Monday, July 27, 2015

Can I Get an Amen?

Because this isn’t what is actually on the Antiracists’ mind. The call for people to soberly “acknowledge” their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.

The proper response to original sin is to embrace the teachings of Jesus, although one will remain always a sinner nevertheless. The proper response to White Privilege is to embrace the teachings of—well, you can fill in the name or substitute others—with the understanding that you will always harbor the Privilege nevertheless. Note that many embrace the idea of inculcating white kids with their responsibility to acknowledge Privilege from as early an age as possible, in sessions starting as early as elementary school. This, in the Naciremian sense, is Sunday school.

Think of it. A certain class of white person, roughly those who watched 30 Rock and Mad Men, lustily pumps their fists at the writings of a Coates who says that he is surprised that white people—i.e. ones like them—are interested enough in black people and racism to even bother reading his work. Coates is telling these people that they are sinners, in a sense, and they are eagerly drinking in the charge, “revering” him for it. This, ladies and gentlemen, is worship, pure and simple.

Might as Well Be Hung for a Sheep as for a Lamb

Aristotelis Originos:

In a dazzlingly archetypical display of horseshoe theory, this particular brand of millennial social justice advocates have warped an admirable cause for social, economic, and political equality into a socially authoritarian movement that has divided and dehumanized individuals on the basis of an insular ideology guised as academic theory.

I realize that this is merely a rhetorical trope which serves to position the speaker as reluctantly critical, rather than innately hostile, but the vapidity of it is still annoying. The vague, amorphous cause for "social, economic and political equality" (whatever the fuck that actually means in reality) does not need to be "warped" in order to become authoritarian; in fact, it's part of the blueprint. The only way such a state of affairs could be achieved and maintained would be through some form of authoritarianism. You don't have to be a card-carrying libertarian to see that as long as people are free to think and act for themselves, they will inevitably defy the best-laid plans of social engineers; hierarchies, both benign and harmful, will inevitably spring up like toadstools after a rainstorm unless they are mowed down. Calling the cause "admirable" is a pointless concession to make. You're already one of the damned.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

This Is the Day of the Expanding Man. That Shape Is My Shame, There Where I Used to Stand

Ruth Fowler:

Educating the general public about the trials of being a larger woman is a worthy endeavor. But calling thinness a “privilege” presumes that thin people do not understand the suffering of anyone deemed by the western world to be “fat,” or do not have their own struggles. West and her brand of pro-fat feminism also wander into the rocky territory of oversimplified identity politics, trying to equate dress size with other oppressions such as racism, sexism and poverty, and ignoring that one’s weight is not an inherent privilege. 

Last fall, I aggravated a recurring knee injury. Apparently I got a small tear in my meniscus. I say "apparently" because an MRI would have been expensive enough even without factoring in surgery to fix it, so I was content to just take my doctor's best guess based on a physical exam. Not long after that, I began to feel the stirrings of an inguinal hernia on the left side, a year and a half after having the right side repaired. This was all on top of a very painful ganglion cyst in my wrist that had made weightlifting too onerous. Suffice it to say, this was demoralizing after having gotten back into a regular exercise routine, so I was feeling quite sorry for myself through the winter.

In late April of this year, I went in for an appointment with my rheumatologist. I complained about my ankles, knees, hips and back aching more than usual, expecting that he might suggest my arthritis meds were losing their effectiveness, as they are known to do in many patients over time. Surprisingly, though, he said my bloodwork looked perfectly normal. My body wasn't showing any signs of reacting to inflammation. Honestly, he told me, the best thing you can do then is to lose more weight. Take more of those pounds-per-square inch off your joints, which have already taken enough abuse from the arthritis.

Had you asked me that morning why I wasn't working out regularly anymore, I would have complained that I was in too much pain, and that I would probably need more effective drugs to get me to the point where I could start up again. Now I didn't have that excuse anymore.

When I got home from work, my inamorata and I sketched out a brief meal plan based on reducing calories to around 1800-2000 a day and incorporating more fats and protein at the expense of carbs (this is something I never had the discipline to do on my own, but I've come to see that it is far and away the most important thing). Then I went out to the porch to begin my stretching routine before getting back on the treadmill.

Five minutes in, the muscles alongside my shins were starting to cramp. Shortly after that, my feet were protesting. By the end of a half-hour walk, I had reduced my speed and needed to grasp the handrails to keep steady. It was painful and humbling.

Still, the next day, I did it again. And the day after that. And every day since then. Having started by struggling mightily to walk two miles, I now walk four or five easily, at an increased pace. The minor aches faded soon enough, the knee healed well enough, and the hernia has benefitted from having less weight pressing down on it. I've never had any overwhelming hunger cravings or needed to exceed my calorie budget. I've lost thirty pounds in those three months, and aim to lose as much as thirty more (which would put me back to skinny soccer-playing weight). Even if I eventually ease off on the exercise, I think I've acquired enough knowledge and discipline about meal preparation to keep from overeating again.

I won't pretend to know exactly what it's like to be genuinely obese. Even at my weightiest, thanks to my former athleticism, I never showed more than a slight paunch and love handles. But it was enough to be disappointing in front of a mirror, and it certainly felt awful from a physical standpoint. Nonetheless, the point I'm making is that nothing at all changed on that spring day except my mentality. I could eat sugary snacks or pizza with the best of them, but after that, I simply stopped doing it. Those foods didn't become less tasty, I just cared more about losing weight and feeling better. I'm not superhuman, I'm just motivated. It wasn't like I got some grim warning that I needed to lose weight or else face an imminent demise. It was just a suggestion. I just decided to act on it. The rest is all rationalization and procrasturbation.

The Mere Mouthing

Shelby Steele:

In this new liberalism, dissociation from America's characterological evil was not simply a means to a better world; it was an end in itself, a gesture that proved the decency of individuals and the legitimacy of institutions...The point is that America met the great challenge of the 1960s by inventing a faux human virtue — the idea that a vicarious or merely symbolic dissociation from America's evil past counted as a timeless human virtue like courage or honesty or perseverance, all of which require selflessness and sacrifice.

Dissociation is an artificial virtue because its entire reason for being is to avoid the selflessness, sacrifice and risk that true virtue inevitably involves. It gives us a road to the decency and legitimacy we want while sparing us the difficulty and struggle of true virtue. Dissociation turns virtue into a mask. It gives us the means to construct a "face of The Good." It counts the mere mouthing of glossy ideas of The Good the same as an honest struggle toward what is actually possible.

For example, how does a people emerging from four centuries of racial oppression actually overcome all the damage done by that oppression and reach a true and self-evident equality with others? Dissociation spares America the need to wrestle with this. It asks us only to identify with public policies contrived around vague effusions of The Good, like multiculturalism, diversity, gender equity, etc.

See also: virtue signaling, the unwelcome burden of agency, social media as a playpen for political posers, and the general worthlessness of online progressives. What a delight it has been to discover Steele's work. An incisive thinker and an excellent writer.

Friday, July 24, 2015

It Ain't No Trick to Get Rich Quick if You Dig, Dig, Dig With a Shovel or a Pick

So, what aspect of pop culture are the philistines running the Socialist Realism rule over today?

Is there any other production house operating today that is more obsessed with narratives of the workplace and employment? The basic Pixar story is that of an individual seeking to establish, refine, or preserve their function as an instrument within a system of labor. The only way Pixar is able to conceptualize a protagonist is to assign them a job (or a conspicuous lack of one) and arrange the mechanisms of plot to ensure that they fulfill that job. This is why Joy can only accept Sadness once she comes to understand what it is she does.

Pixar’s debut film organized a scenario involving sentient toys as a narrative about two men fighting for the same job. In not one but two sequels, it revisited those same characters in a narrative about how bad retirement is, and how awful it is to be made redundant. In Monsters, Inc., it developed a parallel universe populated by monsters and powered by childrens’ screams to tell a story about a workplace duo striving to be the most efficient employees. Up is ultimately a film about how unthinkable it is to retire; even elderly widowers must find a new vocation. In film after film, Pixar presents narratives chiefly concerned with characters trying to be the best at what they do, or otherwise prove their usefulness.

This excess, epitomized as the complete entanglement of an individual’s private life with their employment, is at the core of Pixar’s conceptualization of what it is to be a person: In every Pixar film, the protagonist’s arc is oriented toward the ultimate goal of being an efficient, productive worker—whether employment has been thematized as being a father, princess, robot janitor, toy, ant colonist, harvester of screams, adventurer in South America, or otherwise. For Pixar, to live is to work. Cars is a film about an ambitious racecar who is forced to chill out and not be so competitive, except he really just learns that chilling out and not being so competitive is the key to being an even better competitor. This is coming from a workplace culture that, under the guise of compassion, has erased the distinction between free time and labor time, and expects their employees not to notice that they working that much harder.

At its bottom, this is the logic of pure capitalism. In an economy structured around limitless growth, dynamism must become the natural state of things. Idle capital is unproductive capital and an unproductive worker is a waste of resources. The virtuous citizen cannot only consume but must produce, an imperative that finds its current (and particularly American) incarnation in the entrepreneur, the boot-strapper, the rags-to-riches hero, who is too busy pulling themselves up by their laces to notice that there’s no top to reach. The natural and profitable ideological by-product of this fixation is an abhorrence of collectivism—and therefore organized labor. To be collective, to be one among many, is to no longer be a special individual producer, which is its own kind of death. This is why Toy Story 2 abhors the idea of Woody becoming part of a box set.

End Tha Police

Mariame Kaba:

History offers evidence of the intractability of the problem of police violence. What should we do then? Quite simply, we must end the police.

Those of us who maintain that reform is actually impossible within the current context are positioned as unreasonable and naïve. Ideological formations often operate invisibly to delineate and define what is acceptable discourse. Challenges to dominant ideological formations about “justice” are met with anger, ridicule or are simply ignored. This is in the service of those who benefit from the current system and to enforce white supremacy and anti-blackness.

And You Can Speak Your Mind, But Not on My Time (Slight Return)

Scott Alexander:

It’s a truism that the First Amendment only protects citizens from the government, not from other citizens. Nothing stops a private college from expelling any student who criticizes the administration, and nothing stops a private business from firing any employee who doesn’t support the boss’ preferred candidate. We apparently place our trust in the multiplicity of the market to maintain some semblance of freedom; out of thousands of competing companies, not all will ban the same political positions; if too many did so, other companies would start offering freedom of speech as a benefit and poach the more repressive companies’ employees and customers.

It’s a little concerning that we accept this argument about freedom of speech when we don’t accept it for anything else. We don’t trust the free market to necessarily preserve racial equality – that’s what anti-discrimination laws are for. We don’t trust the free market to necessarily preserve worker safety – that’s what OSHA and related regulations are for. We don’t even trust the free market to necessarily preserve fire safety – that’s why federal inspectors have to come in every so often to make sure you’re not secretly plotting to let your employees fry. Whenever we think something is important, we regulate the hell out of it, rights-of-private-companies to-set-their-own-policies be damned. But free speech? If you don’t trust the free market to sort it out, the only possible explanation is that you just don’t understand the literal text of the First Amendment.

He goes on to develop this line of thinking in relation to the recent uproar over Reddit, and as always, it's worth reading the whole thing. I'd like to think that arguments like his would eventually penetrate some thick skulls, but I'm afraid we just live in an age where the cultural pendulum has swung further in favor of hypersensitivity to offense. It'll swing back the other way on its own schedule eventually.

To be clear, I don't believe there's any kind of law that can prevent the sort of miserly attitude toward free speech that dominates discussions today (and I don't think Alexander does either, despite the impression a lazy reader might get from this excerpt). The case in favor of a more expansive conception of the spirit of free speech is essentially a moral one.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Nobody Said It Was Easy

Michael Novak:

Dostoevsky predicted this: Humans claim to want liberty but then shuck it off when its attendant responsibilities become irksome. I have come to judge "progressivism" itself to be a well-intentioned but deadly error. It overrates human innocence and goodness and underrates human weakness and preference for getting things for free rather than as a result of arduous work. It claims to want equality, but it does not grasp how that demand undermines the motive for initiative and hard work.

Shelby Steele:

We all, as individuals and groups, have an ambivalent relationship to agency because it is always a call to the will. To be free, and to have ultimate responsibility for a problem, is to be called upon to exert one's will to solve it. Agency demands that we find will even if we are mired in inertia. Thus one of the most common dodges in human experience is to deny agency by denying freedom. We say we are not free enough to have agency over our problem. We are not free enough for responsibility. If we can escape freedom, we can escape agency with its difficult call to will, sacrifice, effort and risk.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Easy Likes on Sunday Morning

I've always liked reading John McWhorter. Here's a twofer from him. One:

Some might object that we should not check that impulse, and that extremism is necessary to create lasting social change. But it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.

And two:

Note that none of these things involve white people “realizing” anything. These are the kinds of concrete policy goals that people genuinely interested in seeing change ought to espouse. If these things seem somehow less attractive than calling for revolutionary changes in how white people think and how the nation operates, then this is for emotional reasons, not political ones. A black identity founded on how other people think about us is a broken one indeed, and we will have more of a sense of victory in having won the game we’re in rather than insisting that for us and only us, the rules have to be rewritten.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

By the Time We Met the Times Had Already Changed

Now it seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive

Arcade Fire

Teddy Wayne:

While the numbers cannot account for how many emails are personal, it stands to reason that few sent on business accounts are — and that people are often too exhausted from the relentless inundation to compose meaningful letters.

“I very rarely get a long email from someone,” said John Freeman, a literary critic and the author of the nonfiction book “The Tyranny of E-Mail.” He compared the current era, in which “everyone is overwhelmed” by his or her inbox, with his time after college in the late ’90s, “when people still did write long emails” and “there was something exhilarating,” he said, about the upstart free technology that enabled connectivity with anyone.

If there was a golden age of the epistolary personal email, it most likely started in this period and ended sometime in the late aughts.

I truly feel sorry for anyone who hasn't had the experience of a friendship based on lengthy email exchanges. I've had several over the years, with Arthur and Shanna being especially stalwart electronic companions up to the present day. Now, I love writing here in this space, but there are lots of times when the relaxed, personal nature of email is even better for breaking up logjams of thought. I don't know whether it would be more accurate to call it a process of discovery or creation, but either way, it's certainly true that aspects of my thought, and even my character, have only been brought to light in the course of an extended conversation, spanning over days or weeks, where they would have otherwise remained inchoate and unexamined.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

I Don't Want to Be the Type of Guy Who Lives Alone Reading Books and Never Eats a Pizza Pie

Jake Bittle:

Delight in book collecting, and in showing off one’s book collection, is common, if not universal, among readers and would-be-readers. The biggest reason we spend money on books is because we want to read them (eventually), but that isn’t the only reason: we also like to look at them, and to look at other people looking at them.

...The way I treat my books shows that no matter how important they are to me as things to read, they also exist as decorative objects and status symbols. Luckily for me (and all other similarly afflicted book lovers), recent technological advances have provided something like an alternative to this “literary materialism” in the form of e-books. If collecting physical books distracts me from a humbler and less self-centered reading experience, then eliminating the physical component of the books seems like it would help to eliminate the vanity that comes with them. I could free up a lot of shelf space, make a fair amount of money at used bookstores and clean my environmental conscience, all while getting the same edification that I have always gotten from novels and essays. The only downside is that nobody would be able to tell from visiting my apartment that books are my body and soul.

He goes on like this at length, chastising himself for not being ascetically devoted to the disembodied Platonic essence of study and inquiry. Well, let me suggest that if your book collection is becoming an object of vanity and status, you can always eliminate all the relationships which might entail someone coming over to visit and laying eyes upon it. No audience, no problem. I mean, assuming you're serious, and not just a poser.

A Dangerous Crossing, A Dangerous Trembling and Halting

Here's to a truth we knew
It was a feeling that I shared with you
It could only be hinted at with metaphor
Crudely drawn clichéd form
But I knew what I knew

TV on the Radio

James McWilliams:

When it comes to these questions, it’s worth wondering if empiricism hasn’t run amok in the halls of academe. After all, if we go about the business of being ambitious humans armed with an empiricism that grasps and gobbles up and conquers everything up to and including consciousness, it seems reasonable to wonder if we’ll lose something essential to the precarious project of being human—something such as humility. If nothing else, Nagel’s challenge reaffirms the value of humility.

I have no hard proof for this thesis, but I think there’s something to it: Knowing that there are things we don’t know—and may never know—has a humbling effect on the human mind. Humility is a form of modesty that asks us to accept ambiguity. Ambiguity, in turn, is ultimately what brings us together to explore the mysteries of existence through the wonder-driven endeavors we lump under that broad umbrella known as the humanities. If we knew it all, if we understood what it was like to be a bat, probably even Logan Sander would not be a comparative literature major.

In a way, to catch consciousness, to close the mind-body gap, would be to eliminate that humility. It would be to answer most of the big questions—to collapse the umbrella and move into a post-human world. And that might sound great to logical positivists and atheists and neurobiologists. But as the essayist Charles D’Ambrosio reminds us, “Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning.”

Are we really ready to stop talking?

Loyal Opposition

People who traffic in symbolic manipulation—and that’s most of us, these digital days—are typically inclined to overrate the importance of symbolic manipulation. It’s always tempting to think that to exercise control over symbols—like the Confederate battle flag, which, for the record, I have long despised—is to strike a blow for justice. Again, social media play a key role here: Jerry Gaus once wrote an article “On the Difficult Virtue of Minding One’s Own Business”, but given the hyperpublic character of the web services most of us rely on, and the difficulty of getting any of them to reliably provide intimacy gradients, everyone’s business now seems to be everyone else’s business. In such a environment, ABP—Always Be Policing—is the watchword. Survey and critique others, lest you make yourself subject to surveillance and critique. And use the proper Hashtags of Solidarity, or you might end up like that guy who was the first to stop applauding Stalin’s speech.

Minding your own business, on this commonly-held account of things, is a vice, not a virtue, and those who handle disagreement peaceably are ipso facto deficient in their commitment to justice. To restore a belief to the positive value of disagreement, here, would be a challenging task indeed. When Bernard Williams writes of disagreement as “an important and constitutive feature of our relations to others,” he is speaking a moral language that’s incomprehensible to those for whom free speech is so last century and for whom history is always a story of moral progress.

How might such people come to see, with Williams, the virtue of moral and epistemic humility? How might they be brought to see that it can be a positive good to belong to a society in which people with deep disagreements, even about sexuality and personal self-determination, can live in peace with one another and, just possibly, converse? I have absolutely no idea.

I Believe in a Thing Called Art, Just Listen to the Rhythm of My Heart

William A. Henry III:

The emphasis on tribalism, tokenism, and toeing the political line is, if anything, more painful in the realm of culture, which traditionally represents the highest aspirations of the individual, than it is in other realms of the life of the mind.

This book was published in 1994. Like a few others I've recently discovered, it examines the last wave of political correctness from the perspective of a self-proclaimed liberal. And like those other books, the examples of language-policing, feminist excess and general lunacy it offers could have been plucked from online media within the last week. It just goes to show what a sad holding pattern progressive politics have been stuck in for the last few generations. Fighting the same old symbolitical battles over and over again. Culture war re-enactors make a killing nowadays, me, oh, my.

The problem is, as progressives find themselves repeatedly running up against a solid wall in the political realm, their frustration inevitably leads them to turn their attention to other areas where they can assert some measure of control. Art and pop culture prove to be especially irresistible targets for neophyte commissars.

My political hopes are quite modest. I assume things will always be some degree of fucked-up, and no one will ever be happy with things as they are at any given time. I'm in favor of the least worst version of fucking things up, whatever that may be. But there's still a glimmer of idealism in me nonetheless. I believe in the enduring power of art, even popular art, even escapist novels and rock music, to change the lives of its audience in subtle ways that cannot be reduced to, or predicted by, the gender/race/ideology of the artist. Policies and politicians will come and go, and I couldn't give two shits or a half-fuck about them, but as long as people indulge the urge to express themselves artistically, I still hold faith in the trickster-like nature of reality to defy our attempts to get everyone marching in one direction in unison. Strange, unpredictable things happen when people share artistic visions. Allowing your imagination to be carried away by enchanting prose or a sweet melody can subtly alter your thinking no less than your mood. And thus, I agree with Henry: philistines are the worst of the worst, and currently, most of our philistines are of the leftist variety.

These philistines want to annex the territory of criticism and turn it into a political resource to be allocated on an intersectional basis. Critical judgment and taste, after all, are particular. They're not fair or unbiased. A reviewer may tend to prefer certain styles and authors over others. Equality of outcome is never a likely result when people are allowed to make honest choices and distinctions. Still, the point is not to "transcend" all biases and particular perspectives, as if that were even desirable or possible, but to encompass and understand them. But being that we've long since lost the ability to talk about values without shrieking about oppression, we try to default to the "objective", utilitarian standard of quantification. "Quality", as Robert Pirsig could tell you, is devilishly difficult to define, so we might as well just focus on the things we can measure, like racial and gender disparities among published authors.

Here you see a typical example: critics who profess to be concerned with "quality" and "editorial judgment" above identity politics are covering up their "failings" with "grand claims". The implicit understanding, familiar to anyone conversant with Foucault and his disciples, is that "grand claims" about culture are merely cynical attempts to mask the power structure, which in turn justify even more cynical attempts to seize power for one's own identity group. The important thing about criticism is to see it as a pie chart to be divided in service to social justice goals. Books and music need to be requisitioned and used as materiel for the war effort on behalf of racial and gender equality! Well, I suppose I'm prepared to be shot as a hoarder, then.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

We Can't Accept Any Deviationists and We Don't Need Any Crazies

Amber Frost:

[T]here is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing. Last year, the wackjob nadir was “Žižek Delenda Est” (“Žižek Must be Destroyed.”) The thesis of the panel—which featured at least one “tankie,” slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist—was that Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek is some kind of COINTELPRO crypto-Nazi.

Sadly, this is not an exaggeration, and the ineffectual chaos of Left Forum is symptomatic of the state of the left at large. But I do not foresee doom. It’s quite possible the left is at a pivotal moment in political history: these days, Americans actually like the sound of socialism, and the potential for building a new base is incredibly encouraging. But as much as we should be looking to expand, so, too, must we refine our project. The marginalistas distract, disrupt and deter future comrades. So it’s high time we get a little exclusive: tankies, truthers and tofu may supply a steady stream of battle-tested conference anecdotage, but they’re not going to move us any closer to building a better world.

("You can't lop off the fringes!")

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

I Eat Alone, Yeah, With Nobody Else

Jesse Browner:

Nearly two thousand years ago, Athenaeus of Naucratis, in his Deipnosophistae, explicitly equated solitary eaters with criminals ("solitary eater and housebreaker!"), and just this year, the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in Near a Thousand Tables, echoed Athenaeus' condemnation almost word for word: "that public enemy, the solitary eater." The fact is, eating in groups — along with speech, writing and warfare — is among the most elemental and universal expressions of humanity.

We solitary folk are truly the most oppressed people in history. If it weren't for the fact that all we really want is to be left the fuck alone and not be press-ganged into everyone else's idea of a good time, we would make one hell of a victim-identity group. But that would mean having to band together and interact with other people. Eh, not worth it.

(Since it seems likely that Browner will eventually see this post and think too hard about it, let me lay it out for him: Hi, Jesse. I didn't actually read your book; my inamorata did. I just glanced through the beginning of it and read the chapter about Hitler, which was interesting. This excerpt just happened to provide the raw material for a little joke based on a couple of my recurring themes here. Best wishes.)

Monday, July 06, 2015

None Dare Call It Fashion

Creep into thy narrow bed,
Creep, and let no more be said.
Let the long contention cease!
Geese are swans and swans are geese.
Let them have it how they will!
Thou art tired; best be still.

— Matthew Arnold

Chrissie Daz:

The more important question to ask is why this word is deemed newsworthy? Why have the concerns of transgender people risen from the margins to the mainstream in what must be the most rapid cultural shift in living memory? Trans people (who constitute less than 0.4 per cent of the population, according to even the most generous estimates) have become probably the most over-represented identity group in history.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, ours is an era in which who you are trumps what you do. Personal growth and the non-judgemental recognition of others have never been more culturally esteemed. In this environment, trans people have assumed an important role, as representatives of the marginalised and supposedly excluded. The act of vocally supporting trans people is the easiest way to demonstrate that you are virtuous, that you don’t judge others. If you are pro-trans, then you are probably anti-racist, pro-feminist, gay-friendly and prone to cry over the plight of the poor.

The second and most worrying reason for the rise in interest in trans issues is that gender has become entwined with one’s ‘self identity’. Our gender has become something that we must come to terms with, as a self-conscious act, a perceived imposition that we can affirm, reject or mess around with. Hence the most problematic aspect of the OED’s definition of cisgender is the use of the phrase ‘assigned at birth’. It suggests that doctors, midwives and registrars do not simply record a biological fact when they say what sex a newborn baby is; rather, they are forcing us into a gender box that we are duty-bound to embrace, reject or reformulate.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Saturday Shuffle

  1. Serena Ryder -- Stompa
  2. Beirut -- The Flying Club Cup
  3. The Magnetic Fields -- If There's Such a Thing as Love
  4. Hermano -- Señor Moreno's Plan 
  5. Patty Larkin -- Anyway the Main Thing Is
  6. Godflesh -- Circle of Shit
  7. Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel -- Highball with the Devil
  8. Daedelus -- Tsars and Hussars 
  9. Electric Boys -- Into the Woods
  10. Black Pussy -- Indiana
  11. Odd Nosdam -- We Bad Apples
  12. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down -- We Don't Call
  13. Tame Impala -- Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
  14. The National -- Humiliation
  15. J.S. Bach -- Cantata BWV 140
  16. Adam Ant -- Goody Two Shoes
  17. My Bloody Valentine -- Come In Alone
  18. Super Furry Animals -- Tradewinds
  19. Qntal -- Non Sofre Santa Maria
  20. Monster Magnet -- 19 Witches

A Head-Tailed Cat

Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Harry Lime

John Armstrong:

Slavery, universal and unquestioning religious faith, aristocratic government, disregard for the suffering of others: these are the very miserable grounds on which some of the major achievements of civilization in the past were built. Hence the thought: we cannot have those desirable things now, because we have got democracy, freedom of conscience, various kinds of equality (nearly), kindness and hygiene instead. If these really are the only options, then we do not have much choice.

The organic conception of civilization reinforces this view. It stresses the interconnectedness of everything that occurs in a particular society in a particular epoch. Therefore the achievements of a time and place are thought of as inescapably bound up with, and often produced by, the defects of the era. If the passage of time sees the removal of those defects it must also remove the possibility of parallel achievements.

According to this view the great public monuments of post-war Britain had to look like Milton Keynes and the Millennium Dome — because of democracy and a National Health Service and universal education and freedom of opinion. The seventeenth century could have as its greatest public monuments St Paul's Cathedral and the other churches of Sir Christopher Wren because it has oligarchic aristocratic government, poor sanitation, short life expectancy, little freedom of opinion and little public education.

He doesn't mention him by name, but this is obviously one of Nietzsche's central themes. In fact, it's one of the themes that most effectively resist appropriation by those who would turn him into some kind of bombastic life coach. Given his conscious defiance of "systematic" thinking, it's always risky to identify what he "really" meant, but if you ask me — and even if you don't, I'll tell you anyway — I would say that Nietzsche was most concerned with culture, not individuals. Western liberal individualism was just more decadence as far as he was concerned. All his famous exhortations about the Übermensch were centered on the assumption that strong, healthy cultures would occasionally produce heroic individuals like a Beethoven or Goethe, whose artistic genius would redeem life for the rest of us, who are just here taking up space and doing the grunt work. This tendency didn't go in reverse — heroic individuals did not regenerate weak, sickly cultures. Needless to say, he would have looked at our culture, seen a crass obsession with commerce, unhealthy individualism taken to the extremes of narcissism and solipsism, and a weak, neurotic concern with avoiding pain and injustice at all cost, and dismissed any further thoughts of cultural greatness with a disgusted wave of his hand. And yet, he might have said, for all your pride in your civilized harmlessness, you still have slave labor constructing your sports stadiums, and something very much like it building the technological gadgets which give your petty lives a semblance of meaning. You have no problem consigning countless millions of other sentient creatures to miserable lives and assembly-line deaths for the sake of your convenience. You can simply afford the luxury of removing cruelty from your immediate vicinity. Rationalist sleight-of-hand takes care of any uncomfortable remainders. Blood, you're soaking in it. Always have been, always will be. The only question is whether you're going to use it to produce transcendent greatness or self-loathing mediocrity.

However, we could employ the idea of civilization in a more hopeful way. We could see civilization as seeking to equal the best achievements of the past while disentangling them from the misfortunes upon which they once depended. The idea is that we could aim for the same level of civility, grandeur, grace and beauty, but without building on those obviously intolerable foundations.

Hopeful, indeed. Alan Watts used an odd-but-striking example that relates to this idea:

Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head's effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat.

The cat wasn't born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer's trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn't see the whole cat at once.

This, in turn, was one of Watts's central themes — the idea that "good" and "bad", "desirable" and "undesirable" are like the head and tail of the cat: inseparable. We simply aren't able to stand up and look over the fence to see the entire cat at once, so to speak. We can't attain the god's-eye perspective from which we could see that no matter how hard we try to eliminate bad, unpleasant things from the world and preserve only the good things, it can never happen. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, like trying to figure out how the cat's head "causes" the tail. To strain the metaphor further, our attempts to scrub the world clean of undesirable things would be like trying to separate the head and tail of a cat, only to have each head generate a new tail, and each tail develop a new head.

Somehow it appears that the cat mutated into a hydra. Well, no matter. The point is, the idea of "desirable" and "undesirable" as integers which can be increased or subtracted is one of the foundational myths of post-Enlightenment Western culture. You may say, "Well, I greatly prefer the 'problems' of a middle-class Westerner to those of a medieval peasant." I wouldn't disagree. But that's still a value statement, not an objective fact. Likewise, it's a value statement to say, "Well, I'm perfectly content with the way things are right now. They're good enough. No need to risk unintended consequences by messing around with further attempts at optimization." The point isn't that we can't ever agree on a way to live and coexist. The point is that any such consensus will likely have to leave our cherished rationality and objectivity behind.

The Tragic Dimension of Life

John Armstrong:

Erasmus calls his book a 'praise' of folly; this is meant ironically. He does not like folly. But as he multiplies the examples of human stupidity, greed, corruption and confusion, something else begins to emerge: the sheer normality of messing things up. Erasmus is no longer castigating an aberration, which — with a bit of coaxing and prodding — could be put right. He seems to be describing our fate.

If we take this seriously, the pursuit of civilization cannot be cast as the project of removing folly from the world. It has to aim lower: at coping and trying to flourish, given the crooked timbers of humanity.

...In an intimate way, tragedy is founded on the fact that not all good things are compatible: it may be (for most people) impossible to have a happy marriage and a raucous erotic life; or to have a well-paid job and follow your own vocation; it may be that you cannot live in the place where you most want to live; responsibility is tedious and frightening; yet taking responsibility is important. The longing to live an interesting and enjoyable life is always confronted by poverty, fragility, bad luck, death. Things we want to control are often beyond our control. We do not choose the political, moral or economic world in which we have to live; you can wear yourself out seeking genuine progress and end up making none.

So the ambition of civilization, in the face of this, is to strengthen us to face disappointment and suffering. The tragic dimension of life cannot be removed by planning and legislation. Instead we have to cultivate what are called 'stoic' virtues: the capacity to do without, to postpone pleasure, to make ourselves do things we do not want to do (when there is good reason to do them); to put up with minor irritations, to avoid complaint and useless criticism.

In a civilized society, these virtues are communicated and inculcated from generation to generation. There is a species of 'take control of your life' rhetoric that is superficially connected to this, but is in fact radically different. The message of 'take control' is that you will have to suffer a little now (go on a diet, be assertive, work hard), but soon, as a result, you will be successful, rich, famous and beautiful. The reality, however, is that we have to practice the stoic virtues not as a means to securing happy celebrity, but as a way of coping with tragedy. We have to be controlled, effortful, patient and uncomplaining without the expectation of any special reward.

Increasingly, I feel that the lesson most people took away from the failed utopian political experiments of the recent past was merely that such changes can't be made all at once, in a top-down manner. The idea that we can still achieve a near-perfect world by improving one thing at a time, while refreshingly sane by comparison, still acts as if utopia is achievable. I say "acts" because I don't know if anyone has really thought about it to that extent. Do we honestly believe that we can progressively eliminate undesirable things from the world through enlightened management and technique, or have we simply accepted it as our Sisyphean task to forever attempt to improve the world even if we're destined to fail?

The question is not based an a false dichotomy between a "static" world, as in the popular caricature of the Middle Ages, and our current one. People have always used reasoning and problem-solving skills to make changes to the world, going back to the first stone tools at Olduvai. But it is only recently in history that we have come to feel that there is never any good reason to stop trying to optimize things. Settling for "good enough", especially in a political context, is seen as a moral deficiency. I'm proceeding from the assumption that since the Enlightenment, it has become reflexive to see there being no inherent limits in our ability to shape the world in accordance with our desires. If our rational, technological schemes bring disaster, it's only because we overlooked something in the planning or application. This is a technical problem which can be fixed. And even if the problem proves a lot more intractable than it initially appeared, attempting to fix it is an existential imperative for us. The stoic virtues can be tolerated on the individual level, but for society as a whole? I find it difficult (though interesting) to imagine what that would even look like.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Things You Think Are Precious I Can't Understand

John Armstrong:

The ancient Greek moralist Theophrastus coined a useful term, microphilotimos, which means 'attaching importance to unimportant things'.

This begins a brief section of the book in which Armstrong looks at ways we can find meaning and satisfaction in the ordinary details of everyday life. It's misleading here, though, because the image Theophrastus actually intended to convey with that term is not serenity, self-containment, or imperturbable philosophical depth, but vainglorious posturing, the strutting of a cockalorum concerned with status and validation from others. He used the example of a cavalryman wearing his spurs in the Agora; if you prefer a modern version, picture George W. Bush in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier. Anyway, it doesn't have exotic flavor, and it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, but I use the term "bonsai minimalism" to symbolize a life concerned with simple pleasures, indifferent to status, wealth and power.