The Capital and You

Despite everything, it’s still you.

 


 

The internet holds many things, and memes identifying themselves as “about capitalism” are part of them. The format goes something like: “old white male revolting greed, also corporate abuse, ironic expression of these and a fall-flat retort in <140 characters, please like and share.” It’s easy enough to make fun of the artless earnestness of these memes, but the problem for the people posting them is the same as the problem for the rest of us: the hapless, useless expressions define the actual problems out of existence. And when you see “problem” you should think “puzzle,” so let’s play this game to win.

The common criticism of capitalism, from left or from right,[1] is that the wrong people are getting money. For the left it’s CEOs and other people who don’t do “real work,” and for the right it’s minorities and other people who don’t do “real work,” but I’m sure you can see that the argument is never about the system, only about redistribution. None of the political complaints we see today have anything to do with actual capitalism, only with how it should pay out: the argument isn’t about capitalism, about factories and currency and consumerism, but only about envy. Other people receive something you want, you perceive that as a funneling away of limited resources, and the response is bitter and unrelenting hatred. It’s like the stereotypical imperial Chinese harem: the wives detest one another and try to corner the market on their husband’s dick instead of considering why they can’t get a man to themselves and all the dick they could ask for. But then again, it makes sense why they wouldn’t ask, because then they’d have to look at their pretty dresses and think. “So you’re saying that Wall Street bribes us to accept the system with trinkets like credit cards and 401(k)s?” You’re not very good at pattern-matching, are you? In the analogy, the CEOs you hate aren’t the husband, they’re just high-status wives who get more dick than you. The husband is capitalism. “Like, the Koch brothers?” Jesus.

The point of this essay is not how to overthrow the husband and institute private dick for all. You can’t do that for the same reason the Chinese harem couldn’t. Nor is it how to get the maximum quantity of dick; anyone who thinks like that is mentally fucked. This is about how to get some side dick, to stay stable with capitalism but also cheat on it. To work with the beast, but not give in to it. “But isn’t cheating wrong?” Yes, it would be wrong for the haremite to cheat on the person they were cheating on their husband with. “But what about the husband?” What about the husband? It’s not a person. It’s capitalism.

Capitalism is not CEOs and factories and wage labor, although these all are part of it. Capitalism is one thing and one thing only, write it down and memorize it: “The reduction of all relations to commodity relations.” That’s it. There are reasons why it’s popular and effective now as opposed to in other points in history, and there are effects it has which are non-obvious from the definition, but at its core, this is all capitalism is.

Capitalism is the societal primacy of the ability to take one discrete thing and replace it with another discrete thing and continue functioning despite the replacement. A good metaphor is replaceable parts in machinery: if a gear breaks a tooth, you replace it with a new gear. Similarly, if you need to buy a bunch of apples to supply your grocery store, you can buy them from a variety of sources and sub out one box for another. The thing is not an incomparable individual, it is a type. It can be replaced.

Needless to say, this is incredibly powerful. If the gear breaks, replacing it will save the whole machine. Choosing your source of apples lets you control prices, and not “run out” if your usual vendor is unable to meet your needs. The sheer amount of versatility and efficiency this provides cannot be understated. The underlying process here is called “quantification,” and it’s one of the sharpest tools in the human playbook. It’s also one of the oldest: things like recipes and even grain counts and harvests rely on quantification. Answering how much grain you harvested with “this one, and this one, and this one” is not very helpful. Equally, its blindspots are easy to see: when the quantification goes wrong, when the things being made equivalent reject the assessment and their reality possesses something not captured by the abstraction. For instance, if the replacement gear is plastic instead of steel, or the apples are Granny Smith rather than McIntosh, you can find the results failing to adhere to how they were conceived. These are the powers and weaknesses of the quantifiable mindset.

Capitalism is not identical to quantification; quantification is as old as time, for time can’t be counted without numbers. It is what happens when quantification takes over society, when the relative merits of engaging with the world that way outweigh the downsides. This came about as the result of the ascension of unified currency and automation. The story goes something like: in Europe, for a variety of historical reasons, everyone was Christian and everyone used gold. This allowed for travel and commerce, which was innocent enough by itself. Words still had to be spread by the speaker, and the individual speaker mattered. Then came the printing press, and suddenly identical words could be spoken with no reference to the individual speaker, i.e. the printer. First the words shared were purely Christian, which everyone was already prepared to hear, but quickly they became everything else. The words were identical, so the speaker could be replaced: it was the second mass product, with the first being food, which nobody thought much to mention. But the printing press served to inspire by its very form; the observant noticed that clever machinery could be used to make complex tasks rote. And so they replicated the procedure, again and again and again, and came up with clever methods to harness sources of power beyond human muscle to run the tasks, but that is not what we are interested in. What’s interesting is: the labor put in is interchangeable, and the products created are interchangeable, and to make new factories with new products, all you need is money. Money, most of all, because the factory’s parts were built in factories and are all alike, and so the quantity put in is to match in uniformity the quantity taken out. All things become alike in kind, available to buy and sell at regular prices, and suddenly everything in the world has become a commodity, a quantified and regular object that is really just a stand-in for money.

To make this more recognizable: the developments of the Industrial Revolution made it reasonable and logical to conceive of things as commodities above all else. Previously mass industries were composed of “many hands,” as it were, and some of these industries remain, but they have been replaced by the INDUSTRIES OF SCALE, which are easy to rapidly scale up or down or to refit, but only if you have the money. The massive increase in output from harnessing power from running water and eventually fossil fuels is interesting and relevant, and it served to additionally make the output of even blunt and wasteful machinery far more than what human laborers could manage, which did not change the course of industrialization and capitalism but did massively accelerate it.

The indirect result here is that coordination becomes massively easier than before, with the associated effects that mean that needs can be responded to faster than ever before. Production also rises, lowering the amount of abject lack in human society significantly. Equally, unfamiliar markets become easier to buy into than ever before, granting a kind of (mostly lateral) class mobility that was previously unimaginable. The direct result here is that commodity relations dwarf other relations. The importance of how something relates to another as a commodity, as a mathematical and replaceable piece, outweighs any other way it could relate to anything else. This obviously applies to objects, but it also applies to labor, which translates to humans. Although critiques of capitalism are numerous and often incoherent, their sentiment is always born out of the varyingly distinct apprehension that humans are being treated as replaceable.

Let me be perfectly clear: this is not romanticism about how we were treated as human under the feudal system. This is a description of how economies work. Under the feudal system, there were a different set of relations which were prioritized; to be specific, they were feudal relations. Every thing only mattered insofar as it slotted into the feudal system: land could only be noble property, a knight only mattered insofar as they were a knight, and same with a peasant. This was very different from being treated as a commodity, but it didn’t mean you were treated well. Wherever you fell on the totem pole, you would have to play your part, and many of those parts were utter misery. A peasant may not have been replaceable the same way a minimum wage worker is now, but they were irreplaceably inferior. Even a king was irreplaceable in his own right, and we can see how that drove, say, Henry VIII mad.

Let me make this distinction clearer: Romeo and Juliet is a classic story not about love, but about two teenagers who haven’t figured out what the actual economic and social relations of their society are, which are tribal – family. They try to raise their individuality as humans above the relations their society stands in, and fail to realize exactly how much of their life up to that point was bound in them reaping the rewards of their existing relations within the system. This makes them ignorant and privileged, which is why they remain so obnoxious centuries later.[2]

Their arrogant flaunting of every part of their relational power means they end up being an utter disaster for everyone around them and then promptly die. This is the only result for trying to back out of the game entirely. You can’t check out of the system, and they couldn’t check out of their families. Romeo tried, and managed to get his buddy killed. Incidentally, they could have stood a chance if they’d leaned on their privilege, taken advantage of their strong social relations, and tried to foster better relations between the houses, all of which could play along nice with the system (families want to grow). They would then have been reinforcing the system, it’s true, but at least they get to get laid. What’s more, it’s in the interest of getting laid, which seems like a far nobler purpose than expressing individuality to me.

So this is the kind of setup we have under capitalism: all existing social and economic bonds have been reduced, between family and feudal lord and guild and whoever else. They have been reduced to commodity relations. This is not unique to free-market capitalism; the exact same process happened under fascism and communism for the same exact reasons. Implementation details varied, but the overall idea stayed constant. It cannot be overthrown, it can only be rendered obsolete. Whatever replaces it, in turn, will be different and oppressive in a new way. That’s life, I’m afraid. The system is human relations on the evolutionary scale, where the large-scale events that take place are those that get selected for. The game is survival at every level, and the way that game is scored is to be>not to be. Nothing you can do will ever change that fact.

The future is likely to bear some resemblance to the past. If you want some cheap bets on economic futures, here are three:

  1. There will be a temporary trend of economy by fiat, where people ride on the massive overproduction of the 20th century and substitute speculation for value. Bitcoin is the prime example of this, but social games are included too. Compare and contrast other societies in history experiencing extraordinary abundance, and see what happens.
  2. Unskilled labor will continue petering out. Machines have gotten too good at too much of it. However, production will stay at similar levels, and so previously unskilled labor will begin to experience demand for skill, if only so that people can be paid enough. At the same time, most existing skilled labor (think engineer or doctor, but also plumber and line cook) will keep up steady demand. Some may be oversupplied, but the jobs won’t vanish.
  3. Boom and bust cycles will continue.

The last is the critical aspect, and if nothing else, memorize the logic here.

A boom/bust cycle always follows the same pattern. First, there is a lack of supply for something that can be produced; the expression here describes it as an existing market need, but the better way to think of it is as an opportunity. Second, people start capitalizing on the opportunity, and make a lot of money. Other people see success, and jump on board – but please note, this step is about production capacity being optimized for this purpose. That means production is going up, and equally, opportunity is shrinking. At a certain point, the production exceeds the opportunity, but (critically) production keeps going up. [You may be wondering why I don’t say supply and demand. That’s because this is not supply and demand. Supply and demand is instantaneous: how much of X is there, and who’s buying? Production and opportunity is about trends over time: how much steady buying can we expect? The two can easily get unlinked.] This can be due to speculation, but it can just as easily be because production takes time to ramp up. At every point where people decide to increase production more, it can be true that current production at that time did not exceed the opportunity available. However, once you go past the tipping point, you wind up with excess production proportionate to how much opportunity there initially was. The supply skyrockets while the demand stays constant, and you get a peculiar effect: suddenly, the excess of supply itself supplants production. That is, the market supports less production than it would without that supply: the excess supply takes the place of what would be ordinarily produced. As an end result, something close to all the production ends up getting shut down, because it simply isn’t needed. Then demand coasts off of existing supply for a while, until the supply expires and suddenly you have an opportunity again. So the cycle continues.

There is a speculative aspect, yes, and no, I’m not going to discuss it, because it’s a red herring that just wants to moralize “humans are greedy and stupid.” They are, and you shouldn’t care, fluffing yourself up over it is despicable. The important part isn’t the illogic, it’s the logic. The logic states: if you get into the fluid economics of capitalism, you will end up in boom/bust cycles of every kind. Business and money are obvious. Less obvious, unless you stop to consider it, is training and childbirth. It’s called the Baby Boom for a reason, you know. While the image of goods rotting in a warehouse can be a little funny, the idea of those goods being people makes it a little less humorous. Unless, of course, you get off on “that bozo got themselves into an awful trap,” in which case yes, they suck, but you’re worse.

Capitalism has boom/bust cycles like nothing else, which are fueled by its inimitable capacity to shift and rework production. This is its greatest strength, and why it has dominated over other economic systems. It is also its greatest weakness, as it always drives itself to waste and ruin. Capitalism is not characterized by famine; it is characterized by crops being destroyed as subsidies. Capitalism is more than what’s good for you.

Succeeding in capitalism, surviving in it, is weathering the boom/bust cycles. You can get to the top of the pack temporarily by riding up to the height of a boom, but the following bust will ruin you. Even the psychological success of the boom will weigh heavy on you, like a high school quarterback lamenting his thirtieth. Just as important as enduring success is enduring failure: success will destroy you just as surely. The goal is not to become the favorite wife in the harem at all costs, because when the husband gets bored of you you’ll get nothing and the rest of them will hate you too. The goal is to remain stable, and make steady gains over time. Capitalism is abundance incarnate; you don’t need to beat everyone else to get more than enough. Any other thought is just baseless envy speaking. Capitalism has given us what nothing else can, and exposed the weakness of our souls in the same stroke: it has meant we never need to fight for resources ever again. Everything that remains is the want.

It is not difficult to succeed in capitalism. Find a decent job, work your way up, change jobs when appropriate, start a business if you’ve got a good idea or a passion, and save save save. The money can reinvest, recompound, and you will never be in need. Capitalism produces and grows at an overall reasonable, steady rate, and this growth will permit you to prosper. Wealth will accumulate, and you will avoid ruin by the vicissitudes of fate. This is the theory. The theory, on its own, is a model enough. Memorize it, and it will serve you well, the economic relations will be in your favor. But the remaining part of capital, the social relations, the hollowness of the heart, the vicious struggle and painful lack, these must be discussed on their own.

Capitalism is the reduction of all relations to commodity relations, and we have spoken much of what that means for economies and little of what it means for societies. An economic commodity relation is just the fiscal replaceability of the thing, but the social commodity relation is the social replaceability of the thing: socially, a thing is only worth its value in the general social currency, which can be expressed as: how hip is this? In economics: how expensive? In society: how popular? The other relations evaporate, and all that remains is currency. Nothing is worth anything but what it’s worth, and worth is a single game. This is the less obvious part of capitalism, but all the more keenly felt, which drives us mad on its own.

The effect of this is singular, with two aspects: it reduces the game to one dimension, which spawns ruthless competition and destroys the ability to fight back. For the majority of history, any competition had at least a few social axes to compete on, which generally fell along the lines: culture/intellectualism, political prominence, official religion, folk virtue. If someone had the advantage of you with one, you could maintain advantage with another: this allowed for outmaneuvering unfavorable situations and exercise of strength against power. This was, for example, the traditional power of peasants against lords (folk virtue, religion against political power, culture) , which didn’t upend things but at least evened out the playing field. The same was true with regards to economic relations, meaning that money was not the end-all be-all, and in the present day all these balances have been consumed by the one model. If someone exerts power over you, you only have one avenue to fight back, and if you are overpowered there is no other resort for you. This is what the modern public feels keenly, and it is why society has become more polarized.

To explain: if someone has more economic power than you, you will always fall flat when trying to oppose them. You cannot possibly win, leveraging money against money, and you will be rendered helpless. The result is the massive disparity in power between employer and employed, where the employer gets essentially free reign to decide terms and the employee gets none, or the vast majority of consumer contracts (like the notorious EULAs). Corporations on equal footing can make some kind of bargain, but for everyone else it’s take it or leave it. This feeling of helplessness is agonizing, and people suffering it tie themselves up into knots – powerlessness itself is nothing new, but this is its latest form. The social side of things is comparable, where the person who can muster the most social clout can do basically anything they want to the person who can’t. The instance of this that has struck the most nerves recently is the concept of rape, and without touching on the legal aspect we can see that any accusation of rape, true or false, will be decided in the court of public opinion purely by social status: the person who comes across as the most honest will win favor and tar the other as wicked, regardless of the truth. Thus, women and men alike (as the typical parties in this drama) are both rightfully terrified that either someone could rape them/accuse them of rape, destroy their credibility, and leave them with utterly no recourse – based entirely on how well the person could sell the story. Like a bolt out of the blue, they could be consigned to social oblivion on the pure whims of a vicious party, leaving them the solitary option of associating with a group that believes their kind of story no matter what, the “all men are rapists, of course we believe you” or “women are lying skanks, you were innocent man” that this devolves into. And so politically, the debate becomes about inflicting infinite punishment on one potential party or the other, each demanded to assuage the rightful fear of one party but necessarily stoking the fears of the other, resulting in an ever-widening gap in trust justified by the correct assessment that others are seeking deadly power over them with no recourse, but in every case the true form of the problem being ignored, that in the game that was created there can only be one winner and that the loser has to just take it. The single axis of social relations leaves no middle ground.

This drives people insane. If one’s ingroup being weak permits any wrong to be done to it without recourse, then any attempt towards strength by another group is an existential threat and power for one’s own group must be achieved at whatever cost. This may sound familiar, and it is the primitive state of war, for violence is the ultimate contest where victory allows the winner unlimited power over the loser, as Troy and Carthage teach us from antiquity. Distributed and shared communal wellsprings of violence, from courts to the UN, have served to reduce the warlike nature of society, but there is as yet no perfect commons for capitalist relations. This lack has made capitalism in many ways the most brutish form of economy, even more than tribalism, for at least there you could arbitrate disputes through the group.

This is the hardest part of capitalism to navigate, especially as social power translates to economic through publicity and bad press gains a dollar value that can or can’t be matched, and even truth itself becomes a commodity. All human relations become commodity relations, and since commodities are unliving and unreal, the humans follow suit. I do not say this to frighten or depress; I say it so you know the game and its stakes. The system tries to conceal itself from you, so to survive it you need to see its mechanisms laid bare. This is how capitalism comes to control your life, and this is how it breaks you.

There is only one way to beat capitalism, only one way to get out ahead of the system that has counted every card, and it is to take advantage of its blind spot. Capitalism has perfect vision of quantity, and you will never beat it there. It knows where every chip is and how many there are, it sees every game and every roll of the dice and rigs them all. Counting cards will get you tiny gains, and if you get full of yourself goons will beat them right back out of you, but there is one way to beat the house: capitalism may see the chips, but it can never see what they’re worth. Capitalism, god of numbers, is eternally blind to qualia.

This is the only way you can win: to look for what the system can’t see, to look for the qualities that it blinds itself to, for they are where you may be free. Capitalism thinks all things are equal, and this is where its greatest evils come from, where it perceives two things of equal cost as having equal value and ruins them both with clumsy optimization, but it also permits value and worth to be hidden from it, put where it cannot see. These qualities which capitalism cannot see are the most valuable ones to humans: among others, beauty, wisdom, and love.

Beauty is how you overpower the economic relations of objects. Beauty cannot be measured directly, but can only be conceived of as some hidden cause of human want. For instance, one person may own a large house, another a small house, and due to the measurable criteria (square footage, etc) the first costs more than the second. But if the second is more beautiful than the first, then the second homeowner has a significant advantage on the first, for they live in beauty. Capitalism tries to disguise this by tricking us into confusing cost and beauty, “what a beautiful mansion,” but if you hold steady and train your eye and heart you may overcome this and benefit from the world’s beauty.

Wisdom is how you overcome the economic relations of labor. Whenever you take a job, or a university course, or anything remotely similar, you can expect to be fleeced. However much you are making, it is less than what the company gets out of you, and whatever credits you are receiving, they are worth far less than what you are spending on the credentials. This is inevitable. You are weaker, and so you will be taken advantage of. The only way around this is to gain something which capitalism cannot see out of the bargain, which is wisdom. Gaining understanding, not merely of things (any text tells those secrets) but of the meanings and connections behind things, the hidden details like “what good reason looks like,” “how to salvage a bad situation,” “how to gain time where there is none,” “what it means and feels like to be an expert,” means that you have abilities that capitalism cannot measure. The closest thing it knows is “when there isn’t a senior worker, things don’t get done or they get done bad,” which is why it pays out the nose for them. As a worker, you can’t force through additional fiscal compensation against your employer’s will, but you can always take as much wisdom as you want without them ever noticing. This is how you gain earnings beyond your salary: take them in wisdom, without ever asking.

Love is how you overcome the social relations of capitalism. The social currency of capitalism is single, with wealth measured against opposing extremes, and with perfect sanction given to abuse those below you as you please. This by itself eradicates calm and ease, for tender complacency can be seared away by bitter competition. If you play these games, you will find yourself more alone than you can possibly imagine. The only escape is through love. Love, attachment to the other for the sake of the other, is derided by capitalism and never understood. Capitalism demands loyalty in accordance with the discrete elements of currency: say the right things, do the right things, be punished if you say and do wrongly. Love is not blind, love requires virtue and loathes a deeper evil than capitalism can see, but in the face of individual elements of wrongness love says: I will listen or let live, for you are worth it. Love may only ever respond to wrongdoing in one way, which is forgiveness conditional on penance, while capitalism only has infinite punishment at its disposal. This is what gives love its greatest strength, its power over evil. By accepting and forgiving evil, love gains the power to rebuke, command, diminish evil, bringing it in and making it love’s own. Given that every human will sin, that evil is just as innate as good in our hearts, this is the greatest power that can be imagined. Capitalism blinds itself to evil, for it does not forgive – so evil hides, renders itself undetectable by assuming the measurements of good and casts good as evil by assigning the opposite measurements, brands, to it. Taking on love will save you from this. By accepting and forgiving evil, you will be able to accept and forgive others. By accepting others, you open the possibility that they will accept you. Through that, through the possibility of acceptance, through the forgiveness of evil, can come honesty and trust. Through trust, through being able to treat another as an extension of yourself, through letting yourself dissolve just a little into the shared self of the both of you, can you finally be less alone. It is the only way.

These are capitalism’s blind spots, the things it cannot recognize or even cognize. They will let you gain an advantage within capitalism, it is true: beauty gives you more for your money, wisdom lets you produce past your labor-value (and eventually let you demand compensation past your peers), and love will let you collaborate in ways capitalism thinks impossible. This is useful, but not something with the power to change your fate. By valuing virtue at what it can gain you, you are reducing it to market price, you are reducing your own relation to virtue to a commodity relation, you are letting the machine master the man and poisoning your soul. This process is how capitalism hollows out the world, leaving something behind which seems an utter shadow of what your vitality demands. The true power here is not in defeating others in the arena of capitalism using our most precious tools as cudgels, heedless of breaking them in the process, for that is as tasteless as using legitimate charms and virtues as mere methods to advance in the harem. Instead, the power is in defeating the harem utterly, not by abolishing it (for what would have happened to the women who tried, not merely if they failed but if they succeeded? Who bore arms? You must ask these questions), but by rendering it irrelevant, dispelling its power over you. We can’t escape capitalism, but we can build things independent of it and gain powers that capitalism knows not. This is what we must strive towards, for it is our greatest hope. Goodness is still there, and we can still make it. Fear not.

That’s my interpretation of the Gorgias, anyway.

 

 


 

 

[1]Oh yes, the right wing criticizes capitalism, just not using those words. What do you think the hate on welfare is about? Or government-funded education? Or paying for abortions and Planned Parenthood? Don’t let the debate deceive you, these are all parts of capitalism.

[2]Most of the really obnoxious idiots in media fall into the same bucket: insanely privileged person (economic and social relations favor them) tries to have their cake and eat it by acting outside of or against their privilege and is surprised when the things that had previously propped them up fail. For example, consider The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), where the Man, a white doctor, and his blindly arrogant son go to Morocco and blunder their way into an assassination plot. Father and son alike fail to realize over and over again that they are no longer in Indiana and that entirely different relations apply, and they subsequently get into trouble that only cinema magic extricates them from. Meanwhile, the mother has her lack of privilege in comparison to her husband demonstrated again and again, as she is constantly thwarted in agency by what I assume Hitchcock intended to be American patriarchy. But perhaps because of this, she is the only member of the family who notices how the rules are changing around them – but of course is helpless to stop any of it. Que sera sera indeed.

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Glass Cage

The boy is unhappy. We call him a boy because he acts boyish, for he is so far away that none of his features come clearly into view. We cannot tell whether that slim figure is male or female, not yet blooming out into one of the full and ripe shapes that both sexes readily bear; whether the cherubic face is awaiting a squared jaw and leaner chops or high cheekbones and a delicate chin; whether the artless brashness will develop into a mannish earnestness or a womanly vibrancy. All we can see is his actions, the acts he takes, and with the unassuming energy and the aimless vigor and the greenwood yearnings, we can say he is boyish, either the boy we would call “boy” or the girl we would call “tomboy.” There is, at the very least, nothing girlish about him, no coquettish flirtation with the world, no sly innocence, no precocious sociality. So boy he is, and boy shall we call him.

 

The boy is unhappy, and he cannot explain why. This is not because he has no ability to sense it, for he certainly does sense it, or because he can’t ascertain the reason, for he intuits that plainly, but because he cannot make the reason clear, to anyone else but also to himself. He is unworldly to the extreme, clumsy with language and his own feelings, so he does what he is used to doing everywhere else that finesse is required, which is to rely on his powerful intuition and guess-echo the work of someone far more accomplished. Others praise him, sign astonishment, and he is unsure whether to be proud, embarrassed, or derisive. I copied, and poorly, and you think this is good? Couldn’t you at least tell me how to do it better? But there it works, there he has something to go off of, and here he has no example and ad-libs, poorly. The result is that he sounds incoherent, to everyone else and also to himself. The truth is that also he is incoherent.

 

None of this matters, he says, which is the truest and falsest thing he can say. Everything is too easy. But what about getting a part-time job? It’s hard, it’s impossible, I’m trying. Nobody wants a kid with no experience. What about the projects you mysteriously never start, that you fail on? You do so many difficult things in school so easily, what’s different here? I don’t know, it’s tough. And those things in school are easy. But nobody else can do them. They’re dumb, that’s all. Everyone’s dumb. Then surely you’re at least smarter? It’s easy, I’m not that special. It’s not hard to be better. But I’m not better in ways that matter. Is anyone good at anything? How should I know?

 

He has his hobbies, of course. He’s better than average at them without even trying, but never great, just like (he thinks) everything else. His instincts are good, he works out basic principles in a flash, he looks up guides and puts them to good use, but he never gets past above average, never achieves something worth achieving. People tell him he’s great, but he knows better. No effort = no worth, and he never [has to] put effort in. He has no ability, and cares little for what he achieves, but he despises the people who are worse than him at things, because what kind of existence can that be? Do they try even less? Are they feeble-minded? How pathetic. But people who start out below him and become better than him, these he without-even-willing-it hates. He feels guilty about it, but the hate is still there, searing poison in his soul.

 

He has his hobbies, but for some reason he can’t lay his finger on, he can never really improve at them. There’s the initial arc where he’s learning from scratch, of course, but after that it feels like try as he might, he can’t get past the next wall up. He stagnates, stuck. He puts in effort, of course, but it never feels like it yields any results. It’s infuriating, and he starts to take out his anger by yelling at the hobby (as if it would yield) and hitting things associated with it or things around it. Never around other people, of course, not if he can help it, he doesn’t want to look crazy, but he feels that angry and when he’s alone he lets it out. He did the same thing when he was a kid – hitting things, sometimes biting himself, when he got frustrated. That’s what they called it then, when he was four, but when he became eight they called it anger issues, and he learned to hold back his muscles when he got angry. It was just something he’d have to live with, adapt to, learn to control, like schizophrenia or being female. It would happen every so often, and he’d have to do the best he could. No one ever considered why he might be getting angry, or what at. In the meantime, when hobbies frustrated him, he’d go and start new ones. He liked that. He liked the feeling of progress, and there was nowhere to get progress faster or easier than with starting something new.

 

There are things he hates, too. He has trouble doing them, trouble even starting them. If he tries, it feels like there’s something resisting him. He will forget about it, or ignore it, and when he tries to do it, it feels painful. He doesn’t know what to do, sometimes, or where to start. Or when to start. He feels lost, confused, hopeless. One of these things is finding work, which frightens him. If anything is a mark of worth, it is that, so being unable to find work makes him…? He struggles to finish that sentence, and so do the people he sees and who talk to him, they may be parents or teachers or something else, but all we can see from here is how they treat him, so let’s call them therapists. They call him lazy, unfocused, and smart in the same breath, which is not particularly helpful to him, but it’s the only thing that makes sense to them. We are looking from a distance, so it is obvious to us that they would have diagnosed correctly had they not (like us) already determined him to be a boy, which is that he is anxious. But that is little help to him here.

 

The boy is unhappy, and while he intuits reasons for it that are correct, he cannot make them cohere. He senses that things for him are either effortless or impossible, and does not recognize that this is why nothing seems real. He understands that vexation infuriates him, but has no comprehension of what is vexing him. He knows how much he struggles with what his deepest fears term, alternately, “success” and “reality,” but he utterly misplaces the locus of this struggle. And it is easy for us, from far away, to see why: although the boy is surrounded by people, who in fact never leave him alone, he has never had any parents, only caretakers. Perhaps he doesn’t know the difference, but we do. We’ve been watching, after all.

 

When he was young and he tried to do some task his infant body was not yet tasked for, he would cry like any child would, but when others intervened they simply did what it was which he could not manage. They did not stop, they did not evaluate the situation, see whether it was something he possibly could learn to achieve, and then act accordingly. They did not sit and wait patiently until he could accomplish it. They did not even bother to tell him the word that was filling his world, frustration, give it a name and give him power over it, and instead only reserved it for themselves when really they were exasperated. So he grew up, not knowing the difference between these two types of anger, the anger towards the world not bending to one’s will and the anger towards others not bending to one’s will, sensing an absence in his own metaphorics but lacking even the base concepts to cognize this rift in meaning.

 

And how could he? He was never right, after all. He quickly learned that the only method for his being was o-being, obeying, for when he did what he was told he was praised for his genius but when he did anything he thought of he was scolded. “Be yourself,” they commanded, and guilelessly he believed them, only to face their horror when he did. In ten thousand and one words they said how could you, this is unacceptable, you can’t do this, we know you’re different than this. What he heard was confusion and terror, and what they meant was: after all we’ve done for you, why aren’t you who we imagined you’d be before we even knew you? They thought: why aren’t you acting like you did before, and he thought: I was doing what you were telling me, then. There was no one who stepped in, a loving grandparent, say, to ask him what was happening and if it was wrong, to discuss the wrong on its own level, on his own level, and provide guidance but most importantly the openness for the boy to choose on his own terms, to be permitted to be human and make the first honest step into adulthood. But there was no one, and the people around him treated him like a doll and unlike a human, and so instead of the velvet-dark lesson of semiotics he got the oil-dark one and drowned in it.

 

So the boy, faithful student, continued with his studies, because that is what he was told to do. Doing what you are told, he thought, was easy. He couldn’t understand how others couldn’t manage. The classes always continued at (for him) a snail’s pace, and even the slightest bit of reading outside of them made him a genius compared to his peers. There was no resistance; he would write papers in one go, with no references, complete his homework in class, and never needed to study for a test. Nothing felt real. But every so often, he would be hit by something… different. He couldn’t explain the reason, not precisely, but he knew the result very well: he would be unable to do it. It would be things like applications, work, or anything else that he wasn’t quite used to, and he would look at it, and he would freeze. For his usual areas, the classwork and of course the hobbies, he could act without hesitation, instantly doing what needed to be done, but here he could not act. And perhaps it was misapprehension, perhaps it was because of how unreal everything else felt, but the things he failed at felt the most real of all. It was him that felt unreal.

 

If he had thought to think through, he might have noticed what happened when he faced these challenges: they were always, without hesitation, taken from him and handled by another. For even the simplest thing, he was never permitted to try that which he did not know how to do, but was simply told how to do things. His ideas were carefully sanitized, put into the delicate formaldehyde of unreal scenarios, and left there as brilliant specimens. Desires to achieve and prove were vexed, even unusual opinions gainsaid, but most of all, he was gently smothered like a butterfly by the quiet orderliness of others. He never could do, for it was always done for him. No time to observe, no space to reflect, only things done for him and orders on high. The caretakers around him, for we still cannot recognize a parent among them, were far too skilled, far too efficient, to put up for a moment with the slow awkwardness of a child. They never gave him the end of the task and sat by patiently as he fumbled with unfamiliar muscles, never gave gentle advice spaced out to develop him at his pace, never bit their tongues and accepted an inferior result as a welcome sacrifice for the betterment of a human. And so he never learned betterment, never learned the pleasures of failure, never learned that a monster to be vanquished starts with the smallest and tenderest steps. He was told the tale of Heracles and the Hydra, because those around him wanted to give him a classical education, but the reason they failed is not that they did not tell him what it meant, it was that they did not understand it themselves. They knew nothing about proper methods and that the good that is sought can be decades out, and he learned that a task that proved challenging was clearly impossible.

 

Having no power, how could the boy be anything but anxious? But nobody taught him the meaning of that word, for everyone had become lazy with words. They chose the simplest ones to tussle over, the most elementary terms, ones that could be proven or disproven, ones that accepted the underlying forms, rather than arguing about the words which lie underneath and support the cathedrals of thought. If the boy talked about the simple words, they argued gamely, but if he talked about the deep words, they blinked at him with piscine vapidity and told him not to be so pedantic. For they spoke knowledge over wisdom, and got caught up in meaningless tangents like this one rather than realizing what we want so hard to say, which is that the boy felt terrifyingly powerless and nobody wanted to help.

 

The boy is unhappy, and although it is dark enough under his skies, we are distant enough to see further, where the last lights dim. Though his lot in life is pathetic now, it is propped up by the overbearing support of his countless caretakers, who do care for him, in their misguided way. But they shelter him, accidentally, from what we might gloss (as he does) reality, and the real is uncaring and it does not care for him. He may be sheltered by others, but the cold world (as his caretakers haphazardly realize) has no patience for the useless. Those who cannot fend off nature must perish for it, or else slave themselves to one who can. This is the eternal truth: that it is not merely that it can’t go on like this, but far more terrifying, it can – until the end. Life can limp along hollowly, unchanging, until finally our line of credit runs out and we must returned what is owed to the dark, with interest. The only hope, the only one, is that we can make some gains that death cannot tax, and so capture a piece of reality from the shadows surrounding our precious candle. The boy, as he is now, will take everything to his grave, every one of his hopes and dreams and aspirations, for the truth is not that “you can’t take it with you” but that you should do anything you can to leave it all behind. He will die, it is inevitable, but it is equally inevitable that he will never grow old.

 

We can see this, for we are like him, all humans, all farsighted. The eyes are lenses guiding light from without, not mirrors reflecting it from within, and this is for the best. If it were the other way, if the distant were blurred and the nearby were clear, then we might never learn discipline in resisting the lure of our own wisdom or enduring the discomfort of looking at something too close in. But since we are distant, equally our voices are past reaching him, so perhaps the best we can hope for is to scratch down the words we would like him to say on our own sandy hearts and see if they can survive the tides.

 

I am lost, says the boy we now dream. I am angry, I am frightened. I do not feel that I have a place in this world. I do not know what I should do. Nothing feels real. I don’t feel real. It feels like I can do anything, but accomplish nothing. When I try to accomplish things, I fail for reasons I don’t understand in the slightest, and that is incredibly frustrating. Is the task impossible? Am I impossible? I don’t know. I don’t know how to make things better, either. So when I look at tasks, they feel impossible. I don’t know how to get started. I’m not even sure I should get started. I feel paralyzed, and massively anxious. Even the simplest problems can trigger this in me. I’m left helpless by this uncertainty, and I feel worthless because of it. Meanwhile, the things I can do, and can do easily, are so simple as to be despicable. I can’t pride myself on any of it. I don’t know if I’m even good at any of it. People say I’m good at certain things, but I have no way of knowing whether it’s true or false. I don’t know the first thing about any of it. I hate this feeling. I don’t know if I even am anyone, and that’s the worst feeling of all.

 

If I had to say, he says for our sake, in a word, what I’m missing, it would be power. Not power as in “coming to power,” but a simpler kind, more personal. I have no ability to choose things, especially not for myself, and no power to achieve things. The things I can do, I am told to do. The things I cannot do, I do not know where the doing begins. If I wish to have a good day, what ability do I have to ensure it? If I wish to avoid hardship, what skills can I leverage to accomplish that? This is why I am anxious: I fear my own lack of power. This is why I am frustrated: I hate my own lack of power. This is why nothing feels real: for without the power to act, how can I be real? If I can do nothing, am I anyone? This is the dream I have found myself trapped in. This is why I am not free.

 

If I were to have power, what would that look like? I would be able to act without fear – but wouldn’t some things be beyond me? I would not have failures to spark my rage – but can I expect to succeed always? I would be real enough to affect the world – but do I lose that reality when my strength does not suffice? I want power over the outside to be someone, but am I no one if I am not a god?

 

But I know what I hate, and it is slipperiness. It is not that the world defeats me, it is that the world eludes me. I can do, or I can not do, but in neither case do I touch what is real. It is either effortless or impossible, and I have no traction. There is no growth, development, I may do new things but I do not become a new person. Details may change, but that is all, I know there is some delta, but I can sense who I am and it does not change, I just learn new tricks in my existing forte. What I seek isn’t power over the outside, because if I don’t mind the limitations of my current life I can line up accolades until my heart stops beating, but the very thought of that makes me want to stop it myself. I desire power over myself, to be able to change myself, because my own self is what divides between what I can do and what I can’t. It is the cause of my failed traction, because being as I am now is effortless but changing is impossible. If I fail, that can be endured if I am not beyond change. This is the power I desire.

 

But if failure is not what I should fear, then what is different between what I have and what I want? Or to invert the question, if I fail, is that not proof that I’m failing to change? Will not each failure reaffirm my lack of power over self? But surely there are things which are impossible to do, where failure speaks nothing of character. So how do I differentiate between the two? If I misjudge an impossibility to be a failure, then I will be unhappy because of my failure, but if I misjudge a failure to be an impossibility, then I will be unhappy because I will have designated myself weak. Failure, then, cannot be the defining point, but instead it must be my ability to judge: the things I can do, the things which are impossible for me, and the things which I can do through gaining power over myself, by growing. These are the possible categories that these actions can fall into, and my judgment is what discerns between them. It is through, and within, my own esteem that I may grow.

 

So where can this judgment originate? It might come from comparing my attempts to their outcomes, which has basis in reality. If the world rejects, then I fail; if it accepts, I succeed. The things I should attempt, then, come from my desires, for that is the basest wellspring of direction. But isn’t that what I do already? I resist doing things that are painful, which are where I fail, and then do those things which are gratifyingly easy, which I can achieve without effort. There is no growth or change there. So the motive force must come elsewhere than from desire, from a sense of “ought.” Outside of what I want, I should have an idea of what I should do. This should is not universal, for the universal covers what everyone should do under any situation and is thus limited to the negation, the should not, for that is infinitely available, but instead the should must be tied to one’s power. So this should must be relative to the linked judgment of one’s ability, which grants me the method: I attempt the minimum effort for the should, the lowest possible effort that can be made for that should, and then work my way up. In raising my sights, I grow stronger, and I change, gaining power over myself.

 

This is the method, but I am lacking the direction, the what which I wish to change into. This has only one form, the question: who do I want to become?

 

We applaud the boy of our dreams, wipe away a tear, and then, wake up.

And Darkness – IV/IV

Sex is one of our primal metaphors, our basic models of comparison to the world as a whole, so it’s kept a surprising amount of meaning even in modern times. If there’s anything that can be taken as a universal human phenomenon, sex is a pretty good shout.[1]

If everything else goes to shit, we can rest easy in the knowledge that at the end of the day, we’ll still be able to find someone we can let our guard down with, fall into the arms of, and just settle down for some good animal comfort. And yet, people have sexual hangups with shocking frequency, about as often as they have eating disorders. How could that be, for such a primary experience?

The answer, in both cases, is simple: it’s the porn, stupid.

Before you ask, this isn’t a diatribe against lasciviousness. I’m pretty sex-positive, in the same way I’m food-positive: I really dig the primal parts of human nature alongside the higher and more civilized components, and what I adore most is the syncretic union of the two: the well-dressed body, clothing like architecture on the earth, ornamenting and making decent the raw form – while yet under it, an ancient power still pulses, and you may see in those shadows a figure of heady potential. There are no complaints about sex here, not even about watching porn, in particular. I enjoy, ah, art as much as the next monkey. The problem is when we can’t get it out of our heads.

I should probably take a minute to say what porn is. Porn in the sexual sense, sure, because that’s the root of the metaphor, but the point of that metaphor is the structure of it, which remains constant far outside the bounds of sex. Here is a working definition: porn is an image of fetishized objects, where every word more than two letters long means “symbol over reality.” The function is abstracted fetish. Instead of a real object standing in for a real absence, now it is a representation of that object standing in. Whereas with a simple fetish one still has an object upon which one places one’s unsatisfied needs, an object which bears some superficial connection to that which is absent (consider the security blanket, which is soft and can be snuggled with, but which is still entirely unlike the parent whose embrace it imitates – yes, fetishism can start early), porn is nothing but the superficial connection. The symbol of whatever is absent here becomes the entirety of what is absent, which (to use technical lingo) really fucks you up. To loop back to sex as the model, the basic nature of sexual need isn’t “I want to fuck,” it’s “I want to fuck this specific person.” Sometimes there are multiple people that the individual wants to fuck; sometimes the person to fuck hasn’t come into the picture yet; sometimes the desire gets displaced onto a different person.[2] No matter. This is still the basic unit, and the focus is on the individual, which explains a lot of pubescent sexuality. Porn perverts that focus and desire, presenting symbols of humans over actual humans, such that the operational principle changes from individuals to characteristics. Instead of “I want to fuck this dark-haired, sultry young person” it becomes “I want to fuck dark-haired, sultry young people.” (The model there crosses pretty well from male to female.) For someone thinking like this, they then begin to size up every potential mate in light of how well they fit this pornographic descriptor, and only take those who fit. But as they get to know the person, the reality better, there’s more and more that escapes the descriptor, the fetishized abstraction, and one is nauseated by the unseen depths of the person, “you never told me you were like this,” and the love fades with a fake betrayal. Imagine how bad it gets when the dark-haired, sultry young person gets old and their hair grays – but don’t worry, there’s Botox and dye to fix it. This is how people go crazy.

First, a disclaimer: part of this process, the abstraction, is normal and good. Early-experienced models of something, say, a potential mate, serve as templates from which a youth can draw identifiers for good examples of that thing. The natural next step is using those identifiers to find new models, and expand and refine one’s own competence to see and judge. The mind and the world are thus in communion, which is the necessary characteristic for science – intelligent learning and understanding of reality. Porn-fetishism fails at the re-adjustment step, and instead reinforces the schema as the truth. This, if you’re hip to the scene, is known as idealism.

I introduced porn as sex, but again, this is the structure and the structure can be applied to any concept. Just as porn is porn for the sexual act, so too are shitty romances porn for the romantic act, and so on. As our society has advanced, so has porn in every respect, in news and politics and literature and drama and everywhere else. We are currently saturated with porn, which is matched and identical to the spread of advertisement.

No, not basic ads like from Stan your local carpet cleaner, “you were looking to get your carpet cleaned, look no further, now watch for a little while I signal as a virtuous carpet cleaner,” that’s the standard sales pitch, as old as capitalism. The key factor to note there is that it wouldn’t be particularly strange if Stan the cleaner were delivering the pitch in-person, while it would be nutty and off-putting to see a McDonalds ad in real life. N.B.: this is the aesthetic distinction between porn and reality, which is that porn would freak you out were it real. More on that later.

Modern advertising, the real stuff, operates on the exact principle that we’ve just been going over, which is the total opposite to Stan’s carpet cleaning ad. Stan’s ad aims towards your precise need, and once you have his services, that need will be filled. His entire aim is to direct your existing need towards him, maybe rile you up a little if you’re on the fence about whether your carpets need cleaning yet, precisely like a typical seduction. Flex a little, bat eyelashes, and now you’re interested in investing in bedroom options. This is normal, and not at all a problem. Folks gotta get laid, and Stan’s gotta get paid. Modern advertising, henceforth just “advertising,” is totally unlike this.

Advertising doesn’t sell you a product, not any longer, that’s passé and totally not up to contemporary standards. Advertising follows three steps. First, it identifies something which you are lacking and which you might not even be aware you are lacking. Second, it delivers symbols of that thing, and reinforces the connection in your mind. Finally, it styles or represents its own product so that it matches with those symbols that it created, and as such makes you fetishize the product in abstract. Once again, because this is easy to miss, the psychological desire for the symbols is created first, and the product is then somehow fitted to those symbols. This last detail is essential to understanding the process. If you fetishize the product itself, then you have a single material, concrete object upon which to displace your needs. There’s no need to buy anything else once you do that, especially not if you fetishize it correctly. What the market wants is for you to fetishize abstract principles and then try to use the product to fulfill them, which the product will never fully accomplish (partly by design, partly because it can’t, reality can’t be, shouldn’t be, porn), meaning you stay vulnerable to the next ad, which will subtly shift symbols and present a new product that matches these new symbols. And you will buy it, and you won’t be fulfilled, not any more than the hopeless porn addict searching desperately for Mr. or Mrs. Right, trying out each new stranger and not realizing that the reason nobody matches their ideals is because they’re ideals.[3]

Here’s the nasty bit: advertisements, porn, aren’t just in the commercial break. The logical next step, one currently being taken tentatively but soon aggressively, is for every piece of media to become porn, advertisement. “Like product placement?” Not even close. Remember, the point of advertising isn’t the product, it’s the symbol. The product can change to fit the symbol, but the symbol has to take for the need to be properly displaced. This means that anything that gives you symbols, anything at all, can serve as advertising for products that haven’t even been made yet. The logical conclusion: all media will become increasingly pornographic, selling itself and the symbols, and reality will follow along. New products will be made and sold to match with the existing symbols, and people, seeking to fill the gaps in their lives, will buy. Or why else do you think McDonalds started selling salads with more calories than a Big Mac? There was a market for getting fat with iceberg lettuce on the side? Okay, but why was there that market?

This is distasteful on its own, of course, and we could talk about consumerism and waste if we want to show off how much we know those symbols, but that’s all a distraction. Pay attention to the single direct and immutable consequence, which is that we are now saturated in a sea of conflicting symbols all trying to displace the real onto themselves. This makes the adult problem of judgment far, far worse. The adolescent in a traditional society has a fairly limited set of symbols they need to rebel against, and the subsequent adult has a concise set of values to use and subvert as needs be. But in our saturated and noncommittal land, the adolescent is often unable to either find anything they can truly rebel against, or something distinct to reconcile themselves to in adulthood, and if they can find anything, they must either endure a lack of a like-minded society or submit themselves to the vicissitudes of a political group whose values change every four years, both of which undercut judgment and drive a soul mad. Thus do all confusions unite into one, and our world becomes nightmare. Hold tight to the party line, the absolute of light, where all is determined and nothing is left to you, or face utter darkness, utter freedom, alone. This is how the system makes you submit.

When faced with horror, the instinctual response is “it can’t go on like this, it can’t last.” Here’s the awful truth: it can go on like this, and for quite some time. The illnesses and injuries are chronic; the unfortunate addict can stumble along for many years before hitting the grave. There is still plenty to eat, so the vicious world can’t punish adolescent narcissism and force it to choose or die. You can plug in, and society will take care of you until one breath is just unfulfilling enough that the eternity you were promised ends. Keep this in mind.

This essay has been, more or less, stating the form of the problem. The question goes: how, in a world bereft of traditional meaning, overrun by symbols and confusion, bearing the total freedom of the void and just as much firmament to lever on, how are we meant to do anything? In a simpler form: if we’re swallowed by the ideal, how can we make our way to the real?

A properly formulated question holds its own answer. The problem is bridging the gap between real and ideal, between mind and body, and there are only two channels for that: art and science. Art, the aesthetic, draws beauty from the world and reifies it in the mind as values which can then act as further methods towards beauty and the world. Science, the logic, applies truth to the world and then alters itself to the world’s reaction, drawing knowledge closer to reality. If motion-models help you understand: science starts and ends in our minds, and is entirely about the world, while art starts and ends in the world, and is entirely about our minds. We have gotten terrible at science and art in recent times, and it’s a crying shame. Science claims to be more about the world than ever, but it’s increasingly just going on inside our heads with no reference to the external, while art claims more and more to be about us, while in truth it never reaches to anything higher than the world. Want examples? Any social science for the first, and architecture for the second – although those are just the lowest-hanging fruit.

This section is in grave danger of becoming entirely too sweeping, too general, and entirely vapid, so I’ll stop it before it gets to that point. Still, I hope the point is clear: the purpose of the blog, from here, is the subject of how to attain maturity and your human needs in a society which does not support it. This is the next step of the therapy: once a disease of the mind has been diagnosed, the patient must begin seeking to cure it. A disease of the mind (not brain) is identical to poor psychic conditions, which come down to something being absent. In many cases, this absence can be traced to a cause outside of the patient, but upon their body’s full growth, they become the only one who can guarantee they get what they really need. If you are frustrated, if you are lacking, then recognize your own loss and work to reclaim it. The alternatives, and there are several, do not ever get you what you need. To get it, you must grow up.

There are some specific topics I have in mind, to that end. First and foremost is, of course, escaping the threatening eye of society and not falling into its traps. Nothing at all is possible when you’re trapped in the irrelevant circumstances of pop culture. Second is art, aesthetics, ideas for the realization of new traditions and the revitalization of old ones. It’s a beautiful world out there, and we, all of us, have a grand tradition of powerful artists. The idea there is: how can we create common ground outside of television after the death of God? Third is science, particularly the social sciences, and ways in which we can know things about topics which have eluded us. This will, it must, start with psychology. It’s impossible to know everything and predict everything about a person, but there are some grounds where we might have understanding. Last, weaving throughout all (I hope), will be at least some practical ideas. Here’s three, to start: the key to escaping Panopticon is friendship and trust, because it’s in contact with those you trust that you can be private without being alone, so find folks you jive with and chill a bunch; the best way to generate a strong moral imperative is to create a beautiful image (or set of images) of an adult and elder, because cleaving strongly to the model of a good person gives you ground to stand on, so find your role models fast and meditate on that beauty; a science of humans must be predicated on free will and habit, so all of its judgments must be categorical and open-ended, of the form “he-she will keep doing this kind of thing (insert examples) unless he-she chooses otherwise.” The judgment becomes a prediction of the type of life someone will lead, and how various types of situations play out. Wait, that’s not the advice. The advice is: apply this logic to the things you do.

This essay has gone on, and it’s rambled, but I hope some of it has spoken to you. All of it is logic I think I can stand by. I’m not so sure about the rhetoric, but I’ll have plenty of time to write the same things over again. The next essay, probably, will be about capitalism, and not in a traditional Marxist sense – more of a “here are some ideas on how to overcome the economic structure of society, so that part won’t hit you so hard, any thoughts?” The focus is practical, as in, how do we practically go about being virtuous humans. There’s been enough writing on the theory.

We have dark times ahead, slow and hollow rather than fast and dramatic, likely centuries of it, but the sun will keep on shining. All that’s asked of us is to work.

[1]Two observations.

First, food and eating constitute another primal metaphor, which is why eating is such a fantastic way to bridge gaps between communities and why culinary restrictions are such a disproportionately big deal to folks, when you consider it’s just what you prefer to eat. The vegetarian/vegan concept of “look, these people are so uncomfortable with us making a moral decision they aren’t that they harass us over something that has nothing to do with them” is off the mark. The real discomfort isn’t with morality, it’s with losing a fundamental ground on which to relate to someone, “what do you mean you don’t like bacon?” Accordingly, the correct response is “C’mon, bacon isn’t everything. Here, have a donut.” Connection re-established. Enjoy your communion and your conquest. Deus vult.

Secondly, this is what’s going on with the young men who get really worked up about not having sex. It’s not something something social pressure something something toxic masculinity, although shit like that can make it worse. The root complaint is: “I am not getting to take part in a primary human experience.” It’s been said before, but feeling entitled to sex in general is different than feeling entitled to sex in specific, although to the desperate the lines start to blur. Regardless, the interesting part is what happens to young women who don’t have sex. Traditionally, the loss of human experience was supplemented by divine experience under the status of virgin, which is why you see some devout Christian women with, ah, slightly too loving of a relationship with Jesus. This is rapidly disappearing, however, preceded by the equivalent male role of the monk, and so a low-hanging prediction is that we’re likely to soon see misandry of the form “fucking shallow men, only care if a woman is blonde/busty/preppy, those bitches get all the sex, it’s not fair.” In fact, I believe it’s probably here already, only masking “sex” with “relationship” or something of that ilk. You know, for propriety. There’s a double standard for you.

[2]Traditional high-libido situations, where a person has a surprising amount of sex with many partners, tend to be some combination of the three: there are multiple people who the person wants to fuck, or a suitable individual for receiving the Eros hasn’t yet appeared, so the desire gets displaced onto several people. Sometimes a different need entirely gets displaced onto sexual drive, and need I say this is unhealthy? I doubt this is an exhaustive list of sexual motives, though.

[3]Incidentally, this is also a pretty good model for psychological addiction. The point of a psychological addiction is replacing something else that’s missing in your life, such as happiness, and satisfying it with a poor substitute. If you’ve been following, this is literally fetishism, which explains why going into a better environment can help with many addictions. In the case where the better environment doesn’t help, odds are it’s because the real thing is still absent or that the addiction has been truly internalized, the fetishized entity has replaced the real thing, and the unfortunate soul is going to need to completely reshape the way they interact with the world in order to do anything but die like a dog.

Worth noting, also, that addictions can be divided like fetishization can. In traditional drug addiction, and similar cases, the addiction is towards a single thing. This is object fetishism, where the object of addiction becomes the complete substitute for the missing. In more new-age addictions, like “video game addiction,” the structure and style of the games match something that’s missing. That is, the games match symbols of the absent, but never truly fulfill it. Keep this in mind for your obsessions.

And Darkness – III/IV

Society silences human voice, which is why the traditional model was obligatory public lip service with true thoughts only spoken behind closed doors with the absolutely trusted. This is natural and right, not the social media model of saying everything in public; it’s like spying on yourself for the Stasi. If you try to say anything in public, or with someone who doesn’t trust you or doesn’t have the mental fortitude to listen, then what you will find is your sentences getting finished for you in ways you never intended or desired. People might approve of you, or disapprove of you, but it doesn’t matter, because you will never be understood, not by society on a whole, and they will turn you into something you are not. People tend to go along with this, accepting the rejection of “haters” at face value and taking on the values of those who support them. This part, at least, is not new, but it’s always been pathetic. Who wants to be so flimsy that they just believe what people tell them to believe?

Closed doors, hushed voices, and hell, anonymity on the internet all let you escape the world’s gaze. If you’re with people you trust, you can say exactly what you think (the corollary: be trustworthy, and let those who trust you say what they think – disagreement is fine, but not deciding their words for them), while anonymity means that any identity that the world lays strictures on can be shed like unwanted skin.[1]

This is how to shelter oneself, but to understand what that means, we need to return again to darkness.

A working definition of maturity is: the ability to provide definition, which is identical to a lowered need to receive definition. Restated in other metaphors and aspects, that is the ability to define one’s social sphere in contrast to being defined by it, or being able to produce light instead of needing it. In practical terms, it’s the self-reliance needed to judge rather than be told what judgments to accept.[2]

This means that one must be willing to live in the dark.

I’ve been praising the dark as shelter, which it is. Dark shelters us from light, from the eyes of others, and makes us free. In the dark, anything is possible: there’s no telling what lies in the shadows, and there are no limits on what you can do. There are possibilities, more than you can count, stretching away from you farther than you can see. The world itself could be – anything. This is why it is terrifying.

The truth is that the world, the true world, is hideously undefined. We live in the slightest gleaming of knowledge in an unreal mass of the unknown and unknowable, and perceiving that brings terror. There is little that you believe that is based on anything, anything but (at best) specious connections. People love bringing math in around here; math is not the point, the point is not what you know (often false in any case) but what you believe, what guides your actions. Alone has written much on this from the perspective of psychiatry, and Lovecraft uses it as his main theme. There’s something even worse, though, that both only hint at: you can do anything. Anything. Seriously, there are incredibly low limits on the possibilities. “You can’t fly!” Yeah, but you can get a pilot’s license and get close. “What about/if…” You’re throwing up smokescreens, using your imagination to protect you from reality. Oblige me, use it to start thinking of all the things you can do. “But if I do that, then…” Yes, there are consequences. But you can still do it. Everything is permitted. Take some time to really chew on that. Everything. Meditate on the idea. Succumb to it.

Recognize that feeling? That’s horror. Yes, just like Heart of Darkness.

That’s the truth of human nature. Free will is free, and free doesn’t just mean no gutter rails, it means it doesn’t matter whether there are gutter rails, you’ve got a twenty-pounder in hand and nobody says you’re bowling anyway. You wanna talk God is dead, there it is, the meaning of the term is absolute freedom which is total absence of independent structure and meaning. The specifics are impossible to detail with words, because the horror there is precisely in that there’s no words that can adequately describe what’s going on (which is why the literature on it always skirts around having to use explicit language where it can – see Lovecraft for the most popular example). Freedom, total freedom, this kind of posing in the dark, is existential agony, it’s Sarte’s nausea, it’s Camus’ absurd, it’s the madness of Ivan Karamazov. In each of these cases, you may note, the author hides the true extent of this horror by focusing on one detail to the exclusion of the rest, which is called fetishizing, which you may recognize: a fixation on something that shelters from a deeper absence. With Sartre, it’s the root and the definitional bounds of the natural world; with Camus, it’s the question of suicide; with Dostoevsky, it’s his own take on Turgenev’s nihilism, which is the closest of all but still holds the real thing just a little at arm’s length. No judgment there; it’s not a pretty thing, if we’re to understand “gibbering insanity” as something to avoid. Total freedom is intolerable, which is why people don’t tolerate it.

No, this isn’t an excuse to plug #opiateofthemasses, the thing or the meme, because religion is not the same as eschewing metaphysical responsibility, did you forget that religious folk can argue about morality too? And aren’t the child-like youth of today less religious than ever? The truth is, the arguments “God wills it, so there’s nothing that can be done about it,” “it’s a fact of biology, so there’s nothing we can do about it,” and “it’s part of capitalism, and we’re too weak to beat it” are not only the same form of argument, they are literally identical. There’s different justifications used for the absolute declaration of external and immutable power, but all of them are generated as explanations, post-facto narratives, to explain and justify a pre-existing sense of powerlessness, a defense against change.[3]

In a traditional system, this is where maturity would step in, towards the end of adolescence. The youth gives up being edgy and different and starts attending the regular sacrifices just like everyone else, which may be literal (ancient Greece, Rome) or figurative (communion), but which unite a people into a common frame of understanding. Basic judgments common to the system are accepted, such as codes of conduct, virtue and its opposite, how to make potato salad, and so on, and these provide a stable foundation for the new adult to live their life and do the main thing adults are responsible for, which is to act, to make micro-judgments in accordance with the overall framework so that the world can keep on chugging. This is in contrast to the play-acting of childhood and adolescence, where we disavow responsibility for our actions (and so maintain innocence and flexibility). The adult may not have come up with the whole system, but they sure as hell have to be responsible for their individual actions, or else you get a society of children, and we know how that ends. In old age (or acting somewhat in that role), it’s the responsibility of the elder to take full responsibility for the existing system as a whole, which is why it’s appropriate for chief religious/academic/political figures to be old, because how’s a kid supposed to pretend responsibility for something they’ve only just been dropped into?[4]

But after the death of God, there is no such thing as tradition, not any longer. Existing metaphysics have been eradicated, existing culture is gutted, and there isn’t especially a cultural framework for adolescents to rejoin. [This phenomenon has likely been repeated on a small scale throughout history with any major cultural upheaval, but we’re currently seeing the displacement of theological metaphysics by material-scientific facts, which seems to be a little bigger than, say, Roman cultism -> Christian catholicism.] When an adolescent is ready to join adulthood, there are fewer and fewer judgments and values that they’re able to effectively adopt wholesale, which means they end up effectively neutered as adults. Say they want to communicate why a given thing is wrong, or act on the judgment that it’s wrong: they can’t appeal to God’s word, or cultural consensus, any longer. Instead, they have to justify those particulars, which they are not capable of doing on their own, because justifying particulars is a multigenerational effort by the brightest artistic and philosophical minds of a society. Nobody can be expected to do that by themselves, and even if they did, it would be an incredible effort to communicate any of it, since there’s no cultural point of commonality to rely on. So instead of using intrinsic merit as the justification for their judgments, the adult has to land on a fallback position, which is using formal tests of group identity, i.e. politics. Such-and-so is not right because it is right, but because it is the political line and has been selected as a marker for ingroup loyalty. [] On the bright side, this makes decisions and calculations very easy, because politics makes requirements completely explicit. On the downside, this means that every part of the adult’s actions are now held to whatever is politically expedient at the moment. On the massive downside, this is identical to either adolescent political maneuvering or childish obedience, depending on whether you’re on the giving or taking end. I won’t belabor the point, but this is yet another account of what leads to everything wrong with our society.[5]

The traditional responsibility of an adult is handling liminal space, the border between light and dark, between the defined and the undefined, between what can be said and what can’t be. When something happens that’s on the edge, it’s the responsibility of the adult to navigate their people, their family, safely through treacherous waters and past the obstacles. The definitive adult experience is the dilemma, often moral but not always, which is the uncharted question. To handle it, they use the best of their cultural lessons available and choose what action they must. These choices are then kept, for the most part, private. This is to protect the involved parties from judgment. If the dilemma is too serious, or is made public, then it gets elevated to an elder, who has to bring out a new judgment for it which can be used from then on (consider Pope Francis). The best contemporary example of one of these liminal judgments is: imagine your teenage son got some girl knocked up. How would you handle disciplining the kid, talking with the girl’s parents, not to mention the pregnancy itself? And what if it’s your daughter getting pregnant? How do you handle disciplining her and navigating the gut-churning responsibilities that the act entails, without negating her agency in making the first adult decision of her life? And then you have to figure out what to say when the boy’s folks come knocking. You aren’t bound to answer in particulars, but some people were, and they had to stand by their call. That’s what adults are here to do.[6]

Problems come when there isn’t liminal space to work in, that is, when the adult is unable to work on the edge of tradition. At that point there is either nothing or everything guiding their decisions: the former is a hideous challenge, the latter fit for a machine or child. The adult can no longer act meaningfully, which puts them in the same functional boat as a teenager, and the rest falls apart. Here’s the tricky part: today, our knowledge, our culture, covers both everything and nothing. There’s a political stance for every decision, a scientific fact for every question, but an utter paucity of meaning and values to support anything. This isn’t an ironic contrast, this is part and parcel of the same problem. [Which, of course, means it is an ironic contrast.] The overwhelming light casts darker shadows within. Creating new answers to all material problems destroys the existing answers to the immaterial. The scientific revolution caused both parts of this problem.

Traditional cultures have a particular characteristic about them, which is a distributed and holistic metaphysics. What I mean by this is: the metaphysics covers both scientific fact and immaterial meaning, smoothly bridging the gap between mind and body, while distributing the details of separate fields of reality to individual corners of metaphysical reasoning. The easiest-to-grasp version of this is polytheism, where a different divinity has dominion over each section of reality. Monotheism didn’t put an end to this either, as the old cultural beliefs still held their own particular role (witches, ghosts) and you got a patron saint for everything under Heaven – meaning that Christianity was closer to Louis XIV feudalism than a dictatorship in structure. All paid homage to the known monarch, but for local affairs, you might seek the shelter and patronage of a local lord.

The effect of this structure is flexible and complete systems of thought, a metaphor for every season, an almanac of belief. If an adult needed an answer to a hard question, they would be assured that there would be some corner of culture that would address precisely what they were struggling with, and even if it wasn’t a perfect answer for their situation, it would still help frame the question. This applies to moral questions, but also practical ones. The farmer wants help with crops; there’s a ritual and logic behind it. This is the critical link between the physical and the spiritual: not only does the ritual say what is to be done, it says what that means. It associates meaning, value, import to the action, bringing it out of being just a brute action. Consider the difference between the mechanical actions of sex and the meaning inherent in making love. The actions themselves are somewhat banal and uninteresting, but the meaning makes it far more than just the actions. Sex is meh at best, gross at worst, but sex can be one of the most marvelous things there is.[7]

So the traditional act is, for the most part, to the modern act as making love is to sex. Yes, I know that’s romantic as hell, so here’s the appropriate caveat: not everything was great in the good old days, and the emotional portent of acts was not always positive. In fact, if you were a typical lower-class individual, much of the emotional affect of life would be shitty, the spiritual acknowledgment of “my life sucks.” The idea of “it’s right for the king to rule, I should accept my lot in life” is terrible. The feeling born from that is resentment. The opiate, “they may be ruling but I’ll get my spot in Heaven,” can only help that so much. The past wasn’t a magical land where everyone was happy. And yet the peasants of every land are most often those most firmly attached to the culture of yore. Certainly, we may explain it with politics. Certainly, we may describe it as foolish yokelry, call up contemptuous analogies to dismiss it, insult the antiprogressives. And still we would be fools to ignore the full form of that affect, that acknowledgement of the nature of reality, which starts as “my life sucks” and ends with “but…”

It is in that hesitance, that poignant, pregnant moment, hanging gossamer-delicate between the leaden words of the present and that which escapes the tongue, which straightens bent backs, softens weathered faces, soothes hardened hearts, and casts our cruel and insufficient world into something so beautiful that those who see it cannot help but to weep, inwardly or outwardly, iridescent tears of that dew which drips from our very souls, sweet nectar and proof of our divinity. For not the Olympian nor the towering Jehovasine figure suffered the weary agony of failed flesh; only the Son of Man could bear and transform sin. Take it as you will, but the operation of that tale was not that the divine came to save the mortal, but that the mortal achieved what the divine could not, which is to attain divinity.

This is, needless to say, all meaningless by itself, which is why I choose meaning instead. The alternative to meaning, though, is –

[1]This, incidentally, is why doxxing is the cardinal sin of the internet: it puts someone in full view, full shame, of society. Revealing someone’s identity, or even looking into it in any capacity, is as vile and wrong as digging through their trash or peeking through their bedroom window. Moral imperatives aren’t fashionable right now, true, but if you are wise you will take this as code.

[2]No, this isn’t John Galt sleight of hand, despite the incessant attacks on society the message is not “fuck other people,” it’s the opposite. Many people are shitty, society is shitty, but abandoning humans is an act of cowardice. Equally, deafening oneself to the words of others is ugly and arrogant, but the point is that slaving yourself to them is craven. Listen, and reserve judgment. Those are not contrary, those are complementary. You can’t be a separate person, listening to another, if all you do is accept.

[3]That’s the archetypal adolescent act: to imagine an impossible ideal, half-ass an attempt towards it mostly based around image and identity, and respond to their failure by claiming success was never possible. Of course it wasn’t, the first step to succeeding is to make sure you’re trying to do something that’s within the realm of possibility and set attainable short-term goals, which is why a great strategy for doing something painful is the same as the way you end up spending all day on something inane: you say “just until this next mark, this next goal, then I’ll stop,” and keep kicking the can down the road until you know you have to stop. The child’s deferral of action doesn’t even get as far as trying. It stops at “oh, I don’t know if I can do this, I won’t be any good, I’ll let someone who’s better handle it.” Smart plan for the kindergartener with a buzzsaw, but gets significantly less endearing past that point. (One role of the parent is to introduce the child to each new thing they can do as it becomes possible to do it. The child should become capable of doing anything, or at least authorized to give it a shot, by the time they’re 10-12, because after that comes adolescence, when the kid won’t listen to anything.)

[4]So we have this model: kids play, teens rebel, adults work within, and elders take responsibility. The right question here is “whence change?” Certainly not from the kids; they’re kids. Definitely not the teens; they’re powerless. Relying on the elders seems silly, since they’re the most entrenched and out of touch. So where? Clearly, the adults.

In a properly functioning system (hilariously rare, basically only expected on very small scales), the mechanism is: during the adolescent rebellion, the elders (grandparents) step in to take heightened responsibility for the child. They, as representatives of the overall culture, listen to and acknowledge the child’s complaints as only they can (since, as elders, they are divorced from the material power that the adolescent is also rebelling against). They then maintain the judgments they deem to be valid, and help guide the adolescent in relieving their frustration and channeling their desires into adulthood as a compatible advance within the existing social framework. The teen then starts putting this into practice, and through that, become adults – but adults with slightly different cultural frameworks, sets of judgments, from their own parents. They conduct their worldly affairs in different manners, and change has been achieved.

This is why we understand the paragons of elderly virtue to be kind, understanding, and overwhelmingly moral (see: Mr. Rogers, as a pop culture example), because that’s the only way for this system to operate. Any child, any teen, needs to be able to implicitly trust their elders, and if that trust cannot be established or gets betrayed, this process will massively break down. At that point, the adolescent will (under natural impulses) start reaching out for adoptive elders as replacements for their own, or if none can be found, seek one of the many alternatives to growing up.

[5]This is in sharp contrast to traditional group identity, which is based entirely around shared cultural understanding and certain ur-qualifications (the unpleasant truth is that race is often part of it). If you follow all the instructions and check all the boxes for a political group, then you simply become one, no matter anything else about you, and people who want to exclude you are going to fight an uphill battle (see contemporary difficulties in gatekeeping). This is impossible for membership in more traditional groups, which are impossible to checkbox your way into.

Consider how easy it is to become a Democrat or Republican in contrast to becoming American. Sure, we pay lip service to the idea that anyone can just join, but practically speaking we all know the difference between first-gen, second-gen, and third-gen, and like it or not, as a recent immigrant you’re stuck in one of those buckets purely on the basis of your cultural background. That’s not to say that everyone will reject you, but just that you will never be a (fourth-gen and onward) American. On the flip side, there are plenty of cultural groups explicitly set up to include whichever people go through an accepted and carefully designed ritual of entry regardless of any other details about them. Once you’ve done the steps, said the words, you’re part. The way this works is: the ritual is the shared cultural background, and by establishing it, you make sure everyone’s on the same page. Examples include: moderately evangelical religions (like Judaism), traditional scholarly societies, and fraternities/sororities. No, not all of them are inherently great, sorry about that, hazing was here before we were born and isn’t going away anytime soon.

Notes for people interested in creating these: the two components universal to all cultural rituals are art and strain. The former is the aspect of a book club, where everyone gets on the same cultural page (so to speak), while the latter is the aspect of a boot camp, where everyone puts in the effort and toil to share in the experience of commitment. I’m guessing that the readership here doesn’t need too much reminder that a ritual of strain without art is literally hazing, a brutish requirement for loyalty displays without purpose behind it, and that it’s less obvious at first blush what’s wrong with art on its own. If you’ve ever been to a book club, though, you’ll be well aware that most people don’t read the damn book. The problem with art without strain is that you get a lot of fucking posers, which dilutes the brand and undercuts the ability to verify that shared experience. Give that up, and you just have another political group where everyone pays lip service to whatever’s in vogue and feels more isolated than ever. Don’t let this be you. Equally, if you’re someone who complains that such-and-so qualification for group membership is unfair, it doesn’t show real mastery, you’re just as good without needing any of it, please recognize that you’re being basic as fuck and won’t grow up until you stop.

This is the fundamental complaint behind all gatekeeping efforts, but amusingly enough, the internet age makes these attempts to verify the strain into… more checkboxing. Take someone, say a diehard Harry Potter fan, who claims that “you’re not a real fan unless you’ve read the books five times.” The idea here is that the fan wants access to a social group where everyone has similar experiences in terms of appreciation of and commitment to the books, and so has laid down the gauntlet. But while in person they’d easily be able to tell who has the appreciation and commitment even without having to check for read counts, on the internet a person who wants in on the fanbase for whatever reason (usually adolescent, don’t hate, it’s natural) can speedread the books five times to check that box or else, ya know, just lie. (On the internet?!) Offline, someone who doesn’t live up in person just slowly stops getting invited to events, or in a more traditional group, requires explicit approval by in-group members to get inducted in the first place, but nowadays even offline public groups are turning away from the traditional models because they have no good response to claims of elitism. The snotty playground complaint of “they aren’t letting me play with them!” has gained traction in the adult world. I’m not saying that all exclusivity is good, and God knows kids can be the most vicious little beasts imaginable, but freedom of association is valuable. Don’t give it up just ‘cuz.

[6]Again, the examples I give and language I use both are masculine, but this doesn’t mean that adult codes for masculine, just that I’m more familiar with the traditionally male spheres of responsibility. It goes without saying: traditional gender roles are out, they aren’t coming back, they shouldn’t come back, but all the same things need to be done. This means that men and women need to both be prepared to learn patchwork gendered responsibilities, because they need to be able to handle some part of everything. I would recommend paying special attention to the feminine roles, to ensure they get taken up, because those are incredibly un-chic right now. No, I’m not talking being a pretty princess or whatever, I’m talking about being a mother, the person always waiting at home for you in Pokémon, always there and waiting and infinitely available no matter what. That still needs to happen, but it cannot just be foisted on one partner, because it is so horribly undervalued in society, because nobody will regard that person well. I can hope the future will bring change, but if you’re reading this, this is for you: you need to do it yourself, or it won’t get done at all. Or it’ll get done by nannies.

[7]As an aside: making love is just one psychic manifestation of sex, based on the closeness and good relationship between the partners. Two other notable ones are fucking, which emphasizes the raw physicality of the act, and violation, which focuses on the bad relationship between the partners. This includes rape, of course, and also just regretting/not particularly wanting to do it. I won’t even get into kink.

And Darkness – II/IV

There are stages to life. This, at least, is not a new idea. Neither are the stages I posit: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. Each stage is one of preparation, leading naturally to the next. Childhood is becoming an animal being; adolescence is becoming a social being; adulthood is becoming a human being; and old age is becoming an immortal being. Since old age has likely piqued curiosity, let me simply say that it’s about living not for the sake of your life but for the sake of the icon you can be after death, an idea that will be useful to those who come after, abandoning your mortal shell and your mortal self. But old age is far off, and it can be ignored for now.

Childhood is when we learn our most elemental skills as living beings. We learn how to move, act, and perceive, as well as our basic skills of communication. We learn our basic forms of understanding, our basic aesthetic tenets, and the fundamental assumptions we use to judge the world. In childhood, we come to learn the world and our boundaries, test them, and discover our own strength. A child well brought up is strong, capable, and possessed of a keen animal intelligence. That is, they best resemble a healthy and strong beast, with their own native tendencies (gregarious, skittish, adventurous, etc) and a deep and primal vitality. “And what about the sickly ones?” You know what I mean. There are sickly people and animals that nevertheless have vital characters. Whatever frailty their form offers is often beyond choosing, but the anima can be nurtured (and equally, starved) in any being.

Following this, when the animal is formed, the human enters adolescence and learns society. This is where most people push most strongly against their elders in favor of the company of their peers. They form their own groups and determine their positions within them, and begin picking and choosing at roles and identities in a more sophisticated play-pretend. Most of their basic capacities are already present, so they begin leveraging them for one societal advantage or another. They get better at playing these games in all sorts of ways, and learn to effectively move and assert themselves within groups of different sorts. Childhood provides the I, but adolescence provides the I compared to others, the I against others. It’s not a coincidence that this is where the interest in sex originates. The end of adolescence comes when the person becomes sick of playing games all the time, playing for petty social advantage with whatever rivals show up, sick of wandering around social circles empty-handed, and decide to achieve something real for themselves.

Adulthood, then, is best understood as building power and constructing an estate. Adulthood is about collecting skills for oneself, tools for one’s collection, and repute and comrades for one’s circle. This is the distinct human characteristic; when we say animals are acting human, it ought to be for how they are fulfilling these aims. The sound of it is male, with the typically patriarchal term “estate,” but the desire to build power, competence, possessions, and connections is unisex. In early adulthood, the goal is to gain these things for the sake of having them, but as adulthood continues on they become desired for the sake of lending and eventually giving those resources to one’s children. The end of adulthood is when the last tools have been ceded to one’s children, now adults in their own right, and one is left in their care with no worldly possessions remaining. All that’s left is, as they say, the immortal soul.[1]

It goes without saying: this is a sketch, and neither the specifics or the order of events is absolute. Quite often, a child born into poor circumstances will skip a stage or two for the sake of survival. They will later circle around to what they missed, naturally seeking the full experience, as soon as their situation permits. Some never get the chance. It’s the archetypal sad story, not grand enough to be a tragedy, just a little thread of sorrow untwined at the end. It defies being told, because it lacks the right structure: no beginning, middle, or end. It starts somewhere, although it’s hard to put a finger on an event besides the convenient birth, but there are no real events through the life, and its end is not a grand climax of drama followed by the falling action of the aftermath nor the last sentence in an epilogue to adventure, just the spot on the page where the ink runs out and things end. In a word, it’s unsatisfying, and that hollowness is more heartbreaking than we can stand to imagine.

If broken and tragically halted development is a story that resists telling, then the other failure to grow is a story that repeats itself without ending – not growth experienced out of order and cut short, but growth that never manifests at all, a person moving through stages normally until they get stuck in one. Alone writes about one form of this, which is pathological narcissism: rather than selecting one path out of many and “settling down,” giving up on social games and adoptive identities, the late adolescent stays true to them in some fashion. As they grow into their thirties, forties, this leaves them just as easily manipulated as a teenager, but with far more severe consequences. I won’t belabor the point, and instead move to the others.

Eternal adulthood isn’t much to speak of. An adult already has plenty to offer to those around them, being a full human, so the failure to develop into old age is just a minor disappointment rather than a disaster. It tends to happen when the aging adult misses a few good opportunities to hand over the reins and stays focused on the present rather than on eternity. The result for them is a slightly dry eulogy, speaking of the many and undeniable boons they delivered to their community, but never reaching the point of being lost for words – having to express some benefit that escapes the explicit, something divine in its effect. The difference is between bettering the bodies of those around you and bettering their souls, and even if society struggles to tell the difference, none of its members do. Nevertheless, a dry eulogy is nothing shameful, and the only reason to point this out is to show how much more there can be. The goal is ultimately to escape this world, to reach something better, and that something can only be realized through the wisdom of a human in their immortal growth.

Staying in childhood is far more serious. We’re all familiar with it, in some form or other: think of the kids in middle or high school who seemed to hit puberty late. They’re left a little distant, a little confused, as the world develops past them at a breakneck pace. Usually they catch up, but the ones who don’t end up a little lost, a little puzzled, happy and eager to be told what to want and what to do, rebellious at times but easily reconciled, charmed by every new toy they find, and loving loving loving to dress up and play pretend, though never comfortable when put in real positions of responsibility… I’m sure you’ve already guessed, but these are millennial characteristics, and the future of a thirty-something uncomfortable with power is not bright.

Hotel Concierge has written far more about the reality of this, from the position of an outside observer and an inside experiencer, so let me simply say: childlike regression is awful, especially for the person experiencing it. Take, for instance, the rise of anxiety. Anxiety is a natural human response for situations where one’s capabilities do not suffice for the task at hand,[2] and the logical discharge for it is to get help. But what if you don’t feel capable of anything? Then everything becomes anxiety-inducing, and you need help with everything – at which point there is nothing in your possession, nothing that requires you, and thus no purpose for your existence. This is where depression slips in, the feeling that everything is hollow and meaningless because it is hollow and meaningless. Thus sedatives, relativism, and if nothing else works, suicide – unless one of the people you seek help from tells you that you can do ______, where it doesn’t matter what ______ is, just that now you have the one thing you can do and so you spend all your time doing it, and leave everything else to everyone else. Better if that one thing involves a lot of following instructions. Perhaps they’ll even tell you why it matters.

On a larger scale, this means an increased love of guides and services, under the guise of expert knowledge and “convenience,” instead of working things out independently. This isn’t to knock on guides or services, I’d damn well rather hire an electrician than get electrocuted and I’m not screwing around with my registry keys without at least a quick Google, and a massive amount has gone wrong because of people irresponsibly trying to “wing it,” but there’s such a thing as appropriate conditions for all that. There are things that humans are expected to handle on their own, and at the very least, you should be prepared to be the master of your own estate. If you can’t do that, then what business do you have controlling anything? That isn’t a snide jab, that’s expressing the already-existing psychology, which means I can make two more predictions: birthrates will keep going down, and whatever happens after the baby boomers die and all their (high-ranking, control-oriented) jobs are opened up to the general public will be a disaster.

None of this is to be cruel. This is stating the reality, and inherent in any well-stated situation is the question: what comes next? If this is what’s wrong, then how do we fix it? First answer: this is a personal problem, which means it has a personal solution. This cannot be answered on the level of society without being answered individually by each of its members. Second answer: but it does have a general form, and that can be discussed generally, as a form to fit over each solitary case.

What lies behind childish lingering is a total inability to judge. This makes sense, once you think about it: how could anyone, even the most sheltered and useless person, be incompetent in everything? Simple: they lack the faculty of judgment, which lets them determine what competence in any given area looks like. If they can tell good from bad, then they have a clear path to become competent, which means that although any given case of getting in over one’s head can produce anxiety, the very idea of participating no longer does. The bad outcomes of participating are no longer outside of one’s control, and although fucking up always sucks, it’s infinitely better to be the active cause of one’s own pain (compare, unfortunately, cutting). Causing it correlates to controlling it, and controlling it means you can make it go away. If you can tell good from bad, you can therefore have faith in (and proof of) improvement, and that faith can bear you through many hardships without ever descending into suffering. There are many skills left to discover, but they develop naturally out of this foundation of good judgment and hope.

Thus the converse, being incapable of judging good from bad, actually precludes competence and does worse. Without judgment of your own, action still must be taken in some capacity, but it must be framed by others. Let me be clear: children are fundamentally logical creatures, and perfectly capable of drawing statements out to their conclusions. The bizarre beliefs children hold have nothing to do with irrationality, they are the opposite, they are extraordinarily rational and rigorously apply the few facts and few judgments they have with all the fervency of youth, but lack context and the competence and confidence for individual judgment.[3]

So the children’s actions, belief, logic is guided by their parents and guardians, who nominally are tasked with their best interests in mind. The judgments we give children are personal and personalized, aimed to help and not hurt them – and what for the child who has grown up in body if not mind, who no longer has so tight of a community but still has need of it? They must still receive judgments, but now it isn’t family who does it, but rather…

Fill in the blank: TV, ads, employers, whoever. That’s the point: if you lack judgment of your own, you’re helpless about whose judgments you accept. The only measures left are whoever seems most persuasive, most pleasant, whoever talks themselves up and promises the things you want, or that they tell you that you want. The advantage leaps to branding: whoever has the strongest brand wins your loyalty. Consider the purchases you make: are they for the real merit of the thing, the real advantages you have perceived and can perceive outside of the world’s influence, or are they for how the thing has been advertised, described? We all know the answer, you and I and the organic label, the razors for men and women, and all the tag lines under the gilded sun. With no knowledge or ability of one’s own, the child, us, you, trusts implicitly the signs and symbols and judgments given. This puts you entirely in the hands of whoever offers you the most pleasant judgments to use as your own, the ones which justify your powerlessness: belief in the overpowering other. It could be corporations which you blame, men, women, old folk, whichever race, it doesn’t matter as long as it externalizes the responsibility and affirms hitting the snooze button on your growth for one more year. It could even be belief in the benevolent other, categorizing oneself as sick (depressed, anxious) and gushing with sweet faith in family, government, and psychiatry.[4] I doubt I need to say this, but those promises are lies, deceit, they cannot help you, only power can help you. And power, for its part, lies in the ability to judge good from bad, right from wrong, true from false, and whatever other categories you lay down.
And the only place to do that is in the dark. The lights of our society are blinding, and that harsh glare will paralyze efforts. Put more explicitly: act in full sight of society, the panoptic media, and they will turn your actions into images. You already know this, at least implicitly, how the gaze of others prevents change. Think of how, in your youth, you might have felt ready for some adjustment in character and practice, but couldn’t bring yourself to do it in front of your parents’ eyes. You couldn’t take up this hobby, start taking care of this chore, because they wouldn’t have the decency to ignore it. They would, instead, turn it into a big event, a story, turning your decisions and actions into some kind of image of yourself, simultaneously locking you into a past which you did not experience and a future you did not consent to. Better to stay the same, until you leave, get out of their sight, can act with no eyes on you again…

There is an argument, which goes: God’s omniscience and free will are incompatible, for if all is known, all action will accord to that knowledge. Consider that our knowledge expands by the day.

[1]There’s a lovely little example of adulthood and old age in the evolution of Maslowe’s highest rung of the hierarchy of needs, self-actualization. When he first put the idea to paper, self-actualization was about realizing one’s own potential, with the emphasis on realizing. This is adulthood, where the human being becomes truly human. In later years, he reworked it to be more about spirituality, legacy, and values. This was a result of him gaining perspective and, as it were, growing up.

[2]Although what I said was true, let me be more precise. Anxiety is the feeling that things are going to happen to you entirely outside of your control. An (unfortunately) extremely common example is trauma, where something terrible happens (or nearly happens) to someone outside of their control. Afterwards, they compare the situation they were in at the time of the trauma to the situation they are in at any given point in time, and if they can’t find a meaningful difference in control, their anxiety spikes – purely from applied reasoning. When “situations with no meaningful difference” cover an untenable proportion of the person’s life, then we diagnose PTSD, but it’s also important to note that there are perfectly reasonable situations to feel anxious. If you’ve seen someone get mauled by the garbage compactor at your place of work, then you should be extremely anxious every time lockout/tagout isn’t in effect. Conversely, a good way to deal with trauma is to find ways to increase control in whatever ways you can – since the initial anxiety is totally about control, gaining it will lower the anxiety. This is where my earlier gloss comes into play: for people who fear power, they are constantly under the perception that their capabilities are insufficient, and thus in any situation where they’re in charge, they feel that bad things can happen to them outside of their control, since they have none at all. Instead, they’re happier when people who know take charge, because even though things are still outside of their control, now they can believe that bad things won’t happen to them. For this reason, a (not the) typical end-of-childhood moment is not when they leave the nest and get hurt by something, but when the parent fails to protect them from something. The belief that someone else can handle it is shattered, anxiety fills every moment, and they either turn into a shivering wreck or take the only logical way out, which is to become powerful themselves.

[3]This is, again, incomplete. Children from young ages will try to form their own halting judgments, independent from what they’re being told, typified by their early art. But if they are swamped with judgments stronger than theirs, through overbearing parents or the debilitating hellforce of the media, they will fall silent and start loyally parroting. In contrast, if they are permitted to judge wildly and without constraint, then they will become spoiled and arrogant. What they desire and need is guidance in judgment, not to be told answers but to be shown the moves. If they don’t get this early, they will have to teach themselves later.

[4]It’s probably worth stating: this does not mean stop taking your meds. I don’t know what your chemistry is right now and can’t take responsibility for that decision. What it means is: no matter what your current situation, there is a choice between leaving it in others’ hands and taking it into your own. N.B.: The latter does not preclude asking for help.

And Darkness – I/IV

 

A dream born of crimson and pitch…

 

In the story of any grief, there is a crux. The anguish becomes nearly too much to bear, the pain turns to nausea, and the mortal is given a choice: turn back, or press on. The you-who-you-are can never overcome this suffering. The you-who-you-might-be could stand a chance. And the choice is made, you cast your lot, and the world continues with or without you. Those who choose to remain as they are, usually those old enough that they are ready to die but far too often those too young to know what they’re giving up, wither away like plants without the sun. We’ve all seen this. We all know this.

My obsession has been with how to live a good human life, with how to withstand the violent and chaotic (and terrifyingly orderly) forces of our world to make the best of it. To that end: therapy. Equally, my eye has been on art, on truth, on understanding, and how to find that which is good and valuable in a world of empty signalling. To that end: aesthetics. What follows is something of a synthesis of the two.

I can only ever seem to write at night. There’s something about daylight that scours my thoughts as they try to leave my mind. They’re fragile things, and end up bleached by sunbeams, so instead I keep them locked inside my head and only let them out in the safety of darkness. It’s quiet, now, and even the electric lights outside seem to fade. It’s a meditative time, a holy time, and if it be the shadows which preserve, so be it. Others may take the light.

It’s the darkness which fascinates, as well, and which always has. In the light, everything is clear and sharp, but darkness holds potential. Something clearly illuminated can only be what it plainly is, while something shadowed over could be – anything. This is why our images of horror are always set in darkness: to accentuate the horror, to protect us from it. If the horror were plainly spelled out, if its exact terms were known, then it would cease to be horrifying and instead become ordinary and factual. It would cease to be fear in the dark, and instead would become a commonplace feature, as did midday public executions. Why else did you think that the Aztecs conducted their sacrifice to the sun? No, sunlight knows what happens beneath it, and what you do under the sun is defined and finite, and in our bright world there is little left to claim but that in absolute darkness.

A fable: the world was once dark, dark as can be, dark as night all over. The first humans struggled up from the darkness, looked around them, and were struck with fear. They buried their hands in the nyctian sludge, rooted around, and drew up some of the darkness to burn, and with that burning cast light. They huddled around it, and fed it, and spread it out, making a ring of torches as a barrier between themselves and the dark. And in the middle, they huddled together and hugged each other and slept and dreamed. They were safe to, now. The light protected them. And when they woke, they began drawing more from the murk beneath them, building structures in the light and lighting more fires, until all was illuminated in that brilliant glow. The light made rich their luminous empire, and the humans walked tall and proud, gazing upon the myriad forms subdued and shackled by the light. And they had children, and the children were born in the light, and they were born looking at distinct things, and they slept in bright rooms. But when those children closed their eyes, under their lids and under their skin was a place that no light could reach. They tried to stay awake, resisted sleep, but when it finally came, their dreaming eyes watched the light retreat from all the familiar objects of day, the shadows retaking the things they held dear. Their forms became muddied and indistinct, half-dissolved in darkness, looming, leering, mocking, and the children felt small and weak, as the objects of the real jeered at them, DID YOU THINK YOU KNEW ME? DID YOU THINK YOU OWNED ME? And the children, so different from their inconsistent daytime babbling, screamed as one. This was the first nightmare.

I’m certain you see the analogue. We, having grown up in a world of brightness, of distinct lines and answered questions, have been denied our birthright and birthrite of primordial darkness. Our ancestors were able to bury their hands in the sludge and draw light from it, but we have no such privilege. Instead, we wander around in circles of light and play with the bright baubles offered us and have night terrors and make bad art.

For it’s art that loves the dark, and which perishes in the light. The best example is that old joke: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog: you learn a lot more about it, but the frog dies.” Explication annihilates the aesthetic, which is why contemporary art with its attempts to make everything explicitly political or otherwise distinct is so atrocious. You can look at it once and have nothing more to see, while the character of good and classical art is that you can revisit it, look deeper into it, and find something there. That makes it worth more than can be possibly imagined, unless of course it’s interpreted in the same way as contemporary art, at which point it rapidly becomes worthless.

This drawing-from-darkness is the fundamental form of the aesthetic, the transformation of the unformed into the formed. It is judgment itself, and of course, we have been taught to fear judgment. “Don’t be so quick to judge!” as if judgment itself was what was wrong, to leave judgment to our elders and stay sweet and innocent ourselves – doesn’t that seem familiar? What they were afraid of, of course, was bad judgment (which they clearly had in spades), and what they failed to fear was an inability to judge at all. So we get to the present day, where fear of judging means that people either internalize the dread and leave all their judgment up to others or hide their judgment from others and never learn how poor their judgment is. In neither case do we get skillful, expert judges who can tell good from bad and right from wrong. All we have is an unending expanse of echoed opinion, applying and reapplying to every object under heaven. We get generations most competent in faithful regurgitation, re-expressing and re-applying the judgments they’ve been taught, approved by society, often imagining their independence all the while, and never making a single judgment they must support on their own. If they do defend, it’s on the merits of relativity. “Hey, it’s just my opinion.” With perfect irony, this likely means they don’t have one.

This is the deepest cause of our loneliness. The prerequisite of friendship is the bond in deep shade: you and he or she meet, and only God watches over you. The decisions you make, the way you act, who you are, all this is shared in shameless openness and is judged on its purest merits. The question is only ever: what does this mean for us and what we care for? The divine adjudicates, an impartial but caring presence, through the words you speak together, and the result is what’s best for the two of you. Unseen by the watchful eyes outside, in the rich and dark space between you, you can act with complete freedom and with guilt over shame. And what’s more, as that friendship gets closer, the barriers between you break down, and what was once two souls – does not become one, that is impossible – becomes more murky, muddled, indistinct. And in that moment, with a lessened ability to tell who is you and who is they, with a heightened sense of the hopes and fates of the us, you are finally less alone. And that was the goal all along.

Friendship requires darkness. The darkness there is protection: you put your heads together, and use your bodies to protect the space between you, to shelter it from the light. For as soon as your relationship, your exposed selves, fall prey to the light’s judgment, they will be conformed to that judgment and lose that needed freedom. Guilt and trust evaporate and are replaced by shame alone, such that both of you turn from confidantes with the divine to informers for Panopticon. What you do will cease to matter. What remains is how you appear to be, and suddenly the comforts of friendship turn to anxieties.

The bright principles of society seek to turn all of us to informers. The core of friendship is the tacit assurance: say what you will, and I will say what I will in return, but I will never tell another soul you said it. I may castigate you for your sins, I may demand repentance, but I will not sell you out to others. Without this, there can be no honesty, and this is what honesty truly is. You must have a friend, or family, and you must be able to speak without shame. It is liberating, and it uplifts the soul. Without practicing this sacrament you will suffer agony unimaginable. If you punish honesty with untrustworthiness, then you will have done the unforgivable. This is how society breaks us apart: by dazing our minds with judgments so searing that we inform upon our friends. No, not for legal matters, but for moral matters: “he/she thinks this, and it’s terrible!” And both end up alone.

Acquaintances, rivals in society’s light, must stick to their appearances in order to survive. Inconsistency is taken as proof of duplicity, and failure to cleave to morality shows a wicked heart. This is why public figures turn into caricatures or have “clearly lost it;” if they keep the act up all is well, and if they let it down they must be insane. Illumination, the gaze of others, paralyzes unless the object breaks.[1] This happens to all of us to some degree, and the way we escape it is into darkness, through privacy, either by total solitude or the kind gaze of those who would grant us unending freedom to change.

The change I’m describing, of course, is growing up.

[1]If you’re interested: this is literally a Kuhnian paradigm shift. What, did you think psychology somehow didn’t run through science, that the part and the whole can be distinguished? No; knowledge and definition strain a psychic structure increasingly as they grow more absolute, whether that structure is a theory or a human soul. Don’t you dare do this to others. Leave them a way out.

Crux

“Sorrow is just exhausting/So I’d rather feel nothing.”

 


 

 

If one is unable to distinguish between what is real and what is fake, then there’s no reason to expect that one should be able to tell the difference between an illusion and one’s own life.

 

Or rather, let’s put it this way: isn’t it strange that stories seem to evoke emotions that real events can’t? What could it be, such that those-which-aren’t are more than those-which-are?

 

There’s an irony to that, and the irony is the irony of the age. We live in a world with more-than-ever, and yet we have less than any, do we not? We are surrounded by more people than our ancestors could imagine, able to reach out and contact any at a moment’s notice, and yet we are more lonely than they could ever bear to think. We live hermetic, not hermitical lives – although hermits had to live in the desert, Hermes is the god of the city. Or weren’t you aware of the etymology? God, sometimes I think the words are the only things keeping me together. That, too, is ironic: the sign, the symbol is what I cling to, since I have no access to the meaning and even less to reality. That’s where we all are, I’m afraid.

 

Irony is humor, or rather, irony is the subsumption while humor is the release. What both cover is wrongness. One sees something which is wrong, deeply and unmistakably wrong, and the only way they can possibly save themselves from crushing despair even if they lack the power to answer it is to make the assertion of irony: namely, that it is even meaningful to say that things could ever be right. But irony is grim and coarse, so as much of it is released in humor as possible. With a laugh, the wounds of the world are shaken off, and for the ones deep enough to scar there is always sorrow to fall back on. But every time we laugh, the relief is a little less, until finally we laugh just to laugh, to stave off the nagging pain for just a moment longer. Jokes that used to be splendid and relaxing fun become rote and meaningless. Jokes that were rote and meaningless become dagger-twist reminders. Eventually, those jokes stop being jokes, once our tolerance for relief-humor is high enough, and of course they don’t ease the irony even for a moment. But isn’t it ironic, that something that’s supposed to help does nothing, perhaps even drags you further down into misery? And with that, everything becomes ironic and we lose any escape.

 

Irony is the substitution, the ought standing in for the is. There’s no other way for it to function. Do you think the eye-rolling hipster at the coffee shop is a stark realist, no matter how they try to play it to you? The very act of sigh, mock, that’s just how it is relies on the fundamental assumption that there is something else. Because the ideal is more important, therefore the real can be dismissed. Fun fact: the exact same thing is going on with the tough-guy act, “that’s just the way the world works, deal with it.” It’s just another way to dismiss the real. In the same boat: played-up and disproportionate outrage and faux-empathy. Want to know what a real human does? They offer whatever help they can, the real over the ideal. These days, you get one of three responses: send money, go volunteering, like on Facebook. All three are virtue performance, because they all focus on abstract people rather than real people.

 

“But I care about real people,” says the unfortunate soul. “I put way more time into my friends’ problems than I do my own.” Yeah, and what kind of help can a wreck of a person possibly give? The reality is, friends’ problems are so much easier to focus on because they’re not your own, because they’re not real, and therefore they feel so much more real. The fake, the illusion, has more power than the reality. It’s so much easier to play a part, play a role, than it is to actually become. This is why anticipating things is always better than doing them, why romances are better than relationships, why porn is better than sex, why images and stories are so damn much better than your real life.

 

Trigger warning for everything that follows: the coddled, over-sensitive, “triggered” millennial crybaby does not exist. Hold your applause—the COSTMC is an oxymoron because coddling does not sensitize, it scleroses.”

 

Accurate recording of phenomena; mistakes correlation with cause and confuses certain effects. Seven out of ten. Understimulation does not cause sclerosis, it causes a disconnect from reality that can range from neurosis to psychosis. Sclerosis is caused by constant sensation – you don’t see a callus and infer soft living. All three are present in massive numbers in the current generation, not to mention the generations before.

 

Neurosis and psychosis are easy enough to explain with coddling. Children never get exposed to certain emotions, certain experiences, and so their senses which are supposed to adapt and adjust to them go utterly haywire. Typically, these are externally-oriented pieces of the human psychoanatomy, such as the ability to affect the world (power). Coddle the child, never give them the bounds of their own competence or grant them true freedom to act, and their understanding of these fundamental constraints will twist in on themselves and expose in unpredictable and undesirable ways: superiority and inferiority complexes, delusions of grandeur, obsessions, complacency, and so on. Probably underestimated is kinkiness. Play is how children get a grasp of their own bodies, and for children who never grew up, the only play left is sex. What, you didn’t think Homo erectus (a-ha) had black leather and whips, did you?

 

Sclerosis is a little harder to get a handle on. It’s overstimulation, and although it would be nice to just say that our raucous and titillating media is responsible, people still choose even meager happiness over heroin. Reality, when truly tasted, is fare more filling than any of the shadows we cast. It’s different from the tolerance mechanism as well, where you start needing more and more of something to just get your fix – we don’t try to get more and more of our own lives, but rather, the exact opposite. Sclerosis is protective. “Wait, so we’re being protected from…” Bingo.

 

Let’s tell ourselves a story. A child is born, and all their needs are taken care of. They don’t go hungry or thirsty, and physical pain is avoided at all costs. And yet, this child begins to shrink away from the world, little by little. They turn in on themselves, their hobbies turning to private pleasures, meaningless pleasures, possibly TV/video games/drugs as the case may be. Definitely porn. The child has trouble interacting with the world, has trouble feeling things, and ends up indecisive and complacent. In fact, attempts to interface with the world seem to be repressed, the psyche resisting any efforts to really connect. The primary symptom is generally depression, sometimes matched with overactive imagination. Fantasy is a good foil to reality. What could cause this? Doctors are stumped. They try to treat the depression. No dice. Better try: under what circumstances do we see this? When an animal withdraws from the world, what do we always identify as the cause?

 

The only sane, the only sensible conclusion is that the human is suffering unbearable agony. Not physical, because that’s been eliminated, but psychic, from sources that can scarce be imagined. We are in constant, almost unendurable pain from living deeply inhuman lives. That is what keeps us numb. It’s not that we don’t feel things, it’s that we’re acclimatized to something so much more powerful that the ordinary emotions feel like nothing in comparison. “I think I might be happy right now,” says the unfortunate soul, “but I can’t really tell. This doesn’t feel like much of anything, really.” Yeah, and that’s why you move from beer to vodka. (Incidentally: alcohol calms the frontal lobe, reduces inhibitions, and at the same time manages to numb psychic pain. That’s why it’s such a popular drug in general, and in my experience, serious quantities of it are the only way to feel my own emotions any longer. Funny how that goes.)

 

If one’s own psychic state is so unendurable that access to it has to be ironized and desensitized, the only contact left is through other things. In particular: drugs, which bear sensation within themselves rather than as a part of the user, and stories, which are the emotions of the characters rather than those of the user. I’m sure you get the pattern by now.

 

That’s the position people today are in, both you and me included. We use irony, detachment, dissociation to shelter ourselves from the world we really live in. Even this, even this very essay is detachment – or didn’t you notice how I shifted from the literary style to the scientific style? Analysis precludes understanding and provides some semblance of shelter. That’s why we research things and go to experts. “Ah, yes, you have words for that. Very good. That fixes everything.” Like hell it does. Words are how you pretend you know about something by having a means to reference it. “But then I realized… I have depression.” Fill in your own favorite disorder, but that sentence means nothing. Nouns, definitions, mathematics are static. They have no motive force and can have no motive force. Static, stasis, unchanging… sound familiar? Better to survive as one is than put one’s life on the line. That’s conventional wisdom, at least.

 

If I had to say, going forward… what? The pain is there, but it’s almost inaccessible by virtue of that same callousness that infects us. How does one, on one’s own, destroy one’s own barriers, resistance, ego in order to access what lies beneath? How does one destroy one’s own self, one’s own mind, so that something else can come of it? How does one become capable of taking one’s own life seriously, instead of treating it like some joke?

 

There’s not an answer I can offer, here.

The Shadow…

“…is nothing but a heat haze.”

 


 

From Plato’s Sophist:

 

“So think about the man who promises he can make everything by means of a single kind of expertise. Suppose that by being expert at drawing he produces things that have the same names as real things. Then we know that when he shows his drawings from far away he’ll be able to fool the more mindless young children into thinking that he can actually produce anything he wants to… Well, then, won’t we expect that there’s another kind of experience – this time having to do with words – and that someone can use it to trick young people when they stand even farther away from the truth about things? Wouldn’t he do it by putting words in their ears, and by showing them spoken copies of everything, so as to make them believe that the words are true and that the person who’s speaking them is the wisest person there is?”

 

Sophist is a narrative continuation of a previous dialogue, Theaetetus, where Socrates quizzes the titular child on what knowledge is and what it means to know. Theaetetus proposes several models, all of which get refuted one-by-one, and Socrates concludes with a gentle reassurance to the boy that he is better, not worse, for this, through his awareness of his own limits. The next day, we get the above. Take a moment and consider that carefully.

 

The common story about pathological, generational narcissism is that it’s the fault of television. It goes: television lies, television dramatizes, television turns everything into a movie with a main character and with side characters, and when television became commonplace, those precise features became engendered in the societal conscious (or if Hegel doesn’t offend, the zeitgeist) and everyone became narcissistic. That is, bluntly, a defense mechanism, and can be overturned with an observation and an argument.

 

The observation is simple: Plato was precisely concerned with generational narcissism. If you don’t believe me, read the Gorgias and pay close attention. Athens had no TVs. All they had were sophists.

 

Now for the argument.

 

Plato’s allegory of the cave has grown so well-known that it has become almost entirely obscured by itself, but a naive reading tells us quite clearly that the literal reason people are trapped in the metaphorical cave is that they mistake images of fakes as being reality. This is not unbelievable prescience reaching into our modern age, but a reaction to something that was already happening in Plato’s time. He was already surrounded with his own Dumbest Generation of Narcissists, and he was watching them drag Athens down into the dirt. They were characterized by being led astray by sophists and orators, who used their words to create images of the real over actual reality, and Athens suffered for it. The inability to discern real and fake comes first, the deception by convenient lies from whatever serves as the contemporary media comes second, and pathological narcissism is the natural development from those lies being internalized without a “reality check” coming in to eviscerate the state of ignorance. Or did you think the TV was a magic box? I wouldn’t blame you; it’s been general opinion for the past half a century.

 

(N.B. Television, and subsequently the internet, are in fact like traditional media tweaking out on meth: jittery, unstable, will try to steal your money and hawk you useless junk, and most importantly, up all night. TV and the web have the notable characteristic of being available all the time, meaning they can be consumed at a ludicrous rate. Going to listen to an orator or hiring a sophist can only be done at the individual’s convenience, but the moment you have free time, CNN and Netflix are right there waiting. Opium and heroin cause addiction in the same general manner, but you’d better believe that heroin is more dangerous by far.)

 

Let’s just wrap everything up nicely with a bow: the reason that a young person fails to grow properly out of narcissism is because they are never taught their own limits. It can be gentle, as Socrates gently taught Theaetetus, or it can be the brutal crunch of an adolescent running headlong into the wall of reality, but it must happen or the child is lost. This is the meaning of the Delphic inscription, the very thing Narcissus’ parents were told to avoid, “know thyself.” With context, it becomes “know your place.” Parents in Plato’s time and in our time failed to teach that lesson, and the results are predictable. Without knowing one’s limits, one cannot survive against the limits of knowledge. Toddlers, infamously insensitive to their own limits, are the easiest creatures on Earth to lie to. The children immediately get targeted by the forces of rhetorical fate, their expectations become warped, failures are externalized and successes are undermined, and they come to value the status quo of childhood because they are fooled into thinking its base pleasures identical with goodness and become incapable of recognizing the misery that necrotizes their souls. So it has been, and so it will be.

 

So what makes something fake?

 

First, definitions. A fake is something which is neither itself nor a representation of something else, but instead seeks and by nature fails to be that other thing. To give examples of these three categories, imagine a human in contrast with a marble statue and a wax sculpture. The human is simply itself; the marble statue is a representation of that human (the general category of art; consider re-presentation), and the wax sculpture is a fake. Wax sculptures, alongside animatronics and the rest, are the creepiest things around. You know this. They make your skin crawl. This is the effect of the uncanny, and uncanniness is the emotional manifestation of the aesthetic of the fake. It makes your skin crawl, and for good reason: something which is fake is fake not because it just happens to align (that shock of realization when you mistake two similar things has all the intensity of lightning, but it is not uncanny), but because it is trying to trick you. It is trying to fool you, to seduce you, to tell you things which are false in the guise of the true, and that is horrifying. Not terrifying, since terror melts like summer ice, but horrifying, in the same way that the most unsettling horror stories don’t make you leave all the lights on but make you want to scrub your skin until the thoughts in your mind have been scoured off.

 

Here’s the question that determines now and forever whether you are a sucker for lies and will be taken advantage of as long as you live: what does Disneyland make you feel? If you answer “happy and nostalgic” for any reason other than “I went there with my family / other loved ones when I was young,” don’t bother with anything else, just check out of life now if you haven’t already. You are lost, and you have been found by Panopticon. It has you now. There is no escape once it owns your very feelings.

 

Disneyland – and this will seem obvious after a moment’s thought – is fake. It is full of fake constructions of real things: not mere replicas which seek to copy, but fakes which seek to lie. The lie is: this is more real than real, the same way that stage-jewels of glass sparkle brighter than the true stones.

 

This horror is what narcissism lacks. We’ve been identifying narcissism on the disease level as an inability to grow up, an obsession with self-image, and so on – and all these symptoms can be summed into an inability to tell the difference between the real and the fake. This is also the difference between children and adults, and can stand in as an excellent definition of maturity. “So adults are able to see things as they really are? But -“ Hold, there. Seeing things as they really are is permitted to none but the sages and the Divine, didn’t we just talk about the analogy of the cave? This is just about seeing when things are fake, which (as we said before) is about others trying to trick you. It’s hardly knockdown, but an excellent piece of evidence for entrenched narcissism in our society is the lack of a distinct category for the fake. All we have is true and false, real and unreal, with no room for “it doesn’t matter what’s under each cup, or what’s behind the curtain, because someone is trying to trick you: the game, the whole city are what’s wrong, get the hell out before you get taken for all you have.” We, none of us, have been taught to say: it doesn’t matter what’s individually true or false here, because none of it’s real, it’s all a setup. Even if the guy on the street-corner really does sell you a great watch, that doesn’t mean he was for real, it just means the con is further downstream. The game is not to sell you the watch, that’s a chump’s game, amateur performance, it’s to sell the image of you, the watch, the salesman altogether – because then you will be totally in the artist’s power. We can no longer recognize this.

 

The result of this disability being a societal condition is that now all of our finest institutions are all fakes, hence Disney is the biggest winner in all of media. It’s busy taking over the industry, which should terrify you.

 

The inability to detect fakes is what lies behind branding, the ability to make something what you say it is. “Wait, isn’t that just, like, everything? That’s postmodern as hell.” Yeah. We’ve gotten to the point where that doesn’t sound absurd. The way it works is simple: you don’t know anything, you are literally incapable of passing judgment on things, and so instead of using your judgment you use your reason, and your reason can only say to check what others say. But they don’t know anything either, so they’re doing the same, and when you get down to it the only people saying anything original are in marketing, and they’re just hawking. So whence truth, whence knowledge? Nowhere, which is why we fall for the dumbest tricks.

 

Typically it falls to the parents to teach their children about lies, deceit, and falsehood. Failing that, the old stories and legends do the trick. But when all else fails, one simply has recourse to the world itself. The world enforces reality, and we suffer the consequences of being deceived – except when we’re shielded from it, even browbeaten into believing the lies. Ask the kid at Disneyland, admonished for screaming in fear at the bobblehead mascots, what she thinks.

 

So why here, why now? There’s two answers: a historical-scientific one, which states the deterministic causes of the effects, and the intentional one, which explains why everyone is acting in such a way as to bring this world about. If you want the historical answer, skip to the end and it will be there, and neither it nor the rest of this essay will be of the slightest use to you.

 

The intentional reason here is pretty simple. If we can’t tell what is real or fake, then we’ll buy shitty cheap knockoff products instead of the real thing. Lots of individual actors push this disability mainstream, most of them in marketing (I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Maybe you should), but it’s not like there’s a conspiracy going on. Everyone just knows the thing to do, and the thing to do is make bank off of suckers. The way you do that is by branding things, making them into what they are by saying they are that thing, and having nobody capable of contradicting you. This is true whether it’s ugly things saying they’re fashionable, dumb things saying they’re meaningful, or worthless things saying they’re convenient. Think about it: if you go to the store to get toothpaste, what possible means do you have to tell the quality of one brand from another? You don’t, which is why they all have the same ingredients, which is why the only things left are which taste better (pleasure) or are branded to you. This is the direction our social and sex lives have gone, too, where all that matters is that we’re branded as being the right people for the people we hang out with slash fuck. Is a Democrat better than a Republican? I don’t mean morally, because of course you can make an a priori snap judgment about that, but just on the basis of being effective at living. Can you tell? “There’s a lot more that goes into it, the groups are so broad, I’d need specific examples…” And yet chances are you were able to get a moral impulse out of it instantly. That’s not because of what it is, but because of how it was branded relative to you. Consider if the terms I’d used were “academic” and “blue-collar,” or “executive” and “barista.” Then you’d be able to answer the effective-at-living question, and again it would be because of branding. Are any of those judgments, are any judgments at all, your own? “Well, I think [expression of preference within a niche interest].” Yeah, I watch porn too. The real problem isn’t that you’re buying shitty cheap knockoff products, but that you’re living a shitty cheap knockoff life.

 

Reality doesn’t care what you say or think. It simply is. The best metaphor for this, physical rather than lingual, is a sharp shove on the solarplexus, enough to make you stumble. There’s no say you have in the matter; it just happens to you. That’s the force of the world. It resists branding; whether or not something is branded a certain way, it simply is what it is. This is something we should be able to sense, or at least, be trained to detect. That we have no ability there makes us as vulnerable as children, which indeed is what we are stuck as being.

 

Learning to judge things as they truly are is, as I said, the domain of sages, but the inability to discern between real and fake is, as Plato said, characteristic of particularly stupid children. You already know which side you fall on.

 

“My parents never taught me how to judge things. They did things for me, or neglected me, or both.” Adroit, to notice whose responsibility it was, but it was their responsibility when you were a child. Whose is it now? Or rather: if these things can only be taught, where could the judgments come from in the first place? There are old, old stories about these, involving gods and the wise beyond measure, and the theme is that they learned from the world. Why can’t you? There’s much to draw on from antiquity, and much power in yourself.

 

That’s what comes next.

 


 

 

All right, here it is: the historical cause of narcissism is prosperity. That’s it. The way it works is as follows:

 

  1. Ordinary people, non-narcissistic in nature, come upon good times. They treat their children well, and try to shield them from harm.
  2. The children, being children, are naturally drawn to pleasures and that general sort. Pleasure is, of course, the deceptive image of what is good. They are not punished for their desires or forced into relinquishing them. This breeds in them a valuation of images over reality.
  3. Upon adolescence, the children begin searching for identity, but only know of pleasures, not the frustrations of childhood. They are unable to settle and mature, forever seeking images. They have not been toughened, and do not learn.
  4. They treat their children much the same way, only with even less grace and skill, until finally hardships return to the family or one generation finally gives up on having kids.

 

The proof of this is simply how narcissistic traits consistently show up in tandem with inherited prosperity. This can be slow, like the more gradual rot of the Chinese dynasties, or fast, like the sudden advent of narcissism in several countries following WWII. To make the narcissism generational, all you need is a marked difference in material conditions between two generations: the parent generation has to struggle for basic material needs, makes damn well sure their kids have enough, but fail to realize in the resulting prosperity that the struggle is as important as the goods themselves. The result is a generation of parents who don’t properly provide, and children who are overprovided for. Then those kids have kids…

 

“So what, doing well means you’re doomed? Getting to the top means you end up wrecking your kids?” Yeah, Sisyphian, huh? Except that this is a historical cause, i.e. not a personal cause. The personal cause is just parents failing to raise their kids right. Blaming what’s happened to you, to your family, on historical conditions is just a defense mechanism, one that prevents change by precluding it. “A pebble can’t change the course of a landslide…” Yeah, but a sentient pebble with arms and legs can damn well choose where it itself goes. This is why history is worthless as a science, especially when it’s right: it serves as an excuse not to act. In contrast, as a literary discipline, its value is beyond measure.

 

There’s your scientific answer for narcissism, your mathematical narrative, for all the good it will do you: through the Great Depression, Americans struggled for material needs. World War II marked the end of that struggle, as it equally marked a great divide in history, bisecting the historical memory between past and future. With that breaking-point came a wave of prosperity perhaps unprecedented in the history of the world. The generation which immediately followed – and please note, you only really get “generations” in the context of a great calamity which condenses births in its aftermath, which makes it telling that both the authors of “generational theory” (William Strauss, Neil Howe) were part of that single generation – was saturated in wealth and opportunity while at the same time being devoid of parental influence and restraint. They spread out to capture as much of the growing world as they could, in titles and land and culture, while being unaware of any reason to do it besides that they were able to. When war came, the children proved unsurprisingly poor at fighting, and so the ones abroad retreated into themselves while the ones at home had to provide reason for their own lack of courage. The result: a rebranding of themselves as “pacifists,” which set the standard method of evading challenges going forward. As they had children, they taught those children branding from the start, and so that next generation grew up understanding branding as the norm. They fought for their place in a world that suddenly wasn’t so full of opportunity, and found ways to wrestle some margin of success out of it, mostly through placing themselves in the right niche to brand themselves one way or another. The children of those, between roughly the 90s and early 2000s, were born into a world where prosperity was still spread around (on credit), but opportunities were held either blithely by the elderly or jealously by their parents, having no limit to action and no chance of results, held in a virtual world, a dream world, and slowly but inexorably, they all retreated to the internet…

The Role of Luck, or Another Data Point Showing Nobody Understands the Words They Say

Scientific American recently published an article on their website titled “The Role of Luck in Life Success Is Far Greater Than We Realized”, by author Scott Barry Kaufman. It’s under the blogs subdomain, so I’m hoping that they have lower quality control there, as well as a keen sense of irony towards the series title “Beautiful Minds.” Unfortunately, it still seems high enough that they didn’t call it “The Roll of Luck,” so they don’t get points for charming camp, either. In any case, it’s been viciously linked at me without warning, so I’m going to give it the ol’ Alone-style analysis.

 

The subtitle and nominal thesis of the article is “Are the most successful people in society just the luckiest people?” First principles: answer in the affirmative, and you have what the author wants to be true. Now that we’ve gotten our legwork done, let’s dive in.

 

What does it take to succeed? What are the secrets of the most successful people? Judging by the popularity of magazines such as Success, Forbes, Inc., and Entrepreneur, there is no shortage of interest in these questions.

 

Great, I like success, too. This being America, I believe that success is measured in units of “sexmoney,” which took the place of the petrodollar around the collapse of the Soviet Union. So does that mean we’ll be given advice on getting success?

 

There is a deep underlying assumption, however, that we can learn from them because it’s their personal characteristics–such as talent, skill, mental toughness, hard work, tenacity, optimism, growth mindset, and emotional intelligence– that got them where they are today.

 

That’ll be a no, then.

 

This assumption doesn’t only underlie success magazines, but also how we distribute resources in society, from work opportunities to fame to government grants to public policy decisions. We tend to give out resources to those who have a past history of success, and tend to ignore those who have been unsuccessful, assuming that the most successful are also the most competent.

 

The last time most of us have distributed resources in society was a tip at a restaurant, but don’t let that distract you: Scott has just done a tricky bit of mental contortion. He’s just changed the topic from “what does it take for you to succeed” to “what should we reward people for in society.” The first is extremely helpful in your everyday life; the second will destroy your soul. Be warned.

 

But is this assumption correct? I have spent my entire career studying the psychological characteristics that predict achievement and creativity. While I have found that a certain number of traits— including passion, perseverance, imagination, intellectual curiosity, and openness to experience– do significantly explain differences in success, I am often intrigued by just how much of the variance is often left unexplained.

 

Scott goes for the three-pointer: establishes himself as an authority despite being a weak enough academic to need his own website, confesses that everything that people do normally attribute to success does contribute, and then tries to shift the focus entirely on to the “unexplained” variance. Yeah, why do Chads get all the sexmoney? Who can give us the answers we seek?

 

In recent years, a number of studies and books–including those by risk analyst Nassim Taleb, investment strategist Michael Mauboussin, and economist Robert Frank— have suggested that luck and opportunity may play a far greater role than we ever realized, across a number of fields, including financial trading, business, sports, art, music, literature, and science. Their argument is not that luck is everything; of course talent matters. Instead, the data suggests that we miss out on a really importance [sic] piece of the success picture if we only focus on personal characteristics in attempting to understand the determinants of success.

 

Note: all three of the people he cites are involved in some way or another with business. Scott is not involved in business; he is a psychologist. “Great, so he’s being interdisciplinary?” No, he’s still writing on psychology, which means he’s still stuck in the one discipline. He’s just searching for sources farther and farther afield to prove his point, which is something like hiring mercenaries to fight your wars: you may win, but you’re going to get exactly what you paid for. Also, the opportunity part is just pure bullshit. An opportunity is the prerequisite for success: it is defined as “the thing that the success springs from.” Of course opportunity is involved. It’s like claiming that prologues write books.

 

Kaufman gives us a nice little list of things that luck does for success:

 

 

…which is great, except that none of this is luck determining success. The point that comes closest is scientific impact, which uses citations as its metric and as such is entirely about recognition by others. If you identify how much others recognize you as your metric for success, you are either female and in high school or in deep, deep trouble. Recognition from others is something you have no control over, because other people have free will. Treating it as if it ought to be otherwise is madness.

 

Of the rest, half are about time and location of birth and half are about name. Time and location of birth aren’t anything you can change, but you can certainly choose how your kids are born, which is precisely why people immigrate to better countries. As for the names, it probably doesn’t occur to you, but you can change your name. Want to get tenure? Change your last name to Aaronson. Want to do well in sales? Make sure your customers can easily pronounce your name. Want people to think you’re smart? Put your middle initial on your resume. (I’m going to start doing that; thanks, Scott!) Woman in law? Start going by a more masculine version of your name, and if you can’t think of one, just initialize. This is all fantastic advice, and none of it is luck.

 

Scott cannot recognize this. He thinks that all of this is identical to luck. He put all those links up and never thought to knock the K off his surname, or at the very least go by Scott B. Kaufman on his website. This is because all of these changes are changes to identity, and to Scott, a change to his identity is equal to his death. (Side note: it used to be traditional for Chinese people working in or immigrating to America to go by English names. Nowadays, they go by their birth names instead, even though Americans haven’t gotten a smidge better at pronouncing them. What does this indicate? Can you pronounce Chinese words like Xiao or Qing? And if you seek to go to a non-English country, what should you do with your name?)

 

Instead, Scott decides to keep exploring luck.

 

In an attempt to shed light on this heavy issue, the Italian physicists Alessandro Pluchino and Andrea Raspisarda teamed up with the Italian economist Alessio Biondo to make the first ever attempt to quantify the role of luck and talent in successful careers. In their prior work, they warned against a “naive meritocracy”, in which people actually fail to give honors and rewards to the most competent people because of their underestimation of the role of randomness among the determinants of success. To formally capture this phenomenon, they proposed a “toy mathematical model” that simulated the evolution of careers of a collective population over a worklife of 40 years (from age 20-60).

 

Note: the physicists are being interdisciplinary. They’re trying to apply their technical skills to a problem in a completely different domain. That domain, however, is not psychology. It is economics. Consider: how would this study be treated if it were being discussed in the Wall Street Journal? Would it be in the Life & Arts section, or the Business and Finance section?

 

The Italian researchers stuck a large number of hypothetical individuals (“agents”) with different degrees of “talent” into a square world and let their lives unfold over the course of their entire worklife. They defined talent as whatever set of personal characteristics allow a person to exploit lucky opportunities (I’ve argued elsewhere that this is a reasonable definition of talent). Talent can include traits such as intelligence, skill, motivation, determination, creative thinking, emotional intelligence, etc. The key is that more talented people are going to be more likely to get the most ‘bang for their buck’ out of a given opportunity (see here for support of this assumption).

 

All agents began the simulation with the same level of success (10 “units”). Every 6 months, individuals were exposed to a certain number of lucky events (in green) and a certain amount of unlucky events (in red). Whenever a person encountered an unlucky event, their success was reduced in half, and whenever a person encountered a lucky event, their success doubled proportional to their talent (to reflect the real-world interaction between talent and opportunity).

 

Emphasis mine. They did not include any ability to reduce or avoid bad luck, or any native factor that would cause an increase in “bad luck,” like the insufferable adolescents who whine about how “unlucky” it was that they were caught with weed while running a red light. This study is about what happens to people who are blindly exposed to the vicissitudes of fate, which I guess covers a lot of the population. What you should be reading here is not “man, I really hope I don’t get unlucky” but rather “man, I’d better make fucking certain I don’t get unlucky in the way that takes a full half of my sexmoney. I like my sexmoney.”

 

What did they find? Well, first they replicated the well known “Pareto Principle“, which predicts that a small number of people will end up achieving the success of most of the population (Richard Koch refers to it as the “80/20 principle“). In the final outcome of the 40-year simulation, while talent was normally distributed, success was not. The 20 most successful individuals held 44% of the total amount of success, while almost half of the population remained under 10 units of success (which was the initial starting condition). This is consistent with real-world data, although there is some suggestion that in the real world, wealth success is even more unevenly distributed, with just eight men owning the same wealth as the poorest half of the world.

 

None of this is surprising if you’ve ever met some of the really successful or unsuccessful people. Of course the real world is going to be even more harshly divided, if many people are seemingly trying to nuke their own chances of success and if it’s considered socially acceptable to pay an army to go take all the sexmoney from people who can’t keep theirs. I understand this is officially termed “cucking.”

 

Although such an unequal distribution may seem unfair, it might be justifiable if it turned out that the most successful people were indeed the most talented/competent. So what did the simulation find? On the one hand, talent wasn’t irrelevant to success. In general, those with greater talent had a higher probability of increasing their success by exploiting the possibilities offered by luck. Also, the most successful agents were mostly at least average in talent. So talent mattered.

 

However, talent was definitely not sufficient because the most talented individuals were rarely the most successful. In general, mediocre-but-lucky people were much more successful than more-talented-but-unlucky individuals. The most successful agents tended to be those who were only slightly above average in talent but with a lot of luck in their lives.

 

Understanding this is a pivotal moment in any person’s life. There are three, and only three, paths you can choose here.

 

The first is to accept there are things beyond your control and to work on adjusting your ideas of success away from sexmoney and towards things that do directly result from talent: to make good and beautiful things, for instance, without worrying about whether you will be paid in sex or money for them. There are countless gorgeous things in the world which have no name on them. You can join the nameless masses gracefully, and we will all join them in the end. The focus shifts from your success to the success of those who come after you. This is a mature option, and suited to maturity.

 

The second is to decide that you’re going to make damn certain you get lucky, no matter how dumb the methods of luck are. If it’s putting your initials down, you’ll do that. If it’s getting your boss his favorite treat, you’ll do that. If it’s telling him/her you love him/her, you’ll do that. (n.b. This one isn’t necessarily a good idea, but it will increase your sexmoney.) This is a more youthful choice, and fits in better with youthful passion. If it’s kept past its time, or focused on more than it should be, then it will eat you away with neurosis. It’s potent, but dangerous.

 

The third is

 

Talent loss is obviously unfortunate, to both the individual and to society. So what can be done so that those most capable of capitalizing on their opportunities are given the opportunities they most need to thrive? Let’s turn to that next.

 

absolute abdication of power.

 

I won’t bother quoting the rest of the article for reasons of decency. It is pure pornography, discussing potentially better ways to award people with success (sexmoney) and showing the stats on them (three Italians show you the way your boss should be treating you, semicolon close parentheses). The conclusion is that rewarding people at random or giving everyone something is the best way to go about things, and I’m not going to go into an in-depth analysis of methodology, so let’s peg that one at “sure, sounds right.”

 

Let’s be real: Scott is not a manager for anyone, and neither is anybody reading this article. This information is totally irrelevant to him in the same way a “how to give a blowjob” video is irrelevant to straight men, although straight men are still the target demo. It’s an extremely useful study for executives, and it has one clear message: “Your systems are easy to game, and randomness is a better way to go. Make sure that your systems either can’t be gamed because they’re random, or that they reward people gaming them in the right ways. Also, there is a hell of a lot of undiscovered talent out there that’s willing to work for cheap, so put some money there rather than on the big boys, who are probably just lucky.” Apply this to any situation where you would be choosing something over another thing. Actually, come to think of it, we can all use this for situations like choosing vendors and choosing restaurants: you’re sometimes going to find out the hole-in-the-wall is shitty, but sometimes it’ll turn out to be fantastic and you’ll be getting a great deal. This is a valuable personal lesson, and the other side to the lesson is: “people are dumb, they will judge potential for success based on prior success, and so if I’m going to get a healthy dose of sexmoney I’d better show myself off as being as successful as I can without looking like a phony.” Technically speaking, this is known as “marketing.”

 

Scott concludes:

 

The results of this elucidating simulation, which dovetail with a growing number of studies based on real-world data, strongly suggest that luck and opportunity play an underappreciated role in determining the final level of individual success. As the researchers point out, since rewards and resources are usually given to those who are already highly rewarded, this often causes a lack of opportunities for those who are most talented (i.e., have the greatest potential to actually benefit from the resources), and it doesn’t take into account the important role of luck, which can emerge spontaneously throughout the creative process. The researchers argue that the following factors are all important in giving people more chances of success: a stimulating environment rich in opportunities, a good education, intensive training, and an efficient strategy for the distribution of funds and resources. They argue that at the macro-level of analysis, any policy that can influence these factors will result in greater collective progress and innovation for society (not to mention immense self-actualization of any particular individual).

 

…which would be excellent, except that this is not an economics piece, it is a psychology piece. There is no reflection here on what this means about our individual, personal view into the world. Scott fails to discuss the implications of the study on how we live our own lives. Instead, he talks about policy, which is what other people ought to do. There isn’t even the slightest nod towards praxis or (on the hopeless yet overpopulated outskirts of psychology’s mandate) some kind of reflection on human biases regarding success and failure. He just marvels: wouldn’t it be great, if people like me, who went to Carnegie Mellon and got a PhD from Yale, who are very educated, very talented, and deserve so much for being who I am, got all the sexmoney I deserve. That would be just super.

 

The mismatch in plurality is intended. Let that serve as your warning.

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It’s a dark, rainy February evening. Cold leaden drops fall from the shadows hanging from heaven, and drip sullenly along along the long faces of buildings and those who walk between them. Incandescent lights glow aquatic as the water runs over them, and illuminate the ominously subastral haze. Through it all, the tall Neoclassical dome of Capitol-echoing-Capitol gleams as beacon and threat. In the stories, in the world, it goes: the symbol of authority must symbolize authority. The bright, pallid lordliness says it all. In another town, that might be offset by high skyscrapers, but here it stands alone. And yet, even so, its lunar glory is outshone, for to the west lies Versailles, home of the Sun, the immortal and undying… but the sun is setting even behind the clouds. Such is the sign of our age. The sun moves West, West, West until it lights East, and yet (even so) the obvious remains hidden (clouded) that East has become West, Orient collapses by Occident, and all falls under the northern forests, the central sea. So has it been, and so it shall be again. Shine in your golden light, and lay wisely your sherds, or else shatter your idols and lope into the wilds hence ye came. Barren lands await, seas of lost souls, and yet, paradise… awaits ye not. Leave thy innocence in Eden with thy pride. Go once more into the haunted night, gripping the iron torn from the ashes. So it has been, and so it shall be again.

 

The city’s not New York, nor Chicago, yet just as it aspires to them so does the weather. Life holds a mirror up to art. When’s the last time you’ve painted the sea?

 

I’m not in the rain, of course – I left it as soon as I could manage. Mortal flesh, mortal weakness, mortal mind. I’m in a bar, eating food slain quite far away, drinking something with “noire” in the title. C’est charmante. I am, after all, a man of my time, with all that entails. I have built nothing of what surrounds me, and yet I am quite warm and dry. There are three results to that position: a crippling sense of inadequacy, a crippling sense of entitlement, and utter madness. At the table right in front of me, a tidily bearded man explains the minute (minuscule) details of our mutual company to an uncomprehendingly attentive table. Jargon is explained, and perhaps somewhere in the straight-hall nightmare there is understanding. My beard and hair are long and ragged. I sit here alone.

 

Make no mistake. I will wake in the morning and make my way back to the same place as that tidy fellow. He knows his path; mine is dusty arcanistry and occasional alchemy. I memorize the symbols and grammar faithfully, but in my misty sight, crowded by floating bodies none but I may see, I behold

 

Age-worn, faded wood. Warm, welcoming colors, and the softness of self-antiquated threads. Page-must, flame-yellow, life-warm. The soft babbling of teary nostalgia for what surrounds you now, and in the distant auburn Autumn, the Song of the-