Archive for the ‘Narrative’ Category

Continuing from the previous blog post, lengthy credit scrolls at the ends of movies have become a favorite hiding place for bloopers and teasers. The purpose of this practice is unclear, since I can’t pretend (unlike many reckless opinonators) to inhabit the minds of filmmakers, but it has become a fairly reliable afterthought for film-goers willing to wait out the credits. Those who depart the theater, change the channel, or click away to other content may know they are relinquishing some last tidbit to be discovered, but there’s no way to know in advance if one is being punked or pleased, or indeed if there is anything at all there. Clickbait news often employs this same technique, teasing some newsbit in the headline to entice readers to wade (or skim) through a series of (ugh!) one-sentence paragraphs to find the desired content, which sometimes is not even provided. At least one film (Monty Python’s The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1982) as memory serves) pranked those in a rush to beat foot traffic out of the theater (back when film-going meant visiting the cinema) by having an additional thirty minutes of material after the (first) credit sequence.

This also put me in mind of Paul Harvey radio broadcasts ending with the sign-off tag line, “… the rest of the story.” Harvey supplemented the news with obscure yet interesting facts and analysis that tended to reshape one’s understanding of consensus narrative. Such reshaping is especially important as an ongoing process of clarification and revision. When served up in delectable chunks by winning personalities like Paul Harvey, supplemental material is easily absorbed. When material requires effort to obtain and/or challenges one’s beliefs, something strongly, well, the default response is probably not to bother. However, those possessing intellectual integrity welcome challenging material and indeed seek it out. Indeed, invalidation of a thesis or hypothesis is fundamental to the scientific method, and no body of work can be sequestered from scrutiny and then be held as legitimately authoritative.

Yet that’s what happens routinely in the contemporary infosphere. A government press office or corporate public relations officer issues guidance or policy in direct conflict with earlier guidance or policy and in doing so seeks to place any resulting cognitive dissonance beyond examination and out of scope. Simple matters of adjustment are not what concern me. Rather, it’s wholesale brainwashing that is of concern, when something is clear within one’s memory or plainly documented in print/video yet brazenly denied, circumvented, and deflected in favor of a new directive. The American public has contended with this repeatedly as each new presidential administration demonizes the policies of its predecessors but typically without demonstrating the self-reflection and -examination to admit, wrongdoing, responsibility, or error on anyone’s part. It’s a distinctly American phenomenon, though others have cottoned onto it and adopted the practice for themselves.

Exhaustion from separating the spin-doctored utterances of one malefactor or another from one’s own direct experience and sense-making drives many to simply give up. “Whatever you say, sir. Lemme go back to my entertainments.” The prospect of a never-ending slog through evidence and analysis only to arrive on unsteady ground, due to shift underfoot again and again with each new revelation, is particularly unsatisfactory. And as discussed before, those who nonetheless strain to achieve knowledge and understanding that reach temporary sufficiency yet remain permanently, intransigently provisional find themselves thwarted by those in the employ of organizations willing and eager to game information systems in the service of their not-even-hidden agendas. Alternative dangers for the muddled thinker include retreating into fixed ideology or collapsing into solipsism. Maybe none of it matters in the end. We can choose our beliefs from the buffet of available options without adherence to reality. We can create our own reality. Of course, that’s a description of madness, to which many have already succumbed. Why aren’t they wearing straitjackets?

Let me first restate axioms developed in previous blog posts. Narrative is the essential outward form of consciousness. Cognition has many preverbal and nonverbal subtleties, but the exchange of ideas occurs predominantly through narrative, and the story of self (told to oneself) can be understood as stream of consciousness: ongoing self-narration of sensations and events. The principal characteristic of narrative, at least that which is not pure fantasy, is in-the-moment sufficiency. Snap-judgment heuristics are merely temporary placeholders until, ideally at least, thoughtful reconsideration and revision that take time and discernment can be brought to bear. Stories we tell and are told, however, often do not reflect reality well, partly because our perceptual apparatuses are flawed, partly because individuals are untrained and unskilled in critical thinking (or overtrained and distorted), and partly because stories are polluted with emotions that make clear assessments impossible (to say nothing of malefactors with agendas). Some of us struggle to remove confabulation from narrative (as best we can) whereas others embrace it because it’s emotionally gratifying.

A good example of the reality principle is recognition, similar to the 1970s energy crisis, that energy supplies don’t magically appear by simply digging and drilling more of the stuff out of the ground. Those easy-to-get resources have been plundered already. The term peak oil refers to eventual decline in energy production (harvesting, really) when the easy stuff is more than half gone and undiminished (read: increasing) demand impels energy companies to go in search of more exotic supply (e.g., underwater or embedded in shale). If that reality is dissatisfying, a host of dreamt-up stories offer us deliverance from inevitable decline and reduction of lifestyle prerogatives by positing extravagant resources in renewables, hydrogen fuel cells, fusion (not to be confused with fission), or as-yet unexploited regions such as The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. None of these represent plausible realities (except going into heretofore protected regions and bringing ecological devastation).

The relationship of fictional stories to reality is quite complex. For this blog post, a radically narrow description is that fiction is the imaginary space whereas ideas can be tried out and explored safely in preparation for implementation in reality. Science fiction (i.e., imagining interstellar space travel despite its flat impossibility in Newtonian physics) is a good example. Some believe humans can eventually accomplish what’s depicted in sci-fi, and in certain limited examples we already have. But many sci-fi stories simply don’t present a plausible reality. Taken as vicarious entertainment, they’re AOK superfine with me. But given that Western cultures (I can’t opine on cultures outside the West) have veered dangerously into rank ideation and believing their own hype, too many people believe fervently in aspirational futures that have no hope of ever instantiating. Just like giant pools of oil hidden under the Rocky Mountains (to cite something sent to me just today offering illusory relief from skyrocketing gasoline prices).

Among the many genres of narrative now on offer in fiction, no better example of sought-after-power is the superhero story. Identifying with the technological and financial power of Ironman and Batman or the god-powers of Thor and Wonder Woman is thrilling, perhaps, but again, these are not plausible realities. Yet these superrich, superstrong, superintelligent superheros are everywhere in fiction, attesting to liminal awareness of lack of power and indeed frailty. Many superhero stories are couched as coming-of-age stories for girls, who with grit and determination can fight toe-to-toe with any man and dominate. (Too many BS examples to cite.) Helps, of course, if the girl has magic at her disposal. Gawd, do I tire of these stories, told as origins in suffering, acquisition of skills, and coming into one’s own with the mature ability to force one’s will on others, often in the form of straight-up killing and assassination. Judge, jury, and executioner all rolled into one but entirely acceptable vigilantism if done wearing a supersuit and claiming spurious, self-appointed moral authority.

There are better narratives that don’t conflate power with force or lack plausibility in the world we actually inhabit. In a rather complicated article by Adam Tooze entitled “John Mearsheimer and the Dark Origins of Realism” at The New Statesman, after a lengthy historical and geopolitical analysis of competing narratives, a mode of apprehending reality is described:

… adopting a realistic approach towards the world does not consist in always reaching for a well-worn toolkit of timeless verities, nor does it consist in affecting a hard-boiled attitude so as to inoculate oneself forever against liberal enthusiasm. Realism, taken seriously, entails a never-ending cognitive and emotional challenge. It involves a minute-by-minute struggle to understand a complex and constantly evolving world, in which we are ourselves immersed, a world that we can, to a degree, influence and change, but which constantly challenges our categories and the definitions of our interests. And in that struggle for realism – the never-ending task of sensibly defining interests and pursuing them as best we can – to resort to war, by any side, should be acknowledged for what it is. It should not be normalised as the logical and obvious reaction to given circumstances, but recognised as a radical and perilous act, fraught with moral consequences. Any thinker or politician too callous or shallow to face that stark reality, should be judged accordingly.

As a sometimes presenter of aphorisms, felicitous and humorous turns of phrase and logic interest me as examples of heuristics aimed as parsimony and cognitive efficiency. Whether one recognizes those terms or not, everyone uses snap categorization and other shortcuts to manage and alleviate crowded thinking from overwhelming demands on perception. Most of us, most of the time, use sufficiency as the primary decision-making mode, which boils down to “close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.” Emotion is typically the trigger, not rational analysis. After enough repetition is established, unthinking habit takes over. Prior to habituation, however, the wisdom of sages has provided useful rubrics to save unnecessary and pointless labor over casuistry flung into one’s way to impede, convince, or gaslight. (I previously wrote about this effect here).

As categories, I pay close attention to razors, rules, laws, principles, and Zuihitsu when they appear as aphorisms in the writing of those I read and follow online. Famous rules, laws, and principles include Occam’s Razor, (Finagle’s Corollary to) Murphy’s Law, Godwin’s Law, Jevon’s Paradox, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect (do your own searches if these escape you). Some are quite useful at dispelling faulty thinking and argumentation. Café Bedouin (see blogroll) has an ongoing series of Zuihitsu, which has grown quite long. Many ring fundamentally true; others are either highly situational or wrong on their face, perhaps revealing the cardinal weakness of reduction of ideas to short, quotable phrases.

I recently learned of Hitchens’ Razor (after Christopher Hitchens), usually given as “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” According to the Wikipedia entry, it may well have been reconstituted, repurposed, or revived from other sources stretching back into antiquity. Caitlin Johnson, a notable aphorist I’ve quoted numerous times, uses Hitchens’ Razor to put the lie to claims from the U.S. war machine and its dutiful media lapdogs that the “situation in Ukraine” (whatever that is) demands intervention by Western powers lest the utility bad guys of the moment, the Russians, be allowed to run roughshod over its neighbor Ukraine, which (significantly) used to be part of the now-defunct Soviet Union. As with many controversial, inflammatory claims and assertions continuously heaped like a dog pile on hapless U.S. citizens with little time, few resources, and no obligation to perform their own investigations and analyses, I have only weak opinions but very strong suspicions. That’s where Hitchens’ Razor comes in handy. Under its instruction, I can discard out-of-hand and in disbelief extraordinary claims designed to whip me and the wider public into an emotional frenzy and thus accept or support actions that shouldn’t just raise eyebrows but be met with considerable dissent, protest, and disobedience. Saves me a lot of time entertaining nonsense just because it gets repeated often enough to be accepted as truth (Bernays’ Principle).

Ask parents what ambitions they harbor for their child or children and among the most patterned responses is “I just want them to be happy.” I find such an answer thoughtless and disingenuous, and the insertion of the hedge just to make happiness sound like a small ask is a red herring. To begin with, for most kids still in their first decade, happiness and playfulness are relatively effortless and natural so long as a secure, loving environment is provided. Certainly not a default setting, but it’s still quite commonplace. As the dreamy style of childhood cognition is gradually supplanted by supposedly more logical, rational, adult thinking, and as children become acquainted with iniquities of both history and contemporary life, innocence and optimism become impossible to retain. Cue the sullen teenager confronting the yawning chasm between desire and reality. Indeed, few people seem to make the transition into adulthood knowing with much clarity how to be happy in the midst of widespread travail and suffering. Instead, young adults frequently substitute self-destructive, nihilistic hedonism, something learned primarily (says me) from the posturing of movie characters and the celebrities who portray them. (Never understood the trope of criminals hanging at nightclubs, surrounded by drug addicts, nymphos, other unsavory types, and truly awful music, where they can indulge their assholery before everything inevitably goes sideways.)

Many philosophies recommend simplicity, naturalness, and independence as paths to happiness and moral rectitude. Transcendentalism was one such response to social and political complexities that spoil and/or corrupt. Yet two centuries on, the world has only gotten more and more complex, pressing on everyone especially for information processing in volume and sophistication that does not at all come naturally to most and is arguably not part of our evolutionary toolkit. Multiple social issues, if one is to engage them fairly, hinge on legalistic arguments and bewildering wordplay that render them fundamentally intractable. Accordingly, many waive away all nuance and adopt pro forma attitudes. Yet the airwaves, social media, the Internet, and even dinner conversations are suffused by the worst sorts of hypercomplexity and casuistry that confound even those who traffic regularly in such rhetoric. It’s a very long way from “I just want to be happy.”

(more…)

/rant on

The ongoing epistemological crisis is getting no aid or relief from the chattering classes. Case in point: the Feb. 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine has a special supplement devoted to “Life after Trump,” which divides recent history neatly into reality and unreality commencing from either the announcement of Trump’s candidacy, his unexpected success in the Republican primaries, his even less expected election (and inauguration), or now his removal from office following electoral defeat in Nov. 2020. Take your pick which signals the greatest deflection from history’s “proper” course before being derailed into a false trajectory. Charles Yu and Olivia Laing adopt the reality/unreality dichotomy in their contributions to the special supplement. Yu divides (as do many others) the nation into us and them: supporters of a supposed departure from reality/sanity and those whose clear perception penetrates the illusion. Laing bemoans the inability to distinguish fiction and fantasy from truth, unreality masquerading as your truth, my truth, anyone’s truth given repetition and persuasion sufficient to make it stick. Despite familiarity with these forced, unoriginal metaphors, I don’t believe them for a moment. Worse, they do more to encourage siloed thinking and congratulate the “Resistance” for being on the putative correct side of the glaringly obvious schism in the voting populace. Their arguments support a false binary, perpetuating and reinforcing a distorted and decidedly unhelpful interpretation of recent history. Much better analyses than theirs are available.

So let me state emphatically: like the universe, infinity, and oddly enough consciousness, reality is all-encompassing and unitary. Sure, different aspects can be examined separately, but the whole is nonetheless indivisible. Reality is a complete surround, not something one can opt into or out of. That doesn’t mean one’s mind can’t go elsewhere, either temporarily or permanently, but that does not create or constitute an alternate reality. It’s merely dissociation. Considering the rather extreme limitations of human perceptual apparatuses, it’s frankly inevitable that each of us occupies a unique position, an individual perspective, within a much, much (much, much …) larger reality. Add just a couple more axes to the graph below for time (from nanoseconds to eons) and physical scale (from subatomic to cosmic), and the available portion of reality anyone can grasp is clearly infinitesimally small, yet that tiny, tiny portion is utterly everything for each individual. It’s a weird kind of solipsism.

I get that Harper’s is a literary magazine and that writers/contributors take advantage of the opportunity to flex for whatever diminishing readership has the patience to actually finish their articles. Indeed, in the course of the special supplement, more than a few felicitous concepts and turns of phase appeared. However, despite commonplace protestations, the new chief executive at the helm of the ship of state has not in fact returned the American scene to normal reality after an awful but limited interregnum.

Aside: Citizens are asked to swallow the whopper that the current president, an elder statesman, the so-called leader of the free world, is in full control of this faculties. Funny how his handlers repeatedly erupt like a murder of crows at the first suggestion that a difficult, unvetted question might be posed, inviting the poor fellow to veer even slightly off the teleprompter script. Nope. Lest yet another foot-in-mouth PR disaster occur (too many already to count), he’s whisked away, out of range of cameras and mics before any lasting damage can be done. Everyone is supposed to pretend this charade is somehow normal. On the other hand, considering how many past presidents were plainly puppets, spokespersons, or charlatans (or at least denied the opportunity to enact an agenda), one could argue that the façade is normal. “Pay no attention to the man [or men] behind the curtain. I am the great and powerful Wizard of Oz!”

With some dismay, I admit that the tiny sliver of reality to which many attend incessantly is an even smaller subset of reality, served up via small, handheld devices that fit neatly in one’s pocket. One could say theirs is a pocket reality, mostly mass media controlled by Silicon Valley platforms and their censorious algorithms. Constrained by all things digital, and despite voluminous ephemera, that reality bears little resemblance to what digital refuseniks experience without the blue glare of screens washing all the color from their faces and their own authentic thoughts out of their heads. Instead, I recommend getting outside, into the open air and under the warm glow of the yellow sun, to experience life as an embodied being, not as a mere processor of yet someone else’s pocket reality. That’s how we all start out as children before getting sucked into the machine.

Weirdly, only when the screen size ramps up to 30 feet tall do consumers grow skeptical and critical of storytelling. At just the moment cinema audiences are invited to suspend disbelief, the Reality Principle and logic are applied to character, dialogue, plotting, and make-believe gadgetry, which often fail to ring true. Why does fiction come under such careful scrutiny while reality skates right on by, allowing the credulous to believe whatever they’re fed?

/rant off

/rant on

Remember when the War on Christmas meme materialized a few years ago out of thin air, even though no one in particular was on attack? Might have to rethink that one. Seems that every holiday now carries an obligation to revisit the past, recontextualize origin stories, and confess guilt over tawdry details of how the holiday came to be celebrated. Nearly everyone who wants to know knows by now that Christmas is a gross bastardization of pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, cooped by various organized churches (not limited to Christians!) before succumbing to the awesome marketing onslaught (thanks, Coca-Cola) that makes Xmas the “most wonderful time of the year” (as the tune goes) and returning the holiday to its secular roots. Thanksgiving is now similarly ruined, no longer able to be celebrated and enjoyed innocently (like a Disney princess story reinterpreted as a white or male savior story — or even worse, a while male) but instead used as an excuse to admit America’s colonial and genocidal past and extermination mistreatment of native populations as white Europeans encroached ever more persistently on lands the natives held more or less as a commons. Gone are the days when one could gather among family and friends, enjoy a nice meal and good company, and give humble, sincere thanks for whatever bounty fortuna had bestowed. Now it’s history lectures and acrimony and families rent asunder along generational lines, typically initiated by those newly minted graduates of higher education and their newfangled ideas about equity, justice, and victimhood. Kids these days … get off my lawn!

One need not look far afield to find alternative histories that position received wisdom about the past in the cross-hairs just to enact purification rituals that make it/them, what, clean? accurate? whole? I dunno what the real motivation is except perhaps to force whites to self-flagellate over sins of our ancestors. Damn us to hell for having cruelly visited iniquity upon everyone in the process of installing white, patriarchal Europeanness as the dominant Western culture. I admit all of it, though I’m responsible for none of it. Moreover, history stops for no man, no culture, no status quo. White, patriarchal Europeanness is in serious demographic retreat and has arguably already lost its grip on cultural dominance. The future is female (among other things), amirite? Indeed, whether intended or not, that was the whole idea behind the American experiment: the melting pot. Purity was never the point. Mass migration out of politically, economically, and ecologically ravaged regions means that the experiment is no longer uniquely American.

Interdisciplinary approaches to history, if academic rigidity can be overcome, regularly develop new understandings to correct the historical record. Accordingly, the past is remarkably dynamic. (I’ve been especially intrigued by Graham Hancock’s work on ancient civilizations, mostly misunderstood and largely forgotten except for megalithic projects left behind.) But the past is truly awful, with disaster piled upon catastrophe followed by calamity and cataclysm. Still waiting for the apocalypse. Peering too intently into the past is like staring at the sun: it scorches the retinas. Moreover, the entire history of history is replete with stories being told and retold, forgotten and recovered, transformed in each iteration from folklore into fable into myth into legend before finally passing entirely out of human memory systems. How many versions of Christmas are there across cultures and time? Or Thanksgiving, or Halloween, or any Hallmark® holiday that has crossed oceans and settled into foreign lands? What counts as the true spirit of any of them when their histories are so mutable?

/rant off

/rant on

Since deleting from my blogroll all doom links and turning my attention elsewhere, the lurking dread of looming collapse (all sorts) has been at low ebb at The Spiral Staircase. Despite many indicators of imminent collapse likewise purged from front-page and top-of-the-broadcast news, evidence continues to mount while citizens contend with other issues, some political and geopolitical, others day-to-day tribulations stemming from politics, economics, and the ongoing pandemic. For instance, I only just recently learned that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC — oh yeah … them) issued AR6 last month, the sixth periodic Assessment Report (maybe instead call it the State of the Union Address Planet Report). It’s long, dense reading (the full report is nearly 4,000 pp., whereas the summary for policymakers is a mere 42 pp.) and subject to nearly continuous revision and error correction. The conclusion? Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying. And although it’s true that mundane daily activities occupy center stage in the lives of average folks, there is simply no bigger story or concern for government leaders (I choke on that term) and journalists (that one, too) than climate change because it represents (oh, I dunno …) the collapse of industrial civilization and the early phase of mass extinction. Thus, all politics, geopolitics, economic warfare, class struggle, Wokeism, authoritarian seizure of power, and propaganda filling the minds of people at all levels as well as the institutions they serve amount to a serious misallocation of attention and effort. I will admit, though, that it’s both exhausting and by now futile to worry too much about collapse. Maybe that’s why the climate emergency (the new, improved term) is relegated to background noise easily tuned out.

It’s not just background noise, though, unlike the foreknowledge that death awaits decades from now if one is fortunate to persist into one’s 70s or beyond. No, it’s here now, outside (literally and figuratively), knocking on the door. Turn off your screens and pay attention! (Ironically, everyone now gets the lion’s share of information from screens, not print. So sue me.) Why am I returning to this yet again? Maybe I’ve been reviewing too many dystopian films and novels. Better answer is that those charged with managing and administering states and nations are failing so miserably. It’s not even clear that they’re trying, so pardon me, but I’m rather incensed. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of knowledgeable experts compiling data, writing scientific reports, publishing books, and offering not solutions exactly but at least better ways to manage our affairs. Among those experts, the inability to reverse the climate emergency is well enough understood though not widely acknowledged. (See Macro-Futilism on my blogroll for at least one truth teller who absolutely gets it.) Instead, some lame version of the same dire warning issues again and again: if action isn’t taken now (NOW, dammit!), it will be too late and all will be lost. The collective response is not, however, to pull back, rein in, or even prepare for something less awful than the worst imaginable hard landing where absolutely no one survives despite the existence of boltholes and underground bunkers. Instead, it’s a nearly gleeful acceleration toward doom, like a gambler happily forking over his last twenty at the blackjack table before losing and chucking himself off the top of the casino parking structure. Finally free (if fleetingly)!

Will festering public frustration over deteriorating social conditions tip over into outright revolt, revolution, civil war, and/or regime change? Doesn’t have to be just one. Why is the U.S. still developing and stockpiling armaments, maintaining hundreds of U.S. military bases abroad, and fighting costly, pointless wars of empire (defeat in withdrawal from Afghanistan notwithstanding)? Will destruction of purchasing power of the U.S. dollar continue to manifest as inflation of food and energy costs? Is the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture actually doing anything to secure food systems, or does it merely prepare reports like the AR6 that no one reads or acts upon? Will fragile supply lines be allowed to fail entirely, sparking desperation and unrest in the streets far worse than summer 2020? Famine is how some believe collapse will trigger a megadeath pulse, but I wouldn’t count out chaotic violence among the citizenry, probably exacerbated and escalated as regimes attempt (unsuccessfully) to restore social order. Are any meaningful steps being taken to stop sucking from the fossil fuel teat and return to small-scale agrarian social organization, establishing degrowth and effectively returning to the land (repatriation is my preferred term) instead of going under it? Greenwashing doesn’t count. This headline (“We Live In A World Without Consequences Where Everyone Is Corrupt“) demonstrates pretty well that garbage economics are what pass for governance, primarily preoccupied with maintaining the capitalist leviathan that has captured everything (capture ought to be the trending word of the 2021 but sadly isn’t). Under such constraint, aged institutions are flatly unable to accomplish or even address their missions anymore. And this headline (“Polls Show That The American People Are Extremely Angry – And They Are About To Get Even Angrier“) promises that things are about to get much, much worse (omitted the obvious-but-erroneous follow-on “before they get better”) — for the obvious reason that more and more people are at the ends of their ropes while the privileged few attend the Met Gala, virtue signal with their butts, and behave as though society isn’t in fact cracking up. Soon enough, we’ll get to truth-test Heinlein’s misunderstood aphorism “… an armed society is a polite society.”

Those who prophesy dates or deadlines for collapse have often been slightly embarrassed (but relieved) that collapse didn’t arrive on schedule. Against all odds, human history keeps trudging further into borrowed time, kicking cans down roads, blowing bubbles, spinning false narratives, insisting that all this is fine, and otherwise living in make-believe land. Civilization has not quite yet reached the end of all things, but developments over the last couple months feel ever more keenly like the equivalent of Frodo and Sam sitting atop Mount Doom, just outside the Cracks of Doom (a/k/a Sammath Naur), except that humanity is not on a noble, sacrificial mission to unmake the One Ring, whatever that might represent outside of fiction (for Tolkien, probably industrial machines capable of planetary destruction, either slowly and steadily or all at once; for 21st-century armchair social critics like me, capitalism). All former certainties, guarantees, sureties, continuities, and warranties are slipping away despite the current administration’s assurances that the status quo will be maintained. Or maybe it’s merely the transition of summer into fall, presaging the annual dormancy of winter looking suspiciously this year like the great dying. Whatever. From this moment on and in a fit of exuberant pique, I’m willing to call the contest: humanity is now decidedly on the down slope. The true end of history approaches, as no one will be left to tell the tale. When, precisely, the runaway train finally careens over the cliff remains unknown though entirely foreseeable. The concentration of goofy references, clichés, and catchphrases above — usually the mark of sophomoric writing — inspires in me to indulge (further) in gallows humor. Consider these metaphors (some mixed) suggesting that time is running out:

  • the show’s not over til it’s over, but the credits are rolling
  • the chickens are coming home to roost
  • the canary in the coal mine is gasping its last breath
  • the fat lady is singing her swan song
  • borrowed time is nearly up
  • time to join the great majority (I see dead people …)
  • the West fades into the west
  • kiss your babies goodnight and kiss your ass goodbye

/rant off

From Ran Prieur (no link, note nested reply):


I was heavily into conspiracy theory in the 90’s. There was a great paper magazine, Kenn Thomas’s Steamshovel Press, that always had thoughtful and well-researched articles exploring anomalies in the dominant narrative.

Another magazine, Jim Martin’s Flatland, was more dark and paranoid but still really smart. A more popular magazine, Paranoia, was stupid but fun.

At some point, conspiracy culture shifted to grand narratives about absolute evil. This happened at the same time that superhero movies (along with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings) took over Hollywood. The more epic and the more black-and-white the story, the more humans are drawn to it.

This is my half-baked theory: It used to be that ordinary people would accept whatever the TV said — or before that, the church. Only a few weirdos developed the skill of looking at a broad swath of potential facts, and drawing their own pictures.

It’s like seeing shapes in the clouds. It’s not just something you do or don’t do — it’s a skill you can develop, to see more shapes more easily. And now everyone is learning it.

Through the magic of the internet, everyone is discovering that they can make reality look like whatever they want. They feel like they’re finding truth, when really they’re veering off into madness.

SamuraiBeanDog replies: Except that the real issue with the current conspiracy crisis is that people are just replacing the old TV and church sources with social media and YouTube. The masses of conspiracy culture aren’t coming up with their own realities, they’re just believing whatever shit they’re told by conspiracy influencers.

Something that’s rarely said about influencers, and propaganda in general, is that they can’t change anyone’s mind — they have to work with what people already feel good about believing.

I simply can’t keep up with all the reading, viewing, and listening in my queue. Waking hours are too few, and concentration dissipates long before sleep overtakes. Accordingly, it’s much easier to settle into couch-potato mode and watch some mindless drivel, such as the Netflix hit Bridgerton binged in two sittings. (Unlike cinema critics, I’m not bothered especially by continuity errors, plot holes, clunky dialogue, weak character motivation, gaps of logic, or glossy decadence of the fictional worlds. I am bothered by the Kafka trap sprung on anyone who notices casting decisions that defy time and place — an ill-advised but now commonplace historical revisionism like editing Mark Twain.) As a result, blog posts are less frequent than they might perhaps be as I pronounce upon American (or more broadly, Western) culture, trying vainly to absorb it as a continuously moving target. Calls to mind the phrase Après moi, le déluge, except that there is no need to wait. A deluge of entertainment, news, analysis, punditry, and trolling has buried everyone already. So rather than the more careful consideration I prefer to post, here are some hot takes.

The Irregular Aphorist. Caitlin Johnstone offers many trenchant observations in the form of aphorisms (some of which I’ve quoted before), all gathered under the subtitle Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix. The modifier irregular only means that aphorisms are a regular but not constant feature. Her site doesn’t have a tag to that effect but probably ought to. Here’s one in particular that caught my attention:

Everything our species has tried has led us to a dying world and a society that is stark raving mad, so nobody is in any position to tell you that you are wrong.

Twin truths here are (1) the dying world and (2) societal madness, both of which I’ve been describing for some time. Glad when others recognize them, too.

Piling on. Though few still are willing to admit it, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs, e.g., distancing, masks, and lockdowns) to stall or reduce the spread of the virus failed to achieve their objectives according to this study. Instead, NPIs piled on suffering no one could forestall. I read somewhere (no link) that the world is approaching half of total, cumulative deaths/infections predicted had nothing been done to impede the pandemic running its course. Adding in deaths of despair (numbers not entirely up to date), we’re using the wrong tools to fight the wrong battle. Of course, interventions opened up giant opportunities for power grabs and vulture capitalism, so the cynic in me shrugs and wonders half aloud “what did you expect, really?”

Growth of the Managerial Bureaucracy. A blog called Easily Distracted by Timothy Burke (never on my blogroll) publishes only a few times per year, but his analysis is terrific — at least when it doesn’t wind up being overlong and inconclusive. Since a student debt jubilee is back in the news (plenty of arguments pro and con), unintended consequences are anticipated in this quote:

When you set out to create elaborate tiers that segregate the deserving poor from the comfortable middle-class and the truly wealthy, you create a system that requires a massive bureaucracy to administer and a process that forces people into petitionary humiliation in order to verify their eligibility. You create byzantine cutoff points that become business opportunities for predatory rentiers.

Something similar may well be occurring with stimulus checks being issued pro rata (has anyone actually gotten one?), but at least we’re spared any petitionary humiliations. We get whatever the algorithms (byzantine cutoff points) dictate. How those funds will be gamed and attached is not yet clear. Stay alert.

No Defense of Free Speech. Alan Jacobs often recommends deleting, unsubscribing, and/or ignoring social media accounts (after his own long love-hate relationship with them) considering how they have become wholly toxic to a balanced psyche as well as principal enablers of surveillance capitalism and narrative control. However, in an article about the manorial elite, he’s completely lost the plot that absolutism is required in defense of free speech. It’s not sufficient to be blasé or even relieved when 45 is kicked off Twitter permanently or when multiple parties conspire to kill Parler. Establishing your own turf beyond the reach of Silicon Valley censors is a nice idea but frankly impractical. Isn’t that what whoever ran Parler (or posted there) must have thought? And besides, fencing off the digital commons these very entities created has catapulted them into the unenviable position of undemocratic, unelected wielders of monopolistic power and co-conspirators to boot. That’s what needs to be curtailed, not free speech.

The Taxonomic Apocalypse. Although drawn from fiction and thus largely hypothetical, a new book (coming late 2021) by Adam Roberts called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? surveys doomsday stories and categorizes different versions of how it all ends. Alan Jacobs (yeah, him again — must have an advance copy of the manuscript) recommends it as “a delightful and provocative little book” but fails to grok two things: (1) these stories are rehearsals-cum-preparations for the real thing, and (2) the real thing really is bearing down on us implacably and so is no longer a mere hypothetical to contemplate and categorize for shits and grins. Despite acceptance of the eventualities that await all of us, reading Roberts’ taxonomy is not something I would expect to find delightful. Skip.

Narrative Collapse. Ran Prier (no link) sometimes makes statements revealing an unexpected god’s-eye view:

[45] is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he’s the messiah. We’re lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.

This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that’s part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.

Collapse of certain fundamental stories that animate our thinking is at the core of The Spiral Staircase (see About Brutus at top), though it’s often couched in terms of consciousness in transition. Getting through the transition (only temporarily, see previous item in list) probably means completion of the Counter-Enlightenment historical arc, which necessarily includes further descent into barbarism.

Hail Mary for Individualism. I always take special notice when someone cites Allan Bloom. Alan Jacobs (um, yeah, he’s prolific and I’m using his ideas again — sue me) cites Bloom to argue that individualism or the sovereign self, a product of the Enlightenment, is already dead. No doubt, the thought-world described so ably by Bloom no longer exists, but individualism has not yet died out by attrition or been fully dissolved in nonduality. Many of us born before the advent of the Internet retain selfhood and authenticity not yet coopted by or incorporated into mass mind. Moreover, ongoing struggles over identity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, and race that are often used improperly to define the self) result from an inchoate sense that individualism is eroding precipitously, not that it’s already passé. Defiant attempts to (re)establish an authentic self (contravening all logic and becoming critical theory of one sort or another) in the face of this loss may well be a last-ditch effort to save the self, but it’s failing.

Returning to the subject of this post, I asserted that the modern era frustrates a deep, human yearning for meaning. As a result, the Medieval Period, and to a lesser degree, life on the highroad, became narrative fixations. Had I time to investigate further, I would read C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image (1964), but my reading list is already overfull. Nonetheless, I found an executive summary of how Lewis describes the Medieval approach to history and education:

Medieval historians varied in that some of them were more scientific, but most historians tried to create a “picture of the past.” This “picture” was not necessarily based in fact and was meant more to entertain curiosity than to seriously inform. Educated people in medieval times, however, had a high standard for education composed of The Seven Liberal Arts of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.

In the last chapter, Lewis summarizes the influence of the Medieval Model. In general, the model was widely accepted, meaning that most people of the time conformed to the same way of thinking. The model, he reiterates, satisfied imagination and curiosity, but was not necessarily accurate or factual, specifically when analyzed by modern thinkers.

Aside. Regular readers of The Spiral Staircase may also recognize how consciousness informs this blog post. Historical psychology offers a glimpse into worldviews of bygone eras, with the Medieval Period perhaps being the easiest to excavate contemplate due to proximity. Few storytellers (cinema or literature) attempt to depict what the world was truly like in the past (best as we can know) but instead resort to an ahistorical modern gloss on how men and women thought and behaved. One notable exception may be the 1986 film The Name of the Rose, which depicts the emerging rational mind in stark conflict with the cloistered Medieval mind. Sword-and-sandal epics set in ancient Rome and Greece get things even worse.

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