Reflections of the Setting Sun

“One spot of radiance, where all else was shade.”


Anything worth doing is worth stealing, so from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov:


“Mephistopheles, when he appeared to Faust, introduced himself as one who desired evil but did only good. Well, that’s as he pleases, but I’m quite the opposite. I’m perhaps the only man in the universe who loves truth and sincerely desires good. I was present when the Word, who died on the cross, ascended into heaven, carrying on his breast the soul of the thief who had been crucified on his right hand, and I heard the joyful cries of the cherubim, singing and shouting: “hosannah”, and the thunderous shouts of rapture of the seraphim which shook heaven and all creation. And I swear by all that is holy I longed to join the chorus and shout “hosannah” with them all. The word had almost escaped me, it had almost burst from my chest – you know, of course, how sentimental and artistically sensitive I am. But common sense – oh, the most unhappy characteristic of my nature – kept me here, too, within the proper bounds, and I let the moment pass! For what, I thought at that instant, would have happened after my “hosannah”? Everything in the world would at once have been extinguished and no events would have happened after that. And so, solely from a sense of duty and my social position, I was forced to suppress the good moment and carry on with my loathsome work.”


That’s the Devil speaking, by the way, and every word is true. The Brothers Karamazov is the book I want to write, incidentally, but since it’s already been written I write a blog instead. That’s what I tell myself, at least. Anyway, on to the actual point.


I have something of a penchant for metaphysics. It’s the bad habit of, whenever I see something interesting outside me in the world, trying to butcher it into First Principles. I don’t even like Aristotle. I’ve been suppressing this tendency of mine somewhat, trying to reverse the Firstness to what it ought to be by nature in my essays. Rather than write on the metaphysical underpinning of the phenomena I’ve noted, I instead focus on the experiential (empirical, thus sensory, thus subjective) side of things, building a logic (logos, account) out of scrap parts salvaged from wherever I can lay hands on them. For right now, however, I’m going to indulge myself in writing a proper treatise. May I be forgiven.


If you have a corkscrew mind (sharp, twisted, good at opening bottles), you’ll have noticed something I’ve been dancing around in all my essays. “How on Earth,” you might be asking yourself, “does this buffoon purport to speak of modernity and leave out mathematics?” Sorry for putting purple prose in your mouth, but I wanted to use a little less of the blunt kind of vulgarity. The point stands: I’ve been avoiding math like the plague. The reason I’ve been dancing all around it might get a bit clearer if you etymologize “definition.” Regardless, it’s time to bring it in.


It’s no mystery that math is the underpinning of the modern world. It’s the language of science, of telling the world how it’s supposed to act. “But science is empirical.” Yes, that’s the point entirely. Nothing mathematical, nothing scientific can comprehend an antitemporal relation, where “antitemporal” stands in for “causal” stands in for “one direction, and one direction only.” So when science considers itself, it can only either conceive of itself as being caused by the natural world or the cause of the natural world. Hence, mathematics is, in the scientific lens, both a response to the facticity of nature (caused by nature) and inherent in nature as a fundamental truth (causing nature). Not realizing the distinctness and implicit simultaneity of these claims, the scientific language fluctuates between the two and confuses itself even as it grows in power. That is: you don’t need to know what the hell you’re doing to do it consistently right. Anyway, more on that later. For now, math.


What is math? Simple question, simple answer: it’s abstraction. Better question: how does math function? By turning things into numbers. “But can’t things already have numbers?” Yes and no, go ask Kant if you want a serious explanation, I’ll provide the abbreviated logic. Something in itself does not have a number attached to it. Think of it: should you number both a sturdy rock and a crumbly rock as being one? “That doesn’t make sense. Why should it matter what kind of rock it is?” Exactly; it makes absolutely no sense – to mathematics. And yet, if a builder wanted a cornerstone and you gave them the crumbly rock, they wouldn’t accept “but it’s one rock” as an answer. Run the lines backwards, and you get: math works by grinding off the rough edges until you can treat everything as identical, as number. More complex math just increases the tolerance for rough edges.


Abstraction isn’t just a trick of mathematics, by the way – it’s a trick of language. Rather, it’s the trick of language. When you call something by a name, a definition, you strip away everything which does not fit within that definition. This is how reductive criticism works. “Engagement rings are a scam. Why would you pay so much for a rock?” Bam. With that one word, the diamond loses all qualities of beauty, hardness, romantic implication, and instead becomes literally indistinguishable from a pebble. Pop quiz: what’s the etymology of “literal”? Bonus question: why is it wrong to address people by race?


This gives abstraction a bad rap, as though it’s purely nefarious. The reason it’s the great trick of the human mind is that it allows determinations and the indefinite. “This screw needs a flathead screwdriver.” “Okay, but should it be the screwdriver with the red handle or the screwdriver with the blue handle?” “Are you stupid? I said I needed a flathead. Any one will do.” This process, the ascent to category (along with the necessary complement of the descent from category: “Yeah, but the one with the red handle is bigger.”), is the characteristic of thought and intelligence. In fact, it’s a reasonable definition of intelligence: to be able to successfully navigate an item through ascent to and descent from categories. In practical terms, this is called magic. From the undetermined world, a phenomenon not held within its constituents emerges: it is from inert wood and black stone alike that flame may spring. Show of hands: who’s really surprised a race of magian-gods claimed the world as their own?


And math is the greatest magic of all, for under its sway all things become one. Consider an object’s size, and its weight. They are distinct entities, but mathematics alchemizes them into density, from which many things may be known – and so on. Follow the trails long enough and all becomes atoms, then quarks, then… something. Note that it is some thing, the singular; it is not entertained that there could be more than one, no matter how hard some of the pieces of the puzzle resist being put together.


This is the mechanism of subsumption. Consider the the catchphrase: “If alternative medicine worked, it would be called medicine.” Think about it deeply and seriously. What is it saying? “If something doesn’t fit into the archetype, the paradigm, it doesn’t work and thus doesn’t exist. If it does, then it’s just another expression of the paradigm, isn’t anything distinct, and thus doesn’t exist. Thus, the only thing that exists is the paradigm.” The logic checks out, and I’m not being facetious here. It really does work. This is the precise method of thought which produces unitary structures for reality, and it is directly concordant with truth. Sure, postmodernists yammer on about Western hegemony and the lived experience, but they’re missing the point. (What’s more, they tend to just try to build their own monisms, like the social explanations of capitalism and patriarchy, without realizing what they’re doing.) This is monism, and monism is simply true.


Philosophy is monism; monism is philosophy. The first set of consistent writings we Westerners have on it come from Plato, and he openly admits he got his book of tricks from Parmenides, who probably got it from Thales. Meanwhile, outside of Greece, monism was being invented by Laozi, Gautama Buddha, and the Jews, so it’s basically a universal phenomenon (another monism). The Vedantic sages probably got to it before any of them, but who’s counting? The monistic account is simple: all things, diverse in character, can be brought under the banner of the one. They can all be made to reflect a unitary account, communing with one another under a single language. In more scientific terms, it’s to say that everything is of one substance, which holds the exact same implications. Ever thought of why everything in the universe is physical? Ever wonder why the word “universe” has the etymology it does? Now you know why.


Side note: the etymological trick was something Plato and his contemporaries played with. It’s also severely underrated. If we have only one language, then there can be nothing more critical – or informative – than its history.


The truth of monism is built into the very structure of logic, logos, accounts. It’s built into the idea of truth itself. If there is one truth – and there must be – then it must speak for all and all must speak to it. People try to get around this with multiple truths, or different kinds of truth, but this is just neurotic babbling to disguise the fact that they’ve just gotten slapped down by the man. It’s not a bold, self-sufficient claim; it’s a kind of me-tooism, clinging to the coattails of something with the strength to hold up on its own.


And what’s more, this monism, this unitary nature of truth, is identical with the form of goodness. The simple qualification of goodness, insofar as it can be a good thing, is that everything can come under its banner. If goodness is truly good, then it must be good for all, and to be good for all, it must include all. It is nonsensical to say that someone can be right and reasonable in fighting against goodness, because then it would be good for them to fight against goodness. The only ways around this are dualism and relativism, and neither of those is coherent. In order for something to cohere, it must cohere into one – see the problem?


The history of math, then, is the history of the monism, the oneness, triumphing over all else. It runs parallel to the ascendance of science, for the same reasons stated before, and as they have grown in greatness, so has the power of humanity spread. Hume writes that from the undetermined world springs polytheism to match the dissonant and disjoined forces, and that these are brought into the unity of monotheism. But monotheism, Christian thought, is a dualism: it requires not just God, but Satan as well. Without the Devil, it runs headlong into the Problem of Evil. The true monism is beyond monotheism, in science. This is not to say that Christianity and all other religions definitionally lack monism; on the contrary, there are ways to work Christianity such that it becomes truly monistic (see Spinoza for one Abrahamic example). The key factor in the movement is: evil is no longer its own side of the coin, but simply measured in distance from God. This is identical to how science works: untruth is measured in decreasingly accurate approximations of the truth. They lack a true nature or substance of their own, being simply decreasing in perfection. Consider: when people speak in purely scientific terms, do they ever speak of good and evil? And if they speak of evil, can it be anything other than some kind of logical fallacy, mistake of approximation, or brain dysfunction? No, the terms have been limited to the one notion of truth. Math, being the pure language of the scientific morality, has a harsher metric: whatever is inexpressible in math is simply incoherent.


Perhaps an analogy will illustrate. In the experienced state, there are countless manifestations of temperature. There’s mugginess, dry heat, temperate climes, clamminess, sharp frigidity, and so on. These can be collected roughly into the groupings of “hot” and “cold.” But science does away with cold, leaving it as only the absence of heat. This is a literal equivalent to the epistomoral shift of science.


Of course, this has led to an incredible march of progress. The reason for this is embedded in the power of truth and goodness which I’ve mentioned before, but if you need an example to solidify the reason in your head, consider this little myth. There are two metalworkers, one Eastern and one Western. What land qualifies as “east” or “west” here hardly matters; what matters is that they have totally different understanding of what they’re doing. Each uses different mythic-explanations for events, different practices, even different units of measure. And yet both of them is able to make good metal, even as they are totally unable to communicate how. If they are brought together under the same tongue, then their accomplishments can be shared – and this is precisely what science seeks to do. It will find the metalworkers, declare that their reasons were ultimately “untrue” and superstitious, and substitute in the language of materials science. The differences are annulled, and the knowledge is subsumed to be consumed. Progress is made.


Another expression of this: economics and, well, capitalism. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar – and everything can be paid for in dollars. Any inability to communicate, to convert, can be mediated by introducing money. If anything you want can be purchased, then any disagreement where one party is forced to sacrifice something they desire can be mediated with a payment. “Money can’t buy happiness!” But until the utilitarians finally attach a working number to happiness, you can’t mathematize it in any fashion. And if something can’t be expressed in math, then it doesn’t exist at all. QED.


Here’s the two fundamental characteristics of currency (and its underlying component of math): it’s fungible and it’s monistic. Fungibility means it’s an infinitely perfect representation of itself – a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. Monism means that it’s the only substance there is. So in order for currency to buy something, it must interact with that thing, but if it’s definitionally the only substance, that means that the thing which is being bought is of the same substance as currency, which requires it to have the same fundamental characteristics. Are you seeing the game yet? Anything which can be bought with currency must necessarily be fungible, or it doesn’t exist. Every product, every commodity is definitionally identical and indistinguishable by virtue of it being purchased. By extension, this makes every commodity a currency as well, and so the only thing you can buy with currency is –


If you can finish that sentence yourself, then you already understand the game. All that’s left is putting the pieces together.


Quine was right in his rejection of reference, insofar as he was of the Analytics. In an absolute language, like mathematics or one of its aspects (say, economics), there can definitionally be no reference. This is a fundamental characteristic of monism. If there is only one thing, then that thing cannot refer to anything which is not itself, which is not even self-reference because self-reference uses the mechanism of the future or past. I’m not making an original observation, here; like anything else that’s remotely good, Plato wrote it down first. Check out the Parmenides if you don’t believe me. The first section is (roughly speaking) Plato laying out the foundations for an extensive analysis of monism by criticizing a referential problem in his own Theory of Forms, and the second is him going through an agonizing line-by-line explanation of the intense bizarreness of anything monistic.


And lack of reference brings us right back to the casino. The games are countless, but no matter how many chips one acquires, not one is worth anything but itself. And since there’s no other show in town, all the casino-goers play and play the games, trying to strike it rich without knowing what they’d do even if they did. The dealers facilitate, the owners scoop everything up, and still at the end, it’s the house that wins. No, not the owners, the house itself. The only thing that wins in a casino is the money.


The paradox I’ve been using to fuel most of my arguments is that as things keep getting better for us, we get unhappier. This is the paradox of the modern world, and it’s a doozy. Now we have a pretty solid answer: a necessary consequence of the ascent of monistic thought is that all reference fails. This explains the meaninglessness of life pretty nicely; why wouldn’t it be meaningless if there was no such thing as a reference to meaning? And why wouldn’t things be relative, since the only thing anything can relate to is itself? And doesn’t that explain the loneliness, too?


“But wait, isn’t there more than just capitalists and Analytic philosophers? There are people opposed to those ideas, like Marxists, Continentals, and so on.” Excellent point, and it draws right into the next. Aren’t their theories monistic, too? There’s materialism for the Marxists, and some various styles of idealism for the Continentals, and so on and so forth. In fact, the most curious thing about the present day – that era as yet to be named – is that it’s afflicted with no end of monisms. It goes without saying that none of them really talk to one another. Oh, there’s some effort with the leftist ideas, intersectionality and so on, but as everyone knows there’s nothing like a leftist to fight another leftist. Anyway, the result is that when people subscribing to different monisms try to talk with one another, they have literally no way of understanding what the other could be saying. The result is, of course, for both to accuse the other of lunacy. “Are you crazy? That doesn’t make any sense at all.” Precisely. This happens all the damn time.


So it nobody’s really talking with one another, how does society function? For one, through the basic human capacity for not-stabbing-one-another-in-the-neck, though that one gets strained at times. For two, through the enforcement mechanisms enacted by structures and systems. The basic tenets of democracy subvert communication into votes, and votes can talk to one another. Outside of democracy, we get… what, now? If people can only talk to those who share their ideology, what does the game look like? Isn’t that a closed system? And in a closed system, with one currency, what’s left but a casino? And between the systems, if there’s no communication to allow human reason to take over operations, what’s left to do the work but pure unreason, natural evolutionary forces in motion? Could the reason that we feel powerless be because we are powerless?


In case you can’t tell, this is the precise reason why each new happening is the biggest thing ever until it passes and nobody cares. Sure, the media manufactures hype, but that’s because hype is the currency and they’ve got cards to deal. Everyone plays out their hands, they get scored apathy high, and someone takes home a thousand Twitter followers while the idiot who went all-in on moderation has to figure out how to explain it all to their pet iguana. Meanwhile, the game goes on, another hand gets dealt, and people are too busy figuring out what they should do to figure out what they can do. This is obviously the wrong way around; ask any computer scientist and they’ll tell you that what you can do is indexed in the size of your balls, and as such has a far shorter lookup time. For the ladies, these balls are metaphorical; for the men, they’re wishful thinking. Either way, it’s an abstract class. Moving on.


This is all a pretty just-so story. “Check out how this no-name blogger solved a nasty philosophical problem and explained why everything’s going to shit!” Yeah, right. The problem is, nothing I said is wrong. To the contrary, it’s all true. If you’ve been paying even the slightest bit of attention, you would know exactly what that means.


“So what, this is a monism too? Doesn’t that make it contradictory? And if this is a monism, then everything’s a monism! There’s nothing we can do!” Hold up. Don’t you remember some of those other theories? Physics, economics, Marxism, and so on? I’d put evolution in there too, while I’m at it. Are any of them wrong? And I don’t mean in the “do they cohere internally” sense, here, but the “do they square with what we know and provide good predictions of the world” sense. Don’t give me any ideological bullshit, either, just say whether the insights here are valid or not. They are? Good. Do you see the implication, then?


Monism is like being; rather than being an inherent property of a given entity, it’s a style of positing and positioning that entity (shout-out to my Prussian homie Kant). The problem is not the ideas themselves but the way in which they’re thought. The One Truth is the hot new drug on the street, and everyone’s looking to score. All these ideas get taken as the answer, when the right move is obviously to treat them as individual answers for their own individual problems. It’s the modern tendency to do otherwise that lands us in monistic hell. We start with a nail, build a hammer for it, get amazed with how well our new toy works, and then start washing the nice dishes. The solution is to simply accept fragmentation, deal with things being rough around the edges, and watch as you magically become capable of communicating with others. Sure, that won’t solve everything, but in a similar manner as taking your dick out of the vise, it sure can help.


You may have noticed I’ve barely scraped at the surface of metaphysics. Sure, the definition and logical consequences of monism basically count, but that’s not some real metaphysical meat. That’s by design: “I told you that story so I can tell you this one.” Have you considered why the monistic problem has gotten worse – not originated, but aggravated – in the past couple hundred years? It could be because of the historical rise of unity in national and international spheres, but a historical answer is a lazy answer since it puts the locus of psychological control firmly outside of your mind. In case you didn’t get that, monism hasn’t gotten worse worldwide, but rather inside your own head. Yes, over the past few centuries, if it matters. So what could be doing it?


Did you catch how I didn’t mention math could be non-monistic?


A good definition for math might be “the absolute system of representational unity ascended to by consciousness.” It is, as it were, the absolute form of monism to which all monistic thought aspires. This is the short answer to why math works: there’s no such thing as bad math, only misapplied math. The mathematicians can’t possibly be wrong; it’s only that their work gets misapplied. That’s the advantage of working in a totally abstract field. Mathematics is the retreat into intellect, into pure reason, which then allows objects to be handled in monistic form. But math, in itself, says nothing about the undetermined world. It is the determination of the world.


If you remember the language before, there is a sort of game involved with math: the ascent to category, which ends in the infinite and meaningless category of number. This is the path up from the undetermined world, the land of raw and formless content. In the story of math that we most commonly stand by, the story of monism, what’s lost is the journey and the descent from category. In order for there to be determinations there must be something to determine, and inherent in the categories is that which is to be categorized. Nothing below the status of mathematics is permitted, and so everything is treated as an absolute category. In reality, almost nothing is an absolute category.


To make my point a little more clear, let’s take colors, in this case orange and red. Orange and red, both on the color wheel and the visible spectrum, sit next to one another. It’s well known that they bleed into one another. Take a strong shade of orange, and present it to the community. They will rightly say it is orange. Now shift it slowly into red. Will they all say at the same time that it changes to red? Certainly not. And so if you try to make two distinct mathematical categories, that of orange and that of red, then what you’re talking about will make absolutely no sense. This blurriness and indistinctness isn’t a characteristic of all possible categorizations: consider the mathematical distinction between a pentagon and a hexagon. There is no possible blurry in-between state for the shape; it is either a pentagon, a hexagon, or something which totally fails to be both. The mathematical mode of thinking, the monistic mode of thinking, demands absolute categorization, which is where the rest falls apart. Consider: is it not necessary, in Marxist terminology, for one to be either of the proletariat or bourgeoisie? Does the notion of necessary revolution make even the slightest bit of sense if there are not these distinct, warring categories? Revolution can make sense in any context, but for the worldwide revolution to be possible, there must be only two. And this is why Marx’s paradigm requires the universal destruction of the middle class, because only then will there be two sets of numbers for him to do math with. Predictably, this means that those who followed his political agenda have had the primary goal of eliminating the middle class (through careful categorization) so that the mathematics can proceed as it ought to. Equally, this is why the rising Marxist regimes tend to have so much brutal oppression accompanying them. The reason for this kind of harm is, in its core logical structure, precisely identical to the miscategorization of colors above. An absolute category is being applied to something which is not so absolute.


“But with the colors, we can mathematize exact wavelengths of light and apply those!” Yes, and that is very helpful, but that has nothing to do with the phenomenological category of red and all which is associated with it. The trick is saying that because we have figured out a good account of what’s behind light, that we have mathematized colors. This is not true. What actually happened was: we united the phenomenological categories of color under the mathematical account of the visible spectrum. However, the phenomenological categories are still there, and so are the things they initially united into their categories, the individual phenoms or instanced experiences of color-ness, as well as whatever it is that truly lies behind the curtain and originated those phenoms beyond all human experience. But all those get forgotten when our sole model is monistic, mathematical.


This is the method and motion of our times: that the ascent of mathematics has destroyed all other modes of knowing. This is hardly the fault of mathematics, or indeed, any sort of condemnation of it. Math is fantastically powerful, and there’s hardly any kind of plot on the part of mathematicians to bring it to capture the imagination. No, a better story there is the banal one: people wanted the certainty of mathematics in uncertain places, and rather than spreading wisdom, they extinguished it. What surer way, for instance, to ignore the bizarre and fascinating tides of human desire and expenditure than to pretend these have all the regularity of the laws of physics? No wonder everyone has their own opinion on economics. Even those who nominally reject mathematics and science only do so in the most nominal fashion, by rejecting the general conclusions and individual calculations. This is the postmodern trend, and as I said before, this apparent rejection of categorical monism and laudation of unstructured reality just uses those as its taglines. The actual methodology of thinking – as a general movement, exclusive of the clever few who can be lumped into that school – is precisely monistic, which means they’re still after that same addictive certainty. Just because they play with different rules doesn’t mean it isn’t the same game. This is characteristic of the most ardent converts. They haven’t stopped worshipping the exact same gods as before; they’ve just started calling them by different names. Form over content, which in turn brings us to a way out.


The general form of the solution is clear, while the content isn’t. The problem, to reiterate, is basically the void of meaning in our lives, which has manifested as an absence of power (and countless different maladies). Meaning in turn was sabotaged by monistic thought through its destruction of reference, which unmoors all our sky-castles from the firmament. To fix this, then, all that is needed is to step away from monistic thought, reclaim principles of dualistic and polyvalent thinking, and sink our roots back into the earth from which we sprang. If we could only achieve this, we would be free of the nightmare.


But how is this possible, if all we know is monism? What logical process could possibly guide a return to the earth? And moreover, even if we could conceive of a universal guide to this rebirth, wouldn’t it just serve as a new monism? How can one possibly get from one to many? Lovecraft had an answer, as did many others during the first half of the twentieth century: virulent xenophobia and narcissistic adoration of one’s own physical and cultural place of origin. Although this does have the desired effect of providing a kind of meaning, I don’t need to explain how that might go wrong. (Lovecraft is still an incredibly important writer, by the way, precisely for that reason.) We can do better. We do still come from the earth, after all.


The game is this: there is a kind of pseudo-logical motion from the undetermined world up towards defined categories like mathematics, and although it escapes pure constancy, there is a kind of reliability towards it. The best word I’ve been able to come up with for it is aesthetics. There is no logical reason, per say, that a certain color should be more desirable over another (as much as evolutionary psychologists and other such degenerates try to give their vapid explanations), and yet we do desire it, and that desire means something. Not at random, not without connection to the world – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s still a meaning, indicating that it still has reference. This is what’s at play in art on a whole, where beauty lives in work and eye alike. It’s amazing (though predictable) that math is a universal tongue, but it’s every bit as important that art is not. Universality implies monism; particularity implies the opposite. A work only enjoyed by one human and loathed by the rest isn’t deficient; it’s precisely what was to be desired. And if one can understand the art one likes, and the art one doesn’t, and yet see the connections and dissonance between the two… isn’t that what we were after?


Art isn’t the only way that aesthetics can show themselves, I should mention, and in fact contemporary art often attempts to abandon aesthetics. Abstract art says it quite clearly in the name; it’s an attempt to abstract away from the traditional modes of art and the natural world itself towards pure meaning, which is the exact mathematical movement. Is it any wonder that nobody can understand it? Avenues of critique have gone in a similar direction, where many things are loved simply because they are loved (see Plato’s Euthyphro for why this might be a bad thing for meaning) or else are praised for their content in absence of any aesthetic appeal. There are exceptions, where people have the audacity to just like things, but this is accepted to be the domain of plebeians. Anyway, the plebes have no illusions about whether or not what they’re consuming is artistic, so the system keeps ticking.


But aesthetics itself is inherent simply in the way in which we observe and judge. In fact, it would be reasonable to call the entire faculty of judgment the part of the mind concerned with aesthetics, which is why Kant does exactly that. I’m going to break with him from here on out, just as I already have in my discussion of metaphysics, but it’s simply polite to mention the genius whenever he comes up. In any case, aesthetics are what lie behind all things which are judged, which would serve as all things which enter the human mind from the outside world. This is general, and it is critical. It’s also going to be my topic going forward, just as it has subtly been my topic leading up to this point, even if it’s not always first and foremost in the discussion. However, the word count currently reads “Plenty,” and so I’ll stop for here with the thought of the aesthetic as the direction of this therapy.


Final thoughts:


A decent account of the method of refutation that Socrates uses in Plato’s dialogues is that he challenges interlocutors to defend non-mathematical views as if they were mathematical ones. Take, for instance, the idea of courage in the Laches: as I mentioned a couple essays back, Laches certainly understood courage, but was incapable of putting it into good definitional terms. This is not entirely because he was a bit of a meathead, but also because courage is not something which can be given in absolute definition. True courage can always involve some kind of courage in challenging the definition of courage, meaning there’s a constant “overflowing” of its bounds. This is why Laches failed. In contrast, Plato’s Form of the Good is an extremely mathematical one: it is, in a certain sense, the final union of all other things. This is why it is defensible against all logical assaults, being monism itself. Whether or not this counts as mean and cheating is left as an exercise for the reader.


It would seem at first blush that content-focused art criticism would have some greater relevance to the world at large, given that “content” is generally taken to be “meaning.” However, since the systems involved are monistic (or at best dualistic, since monism doesn’t really have any kind of mechanism for critique), the content here is just self-reference to something in the system. Reference to a message, perceived or real, is reference to a logical construct, and that logical construct is not a thing in itself. This is why explicit moralization is universally thought of as lame: when someone tries to do it, we can tell when they’re just trying to convince themselves. Actually powerful moral messages do not express the moral stance; they take the moral stance. (The difference is between saying “you should/shouldn’t do this” and “I am doing this.”)


I made a few references back to the previous essay here, but to make it explicit: the advantage offered to anyone trying to undermine or escape a monistic system is that they can simply do anything not enumerated in the system itself. That system will have absolutely no way of recognizing that anything is even happening, by definition. That should be useful to keep in the back of one’s head when trying to navigate the “global economy.”

Cleaving to Clay

“This Is Better… This Is Better!”



Before anything else, there’s a small story I’d like to tell. It’s not anything fancy or fanciful, and there’s not really a moral or an ending to it, but it’s the kind of story I like because – I imagine – it’s a lot closer to what really happens than most stories can get. So, here we go:


Once, long ago, there was a man and a golem. There were other people besides them, of course. The man had a family, and there were other people around. All in all, it was a sort of a village. But what was important was the man and the golem. It was his golem; not to say he made it, although he might have, but regardless of its origins, he now owned it. It was the standard old kind of golem: big, strong, speechless, made out of clay. It may have been Jewish. Nobody asked it, and nobody bothered to remember whether there were words written on it. But regardless, it was there, and it obeyed orders. That’s all we need to know.


What this man had the golem do, for the most part, was fetch water. It was a fairly arid region that they all lived in, though not so arid that nobody tried farming, and the golem was big and strong and could carry lots of water back from the lake up in the rocky foothills. (They didn’t have an aqueduct. I don’t think they were Roman.) The man drank this water, and poured it on his garden, and washed and bathed in it, and gave some to the other villagers so they could do the same. The golem could make three or four trips a day, carrying gallons and gallons of water each time in a big tub, and so there was plenty of this water for everyone.


One day, the man decided he could get more water if he gave the golem two tubs and hung them on a strong wooden beam which it could place across its shoulders – when balanced right, it should be very manageable. So he spent some time building the second tub, making sure it was just as large as the first tub, getting it nice and watertight, and then finding a wooden beam that should be able to support both of them along with rope that could hold that much water without snapping. All told, this took him about a week, and over that time he got a lot of advice from the villagers. They were mostly worried that the added strain would break the golem, and so when it came time for it to be given new orders about the new tub, he said:


“Golem, here is a new way for you to carry water. You just need to put it across your shoulders – like so – and you can carry two tubs worth of water instead of one. Take this and continue getting water from the lake, but fill both tubs instead of just the one tub. But when you lift up the tubs, make sure the weight isn’t so much that it’s hurting you. If it’s too much, then take one tub off and carry that one back, and we’ll have you keep using the one tub from then on.”


The golem seemed to understand, and it went off with both tubs. Later that day, it came back with both of them filled, and no damage seeming to be done to it. The man was overjoyed, and started to share the water with everyone. As this went on over the next few days, it became obvious that it was actually more water than everyone needed, and so the golem didn’t have to work so much. When it wasn’t working, it was told to sit in a corner in the shade by one of the houses. Actually, it was told to please itself but be ready at hand, but this is what it did, anyway. And so life in the village continued for about five months or so.


Then, one afternoon, the golem didn’t come back. The man was worried, and went out looking for it. The trail it followed to the lake was easy to find, as its heavy feet had packed a hard path over the years it had been walking. The carrying-tubs were sitting on the shore of the lake, both filled with water, but there was no sign of the golem. That area was so covered in stones that the man couldn’t find any tracks for when it had gone after that. He went back and got the villagers’ help, and they all brought the tubs back together. This was more or less how they started getting water from then on.


Nobody knew what had happened to the golem, but everyone had ideas. One villager said: “It was too dumb to know it was breaking down with that load!” But others said: “We didn’t see a pile of earth at the lake.” Another said: “It was offended that it had been ordered to carry twice as much!” But others said: “It carried that load for over five months.” A third said: “When it was resting in the shade, it finally realized it could be free, and decided to escape!” But others said: “It seemed happy to do what it was told, at least, as much as it could.” A fourth said: “Clearly the dark magic that bound it to serve its owner’s will must have worn off, and it wandered into the wilderness to live again like a beast.” And the others didn’t know anything about where it came from either, so none of them said anything at all, but put furniture in front of their doors at night for a while.


They never found out what happened to the golem, either. Sometimes travelers passing through would tell stories, but a lot of them seemed to be lies. It never came back, anyway, and nobody ever learned why it left, although there were still some opinions that were more popular than others. In any case, they put up a big slab of rock towards the center of the village and carved this story onto it more or less in the way I wrote it, except not quite so long-winded, because there’s not that much space on rock and chiseling is hard work. And so the story passed into legend, and contributed to fireside discussions and ways to entertain travelers and merchants, which was useful to the village after all. If you were in suspense about it, yes, they did eventually get an aqueduct, but that was a long time later. And so the story ends.


Now that that’s out of my system, let’s get to the actual essay.


If I were forced at gunpoint to distill Alone’s writings down to one sentence, surprisingly enough, the word “narcissism” wouldn’t appear in it. It’s a big deal, sure, but the reason why it’s a big deal that people are frail and helpless and can’t even imagine anything outside themselves is something totally different: in the casino of society, the house always wins. Or, to put it in less metaphorical language, the idea of counterculture is an oxymoron. There’s nothing you can sign up for in modern society that is actually an agenda of “rock the boat;” any attempt to change things gets absorbed into the gelatinous cube faster than you can say RESISTANCE IS FUTILE. What’s more, if you try to play the rules straight – what did you miss, the metaphor or the memo? This is how casinos work. The house always wins. If you play straight, you get fleeced. If you’re dumb enough to think you can game the system, you still get fleeced. If you’re dumb enough to actually game the system, it works for an hour and then a few very big and very upset-looking men in dark glasses ask you to come and have a little chat with them in the back room (and at that point you’ll be lucky to even get the chat).


This is the big message that gets propagated from Alone to his apostles. Narcissism occasionally follows along too, but frankly it’s not quite as relevant: most of the people in that younger cohort are still in their early-mid twenties, if not younger, and narcissism is natural for people like that. There are, uh, other problems, but it’s simply incorrect to label it as narcissism. (Perhaps a better way to put it: instead of the late adolescent phase getting carried through adulthood, it seems to be the early adolescent phase getting stunted and reprinting itself on the growing adult. That’s a whole different ball game, and not the point of this essay, so do your own research on this topic.) But although narcissism gets minimal press, the main point of everyone who writes reflectively on Alone is answering the question of how the fuck we get out of this nightmare mess – every essay is either some fragmentary attempt at escape or another plea to the reader to understand this deep and serious truth. Maybe this is another product of post-monarchic (read: post-religious) sentiment: we can’t blame the unfairness of things on royal birth (divine mandate), so instead of just accepting the game or doing something interesting like planning an assassination, we decide to just kill ourselves. That’s both in the literal sense, with a rope, or the more-literal-than-literal sense, with alcohol and weed and bad TV and the internet. But leaving the casino has been left to the less-imaginative existentialists, and so instead the game has become looking for One Weird Trick for avoiding ritualistic suicide.


I’ve not been doing a great job at dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s so far, so let me fill in some of the blanks for the reasoning thus far. The problem that’s come up so prominently in American (read: global) culture is one of social power. If you’ve spent more than two minutes in a group of humans in the past, then you know what an absolute bastard social power is. It’s the force of feuds and petty rivalries, powered by gossip and backstabbing. When two battling parties duke it out with physical power (i.e. violence), there’s at least the chance that one of them will back down after a sufficient beating, but with social power it’s always all or nothing. When a social schism really gets going, neither side will stop, will be able to stop, until the two are torn apart entirely. Reconciliation is possible, but difficult – and usually relies on some arbiter who’s either able to leverage their social power much more effectively than the two belligerents, or is able to leverage some totally different kind of power to mediate the situation.


What post-violence, post-ignorance social media democracy has managed to do in America is turn every conflict for everyone below the absolute highest echelons of power into a social conflict. This has certain advantages: for one, it removes violent conflict, and for another, it vastly limits the amount of localized oppression which can happen. If some small-scale idiot tries to throw their weight around, the only thing you need to do to foil them is bring the issue to the attention of a higher court of opinion where throwing weight around is considered “not cool, bro.” The problem is that what that higher court of opinion always, always will sentence with is ostracization. If it could it would sentence death, but that’s thankfully not available in the US unless the DA gives their blessing. In the court of that-guy-you-really-shouldn’t-have-mouthed- off-to, you’ll sometimes get sentenced to a couple of bruises to the body and ego. In the court of your boss, you’ll sometimes get sentenced to a good chewing-out and some shitty assignments. The court of public opinion has no mercy, or in its own tongue, “has no chill.” Now imagine what happens when two courts give differing verdicts. And people said total war ended in 1945.


The practical effect, here, is that society starts tearing itself apart – except that it doesn’t. This is the part where we should play confused; the US has a hell of a lot of guns and tons of angry people, and yet it hasn’t had a violent revolution. Rome sometimes had more than one per year. What gives? “It’s our strong institutions.” Good answer, but what are those? “Liberty, democracy…” Ah, right. But aren’t we losing freedoms daily, and didn’t Russia buy the last election?


The game is this: there are people with power, real power, in America and elsewhere, and they rarely bother to get elected any longer. They get to make decisions, they escape social conflict, and they leverage their massive non-social power to do pretty much whatever they please. This line is delivered often, but what’s not properly understood is that they don’t get to decide which direction the ship is sailing either. Consider Edward VIII of England: that he was able to abdicate was the surest sign that the English monarchy had lost every last vestige of power. If it still meant anything, then he would not have been permitted to leave – and if he was dumb enough to insist, he’d end up dead within the year. Real power is just another glamour draped on by society – all it means is you have to play the part of the liontamer. Slip up in your act, and you’ll be eaten alive.


So here’s the system we’ve laid out: a large group of people embroiled in constant conflict with one another, and a small group of people who are duty-bound to quash any attempt to really rock the boat, because if that happens they know that they’re TSA Pre-Approved for the guillotine. They don’t have to work too hard, either, because the masses will happily do that job for them. So instead they focus on the only game they know: trying to get more and more power, which in turn renders them totally impotent in effecting change. From top to bottom, nothing changes and nothing can ever change. This is all under the eye of Panopticon, which is to say, each and every one of us. There is no better person to enforce on a group than a member of that group, and no better way to convince them to do it than to tell them they’re doing the opposite. This is why, for instance, the most brutal and savage enforcers of any gender norm are people of that exact gender. Take a moment to consider social power, and then it all makes sense.


We’ve gotten all the materials together, so let’s build the casino. The currency is, of course, social power. Everyone sits down at their favorite table, and puts their bet on one thing or another. Sometimes they win, and win big, and become the king of their little table. Sometimes they lose and get forced out, and have to go try and scrounge at another table. Everyone’s suspicious of everyone else, though, especially at the poker table, and there’s nothing like roulette for wishing for everyone else to lose. At every table, of course, you get the dealers, and although the dice and cards land where they may, they get to pick the rules. But even they aren’t the ones winning; those are the owners in the shadowy offices, who get the cut from every hand. But they too are bound up in this, just like before: they jealously watch the floors, scraping painstakingly for any cheat, for any disruption to the games. Who wins, in the casino? It’s obvious: that which the casino was built for. In casinos, the money wins.


Outside of casinos, money means something. It can mean food on the table, or beer in the fridge, or a new tchotchke, or whatever else you want. Inside of casinos, money just means money. It loses all reference. This is why people spend big in casinos: they’d think twice on even a ten dollar bet if they were pushing a plated hamburger and fries into the pot. Reference ties things down, makes them part of the world, meaning that in our post-structural, post-truth society, social power means…


Nothing or everything; choose each or choose both.


So how do we escape? Parts of it are pretty obvious: don’t be a high-stakes gambler, don’t be a dealer, and for the love of god, don’t try to own the casino. Leaving the casino isn’t an option, either, and rebelling? Rebels are suckers or dead or both. The problem is that social power has lost reference, and yet it means everything. The solution, then, is to give it reference, even while by necessity playing at the same exact tables as everyone else who’s suffering from it.


Let’s break from the metaphor. The casino was doing great for us this far, but it’s time we give it a rest. The “tables” here aren’t just betting; they’re any kind of social interaction whatsoever. It’s nonsensical to try and push everything into being a wager. A better question is: how, when all eyes are trained on you, can you fit in well enough to fool those around you without giving in to the Beast? How can you play a role without succumbing to it?


I’m sure you guessed long ago, but this is the moral of that story above. The story, as it’s written, is about the villagers. They would think it’s about the golem, but it’s really about them, the whole way through. They simply couldn’t see into or understand its mind. When it made a decision that surprised them (and of course it’s the fact that it did make a decision which surprised them), they tried desperately to give a good reason for it, but all they could do is look into their own minds. The golem was permitted absolute freedom, because nobody could even begin to conceive of what freedom meant for a golem.


The reason for telling it isn’t as a practicum, because playing along isn’t a complicated concept, but to just give the aesthetic of what it must be like to be that golem. What is it, to play along and act a part, and yet to have a private mind that can far exceed the expectations of those around you? And what is it like to cultivate such privacy and independence of thought? Why is such a state so difficult to achieve; why do so many fall right back into a new societal role but with a little added edginess? And on the same topic, who was it again who was best suited to be panoptic, to force conformity on members of a group? And isn’t an individual just a group of one?


This is the moral of the story: although of course nobody in the village could ever have known it, would ever have figured it out, the first thing the golem did was to close its eyes.



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