Archive for November, 2014

Sitting in Cars

Posted: November 29, 2014 in Culture, Health, Idle Nonsense
Tags: ,

I’m fortunate to spend minimal time in my car. I’ve logged fewer than 5,000 miles in each of the last 5 years or more, but I still find owning a vehicle indispensable for some of my activities. So when I’m out and about, it’s more likely that I’m walking on the sidewalk, pedaling my bicycle, or riding public transportation. Each has its own dynamic, but I have been noticing lately that there are surprising number of people sitting in their cars, engines running. The bicycle in particular requires hypervigilance on my part so that someone doesn’t open the car door into my path, and as I ride by I take notice of an unexpectedly large number of occupants of cars going nowhere.

Because of the durations involved, my sense is that car sitters aren’t in the process of entering and exiting; maybe they’re waiting on another person. There is almost always a smartphone or tablet active in front of their faces. Sometimes, they are sitting and smoking, listening to radio, or talking on the phone. Nonetheless, the cabin of an automobile strikes me as an odd place to hang out (and burn fuel).

I can’t profess to understand fully what’s at work here, but it’s clearly not as exceptional as I might have believed. My conjecture is that the interior of the car represents a defined personal space or refuge. It may not be entering a cocoon or reentering the womb exactly, but both comparisons spring to mind. I note, too, that walling oneself off from the external world, however temporarily, and exerting total control over the immediate environment may provide a fleeting sense of security, privacy, and wholeness lost in the wider world we inhabit. I can’t say if a growing number of automobile hermits are using their cars to regain personal equilibrium before rejoining and confronting the world anew every day. Perhaps one my my readers can provide an explanation or point to some research.

A few weeks ago, I added Gin and Tacos to my blogroll. Lots of interesting content, though not necessarily accurate or admirable. Shortly thereafter, I learned that the blogger active there finds it distinctly not worthwhile to interact with those who make comment, this despite the fact that he attracts very good commentary. (I’ve yet to see a troll appear). That’s his choice, but it’s nonetheless a loss for someone (like me) seeking discussion rather than subscription to yet another broadcast. So I decided to comment here, at length, rather than there. (In this, I’m probably sending traffic his way but won’t attempt to divert his traffic here.)

Today’s post poses the question (and then provides several potential answers), “What’s the next big thing?” The comments provide several additional possibilities we might hope or expect from the future. Naturally, he begs numerous questions while soliciting a wide range of responses. Is the thing a technology, an idea, or merely a money-making scheme? How much overlap is allowed? Must the thing be entirely new (and unanticipated) or can it be an improvement, a refinement, or something that finally gains traction? I’m inclined to answer the question in terms of what creates a fundamental shift, discontinuity, or transformation, and I recognize that ideas do it more handily but technological shifts are far easier to recognize, introducing obvious bias.

My candidate is statelessness, which is not a new idea, but it’s gaining traction. My reasons spring partly from my pessimism that the world is not in fact progressing toward more/better but is in the initial phase of unwinding toward less/worse. Accordingly, the future will be about conservation, holding on, and hoarding rather than frivolous entertainments and distractions, which tend to be more captivating to contemplate. Furthermore, the expectation of new energy and information delivery systems is IMO foolhardy. Statelessness has already made its appearance in the forms of multinational corporations and supranational individuals, at least those who possess the wealth and wherewithal to refuse meaningful participation in any social system or context, including paying taxes, in favor of standing alone and employing goons (lawyers, politicians, and mercenaries) to insulate them from the rabble. Statelessness has also appeared in the form of terrorist, revolutionary, and secessionist groups that seek to disassociate from and/or overthrow existing states. Whereas we’re programmed by the mainstream media to believe such groups are enemies of the state (which is quite literally true), that does not make them existential threats to the people. For instance, ISIS is being trotted out as the newest ultimate evil in the world, following the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (and before them the North Koreans, the Red Chinese, the godless Soviets, and quelle horreur the Nazis), but ISIS may instead be an emerging Arab state, arising with all the attendant violence out of the destabilized, delegitimized ruins of the West’s client states in the region.

The concept of statelessness is gradually filtering down to ever-smaller groups and even individuals, but in the interregnum before full-on collapse, and in a bit of fitting irony, the conservative impulse inspires misguided attempts to reintegrate just as the world begins to disintegrate. Anarchy experienced in the wake of a failed state is nothing to be relished, but it will be the next big thing.

While I’m on the subject of music, here is an interesting passage by Nietzsche, quoted in The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. I’m rereading the final two chapters in preparation for a series of blog posts.

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics in McGilchrist]

This passage comes from Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (German: Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister), published in 1878. Hindsight makes this passage especially prophetic. McGilchrist discusses how universal elements of music (e.g., melody, harmony, and tonality) have been systematically undercut and reduced to either their essences or to nonexistence. Consonance and dissonance no longer function as aesthetic anchors. This is especially true in art music, but it’s also visible in popular musics that have captured the hearts and minds of the masses; nowhere is it more evident than in rap music, which strips away everything but the rhythm and relies on text for explicit meaning.

What all this means is found in the italics above: the symbolic replaces that which exists. We are in the process of replacing actuality (or reality) with our mental images of it, which I call living in our heads. Some readers might recognize the issue more readily from discussions of the map and territory. As just one simple example, I happened to catch part of an episode of The Voice, described by Wikipedia as “an American reality television singing competition.” (I saw picture and captioning only, no sound.) Significantly, use of the word reality is understood by audiences as a TV genre, certainly not as, well, reality. I noticed that contestants (competitors? singers?) had their ears plugged with playback devices, which is what I had criticized in my previous post. Not only was there no natural, unmediated sound reaching their ears, the experience of singing with one’s ears plugged is also altered fundamentally. Singing is no longer what it is.

Update: I can’t resist adding this further example.

“Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made.”
—Günther Anders

For a fertile mind, nearly everything is a potential metaphor or microcosm for something else. It gets tiresome, really. Still, I couldn’t help but to reflect on this post at On an Overgrown Path as a particularly on-point example of what I’ve been working out over numerous blog posts, namely, that our discontentment over being human, with its inherent limitations, is boiling over. Case in point: music is now routinely given a slick, post-production shove toward hyperreality. That assertion is probably not clear to anyone wandering into The Spiral Staircase without the benefit of prior familiarity with my themes, so let me unpack it a bit.

The essence of the linked blog post above is that media have altered musical perspective (e.g., stage perspective, podium perspective, audience perspective, stereo hifi perspective, and in- or over-ear perspective) to such a degree that acoustics developed intuitively over generations (and hardened into convention) to enhance natural sound must now be supplanted by subtle (or not so subtle) amplification and digital processing to satisfy a generation that may never have stepped inside a concert hall and is instead acculturated to the isolating, degraded sound of earbuds and headphones playing back mp3s. Reorienting concert soundscapes and recordings to model immersive, inside-the-head experience (VR tricks the eye in a similar fashion) is promulgated as inevitable if music presenters wish to attract new generations of concertgoers and thus retain audiences. The blogger follows up later with another post entitled “Technology Reveals Information but Annuls Perception,” which appears to be in conflict with his earlier contentions. (He also dismisses my corrective comment, but no matter.)

I don’t really care much about audience building or the business and marketing aspects of music; others can attend to those concerns. However, the engineering and construction of virtual space, head space, and/or hyperreality, proceeding in slow, incremental steps, is of grave concern to me. We are turning our backs on the world (the body and the sensorium) and fleeing into our heads and ideation. How fully does the gradual disappearance of natural sound in the ear (namely, wearing earbuds 24/7) signify the dire condition of humanity? Impossible to quantify, of course, but considering how omnipresent technology retrains attention and focus away from the environment toward itself in the form of playback devices and handheld screens, I would say that to be part of the modern world means agreeing to be media (and consumer) slaves. Furthermore, the faux reality found there is edited and distorted to achieve maximum impact in minimal time, but the result is overstimulation giving way to catatonia.

When I was a boy, I felt the shut-down reflex in response to the venerable three-ring circus that came to town periodically: too much everything, so ultimately very little or nothing. The same overkill aesthetic is true now of most media, which are saturated with blinkered content to rivet attention — a bubbling, pseudo-glamorous effervescence — but those media nonetheless fail to register on stripped-out senses. I can think of no better example than events where amplified sound is bone-crushingly loud, i.e., destroying the small, conductive bones in the inner ear leaving unprotected listeners’ ears ringing temporarily, and over time, damaging hearing permanently. The sheer volume has the effect of isolating everyone (alone in a crowd) and reducing them to voiceless, gesticulating grunts. For example, I have attended concerts (indoor and outdoor), dance clubs, wedding receptions, and fundraisers where the sound level was well above the 85 db sufficient to cause hearing loss, yet people just stand there and take it. The disconnect from reality and failure to react to the aural onslaught (by leaving or putting in earplugs) is astonishing. There is no sane reason to believe such conditions are enlivening and inevitable, yet those are in fact fashionable behaviors and recommendations.

Admittedly, destroying one’s ears is not the same as wrecking concert hall acoustics or recording perspective, but they are part and parcel of the same underlying mentality: a discontentment with human limitation. Cinema is going the same direction with gimmicky use of CGI and eye-popping camera effects that deliver views and perspectives that have lost all relation with mundane reality. The desire to transcend the banal is terrific when guided by a wizened aesthetic. When motivated by boredom or shame at our inability to be superhuman, well, that’s something quite different.

/rant on

Today is election day in the U.S., and political noise levels have been raised modestly in preparation for the big event, expectation of the GOP gaining a Senate majority being perhaps the most significant result telegraphed for credulous voters. Of course, since candidates now run permanent campaigns (Hillary Clinton has been running for president for more than 20 years, don’t let her coyness about it fool you), including nonstop fundraising, noise levels are always at high volume. Although I watch no TV (the preferred medium of political debate) and see none of the attack ads, I hear plenty of complaints that no candidate runs a campaign on issues anymore but instead relies on being the less heinous of (generally) two miserable alternatives. Indeed, whenever I hear politicians making speeches or being interviewed, their inability to answer a straight question before diverting to perception management (true of pundits, too) is notable. Political speech aimed at redefining reality is so commonplace that nary a place exists where an honest citizen can turn for effective analysis before being confronted by a noxious, smothering fog of rhetoric.

One of the principal features of the lead-up to election day is idealistic insistence on the duty of the citizenry to cast their votes, often accompanied by the risible contention that an individual who abstains from voting has no right to complain for not participating in the charade (shades of Heinlein’s jingoistic parody “Service Guarantees Citizenship”). I reject the foolhardy notion that voting buys the right to speech and/or opinion. It’s obvious that, instead, money buys everything. Nevertheless, free speech precedes the act of voting, no matter what others say, at least until shouted down and squelched by political correctness and incipient fascism. From a strategic perspective, the mechanisms by which actual elections are carried out ought to dispel any thoughtful person from bothering, which many don’t — especially with midterm elections.

As I got to work today, “Please vote!” campaign volunteers were yelling candidate’s names at passersby. For what? To sway the vote at the eleventh hour? Sheer name recognition, not policy or intelligence or character, is interrelated with incumbency and celebrity as predictors of electoral success. But these pale in comparison with well-publicized reports of ballot buying, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and brazen vote stealing (inside electronic voting systems) to indicate the pointlessness of voting. Yet de rigueur exhortations to get out the vote and vote, or better yet, make campaign contributions (“give ’til it hurts” is sometimes heard), continue to lend false legitimacy to a corrupted system of self-representation that no longer pretends to function. The so-called “silent majority,” people who don’t use the ballot box to vote their hates, recognize the futility of voting when results are no longer (if ever they were) an accurate expression of voter intent. Whether a candidate wins or loses or an initiative passes or fails hardly matters, too, when the results are so indistinguishable. Take, for instance, continuous attempts to undermine and/or repeal Roe v. Wade and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare).

Some commentators have observed that Republicans in particular are cravenly insistent on holding office (yet do nothing constructive once there), and further, are hell-bent on destroying everything just so blame can be assessed against Democratic opponents, whereas Democrats are passive onlookers unable to thwart the destructive impulses of the general public (e.g., voting against self-interest) and mean-spirited political actors. While the two-party system denies us worthwhile candidates, voting for more of the same would be the putative definition of insanity: repeating the same steps unvaryingly but expecting different results.

/rant off