“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.