Saturday, February 28, 2015

Girls Will Be Boys and Boys Will Be Girls; It's a Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World

Charlotte Allen:

Not that you would know it from the volume of headlines these days, but transgender people constitute a tiny sliver of the population: A 2011 study by the UCLA law school’s Williams Institute estimated that there are only about 700,000 self-identified transgenders in the United States, with perhaps a third of those taking active steps to alter their physical appearance. That contrasts to the more than 9 million people​—​3.5 percent of the population​—​who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, according to the Williams Institute...But despite the nearly infinitesimal percentage of transgenders in a country of more than 300 million, they have managed to secure an enviable status in recent years as subjects of lavish media, legislative, and professional attention. 

It's a long and fairly interesting article, and as you might expect, given the source, it emphasizes a bit more of a skeptical perspective toward the dominant trans narrative than most of what you'll see on the web. I just found this part slightly amusing for plainly implying what is usually discreetly passed over in silence: aside from the worth trans people may have as human beings entitled to the same civil rights as anyone else, they clearly have a lot of symbolitical cash value among those who treat politics as fashion, i.e. online progressives. Obviously, it's not the sort of thing anyone would ever admit, but equally obviously, there's a lot of status to be gained from being seen around the scene championing the latest cutting-edge cause, whether you're personally invested in it or not. Those declining numbers indicate that it's going to be extremely labor-intensive to find and extract new civil rights resources in the near future, though.

Dirty Institutions

Brad Warner:

So back to my friend and his pitch. After I said some of this he said something like, “Well if you don’t know what you want…” This struck me as both very weird and yet totally expected. The fact is I do know what I want. It’s just that in a world where wealth and fame is the highest object of desire, the idea of someone not wanting that sounds the same as not knowing what you want. If you knew what you wanted you would understand that what you want is wealth and fame.

I really feel like all that stuff about embracing poverty and avoiding greed that the Buddhists talk about isn’t just something that’s supposed to make a person all pure and holy. It’s actually advice on how to live a better life. The more you demand from society in terms of wealth, the more society demands from you. If you don’t deliver, you suffer.

"Wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society." Thoreau said that. He could have been talking about Bill Watterson, who told his former art professor why he had no interest in merchandising Calvin and Hobbes: "Enough is enough, and I have enough." I find that to be a very useful mantra. Seriously — it's like a glass-half-full perspective switch. It's very easy to spend all your time thinking about all the things you lack. It's not really any less true to focus on all the ways in which you have more than you even need, and doing so sometimes even improves your mood.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Yeezus Christ Pose

Sady Doyle:

Being a Kanye West defender in 2015 is a thankless task. Yeezy makes it hard: he’s frequently offensive and (I’m told) deeply unlikable. He’s been called arrogant, narcissistic, materialistic, pretentious, rude, insensitive, and insane. But this is exactly why I like him.

Kanye West keeps making points that are more or less correct. But to avoid engaging with those points, the media draws focus onto his personality. We call him a crazy man so that we don’t have to hear what he’s saying.

Kanye can mess up. Feminism, particularly, tends to be something he stumbles over. While he very vocally defends Kim and Beyonce from all critics, he also portrays women in his songs as sexual territory to be claimed in battles between men (“I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / come on her Hampton blouse,” etcetera). His most recent comments about his ex, model Amber Rose, are a good example of how Kanye can slut-shame and objectify with the worst of them. I should be outraged. I am disappointed. But where some may see irredeemable misogyny, I see something more like human complexity. Admittedly, being a white woman flavors my reactions. As a man of color, Kanye is both privileged and oppressed.

If you are political in public, you too will experience some tiny fraction of what it is to be Kanye. Everyone who writes about oppression online knows the baiting, the casual abuse, and the desire for something your enemies can use to craft an unflattering narrative. Feminists online are subjected to such harassment that many are beginning to retire. You know who hasn’t retired? Kanye West has never once been shut up by public disapproval, although the public has disapproved of him, loudly, for over a decade.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

If They Can't Take a Joke

Justin E.H. Smith:

What is wrong with wanting to talk about things? Feminist Bingo is about consolidating a group, through jocular means, around a set of shared values. These values concern the delimitation of acceptable forms of opposition: what a domestic partner, or a friend or a work acquaintance, may legitimately say. To the left of Jon Stewart, then, we witness a preoccupation with defining the boundaries of the group (if you don’t share the joke, it’s safe to say you’re out), and an extremely illiberal desire to narrow the limits of debate. There is a core ideological commitment here which holds that anyone outside the group who "wants to talk about things" really only wants to sneak in, within the belly of the Trojan horse of speech, yet another assertion of his unjust power.

...The earnest ones do what they can to build a perfect society, but always come up short. And so they panic, and come to believe that they can correct for the shortcomings by suppressing mockery of their effort. The mocker knows that that suppression is the very thing that prevents him from fully living, and resorts to humor as the sole available portal to the sort of freedom that the earnest ones see as a threat. The expectations one might have had for life prove to be strained, and collapse into nothing. Life is a joke. This is a disappointment, of course, yet there is liberation in acknowledging it. This is the form of liberation the earnest ones, the straight-faced state-builders and regulators, cannot even consider. And this is why they hate jokes, do not understand them, and are afraid of them.

It was difficult to choose which parts to excerpt, since the essay covers a fair amount of ground, and it's all good reading. Nonetheless, I think these two paragraphs convey what I feel is the general spirit of it. Our modern-day moralizers believe that humor can be tamed, yoked, and forced to labor exclusively for progressive causes. Wiser heads have always known that humor is a way of coping with the fundamental, inherent unfairness of life, and both the humor and the unfairness transcend any particular political agendas. The moralizers will either learn to relax and play along with the joke, or they'll become increasingly bitter, petty authoritarians.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Euthyphro 2.0

Massimo Pigliucci:

Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer has gotten onto the same “science can determine moral values” bandwagon as other scientistically-minded writers such as Sam Harris. But this commentary isn’t directly about Shermer’s latest book [1], and even less about Harris (about whose ideas I’ve written more than enough [2]). Rather, it concerns a more specific claim about science-driven moral progress made by Michael in a recent article that appeared in the libertarian Reason magazine, entitled “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? The connection between increasing IQs, decreasing violence, and economic liberalism” [3]. The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning. I am going to try to sort things out in the interest of stimulating further discussion.

Yeah, I saw recently that Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature and Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape had apparently produced this bouncing baby boy (I didn't even know they were dating!). Judging by this review (which was pretty fun to read), I doubt Shermer's going to bring any more to the discussion than Harris did, which wasn't terribly impressive itself.

In fact, speaking of Harris, Kenan Malik offered what I thought to be a definitively damning summary of the problems facing these attempts to ground moral values in science:

Science cannot determine values because one cannot scientifically assess what is right and wrong without having already constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the empirical data. Or, as Huxley put it, science 'may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about, but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before'.

For Harris, as for many of the New Atheists, the desire to root morality in science derives from an aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values — the Euthyphro dilemma — is equally applicable to the claim that science is, or should be, the arbiter of good and evil. In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates asks the question: do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods? If the good is good simply because gods choose it, then the notion of the good becomes arbitrary. If, on the other hand, the gods choose the good because it is good, then the good is independent of the gods.

The same dilemma faces contemporary defenders of the claim that science defines moral values. Harris argues that wellbeing can be defined through data gained through fMRI scans, physiological observation, pharmacological measures, and other such techniques. Such studies may be able to tell us which brain states, neurotransmitters or hormones calibrate with particular real-world conditions. But whether those states, neurotransmitters or hormones are seen as indicators of wellbeing depends on whether we consider those real-life conditions as expressions of wellbeing. If wellbeing is defined simply by the existence of certain neural states, or by the presence of particular hormones or neurotransmitters, or because of certain evolutionary dispositions, then the notion of wellbeing is arbitrary. If such a definition is not to be arbitrary, then it can only be because the neural state, or the hormonal or neurotransmitter level, or the evolutionary disposition, correlates with a notion of wellbeing or of the good, which has been arrived at independently. The Euthyphro dilemma can no more be evaded by scientists claiming to have objective answers to questions of right and wrong than it can by theologians.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

There Goes the Neighborhood

"Always remember, young Strix", my grandpappy used to say as he bounced me on his knee, "it's no coincidence that 'semiotics' and 'emoticons' are damn near anagrams." Wise words, indeed:

But with new edition, emoji commentators (myself included) asked: Where are the emoji for people of color? For while there were hundreds of emoji, and more than 100 different representations of human bodies or faces, nearly all were white or a “neutral” yellow. Only two—an apparent East Asian boy, and an apparent South Asian man—seemed to be people of color. There were no non-white women whatsoever, and no black people.

Then, in November of last year, the Unicode Consortium made a quiet announcement in its draft of the new Unicode standard. Different skin tones would be introduced to the emoji standard through a toggle board: A user could click and hold on an emoji while typing it and a menu would coming up, letting them type it in one of five skin tones. (The tones correspond to the Fitzpatrick scale, a numerical method of categorizing human skin pigmentation.)

“People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone,” said the draft.

Great. Without the background context consisting of the shared, unconscious assumption of white supremacy, how are my friends and I supposed to communicate with whimsical symbols of basic emotions now?

Now, anyone can make the easy joke about how, even as we speak, sites like Salon, Alternet, Vox and the like are in a race to see who can be the first to publish an article about how white privilege is being able to take for granted one's majority status in a crowded room full of emoji. I, on the other hand, prefer to stalk bigger game. I'm shielding my eyes and looking toward the horizon, anticipating the inevitable article analyzing the phenomenon of white flight from emoji use, dating back to this policy change. For that one, I think we'll need the New Republic, or maybe the Atlantic itself.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Believin' All the Lies That They're Tellin' Ya, Buyin' All the Products That They're Sellin' Ya

Some Marxists call the factors that interfere with judgment “false consciousness.” They argue that false consciousness accounts for the failure of revolutionary ideology to attract adherents among the working class in the developed world. On this view, it wasn’t outright repression or censorship that prevented the workers from adopting a Marxist perspective. It is was the subtle and concealed influence of capital on their ability to exercise their capacity to make their own decisions.

These tensions in Mill’s defense of intellectual freedom were recognized in the 19th century. What we now call political correctness was first articulated in the 1960s by the brilliant German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s achievement was to turn Mill’s argument for free discussion, at least in a modern Western society, against its explicit conclusion.

Marcuse undertakes this inversion, worthy of a black belt in dialectical reasoning, in the 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance.” In it, Marcuse argues that the marketplace of ideas can’t function as Mill expected, because the game is rigged in favor of those who are already powerful. Some ideas enjoy underserved appeal due to tradition or the prestige of their advocates. And “consumers” are not really free to choose, given the influence of advertising and the pressures of social and economic need. Thus the outcome of formally free debate is actually predetermined. The ideas that win will generally be those that justify the existing order; those that lose will be those that challenge the structure.

This prong of the argument is close to the standard critique of false consciousness. But Marcuse links it to Mill’s distinction between those who are and are not capable of participating in and benefitting from the unrestricted exchange of ideas.

According to Marcuse, many people who appear to be rational, self-determining men and women are actually in a condition of ideological enforced immaturity. They are therefore incapable of exercising the kind of judgment that Mill’s argument presumes. In order to make debate meaningful, they need to be properly educated. This education is the responsibility of those who have already shown themselves to be capable of thinking for themselves—in this case, left-wing intellectuals rather than Victorian colonial administrators.

One might wonder how either Mill or Marcuse could be so sure that their kind of people knew what was best for others. The answer is that they regarded the truth as obvious.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Writing That Wears a White Coat

Ray Monk:

The search for explanations and theories in philosophy, Wittgenstein believed, was linked with this worship of science. Intoxicated by the success of science, philosophers had forgotten that there was another kind of understanding. 'People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them', he once wrote in a notebook, 'poets, musicians etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them — that does not occur to them.'

Russell, of course, was horrified by this attitude. 'The later Wittgenstein', he wrote, 'seems to have gotten tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.' If one thinks that 'serious thinking' and 'science' are the same thing, then this remark is precisely right.

In a recent series of emails, Arthur unknowingly, almost eerily in his precision, echoed this very stance:

What applies to Dante applies, on a lower level of course, to the writers cited by Watson. Kafka’s work is not “robbed of its meaning” by the obsolescence of Freudianism, it is far too weird and original, pre-Freudian and post-Freudian, for that. What galls me here is that uncomprehending and condescending assumption that artists are just wayward students of intellectuals—as if they were not themselves intellectuals, and highly independent and original ones, at that. (Inside every artist is an intellectual, the saying goes—but not vice-versa.) What bites my butt is the assumption that the kind of writing that wears a white coat or talks about wages and surplus value is the model of knowledge and adult thinking, while art is just what happens when the kids are let out into the playground at recess.

Now, if you're like me, you may have had an "A-ha!" moment when confronted with such clear and elegant imagery. Even though there is no argument being put forth, technically speaking, the limitations of a scientistic approach become suddenly and vividly apparent. It becomes obvious why, for example, looking at fMRI images of someone's brain as they look at pieces of art will tell us nothing useful about the nature or meaning of art. The parallel lines of artistic and scientific understanding will never meet. Wittgenstein seems to have had something like this in mind. Monk again:

Analogously, in his later work, Wittgenstein treats all philosophical doctrines as confusions, though now he thinks the confusion has arisen because, as he puts it, 'a picture held us captive'. His task is to free us from that picture. Because the picture that held us captive and that gave rise to the philosophical problem is assumed in everything we say, it cannot usually be dislodged by argument. It is, as it were, too deep for that. What is required to free us from the picture that holds us captive is an enriched imagination, and this cannot be given to us through argument, it must be acquired through, as it were, therapy. Wittgenstein's later work, then is aimed at the pre-philosophical, rather than the philosophical, level. It addresses, not our argumentative faculties, but our imagination.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Gibbons' Law

As three men with hats, sunglasses and beards stand in close proximity to each other, the probability that a passerby will make a joke about a ZZ Top tribute band approaches 1.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

I hardly know what to say about a world in which a ventose fraud like Slavoj Žižek is taken seriously as a leftist visionary and a moral panic profiteer like Anita Sarkeesian is hailed as a feminist leader. Thankfully, when it comes to Sarkeesian, at least, Liana Kerzner has said more than 23,000 words over a five-part series of posts explaining why the modern-day Tipper Gore is every bit the tendentious hack you suspected she was. I'm not even a gamer, and I found it engrossing, so perhaps you might care to give it a look-see. (Hat tip to Will Shetterly.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Stay, Stay Away

Then the feminist ideologues came for me, and there was no one left to speak up, because I was a hermit, after all; hell, exposure to this kind of whiny drivel is probably a large reason why so many of us prefer to be left alone to begin with; I mean, Jesus Aitch, solitude is gendered now? A man who renounces everything society stands for still needs to be lectured about his oppressive privilege? Is there anything that can't be turned into materiel for the endless war between the sexes? Fuck it; I refuse to let them take me alive.

The Hanged Man

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lucky Ones Are We All Till It Is Over

Finn Janning:

Life is suffering, yes. After all, it is full of awful things such as trafficking, mental illnesses, war, corruption, poverty, etc. Yet, life is also alive and joyous. The joy of being alive that, in spite of all the harm, still – for the majority of people – keeps the belt around the waist, not the neck. How come?

Small gestures happen where life is passed on, not as hope or faith, but as a possible future existence. Survival and compassion go hand in hand. A deep understanding of how everything is connected. A True Detective is compassionate. Cohle survives because he keeps on questioning what he does not know.

I haven't seen True Detective yet, but I thought it was interesting to come across this essay shortly after the theme came up in conversation here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Poet, Not a Prophet

Marx's critique is powerfully moral, not in the sense of establishing rules of right and wrong conduct but in the older sense of describing what it is for humans to be able to flourish, to be able to realize themselves fully. It was also cynical about the very idea of morality, or rather of what it had come to represent. For Marx, the concept of alienation, and of human flourishing, could not be wrenched away from the project of social transformation, of the overthrowing of capitalism itself.

...'The claim of Marxism to be a morally distinctive standpoint', argues Alasdair MacIntyre, for many years a Communist Party member, 'is undermined by Marxism's own moral history'. Whenever 'Marxists have had to take explicit moral stances', they have 'always fallen back into relatively straightforward versions of Kantianism or utilitarianism'. There is in Marx, MacIntyre suggests, an absence of thought about the moral underpinnings of social transformation. Marx excoriated the moral consequences of capitalism. He wrote of how human nature might flourish under communism. But he wrote little of the norms by which revolutionary social movements should be judged. One result was the wrenching apart of politics and morality in those movements and societies influenced by Marx. Social change came to be seen purely in political terms and its moral content defined solely in terms of the success of its political ends. The moral case for any action was that it furthered the cause. As a result, MacIntyre suggests, there is a moral hollowness to Marxism that could only be filled by looking elsewhere for moral answers, in particular to utilitarian ideas that the revolutionary means were justified by the revolutionary ends.

...By 2008, however, the possibility of change (at least in the way that Marx would have understood it) had become negligibly small. The depth of the economic crisis led to talk of a 'crisis of capitalism'. And yet there was no political challenge to capitalism. Workers' organizations had been destroyed, the left had imploded, as had the idea that there could be an alternative to the market system. The resurrection of Marx challenged none of this. Those who turn to Marx these days look upon him not as a prophet of capitalism's demise but as a poet of its moral corruption. But to what extent does a moral critique that is explicitly hitched to a social critique remain meaningful when the possibilities of acting upon that social critique seem so to have faded? That, perhaps, is the most difficult question to be asked of Marx's thought.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Different Shades of Socrates

Chinese philosophers, Fung insisted, have tended to avoid the abstract, showing little interest in metaphysics or pure logic, pouring their energies instead into developing more down-to-earth, practical political arguments. They were, he suggested, 'concerned chiefly with society and not with the universe', more preoccupied with defining how to live than in discovering how things are. Or, as another Chinese philosopher Y.L. Chin has put it, 'Chinese philosophers were all of them different shades of Socrates'.

Not just geography, but language too, Fung suggested, made Chinese philosophy distinct. The Chinese corpus contains few great philosophical tracts. There is little to compare with Aristotle's Metaphysics, Aquinas' Summa Theologica, or Kant's Critique of Practical Reason. Chinese philosophy tends rather to be poetic, aphoristic, suggestive. The very language of the Chinese, many argue, has lent itself to aphoristic philosophy and discouraged long, finely argued theses. A written language based on the alphabetic system, and with a tight grammatical fabric, as came eventually to be used in the West, provides useful material from which to fashion an argumentative treatise. A language that is constructed from symbolic characters that are not susceptible to considerations of singular or plural, or of past, present and future tenses, and most of which can equally be a noun, a verb, and adjective or an adverb, but whose connotation changes according to the other symbols alongside which it sits in a sentence, is necessarily more ambiguous and allusive in meaning. Chinese language is, the philosopher Lawrence Wu suggests, 'an excellent tool for poetry but not for systematic or scientific thought'. There is in Chinese philosophy 'profound insights, brilliant aphorisms, interesting metaphors, but few elaborate arguments'.

John Gray:

The calls of birds and the traces left by wolves to mark off their territories are no less forms of language than the songs of humans. What is distinctively human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallization of language in writing... Writing creates an artificial memory, whereby humans can enlarge their experience beyond the limits of one generation or one way of life. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality.

...It is scarcely possible to imagine a philosophy such as Platonism emerging in an oral culture. It is equally difficult to imagine it in Sumeria. How could a world of bodiless Forms be represented in pictograms? How could abstract entities be represented as the ultimate realities in a mode of writing that still recalled the world of the senses?

It is significant that nothing resembling Platonism arose in China. Classical Chinese script is not ideographic, as used to be thought; but because of what A.C. Graham terms its 'combination of graphic wealth with phonetic poverty' it did not encourage the kind of abstract thinking that produced Plato's philosophy. Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist — he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities. In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese philosophy has been nominalist — it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world. As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cut That Timber, Show Him How, Beat That City Slicker Now

D'Lane Compton & Tristan Bridges:

Many aspects of masculinity are “comfortable.” And, men don’t need outdoor gear and lumberjack attire to be comfortable. Lumbersexual has less to do with comfort and more to do with masculinity. It is a practice of masculinization. It’s part of a collection of practices associated with “hybrid masculinities”—categories and identity work practices made available to young, white, heterosexual men that allow them to collect masculine status they might otherwise see themselves (or be seen by others) as lacking. Hybridization offers young, straight, class-privileged white men an avenue to negotiate, compensate, and attempt to control meanings attached to their identities as men. Hybrid configurations of masculinity, like the lumbersexual, accomplish two things at once. They enable young, straight, class-privileged, white men to discursively distance themselves from what they might perceive as something akin to the stigma of privilege. They simultaneously offer a way out of the “emptiness” a great deal of scholarship has discussed as associated with racially, sexually, class-privileged identities.

The lumbersexual highlights a series of rival binaries associated with masculinities: rural vs. urban, rugged vs. refined, tidy vs. unkempt. But the lumbersexual is so compelling precisely because, rather than “choosing sides,” this identity attempts to delicately walk the line between these binaries. It’s “delicate” precisely because this is a heteromasculine configuration—falling too far toward one side or the other could call him into question. But, a lumbersexual isn’t a lumberjack just like a metrosexual isn’t gay. Their identity work attempts to establish a connection with identities to which they have no authentic claim by flirting with stereotypes surrounding sets of interests and aesthetics associated with various marginalized and subordinated groups of men.

Lumbersexual masculinity is certainly an illustration that certain groups of young, straight, class-privileged, white men are playing with gender. In the process, however, systems of power and inequality are probably better understood as obscured than challenged. Like the phrase “no homo,” hybrid configurations of masculinity afford young straight men new kinds of flexibility in identities and practice, but don’t challenge relations of power and inequality in any meaningful way.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Clouds in My Coffee

Richard King:

My only problem with this characterisation is that, in one sense at least, it has Zizek backwards. True, to the extent that Zizek is a Marxist, he seems perennially split between Groucho and Karl. But the mistake is to think it’s his analysis that is silly and his political stance that is sinister. In fact it’s his analysis of capitalism that is ‘‘deadly’’, in the sense of being incisive, and his communism that is a joke in poor taste.

Jokes are central to Zizek’s analysis, not because they win him an audience but because they point up absences and all the little ‘‘unknown knowns’’ that sustain the dominant ideology. Thus, when Zizek tells the story of the man who orders coffee without cream and is told that, since there is no cream, he will have to settle for coffee without milk, he isn’t merely being cute, or isn’t only being cute; he’s drawing attention to the ‘‘complex interplay between what is said and what is not said, the un-said implied in what is said’’. Offered the ‘‘freedom’’ to buy our own healthcare, it is up to us to investigate what this freedom might be lacking. Is it coffee without cream or coffee without milk? Or is it ‘‘the thing without itself’’ — coffee ­without coffee, freedom without freedom?

Since what happens in the past will affect the present and what happens in the present will affect the future, all phenomena — mental and physical — will contain trace elements of previous states and ‘‘clues’’ as to their future ones: a fact that is as true for ideology as it is for water molecules in transition from one state to another. And since all ideological formulations depend on what they exclude or suppress, it falls to the radical dialectician to uncover the anomaly, the incongruous detail, that, when approached and analysed, begins to undermine the dominant belief system.

All of this would seem very crude to Zizek, whose notion of ‘‘absolute recoil’’ entails a twist on the (already twisty) concept of dialectical materialism, one that reads a highly individualised version of Hegel back into Marx. But his general point can be simply stated. It is that 20th-century communism was bound to end in catastrophe because it was a fantasy generated by capitalism itself, a ‘‘utopian’’ version of what is wrong with it. The solution, for Zizek, is not to reject communism but to repeat the revolution — endlessly.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Can't Unsee the Things I Saw; Fallen Devils, False Gods in the Violet Light

*Sniff* I have to say, reading about Heywood's loss of innocence made me so nostalgic for those long-ago days — you know, three years ago — when I, too, was similarly, blissfully ignorant. My ears were so wet, my eyes were so wide, and the world was so full of promise then, back when Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders were the fenceposts marking the edge of the political left from the unpopulated wasteland beyond. But now, oh, I have such wonderful, wonderful things to show you...!

Libera te tutemet ex inferis!

I kid. A little, at least. For a long time, I thought "political correctness" was a term that told you less about the target than the person using it, i.e., that it was a right-wing dog whistle. I recognized that in the big scheme of things, a bunch of overzealous hall monitors in academia were petty criminals compared to the organized crime rings who controlled the political and corporate worlds. But then the online atheist environment got contaminated by a strain of fanaticism, in which the fanatics insisted that atheism must be made synonymous with their particular brand of intersectional politics, or else be cast out into the outer darkness of sociopolitical irrelevance. Suddenly, I focused on the rabbit instead of the duck, the vase instead of the two kissing faces, the half-full glass instead of the half-empty one. The basic facts of the matter didn't change; I just realized there was more than one valid perspective here.

For me, that perspectival shift meant that I started dividing people along lines of personality and psychology rather than politics and ideology. I realize it sounds glib and trite, but ♫ I’ve been around the world, and I’ve been in the Washington Zoo, and in all my travels, as the facts unraveled, I’ve found this to be true ♫: some people are just fucking assholes. SJWs are merely a different species of fucking asshole from the right-wing Republican assholes, or the religious fundamentalist assholes. Assholes go out of their way to cause and prolong conflict. They are natural-born petty tyrants and aspiring authoritarians who are never happy unless they're taking charge and ordering other people around in accordance with their vision. Today's SJWs, who are busy being the most inflamed, hemorrhoidal assholes they can be in the fight against transphobia, microaggressions and pixelated representations of misogyny, will still be gratuitously obnoxious assholes in ten years when they've left all those childish things behind and moved on to climbing the corporate ladder or making partner at a law firm. At this point in my life, I'm not interested in making excuses for assholish behavior just because, according to some tribal calculus I don't even subscribe to, the assholes are on my "side". Many assholes, I find, are under the delusion that they're grandmasters at multi-dimensional chess. They believe that by acting like assholes at the right time for the right reasons, they're somehow reducing the overall amount of assholery in the world in the long run.

And that brings us to a fascinating thing about assholism from the memetic perspective. Almost everybody would agree, in the abstract, that being an asshole is generally a bad thing. In order to reproduce itself, then, the asshole meme has to convince the host that acting like an asshole is necessary in this particular instance. The cause is too important! My opponent is too stubborn! I revealed the truth to him, but he refuses to recognize it! He started the argument anyway! Collectively, we all think that people should stop being assholes. Individually, we all think we have a uniquely good reason to act like an asshole occasionally. Thus does assholism remain a thriving, vibrant force in the world for all time. Quite a brilliant strategy, really.

So, yes, I took a crash course in all sorts of ostensibly left-wing ideologies that I had only dimly understood before, only to come out of it convinced of their utter uselessness. Countless lectures on privilege-checking didn't teach me a thing that I hadn't already grasped from the old folk wisdom about not judging a man until you'd walked a mile in his shoes. I concluded that attempting to practice the universally-recognized virtues will do more to improve the world than mastering sociological jargon to feign scholarly sophistication. I don't even really frame this as a political argument anymore. There are easygoing, reasonable people on both sides of the political spectrum. If anything, I see myself as an heir to the honorable tradition of the Taoists, who thumbed their noses and blew raspberries at those ancient assholes, the Confucians, who likewise believed that society couldn't function without their wise oversight and strictly-regimented organizational schemes.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Down in the Graveyard, Listening to the Underground

Kevin Drum:

I'm not really making any judgments about all this. Personally, I miss old-school blogging and the conversations it started. But I also recognize that what I'm saying about Twitter is very much what traditional print journalists said about blogging back in the day. You have to respond within a day! You have to make your point in 500 words or less! Whatever happened to deeply considered long-form pieces that took weeks to compose and ran several thousand words? Sure, those conversations took months to unfold, but what's the rush?

Well, they were right to an extent. And now conversations have become even more compressed. Some people think that's great, others (like me) are more conflicted about it. When I respond to something, I usually want to make a serious point, and Twitter makes that awfully hard. Writing a coherent multi-part tweet is just way harder than simply writing a 500-word blog post. On the other hand, the tweet will get seen by far more people than the post and be far more timely.

Yeah, it's that time again. Andrew Sullivan's decision to retire from blogging will likely inspire several more epitaphs for the genre. But let's avoid the predictable clichés, shall we? Blogging isn't dying; it's coming down from a several-year cocaine binge. An artificial spike of frenzied activity complete with delusions of grandeur, now settling back into humdrum routine with a touch of paranoia. As always, there is plenty of good stuff being written by authors who either don't know or don't care that they're not considered the hot new thing. The rambling, personal essay that has survived from Montaigne's time to ours will outlast the trendiness of social media and toy phones, too.