Musings – Week of June 15, 2020

Just some scattered thoughts. Not particularly well thought through, but perhaps interesting. I just want to write something.

  1. Not sure anybody predicted things would deteriorate so fast. Admittedly, a pandemic (read: random catalyst) is rather hard to predict.
  2. I’m pretty sure academic dialectic doesn’t advance purely in pursuit of truth. Flaming take, I know. But I want to push this from a more utility-esque angle. I think that dialectic is partially based on strength. This is weird, so maybe an example will help. There are many reasons for psychoanalysis becoming popular in academia, especially in aesthetics, where theorists such as Danto have pushed the idea that only interpretation is relevant to art, not evaluation. But I think that this works because, well, it works so well. First, interpretations are really damn hard to argue against, but much easier to argue for. This puts the interpreter at a dialectical advantage. They are able to produce content with positive claims with almost impunity. So here the problem is not that psychoanalytic interpretations work, it’s that they will never not work. Same goes for interpretations obtained through other frameworks, too. Pretty easy to produce work without any epistemological constraints, but it does raise the question whether or not the produced work is meaningful. Compare this to evaluation, where criteria is easy to argue against, but incredibly difficult to argue for. See: aesthetics. I think this applies to other contemporary strategies for theorizing, such as identity politics, where adherents are necessarily at an advantage as they are able to publish with impunity and dismiss any dissenters as privileged. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think incentives other than “truth” and [other academic values] play a role in prevailing academic paradigms. I’m also pretty sure this can be extended to politics, among other places. On the “left,” the fear of being labelled an -ist is wielded against others, while on the “right,” the fear of going against Sacred Tradition [God/”inalienable” “rights”/The Constitution that everyone’s definitely read] is wielded against others. Incentives say it’s not in your best interest to hold yourself epistemically accountable. Whoever attempts to set boundaries on, say, privilege will certainly be opening themself up for a dogpiling. I know this doesn’t leave us with a very positive outlook for, well, anything. Yeah, that’s a tough one.
  3. Which kind of transitions to the next thing that’s been on my mind: why is logical progression/coherence/connectedness important for art, especially for narratives? Really, why is it important for anything? I liked one of the points made on SEP, that consistency in one’s worldview, for example, is to be desired because believing in multiple, mutually exclusive positions at the same time means that some of said positions cannot be true. Obviously there are replies to this, but I found this explanation at least moderately compelling. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to apply this to narrative consistency. This may help to explain why people are so bothered by the idea of multiple, mutually exclusive interpretations of a work potentially being valid, but it doesn’t really help explain why narrative consistency is something to be desired, in itself or otherwise. One could instead make the argument that narrative consistency is important for the artist(s) if they wish to achieve their desired aims. This seems palatable at first, but consider The Last Jedi. Wouldn’t rate high for narrative consistency, whatever one may take that to be, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Rian Johnston achieved something very close to what he had envisioned. One may also suggest that narrative consistency is an indicator of overall artistic competence. I’m sure this trend is accurate enough to be useful, but this still wouldn’t explain why it would be something to be desired in itself. Else, a competent artist could simply recognize this fact and throw narrative consistency out the window.
  4. I’ve been listening to some podcasts recently. One was the Red Scare podcast. I only listened to a few minutes of a couple episodes, but I wasn’t really impressed by the hosts. I would like to mention though that the Red Scare subreddit may be one of the [greatest?/worst?] dumpster fires I’ve ever seen. Another podcast was Pseudodoxia run by KantBot. Actually not bad. Especially liked the episode where KantBot and a guest talked about Mark Fisher. Sometimes, though, I find KantBot’s unrelenting irony a little annoying. Honestly, I just find large amounts of irony annoying in general. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most narcissistic age of all time is also the most ironic. I’m pretty sure constant deployment of irony is a defense of sorts. If nobody knows what you really think, you (read: your self) can’t be attacked now, can you? The last podcast I checked out was the Perfume Nationalist. The host Jack is probably the least charismatic out of the bunch, but I really like the content. Straight aesthetics, baby, with a movie (or several) discussed each time.  Plus, each episode is paired with a certain perfume, which is actually pretty cool. Jack likes to stress that perfume-making is an art of sorts. I guess this is true, though I can’t see how scent-craft(?) could rise to the level of, say, literature. It’s kind of like food. There’s some sort of artistry involved, but at the end of the day, you kind of just want something that tastes good. Maybe it’s just the lack of content. Hmm, on second thought, I’ll have to think more about this. I can definitely see some weird arguments about perfume as high art. Strange.
  5. Reading your old writing is torturous, but at least it’s educational. One thing I tried (and mostly failed) to get at in my extremely edgy “wonderbread” post was that these mass political movements (the “right” and “left,” essentially) look exactly the same from the outside. Both sides claim to have [truth/history/etc.] on their side, both find the other side totally repulsive and definitely wrong, both claim to be underdogs, and both create a boogeyman to fight against that justifies collective and extreme action. Exact same tactics. Oh, and both are either completely unaware of this, or, when confronted with such information and a look “from the outside,” will always resort to something along the lines of “yeah, but [my group] is right.” Also pretty sure this was the goal of Samzdat’s one post on Hoffer. I think SSC put it when he mentioned that if you are convinced 50% of the population is wrong, you better be damn sure you’re in the right 50%. Now, this may seem to invite in some sort of moral (read: political) relativism. I don’t think I’m a moral relativist, but it does follow that if everyone is “wrong” and “brainwashed,” we are left with some particularly ugly questions: what the hell do we do? How can we be right? How could we know? I don’t have good answers for these, but I’m pretty sure this is why Samzdat talks so much about epistemology.
  6. Some self-congratulation: holy shit I was right about BreadTube, what a mess that sub has become! But the always-delightful satisfaction of “being right” fades quick. Discourse dying isn’t something to celebrate. It’s just kind of sad.

  7. If you aren’t planning on changing the world, why spend all your time learning about it? Most referring to KantBot and Logo’s comments on Twitter, that I may link to once I read this over. It’s like playing a video game where you have no controls and instead your only goal is to figure out the mechanics by watching the pixels change color on a screen. It seems really strange to want to learn how things work with no intention whatsoever to use said knowledge for your own advantage, or for the advantage of others. It’s also like a narcissist’s fantasy to continually learn things forever and ever and never have to worry about being tested on said knowledge or have to use it for any purpose. I think the goal of most Twitter “intellectuals” is to learn these things just to laud their big knowledge over others for [clout, I guess]. Certainly there is the view that learning things is often fun in itself (which I happen to agree with), but that wouldn’t do much to explain why people are so vocal about their knowing! At every given opportunity we seem to waggle our knowledge sticks in front of others. Sometimes I find the more evolutionary angle pretty satisfying here: that a lot of what we do is just “weird adaptation stuff,” and that we’re wired to find explanations for “why things are the way they are” that are satisfying in a very specific way. How much of “proofs” are just aesthetic preferences evolved from the pleistocene? “Hmm, ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge?’ No, that can’t be right.” And that the very same programming gives us an aversion to looking at our own code. “Hmm, ‘knowledge is just information gathering for survival’s sake that we still carry on doing?’ Nah, that sounds lame.”

  8. How to align incentives so optimization promotes flourishing, rather than skewers it… Christ, I sound like such a rationalist.

  9. I’d like to take back my statements about Red Scare and also about Jack from The Perfume Nationalist. Strange how malleable some of our opinions can be. Or how wrong our past selves can be. Anyway, just listened to the latest episode of TPN featuring Anna, one of the hosts of Red Scare. Honestly, fascinating. Thought both she and Jack were great. Maybe I’ll have to give Red Scare another shot. Also listened to episode 76 of the TrueAnon podcast, first one I listened to. Pretty decent stuff. The humor was eerily similar to some of my own, which was kind of nice. The discussion was on the media changing narrative regarding masks. Kind of funny how after discussing how incredibly unreliable the media is these days due to ideology, incentives, lack of context, lack of [a lot of things, really], there’s always that moment at the end where people grapple with this idea for a bit before shrugging it off and going back to consuming the news the next day. “Oh but we NEED to know what’s going on!” Yeah, something might just happen! It’s weird how hard it is to get away from the news, really. How prevalent this idea is that you “need to be informed” even though becoming (being?) informed is like, pretty impossible, especially if you aim to do so by way of mainstream media. Some might say they like to “keep an eye on things,” but for what, really? FOMO? Intellectuals resort to this all the time too, and I think it’s a massive waste of energy. The information is so fleeting, so transitory. Can anyone name some “world event” that happened in 2003? I guarantee the MSM was spazzing out about something back then. Plus, it’s not like people really refine a nuanced worldview by “keeping up with the times” or whatnot. Perhaps the most insightful resources for informing our worldviews are books that were written by people who are dead now. Would it really be such a loss if you unplugged from the news for a year? Seems weird to think about, but almost every child was unplugged from the news for at least a good ten years. Is there just some switch that’s supposed to turn on when you become an adult? Some weird responsibility to argue over the superiority of our interpretations of others’ interpretations of world “events”? And it’s not like people who have been consuming news for their whole lives are at some crazy knowledge advantage compared to fresher consumers. The funny thing about the news is that you can jump “in” and “out” at any time and “know” “what’s going on” in moments. This should probably be a huge red flag. If you could, for example, simply “jump right in” to say, sociology, in mere minutes, that would be extremely worrying. Same thing if you could do that with a game like chess for example. If some dude could just play chess for a couple hours and beat Magnus Carlsen, it would reflect really poorly on chess. I guess that’s the thing. Consuming the news takes no skill. There’s nothing to win. Everybody’s equally a loser. It’s just this big process of plugging in, taking in information about an issue framed to maximize engagement, quickly generating opinions, optional step of sharing “takes” for clout. Repeat forever. The inferno rages on. It’s also weird that people have almost no control over what specific topics are framed for discussion. No control of the framing, no control over what is talked about. It’s like Sauron’s eye but instead of agency, it’s just incentives playing out and optimizing. Is this what liberalism is? Is this what everything is?

(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.


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.

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?