(untitled fragment) from house of leaves

Every time I try to write a post on House of Leaves, it ends in total disaster. Normally, my writing would turn into a slough of obscure references and jokes vaguely related to the text, leading me to abandon the piece and start anew. Then that new piece would also turn into a slough of obscure references and jokes vaguely related to the text, causing me to restart again.

This post was hardly an exception; it began as a simple reading of one poem from the book, but quickly devolved into a 5,000 word essay on aesthetics and interpreting art. This only served to distract readers since 80% of the post was no longer about House of Leaves. I cut most of that out, saving it instead for A Future Post™.

Anyway, in one of the appendices in House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski included some poems. Y’know, in case the book wasn’t complex enough. Here’s the poem we will be considering today:

(Untitled Fragment)

Little solace comes

to those who grieve

when thoughts keep drifting

as walls keep shifting

and this great blue world of ours

seems a house of leaves

 

moments before the wind.

Analysis:

For the opening lines, Danielewski writes:

Little solace comes

to those who grieve

Note that this is different from writing the poem as:

Little solace is found

by those who grieve

Solace is not something that one seeks and obtains, it comes on its own time. Those grieving must wait. It is likely that their wait, their time reserved for grieving, must likely be undisturbed for them to properly grieve. ‘Solace’ is used instead of ‘comfort’ or ‘peace.’ Solace is something more fundamental, an inner peace, harmony. A few questions: who is grieving? What are they grieving over?

The following two lines introduce a disruption to this grieving process:

when thoughts keep drifting

as walls keep shifting

‘Keep’ is used several times, followed by ‘drifting’ and ‘shifting,’ emphasizing constant movement, preventing those grieving from finding solace. We understand this movement is not something that can be easily stopped. Answers to what exactly is ‘drifting’ and ‘shifting’ may be found in ‘thoughts’ and ‘walls.’ 

‘Thoughts keep drifting’ relates constant distraction in one’s mind. What causes thoughts to run so amok? ‘Drifting’ also may describe movement similar to that of a raft, drifting away from its original position, signifying the thoughts in one’s mind growing further distant. Naturally following is the question: distant from what original position?

‘As walls keep shifting’ may shed some light on what exactly is causing ‘thoughts’ to ‘keep drifting.’ ‘Walls’ may serve a protective purpose, as in the sense of a shelter’s walls, or a restrictive purpose, as in the sense of a prison’s walls, or both, as in the sense of a castle’s walls. These boundaries contain us, but they also focus us. One may be prohibited from leaving a set of protective walls, but in the same sense, one need only worry about what lay inside the walls. The problem introduced by the poem is that these walls ‘keep shifting.’ Our metaphorical containers are less stable than we first considered. As such, we must spend our energy constantly adjusting to their new shapes. This may reflect fundamental changes occurring in society, too fast for us to properly keep up with, ones that keep us from ‘grieving,’ the fundamentally human process of mourning what was so that we may focus on what is.

The following two lines appear to support this:

and this great blue world of ours

seems a house of leaves

Ambiguity in language is what makes it interesting, and there are two very ambiguous words here: ‘great,’ and ‘blue’; though it may not appear so at first. When someone first reads ‘great blue world,’ they may think: “hey, that’s Earth!” However, it’s clear that this phrase does not refer to something so strictly physical. If Earth is likened to ‘a house of leaves,’ then this is an apocalyptic poem. Actually, that’s not too far off, but the apocalypse is not one strictly physical. At least, I don’t liken it to one, especially after reading the book that contains this poem.

‘Great’ may refer to something that is ‘very good’ or ‘very large.’ ‘Blue’ is typically a word used to describe Earth, as in ‘Blue Planet,’ but reading ‘blue’ as a signifier of melancholy (e.g., feeling ‘blue’) weaves it nicely into our narrative, especially as an association to ‘grieving.’ Since the many interruptions to our societal grieving process, that process of moving on from the past in a healthy way, the deep feelings of melancholy have not been properly dispersed—they linger. In a similar vein, ‘world of ours’ smoothly incorporates into our narrative as well, supporting the idea of fundamental, unsettling shifts in society disrupting basic, yet important, human behaviors. 

Things take a dark turn with:

seems a house of leaves

 

moments before the wind.

Previous lines related a feeling of constant, unstoppable and unsettling movement. The last two lines take this idea and inject a sense of fragility into the mix. ‘House’ fits nicely with ‘walls,’ especially in the protective sense. This house is made to protect us, partially through its act of containment. A house is foundational to life—it is a home. It grounds us. It is our origin, where we start the day and where we end it. 

Now, I should mention this: Danielewski is such a bastard. I mean that, of course, in the most respectful way possible. In writing House of Leaves as such a staunch ‘fuck you’ to post-something-ism and deconstruction, he also made it very hard to develop a coherent reading of the book. You’ve probably been wondering: “what’s with writing ‘house’ in blue?” Thankfully, it connects nicely with our reading of the color blue as signifying a melancholic sheet draped over the modern world, dampening feelings of joy and happiness. Coloring house in blue signifies that this melancholy is imbedded in the very societal fabric that houses us. But try figuring this out from the book—it’s a nightmare.

As has been alluded to, this house is under threat: ‘leaves’ conveys the idea that the foundations of the house were not as sound as we once thought—or hoped. In fact, the house was built from millions of tiny pieces, all fragile themselves, all poised to be blown away by a passing gale. The sense of fragility is key here. ‘Moments’ purveys a sense of immediacy. The feeling of life teetering just on the edge of a cliff, threatening to fall with the slightest push. The feeling that this could happen at any time, that we may not have much longer.

To recap: great societal shifts mean we are so busy adjusting to the present that we no longer have time to properly move on from the past. As such, all that we had built, all that had contained us, all that had kept us safe, our foundation, our house, now stands poised to be swept away by the slightest breeze.

But what is this ‘wind’ that seeks to blow over all that we have created, all that grounds us, all that protects us? I’m sure some people would be more than eager to interject with: “climate change!” or “evil AI!” or “capitalism!” or “social media!” or “a meteor strike!” or “a global pandemic!” or “progressivism!” or “fascism!” or “the realization that Earth only has finite resources and we’re quickly running out of them!” 

However, I’m going to throw you a curve ball and not go with, or not even bother with, any one of those suggestions. Given that this post (and my entire blog) has been busy working to supply readers with tools, or, at the very least, the means to create their own tools, what naturally follows is the notion: perhaps instead of trying to stop the wind, we should try building a better house.

wonderbread

Hey, don’t look at me like that! I know it’s a stupid title, but it was the first word that came to mind [1].

… 

… 

… 

Wait a minute…

I.

There’s a place on the internet called r/BreadTube, and no, it has nothing to do with baguettes.

Not a single word in this post is about BreadTube, but let’s pretend it is for now. “Okay, what the hell is BreadTube?” Glad you asked.

In practice, the sub is a safe place for ‘leftists’ (socialists, social democrats, Marxists, Leninists, anarchists, etc.) to type words at each other over the interwebs. Discourse is typically based on discussing leftist YouTube videos (shocker). For example, there was a heavily upvoted video about some ‘bad politics’ in the newest season of Stranger Things [2]. Also prevalent on the sub are leftist takes on ‘relevant’ cultural topics. If you haven’t noticed, the BreadTube community is highly political. I mean, they literally define themselves by their politics. Yes, a pun. In as charitable a way as possible, you will also find regular bashing of perceived enemies of the leftist movement. There are many people there who spend a great deal of time riling themselves and others up over the latest ‘fascist’ activity. There is also constant infighting as everybody seeks to enforce social taxes on others. 

Some people would have started describing BreadTube with a steelman—explaining what it is in theory. I’m not a fan of this, more on that in a later post. For present purposes, steelmanning BreadTube would explain its goals in theory, but from the wrong perspective. It is a characterization from the outside—we want to know how it looks from the inside. How the BreadTube community sees itself. Look, here’s a picture:

And here are some rules that, as with all subreddits, the moderators definitely follow:

They have a funny little phrase for your browser tab:

No, that wasn’t an isolated instance, here’s from their little scrolling pictures.

It seems they want to remind you that BreadTube is better than YouTube. The comment sections are also reflective of the community’s self-image. Quick! Here’s a shitty collage:

Fun fact: the above comments were all pulled from the same post [3]. Interesting usernames and a few of the comments being ‘not even wrong’ aside, I think you get the picture.

 

[1] Though, if I hadn’t pointed all this out, probably nobody would have made the connection.

[2] My problem isn’t confined to leftists finding ‘problematic’ politics in art, it’s with the politicization of art as a whole. But that’s for A Future Post™.

[3] I’m definitely painting a not-so-pretty picture here, which may not fairly represent the BreadTube community. In fact, I know it doesn’t (map vs territory, fitting a narrative, etc.). I invite you to look at where I pulled the comments from and BreadTube itself to form your own opinions.

II.

Here are some observations about how BreadTube sees itself:

1. Under-doggery: BreadTube is “against the prevailing winds of the internet.” See also: somewhat cherry-picked comments above. “Under-doggery” is a key characteristic for almost any mass movement. What do the members of the movement see themselves as ‘under-dogs’ to, exactly? Jung’s ‘Shadow,’ the ‘Dark Other,’ SSC’s ‘outgroup.’ An unholy, invisible Enemy that all actions of the movement are directed against. This consistent belief in an all-powerful Enemy cultivates fanaticism. Since this Enemy’s strength is always overestimated, reactions to the Enemy’s actions are always overreactions. For example, a professional sports team wouldn’t go all-out against a grade school team (there are exceptions to every rule). However, if someone believes that [fascists/socialists/any-ists] are taking over the world, their ideals absolve them of responsibility (I need to stop this at any cost!), and they can justify some extreme behaviors. I’ll let you draw the real world connections.

2. High quality content: “well-researched” is in BreadTube’s description and rules, the sub is explicitly only for “high-quality” content, and it has a ban on clickbait. Given the complete lack of research standards and some of the content that makes its way onto the sub, “well-researched” is borderline masturbatory. I’m glad that they at least draw the line at ‘memes.’ As for “high quality”, ehhh. BreadTube is miles ahead of most of YouTube because most of YouTube is fucking garbage. I’m not even sure where I’d rank BreadTube’s quality in comparison to supposed ‘alt-right’ YouTubers. For example, many videos made by Sargon of Akkad (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) videos are zir in front of a camera talking about stuff ze finds infuriating enough to make money off of. Zir takes on media often slowly twist into riling people up against SJW global domination, but then ze’ll randomly have some half-decent videos. “So, you’re saying they’re all equal?” Unlikely, but the discrepancy in quality isn’t exactly night and day. Besides, that’s missing the point. Every community believes their creators make quality, well-researched content. This perspective may have little to do with the actual quality of the content, by whatever standard. It has more to do with this: if you content is high quality or well-researched, it’s probably because you agree with it [4].

3. Distinct from the ‘rest’: related to the above points but an important distinction. BreadTube sees itself as “youtube, but good.” It is described as a community for the “new wave” of creators who make content that “goes against the prevailing winds of the internet.” They’re not like the rest. They’re special. They’re correct. They’re on the right side of history. Look, all people are the same in thinking they’re different. We need to believe that somehow our actions and ourselves are meaningful. This grandiose lie might just be what keeps us all going. Cease believing at your own peril.

I’d argue these characteristics aren’t particularly unique to BreadTube. BreadTube just has its own distinctive flavor.

“Why are you picking on leftists?” Funny enough, I’m not. I just have a few things I want to say and BreadTube serves as a nice springboard given its audience’s believed immunity to [redacted] closely resembles the mindset of my target audience [5].

It’s important to keep in mind that people on BreadTube aren’t [evil/irrational/dumb]. In fact, I’d wager many of them are quite intelligent, which makes them an excellent example. Being smart may have its perks, but it clearly doesn’t stop people from being sucked into the nearest mass movement, nor does it stop people from spending too much time consuming content that strongly validates their current beliefs. Oh, but don’t worry, reading this is different.

Something to note: BreadTube is rapidly growing. I know this because [argument from statistics] and also every time I take a screencap of the member count it’s outdated in a week. The community already exerts an enormous amount of pressure on YouTube, and I don’t see its influence diminishing anytime soon. Let’s (accurately) liken YouTube to another battleground in everyone’s favorite culture war. It’s not immediately clear who’s going to win, except it is, which is why I’d bet on the Bread.

Another note: I’m not here to debate leftist ideology, there’s already plenty of people doing a terrible job of that. Not to mention, 1) Why? What’s the point? I’m sure there’s an analogy there, something about shouting into a void, 2) I’d rather not add more fuel to the culture war, and 3) I try my best to avoid tearing away what little meaning people have left in their lives without offering something meaningful in return. That is why I’m writing about something actually important: YouTube videos. More specifically, I’m going to spend the next [number] words waffling on about the role branding plays in the relationship between content and consumers. 

To guide you through the following sections: keep in mind that BreadTube community members see themselves as 1., 2., and 3., and so they will seek out content that affirms this self-image.

 

[4] Not exactly the Book of Revelation here, even to those who aren’t familiar with cognitive biases. However, the concept is important enough that I’ll stress it anytime I get the chance. To those who are familiar with cognitive biases: now you’re free from bias, right?

[5] Who is my target audience, again?

III.

Lots of people think branding is basically advertising except, somehow, like, a little different. Lots of people also think they aren’t readily fooled by advertising, and by extension, branding. After all, you know when you’re looking at an ad. They’re so obvious, right? Ads are so blatant, and you wouldn’t buy something just because you saw an ad for it. Maybe you’re the type of person who likes to ‘do your research.’ Y’know, compare different products and pick the best one for your price range. Or maybe check the reviews for a movie before deciding to watch it. Consumption may be broken down into how you spend your money but also how you spend your time. This ‘research’ is typically done before purchasing something, but that comes after deciding that you must buy [thing], which is preceded by assuming that what activity [thing] is used for is a good use of your time.

I… have a lot to say about all this. To avoid the scope of this post growing cancerously out of control, we’ll be focusing on how branding can be used to loosen consumers’ wallets in regards to how they spend their time.

Branding refers to the way something is shown to people. It is the creation of an image by release of information. Smart branding involves the careful control over what information is being conveyed to the audience. This ensures that they see a specific image, and hence, respond to the content in a specific way. “Right, but you wouldn’t do that to me!” Sure.

Look, here’s someone who knows what they’re talking about:

Ads do not try to sell you a product, is Mad Men canceled yet?  On that now unwatchable soap opera Creative stays up all night eating chinese and trading tag lines, trying to capture the essence of the product.  Essence of the product– for whom? In fairness, back then there was only one TV and one wallet per household, so demos tended to be a little more broad, by which I mean women.  Fair enough, and not anymore. Now ads target a specific demographic, and tailor an aspirational message/image for that demo on which is piggybacked whatever product paid for the take out. THE PRODUCT IS IRRELEVANT.  Write it down on a sticky note next to A-B-C, it will help.

In this sense, branding is what connects the product to the aspirational image, the identity. It easily skirts around people’s common defenses to advertising because people think advertising is selling a product, so they assume ads that barely show the product are just ‘weird’ or ‘dumb.’ They don’t understand that what advertising really sells is the identity, and makes you believe that owning their product is a necessary step to achieving said identity. Advertisers will target a specific demographic with an image to aspire to, then sell the signifiers of an identity as the actual identity. This is what leads people to buy a brand new BMW when they can barely afford it. They aren’t buying a new BMW because they’re wealthy, they’re buying a new BMW because they desperately want something to identify them as wealthy. “Hey! Some people just like BMWs!” Yeah, must be for their excellent reliability and low cost of maintenance. What causes people to ‘just like’ things?

If you don’t believe me about branding, it’s fine. Maybe it sounds like a bit of a stretch, your business course that you paid too much for gave you a different definition of branding, etc. Of course my definitions do not fully encapsulate what branding is, I alluded to this with the title. My point is that the new ways branding is used is more important and you should care about these new ways more. Look, here’s some further reading, it takes extra effort but you’re the person who puts in that extra effort, right? 

IV.

Let’s talk about leftist YouTube channels! Try saying that at a party. Actually, that could work in some places. Either way, I’m in for the results. 

This piece will be mainly focusing on ContraPoints, PhilosophyTube, Jack Saint, and Lindsay Ellis. “Hey! Lindsay Ellis isn’t a BreadTuber!” Oh yeah? Perhaps not one of the most talked about on BreadTube but she is certainly loved there. Also, she used the word ‘problematic’ unironically, what else do you want from me?

I recognize that BreadTube isn’t completely representative of these YouTubers’ audiences. BreadTube has much stronger views than your typical ContraPoints watcher. You can thank the homogenizing and amplifying effects of subreddits for that. This knowledge in no way dissuades me.

If you want people to watch your YouTube video, you only have a few ways to transmit information about your video to prospective consumers. One of the most important ways is the video title. And boy oh boy do I have a lot to say about how BreadTubers title their videos. Recall that one of the defining characteristics we pointed out about BreadTube was that they see themselves as ‘high quality content.’ Note that the appearance of high quality content is different from actually being high quality content. Now, I don’t have a YouTube-video-quality-ometer handy and I would highly prefer not to get into the discussion of what is and isn’t good content. So for now, let’s focus on whether the content appears to be of high or low quality.

Here are the titles of ContraPoints’s last four videos:

[6]

I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I’m picking up on some patterns here. All the videos have subtitles! The first part of each title is brief—just one or two words. And these words are pretty vague. Potential consumers are not given too much information. They need to watch the video to find out what it’s about. Notice that all the words are neatly capitalized [7]. Elegant. Professional. Quality. Pirsig would be proud. 

After is a ‘|’, which I don’t believe is a regular part of speech. This provides a clean divide before the next part: ‘ContraPoints.’ Including her channel name is not just redundant—it shows that this is not just a YouTube video, it’s a ContraPoints video. Recall that BreadTube subscribers identify themselves as being apart from the rest of the YouTube peasantry. Natalie is helping them out by showing she’s not just another YouTuber. Look. She’s a creator. She’s ContraPoints. Adding to this: Natalie is front and center in every thumbnail. Not plain-Jane Natalie, but dressed-up Natalie. She is showing the audience not just herself, but her great costumes (read: high production quality). The thumbnails add to the image that tells consumers: “hey, this video is high quality. You are someone who watches high quality content, right?

The horse is nearly beat to death, so I’ll finish off with some homework for the readers. Look at the video lengths. These are telling. What do they say? First hint: remember how BreadTube (part of her audience) sees itself. They’re not people who watch five minute clickbait videos that don’t have any content. Second hint, which, if you’re YouTube savvy (not something to put on your resume, please), you won’t need: the video lengths are connected to something else and it’s all over the description.

 

[6] There’s probably a better way to list just the titles.

[7] “Wait, do you have something against capital letters?” I’m going to tell you ‘yes,’ but the answer is actually—well, you’ll connect the dots.

V.

Let’s shift gears. Here’s how other BreadTubers brand their videos.

Philosophy Tube:

Seems familiar. I actually think the only good thumbnail of these is the one for the Steve Bannon video, but Olly already has the same title structure and the high production value (read: appearance of high quality) down pat.

Now for Jack Saint:

Jack Saint is an interesting example because he has less subscribers than ContraPoints and Philosophy Tube, so he hasn’t quite optimized his titles and thumbnails to the same degree. His thumbnails are so blatantly over-edited to parody the rest of YouTube thumbnails. See: observation #3. This is clear to many of his fans, but the satire may not be recognized by non-subscribers. Funny enough, satirizing the ridiculous click-baiting of other YouTube videos doesn’t distinguish you from the pack anymore because everybody is doing it. I like when things come full circle. 

Here’s the fun thing: he switched his titles to include the ‘| Jack Saint’ not too long ago. “They’re learning!” Seriously, though, they are. It’s not like he just decided to include his name with the exact same ‘|’ before it on a whim. And once Jack Saint understands that aspirational branding brings in more clicks than overdone satire, he’ll switch the thumbnails too.

VI.

Branding on YouTube is not just limited to the titles, thumbnails, video lengths, and descriptions. For brand-conscious creators, it carries into their videos. Uninteresting example, ContraPoints videos maintain the appearance of high quality content through high production value. “… so, you’re saying having good production value is bad?” No, I’m just saying it plays right into the image BreadTube has for itself. BreadTube community members see themselves as people who watch high quality, leftist content that goes “against the prevailing winds of the internet,” so creators make content specifically tailored to that aspiration. By now, I’ve beat that drum to death. But that’s all boring and low hanging fruit, here’s where the fun begins:

In some of her older videos, ContraPoints used to film herself in front of a bookshelf:

From afar, it just looks like a bunch of random books, but if you pause one of her videos and look closer, you will notice that she had some Smart People books on there. I spy Adorno, Foucault, and Nabokov. Yummy. She even had the front cover of Critique of Pure Reason facing the camera. “Look how well-read she is!” Whether or not she is, who’s to say, but to her audience, it sure appears that way. And hey, maybe filming in front of her bookshelf was the best place in her home, and maybe she can’t put books away properly and just happened to have Critique of Pure Reason on the shelf like that beforehand [8]. I’m not saying she spent 3 hours obsessing over every detail in the shot, but for someone as image-aware (read: brand-conscious) as ContraPoints, I highly doubt filming in front of her bookshelf was random. I mean, she has a framed picture of Anita Sarkeesian (sigh) prominently facing the camera. But that’s beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether anything is intentional or not. Obsessing over intent is a distraction because regardless of intent, the appearance remains. Branding is inevitable.

The best part of this is that many of the book titles aren’t easily readable. Imagine being a normal person (but don’t strain yourself doing so) who is watching this video. During the video your eyes lazily glance around the screen. “Huh, books.” You move closer to the screen to read some of the titles. You don’t recognize many of them so you decide to look some of them up. “Whoa, that Consciousness Explained one talks about some really complicated stuff.” Then you look up another. “Damn, I didn’t realize she was so intelligent.” Suddenly, ContraPoints’s points (ugh) seem a lot more convincing.

This is one of the cleverest tricks not in the book. If the titles are too readable, their placement becomes a tacky argument from authority and a fairly unsubtle brag about your big reading brain. Too far and you’ve missed your mark: “Natalie likes reading too! My favorite author is Nora Roberts.” The titles need to be just illegible enough that the viewer has to work to decipher them. There is a bias where people think that the more energy they expend for information, the more true they think said information must be. After all, look at the work you had to do to obtain it! The typical viewer isn’t aware of the books ContraPoints reads, nor what significance they hold. They must find that out for themselves. And for the lesser-read viewer, the required energy input is greater, as is the resulting impression from the findings. “Hey did you know that [person] is actually really smart? No, I’m serious, I was looking around last night…” See also: digging 10 years into someone’s Twitter feed to uncover their ‘true’ self.

If you want to get meta, things get real fun. You are reading this post, but can’t make out any books from the authors I listed. You look up the mentioned ContraPoints videos to check for yourself. You see the books on the shelf, as I had said, and think: “wow, this blogger was right! Those books are on the shelf!” Then you continue reading the post, but with a new sense of –

This fallacy involves the belief in proportional dividends—that effort invested must be rewarded with proportional returns. In respect to finding ‘truth’ specifically—the belief in proportional enlightenment. This is the tomb raider descending into the deepest depths of the crypt, evading all the guards, avoiding all the traps, and finally reaching the last sarcophagus. The raider then finds [thing] and then believes [thing] must be worth a lot of money. After all, why would they go to so much effort to hide it there?

At the risk of tipping my hand, I’m going to accuse most people in the world of falling for this, but especially r/TheLastPsychiatrist. I mean, just look at this take on the Gillette ad by u/HaveIsOnly:

Hot take: Complaining about toxic masculinity is actually slut shaming. Let’s run with that.

From a game theoretic perspective, promiscuous women make it more difficult for low-value women to attract long term mates. Women are supposed to have leverage over men as the gatekeepers of sex, while men (if they are breadwinners) are the gatekeepers of commitment. Both sexes have their ace, and withhold and parlay it into a mutually profitable relationship.

Party whores break the meta because now women can’t gatekeep sex. Especially high-value men will have lots of easy sex thrown at them. This seems harmless, but consider the reverse. Image yourself as a man trying to entice women with your stable income. Except it turns out there’s dudes who will give out $1000 bills no strings attached just because it’s fun. So the women you’re trying to entice with your $ can just go get $ whenever. Now your plan is shit on. You have no value.

Of course this doesn’t happen in real life. There’s no birth control analog for money. But women who fuck lots of strangers for fun are ruining it for the Plain Janes by throwing free sex at their potential husbands. Now also imagine that PJ isn’t very attractive and has low self esteem and…

It’s so subtle you almost miss it. So fucking subtle. It took me way too long to write this post.

It goes from: “men shouldn’t value women for sex” to “men shouldn’t value sex from women”. Boom. That’s how the “toxic masculinity” narrative is actually about slut shaming. This ad proves it. The ad is saying that to sluts have no value to Real Men. And when sluts do their thing anyway, they’re evil because they’re complicit in toxic masculinity.

Don’t get me wrong—I think this is a really interesting take, and I find a lot of good discussion on r/TLP. I’m not trying to ‘gotcha’ the entire sub—that would be arrogant and ignorant. However, the fact that this is the highest upvoted comment on that post just goes to show what content many people on that sub value. They hold true in their minds that the farther you look into something, while still putting together a coherent convincing take, the more true said take must be. Conflated with the appearance of greater ‘truth’ is greater importance. I’d levy this same criticism at post-something-ists and armchair internet psychoanalysts. This endlessly-fractalizing quest for truth rests on two assumptions: 1) Whatever you find deeper down must be more true, and 2) truth is important. With the example of ContraPoints’s bookshelf, we showed that regardless of the validity of these assumptions, this mindset can be taken advantage of. Further, digging so deep for ‘truth’ means that you’re now focusing on minutiae instead of broader implications.

Solve the secret puzzle and you’ll always find an answer. However, it’s exactly the answer you were looking for and it wasn’t put there by you.

Things that aren’t blog posts that touch on this: House of Leaves and Under the Silver Lake.

 

[8] A reader kindly pointed out that ContraPoints changes the book facing the camera between videos, so she likely had Critique of Pure Reason turned out to reflect the content of the video: “Why I Quit Academia.” Normally, I am more than happy to admit to a mistake, though I would leave the text unchanged, flaws and all, as I find editing the text afterward a little dishonest. However, this particular error only emphasizes my point as it led me to consider the meta branding of her video.

VII.

Let’s talk about Lindsay Ellis’s branding because I find it eerily reflective. I’m sure someone is reading this looking for spilt blood so here’s me delivering in a way that makes it look like blood isn’t being spilt. 

Lindsay Ellis’s branding is not as strong as that of ContraPoints, the current branding Queen, but I’d like to focus on Ellis because she demonstrates the utility of branding one’s actions as ironic through the use of lampshading. Ellis does this frequently and it’s actually pretty hilarious once you start noticing it.

Next example needs some context. Apparently the last season of Game of Thrones was horrendous so people and their unwavering loyalties took to the interwebs to rant about it. There, they could feel a sense of relief as everybody else agreed with them, ensuring them that yes, they were right to be angry and they were not alone. Luckily this only lasted a month or else the whole internet would have drowned in its own froth. Now, these people needed a way to channel their frustrations, and what better way to channel their rage than to watch hours of YouTube videos saying exactly the same thing? How cathartic. Now, this presented an incredible opportunity for YouTubers, all of whom wanted to get in on that gravy train. Some saw their subscriber counts jump up massively. Who knew profiting off the cultural zeitgeist was so lucrative? That talking about what everybody else is already talking about could be so profitable? That making content specifically designed to milk people’s frustration yielded such incredible returns? Obviously I find this more than a little gross. 

Anywho, Ellis was no exception. Problem being that people like Ben Shapiro had already jumped on the hate-train, and Ellis didn’t want to be associated with that. A large and rather vocal portion of her audience leans left, and they may have some issues with her joining in on the festivities. But Ellis is pretty crafty, so she figured out a way to get a piece of the pie. Here’s the thumbnail for her Game of Thrones video:

Damn, I “guess” she just needs “to talk about Game of Thrones.” Hate when that happens. I mean, you just have to, right? Y’know, you just gotta. Oh, and did I mention her GoT video will be a two-parter? Sigh. “So you’re saying people can’t talk about what’s relevant?” Well, yes and no. I’m upset at what’s relevant, and no matter what you say about something, you are agreeing beforehand that it is important to talk about. So even if I want to talk about how we shouldn’t talk about the latest Disney movie because I think they’re bad art and I’d rather have the cultural conversation centered around [anything else], I am admitting them into the cultural conversation by talking about them in the first place. It’s quite the bind.

Anyway, the title of Ellis’s video spares her from accusations of jumping on the unstoppable hate-train. It’s quite clever. If Ellis had just made the two videos on GoT, then her audience, people who identify themselves with creators they see as ‘above’ the clamoring hordes of YouTubers looking to cash in, may have questioned the motives behind Ellis’s content. But by Ellis demonstrating that she is still ‘above’ this practice by signalling she is making the videos ironically, she is absolved of any such accusations. With her impunity, she is then safe to make two GoT videos, each likely getting over one million views, bringing her new subscribers and patrons. 

This works both ways. Since Ellis branded the videos as ironing, her audience is able to watch videos bashing GoT without feeling like they are joining the hordes of angry peasants mad at their show. They retain that feeling of being ‘above all that’ through the creation of an ironic distance. This is the same thing as enjoying certain movies or music ‘ironically.’ If anybody questions your taste, you tell them that you “just like it ironically” to create a distance between yourself and the things you like. You are signalling that [thing you enjoy] doesn’t actually reflect who you are. This is how you can listen to Taylor Swift without being a ‘person who listens to Taylor Swift.’

YouTubers have a little place on their channels where they are able to endorse other channels they want to promote. You can change what the label says. Here’s what Ellis put:

Again with the lampshading. Calling actions what they are and then doing them anyway earns you a free pass because irony. Ellis is still endorsing channels, she is still taking the exact same action.

Last example. Ellis made a video called “YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!)” about how YouTubers create personas just for YouTube that appear ‘authentic.’ That is, they do their best to appear down-to-earth, to appear like they are normal people too, just like you and I. However, these personas are distinctly different from themselves in real life, and hence, inauthentic. I talked about the possible utility of this in my first post, but I’m not focusing on that aspect today. In the video, Ellis called out some YouTubers would were more blatant in their attempts to come-across as ‘authentic,’ and went into why they would do such a thing in the first place. In the process, she revealed to her own audience the dissonance between her YouTube persona and herself. 

Now, strap yourselves in because shit’s about to get meta. My question to you is: after the audience learned that the Lindsay Ellis they knew was, in fact, not Lindsay Ellis in real life, and was actually a persona created for YouTube, how would they, the audience, react to this? Well, I can tell you one thing: they sure weren’t rioting in the comments. Here are a few seemingly woke responses:

These comments show that people understood the video. They made the connection that YouTuber Lindsay Ellis was not person Lindsay Ellis. But it’s not like people were shocked by this reveal or felt betrayed by her after watching the video. In fact, this probably made her audience like her even more. “Wow, it’s so authentic to admit you’ve been faking it the whole time!” With this video, Ellis also safe-guarded herself against people finding out about her ‘true’ self and reacting poorly. Now if somebody says, “hey, I met Lindsay Ellis in real life and she was nothing like she is on YouTube,” somebody will use the word “obviously” and point them to this video. Lampshading to brand your actions as ironic is very powerful because it serves to mask underlying actions.

There were many replies to Jeet Joshi’s comment. Here’s one that was particularly interesting: 

That’s the point. You can’t “trust” any media in an absolute sense. It’s about engaging your critical thinking, and I personally would rather have something like Lindsay’s channel here, where she is presenting it as a job and not pretending to be a “slice of life” than some crap that’s really another form of “reality TV”. So no, don’t trust anything absolutely. But think about the content, how accurate or useful that is, and whether the presentation is trying to imply something else, and how manipulative that might be. There’s always a degree of manipulation, and that’s what needs to be balanced against the content.

This is exactly the type of person the video was for.

VIII.

We showed how Lindsay Ellis made herself appear more authentic to her fans in a very meta way by pointing out that the Lindsay Ellis fans saw was actually a persona created for YouTube, and not her regular self. “Oh, so by pointing all that out, surely you must be authentic, right?” Well, let’s go back in time. First section: “Not a single word in this post is about BreadTube.” This is one of those smug statements cultural critics will use to give the appearance that there is actually ‘more’ to the picture and they know what that ‘more’ is because they are temporarily withholding it from you. I said this post was about branding—what do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?

If I say, “don’t trust a single word in this post, I lied to you 38 times,” I will still appear authentic through my admission of inauthenticity. Even if I explain the very ways I purposely branded myself in this article to look a specific way, I will still appear more authentic as a result. It’s quite a conundrum. Now after saying that, I won’t point those instances out, you have to find them yourself. The thumbnails might be a good start. However, I will tell you that I have written this in a specific way and spent time thinking about how I wanted to be perceived. I mean, do you really think the self-awareness mixed with a pinch the personas of [whomever I read] was an accident? Criticizing r/BreadTube and r/TLP, communities which are made up of fairly intelligent people? That wasn’t for me, it was for you. I know a lot of self-proclaimed rationalists get off on seeing people torn down, just so long as it’s done under the illusion of ‘good faith.’ This is the same as when the BreadTube community watches ContraPoints and Philosophy Tube respond to the alt-right. For example, ContraPoints made a video on climate change where she responded to a hypothetical climate change denier/apathist. ContraPoints isn’t ever going to seriously change her stance on climate change, but the video makes it appear that she seriously considers opposing viewpoints. I’ve read enough comment sections to know people love watching Wrestlemania, they just need it to not look like Wrestlemania. This is why hbomberguy, another popular BreadTuber, titles his video debating flat-earthers: “Flat Earth: A Measured Response” and not: “flat-earthers are fucking idiots but you’re not here’s why.” hbomberguy’s audience members aren’t flat-earthers, they’re leftists. They’re there to see blood spilled but they don’t want to be seen as bloodthirsty. See also: the Peterson-Zizek debate

I’ve spent enough time reading TLP to know his audience gets the warm fuzzies whenever he “shows” those “idealogues.” TLP had a tight control over his branding, but that only means he controlled what information was sent, not how it was received. It’s hard to help people if they get a sick sense of satisfaction when you point out that a Guinness ad was for ‘beta-males’ or when you say The Hunger Games Is A Sexist Fairy Tale. Sorry.”

“Hey, not every [member of group] is like that! They aren’t there just to watch intellectual gladiator fights!” You’re absolutely right, but if you’re going to counter trends with exceptions I’m not going to take you seriously and nothing will change. Not society, not the world, and definitely not you. Smart People are exceptionally good at coming up with defenses for change, one of the best I’ve seen is that they confine lessons from examples to the only context of the example. Let’s refer back to my previous example about people buying new BMWs because they want a symbol to show, to themselves and others, that they are wealthy. The Smart Person knee-jerk response would be: “well, I don’t buy new BMWs to signify me as wealthy, so surely I don’t engage in these behaviors at all!” It’s so hard to direct criticism home instead of having it be deflected in a “well, that’s not word-for-word about me, so…” sort of way. Okay, another example. The BreadTube community spends a ton of time watching and discussing YouTube videos about leftist ideology. Past some point, and it’s not just the flip of a switch, people watching those videos already know and readily agree with most of what’s being said. They’re no longer there to better themselves or learn more, they’re there for the entertainment (read: the affirmation). Again, the immediate Smart Person response is: “well, I don’t spend hours a day watching leftist YouTube videos, so guess I’m off the hook, nice!” Okay, but what do you do with your time instead? Where is your energy going? What are you consuming?

This isn’t meant to be a half-earned ‘gotcha,’ it’s just that if you spend much of your free time reading blog posts with ‘incredible’ insights about the world, you feel that the quality of the insights justifies the expenditure of time. This may or may not be true, but the point is that these blog posts are branded for people with exactly that mindset.

IX.

The scope of this essay is getting out of control. Sorry, my bad, etc. I’ll wrap it up. 

Earlier, I mentioned how lazy psychoanalysis over the internet can be exploited. You psychoanalyze someone through their work, ‘figure out’ that they “show obvious signs of self-hatred,” or “probably voted for [candidate],” but if the content creator understands even a little bit of this, they can use it to their advantage by guiding your analysis to find something they want you to find. See: ContraPoints’s bookshelf placement. “Hey, constantly worrying about people psychoanalyzing you is telling, too!” Yes, and who made it appear that they were “constantly worrying”? Branding fools those playing checkers, and easily fools those who think they’re playing chess. Relevant

You may then ask: “oh no, how do I stop falling for branding?” The answer may surprise you. You don’t. “Wait, what?” Seriously, it’s impossible to never be tricked by it—that’s borderline definitional. Besides, you are always just another demographic. “Hey! I’m not just a demographic!” Ah, yes, put this one into the ‘believes they’re not just another demographic’ demographic. However, you can change the degree to which you fall for it. First strategy: pay attention to your initial reaction to the dressing. That’s probably how you are intended to feel. For example, ask: “why does [thing] want me to react this way?” One personal example for me was with hating on The Last Jedi. I thought it was bad art (still do), but this blinded me to content creators wanting to rile me up even more so I would want to watch more of their videos to fuel this feeling. That is, until I started asking myself: “why is this telling me to be so angry?” If you make one change after reading this post, make it asking that question.

Second strategy: focus on the actions. What does the branding hide?

life, and death, and giants

One time Emily Dickinson wrote a poem.

Life, and Death, and Giants

Such as these, are still.

Minor apparatus, hopper of the mill,

Beetle at the candle,

Or a fife’s small fame,

Maintain by accident

That they proclaim.

Ashok Karra introduced me to this poem. Karra has a great blog, especially if you’re into poetry, I highly recommend checking it out. Karra did a great reading of this poem. I’d like to offer another. My poem was taken from the Emily Dickinson collection at Project Gutenberg. As such, it lacks the dashes.

The poem may be read as a commentary on the dominance of inflated concepts in peoples’ lives. 

“Life, and Death, and Giants” are the great fixations people hold. I will then refer to them as the ‘Big Concepts.’ “Life” is all we have, all we know. “The Miracle of Life.” Life as being something precious. Something finite and continually expended. A tire with a leak, a boat with a hole. As such, we worry and fuss: “is this a good way to spend it? How about this?” This drains Life too. 

“Death”: the uncrossable upper-bound of Life—what bestows Life its value. However, our obsession with self-preservation and immortalization is driven by Death. It is the apparent presence of Death that spawns this fixation.

“Giants” is vague. Giants are typically thought of as fantastical creatures—they don’t exist. However, they are unmistakably humanoid. Giants are people like us, but, in a sense, larger. Now what could that refer to? What figures appear as “Giants” to us? The celebrities, the idols, the historic figures we all know and we all talk about. People are always disappointed upon meeting their Giants, as it shrinks them to human-size.

An absence of motion is introduced by “are still,” but also the act of maintaining. The action of still being (there), remaining. The line indicates that “Life, and Death, and Giants” remain now, and shall remain in time. “Still” also reads conversationally into the next section… 

The Big Concepts are described as “minor apparatus, hopper of the mill.” They are said to be “minor” parts to a whole. Not insignificant, but not vital. “Hopper”: a bucket that grain is fed into then feeds out of—though at a restricted rate. The hopper at a mill restricts the flow of grain, a life-giving, nourishing substance for us. 

“Beetle at the candle.” No actions are provided for the beetle. It is simply “at” the candle. A beetle, an insect, unintelligent by our standards—an apt stand-in for us. The beetle is entranced, transfixed, by the candle, but the candle also provides warmth and light. The candle sustains and illuminates—for some time, at least.

“Fife”: an instrument, whose “small fame” relates the fleeting significance of the Big Concepts. Its music is but transitory, granting only temporary pleasure. A fife also requires input—a fife does not play itself. Who plays it?

Maintain by accident

That they proclaim.

Dickinson claims these Big Concepts reign supreme in our lives (“Maintain”) “by accident” due to their definitions (“accident/That they proclaim”). Their proclamations grant permanence. Life is precious because it is Life; Death is scary because it is Death; Giants are bigger than us because they are Giants. But who defined them as such? 

We birth our own obsessions. From “hopper of the mill,” we understand that we have shackled ourselves by inflating these Big Concepts. We have formed a psychological chain-gang where we are simultaneously both prisoners and guards. 

We are transfixed by the candle’s flame, but who lit it in the first place? Who agreed it was worth watching? Will constant vigilance slow its burn?

i can’t write but i must

Ahead: nihilism, spikey pits, Chainsmokers lyrics. Also, an essay.

I.

Don’t believe the narcissism

When everyone projects and expects you to listen to ’em

Make no mistake, I live in a prison

That I built myself, it is my religion

And they say that I am the sick boy

Easy to say when you don’t take the risk, boy

Welcome to the narcissism

Where we’re united under our indifference

 

Feed yourself with my life’s work

How many likes is my life worth?

 

“Sick Boy” by The Chainsmokers

Cue: eye-rolls. Cue: cries of: “The Chainsmokers are so overrated!” Agreed. Doesn’t matter. The notion that popular or(?) dumb music has nothing important to say betrays a failure on behalf of the reader. “But every time somebody puts lyrics at the start of their post I ignore them and the one time I actually read them they didn’t add anything of value to the rest of the post!” Also agreed. Now read the lyrics again. No, don’t just move your eyes over them and see what the words say. Read them.

Finished reading? Good. At a glance, the song seems to be criticizing the status-quo. It even uses magical rationalist bug-lamp words like ‘narcissism’! See, that’s the thing. The song appears to be anti-status-quo, but it’s not, not even slightly. The song is not a critique of the status-quo, it is in fact a celebration of it. “Mmm, I don’t see it, think you’re reading something that isn’t there.” Don’t believe me? It’s fine, skepticism is good, objectively weigh the evidence, consider both sides, etc. However, if you do believe the song is, overall, against the ways of current society, I will ask the question: what’s changed?

After reading the rest of this essay you might come back and say: “aha! I knew the lyrics had absolutely no relation whatsoever to the rest of the post!” And you’d be totally right but completely wrong. This is an introduction to my blog, I am introducing things I want to talk about in more detail later and the ways in which I will do so unless my ways of thinking drastically change (which is likely).

Either way, on with the exposition.

II.

People need meaning or else they die. 

Most people are given meaning from something. Usually, this meaning is fucking flimsy because modern value systems kinda suck. Way back when, people had The Church which provided a strong sense of community and purpose. Well, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but being a religious fundamentalist ain’t hip no more, dawg. For many reasons this is good, except it’s easy to forget what’s been lost. Gone are the value systems. Gone is the meaning. Back ‘then’, you could ask somebody what they believed in and they’d exclaim, “God” before you’d even finished the sentence. Ask them what they value and they’d talk your ear off for way too long about the importance of faith and community and rearing as many children as physically possible. And these people wouldn’t just be sitting around hunting for suspected non-believers on Twitter, they’d be fucking doing something that aligns with their values like working in a soup kitchen or standing on the side of a busy path emphatically handing out brochures making people uncomfortable. There was no doubt that people had meaning and if they didn’t, they’d get some god-damned meaning.

Today you ask people what their values are and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a straight answer. Maybe a bit of non-committal mumbling and something about how you’re blocking the TV it’s the last season of Game of Thrones and they need to see which character will disappoint them the most. After some tender waterboarding, you’ll probably get some recycled and recited combo like family, friends, love, happiness, etc. Hell, maybe they’re Educated and value science (ugh), innovation (ughhh), and/or truth (ughhhhhh). Take away their phone and you’ll find out what they really value (hint: not the phone).

It might sound like I love dunking on people, e.g., “take that sheeple!”, but that’s not true. Well, it is, but I mostly just find the whole situation horribly depressing. People get home just fucking drained from another day working at a souless job, only to have the remaining life-essence sucked out of them by some vampiric entity. Think: social media, Netflix, video games, the news, etc. How can I blame people for having unfulfilling value systems when the old ones are getting replaced by worse ones? How can I blame people for lacking meaning in their lives when everything around them demands more and more of their, well, everything?

Time for some revelations.

Revelation numero uno: I am a person. Ergo, I need some of that sweet meaning too.

There are no other revelations.

III.

Everyone’s consuming. All the time. Re-read above or look [anywhere] for the results of that. “Whoa, thought you said there were no other ‘revelations’.” Now look, you. I’m trying to #DoSomething here. Anyway, in terms of meaningfulness, creation always trumps consumption. Who on their deathbed regrets not hitting tenth prestige? Wait, don’t answer that. The point is that at least if you create something, you can die peacefully with the delusion that somebody, somewhere, at some point, maybe will appreciate it. Whoops, there’s that pesky nihilism again. I’m not doing creation justice here, but its value is obvious to most people. Quick, which is Better: listening to music or making music? Okay, cheap example, I’ll admit. Let’s do another one:

Say you have a friend and she makes low-budget short films. Nothing too spectacular as her time and money are limited, but the movie-making keeps her occupied and provides her with a creative outlet. One day, she shows you her newest film and it’s… actually pretty good. Like, damn, that was sorta impressive. Which makes sense. After all, she’s been at it for a while now, and her efforts seem to be paying off. And you tell her that. She thanks you and asks what kinds of things you’ve been working on. If you have any hobbies or projects on the go, that sorta deal. You fumble a little here. You’ve thought of a lot of really cool things you could do, no, that you’re definitely planning to do. Er, going to do. Yes. The problem is, you just haven’t had the time. Life’s pretty busy™ with work/school and all. But once things slow down, you’re 100% planning to work on something. You tell her this. Even before you finish what you’re saying you can see the disappointment on her face. Her smile lessens as the corners of her mouth move ever-so-slightly inward and you swear you can just see the disappointment in her eyes. After you finish talking: a pause as your words hang limply in the air. Then: the inevitable, “oh… I see…”, followed by a ‘well’ and her agreeing your project definitely sounds pretty cool and that she wishes you luck on it and that if you do finish it you should totally show her. You reassure her/yourself that you will totally do that, then quickly change the subject before you sustain any further injury. You ask her if she’s seen the latest season of [show]. She says no. She hasn’t had the time.

Or, consider this scenario:

You see your friend for the first time in a while. Friend asks what you’ve been up to. You tell him that you’ve spent a lot of time watching movies and learning about art criticism. Friend says that’s neat and asks if you wrote down any of your criticisms or if you’ve maybe written some test screenplays. You haven’t. You tell him this, but you insist that what you’ve learned really is valuable. Cue: look of disappointment and the “oh.”

We understand that acquiring new knowledge and learning new skills are both valuable pursuits, but their value is diminutive in isolation. Typically, people place value on harnessing one’s expertise to produce something tangible. The problem with endless acquisition of knowledge and endless sharpening of ‘skills’ is that both are completely safe. Since you never use them to create something tangible, there is no chance that anybody can judge your creation. You plan to [do something] one day, but first you need more [information]. But there is an unlimited supply of information, and there will always be someone doing what you plan to do, but doing it better. You enter into an endless feedback loop where the result is always impotence. No meaning for you.

In summary, if we’re talking about meaning: creation always beats consumption. More broadly: action always beats inaction. No, I don’t care how good you are at watching TV.

So I think, “yeah, let’s make something!” Problem being that I can’t sing, strum, or [whatever you do to a French horn] for shit. That’s cool, I’ll write essays, I’m good at that. (Previous sentence remains guilty until proven innocent, kinda like suspected non-conformers.) Maybe I can even record myself talking and make video essays and put them on YouTube! Actually, on second thought, I don’t want to be associated with any of that.

Okay, guess I’ll start a blog. Time to start writing. Now. Right now. Riiight about now. Anytime now. Fuck. See, the trouble with that is…

Sometimes I think about writing; I fantasize about what I will write, about the clever sentences and dumb jokes I totally will include. Then I go to bed. 

Sometimes I think of a really great topic to write about and I actually start writing about it except the scope cancer sets in and it balloons into an unmanageable, untameable monstrosity. Then I think of another great topic.

Sometimes I write and actually get close to finishing a piece but it’s a mess and I want to make it presentable before showing anybody any of it. Then I never edit it.

Sometimes I think of how shitty our maps and lies are and I proclaim my desire to draw and spin better ones. Then the rush fades.

Sometimes I write something and then read something and think that there’s no way I am knowledgeable enough to even be talking about certain issues. Then I forgo writing for a week.

Sometimes I write about a topic and convince myself that I’m not really bringing anything new to the discussion and just parroting the thoughts of others. Then I forgo writing for another week.

Sometimes I write and write but then talk about what I’m writing and then feel obligated to write all that stuff down I just talked about except I tell myself I can’t write something nearly as good as what I just talked about. Then I give up.

Samzdat labels some of his posts as ‘attempt’. He also occasionally writes about the individual narcissistic self-image. This includes talking about how people will go to great lengths to protect the image they have of themselves. That they will avoid doing anything that might put that self-image in danger. All the while reaffirming themselves that their true self is so much more. For example, a good writer labelling any of his posts falling short of perfect as ‘attempt’. Samzdat obviously recognizes what he’s doing. “Sounds hypocritical.” Wrong. It’s genius.

IV.

The Last Psychiatrist tried to show people the numerous traps they fall into during their daily lives. The idea being that maybe if people understood these traps, they could avoid them and live better lives. Obviously, this pissed off some of his readers. In defense, they turned on him, writing eloquent responses such as:

Man, I wish I was a psychiatrist. It’s awesome to be able to group people into neat categories for condemnation-much like I imagine Cotton Mather felt. Rapists to the left of me, narcissists to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you.

So, riddle me this, shrink: what about women who have rape fantasies? What about when you get asked to play the rapist? How come that whole gig doesn’t enter your discourse? Is it because women are always a passive prop for your endless analysis of narcissistic men?

To be fair to the commenter above, the post that led to that comment was abrasive even by TLP’s standards. With such abrasion, it’s understandable for some people to react with: “hey, I’m not a narcissist, you’re a narcissist!” Thankfully, not everyone reacts this way, and there are some great comments that are genuinely worth engaging with. Take this comment, for example, criticizing TLP over one of his other articles (it even got {count ‘em!} 34 vote-ups!):

She’s not writing for you, she’s writing for herself, for her identity.

Careful–you’re drifting into the waters of irony here. One might also suggest that a certain author isn’t writing for us as much as he’s creating an identity of a rum-drinking, iconoclastic, hip-hop listening, indie-film watching, gym-fighting, forensic psychiatrist who screams Cassandra-like about the perils of Narcissism.

The internets have facilitated a new identity: the outsider critic persona, crusty, but subtly hip, with Diogenes-like nuggets of cynic wisdom. A good example is Plinkett of Red Letter Media, with his approach to the new Star Wars movies and, to a lesser extent, The Filthy Critic. There’s a clear style of writing as a means to create a persona–an approach a respected author has recently described as “infinitely narcissistic.”

This someone sees TLP as someone falling into the very traps he warns about. It’s not that I really disagree with this comment—it’s just completely missing the point. People will do anything to avoid introspection, even especially Smart People. Focusing on the author means you aren’t focusing on the author’s words. By accusing the author of falling unknowingly into a pit, you’ve unknowingly fallen into a pit of your own. Except yours is deeper and has spikes. “So you’re saying you should never criticize somebody’s writing?” No, actually. It’s just a little uncharitable to think TLP wasn’t aware he was creating an identity for himself. Maybe he was doing it for a reason.

V.

Tipping my hand. Here’s YouTuber Natalie Wynn (aka ContraPoints) at the 2018 XOXO festival:

I’ve dealt with that basically by creating more of a distinction between my public life, because I need to make it so I don’t feel so attacked when these things happen. Because it’s gonna happen. So, as you see in the video, I use a very strong persona, that’s a kind of fictional character I play on the internet, and that makes it easier to cope with criticism because I feel that it’s not Natalie being criticized, it’s “ContraPoints” and that’s easier to put up with. 

[…]

People want to see what they feel is a real person, but there’s more than one way to be authentic. You don’t have to be a diarist, you can also be a novelist, metaphorically speaking. It’s possible to express yourself through lying, or you can be yourself by becoming someone else. This is a technique I’ve used on my channel to discuss extremely controversial issues where just literally sitting in my bedroom looking at the camera and saying what my opinion is would be a bad idea.

VI.

That’s taken care of. Now for the next part.

I can’t improve my writing without writing anything which is why we end up with posts like this. I’m going to say that I will try to take feedback into account and look back on my past writing to improve my current writing. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people can never be self-aware or [something] enough to catch all their mistakes. If they ever reach such a state, their brain will probably explode and it’ll be messy in a bad way. I’m also going to lie right to your face and say that I’m only writing for myself as a way to better understand the topics I cover. And I’ll hedge some more by saying I’m not particularly well-read and basically everything I write is a regurgitation of someone else’s ideas. “Hey, wait a minute… you’re doing the [narcissism] again!” Exactly.

But wait… Isn’t it a narcissistic defense to admit to using narcissistic defenses to avoid other narcissistic defenses?

(In the distance, screaming is heard)

VII.

I entertained some dark thoughts the other day. 

What if we already have all the answers to our problems but we still can’t solve them?

What if we are stuck thinking that we just need the right [facts/discoveries/innovations] to solve all our problems? What if we are just endlessly convincing ourselves our inaction is actually action? 

That once we find a bit more Truth, we’ll do and fix and solve everything and finally be transported There. Peace, love, happiness, etc. for all.

People learn more, improve their models of the world, etc. and this is swell and all. But then the action out of this additional truth comes to… what, exactly? We ‘progress’ from talking about and criticizing complicated things to talking about and criticizing more complicated things? 

Take this critique of rationalists/nerds/technophiles/the grey tribe. Yeah, I like it. Yeah, I want to write something similar expanding on it because… why? (I know the bad reasons, I’m looking for better ones!) My question becomes: now what?

It seems that once you’ve fallen far enough down The Rabbit Hole, meaning comes not from believing in an imperfect paradigm, it comes from the belief that tearing down imperfect paradigms is meaningful in and of itself. Kill one paradigm, and another imperfect paradigm rises from the ashes. Behind the scenes, another paradigm is birthed, this one defined entirely by tearing down other paradigms. Later, both will be destroyed. Hopefully with facts and logic.

True, the newborn paradigm may appear better than the old one along the criticized axes, but this is not a strict positive. What you didn’t notice during your gleeful destruction is that now you sound like a total alien and nobody normal wants to talk to you. Probably all that incessant talk about paradigms.

Show people their god’s a lie and you risk them never believing in it again.

Scary questions: what if we aren’t heading in the right direction? What if exploring these issues further leads us further astray? What if we tear down paradigm after paradigm, lie after lie, until we realize those flawed systems we destroyed worked better?

Nietzsche said: “God is dead.” What if killing Him without a backup God was our biggest mistake?

What if [this]? What if [that]?

(Meanwhile, no writing gets done)

VIII.

I thought about all this for a while.

Then I thought some more.

Maybe obsessively scrutinizing yourself for elements of narcissism is a narcissistic defense itself. Maybe narcissistic defenses can be harnessed and used to help you do Good.

Finally, with a melodramatic sigh, I crawled out of my pit of nihilistic despair, found a better one, and continued writing.

It’s impossible to steer clear of every trap, to avoid every pitfall. The key is to find a place you can work with. And shit, I can work with this.

Welcome to The Durance.

Mind the spikes.