Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus (XIII)

Well, I fell short of my stated goal from this summer by one and a half books. Still, I applaud my effort. Now, my Sisyphean task resumes with another stack. And like Camus (the subject of "A Life Worth Living", in the middle row) said, one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Yes, yes, I am.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Philosopher for Everyone and No One

Despite all the varying interpretations, however, a general trend holds true: whatever Nietzsche was, he is not easy to categorize politically. In fact, it seems that it is precisely because of all these different Nietzsches that the only consensus that can be manufactured out of this diversity is that Nietzsche must be regarded, in some sense, as uncategorizable. Nietzsche is obviously not a socialist, nor a leftist in any conventional sense, nor certainly not a liberal, and, of course, Nietzsche is not a conservative.

Or is he?

Dunh-dunh-dunh! Thus begins the latest round of "Pin the Ideological Tail on Nietzsche." Personally, I would recommend against playing that game. It's an awful lot of motivated reasoning to go through for very little payoff in terms of genuine understanding. Besides, I think a trifling website like Salon has a trademark on these kinds of "Historical Figure X would totally have voted for Y" cotton-candy essays; you might find yourself slapped with a lawsuit for infringing on intellectual property rights.

Averbeck notes that both right and left seem united in agreement that Nietzsche, whatever else you want to say about him, was not "conservative" in any meaningful sense, but rather than taking this as a strong hint that her tendentious revisionism should just be allowed to die in the crib, she chalks this up to some sort of academic elitist stranglehold on the Nietzsche-interpretation industry. Well, as I've said many times, I'm just a nobody with a high-school diploma, and I'd also place this concept in "not even wrong" territory. Was there anything cautious, sober and restrained about his writing? How many examples would suffice to illustrate his incompatibility with conservatism's major themes? Hell, is there really any usefulness in proceeding as if "conservatism" has always meant the same thing, been concerned with the same issues, whether in late-18th-century Britain, late-19th-century Germany, or early-21st-century America? Or does "conservative" mean little more than "here there be dragons" on this particular intellectual map? (Actually, given Corey Robin's fatuous roster of conservative all-stars approvingly quoted by Averbeck, that might not be too far off; more on that in a moment.) Like Brian Leiter said, he was primarily concerned with questions of value and culture. Political considerations per se were simply absent from his work.

Anyway, whatever. People who consider taxonomy more important than context and understanding aren't worth the trouble to argue with. Besides, I've had a lingering cold for a couple weeks and don't have the energy to get exasperated over this.

So, I outsourced the exasperation to my buddy Arthur:

Where to start? How could you even begin to un-fuck this piece of U.S. Intellectual History twaddle? First of all, taking seriously, even if in the case of Nietzsche taking exception to, (Corey) Robin’s book, which states at the outset: “I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott….”

Burke, champion of the American Revolution, bitter enemy of Colonial exploitation in the person of Warren Hastings, champion of the Irish, the man who prophetically saw the seeds of totalitarianism in the Jacobins with their template combination of violence and propaganda, is seated at the same table with the intellectual powerhouse, Sarah Palin, and with “the fascists," "slaveholders," and "scribblers"? ("Scribblers" really sets the tone here: we're obviously on the intellectual high ground.)

Surely this book is a parody, a joke? No one would seriously sit down and write a simple-minded hyper-PC piece of propaganda and mean it, and get it published, and receive po-faced reviews? And surely this article is meant as a Nietzschean joke? The author is reluctantly compelled by intellectual honesty to conclude that Nietzsche is “still some kind of conservative.” Note the rigorous qualifier, the crucial philosophical nuance… Some kinda...

Who the fuck are these people, who don’t even feel the need to define “conservative”? They just utter it like the most self-evidently damning imprecation, like a Calvinist crying, “Satan!” The simple-mindedness is breathtaking.

And how carelessly do you have to read The Closing of the American Mind to come away with the idea that Bloom viewed Nietzsche “as a threat that had to be vanquished”? How many times in that book does Bloom express the deepest respect for him as a great philosopher, perhaps (with the exception of Heidegger, in his view) the last great philosopher? His whole point is to contrast the gravitas of Nietzsche announcing the death of God and the consequent un-groundedness of values with the shallow, glib nihilism of his American successors and soi-disant disciples, who take the death of God to mean the world is a shopping mall where you mix-and-match any old values that catch your consumerist fancy?

And the idea that Nietzsche was primarily concerned with culture and the seriousness of the esthetic aspect of life is just not on the table—all estheticism is bourgeois estheticism: case closed. “The birth of the Reich [1870] was the death of German culture.” Nietzsche despised politics in general. Apolitical? Does not compute. You’re either a faux-Leftist or a cartoon-devil Conservative.

Here's the late, iron-lunged Deleuze:

It is his [aphoristic] method that makes Nietzsche’s text into something not to be characterized in itself as “fascist,” “bourgeois,” or “revolutionary,” but to be regarded as an exterior field where fascist, bourgeois, and revolutionary forces meet head on. If we pose the problem this way, the response conforming to Nietzsche’s method would be: find the revolutionary force. The problem is always to detect the new forces that come from without, that traverse and cut across the Nietzschean text within the framework of the aphorism. The legitimate misunderstanding here, then, would be to treat the aphorisms as a phenomenon, one that waits for new forces to come and “subdue” it, or to make it work, or even to make it explode.

Never mind the fact that I’m no fan of Deleuze anymore, and find his use of the word “revolutionary” absolutely facile, as it is with all modern Leftists except those who "seriously" advocate the violent overthrow of Capitalism, etc., and then you’re talking about a clown named Zizek, who I’m sure secretly—or not so secretly—laughs at his own huxterism and the ease with which he puts it over on the Lumpen-Left. (He's a Communist, says Eagleton proudly. What, you mean he spouts Communist rhetoric, that makes him a Communist? Of course, the world is just one big talk show, and Zizek's act is "I am a Communist.")

But it’s also Deleuze who includes Nietzsche in a trinity of thinkers who have been crucially influential on modern thought, along with Marx and Freud. The reason Nietzsche still has a future, while Marx and Freud belong to the past, he points out, is that Marx and Freud were obsessed with building institutions, with indoctrinating people with their ideas, and in doing so they mummified those ideas into dogma suitable for creating simplistic movements and schools—which proceeded to discredit ideas that were already self-discredited by their own dogmatic arrogance. Nietzsche’s thought, on the other hand, never dogmatized itself, was and remains mercurial and up for grabs. Yet there is a fundamental gravitas, an anguished human concern and an awareness of the stakes, that keeps him from being a dilettante—as Bloom illustrates brilliantly, in my view.

Then there’s the last little bit of twaddle—so it’s elitist of the academic elite to adjudicate whether or not Nietzsche was conservative? VIRTUE-SIGNALING ALERT. HYPOCRISY ALERT. That’s what makes sanctimonious liberal puritans continually feel like they’ve stuck their finger in a light socket when they read Nietzsche. He, unlike them, is avowedly an elitist. Nietzsche never tells lies, never uses euphemisms, never tries to win points for being good.  He never sugar-coats, in fact, delights in putting his case in the most extreme, provocative way. That’s the scandal, not his imaginary connection with the Nazis or, much more seriously, Loughner! (It’s also God’s fault that thousands have murderers have claimed He told them to pull the trigger, right? God is very conservative.)

And Nietzsche, after all, was trying to transcend all values, right?

Uh, wrong. First of all, Nietzsche very deliberately used the word “overcome” to avoid the religious baggage that “transcend” carries. Second, he did not propose “transcending” all values, anything but. “Man is the value-making animal.” We can’t help creating values. We would rather will nothingness than not will at all. The point is that we have to be courageous enough to posit values in the absence of any metaphysical grounding or sanction from God. We have to commit ourselves to those values while knowing that they are just that—values and not eternal verities, Platonic Ideas existing somewhere outside of this world. And for Nietzsche some values are obviously better than others: life-affirming values, including the ultimate affirmation of one’s existence that wills its eternal return.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

I Turn My Feelings Off, Made Me Untouchable for Life

I am arguing that even many people who describe themselves or their goals in invulnerablist terms do not actually live or seek to live that way. The official doctrines, the ones that offer ultimate peace with oneself, a place of stillness that cannot be shaken, are in most cases a misrepresentation of what people are like or even what they want. Instead, something else is happening, something that involves some of the insights of invulnerabilist doctrines but does not embrace them in what I’m calling their official form.

...It seems to me that Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, etc. work not by making one invulnerable but rather by allowing one to step back from the immediacy of the situation so that the experience of pain or suffering is seen for what it is, precisely as part of a contingent process, a process that could have yielded a very different present but just happened to yield this one. This, of course, is not the official doctrine either, especially for Stoicism, for which the unfolding of the cosmos is a rational one. (Buddhists will periodically refer to the contingency of the cosmos’ unfolding; however, the concept of nirvana bends that contingency toward something more nearly rational, or at least just.) But it does seem to me to capture their common insight that there is so much about the world that we cannot control; seeking to master it is an illusion. We must learn instead to live with the process in all its contingency, even where we hope to change it for the better. And we must understand that for most of us suffering is inevitable. We can recognize all this and take solace from it without having to take the step of removing ourselves from the desires that lead to suffering.

That's an interesting take on it — people, as usual, don't really know what they want, and if they could actually achieve the invulnerability they think they want, they'd be unhappy in a whole new way. Fortunately for them, by aiming for invulnerability, they will inevitably fall short, but the effort itself will serve as a functional coping mechanism and the result will be good enough. Saved by their own confusion. In fact, perhaps too much clarity and self-awareness here could dispel the illusion and be detrimental to one's mental health.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

You're in the Grip of the Controller

I watched the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson the other day, in which Stephan Pastis said something interesting:

This leads to my theory of what it is that Watterson might be doing, and I suspect that some of it is about control. Comic strips are all about control. It's the one art form where you have full control. It's not collaborative like a film. It's not collaborative even like a book, where your editor changes things. I really don't even have an editor. It's just me. It's not collaborative like a tv show. It's not collaborative like a record album. It's you -- it's just you.

When you wander into licensing, it becomes a collaboration. Somebody at your syndicate has to approve it. Somebody at your syndicate gives suggestions. Somebody at your syndicate says,"You know, that's nice, but it'd be better if he smiled on the package, right? Smiling sells more." Then it gets in the hand of the designer. The designer has their own ideas how the character should look. The designer knows what material sells. The designer knows what materials are safe. Then there's the designer's boss, who may have different ideas, 'cause they gave it to the salesman, and it didn't sell well.

So I've just introduced seven people into my life that weren't in my life before. I don't particularly like any of them. They're not my kind of people. They're commercial people, and they make your stomach hurt when you're with them. So I've introduced an element into my life of a whole bunch of people I don't like. I've got to overcome them all, even if it's so much as just saying, "I don't think we should do this," and they say yes, I still have to do that to seven people. And that's all a loss of control, a loss of control that I never had before, right?

And imagine if he started licensing. The first lunchbox would have sold nine billion, right? The minute that happens, everybody is gonna be on him for all the more, like this, that, and the other -- all represents a loss of control. Then they all sit in your head. Rather than go, as he probably did, and walk through the forest that day, he took six phone calls that he didn't want to take. They interrupted his day. They're floating around in his head. That's all bad. You know what I'm saying?

And that's control. That's not about artistic purity. No, no. That's about control.

This is my attitude toward blogging, toward ambition. I don't pretend to be doing anything artistically, let alone culturally, significant here, but this is still an important space for me, where I can write for the pure enjoyment it gives me. A few people have suggested that I could or should make a living by doing some sort of writing, but my response is always the same — making this into a paying job would destroy everything that makes it enjoyable. It would be death by a thousand cuts. Keeping it "pure" isn't about snobbery and status, it's about having something in your life that isn't subject to mercenary considerations.

Fortunately, I'll never be offered a spot writing at Buzzfeed or the like, where I would have to make those sorts of compromises, so I have to admit it's easy for me to say that. I am truly in awe of the fact that Watterson was looking at potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandising and still held to his principles. Would I absolutely refuse to write clickbaity headlines about trivia and gossip if doing so meant I never had to work a real job again? I'd like to think so, but...

No Time Left for You


The problem of a society undergoing acceleration is that people crave an ever greater variety of social experiences out of the sheer sense that they must “keep up.” The semantics of contemporary life suggest obligation: “I must read the newspaper”; “I ought to play the piano more”; “I really need to keep up to date.” Both TV and the internet deliver a sense of experiencing a lot very quickly, with abandon, in a way that becomes loathed as much as desired. Time spent watching TV feels rich in stimuli — the joy of Game of Thrones is not just that its characters are dispatched with regularity, but that the show is punctuated by the occasional thrilling bloodbath — but poor in its lasting effects. “TV,” writes Rosa, “apparently tends to leave behind tired, hardly recuperated spectators who are in a bad mood.” The internet, too. What they also leave behind are people whose lives are full of frenetic activity, but impoverished of a sense of lasting experience — flat individuals, nodes or nerve endings in a network that stretches out endlessly in a shrinking present.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sooner or Later It All Comes Down to Fate

Lary Wallace:

The Stoics themselves believed in gods, but ultimately those resistant to religious belief can take their Stoicism the way they take their Buddhism, even if they can’t buy into such concepts as karma or reincarnation. What the whole thing comes down to, distilled to its briefest essence, is making the choice that choice is really all we have, and that all else is not worth considering. ‘Who [...] is the invincible human being?’ Epictetus once asked, before answering the question himself: ‘One who can be disconcerted by nothing that lies outside the sphere of choice.’

A couple weeks ago, while reading a book on the history of aphorisms, I came across one from Seneca: "There is nothing the wise man does reluctantly. He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity is going to force on him."

Sounds slightly disingenuous when put that way. But it also sounds like someone whose famously critical words for the Stoics Wallace mentions in the essay, namely, Nietzsche and his concept of amor fati. It occurs to me that if one wanted to be a little bit mischievous and sarcastic, one could sum it up like:

Shorter Nietzsche and the Stoics: I meant to do that!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Curves

Scott Alexander:

See for example this recent Xenosystems post about a Twitterer claiming The Bell Curve has been “well-refuted”. There are definitely a lot of people who have written books, articles, and papers arguing that The Bell Curve is wrong, often in very strong terms. There are also a lot of people who have written books, articles, and papers saying that the first set of books, articles, and papers are wrong and The Bell Curve is right, also in very strong terms. To say that the first set is a “refutation” or “debunking” is as basic a mistake as saying that the new rape study is a “refutation” or “debunking” of the earlier rape study.

(albeit a mistake likely to be made by exactly the opposite people)

There are certainly things that have been “well-refuted” and “debunked”. Andrew Wakefield’s study purporting to prove that vaccines cause autism is a pretty good example. But you will notice that it had multiple failed replications, journals published reports showing he falsified data, the study’s co-authors retracted their support, the journal it was published in retracted it and issued an apology, the General Medical Council convicted Wakefield of sixteen counts of misconduct, and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license and barred from practicing medicine ever again in the UK. The British Medical Journal, one of the best-respected medical journals in the world, published an editorial concluding:

Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare...Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No.

Meanwhile, The Bell Curve was lambasted in the popular press and by many academics. But it also got fifty of the top researchers in its field to sign a consensus statement saying it was pretty much right about everything and the people attacking it were biased and confused. Three years later, they re-issued their statement saying nothing had changed and more recent findings had only confirmed their opinion. The American Psychological Association launched a task force to settle the issue which stopped short of complete agreement but which given the circumstances was pretty darned supportive. There are certainly a lot of smart people with very strong negative opinions, but each one is still usually met by an equally ardent and credentialed proponent.

One of these two things has been “well-refuted”. The other has been “argued against”.

I've only been reading Alexander regularly for a few months. I don't know for sure what his politics are, but I have the impression he's basically liberal. He strikes me as being impressively dedicated to logical thinking and empirical fact-finding, and that, in addition to the obvious pains he takes to explain himself clearly and thoroughly, makes me trust his perspective unless given strong reasons not to. So, it could be that I just basically identify all those characteristics with being "liberal", and thus provisionally apply the label to him.

What makes this bit interesting to me is the fact that, assuming I'm right in my guess about his political outlook, this is the first time I've ever seen a liberal suggest that The Bell Curve was anything other than maliciously-motivated racist pseudoscience. I mean, I've been aware of the book for almost my entire adult life, and I have never once encountered anyone who wasn't, shall we say, predictably conservative, suggesting that the book's thesis may have been mostly accurate. Even Freddie deBoer and Andrew Sullivan, with whom I wholeheartedly agree that even dangerous, wrong ideas should be confronted openly and honestly, seem to take for granted that the book is clearly wrong. "True but largely irrelevant" doesn't seem to be an allowable option. If it's not declared "completely false and dangerously pernicious", there might be terrible consequences.

I haven't read the book, and even if I were interested, I'm not in a position to judge any of the impressively-credentialed authorities who take a stand one way or the other. True or false, I can't see how it would change the way I behave or think. My only point is that I find it somewhat scary that I, who like to think of myself as being fairly inquisitive and independent-minded, could have been living in a tightly-sealed liberal filter bubble for so long. How many things do I take for granted as being obviously true, not because I know, but because I've just never heard a reputable source say otherwise? How many arguments are not about the truth or falsity of the subject, but rather about the fear of what it might mean for the subject to be true or false? We like to think that the epistemological floor beneath our feet is solid stone, but we might look down to see that we're standing on a rickety rope bridge instead.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Do You See What I See?

Arthur asked me recently about the book I was reading, as seen on my Shelfari shelf, over there on the right sidebar. Oddly enough, it was the first book I put on there when I added that widget just over a year ago. Eh? I asked him. You're still seeing that book after all this time? Hmm. It had always been updating for me every time I changed the book, so I just shrugged and left it alone.

I had to temporarily disable the widget in order to make some changes to my template the other day, so when I put it back, I changed the code slightly to fix what I assumed the problem must have been. Now he tells me he only sees a blank shelf with no book on it. Again, still no problem on my end.

So, other readers, what are you seeing right now? Anything? Nothing? Does it look like I've been stuck reading the same book for over a year now? That would be like your friends failing to tell you that you've had a foot and a half of toilet paper trailing from your shoe ever since you left the restaurant bathroom two hours ago.

Here's a reenactment of Arthur and I trying to figure out tech-related issues:

Friday, December 19, 2014

Moloch Demands Fresh Blood to Maintain the Appetite of His Mechanical Heart

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

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

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

Not About the Thing Observed but About the Observer

Roger Scruton:

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Buzz Lightweight

Rebecca Koenig:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

If You Sweep Up this Mess I've Created, Nothing's Left to Show I Existed

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

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

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

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

Ceteris Paribus

by Alexander Bastidas Fry

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 05, 2014



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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Trickster Makes this World

Georg Diez:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Am I doing this clickbait thing right?)

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

Ryan Simonelli:

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Andropovs and Brezhnevs of the Soul

Scott Alexander:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

I Read All the Authors, I Knew the Right Slogans

I used to endorse a particular brand of politics that is prevalent at McGill and in Montreal more widely. It is a fusion of a certain kind of anti-oppressive politics and a certain kind of radical leftist politics. This particular brand of politics begins with good intentions and noble causes, but metastasizes into a nightmare. In general, the activists involved are the nicest, most conscientious people you could hope to know. But at some point, they took a wrong turn, and their devotion to social justice led them down a dark path. Having been on both sides of the glass, I think I can bring some painful but necessary truth to light.

Important disclaimer: I passionately support anti-oppressive politics in general and have only good things to say about it. My current political worldview falls under the umbrella of leftism, although not radical leftism. I’m basically a social democrat who likes co-ops and believes in universal basic income, the so-called ‘capitalist road to communism.’ I agree with a lot of what the radical left has to say, but I disagree with a lot of what it has to say. I’m deeply against Marxism-Leninism and social anarchism, but I’m sympathetic to market socialism and direct democracy. I don’t have any criticism for radical leftism in general, at least not here, not today. What I feel compelled to criticize is only one very specific political phenomenon, one particular incarnation of radical leftist, anti-oppressive politics.

There is something dark and vaguely cultish about this particular brand of politics. I’ve thought a lot about what exactly that is. I’ve pinned down four core features that make it so disturbing: dogmatism, groupthink, a crusader mentality, and anti-intellectualism. I’ll go into detail about each one of these. The following is as much a confession as it is an admonishment. I will not mention a single sin that I have not been fully and damnably guilty of in my time.

Conflictual Obligations

Liberal attitudes to conflict made a second point of contrast with their conservative and socialist rivals, following that over power. For liberals, conflict was ever present. It was unceasing and ineradicable. Whatever form it took, over interests, beliefs, or ways of life, the thought was that conflict must be tamed, transformed into competition, and made fruitful in trade, experiment and argument. Too much could be made of whether liberals welcomed conflict as healthy and productive or feared it as dangerous and destructive. They did both. Conflict, for liberals, was a fact of life. Politics was about how conflict might serve useful ends and not break society apart.

Conservatives took a different view of conflict. To them society was not by nature divided. Society was at root harmonious and unified. The myth of class conflict in particular was put about by resentful agitators and disaffected intellectuals. Diversity of opinion was not the welcome result of an unending conversation among equals but the regrettable consequence of truth's failure to prevail over error. There were not many equally worthwhile paths in life to choose from but one path, the path of virtue. Conservative eyes were no worse than liberal eyes. Conservatives could see divisions in society. But to conservatives those divisions were not of society's essence. To the extent that divisions existed within society, they represented for conservatives a fall from grace, a lapse into modernity, a loss of past unity.

The socialist left's attitude to conflict was different again. It agreed with liberals that conflict in society was wide and deep, not that it was endless or inevitable. It disagreed with liberals about how many sides were involved. For liberals, conflict involved many, many sides and many, many matters. Conflict's subject matter, in a sense, was unbounded. To socialists, conflict involved only two sides, rich and poor, and one topic, material inequity. Conflict would cease, they held, once its sources in material inequity were removed. Socialists disagreed with conservatives that society was harmonious until foolishly interfered with. They faulted liberals for refusing to see where the roots of one, overarching conflict lay. Those roots lay for the socialist mind in differences of material interest among unequal classes, differences from which other conflicts, notably of faith and opinion, invariably stemmed. Remove inequity and harmony came in all life's departments. That, in crude summary, was the socialist dream of one-stroke emancipation. Although divided and denatured at present, society for the socialist left was by nature harmonious. There it agreed with conservatives, though not about structure or timing. For conservatives harmony lay in a hierarchical past, for the socialist left in a brotherly future.

Society for liberals was always in conflict. To liberals there never had been and never would be a time of harmony. The best hope was for a frame of order and stability that was flexible enough for adjustment as the forces in conflict changed. Such a frame would be "artificial" and man-made." It would be neither God-given or natural but reliant on common interests in peace, stability and prosperity. Within it, private conflicts could be bargained away leaving no one with festering regrets that might threaten common interests.

Dreaming of a Skeleton Key

Douglas Dalrymple:

If man is born in freedom, with infinite possible futures open to him, the fact of living at all will require that he is locked out, finally, from nearly all of them. Sometimes further accommodation is simply not possible. We age and grow and so lock ourselves out of the womb, out of childhood, out of our parents’ home, out of youth. We make friends and pursue lovers and so exclude ourselves from other friends and other lovers. We make any number of choices, but eventually there comes a final door for each of us. We will step through it and it will close and we will find that we have left the key inside. Eventually, then, we do step into a night (cold and black, or warm and bright with stars – who can say?) which locks us out of tomorrow morning. Dithering in the hall, however, you find that straining to hold open multiple doors at once will get you – precisely – nowhere. Like death, life only happens when you lock yourself out.

This is the third of three poetic, beautifully written paragraphs. Go read the other two.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All Those Red Marks on Our Shoulders, Self-Back Patting, Homemade Trophies

Plexico Gingrich:

But the real key here is that “social justice warrior,” in this context, refers to browbeating, moralistic behavior, much more than any coherent or credible ideology. It is a largely American phenomenon in which those with a Puritanical disposition, but a secular viewpoint, use vague social and political stances as a platform for moralizing and witch hunting. Basically, imagine if Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell had been born into a family of coastal liberals in 1990, and you should get the idea.

There is the further implication that the SJW does nothing to help real people. “Social justice warrior” is meant in the same vein as “keyboard warrior.” It is not a precise term and it is kind of a stupid one, but that is the term we have. You can agree with the characterization or disagree, but this what people from gamergate and elsewhere have in mind when they make reference to social justice warriors.

Social justice warriors are drawn to causes involving race, gender and sexual orientation. But only some people who are drawn to those issues are SJWs. For the SJW, the appeal of these issues draws from the fact that one of the greatest stigmas one can carry in contemporary culture is to be labeled a bigot. Compare where Donald Sterling or Michael Richards wound up in the public eye to the outcomes for other celebrities who have, say, been involved in killing someone, like Matthew Broderick, Ray Lewis or Vince Neil.

By declaring themselves the authorities on these subjects, social justice warriors are able to claim the right to administer the scarlet letters associated with them: racist, sexist misogynist, homophobe and so on. This power, to declare their moral superiority over others, is what motivates them. The stereotypical SJW has little to no interest in the suffering of classes that are not linked to scarlet letters. Victims of unjust wars, for example, or the homeless, or nerds.

We can see the overlap with the hipster easily. Both types are driven by a desire to feel more enlightened, intelligent and generally superior than those around them. “I eat better food than you do, I dress better than you do, I listen to better music than you do and you are a racist who approves of rape, while I am not.” It fits together quite nicely.

Brian sends me occasional emails. Most of them are along the lines of "Gee, Scribbler, you're my all-time hero. What can I do to be more like you?" Or, "Wow, Scribbler, your post today was the best one you've ever written until the next one you write!" But along with the fawning sycophancy, he's sent me a few links to Ruthless Reviews articles, including this one, which happens to be one of the best summaries of Gamergate and the satellite issues in orbit around it that you'll ever see. It is quite long, and could probably have benefitted from some editorial pruning, but still, it's worth your time and you should check it out. One little excerpt doesn't nearly do it justice.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Some Seeds Fell Along the Path, and the Birds Came and Devoured Them

Steven Arroyo:

Accordingly, Seeds reflects a band unconcerned with challenging its listeners this time and more interested in delivering a complete collection of competent, mark-bearing songs for the sake of proudly stating the existence of TV On The Radio in 2014. This means familiar roles for all members, roles they embrace even if there’s nothing new about them.

...Seeds clearly doesn’t possess the level of obsession invested in TV On The Radio’s two hallmark LPs, Return To Cookie Mountain and Dear Science, and Adebimpe has said as much upfront.

...Each song is singular, simply composed but well finished, harboring few surprises. Any one of them could be the single.

Seeds won’t go down as an essential or even particularly consummate TV On The Radio album, but it could very well fare better than others have on the charts, something that would be an appropriate, perfectly timed reward.

All this backhanded, butt-hurty complimenting in a record review that gives them a "C" grade. Yeah, what a letdown that they merely offered a collection of great songs by anyone's standards, rather than musically reinventing the wheel in a way that would flatter the cleverness of certain listeners who truly get it, man. Pfft. Motherfucker's lost his GOT-damn mind, that's what I say. It'll be days before I finally stop listening to this record. Favorite release this year, hands down.

Ancestor Worship

Some choice bits from Peter Wood's book Diversity:

• The new perspective of diversity is not just about emphasizing groups at the expense of the whole; it is also about treating groups as having saved up a right to special privileges in proportion to how much their purported ancestors were victimized in the past. This quid-pro-quo view has become a quasi principle that aims to encompass American life. It is invoked by its advocates, for example, as a reason why the federal government should set aside a certain percentage of federal contracts for minority-owned businesses, and why the federal courts should not apply the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions.

But is it more than a matter of government mandates. The diversity principle is also a belief that the portion of our individual identities that derives from our ancestry is the most important part, and a feeling that group identity is somehow more substantial and powerful than either our individuality or our common humanity.

• Diversity, in effect, enshrines certain kinds of factionalism as a universal good, just like liberty and equality. Well, no, not just like liberty and equality — better. Diversity raised to the level of counterconstitutional principle promises to free people from the pseudo-liberty of individualism and to restore to them the primacy of their group identities; and diversity raised to the summit of "critical thinking" insists that traditional notions of equality are a sham. Real equality, according to diversicrats, consists of parity among groups, and to achieve it, social goods must be measured out in ethnic quotas, purveyed by group preferences, or otherwise filtered according to the will of social factions.

• Once we allocate political rights by group identity, the assignment of group identity becomes the crucial determinant of everything else for the individual; the group gains a strong interest in ensuring the conformity of its members; the individual faces powerful pressure to conform; and the resentments only multiply.

And one section dealing with a common theme around these parts:

Diversity makes us think that, deep down, all religions say the same thing. But all religions don't say the same thing, and Islam especially dissents from the idea that its Truth is merely a local variant of the generic truth available in other flavors at other stores. To the extent that it blinds us to the kind of intellectual inquiry we need to understand these matters, diversity is not just folly; it is dangerous folly.

Religious toleration is, of course, nothing new, and if we are to understand the religion of diversity, we have to distinguish between several kinds of toleration. One form, which might be called Jeffersonian tolerance, regards all religions as more or less the same sort of mistake, and therefore equally due condescension. Tolerance of this nature may be based on deism, agnosticism, atheism, or mere indifference. It proceeds by a principle of prudence, to the effect that, as people believe many and conflicting things, the common good is best served by not making an issue out of anyone's faith.


Noel asks: Also, are you criticizing "Jeffersonian tolerance"?

No. I'm all in favor of it. I just found it amusing the way Wood openly stated what is usually the implied subtext, namely, that Jeffersonian tolerance is predicated upon treating religions as "more or less the same sort of mistake." Of course, being too open about that disdainful indifference would undermine the sort of cultural unity it was designed to promote. If anything, I would only like for more spiritual-not-religious types to appreciate the weighty significance of Jefferson's razor.

So, then, to clarify the rest of my interest in these excerpts:

I was struck by the succinct way Wood described the three lenses, if you will, through which we make sense of our identity — individuality, group identity, and common humanity. Now, as an (Isaiah) Berliner, I'm naturally predisposed to see these three perspectives as basically irreducible, and prone to being in conflict with each other. That is, none of the three can ever be the One True Perspective. Each one makes sense in the right context, or the right proportions.

Human beings being human beings, though, we tend toward Procrusteanism. When we find a concept or perspective we think is accurate, we tend to want it to be true at all times, in all situations, and so we stretch or chop the facts as needed. As an example of people who cling too tightly to individualism as an organizing concept, think of rigid, dogmatic libertarians, and the lengths to which they go to avoid acknowledging anything like a common humanity based on levels of obligation.

Likewise, diversity can be turned into an unquestionable moral virtue in and of itself and pushed to absurd lengths in contexts where it doesn't belong. Take the arts, for an obvious example.

• Stephin Merritt apparently failed to evince a properly proportional interest in music created by ethnic artists and was publicly trashed as a racist cracker.

• Lena Dunham is likewise accused of being racist for not including any ethnic characters in her TV show. (Terry Sawyer, the author of the linked article, does a good job limning the incoherent, contradictory demands even within the diversiphile camp.)

• Pitchfork magazine's readers vote for their favorite 200 albums of the last fifteen years, and diversiphiles complain that there aren't enough women on the list. This leads the intellectual featherweights at the Atlantic Wire to pop their thumbs out of their mouths long enough to muse about just how misogynist Pitchfork's readers might be.

• It is a popular cause online to talk about the VIDA count, and whine about how women aren't proportionally represented as either reviewers or reviewees in the major literary outlets, as if the right to a good shot at a successful literary career is on a par with the right to higher education. Some diversiphile writers, like Roxane Gay, even go so far as to call for quotas as a solution to this "problem". Now, one can argue, and I certainly have, that making literary criticism into yet another zero-sum battle between "white men" vs. "everyone else" is an insanely reductive and misguided obsession, that the purpose of literature and criticism is not to advance trendy social justice-y causes, and that the content of the art is what matters for the purpose of criticism, not the race and gender of the author, protagonist, or audience, but in doing so, one has to argue uphill against the facile assumption that "more diversity" is such an obvious plus that only bigots would oppose it.

This is what I mean when I say that diversity means different things in different contexts. Not every situation requires balanced ratios of gender or race. Not every disparity is a problem indicating oppression and requiring a solution. The world isn't going to be "fixed" when we get the ratios all correctly sorted.

Not only that, but there isn't even any consensus among diversiphiles as to what the ultimate goal of all this diversity is. Some think that by being exposed to people of all different races, religions and ways of life, the rough edges of our tribal natures will be sanded off, and we will better appreciate our common humanity. Others, especially SJWs, are fixated on preventing what they call "cultural appropriation", by which they mean greedy white people "stealing" ethnic cultural motifs. This amounts to rigidly defining and strictly policing the borders of what they consider to be different cultures. The fact that their rhetoric and logic is the mirror image of white separatism doesn't trouble their little pea-brains in the slightest. One Slymepitter whose opinions I generally like, a self-described right-wing black woman from New Zealand, once summed it up in a way that I actually saved for reference:

The idea of appropriation/cultural intellectual property is another one that creeps me out. People learn and adopt and remix cultural emblems and traditions because that’s the nature of how we interact and assimilate/create new paradigms. If you cut off a culture from the ability to be remixed by those outside it, then you are killing it. There is no difference from that to putting it in a museum or locking it away an a sanctuary somewhere. Cultures that you cannot adopt or enter into are endangered.

If you wanted to kill a minority culture than the best way to do so is to tell people they cannot be part of it, and it will ensure that the only culture that can be used/adopted by anyone is the majority one, which can be replicated and reused and entered-into without fear of repercussions.

They’re a movement of cultural exterminators.

And finally, I think certain conservatives do have a valid point when they scoff at the progressive fixation on diversity as being cosmetically diverse but ideologically conformist. That is, it's not too hard to find smug progressives who pride themselves on their magnanimous ability to tolerate the presence of people who look and speak differently from them while breaking out into hives upon encountering someone who substantively disagrees with them.

Somehow It Seems to Fill My Head with Ideas — Only I Don't Exactly Know What They Are!

Alex Ross:

Chronically disapproving as these thinkers were, they were not disengaged from the culture of their day. In order to dissect it, they bent over it. One great contribution that they made to the art of criticism was the idea that any object, no matter how seemingly trivial, was worth a searching glance. In the second volume of the Harvard Benjamin edition, covering the turbulent final years of the Weimar Republic, Benjamin variously analyzes Mickey Mouse (“In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization”), children’s books and toys, a food fair, Charlie Chaplin, hashish, and pornography (“Just as Niagara Falls feeds power stations, in the same way the downward torrent of language into smut and vulgarity should be used as a mighty source of energy to drive the dynamo of the creative act”). You often feel a tension between the intensity of the scrutiny and the modesty of the subject, as if an electron microscope were being used to read the fine print on a contract.

...One way or another, the Frankfurt School mode of criticism—its skeptical ardor, its relentless scouring of mundane surfaces—has spread far. When online recappers expend thousands of words debating the depiction of rape on “Game of Thrones,” or when writers publish histories of sneakers or of the office cubicle, they show intense awareness of mass culture’s ability to shape society.

...These implacable voices should stay active in our minds. Their dialectic of doubt prods us to pursue connections between what troubles us and what distracts us, to see the riven world behind the seamless screen. 

Arthur Krystal:

Postmodernism—which was smart, stimulating, ridiculous, and objectionable by turn—has left us in the lurch. Having discredited the centrality of the humanistic enterprise, the postmodern ethos of inversion has forced us to acknowledge that culture and all that culture once meant is not a thing apart but simply the semiotic expression of society’s need to sustain those in power. So hierarchies had to be dismantled; and onto the leveled playing field came poets who couldn’t tell an iamb from an apple, painters who couldn’t draw an apple, and conceptual "artists" like Damien Hirst who openly and cynically promote and sell non-art. Sheer frippery for the gullible.

The not-so-wonderful irony of the postmodern program was that its theoretic rigor and forceful determination to get to the bottom of things precipitated a great falling off in cultural life. Although we can’t quite return to the "innocence" of modernism (never mind its many supple and complicated byways), we’ve also lost our appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature. Yet art and literature still have a place in our lives. How to explain it without resorting to the assumptive modes of criticism that the postmodernists did their best to undermine? This perceived stasis of nowhere-to-go is leading humanists back to old-fashioned methods of relying on the hard data and empirical certainty of scientific research.

If questions of art, beauty, morality, and value continue to engage us, the answers, so it’s said, must lie in our genes. Or in our frontal cortices. Or in our innate capacity for wonder, which makes us adapt better to the wonder of existence. It’s anyone’s guess. It seems only that by ceding such questions to biological and cognitive science we have made peace, at least for the moment, with the ideas that used to make intellectuals reach for their pens and sometimes their guns. It’s hard to know exactly what this concession means, yet one can’t help but reflect that by placing too much faith in the human brain, we may be relinquishing the idea that the mind might one day fathom the human condition.

I found both of these articles enthralling and thought-provoking. Exactly which thoughts they've provoked in me, though, I can't really say. They occupy that intellectual sweet spot where I feel like they're really on to something important, even if I lack the perspective from which to articulate it and the wisdom to add anything to it. I share the sentiment that postmodernism's and critical theory's insistence on ruthlessly exposing the ignoble, ideological underpinnings of "higher" culture is a form of reductionism gone too far, but I don't feel they can be summarily dismissed as regrettable intellectual detours into falsehood, either. Either way, I appreciate being forced to have to think about it. Two thumbs up, highly recommended, give both of them a read.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

U Got That Look

Andrew Sullivan:

I can’t help but wonder also if this public display of raw masculinity isn’t also a reaction to the relative decline in male power in American life and culture. As girls beat boys in school, and as women increasingly beat men in college, and as women out-pace men in vast swathes of the economy, and as old patterns of allegedly sexist male culture are policed and patrolled with ever-greater assiduity, the beard and the old-school manliness of the lumbersexual become new ways to express masculinity which cannot be denigrated or dismissed as sexist. It’s a way to reclaim manliness without running afoul of the new prophets of gender justice.

It's s strange feeling to be ambling along for however many years, just doing my unremarkable, un-self-conscious thing, only to wake up one day and discover that certain tastemakers and media outlets have suddenly pronounced it to be a thing. Complete with an ideological stance, even! I knew there was a reason I kept those flannel shirts from twenty years ago; I just thought it was because they were so soft and comfortable and made to last.

Me, I was devastated years ago by the loss of my youngest dog to lymphoma, and in my grief, I happened to let a few weeks go by without shaving. As I returned to equilibrium, I decided that I greatly preferred the way I looked with a beard and decided to keep it, and so I have done. I wish I could pretend it had a more exciting genesis than that, but at least I'll still like the way I look with it long after the politically-bearded have moved on to different fashions.

And what about that suddenly-fashionable appearance of mine? Well, according to the correspondent who recently sent me this picture from a beard site, I bear a "striking resemblance" to this guy:

Hmm. Well, the build and hairstyle are pretty much the same. My eyes are normally a little wider than that. I'm not as visibly tattooed, though, and my hair is a blend of ash-blond and light brown rather than red. And he's probably a month or two ahead of me in the beard-length department. But yeah, I could probably strike a very similar pose, so I'll accept it and be flattered by the comparison! I mean, that's one handsome dude. Why, I could possibly even go a little gay for a fine-looking fellow like that. What? I could. Just a little bit, you know.

Howard: If I don't get some action soon, I'm going gay.
Vince: What? You?
Howard: What's so funny about that?
Vince: You are the LEAST gay person I've ever met.
Howard: I COULD go gay. You've got me all wrong. I could go gay like THAT, sir!
Vince: You can't just go gay! It's not like buying a ladder!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Well, You Never Do Nothin' to Save Your Doggone Soul

John Gray:

Soylent is the ultimate fast food - but it's unclear why we feel such an intense need for more time. If you're struggling to make ends meet, juggling the demands of family and several part-time jobs, you might well dream of having an extra day in the week. But I doubt whether many who are in this position would consider giving up meals in order to work even harder than they already do, and in any case they aren't the people to whom the food replacement is being marketed. It's those that are reasonably well off, and yet think of themselves as being chronically pressured, that are being targeted.

It's worth asking how we've become as time-poor as we feel we are today. I'm old enough to remember discussions of 40 or 50 years ago about how we'd fill our days when most kinds of human labour were done by machines. Technology is largely a succession of time-saving devices. It's strange, then, that an age of unprecedented technological advance should also be one of such acute time-poverty. Are we really dreaming of living more slowly? Or could it be that many of us are secretly addicted to the fast life?

One answer to these questions can be gleaned from the writings of the 17th Century mathematician Blaise Pascal, who invented the modern theory of probability and designed the world's first urban mass transit system. In his Pensees, a series of reflections mostly devoted to religious topics, Pascal suggested that humans are driven by a need for diversion. A life that's always time-pressed might seem a recipe for unhappiness, but in fact the opposite is true. Human beings are much more miserable when they have nothing to do and plenty of time in which to do it. When we're inactive or slow down the pace at which we live, we can't help thinking of features of our lives we'd prefer to forget - above all, the fact that we're going to die. By being always on the move and never leaving ourselves without distraction, we can avoid such disturbing thoughts.

Similarly, the late-twentieth-century philosopher Alanis Morrissette questioned our ability to handle silence without thinking about our bills, our exes, our deadlines, or when we think we're going to die, wondering if we merely suffer through it while longing for the next distraction. Well, she may not have been able to carry a tune to save her life, but she at least possessed more penetrating insight into the human psyche than a naïf like Nicholas Carr, who still gets called "essential reading" for peddling the sort of story that people love to hear, namely, that it's not our fault we never wrote that novel, seized the day, sucked the marrow out of life; technology rewired our brains and took our fate out of our hands.

This becomes a convenient excuse to avoid the introspection which might reveal some unpleasant personal truths. Maybe I don't enjoy reading books and living deliberately. Maybe I don't have any deep and meaningful friendships. Maybe I actually prefer to spend my evenings watching reality TV and snacking on junk food. Maybe I just realize that professing higher aspirations is what people of a certain cultural class are expected to do, and I don't have the courage to set myself against that. Maybe I'm just not particularly smart, brave, talented or special at all, and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

These are the sorts of questions that will never be raised if you take people at face value when they complain about forces beyond their control preventing them from realizing their dreams. People want mutually exclusive things all the time without seeming to be aware of it.

Don't get me wrong. I wholeheartedly encourage people to spend time reading, focusing, introspecting, and all those other qualities that comprise the "contemplative literate subject".  I aim for that ideal myself. Achieving it on my terms, however, has required some tradeoffs. I've turned down a few opportunities for career advancement, which has probably reduced my esteem in the eyes of others in addition to the obvious financial downside. One reason why I've never wanted to have children (another choice with at least some social disapproval) was because of the cost involved in raising them, which would make it difficult if not impossible to resist such career opportunities. I'll buy my jeans from Goodwill for seven bucks apiece and have my $50 Kmart winter coat, which I've had for fifteen years, sewn and patched because I'd rather spend my disposable income on more books. (I'm not saying that's a hardship, just that I definitely do not cut a dashing, fashionable figure, which seems to be an important thing to many people.) And even if you do succeed in carving out enough space in your life to cherish contemplation, you may feel lonely upon discovering that almost all your peers and friends have no time or desire to join you there.

I'm fortunate in that none of this is too heavy of a price for me to pay. But I don't expect that most people can or should feel the same way. If you truly feel that your life is missing too much of the stuff that "really matters", what hard choices are you prepared to make to change that? Call me pessimistic if you must, but I do believe that there's a tragic dimension to life that needs to be confronted and accepted.

Abraham Maslow said that "It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement." In the absence of that knowledge, people at least understand what it is they're supposed to want and make impotent gestures in that direction which will, of course, do nothing to alleviate their existential aches.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chills the Body But Not the Soul, Hallelujah

Tom Nissley:

November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely.

I'm sorry; was somebody sniffling and whimpering? I couldn't quite hear it over the sound of frost crunching under my feet as I joyfully danced on warm weather's grave.

November is the feeling of weakness leaving the calendar year. Embrace it. (And P.S. — spell the word with the respect befitting such a stoic, regal time of year.)

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Chris Plante and Arielle Duhaime-Ross:

No one knows why Taylor chose to wear that shirt on television during a massive scientific mission. From what we can tell, a woman who goes by the name of Elly Prizeman on Twitter made the shirt for him, and is just as bewildered as he must be that anyone might be upset about her creation. Taylor apologized on Friday during a live ESA broadcast for wearing the shirt, stating that "the shirt I wore this week... I made a big mistake and I offended many people, and I'm very sorry about this." Still, Taylor's personal apology doesn't make up for the fact that no one at ESA saw fit to stop him from representing the Space community with clothing that demeans 50 percent of the world's population. No one asked him to take it off, because presumably they didn't think about it. It wasn't worth worrying about.

This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don't feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague's office and they know they aren't respected. They hear comments about "bitches" while out at a bar with fellow science students, and they decide to change majors. And those are the women who actually make it that far. Those are the few who persevered even when they were discouraged from pursuing degrees in physics, chemistry, and math throughout high school. These are the women who forged on despite the fact that they were told by elementary school classmates and the media at large that girls who like science are nerdy and unattractive. This is the climate women who dream of working at NASA or the ESA come up against, every single day. This shirt is representative of all of that, and the ESA has yet to issue a statement or apologize for that.

Emphasis mine. I swear, I'm beginning to suspect that these people are the result of an intensive, long-term breeding program designed to produce some kind of human super-terrier that can tunnel through layers of solid rock in fanatical pursuit of the faintest trace odor of offense to be taken.

As a good pluralist, I'm naturally inclined to believe that most issues admit of more than one valid interpretation. Ferzample, there's nothing inherently wrong with being the type of person who sees a shirt covered in images of sexy pinup girls and gets offended. You can offer up a number of reasons why such a person might be mistaken to see it that way, or perhaps some suggestions that life will be more pleasant and productive for them if they try to lighten up and take a less-judgmental stance, but ultimately, they're entitled to feel however they want. And even for those of us who don't go through life with a thorny stick wedged painfully in our posteriors and perpetually pursed, disapproving, lemon-sucking lips, it can of course be fairly argued that, whatever the backstory, it's at least inappropriate to wear a shirt like that on that particular occasion. It's obviously not worth being put through a show trial, but being pulled aside and told, "Hey, dude, come on, you're going to be on international television; maybe something a little less gaudy" wouldn't be an onerous imposition.

Notice, though, how a certain type of Puritanical feminist refuses to even consider the possibility that other people could have different, yet equally valid reactions to seeing Taylor's shirt. As you may have heard by now, Elly Prizeman is a close friend of Taylor's. He was the best man at her wedding. She made him the shirt as a gift, and he wore it to give her artwork a little publicity boost. Nonetheless, her opinion doesn't count, femininity notwithstanding. Any other woman shrugging her shoulders and saying, "What's the big deal?" would likewise be dismissed as irrelevant and unwelcome in the discussion. 50% of the world's population is being demeaned by that shirt! Of course, if even 50% of that 50% stood up and said, "Actually, we don't see it as a problem; you just need to chill the fuck out," their objections would be overruled even as their existence would continue to be cited as support for the Puritanical view. No woman could possibly see him wearing that shirt in conjunction with his tattoos and general demeanor and think Hey, he looks like a fun guy; no, they would see him as intimidating and threatening. They wouldn't "feel welcome". This is all stated as matter of fact, not as one perspective among many.

Notice the immediate assumption of the absolute worst-case interpretation. Generic sexual images, even campy ones, when sported or appreciated by a man, are sexist. Inherently offensive and harmful. The images of sultry, busty babes couldn't possibly be equally representative of comic book art or cheesy SFF; they can only represent filthy, degrading, aggressive animal lust, which all right-thinking people should be properly ashamed of. Any woman who sees them will take them personally and feel disrespected. Any man who enjoys them can clearly only think of women as second-class citizens, mere blow-up dolls to be used, abused, and cast aside. Nothing positive could ever be associated with them. Their very existence, especially when made public in any way, demeans all women, even the poor brainwashed ones who stubbornly cling to their ignorant opinions to the contrary.

Notice how the slippery-slope argument becomes a sheer logical plummet down the face of a cliff, as Taylor's shirt becomes an inkblot suggesting everything a woman could ever find to complain about. Well, again, they're free to find tendentious causal connections wherever they want, but the rest of us are also free to point out that they are simply projecting their own twisted, morbid obsessions onto everyone else, in the long-established tradition of fundamentalist crusaders of all kinds.

One member of the Slymepit had what I thought was a good take on it:

So a man is the best man of a woman. The woman makes him a shirt as a thank you. He wears it. Sounds like a pretty normal thing to do among normal, socially aware, empathetic people.

But since there was a woman in a sexy position on that shirt, suddenly the man is the devil, he sets back history, he's sexist, he's the reason why women are raped, etc.

And they say they're sex positive, progressive people. I've met nuns who were less of a prude. This objectification rhetoric hides pearl-clutching former fundies who get mad when they see female flesh exposed, be it real or fictional.

Also, for people who are all about "empathy", SJWs have very little social and emotional empathy of their own. They don't seem to understand the concept of being proud of your work, or of having friends, or even of humor and a relaxed attitude towards sexuality. They've lost the sense of wonder before the accomplishments of the human race.

It seems like a trivial, almost painfully obvious point to me, but apparently it needs to be said anyway: these people represent an extreme viewpoint, only one of many possible viewpoints, but for some odd reason, a lot of otherwise moderate people, as well as a lot of media outlets, seem inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt when they aggressively proceed as if theirs is the one true perspective on gender issues. Oh, for the day when this unthinking, groveling deference finally wears off...

Friday, November 14, 2014

Things I Thought I Figured Out, I Have to Learn Again

Brian comments on the previous post:

Now, in attacking the illiberalness of the SJWs, one cannot forget that the far more numerous, far more powerful right wing equivalents are even nuttier-arguably far more insane. For every "video games are sexist" there are ten "Obama and his transgendered wife are plotting to take over the United States for ISIS and impost Shariah Law by 2020!"

So...we have to maintain perspective. Because the insane right elects Congresscritters!

(I started to respond there, but I soon realized I was going to exceed the comment box character limit, and since I can't be bothered to post that often these days, I decided to go ahead and turn this into a post of its own.)

True, lunacy is a bipartisan phenomenon, though I question whether there is any meaningful way to quantify which side is "worse" or more numerous. That's a value judgment which might only reflect your own filter bubble. Certainly, there's no shortage of people on either side who deserve criticism. But a Fairness Doctrine-style approach ("I just wrote a post criticizing SJWs, so now I need to write one criticizing theocrats") has its own downside, namely a vapid centrism that values equidistance over substance. Powerless outsiders, of which I am one, can afford to speak the truth as they see it without having to worry about where it will land on someone else's multi-dimensional political chessboard. More on that in a moment.

I don't think anyone would argue against the need to maintain perspective. The argument would hinge on whether a certain perspective was relevant or not. The fact that Republicans took control of the Senate has nothing to do with the question of whether SJWs are illiberal morons who deserve to be pelted with garbage and rotten fruit until they run home crying like the overgrown toddlers they are. Calling SJWs overgrown toddlers does not directly lead to more people abandoning the Democrats and voting Republican. A perspective which insists on understanding SJWs in relation to Christian Dominionists may be like trying to derive the square root of green. The framework is all wrong.

Here's a basic truth: humans make sense of the world through narratives, not facts. Now, I don't mean that facts are completely irrelevant and we're all totally irrational. I mean that the number of facts pertaining to any given situation is, practically speaking, limitless. This is a banal truism. However, we tend to overlook it because evolution has equipped our brains with efficient pattern-seeking software that allows us to quickly and effortlessly recognize the facts which are relevant for our immediate purposes while filtering out and forgetting the rest of the irrelevant data, which never even rises to the level of our conscious attention. We could not function otherwise. We would spend so much time collecting data to make the simplest of decisions that the time to act would pass and the situation would change before we ever finished. We have no choice but to make imperfect decisions based on incomplete information. Thus, we already have an intuitive sense of what it is we're looking for when we first start to pay attention to an issue. We notice which facts are relevant to us and connect them together. That process of connecting relevant facts is what we call a narrative, and the template for forming one is far more fundamental to the way our minds work than any objective striving after truth for its own sake.

Narratives are generally very useful (or, as a bumper sticker I saw once put it, "Stereotypes are a real time-saver"). You aren't likely to go drastically wrong by sticking to one, as long as you remain flexible enough to modify it as needed. The perennial human problem, though, is that we tend to prune new facts to fit our preferred narrative, rather than the other way around. Eventually, this catches up to us, and we have to choose between the pain of looking like a complete fool by being stubbornly wrong, or the pain of having to let go of a useful framework and start making sense of the world in a different way. Judging by the evidence, a lot of people seem to find it easier to accept looking foolish.

The moral of the story in the previous post was about the inevitable failure of narratives, and how we react in the event. If you have long been favorably inclined to liberal/left perspectives on sociopolitical issues, only to be rudely shocked out of your complacency by the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of today's SJWs, how do you respond? Do you hurry to construct a new narrative that rationalizes their excesses by comparison to someone "worse"? Or do you take the opportunity to cultivate an attitude of tentative humility, a determination to think things through slowly and deliberately, a refusal to be bullied or rushed into jumping to conclusions?

It's fine to say, "These SJWs are largely a bunch of dumb postgrads with no real power. Most of them will probably settle down and outgrow their intersectionalist bullshit as they pursue careers and families. If you're concerned about political issues at all, you should be far more concerned over how elected officials and their financial backers believe and behave." That is a perfectly sensible and valid perspective to hold. However, it is not the only valid perspective, and not every issue can be coded in utilitarian terms of right vs. left politics. In the zero-sum environment of the voting booth, yes, you have no meaningful alternative to choosing the Democrat or the Republican. In the twitosphere, though, you are not being forced to choose between Anita Sarkeesian or Elliot Rodger, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is a lying demagogue. For example, if you approach Gamergate with a framework like, "Okay, who are the right-wingers and left-wingers here?", you're going to miss so many important nuances. Not every issue is a tributary feeding into the sea-level discourse of whether this ultimately benefits the left or the right. Personally, I'm not terribly invested in the fate of the political left. I agree with those who say that it is largely moribund, and I have no idea how to reinvigorate it. I only feel (provisionally) certain of the fact that no fruit worth keeping is going to grow from the roots and soil that comprise SJW-style politics, and thus I feel no obligation to tamp down my disgust for them. If the left can't ultimately offer up anything better than them, it deserves its impotence and irrelevance.

Finally, different contexts allow for different emphases. If I were politically powerful and influential, then yes, it would be important to consider all the "optics" of how my words would be taken. But I am an absolute nobody writing on a blog that no one reads. I write for no reason but my own entertainment and satisfaction. I'm solely interested in making sense of the world, not declaring my allegiance to an agenda. I can't imagine anything sadder than having that complete freedom, only to voluntarily don the chains of other people's expectations. What consequences should I be concerned about? I don't care if someone gets the wrong impression about me as a person because they can't tell what my politics are by a quick glance here. In fact, I would resent any implication that I owe it to some hypothetical reader to spell out exactly what I stand for and why. Fuck you, hypothetical reader, you lazy bastard. Do the reading and thinking to figure it out yourself. Or don't. Makes no difference to me. Bum-bum-bum-ba-bum-bum, I feel free...