocean is a talented artist when all you care about is his political significance. Stop tangling yourselves up in painful knots of self-doubt and guilt! Say it loud, and say it proud: "We're white progressives, and we love hip-hop and rap!" There's nothing to be ashamed of anymore!

Oh, yeah, and I'm sure gay people will see this as a positive thing too.

When the Crowds are Gone and I'm All Alone

Dan Ariely:

Consider the work of writing, for example. Once upon a time, I wrote academic papers with an eye on promotion. But I also hoped — and still hope — that they might actually influence something in the world. How hard would I work on an academic paper if I knew for sure that only a few people would ever read it? What if I knew for sure that no one would ever read my work? Would I still do it? Much of what I do in life, including writing my blog posts, articles, and these pages, is driven by ego motivations that link my effort to the meaning that I hope the readers of these words will find in them. Without an audience, I would have very little motivation to work as hard as I do.

Now think about blogging. The number of blogs out there is astounding, and it seems that almost everyone has a blog or is thinking about starting one. Why are blogs so popular? Not only is it because so many people have the desire to write; after all, people wrote before blogs were invented. It is also because blogs have two features that distinguish them from other forms of writing. First, they provide the hope or the illusion that someone else will read one's writing. After all, the moment a blogger presses the "publish" button, the blog can be consumed by anybody in the world, and with so many people connected, somebody, or at least a few people, should stumble upon the blog. Indeed, the "number of views" statistic is a highly motivating feature in the blogosphere because it lets the blogger know exactly how many people have at least seen the posting. Blogs also provide readers with the ability to leave their reactions and comments — gratifying for both the blogger, who now has a verifiable audience, and the reader-cum-writer. Most blogs have very low readership —perhaps only the blogger's mother or best friend reads them — but even writing for one person, compared to writing for nobody, seems to be enough to compel millions of people to blog.

Of course, most of those people give up after the novelty fades, too — I just happened to see a citation claiming that 60% of blogs are inactive within four months. As for me, I've published over 1700 posts, most of which have only gotten a few dozen pageviews each. My most-viewed post is one from a few years ago where I included an image of a stone carving of Priapus in a post about Tiger Woods's rampant horndoggery. Once I removed the image out of irritation with the attention, I finally stopped getting daily visits from Eastern Europeans with a weird thing for pictures of giant stone schlongs. And thus, my chance at the big time of blogging was gone...

I find the concept of the audience to be useful — envisioning even a generic reader helps keep one's prose from getting lost in solipsist shorthand. But I still firmly believe that the dividing line between good conversation and rabble babble gets crossed very quickly; in fact, I'd probably revise that earlier estimate downward, from twenty participants to ten. People think and act differently when part of a group than they do as individuals; they raise their voice to be heard above a din and act more extreme to stand out from the crowd. Once the audience is too numerous to maintain personal relationships, things will go the way of most sites with large comment sections.

True, having even a tiny audience can provide a little extra motivation and enjoyment, but still, most of it comes from the writing itself, from the thrill of fine-tuning one's thoughts and expressing them with even a modicum of style. When I read perspectives like Ariely's, I can hardly believe my good fortune — it's like I've discovered an ongoing free lunch buffet, or a perpetual motion machine. What makes me so odd? Why do I feel both motivated and gratified by the chance to work unobserved and live unnoticed? Long may it continue in any event.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

When Your World Stopped

Mark Athitakis:

“It’s boring almost beyond belief,” British rock critic Nik Cohn wrote of the Beatles’ self-titled album shortly after it came out in November of 1968. Cohn’s brickbat was just one of two negative reviews the New York Times published upon the release of The Beatles. (You probably know it better as the White Album.) Those responses, though, may say less about the record’s virtues than the way it upended listeners’ expectations. On 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Fab Four polished its pop instincts. The Beatles, by contrast, was scruffy and centerless, its thirty songs encompassing mock-Beach Boys vocal harmonies (“Back in the U.S.S.R.”), psychedelic folk (“Wild Honey Pie”), proto-punk (“Helter Skelter”), sound collage (“Revolution 9”), and plenty more besides.

“Everybody’s going to find something to love and hate on it,” says Indiana University music professor Glenn Gass, who has taught a course on the Beatles since 1982. “And in that way it not only summed up the history of rock and pop styles in the twentieth century but also predicted the eclectic, all-over-the-map world we’ve been living in ever since.”

As it happens, just yesterday, my chimney sweep brought me a copy of outtakes from the White Album. He says it came by way of a friend of his who used to work at Apple records. I got the impression that meant these particular versions hadn't ever been commercially released, but I could be wrong about that.

I've had the guy come out to my house to clean the chimney and wood stove every winter since I've been living here. Upon his noticing my CD collection along one wall of the great room, we immediately bonded over a shared passion for music, and that's what we represent to each other. Like Robert Fulghum's barber, the quality of our relationship was partly created by a peculiar distance. We don't interact in any other way besides the yearly maintenance visits. We don't call, email, or hang out. We just pick up the conversation every year where we left off — what we've been listening to, whom we may have seen live. I usually send him on his way with lists and CD-Rs of music he hadn't heard, so he decided to return the favor this year.

"It's really rare," he said that first year, "to meet somebody beyond their early twenties who still keeps up with new music." I agreed. Oldies and classic rock stations represent living death to me, so depressing. Sure, I have sentimental favorites too, but I just can't fathom wanting to hear nothing but. Discovering new music is one of the most invigorating joys I know of.

I couldn't remember exactly what I'd given him the last time he was out here, so rather than burn a batch of CD-Rs for nothing, I just compiled a list of all the artists and albums I'd enjoyed this year. He grinned and said, "This is all old shit. Where's your new stuff?" Oh-ho! I'm falling behind, am I? I do believe the gauntlet has been thrown down. Challenge accepted. Until next year, then.

Prisoner's Carnival

"It's too late to correct it," said the Red Queen: "when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences."

Roxane Gay:

As I watched the online response to Justine Sacco’s tweet, I thought of Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” first published in 1948 but quite prescient. In a village there is a ritual that has gone largely unquestioned for generations. There is a box and in the box are slips of paper. Each year, the heads of each family draw slips of paper. One will be marked and then the members of that person’s family draw slips again. Whoever selects the slip with a black mark is the sacrifice. Everyone takes up stones and sets upon the unlucky victim. Every citizen is complicit in the murder of someone who, just moments before he or she was chosen, was a friend, a neighbor, a loved one.

Justine Sacco was not sacrificed. Her life will go on. We will likely never know if she learned anything from this unfortunate affair. In truth, I don’t worry so much about her. Instead, I worry for those of us who were complicit in her spectacularly rapid fall from grace. I worry about how comfortable we were holding the stones of outrage in the palms of our hands and the price we paid for that comfort.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Americans Abroad! And While I Hope I'm Not Like Them, I'm Not So Sure

Morris Berman:

On the ride back home, I reflected on how awful Americans are as people--really, a disgusting collection of human beings. Whereas I literally never have interactions like that with Mexicans, this sort of thing is coin of the realm in the US; I probably had 2-3 exchanges like that per week when I lived in DC. I tried to recall the last time someone was this rude to me down here, and then I remembered that it was about 6 months ago, in the same town, and also in an incident involving a gringa. I realized that in the more than 7 years I’ve lived here, no Mexican ever cussed me out--not once; and the only such behavior I witnessed between Mexicans themselves was when I was in a taxi in Mexico City and someone cut my driver off. He leaned out the window and yelled “pendejo!,” or something like that. That was it: one time in 7 years.

Back home, I went to a supermarket to get some groceries, and as I walked by a 20-year-old Mexican woman coming from the opposite direction, I unexpectedly sneezed. “Salud!” she cried. And it was such a wake-up moment, for me: Yes, this is how people in a decent society treat strangers—not like strangers. We’re all in this together, is the feeling; your health is my concern. You can say that this is "pro forma," but man--it counts.

...Sitting in that café, and reading about the “culture of confrontation,” I couldn’t help thinking: What was God up to, when he made the US? Did he decide to gather up all of the trash, all the human garbage from the planet, the dregs of humanity, and plunk them down in one particular country? Was this His idea of a joke, or was he trying to create an object lesson for the rest of the world: Don’t be like this!? It makes you wonder.

...I finished the New Yorker article, and felt so happy that I was not living in the US, or in that pathetic mini-gringolandia where I have my mail drop. I have no interest at all in the culture of confrontation, in a society described by the biologist David Ehrenfeld as "a collection of angry scorpions in a bottle.” Let them attack each other all they want; I'm not part of that sad, destructive way of death anymore.

So, I'm just reading along, mildly amused as ever at the cane-shaking, self-parodic fury that's become increasingly characteristic of Berman's output. But then I come to that last line, and the faux-high-mindedness of it strikes me unexpectedly, making me snort with surprised laughter that burned my sinuses. Oh, man. Yes, rumor has it that when his noble savage Mexican friends ask him if he'd like sugar in his coffee, Morris replies, "No, thank you, I'm sweet enough!" Dude doesn't come off as bitter and resentful at all. He's the word made flesh, that is, if "the word" is every worn-out "get off my lawn" joke on the Internet.

I can't believe I passed up the chance to go see him rant live and in person when he was within driving distance.

The Dark, Too, Blooms and Sings

Phil Cousineau:

The book is inspired by a lifelong fascination with the night. I grew up listening to late-night radio baseball broadcasts in Detroit. I live very close to railroad tracks, so I was always haunted by the Hank Williams-like moan of the locomotives. And then I worked in a Detroit factory all night long through my college years.

In those years, where I started sleeping two or three hours a night, getting a pattern that has continued on, eventually I discovered that I had a lot of company out there. History is full of those who love to be up all night — from the poet Sappho to Galileo, of course, working on his telescopes; Darwin, Virginia Woolf, Churchill, Obama today. So I had a lot of company with this fascination of the night.

...There's an old English proverb: "Night gives great counsel." It's very reflective. It's a contemplative part of the day. So, at the solstice, which we're celebrating today, one could think that it's the shortest day — there's only 9½ hours of light. My thought on it is that, "Sure, but we have 14½ hours of darkness with which to celebrate the end of winter and the fact that life is coming back again."

Now that's speaking my language.

Throwing the Book

Shelf Awareness:

In November, the Kids' Right to Read Project investigated three times the average number of incidents, adding to an overall rise in cases for the entire year, according to KRRP coordinator Acacia O'Connor. To date, KRRP has confronted 49 incidents in 29 states this year, a 53% increase in activity from 2012. During the second half of 2013, the project battled 31 new incidents, compared to only 14 in the same period last year.

"It has been a sprint since the beginning of the school year," O'Connor said. "We would settle one issue and wake up the next morning to find out another book was on the chopping block."

Unsurprisingly, they note that a lot of the challenges seemed to be motivated by reactionary opposition to race and LGBT content. Equally unsurprisingly, at least to me, is that when such opposition is progressive in nature, it's not censorship, it's merely speaking out, speaking your mind, making an impact through your opinion, etc.

Right to Nothing

John Gray by way of Francisca Stewart:

A world in which all rights are protected isn't just impracticable - it's not even conceivable. Freedom of expression is a good thing, but so is protection from hate speech. We all want to be free to voice our views without fear, but we also want to be free from being insulted or stigmatised. The two freedoms will always be at odds, for they protect different and competing human interests. Both are universal human values, but they'll never be reconciled in any kind of harmonious whole.

The ideal of a world ruled by rights distracts us from an unalterable reality - we'll always be mired in dangerous and only partly soluble conflicts. Human rights can't get round the fact that human values are at odds with one another. The freedom from conflict that many people seek in rights is just an illusion.

This doesn't mean rights should be scrapped. Like the religion from which they sprang, they're a valuable part of the human inheritance. But rather than thinking of rights as a militant creed that can deliver the world from its conflicts, we should recognise rights for what they are - useful devices that quite often don't work. Following EM Forster, we should give human rights a rousing two cheers.

All Was Revealed, All In Good Time

Megan Garber:

Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.”

Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.” In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs.

The logic of conversation as it plays out across the Internet, however—the into-the-ether observations and the never-ending feeds and the many, many selfies—is fundamentally different, favoring showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you. “That’s not conversation,” Turkle says.

She wants us to reclaim the permission to be, when we want and need to be, dull.

The worst thing about my current schedule is that it often doesn't leave me any time to get bored. And that's necessary for mental health, seriously. Too often, there's always something else that needs to be done. The end of the day comes, and I just feel worn out. I got a lot of things accomplished, but what I really wanted was a few hours to sit and do nothing, to let those deeper roots do their thing.

Conversation, I agree, is the same way. Hours, or even days, can go by without anyone feeling pressed to say anything substantial, and then suddenly, an in-depth discussion starts from out of nowhere. I am fortunate to at least have that going for me.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Undiscovered Country

The study of animal grief is a young field, largely because studies of any animal behaviors that one might think of as “human” were ignored for much of the twentieth century. It was commonly held that nonhuman animals were only reactive beings, lacking thoughts and emotions, and responding to stimuli as unthinking, unfeeling robots. Scientists were cautioned about being anthropomorphic, that is, regarding animals as they are often depicted in naive films and storybooks—as if they were people dressed up in fur or feathers. Researchers who thought they detected animal emotions—especially those that we think of as uniquely human, such as love, joy, or grief—were considered to be sentimentalists. And their reports (such as Darwin’s about the grieving cows) were dismissed as anecdotal.

In the last few decades, though, wildlife biologists have amassed so many firsthand accounts of animals caring for and mourning their dead that the idea of animal grief is no longer as suspect as it once was. Two recent books, both published in March of this year, explore the subject. How Animals Grieve, by anthropologist Barbara J. King, collects anecdotal and scientific data on grief in many kinds of animals, even some that most researchers ignore, such as rabbits, goats, and turtles. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal examines the biological roots of religion and morality. Since our awareness of death is often cited as the reason we developed religion, de Waal investigates whether other animals have a similar sense of their ultimate end. While King doubts that even our close chimpanzee relatives are “aware that death is coming,” de Waal suggests that older apes or elephants may have experienced enough of life to comprehend that they, too, will die. “When an old ape notices that trees are harder and harder to get into or an elephant has ever more trouble keeping up with the herd, might these individuals not apply what they have learned about life and death to their own bodies?” de Waal asks. “It’s hard to know, yet impossible to rule out.”

Know More Words

Pico Iyer:

Buddhism is often called a “science of the mind” because, if it’s true to its eponymous first practitioner, it is less a religion than a training in taking the objective measure of reality. When the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describes it, he always stresses that, as a “non-theistic” tradition, its ideas about God and the hereafter are much less important than its commitment to an empirical, scientific investigation of the way things are; the title of his last major work in English was Beyond Religion. The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of À la recherche.

Long ago, in my callow youth, I briefly entertained the notion of writing a book to elucidate the similarities between Nietzsche's philosophy and Zen, as I understood each of them. I dunno, I guess I thought this was something missing from the popular philosophy literature. Thankfully, that notion withered on the vine. At best, it might have made a good blog post, though this was conceived in the days before blogs. Anyway, point is, these kinds of thought experiments and comparisons are interesting as far as they go, but words do mean things, and you have to take care not to do Procrustean violence to very different concepts in pursuit of an illusory sameness, lest you become the sort of too-stupid-to-even-feel-embarrassment dilettante who claims in all seriousness that good scientists are already postmodernists whether they know it or not.

All the World's a Stage

Jeff Bercovici, a staff writer for Forbes covering media and technology, wrote in a blog post that he knew Ms. Sacco and considered her a friend. Over drinks a few weeks ago, he wrote, Ms. Sacco explained that she had recently noticed that “people seemed to like the tweets that were just a little bit risqué or outrageous.”

Maybe that need to impress, to find validation through the people that follow us online, was what led to Ms. Sacco’s inappropriate tweet, and also gave the people who attacked her the justification for their own vitriolic behavior.

The Knights of Shame, the People's Voice

Freddie deBoer:

The question is whether some of the people making these critiques actually care about education, about changing people. I think part of the reason that misogyny has become the term of choice is precisely because it is more inflammatory. As I will continue to point out, political critiques are subject to competitive social behaviors, and in the social networks where so much political critique happens– Tumblr, Twitter– what is rewarded is the critique that is most brutal, not the critique which is most effective for creating change. In that context, the word misogyny is a better tool than the word sexism; if sexism is X bad, then misogyny is X+1 bad, and so that term gets used, regardless of whether the situation described actually involves the hatred of women. I find this, frankly, a deeply misguided way to conduct a movement for social justice, and I think the people who take part in this kind of critique– many or most of whom are white and affluent, given the demographic nature of social networking– are ultimately privileging what makes them feel good over what is effective, even if they are completely sincere in their efforts. And this is very challenging for a lot of people who engage this way online, because they are deeply invested in a vision of politics in which there is no space whatsoever between the nobility of their intent, the purity of their politics, and the value of what they say. For me, the most important political lesson of my adulthood has been the sobering knowledge that I can be entirely noble in my intent and entirely destructive in my effects.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Disconnect from Desire

The conflict between the self as social performance and the self as authentic expression of one’s inner truth has roots much deeper than social media. It has been a concern of much theorizing about modernity and, if you agree with these theories, a mostly unspoken preoccupation throughout modern culture. Whether it’s Max Weber on rationalization, Walter Benjamin on aura, Jacques Ellul on technique, Jean Baudrillard on simulations, or Zygmunt Bauman and the Frankfurt School on modernity and the Enlightenment, there has been a long tradition of social theory linking the consequences of altering the “natural” world in the name of convenience, efficiency, comfort, and safety to draining reality of its truth or essence.

...These theories also share an understanding that people in Western society are generally uncomfortable admitting that who they are might be partly, or perhaps deeply, structured and performed. To be a “poser” is an insult; instead common wisdom is “be true to yourself,” which assumes there is a truth of your self. Digital-austerity discourse has tapped into this deep, subconscious modern tension, and brings to it the false hope that unplugging can bring catharsis.

...Of course, digital devices shouldn’t be excused from the moral order — nothing should or could be. But too often discussions about technology use are conducted in bad faith, particularly when the detoxers and disconnectionists and digital-etiquette-police seem more interested in discussing the trivial differences of when and how one looks at the screen rather than the larger moral quandaries of what one is doing with the screen. But the disconnectionists’ selfie-help has little to do with technology and more to do with enforcing a traditional vision of the natural, healthy, and normal. Disconnect. Take breaks. Unplug all you want. You’ll have different experiences and enjoy them, but you won’t be any more healthy or real.

Do You Choose What I Choose? More Alternatives. Energy Derives from Both the Plus and Negative

Matthew Bruenig:

It is not mysterious why conservatives think the Phil Robertson disciplining is rights-infringing but think the Dixie Chicks disciplining was not. They support what Phil Robertson had to say, but oppose what the Dixie Chicks had to say. Despite their pretensions to the contrary, conservatives, and most people in general for that matter, do not care about content-neutral procedural fairness. They care about winning their stuff and beating the other’s side stuff.

...Most of the time, proclaimed commitments to uncoerced free speech, minority parliamentary power, states rights and any other content-neutral procedural rule are not serious. Some people are seriously concerned about process for its own sake, but such people are few and far between. Everyone else has a substantive agenda and merely stakes out the short-term positions on content-neutral procedural justice that further that agenda. Filibusters are good when they block what I dislike, but bad when they block what I like. States rights are good when states do what I like, but bad when they do what I dislike. Private economic coercion of expression is good when it shuts down comments I dislike, but bad when it shuts down comments I like. And so on.

Joining in the Turning Away

Adam Hammond:

One point of consensus is that it is getting harder and harder to muster the deep attention that literature demands. In one sense, the Internet has made it easier to access literary materials – particularly the free, out-of-copyright materials found on sites like Project Gutenberg. But by speeding up the rhythm of life – and making it more difficult to adjust ourselves to the longer, slower rhythms of reading – the digital age has made genuine “access” more elusive. The upside is that these moments of true access, when they come, are all the more magical. As Sven Birkerts – author of 1994’s The Gutenberg Elegies and the dean of debates on digital reading – puts it, “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won.”

There is agreement too that prolonged periods of solitude – prerequisite for most forms of literary reading – are becoming scarcer and scarcer. In the liveliest and most original contribution to the volume, Drew Nelles also turns this apparent deficit into an asset. “When you read,” he notes, “you are by yourself, in a radical way – momentarily solitary and unplugged.” The reading experience suffers from any attempt at breaking this radical solitude. The two most conspicuous analog efforts at making reading social – readings and book clubs – are, Nelles says, “also the most irritating.” Digital efforts like Goodreads likewise “feel all wrong,” smacking of “enforced sociability.” For Nelles, the asocial nature of reading should, in a culture beset by sociality, be embraced. He closes his piece with a challenge: pick up a book, read it, but don’t talk about it – not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on Goodreads. “Keep it a secret – your secret. … Consider the independence this book gives you. Learn to be alone again.”

"For Christmas of 2013, I got a great present: I finally encountered someone else echoing the exact themes I've been banging on about for years."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Silent Right

Over the last few days, poster JacquesCuze at the Slymepit has made several good points on an important theme. One:

I think that if constant internet mob actions results in constant deplorable disproportionate witch hunts that destroy people's lives in real space, that it's time to think again if free speech is truly only something between man and government and not something between man and man.

"The marketplace of ideas" does not conduct business solely in a Government Warehouse. A rich marketplace of ideas should then be able to counter ugly speech with more speech, not counter ugly speech with real world firings, career and personal destruction.


My education was horribly lacking and I don't have a great response to Popehat's and others when they cry #FREEZEPEACH to say that the First Amendment does not apply to non governmental acts of censorship.

On the one hand they are right, and on the other hand it seems to go against the grain of everything I was brought up to believe, namely that citizens supporting the speech and freedom of expression of others, including unpopular views, were the marks of a 20th century, "progressive" society.

Are there any great philosophers, lawyers, essays, videos that directly refute Popehat and the FREEZEPEACHER's claims that it's fine to counter ugly speech with calls for censorship and real world destruction?

And another:

My point with White is that when these Internet blow ups over speech flare up and result in firings and the destruction of personal lives and careers, Ken can be counted on to say:

1. It's not a first amendment issue
2. Those of you saying, duh, we know, but the real issue is ... are still wrong because there are other people who say it's a first amendment issue
3. Their ugly speech was met on the net with more speech! That's all good!
4. Yes, people were fired, careers lost, lives ruined, and yeah, the people that did that were deplorable and responses should be proportionate

But he is never able to connect 3 & 4 and realize that his 1 is used by the people in 4 to justify their bullshit and then realize the answer is that ugly speech should be met with more speech and his theory of proportionality is bullshit not because its false but because none of the incidents he writes about have ever shown any amount of proportionality and yet his hobby horse is still his 1 and 3, screaming it's not a first amendment issue and the social hate is just more speech.

Back in my days of reading progressive blogs, I was frequently dismayed by how often such narrow legalistic definitions of free speech were used to justify actions which clearly violated the spirit of the concept. I'm sure you've heard some version of it before: "Yeah, well, Thoughtcrime Jones doesn't have a Constitutional right to a career/TV show/radio show, so, too fucking bad." Technically true, but it would nonetheless be a pretty piss-poor society in which anything not specifically protected by the Constitution was subject to revocation at the hands of a vigilante mob. As Chomsky has succinctly said, even Hitler and Stalin were in favor of free speech for ideas they liked. One of the most disgusting things about the social justards — and Lord, how many things there are to choose from — is the way they've made "freezepeach" a trendy, snarky meme to justify the way they behave towards members of the out-group and the way they police their own communities for dissent. Those loopholes you gleefully exploit for temporary partisan advantage now will be used against you eventually as well; you can count on that. This Prisoner's Carnival atmosphere that has been created through social media is far more threatening to a healthy society than any stupid joke or ignorant remark made by some viral insta-celebrity.

The principle, at least in its ideal form, is intended to make sure that ideas stand or fall on their own reasonable merit, not due to the cunning and guile of political machinations. Yet it's exceedingly rare to find anyone with enough integrity to place that principle ahead of tribal loyalties. Same as it ever was, I suppose. It's too abstract of a notion for most people. Humans are social creatures with a deeply embedded instinct to monitor and regulate the behavior of others in the group. Still, it's heartening to see the occasional instance of someone rising above those censorious urges.

Monday, December 23, 2013

There Were Things, Your Own Acts, from Which You Could Never Recover


The Internet is simultaneously perfect for both vile comments and for people who insist on having their outrage over those comments acknowledged. When IAC PR Chief Justin Sacco’s racist tweet about The AIDS hit the Internet last Friday, it only took minutes before she was shredded around the world, a few more minutes for the obligatory defenders of amorphous free speech concepts to counter, then maybe a half-hour before the English majors started penning essays about what this all meant to us as a people.

And thus it was that racism and the scourge of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa were abolished once and for all. Hurrah!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Freddie deBoer:

I’m sure anyone reading this is aware of the rise, in the last several years, of a certain kind of politics, or “politics,” that is primarily waged on social platforms like Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter. It is informed by critical theory, cultural studies, and postcolonialism. It operates primarily through argument to incredulity, arguing not the correctness of its opinions but the disbelief that there is anyone who could not already see that correctness. It is brutally waged, constantly mistaking the virulence of an argument for its actual capacity to create change. It is emotive and individual; while it speaks in the language of structural critique and material oppression, its intent is inevitably to make others feel bad and to make the person critiquing feel good. It entails listing the privileges and bad attitudes of the person making the critique, but only insofar as that gets them to “and this is why this other person is worse.” More than anything: while it styles itself as ultra-aggressive, and while it takes the form of a righteous offensive, this brand of politics is fundamentally self-defensive. It is a fortress, a rhetorical structure built on the idea that the best defense is a good offense. Its fundamental dictate is not “change the world for the better” but “get there first.”

Freddie is as perceptive and eloquent as always, but due credit requires me to note that before social media, even before the mainstreaming of the world wide web itself, the famous psychologist, social scientist and troubadour Mike Muir expressed much the same perspective in his distinctively unadorned rhetorical style:

Everybody's always talking about these things to change the world, to make the world a better place. It's always, "you and you and you gotta change, because I know what's up." And quite frankly, I'm tired of little fuckin' rich kids telling me what's up. It's inherently insulting to tell people what they should be, how they should be. Someone who doesn't know me, who is not very smart, don't tell me how I should think.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Discipline

O gaze into the fire
and be consumed with man’s despair,
and be still, and wait. And then see
the world go on with the patient work
of seasons, embroidering birdsong
upon itself as for a wedding, and feel
your heart set out in the morning
like a young traveler, arguing the world
from the kiss of a pretty girl.
It is the time’s discipline to think
of the death of all living, and yet live.

— Wendell Berry

Friday, December 20, 2013

All the Men and Women Merely Players (Slight Return)

A year ago, I referred publicly to a woman’s blog post as “hysterical,” and was shouted down by a few people for using a misogynist term. I wasn’t being flip, I tried to explain. To me, being hysterical online is a very specific thing, when you don’t really read the piece you are responding to, and are instead responding to some perceived insult that may or may not truly exist, and then you inflate your own sense of hurt and wear your injuries around in order to protect yourself from any sort of logical response. Taking an argument out of the realm of logic and taking it to this heightened, and personal, emotional state and deliberately blocking a person’s ability to argue.

...Take the 19th century French hysterics at Salpêtrière. They had obvious problems, all of them. Abusive families, rapes and assaults, emotional disorders, PTSD, etc. And that caused physical symptoms, as it tends to do. So off to the asylum they went. Where they were responded to if their physical symptoms lined up with the expectations of the doctors. If they convulsed, they were rewarded with attention. If they contorted, they were asked to perform and found a level of fame. Soon their physical symptoms, which had been chaotic and very wide-ranging, aligned with what the doctors believed about hysteria.

The problem was, the emotional problems and past traumas were never addressed and dealt with. The physical symptoms were all anybody saw. Most of the women were lifelong inpatients. The performance becomes a distraction, a way to keep the conversation or our train of thought or psychotherapy sessions from hitting the real source. It allows us to “win,” an argument or a belief or whatever our rewards are, and that is often times the only thing we want.

Reading André Comte-Sponville's book, I came across this related passage:

All too often we confuse femininity with hysteria, which is merely (in men and women alike) a pathological caricature of femininity. The hysteric wants to seduce, to be loved, to attract attention. This is not gentleness or love; it is narcissism, trickery, thwarted aggressiveness, control ("The hysteric," Lacan says, "seeks a master to rule over"), and certainly seduction, but in the sense that seduction exploits or (as its etymology suggests) misleads.

We Don't Follow Fashion, That'd be a Joke

Jason Kottke:

Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.

Instead of blogging, people are posting to Tumblr, tweeting, pinning things to their board, posting to Reddit, Snapchatting, updating Facebook statuses, Instagramming, and publishing on Medium. In 1997, wired teens created online diaries, and in 2004 the blog was king. Today, teens are about as likely to start a blog (over Instagramming or Snapchatting) as they are to buy a music CD. Blogs are for 40-somethings with kids.

In other words, blogs are no longer the most happening format where happening people go to be seen and gossip about their happening lives. So, yeah, same thing as death, I suppose, for the fashion catwalk that is the twitosphere. If you're not cool anymore, why would you even embarrass yourself by continuing to exist?

Values Collide

[Isaiah Berlin] was one of the great affirmers of our time, a man to be admired not only for his intellectual achievements but for his loyalty, his humor, his modesty, his delight in the world and the people in it. He was neither a temporizer nor a meliorist, yet all his thought was directed toward a humane estimation of life and its possibilities. Here he is, writing in 1969 to his friend Dorothea Head:

Nothing is less popular today than to say that there is no millennium, that values collide, that there is no final solution, that one can only gain one value at the expense of another, that whatever one chooses entails the sacrifice of something else—or that it is at any rate often so. This is regarded as either false or cynical or both, but the opposite belief is what, it seems to me, has cost us so much frightful suffering and blood in the past.

It was certainly unpopular—it still is—to say such things, but IB never faltered in his determination that they should be said, and said again.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Blow that Hurled the Modern World On Its Course of Self-Destruction

World War One has been on my mind a lot recently. Mental Floss has been running a retrospective series on the anniversaries of important dates leading up to the war. I just ordered myself a copy of Philipp Blom's The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914. And this long essay by Margaret MacMillan on the history and possible lessons of the war was one of the most interesting things I read this week. So if ruminating on senseless horror is the sort of thing that's been missing from your holiday preparations, check those links out with my recommendations!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Mob Rules

Poor Tauriq. Like a modern-day Diogenes with his lamp, he continues his quixotic quest for a calm, rational commentariat on the Internet. I fear that soon he'll start hallucinating visits from the ghost of Bertrand Russell just to have someone to talk to who truly gets him.


Ooh, wince. Now that's just the sort of rash statement to come back to haunt a fellow when he gets hauled before an Internet tribunal to answer for a string of thoughtcrimes.

I Think I'm Dumb, Maybe Just Happy

Barker and Taylor:

Gram Parsons, who had a greater claim than Michael Nesmith to being the real pioneer of country-rock, once described his musical inheritors, the Eagles, as "bubblegum," saying that their music had "too much sugar in it. Life is tougher than they make it out to be." While the Eagles may have deserved his derision, his words could be taken to imply that great music should be difficult and harsh rather than sweet or consoling. Early country and folk music had in fact always mixed up tragedy with comedy, murder ballads with dancing songs and absurd entertainments. Music in hard times often plays the role of allowing mental escape and momentary joy as well as reflecting the people's suffering. Gram Parsons clearly knew this — even the heartrending, brilliant Grievous Angel album is a bravura mixture of tragedy and wry comedy. What he was really objecting to in the Eagles, apart from their imitation of his own sound, was that they were too smooth and flawless to be genuine country. But in looking for the words to attack their music, he took the easy path of attacking them for not being serious enough, echoing the Lennonesque idea that being purely popular or entertaining was in some way dirty or wrong. Perhaps it is the luxury of a more affluent age to see suffering and misery as glamorous or authentic attributes. Whatever the reasons, from the 1960s onward the retrospective quest for authenticity tended to disregard the light and frothy aspects of earlier music, focusing only on the serious, tragic or intense.

But pop songs don't exist only to change people's lives or to change the world. They can also convey simple, banal emotion, and a stupid song like "Sugar Sugar" can sometimes light up the day like a moment of condensed happiness and light, without our needing to think any further about where this song comes from or why it makes us happy. There is no good reason to despise the song for making no attempt to do anything other than this.

This was a good read. Very similar to Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love and R. Jay Magill's Sincerity.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Our Hosting Bill

This parasitic profiting from and promotion of offensive content is hypocritical, to be sure. But what’s even more convoluted than how the offense industry earns its living are what its criticisms imply about our relationship with art and our beliefs about its influence on society. Clearly, underlying criticisms of Cyrus, Lorde, Thicke, Allen, et al. was the assumption that offensive art is somehow connected to real-life prejudices and inequalities. But the line connecting art and life seemed too blurred to follow.

Do we believe that exposure to offensive art actually breeds prejudice in easily-influenced viewers? If so, wouldn’t The Atlantic and Flavorwire actually have created a bunch of racists by increasing the exposure of Miley Cyrus’s twerking? Put differently: if someone made an unintentionally racist music video and nobody saw it, would it actually harm anyone?

...My school’s obsession with hermeneutics — the science of interpreting texts, which began with ancient scholars of the Bible — was laughably similar to this year’s proliferation of offense criticism. Both believe that art holds great power, but that the mechanisms through which this power can impact audiences are only visible to a select group of scholars: in one case Biblical, in another case secular. But whether following in the footsteps of pastor James Dobson or critical theorists from the 1970s, claims to interpretive authority in both cases are based on a knowledge of something far removed from either art itself or the people who enjoy it.

No teacher at my school would have understood what I took away from Marilyn Manson or Tori Amos (I mean, looking back, I barely do, either). Their understanding of it boiled down to just, “Satan!” Offense criticism today is just as much of a hammer, seeing everything as a nail. And such a reductive and suspicious hermeneutics might be harming the admirably-egalitarian causes sites like Jezebel and The Atlantic espouse, as much as my school ruined the chances of anybody who attended it devoting their life to Christianity. Nobody understands what art means to people more than the people it is meaningful to; by pretending otherwise, offense criticism risks alienating the everyday audiences who listen to songs, watch TV, and go to movies, turning them off from giving a shit about real-life prejudice and inequality.

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Buchanan and Powell:

For centuries now, conservative thinkers have argued that significant social reform is impossible, because human nature is inherently limited. The argument goes something like this: sure, it would be great to change the world, but it will never work, because people are too flawed, lacking the ability to see beyond their own interests and those of the groups to which they belong. They have permanent cognitive, motivational and emotional deficits that make any deliberate, systematic attempt to improve human society futile at best. Efforts to bring about social or moral progress are naive about the natural limits of the human animal and tend to have unintended consequences. They are likely to make things worse rather than better.

It’s tempting to nod along at this, and think humans are irredeemable, or at best, permanently flawed. But it’s not clear that such a view stands up to empirical scrutiny. For the conservative argument to prevail, it is not enough that humans exhibit tendencies toward selfishness, group-mindedness, partiality toward kin and kith, apathy toward strangers, and the like. It must also be the case that these tendencies are unalterable, either due to the inherent constraints of human psychology or to our inability to figure out how to modify these constraints without causing greater harms.

Must it be? If it's not absolutely true, it can't be provisionally true? Sounds fallacious to me. And isn't this a question that could only truly be answered in hindsight, looking back on the human experiment from its endpoint? Speaking of which: as we were just discussing, it could very well be that the Enlightenment cosmopolitanism of which the authors make so much in this article is itself dependent on unavoidable material limitations. “The mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.”

A New Friend Turned Me On to an Old Favorite

While searching for a completely different topic, I somehow happened across this variation on an old theme:

In the 2000 Florida election, Ralph Nader received 97,488 votes, while Al Gore lost the state (and, therefore, the presidency) by 537 votes to Mr. Bush. For many Democrats here on DKos that is all they need to know. Nader cost Gore the election.

But to stop there and decide that nothing else matters is to also leave the "reality-based community" label behind, because there are many other numbers that also matter.

I've made many of the exact same arguments myself over the years, usually for naught. Good times, good times. One more thing I would add: if you paid attention to left/Green media in those days — and I did — you would have absorbed a consistent message: if you live in a battleground state, play it safe and vote for Gore, but if you live in a safe state, go ahead and vote for Nader (and there was even this scheme in an attempt to get the best of both worlds). Obviously, no one thought Nader had a chance to win the election. The goal was merely to win 5% of the national vote, which would allow the Green party to qualify for federal funds in the next election. In other words, exactly the sort of incremental, long-term, strategic planning that mainstream Democrats are always insisting idealistic third-partiers need to practice. Not that it saved them from entering Democratic lore as the archetype of treason.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Algorithms & Blues

The GTD movement quickly spread outside the confines of formal work and became a way to navigate the whole of existence: hence the popularity of websites such as Lifehacker that offer nerdy tips on rendering the messy business of everyday life more amenable to algorithmic improvement. If you can discover how best to organise the cables of your electronic equipment or “clean stubborn stains off your hands with shaving cream”, that, too, adds to your “productivity” – assuming that you will spend the time that is notionally saved on a sanctioned “task”, rather than flopping down exhausted on the sofa and waking groggily seven hours later from what you were sternly advised should have been a power nap of exactly 20 minutes. If you need such “downtime”, it must be rigorously scheduled.

...We all like to feel that we have done something useful, interesting or fun with our day, even (or especially) if it has not been part of our official work, and we might harmlessly express such satisfaction by saying that our day has been productive.

This ordinary usage encodes an ordinary wisdom: that mere quantity of activity – as implied by the get-more-done mania of the productivity cult – has nothing to do with its value. Economics does not know how to value Rainer Maria Rilke over a prolific poetaster in receipt of an official laureateship. (One can be confident that, while mooching around European castles and writing nothing for years on end, Rilke would never have worn a T-shirt that announced: “I’m doing work”.) And his life sounds like more fun than one recent Lifehacker article, which eagerly explained how to organise your baseball cap collection by hanging the headwear on shower-curtain hooks arrayed along a rail.

Perhaps I shouldn’t mock. All that time saved every morning by knowing the exact location of the baseball cap you want to wear will surely add up, earning you hours more freedom to hunt and hoard ever more productivity tips, until you are a purely theoretical master at doing nothing of value in the most efficient way imaginable. 

Stuck in the Middle with You

Jennifer Szalai:

The guilty pleasure is a vestige of America’s disappearing middlebrow culture, of that anxious mediation between high and low, which at its best generated a desire to learn, to value cultural literacy and to accept some of the challenges it requires. General magazines once flourished because of it; even Ladies’ Home Journal, better known now as a chipper dispenser of service journalism and horoscopes, used to publish the likes of Edith Wharton and W. H. Auden. But the guilty pleasure seems to me the distillation of all the worst qualities of the middlebrow—the condescension of the highbrow without the expenditure of effort, along with mass culture’s pleasure-seeking without the unequivocal enjoyment. If you want to listen to Rihanna while reading the latest from Dean Koontz, just go ahead and do it. Don’t try to suggest you know better. Forget the pretense and get over yourself. You have nothing to lose but your guilt.

I agree, but why repeat myself when I can just relink myself?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Public Square and Little Else

Plexico Gingrich:

Certainly, Liberal Puritans understand on some level that things like mass incarceration are bigger problems for African Americans than the way Ted Rall draws Obama’s nose. Rather than simply making that point, I want to discover why we have so many people who know and care far more about a faux pas on race by public figures than they know or care about the war on drugs. What is so appealing about combing through the public sphere, looking for something to be offended by? What I’m trying to identify is a kind of false morality. A morality which is driven by heavily adolescent impulses, like the desire to elevate oneself by tearing down others and setting parameters for a kind of coolness that allows you to be “in,” while excluding others.

...But what the Puritan really desires of their target is capitulation. For the witch to confess to having sex with the devil. For the racist witch to issue a maudlin apology. Jesus Christ, do we love apologies these days. There’s always a great emphasis on forcing the target to speak certain words, because this is a power trip. The target must allow the Puritans to control them. Even if only for a moment, the target must be their puppet. This is an even greater power rush for them than it might seem, because Puritans have faith in a world where saying is more important than doing. So to force a person to speak their words is a huge power boner.

...And what exactly is the fear, here? It seems like the Atlantic argument, which is the most reasonable of the anti-Rall stuff, begins and ends with, “these drawings superficially resemble racist drawings from 1930 and someone might conceivably find that unpleasant.” There’s no “and…” there. What is the bad thing that this is going to lead to, other than offending people who want to be offended?

Well, I guess the implied consequence is that Rall might accidentally revive the depiction of blacks as subhuman. Then a large number of people might revert to the views that those old caricatures represented. We might see a return to slavery.

But seriously…

Well, our mission is to understand here. And no, the Liberal Puritan doesn’t think slavery will return any more than they think we might see a bunch of holocaust denying history professors at universities. However, we should understand that they live in the world of saying, not in the world of doing. They don’t really care about the prison industrial complex all that much. They’re passionate about whether or not Katy Perry conforms to their rules. These are people who live in and for the public square. They’re much less concerned about what happens in the home, the town hall or the battlefield.

All of this is multiplied on the internet, where what is said pretty much is all of reality. The prison industrial complex doesn’t really exist on the internet. Its victims are nowhere to be found. Katy Perry is all over the place. Also, remember that the underlying motivation for all of this is to feel powerful and important and to do so easily. Thinking about the prison industrial complex is depressing and makes you feel impotent and marginalized. Because even if you elect a black Democrat who rides a wave of populist liberalism, that sort of thing won’t change a bit.

So all of this stuff seems to be greatly magnified online.

Yeah, the internet is paradise for Puritans, liberal or otherwise. Some of the reasons we’ve already touched on.

It’s a world where all that exists, is what is said. It’s a town with a public square and little else.

Right, and this is the preferred mode of existence for the Puritan anyway. Gossip, accusations, naked assertions of their own moral superiority. Rules. Narratives about who is breaking the rules and who is obeying the rules. Stories about who is a hero (them) and who is a villain (whoever they say). Identifying and persecuting, or at least harassing people who defy the rules and refuse to accept the power of the Puritan group. Sitting in judgement as part of that group and feeling powerful and superior.

These activities can comprise the bulk of the existence of an online persona. If you want to, you can do nothing but accuse people of being racist witches without ever having to face them and rarely, if ever, facing any repercussions when you’re wrong. Which is great, since right and wrong aren’t the point.

Mobile ice sheds, piranhas, Puritans, combinations of all three — I haven't seen such a Frankenstein's monster of metaphors since this memorable instance. Nonetheless, I appreciate the points about implied consequences and the game show-like unreality of the twitosphere, where people sit around all day with their hand above a buzzer, ready to shout out Racist! or Misogynist! to earn useless Internet virtue points. Whoa, now my metaphors are running wild.

...Meant to say earlier: seeing the picture of Rall wearing a hammer-and-sickle t-shirt makes me think yeah, I see your point.

Gooble Gobble, One of Us

Jennifer Michael Hecht:

Initially after writing my book Doubt, I avoided the atheist label, saying only that I did not believe in God. After some reflection, I realized I needed to defend what I truly believe. I now call myself an “atheist,” and proudly. That choice has cost a number of brave people dearly, whether in readers or elections or friends, and I think it is both an honest step and a courageous one for those in public life. I hope the atheists now in Congress will take that step themselves—and this time, not wait until they’re safely out of office.

From this side of the Great Atheist Schism, it's funny how outdated this concern sounds now. All I care about is that politicians are secular, which of course has nothing to do with whatever they privately believe.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Well, If I Don't Say Nothing, You Say Now Tell Us What to Do

Issac Chotiner:

But Gray’s largest problem is that he offers nothing positive to hold onto, no reason why we should or shouldn’t act in any way, other than to avoid some of the excesses he scorns. He gives no insight into what he values or cherishes, or why. I can’t recall a person who has written so much about ideological commitment, and yet who draws no lesson beyond: look at the waste and tragedy.

His largest problem? Chotiner outlines several issues one could fairly have with Gray's ideas, but this is absurd. This is a personal gripe, not a philosophical shortcoming. I know very well from experience that it can be annoying to hear incisive criticism of ideas for which you have a soft spot. If you hear such criticisms frequently from the same source, it's all-too-human to want to personalize your annoyance, to wonder who the hell this arrogant fucker is who keeps talking about how this and that is misguided and mistaken, to want to ask: oh yeah, well, what would you do differently, smart guy? Luckily, I recognize such peevishness for what it is and concentrate on whether the ideas are true or useful, regardless of the possible personal shortcomings of the source. There is a long, rich tradition of wisdom being expressed "negatively", where, like sculpting, the aim is to reveal by chipping away at the material. Some forms of teaching involve removing the perceptual and conceptual excess rather than adding more layers of it. Calling it "ideological" to refuse on principle to replace one ideology with another is just semantics. Like Arthur said about Nietzsche, those who want to become lawgivers end up setting themselves in stone along with their commandments; history will keep flowing and pass them by.

Vampire Weakened

Mark Fisher:

The first configuration is what I came to call the Vampires’ Castle. The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

The privilege I certainly enjoy as a white male consists in part in my not being aware of my ethnicity and my gender, and it is a sobering and revelatory experience to occasionally be made aware of these blind-spots. But, rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

...The Vampires’ Castle feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students, but most of all it lives by converting the suffering of particular groups – the more ‘marginal’ the better – into academic capital. The most lauded figures in the Vampires’ Castle are those who have spotted a new market in suffering – those who can find a group more oppressed and subjugated than any previously exploited will find themselves promoted through the ranks very quickly.

...While fluidity of identity, pluarity and multiplicity are always claimed on behalf of the VC members – partly to cover up their own invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background – the enemy is always to be essentialized. Since the desires animating the VC are in large part priests’ desires to excommunicate and condemn, there has to be a strong distinction between Good and Evil, with the latter essentialized. Notice the tactics. X has made a remark/ has behaved in a particular way – these remarks/ this behaviour might be construed as transphobic/ sexist etc. So far, OK. But it’s the next move which is the kicker. X then becomes defined as a transphobe/ sexist etc. Their whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioural slip. Once the VC has mustered its witch-hunt, the victim (often from a working class background, and not schooled in the passive aggressive etiquette of the bourgeoisie) can reliably be goaded into losing their temper, further securing their position as pariah/ latest to be consumed in feeding frenzy.

...It might have been possible to ignore the Vampires’ Castle and the neo-anarchists if it weren’t for capitalist cyberspace. The VC’s pious moralising has been a feature of a certain ‘left’ for many years – but, if one wasn’t a member of this particular church, its sermons could be avoided. Social media means that this is no longer the case, and there is little protection from the psychic pathologies propagated by these discourses.

See, because these vampires are "weakened" by exposure to the clear, bright light of reason. And then there's that indie rock band...ahh, fuck you, it is so funny. Anyway, yes, even a Marx-blinded squirrel can sometimes find a tasty nut. That first part sounds like the setup to a joke: "A priest, an academic-pedant and a hipster walk into a bar..."

And as long as I'm stealing material from Shetterly, yes, this Key and Peele skit was especially amusing.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Stunting of the Snark

Tom Scocca:

The sin of snark is rudeness, the anti-snarkers say. Snark is mean. And meanness and rudeness are the worst misdeeds in the world.

It's a long article. The gist of it seems to be the contrast between the supposed polar opposites of snark and smarm, and apparently, while smarm is a tactic of the powerful and privileged, snark is the righteous weapon of the powerless who punch up against injustice and phoniness. Well, whatever. As far as I'm concerned, you fight shit with more shit, and everything just stinks all the more. Anyway, my issue with snark as popularly practiced isn't rudeness or meanness per se, it's that it often reeks of vacuous rudeness and meanness. As is so often the case with people who, rightly or wrongly, see themselves as marginalized and powerless, even a sip of a sensation of power — which snark cheaply provides — goes right to their head, and they proceed to make complete asses of themselves.

Snark relies on the illusion of symbolic capture — there's a superficial symmetry, a neatness and tidiness in the way a snarky remark appears to cut straight to the heart of the matter while disdaining actual engagement. Many of Oscar Wilde's famous quips had that quality about them — symmetry without substance. As with diacope, I suspect well-crafted snark has a similarly subliminal pull to it that helps us overlook its hollowness.


Also, part two:

Freddie DeBoer, contributor to The New Inquiry, lost his muffin in its entirety; unable to confine himself to writing one zillion comments on the article itself, he wrote a blog post about it too. DeBoer claims that smarm vs. snark is "yet another cultural competition, elites like Scocca leveraging their cultural status to try to enforce their own take." Cool kids, blah blah.

That's pretty much what I meant about symbolic capture — "Oh, him. He's just a loudmouth know-it-all who thinks everything in life is analogous to a high-school cafeteria. *Eyeroll*." Acknowledgement without engagement, yet still posing as knowingness. Once that unspoken signal has been shared, there's no allowable way to defend yourself against snarky dismissal. You talk too much. You argue too passionately. You're too earnest, too boring. Whatever.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

A Cat Amongst the Canaries

Andy Hunter:

Torture by Luis Suárez is routine for Norwich City but that does not diminish his capacity to astonish. The Liverpool striker continued his personal crusade against the men from Carrow Road with four goals and one assist as Anfield witnessed an individual masterclass, one Brendan Rodgers placed in the company of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. No one privileged to be present would disagree.

Suárez took his tally to 11 goals in his last four appearances against Norwich with one outrageous 40-yard strike, a superb piece of improvisation, a glorious half-volley and a 25-yard free-kick, becoming the Premier League's leading goalscorer in the process – and to think his season only commenced on 25 September. He also found time to create the fifth for Raheem Sterling. The 26-year-old has 51 league goals in the red of Liverpool and 11 have come against Chris Hughton's team. Quite what Norwich have done to warrant this relentless, ruthless punishment is unknown but even the Liverpool manager offered his sympathy.

...The hat-trick was Suárez's third in four games against Norwich, ensuring he became the first player in Premier League history to score three trebles against the same team. "I wish Luis Suárez would just leave us alone," tweeted Norwich's Anthony Pilkington.

As far as mid-table teams go, I like Norwich. I hope they do well and avoid being caught up in a relegation scrap by season's end (and I love Stephen Fry, too, so I want his team to be successful and bring him joy). But — not just speaking as a Liverpool fan either — damn, it sure is entertaining to see how they somehow bring the absolute best out of Suárez every time he plays them. Poor hapless bastards.

I'm a Man Without Conviction, I'm a Man Who Doesn't Know How to Sell a Contradiction

Brian comments on the previous post:

Scribbler, by the time you are 40 I expect you will be patrolling your property with a shotgun muttering about the liberals and feminists and all those progressives. 

He's mostly kidding, of course, but still, this serves as a useful springboard to make a broader point, a sort of meta-musing about my ever-evolving worldview. My isolato manifesto, if you will. The implied question he poses is: am I morphing into a curmudgeonly conservative? The short answer is no, but the long answer is, as usual, more nuanced.

There's a number of unspoken assumptions that inform the understanding of most people who read, write, and comment on sociopolitical issues in the blogosphere. The idea that we're all, to some degree, political animals, and that a developed political awareness is the height of sophistication and maturity. The idea that all of us, whether we admit it or not, fall on one side or the other of the fundamental political divide, which in this country is understood as progressive/conservative, or Democrat/Republican. The idea that most such opinions should not be taken at face value, but rather interpreted in relation to this or that agenda, reduced to their supposed common denominator, examined for their hidden implications. The idea that we're all speaking as if to the largest potential audience, with the intent of swaying or convincing as many as possible. The idea that heretical, offensive, or discomfiting opinions should be treated like outbreaks of contagion, to be quarantined and avoided for the sake of one's mental health. Well. If these sorts of assumptions are the common coin of online discourse, perhaps my intent is actually to storm in, violently overturn the tables of those who trade in such counterfeit currency, and chase them away. (The megalomania implicit in that metaphor is entirely ironic and offered for amusement purposes only, I assure you.)

It is a fact: I am utterly insignificant and completely lacking in influence. This blog is a pure labor of love, a love of writing and foolosophizing for their own sake, which is a good thing, because I could probably count my regular readers on my fingers. To me, that represents freedom. If I have a role model here at all, it's Montaigne — I am free to focus on whatever I want for however long I want, to follow my thoughts wherever they lead, with no concern for whether they advance or inhibit some arbitrary agenda, support or detract from some party line. And what the honest fuck do I know about anything anyway? My only responsibility is to tell the truth as I see it. The thing is, this medium, as far as I can see, offers that freedom to almost everyone. Not every blogger is as publicity-adverse as I am, and not every blogger is quite so invisible, but still, there is a lot of potential for experimentation within the blog format. And yet, so many of them hustle to their self-assigned seats and begin producing the same on-message content as everyone else. They couldn't be more uniform and predictable if they were following orders from a drill sergeant. There are countless Jon Stewart-wannabes and countless amateur pundits covering the exact same viral stories. If I want to hear snark about the latest stupid thing uttered by a Christian/Republican, I'd watch the Daily Show. If I want to hear some yammering yob on Wordpress pontificate as if the fucking President should hire his amazingly insightful ass to be the new Chief of Staff, I'd... well, I'd lie down with a cold compress on my head until I came to my senses, but still, the point is, such cardboard cutout opinions are ubiquitous and worthless. I am utterly baffled by the existence of so many people who can think of no more entertaining use of their thoughts and free time than to act as unpaid copywriters for the DNC. Eyes turned up toward the canopy, where all the important action is assumed to be taking place, they ignore all the potentially interesting growth taking place among the understory.

Over the last couple of years, especially following the appearance of the schism in online New Atheism, I've been more interested in things like the psychological roots of ideology than the irrelevant details of ideologies themselves. This has led to me writing more on topics like identity politics, campus-style radicalism and free speech, issues which, to a perspective that sorts everything through a political filter, tend to "code" as conservative, if not reactionary. This isn't actually a new thing for me — my views haven't really changed since the early days of this blog, when I was equally scornful of shallow progressive pieties. The only thing that has changed is that I've shrugged off any meaningful political identity and thus shed any inclinations to muffle such criticism for the sake of some broader loyalties. A lot of liberals/progressives would probably agree with me privately that the sort of lunatic feminists who populate Freethought Blogs, Tumblr and the like are ridiculous, but, so goes the thinking, at least they're not Republicans. It's the flip side of the lesser-evil strategy they employ during elections — as long as there's a greater evil to fight, i.e. reactionary Republicans, it would be counterproductive and misguided to expend any serious effort on attacking people on "our side". Well, this is a perfectly reasonable and valid perspective to hold, but I reject it nonetheless. I reject it because though it may be valid, it's not the only valid perspective. I especially reject the dubious political calculus which pretends to know exactly which compromises need to be made for the sake of securing some vague greater good. There never will be a "convenient" time to have such battles. There never will be a time when reactionaries have been neatly and completely dispatched, allowing us to turn our full attention to our own lunatic fringe. Both types of malignant personalities will always be with us. Dishonest ideologues are dishonest ideologues regardless of which button they push in the booth on Election Day, and, not being a politician, I have no interest in trying to manipulate one set to my advantage.

If anything, I've just sidestepped the false binary of partisan political identity and returned to the Zen/Taoist sensibility I've been nurturing since adolescence. Zen taught me a lot about mental discipline and dispassionate objectivity; Taoism taught me that authoritarian busybodies are a perennial (and bipartisan) occurrence, and that the best response to them is mockery and a refusal to counter their harebrained dogmas by asserting your own. Topping that off is a genuine antisocial instinct, a mild misanthropy, which has me daydreaming about counterfactual histories where humans somehow evolved from a less-social species (orangutans, perhaps) to become much more solitary, instead of our current existence as meddlesome chimps obsessed with monitoring and regulating our neighbors' behavior. And finally, to reiterate, I'm fully aware that none of this sound and fury is anything more than entertainment. Nothing written here (or indeed, most anywhere else in the blogosphere) is changing any minds or influencing any policy. It's just something to skim over while killing time at work. There's no need to read more than that into it.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


Ian Mortimer:

You might think that, if you have no religion, no one will bother you. After all, the rivalry is between Catholics and Protestants — surely you can simply rise above the controversy? There you would be wrong. The atheist is the enemy of all, being utterly godless and therefore outside the scope of Elizabethan morality. As Francis Bacon writes in his essay 'On Atheism': 'they that deny God destroy a man's nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature'.

Not believing in God is like not believing in trees. Most people simply cannot conceive of a line dividing the metaphysical and the physical. To them the two are indivisibly linked. Creation cannot exist without its creator. However, from the middle of the century, certain people start to be labelled as 'atheists' by their enemies. Some even admit themselves to being nulla fidians, or 'nothing believers'. Then, in 1583, Philip Stubbes writes his Anatomy of Abuses, which defines atheists as people who 'deny there is any God'. Atheism as we know it is born.

Interesting. I went back and checked Jennifer Hecht's book Doubt, but didn't see any mention of Stubbes. My exhaustive scholarly research thus completed, I'm happy to take Mortimer's word for it. Mainly, I was just glad for this passage reintroducing me to that wonderful word nullifidian, whose acquaintance I had first made over a decade ago, only for us to inexplicably lose touch with each other in recent years. Here, though, its description makes it sound like an assertive type of disbelief, similar to our conception of nihilism — "We believe in nothing, Lebowski, nothing." But in my understanding, its modern usage indicates the mere absence of faith or religious belief. Yes, this would be the infamous "dictionary atheism", condemned as insufficient by Peezus and his disciples and cast into the bottomless pit to be shut up with a seal placed upon it, so that it would deceive the nations no more. Perhaps, then, this term could be adopted by those wishing to differentiate themselves from the progressive atheist cult.

Monday, December 02, 2013


Christopher Howse:

The boast on the cover is, ‘How to turn the perfect English phrase’, and Forsyth admits that his book ‘is about one tiny, tiny aspect of rhetoric: the figures of speech’. Being able, like Peter Simple’s fantasy ‘apodosis turner in the conditional clause shed’, to produce a smooth example of epizeuxis or epistrophe will not, to be sure, make you Shakespeare (about whose use of figures we hear much to our advantage in this short book). But Forsyth’s chief and admirable ambition is to demolish ‘the bleak and imbecile idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible’.

Oh, snap! Whomever could that writerly whipcrack have been aimed at?

Using plain and clear language is not a moral virtue, as Orwell hoped. Things aren’t that simple. In fact, giving the impression of clarity and straightforwardness is often a strategic game. The way we speak and the way we write are both forms of dress. We can, linguistically, dress ourselves up any way we like. We can affect plainness and directness just as much as we can affect sophistication and complexity. We can try to mislead or to impress, in either mode. Or we can use either register honestly.

I've already made my sympathies clear on this question, but I'm also prejudiced in this particular case by the fact that I read both of Forsyth's previous books this year and loved them. Loved them, I say. The preface to his Horologicon was so particularly enjoyable to me that I read it aloud to someone, proclaiming my own desire to write like that.

Looking for Context and Perspective, Looking for Some Kind of Distraction

M.I.T. Tech Review:

Much social research shows that people prefer to receive information that they agree with instead of information that challenges their beliefs. This problem is compounded when social networks recommend content based on what users already like and on what people similar to them also like. This is the filter bubble—being surrounded only by people you like and content that you agree with.

...Today, Eduardo Graells-Garrido at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona as well as Mounia Lalmas and Daniel Quercia, both at Yahoo Labs, say they’ve hit on a way to burst the filter bubble. Their idea that although people may have opposing views on sensitive topics, they may also share interests in other areas. And they’ve built a recommendation engine that points these kinds of people towards each other based on their own preferences.

The result is that individuals are exposed to a much wider range of opinions, ideas and people than they would otherwise experience. And because this is done using their own interests, they end up being equally satisfied with the results (although not without a period of acclimitisation). “We nudge users to read content from people who may have opposite views, or high view gaps, in those issues, while still being relevant according to their preferences,” say Graells-Garrido and co.

See also: Internet Silos.