“A Story of America in Three Scams”

A blend of a whodunnit, art appreciation, and political analysis, Richard Warnica’s Hazlitt piece Rothko at the Inauguration traces the history and repercussions of one of New York’s biggest art scandals, its connection to Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the lasting impact of the battle over Rothko’s legacy.

As much as I appreciated the art scene intrigue, it’s Warnica’s own obsession with Rothko that really stuck with me. Describing the impact of those paintings is no easy task. Seeing a photo doesn’t do them justice; there’s an emotional power to them that only really comes with seeing them in person, a combination of their scale and some mysterious aspect of their technique. You can feel that struggle in the way Warnica talks about the paintings, a mix of straightforward description and pure emotion:

“There were purples and greens, blues, oranges, tans: all of them arranged in stacked blocks of colour with those tide pool edges—the spaces in-between where everything combines. I don’t know how long I sat there. I know I cried, although even now I’d have trouble breaking down the exact alchemy of why.”

“Rothko at the Inauguration” is about institutional rot and the corrupting influence of “easy” money, along with the way the financialization of fine art has played into those stories. Where some writers approach that subject with academic detachment, Warnica never forgets how art gained that power in the first place. Before it became just one more financial vehicle, a faceless asset in a tax-sheltered storage facility, it was a gateway to transcendence.

How A.I. Conquered Poker

The NYT Magazine looks at how sophisticated AI has completely changed the way professional poker players approach the game. As the article says, finding tools and tricks to override human instinct and understand probabilities has always been part of the game, but it’s still a bit eerie reading about top players finding ways to turn themselves into extensions of a computer algorithm, memorizing decision trees and developing tricks for generating random numbers in order to emulate the program’s preferred strategy.

10 Useful Distractions from 2021

I’ve been struggling to find something to say about 2021 to open this post. The first day of 2022 isn’t really a vantage point to have any perspective on the last year; it’s too close to a year that refused to take any sort of shape while I was in it, and still defies any easy summary. People have joked that we’re 600+ days into March, 2020, and they aren’t entirely wrong—in some ways, life has felt on hold since then. But if 2020 felt like a year derailed by an unexpected catastrophe, 2021 was something different, a year of moving goal posts, of finish lines receding ever further into the distance, or evaporating like a desert mirage.

It was a year that happened in fits and starts, with events either bleeding together or floating like bubbles, devoid of context and difficult to assemble into anything like a narrative. I know there was an Olympics. I’ve been vaccinated three times now, which in late 2020 looked like an end point, but now is clearly just a step along a much larger path. There have been stretches where socializing felt safe and almost normal, and others where navigating new understandings of etiquette strained friendships and put plans on indefinite hold.

All of that made 2021 a year in need of anchors, and that’s what this list was for me. The older I get, the harder it is to pretend my year-end lists are anything resembling authoritative or comprehensive, so I’ve stopped trying on that front. Instead, these are 10 things that grabbed my attention and held it in a year full of anxious distractions. Not all of them came out last year, but they were my escapes into fact, fiction, and fantasy, and I’d highly recommend them if you’re looking for the same.

  1. Babel – Meghan O’Gieblyn (2021, essay)An article about AI-generated text that uses the eeriness of its subject as a jumping-off point for an exploration of consciousness, narrative, and communication. It’s an exceptional blend of the personal and the academic, finding ties between the questions posed by AI, its implications on the future of creativity, and our own relationship to the unconscious forces that shape our realities.
  2. Children of the Stones (1977, TV series)Probably inspired by my anticipation for Kier-La Janisse’s excellent, three-hour-plus history of folk horror, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, I spent more than a few hours in 2021 exploring old BBC horror-ish programs. 1969’s The Owl Service gets talked about more, but Children of the Stones was a more accessible gateway for me, a series that’s obviously aimed at young teens but manages to combine a decent mystery with an interesting take on occultism and a rich layering of timelines and conspiracies. You have to be willing to deal with 1970s BBC production values, which is probably an acquired taste, but if you can get past that, the series has a lot to offer.
  3. Entangled Life – Merlin Sheldrake (2020, non-fiction book)“Nominative determinism” is the idea that people are drawn to careers that suit their name—that a Jeeves is more likely to be a butler than a mechanic, say. It’s not an idea worth putting too much stock in, but it’s still a joy that a book like this would be written by someone named Merlin Sheldrake.Entangled Life is an attempt to identify with fungi, to see the world through a kingdom of life that is closer to us than it is to plants, but alien in so many ways. Like Thomas Nagel asking What Is It Like to Be a Bat, Sheldrake tries to understand how fungi experience the world, reveling in its myriad forms, celebrating its complex relationship with plant and animal life, and marveling at its seeming spatial intelligence. The science is fascinating, and the world of metaphor that it opens up through outlining an utterly alien way of being is positively mind-expanding.
  4. Mega Bog – Life, And Another (2021, LP)Picking just one album to include here is a bit of a nightmare—I had a hard enough time narrowing it down to 100 for my annual year-in-review episodes—but something in Mega Bog’s off-kilter psych-folk has consistently kept it at the front of my mind whenever I think about my favourite albums of 2021. In a year where I was mostly drawn to the meditative comfort of ambient electronic music, Erin Birgy’s eclectic songwriting was a reminder that there’s still a lot of life left in guitar music. Melodic, accessible, inventive, and absorbing.
  5. Midnight Mass (2021, mini-series)I knew absolutely nothing about this series going into it, which might just be the best way to experience it, so feel free to skip to the next entry. With that out of the way: Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix offering is a novel take on a well-tread horror genre (he also did The Haunting of Hill House, which was solid, and The Haunting of Bly Manor, which I haven’t seen). To me, a sign of a great story is when it lends itself to multiple interpretations, and Midnight Mass works as a story about our fear of mortality, a metaphor for addiction and over-consumption, a critique of self-serving religiosity, and a funny, bittersweet monster movie. And like the best horror stories, the monster is ultimately a secondary villain next to the flawed, self-deluding humans who are all too willing to ignore some major red flags in order to see what they want to see.The pacing is inconsistent and the characters speak in monologues that never quite feel natural, but I fell into its rhythms pretty quickly, and it’s definitely up there in the top few Netflix originals to date.
  6. Pig (2021, film)When I first heard the premise of Pig—Nic Cage as a truffle hunter tracking down the people who stole his pig—I expected something along the lines of Mandy. Instead of an over-the-top revenge story and a gonzo Cage performance, I got something much more subtle, and much more rewarding. It’s a story about loss, and about the sacrifices people make in the world, the ways we shave the edges off our dreams to get ahead, until we forget what they looked like in the first place. It’s about the emotional power of food to connect us with memories and feelings we’ve long forgotten. And between all of that, it is a revenge story, just one that defies expectation at every turn.For an odd double-feature, pair Pig with Swan Song, starring Udo Kier, another case of an actor best known for his offbeat presence working in a more subtle register. It’s another film where a formerly successful service industry professional who now lives a spartan life removed from any former community has to reconnect with the city and people that once helped define them, reflect on loss of a loved one that still dominates their life, grapple with the gap between the real connections they wanted to make through their work and the consumer relationship that ultimately defined it, and regain some element of who they used to be.
  7. Piranesi – Susanna Clarke (2020, fantasy novel)I can’t remember the last time I was so engrossed in a work of fiction. Clarke’s much-delayed second novel is very different stylistically from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; it’s a short novel with a small cast of characters written in a naive voice, and without the dense footnotes that fleshed out the world of her debut. Some of the themes are the same, especially around the lengths some people will go to re-enchant the world, and the dangers of playing with forces beyond your comprehension, let alone your control.As satisfying as the story is—and it’s really one of the best fantasy stories I’ve read in years—the joy of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the way he sees things. His world is full of omens and lessons, art to be interpreted and patterns to be understood. Even though you know that things are more complex and darker than he comprehends, it’s a pleasure to view his world through his eyes.
  8. Preternatural Investigations – Sharron Kraus (2020, podcast)Recorded and released in the first year of the pandemic, Kraus’ 12-part podcast series touches on a lot of themes that appear in the other items on this list. There are multiple references to folk horror and the darker side of fantasy. The concept of re-enchantment is at its core, looking for ways to reconcile the magic of places and music and stories and art within a rationalist worldview. It looks at how wonder and awe can be found in the world, and how different rituals and philosophical frameworks can help us access that framework. And it’s all backed by beautifully atmospheric music from Kraus, an understated score that consistently enhances the already thoughtful narration.
  9. Welcoming the Stranger as an Act of Delight – Jeremy Klaszus (2021, interview)The Sprawl is an independent news outlet in Calgary, AB that practices slow journalism—more thoughtful takes on issues and events that can sit outside the typical news cycle. As much as I appreciate their political coverage (especially with how hollowed out traditional news media has become here), my favourite pieces tend to be the ones that break from the news world entirely. This interview with religious scholar David Goa from their “Mighty Neighbourly” 20th edition exemplifies what the Sprawl does best, engaging in a thoughtful conversation about community and a broader examination of what it means to be a good neighbour, and why we should care.
  10. What the Walls Feel as They Stare at Rob Ford Sitting in His Office (2020, short animation)I watched a lot of animation in 2021, and I can say with confidence that it was one of the strongest years I’ve seen in terms of independent animation. Even within that context, though, there was one film that stopped me in my tracks every time I came across it: Guillaume Pelletier-Auger’s video for composer Frank Gorvat’s oddly-titled piece, What the Walls Feel as They Stare at Rob Ford Sitting in His Office.It’s almost a stereotype of experimental animation, with simple shapes moving around the screen to drifting contemporary chamber music. Lines of circles, draped like beads, moving in increasingly complex patterns, which those of you who are more versed in mathematics can read about in the director’s detailed making-of post. That reductive description doesn’t do justice to Pelletier-Auger’s achievement here, though. The balance of simple shapes and complex patterns makes for one of the year’s most immersive film experiences, a ten-minute meditation to get utterly lost in when the need arises.

20 favourites from Instapaper

Not all of these articles are from 2021. I’m not even sure if the majority of them are. But, looking back on the last year, these are the articles I read that made the biggest impression on me, whether it’s for the quality of the writing, the ideas they inspired, their timeliness or other, unexpected twists and turns. Looking back on my last year of reading, it isn’t as diverse as I’d though. Most of the sources I’m reading are still pretty mainstream, and most of the topics are far from esoteric. Climate and COVID, politics and polarization; a little more on the nature of self or on the end of the world, a few more entries from blogs and substacks, but pretty overwhelmingly Western, white, and male, and pretty overwhelmingly sourced from a handful of major publications. That’s a habit I’d like to break out of in the new year; we’ll see how that goes.

Instapaper TitleLinkKeywords
A sci-fi writer got meta about gender. The internet responded by ruining her life.https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22543858/isabel-fall-attack-helicoptergender, sci-fi, literature, social media
Babelhttps://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-40/essays/babel-4/language, technology
Beauty Will Save the World | Reality Sandwichhttps://realitysandwich.com/beauty-will-save-the-world/art, philosophy
Dada on Trial | Colby Chamberlainhttp://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/45/chamberlain.phphistory, art, philosophy, politics
Darwin Among the Machines — [To the Editor of the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 13 June, 1863.] | NZETChttp://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-ButFir-t1-g1-t1-g1-t4-body.htmltechnology, history
Everyone Is Beautiful and No One Is Horny – Blood Knifehttps://bloodknife.com/everyone-beautiful-no-one-horny/pop culture, psychology
Fungi’s Lessons for Adapting to Life on a Damaged Planethttps://lithub.com/fungis-lessons-for-adapting-to-life-on-a-damaged-planet/nature, climate
Horsehistory study and the automated discovery of new areas of thoughthttps://interconnected.org/home/2021/06/16/horsehistorylanguage, philosophy
I Miss It Allhttps://longreads.com/2021/07/22/i-miss-it-all-devin-kelly/covid, relationships
I Want My Mutually Assured Destructionhttps://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/05/my-mtv-cold-war-retrospective/618812/apocalypse
Love the art, hate the artist? How a popular Chicago college class
is reexamining Kanye West, Michael Jackson, Picasso and others in the
era of cancel culture
https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ent-saic-cancel-culture-class-20210505-p5cttxjf4vcsbgla3stp5zkoxy-story.htmlart, pop culture, cancel culture
Meditations On Molochhttps://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/culture, philosophy, society
Opinion | The Road to Oceania (Published 2003)https://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/25/opinion/the-road-to-oceania.htmlpolitics, literature, sci-fi
The Cold War Over Hacking McDonald’s Ice Cream Machineshttps://www.wired.com/story/they-hacked-mcdonalds-ice-cream-makers-started-cold-war/business, technology
The destructive conspiracy theory that Victoria unleashed upon the worldhttps://capnews.ca/news/satanic-ritual-abuse-michelle-remembers-lawrence-pazder-victoriaconspiracy theories, urban legends
The Math of the Amazing Sandpile – Issue 107: The Edge – Nautilushttp://nautil.us/issue/107/the-edge/the-math-of-the-amazing-sandpilemath, sceince
The Methods of Moral Panic Journalismhttps://michaelhobbes.substack.com/p/moral-panic-journalismjournalism, urban legends, groupthink, cancel culture
The Truth, by Stanisław Lemhttps://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/the-truth-by-stanislaw-lem/short fiction, sci-fi, weird fiction
Urban Fish Ponds: Low-tech Sewage Treatment for Towns and Citieshttps://solar.lowtechmagazine.com/2021/03/urban-fish-ponds-low-tech-sewage-treatment-for-towns-and-cities.htmlclimate, urban planning, degrowth
Welcoming the Stranger as an Act of Delighthttps://www.sprawlcalgary.com/welcoming-the-stranger-david-goacommunity, philosophy, politics

Einstein’s Monsters

A few weeks back, I finally read the opening essay in Martin Amis’ Einstein’s Monsters, a book I’ve had on my shelf for years but never quite got around to. Reading about how nuclear anxiety felt during the cold war, it’s hard not to compare it to climate anxiety, different as they are in some respects.

Amis makes a point about the strange effect nuclear weapons have on the experience of time, erasing the future and past, leaving only an anxious present. If that feeling ever went away, I think it’s come back in recent years, although with less of the sense that the world only exists because of the happy accident that there hasn’t been an unhappy accident.

(On that note, the fact we’re alive at all after nearly a century of the bomb seems like a strong argument for the multiverse view where consciousness and experience compress into the threads of reality where life continues. At the very least, it reinforces the incredible fact that I’m only here now because this is a reality where humanity hasn’t yet ended itself, which is an unlikely but necessary plot contrivance.)

The similarities are in the sense of futility and anger, the strange knowledge that all of this can end, the frustration at how politics and institutions can pervert language to discuss “acceptable” losses, their seemingly inhuman acceptance of apocalypse for the sake of a system. The chief difference being scales of time. The nuclear balance required (and still requires) an eternity of days where no one triggered the end. A statistical impossibility, given enough time. An eternity of getting it right to avoid an instant of getting it wrong, followed by an eternity of nothing.

Climate change compresses time in a different way. The effects of action and inaction are remote. You can argue the effects of inaction are immediate because they’re here now, but those aren’t the effects of today’s inaction, they’re the cost of decades passed without concern for today. We’re dealing with the hangover of a night out 30 years ago, and we’ll go out drinking again tonight because staying sober won’t prevent tomorrow’s pain. The relationship between yesterday and today and tomorrow are somehow beyond our grasp.

But the biggest similarity is in how we are seemingly powerless in the face of systems we created, and which we continue to perpetuate. To get at the absurdity of humans using the threat of nuclear weapons as a source of security, Amis uses the metaphor of a children’s party guarded by thousand-foot sentinels covered in poison and razor blades, so obviously monstrous and beyond any scale the children can control–although it’s within the children’s power to ask them to leave. At least for climate change, there is some obvious benefit to sustaining our problematic behaviour, short-sighted as it may be. Instead of the sentinels, it’s more like we’re running a gas generator in the house, and it’s slowly filling the rooms with carbon monoxide. The house is big, so we can believe the fumes won’t get to us in our lifetime. And if we turn it off, we’ll get colder; we won’t have light to read by; our experience will be harder and poorer. So we let it run a little longer, and then longer still.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine

I wanted to make some notes to myself on John Higgs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine. I’ve gotten pretty used to using my Kindle to highlight the important bits of what I’ve been reading, so having to return a physical book to a library feels like more of a loss these days, and I want to at least capture the arc of its argument for myself.

Going mostly from memory, with chapter titles as prompts:

  1. Relativity: Deleting the omphalos
    The “omphalos” is a pillar or anchor for a culture, something so central that it works as a reference point for everything else. Relativity established that in physics, there is no such thing as an objective frame of reference, location, movement, etc, can all be defined only in reference to arbitrary points. This is a major blow to the idea of an objective, understandable universe, as in a very real way, nothing can be described purely objectively.
  2. Modernism: The shock of the new
    At the same time that physics is erasing the omphalos of objectivity, Modernism in art is tackling something similar. Cubism is erasing the objectivity of the author by compressing multiple perspectives onto a single canvas. Duchamp (or probably Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven) are provoking fights over whether anything can objectively be called art. Joyce and Eliot are creating literature that embodies multiple perspectives in single works, in multifaceted, unpredictable ways. As with physics, the single, fixed perspective is seen as inadequate to describe/portray reality.
  3. War: Hoist that rag
    The horrors of the first world war shatter the illusion that the leadership of empires know what they’re doing. While democratization was already in process and would still proceed in fits and starts, this is a death knell for the idea of monarchy (a single, hereditary line of leadership) as omphalos, as well as illustrating the danger of nationalism subsuming individual identities.
  4. Individualism: Do what thou wilt
    With so many anchor points already removed, what’s left? Individualism. Like Descartes arriving at the self as the only objective truth, figures like Ayn Rand and Alistair Crowley preach the gospel of individualism. In that world view, culture has no fixed truth, just the interests of every person as a world unto themselves.
  5. The Id: Under the paving stones, the beach
    But even the foundation of individualism is flawed, as psychoanalysis shows that we don’t even know ourselves. We are dominated by impulses that are necessarily invisible to us, and that don’t obey the laws of civilization. Surrealists tried to tap into this for artistic purposes, despots manipulated society’s id into acts of genocide; without the omphalos of older times to act as ego, the id runs unchecked.
  6. Uncertainty: We search for new omphalos, but in vain. In math, it’s proven that no system of logic can be complete, provable, and internally consistent. In physics, there are limits to what we can know built into the structure of reality. There is randomness inherent in the universe. Complete, objective knowledge is fundamentally impossible.
  7. Science Fiction: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away
    I think the argument here was that sci-fi is a reflection of a society’s aspirations, and the sci-fi of the 20th century was obsessed with individualism, and especially Campbelll’s monomyth: a special, chosen figure on a hero’s journey. The cultural dominance of Star Wsrs shows the resonance of this idea. On the other hand, by the early 20th century, different visions of storytelling, more reflective of multiple perspectives, are rising, and maybe a sign that individualism’s rule is waning.
  8. Nihilism: I stick my neck out for nobody
    The quote is from Casablanca, seen as a metaphor for America in WWII, going from self-interested isolationism to the realization that there are things worth fighting for. The chapter is more on existentialism than nihilism, but in any case, a reaction to the idea that everything is meaningless. Not by denying it, but by embracing the freedom to make our own meanings, to revel in the absurdity of it all.
  9. Space: We came in peace for all mankind
    A conflicted portrait of the space race, and the figures involved, like von Braun and his willingness to commit atrocities if it meant advancing a rocket program, or the Crowley-aligned fanaticism of Jack Parsons, not to mention the government’s portrayal of the space race as a humanitarian cause despite its obvious military motivations. But: the view from space also helped erase some individualist ideas by showing the connectedness and frailty of our planet. “In the twentieth century mankind went to the moon and in doing so they discovered the earth.”
  10. Sex: Nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)
    This is the point where I really started to lose the thread of the book as a single narrative of the 20th century and not just a list of interesting things that happened. It talks about birth control, sexuality in literature, feminism, the acceptance of sex as a part of life, the objectification that was still rampant in a lot of so-called progressive movements… too many themes for me to reduce to a single through-line.
  11. Teenagers: Wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom
    Mostly on rock ‘n’ roll and the hedonism it inspired, the Keith Richards quote “we had to do what we wanted to do”. An interesting insight on how “the day the music died” cleared the way for a new generation to move the music forward without the baggage of elder statesmen. The main idea seems to be on how the teenage stage involves an embrae of individualism to an extent that can seem unhealthy, but is necessary to become a functioning adult, part of an argument that the 20th century may represent just such a teenage period for humanity.
  12. Chaos: A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo
    Chaos theory is discovered, showing that small discrepancies lead to massive changes. Fractals are discovered, showing that infinite complexity can exist within simple formulas. Strange attractors mean that systems gravitate towards certain stable states, but what can make them flip is unpredictable. The question emerges: if all that is true, then why does order dominate? Why does the environment seem to self-regulate? The Gaia hypothesis emerges, seeing the world a s a single entity, not conscious, but able through its many complex systems to sustain itself. A view of the earth that’s also reflected in the complex, conflicting beliefs of modern paganism, and that runs counter to the omphalos of Christianity.
  13. Growth: Today’s investor does not profit from yesterday’s growth
    A whole lot going on in this chapter. The ideal of unfettered economic growth and its consequences for the environment. Corporations as exempt from the cycle of life and death that is supposed to keep a check on unfettered growth, something more like a cancer. The belief that, for the sake of economic growth, everything must be owned, including rainwater in Bolivia. Neoliberalism and its ties to excessive individualism of the Randian sort. “Ideology beat science. Individualism beat environmentalism.”
  14. Postmodernism: I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here
    The ultimate relativity of everything, after all omphalos have been destroyed. But the chapter also has a pretty cynical view of postmodernism, citing the Sokal hoax as essentially an excuse for everyone to admit that, even if it has a core of truth, most of post-modernism is gibberish. The worry is that in throwing out postmodernism, we lose the insights that led to it; it’s an attempt to grapple with the relativity of everything that was demonstrated in science, art, and culture.
  15. Network: A planet of individuals
    If the 20th century was our teenage period, or a period of deconstruction from our previous (false) omphalos, with an overadjustment into id and individualism, what comes next? The power of the network. Everything is still fragmented and individual, but the network provides context. There’s a poorly defined but promising sort of collectivity involved. “The network is a beheaded deity. It is a communion. There is no need for an omphalos any more. Hold tight.”

Given that it was published in 2016, I wonder if Higgs’ optimism about the network still holds. Enthusiasm for the utopian internet was already waning by that point, but it’s almost nonexistent in 2021.

Still, I like the main thrust of the book, the 20th century as a period of decentering, and finding out what happens when what we thought was core to our society is no longer generally accepted. The teenage century seems like a pretty accurate description, and while a lot of traits established in teenagerhood do tend to live on in the adult, they’re hopefully moderated and channeled in productive ways. It’s a way to look at that century more optimistically, even if there’s a strong risk we won’t outgrow it before it’s too late.

I am not what I appear to be

Here’s how New Scientist’s article on the COP26 summit opens:

The man charged with leading a successful climate change summit in five weeks’ time insists he is no environmentalist – but is now convinced of the urgency of tackling global warming.

“I’m a normal person, right, I’m not someone who’s some great climate warrior coming into this,” says Alok Sharma, the president of the COP26 meeting, who took up the job in February 2020. “But it has given me a real appreciation and understanding of why it is so vital that we get this right.”

And here’s how the same article quotes Boris Johnson, trying to give his views on the climate crisis a friendlier spin:

“I am not one of those environmentalists who takes a moral pleasure in excoriating humanity for its excess”

I’m sure both of them are telling the truth, that neither considers themselves to be an environmentalist, despite agreeing that climate collapse is a serious, existential crisis that demands action at the highest levels. And making that clear in their public statements is a way of appealing to those who are still skeptical, or too politically partisan to accept that message from people who are sufficiently unlike them to easily write off their views.

But like the people who run for office while insisting they aren’t politicians, there’s something obviously incongruent in someone advocating for the seriousness of climate change while loudly denying that they are an environmentalist. In the same breath, they’re agreeing with the environmental movement’s assessment of reality, while holding onto the idea that the people who arrived at that assessment are kooks, extremists, abnormal people who are best kept at a distance. “They may be right,” this line of thinking goes, “but they’re still nags, scolds, interested only in propping up their own egos by making you feel bad.”

There’s a lot of judgment in those statements, especially in Johnson’s imagined moral sadist, getting off on their sense of superiority. An armchair analysis would lead me to guess previous environmental criticism made him feel guilty, and his response was to assume the intent was to hurt him, personally–because we have a human tendency to assume things are personal, and to assume the worst of those who hurt us. Even if that’s off the mark, the statement itself still shows an imagined category of person, the environmentalist who has chosen the cause because they enjoy making other people feel bad, and Johnson’s need to refute that self-created label.

Ultimately that’s what I think those statements and all the ones like it are about: a need to escape the labels we put on others. In order to understand the world, we need to categorize it, and our understanding of other people is no exception. It is impossible for us to understand the full complexity of even a single other individual, let alone the hundreds or thousands of people we interact with on a regular basis. If we needed to face the entirety of another person every time we dealt with them, we would simply freeze, so instead we create categories: environmentalists are like this, politicians are like that, feminists are like this, and so on. There may be part of us that recognizes these types are constructions and that no one in each group will exactly fit our stereotype, but we still assume it’s true in aggregate: no environmentalist is exactly like x, but collectively they probably come pretty close.

To whatever extent we need to generalize with others, though, we absolutely abhor being the subject of generalizations. So when we find that we’re saying something or taking some action that would peg us as a member of a particular group, we’ll take pains to explain we aren’t actually one of them, despite the superficial similarities. That Platonic ideal we hold of all the categories we create is too simple and too other to capture the complexity that is our own self, and so we instinctively bristle at the thought of being labelled. We are too vast and complex and contradictory to fall under any label, especially ones we’ve already used to write off the views of others, since those labels tend to be the most overly simplistic anyway.

The impulse to refuse the categories we’ve created should act as a reminder that those categories are inherently incomplete. Not false, necessarily, but simplified and abstracted for the purpose of helping us navigate the world. We can’t actually hold the complexity of others in our own heads, but we can recognize that labels sit just as uncomfortably on them as they do on us. If you’re running for office but refuse to call yourself a politician because the term doesn’t reflect your own view of your motivations and experience, recognize that your opponent likely feels the same. If you are trying to agree with a group while pushing against being identified as one of them, try to understand why it’s so important for you to avoid the label, and what assumptions that implies.

If you’re too special to be confined to a category, so is everyone you’ve categorized.

Change is possible because it is necessary

Two quotes from Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk that have been running through my mind today.
The second one is an especially heavy one, a reminder that not seeing the harm caused by our lifestyle doesn’t mean there is none. In the same way that most of us don’t blink at the thought of eating meat but blanch at the thought of even the most humane farming practices, let alone the reality of how most animals are actually treated, we’ve exported and outsourced the extractive practices, abhorrent working conditions, wars, dictatorships, and other forms of violence that are required for even the more moderate and thoughtful western lifestyle.

The first one is trickier. Has every civilization failed? Some certainly have, and others have lasted by transforming into something unrecognizable from how they started, which could be seen as success or failure depending on your perspective. And some are still going, waxing and waning and adapting and clinging to power. So you could nitpick the claim. But “Change is possible because it is necessary” — that’s a good one. That’s something to hold onto.

All generalizations are false

I definitely first came across that phrase as a sort of joke, one of those self-contained paradoxes that used to entertain me endlessly as a kid exploring the strangeness of language and logic. But it’s been one of the thoughts I’ve been spending the most time with over the past couple years, today’s prompt being the third episode of Sharron Kraus’ Preternatural Investigations podcast. It’s a paradox, but it’s also true (sort of), and I think important in ways that I haven’t fully grasped yet.

A better formation of it would be “all generalizations are fictions,” although that makes the paradox a little less direct. Essentially, though, the idea is that all categories are useful fictions that humans (and likely other sentient creatures) have created to more efficiently navigate the world.

“Fish” is a go-to example, in that there is no way to create a category that uses our current phylogenetic mapping to include everything we commonly think of as fish and exclude everything that we don’t think of as fish. That’s not to say “fish” isn’t a useful category in daily life; it just isn’t an objectively definable category based on the currently-agreed-upon system for understanding how to group species. But then, even “species” is a blurry category, with debate as to its precise definition, so particular groupings of species are also bound to be troublesome.

I’m not just talking about gaps between common-usage terms and scientific categories, though. The point is, the world itself does not generalize. Each entity in the universe is only itself. (It might be fairer to say there’s no such thing as entities, only the universe, given that even boundaries between objects get fairly fuzzy at subatomic levels, but that may be going to far for this post). The point being, something as straightforward as “rock” isn’t a category that exists in the universe, there are only distinct collections of atoms that have properties similar enough to one another that it’s useful for us to lump them together as the conceptual group “rock.” There is no physical law to distinguish between rivers and streams and lakes and oceans, nor between planets and comets and stars. There are individual objects, and we find it easier to talk about them based on the similarities we see between some of them, and the differences we see compared to others.

This is a fairly obvious semantic point. Maybe it’s obvious to the point of being uninteresting. But I think there are at least two reasons that it is important. One is that it can serve to remind us of the uniqueness of everything. Generalizations are a way for us to avoid having to process each individual thing we perceive in its own particular fullness. If we had to consider every leaf, every blade of grass, every bird call or human voice as a completely discrete phenomenon, we would be paralyzed. But that doesn’t change the fact that all of them are, in fact, unique. Each of them is as intricate, as special, as beautiful as the first one you saw, or heard, before your mental mapping of their sense memory was simplified into something your brain could process more easily.

J.F. Martel has written and spoken about how one of the roles of art is to force us to see the uniqueness of whatever is being depicted, and how moments of awe and beauty come from us seeing things as they actually are, as opposed to how we assume them to be. Recognizing that categories are only useful shorthands can act as a reminder to look for that uniqueness, at least from time to time, and to focus on your present experience as the precious thing that it is, instead of something to be tolerated until some imagined future event where you’ll finally get to experience something truly special. In a way, the only thing between the mundane and the marvelous is a perceptual filter that strips away the specificity of the moment.

The second reason I think this is important is that it makes it easier to challenge your own assumptions. If you can internalize that “fish” is a fictional category and “Tuesday” is just a word to make it easier to communicate about future points in time and not a thing that exists in the physical universe, then you can also recognize that much broader conceptual terms (including the whole of politics and economics) are also just useful shorthands. They are attempts to describe complex recurring patterns of cause and effect, and are worth paying attention to for as long as they are actually useful, meaning as long as the things they describe have some sort of predictive or descriptive power, or create positive outcomes. And, importantly, they can be dropped when that’s no longer the case.

It’s a testament to the power of the human mind and its ability to recognize patterns and describe relationships that we are so inclined to think of those patterns and relationships as inherent to the universe. But it also leads us to cling to ideas well past their expiry date, and to fail to question the reason certain beliefs and practices arose in the first place. If we can manage to internalize the idea that all generalizations are fictional to at least some extent, and that all descriptions are generalizations (in that they have to translate something unique into language that can be understood in terms of its similarity to certain concepts and experiences), it makes it easier to try out new models of understanding, because the old ones become a little less precious.

One more reason it’s important, maybe: it’s a way of reminding myself how powerful the force of collective imagination can be. This is basically the inverse of the second reason, which is more about weakening the reality claim of things that can seem all too real. Instead, it’s recognizing the ability of shared imagination to alter the world in absolutely incredible ways. If we can wake up every morning and enact things as elaborate as capitalism and nation states (and it’s well commented on how those are products of collective action and collective belief), then it’s hard to imagine the limits of what realities we could manifest, what dreams and hyperstitions we could bring about.

It’d be an interesting challenge to think about what worlds we could have tomorrow, using existing technology and infrastructure, just by changing how we use the things we have. I don’t know that it would be enough to reach the goals of the latest IPCC report, but… most utopias rely either on technological breakthroughs or a reversion to pre-industrial ways of living that completely abandon the comforts of civilization. I’d be very curious to try to imagine a third way, where the big changes that need to happen are more memetic than physical, where it’s our desires and aspirations that shift rather than using new technology to sustain the current dream. I have no idea what it would look like, but there’s at least a germ of an idea there.