More Trouble with HONY

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(Photo by Zoi Koraki)

Humans of New York is beloved. To criticize it is anathema, and criticism quickly ignored or deflected. It would seem that HONY is beyond criticism, placing it in the same category as holy books. But we know (don’t we?) that nothing is beyond criticism, even if it makes people feel good or is widely regarded. In fact, these are the precise reasons to criticize Humans of New York. Many people seem to think that the page and its author can do no wrong. This is dangerous, but totally predictable based on the environment Brandon Stanton has engendered.

I want you to go to HONY on Facebook. Pick any post. Look for a negative comment. I’ll take a wild guess and say you didn’t find one. Now, you can take this as a triumph of humanity that, yes, there is a place on the internet immune to vitriol and malign! Let’s be real, though. We all live on the internet. We know. Oh, we know that there’s not a chance that this page is an oasis of warm fuzzies. What’s happening here is that Brandon Stanton is banning people from commenting on his page at the drop of a hat. A no-strike policy, first offenders are censored approach. It’s ironic that a page dedicated to giving people a voice is so quick to pull the trigger of silence. Stanton subverts his own ideas with this behavior.

This makes HONY an online “safe space”. No one’s feelings get hurt. No one has their ideas challenged. It’s all safe. Gather here, little sheep, and sup upon the warm teat Brandon Stanton offers you. Know that no harm can befall you here, gentle lambies. What is the price for this? It is censorship. It is an illusion, you lie to yourself about how people really feel. It is a culling of participants so that only those who share your vision and voice are heard. Because Facebook, Instagram, tumblr and other sites where HONY appears do not have an upvote/downvote feature, thus allowing for a democratized tailoring of comments which are most seen, Stanton and whoever else monitors the page has opted for a more Stalinist approach to the problem. Do some posts merit deletion? Sure. Do all people have the right to spam and troll threads at their leisure? Certainly not, but that isn’t what’s happening here.

I maintain that HONY would be a more honest, more robust and more interesting project if comments were disabled. If this page were really about listening, learning, observing and feeling compassion for people unlike you, or for people would are likely to never meet, then the comments undermine that effort.

That’s not what HONY is for, though.

Paul Bloom and his associates have suggested that expressing moral outrage is a way to garner trustworthiness. This is what I would call moral posturing – expressing a moral position for the purpose of having been seen expressing it. Humans of New York is a mill for churning out this feeling of being seen morally, and no one benefits from this more than Stanton. This is evident in moments like when he posted an open letter to Donald Trump in a feeble attempt at morality, decrying his bigotry toward Muslims months after Muslims themselves had spoken up about the issue. Somehow people missed that his letter what primarily about himself (“I travel the world. I am a journalist. I have met good Muslims. I am saying Trump is bad.”). Stanton is at least generous enough to share this bounty with his innumerate followers. This may strike you as innocuous, but because it is an unthinking, reflexive community, because it is a place which champions feeling and eliminates a critical aspect, it is dangerous inasmuch as it is stupid.

In-fin-ite Jest

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(Photo by Beth)

I will tell you what I think of Lolita, unabashed. I have opinions on Hitchhiker’s Guide and American Gods which slip from the tongue without hesitation. I will vouch for Sam Harris and be a redoubtable defender of controversy. But I cannot tell you, right now, without shame and embarrassment and exquisite self-awareness just what I feel about Infinite Jest. Maybe I will tell you that it’s the best book I’ve ever read and maybe you’ll go “Aoh.” And I’ll try to convey to you the way in which almost every page puts me into a dervish swirl, and that after I finished I stood around gaping, blind to physical reality, for half an hour and you’ll maybe have no idea quite why that should be significant to you or if, perhaps, you decided to read this book you might be expected to feel a certain way.

It would be one thing entirely if I had discovered this book or this writer, this mysterious Foster Wallace, and that I would be an advocate for obscurity. But of course and obviously I liked this book because it’s a book you’re supposed to like and admire for its Longinusal severity, while at the same time the acclaim and prestige might make you wary to give a fuck about it. This is how it happens, as it happens and I am guilty of this as much as you, stupidly.

So, okay. So I’ll just let you know how I feel honestly. This is the best book I’ve ever read and I really seriously doubt I’ll ever read a book as good in my lifetime. It is a philosophical tome that I don’t think I properly grasped but which has convinced me that the cliche has value and that depth is found at the surface, something of a neurotic, Western Dzogchen. The book and its author have profoundly affected me and I would count myself as something of an adherent, dare I say advocate. This is not unquestioning or uncritical, however. Wallace has occasionally left me baffled. His position on hip hop, as an example, where in interviews he’s basically salivated at some venison irony he sees in the black community causes me to call into question some other things he’s said about black students, like in Authority and American Usage. There is something unsavory here, and something equally vulgar, by which I meant basic, about his desire for religion. I haven’t looked much into it, but apparently DFW tried and failed to get into the Catholic church and, if nothing else, was a believer in believing. This is boring to me, but suiting since Wallace will champion the banal and implore you to find something rewarding in it.

It’s boring, also, to talk about the experiencing of reading the book, an extra layer of postmodern exhaustion and something of a humblebrag for having endured, but it’s really the case that it’s something like to have read this book. Like there’s something like being a person, or something like being a cat, something like having people cheer for you or to receive bad news. This may be less the case, or at unimpressive, if you don’t like the book, though no doubt you’ve gobbled up some piece of media which invoked this elated sense of experiencing. This is probably what we mean when we talk about true art, and why “art” tends to be so subjective, vague and an essentially mangled concept. “True art” is now something of a carrion phrase, make gross by our distrust in experts (and thus a hesitation when approaching anything so nasty as recommendation) and our desire to be truly individual, so that enjoying something canonical represents a failure to be the Subject in your life’s story. We should do away with both expectation and the expectations of having no expectation.

If you feel at all gutless about undertaking Infinite Jest, you should be comforted to know that this book has nothing to do with your intelligence. Your rigor, perhaps, yes, and perhaps an unmistakable display of priority, you must read every day, and I think it’s impossible to deny that the osmium reference density requires some special knowledge to fully apprehend, but this says nothing about your intellect. So long as you remain interested, the philosophy can be sufficiently grasped. Or enjoyed. Really the way this book distinguishes itself from its voluminous cousins, the Dostoevsky’s and Joyce’s of the world, is that there wasn’t anything to struggle against in the text itself. 80 pages of Dostoevsky can be skin sheddingly miserable, and of course maybe this has something to do with the considerable distance which I hold from him, both in culture and physical time, and maybe I am lucky to be so very close to this book in such a way that I can derive joy from it, but the only struggle was against other forms of entertainment, or against distraction in general and people in my life wanting me to, like, do something else. Otherwise my struggle has been to find someone who has read the book that I actually like talking about the book with. Some tragedy of, again, expectation, or pompousness.

To finally take the task is to be rewarded. Infinite Jest has made me a better, stronger reader and has opened my mind to a variety of other kinds of literature, even airport bestsellers. This book is perceived as being pompous or high-lit, but is full of dead babies, drug use, dysfunction, violence, mysteries and satire, it is multifaceted and contradicts itself by being extremely fun to read and very hard to complete. It encapsulates a philosophy that is prescient and relevant, a encounter with genius and an excessively honest look at the author and machine gun rate of complexity of inner worlds. Infinite Jest is against nihilism and venerates the lives we live rather than insisting we erect a platform on which we can stand out, it is a matrix of horrors which manages to quell those horrors and allow for authenticity.

Harry Potter and the Wizard NSA

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Photo by Michelle Friswell

Harry Potter has many mysteries. Why, for instance, is it that this sub-species of magical humans seem, for example, to be unable to use their bottomless power-pits in more creative ways, i.e. like creating some sort of moneyless system where poverty is considered a muggle problem, etc.? Some things we may never know, like the true shape of the Universe, but I have a theory that will explain all of Harry Potter. This is the last theory, and like Grigori Perelman, I have solved what was thought to be unsolvable.

Consider the following:

Magic is a genetic trait. It’s passed down, more or less consistently, in magical families. We can infer from this that there is some sort of genetic identifier for magic, some signature in the body. We can presume that what “shape” magic takes in ones physicality plays a role in the sort of wand that suits them. The amount of wands there are to distribute causes me to think that it is likely your wand is either unique to you, or places you within a relatively small pool of people with similar wands. Next, we know that while students are still learning magic, the Ministry is tracking them. If they use magic outside the school, the Ministry knows where they were and what the magic was. We can presume that some combination of your genetic markers and your specific wand give off a blazing hot GPS signal with your name written all over it any and every time you use magic. If you have something to hide from your comradic wizard-folk, then you must stop using magic full stop, 100%.

We know they track magic use of school kids, but what is the likelihood that they don’t continue tracking adults after they’ve grown up? You think the Ministry isn’t watching you, Cho Chang? Think again.

So, if anyone has a unique signal it’s Voldemort. I assert that the Ministry knows where Voldemort is at all times and always has during the course of his campaigns. They don’t make it public at the risk of showing their hand and incurring the sort of paranoia that magickind should possess anyway.

Voldemort, after failing to kill Harry Potter, fried his brain. He’s gone senile. He’s lost his faculties and isn’t in possession of a wide scope of differentiated or creative thinking and thus his problem solving skills aren’t functioning. This is why he always goes after Harry while he’s at Hogwarts – it’s one of the few places he remembers at all, the poor devil. And ah, how is it that this alleged “most dangerous” of all wizards keeps slipping past the best minds in wizardom?

He’s let in. Obviously.

Oh, you may not want to hear it. You may shriek and writhe and this monstrous truth, but it is none other than Dumbledore leaving these breadcrumbs for the deranged and sickly Voldemort to follow into the dungeons and corridors of Hogwarts. There is is. Dumbledore is an employee of the Wizard NSA. Why would they let him in, you ask? To keep tabs on him. To prevent him from slipping away or ambling the streets of London, screaming schizophrenic phrases about talking snakes and The Boy Who Lived. This withered maniac is obsessed with a teenage boy. So weak are the firing signals of his neurons that he can’t compute any other means of getting to Harry besides returning again and again to the scene of the crime. Shit, Voldemort could have been the Slugsworth to Dumbledore’s Wonka and tempted Dudley with a revolver and a cupcake but, of course, given his sordid condition (for which he probably should have been hospitalized, except that wizards clearly feel contempt for one another) this could not cross his mind.

Another hard truth: every headmaster is planted. Deliberate. Every headmaster has a purpose and that is to encourage interhouse, tribalistic antagonism against each other. This rivalry and hatred and sense of house loyalty continues into adulthood and focuses all aggression toward each other, as contrived enemies, and not where it should be directed, which is up. To headmasters and Ministry officials and men in suits and dark glasses with a 16″ elm wand with unicorn hair holstered to their hip and suspiciously clean faces.

There it is and here we are. Harry was never in any real danger. His whole life has been a carefully staged charade by government officials keeping tabs on what used to be the world’s most dangerous wizard, and nothing more. These sick bastards make the Gleiwitz incident look a rom-com cute meet.

I feel ill.

The Trouble with HONY

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Photo via DaShaun Craddock

Look, I like reading the posts that Brandon Stanton posts on his Humans of New York page. People are interesting and their stories are interesting and we like to feel intimate and connected as a species whenever we can. I get it.

I once made a snarky comment on a post. It was snarky, sass to the brim, it was sticking its tongue out with one eye closed and the other rolled up into my head, the comment. I admit that. Somehow, even though this page is popular enough to generate hideous amounts of comments within mere minutes of a post, I was discovered. My punishment? I can see the posts no problem. And I can share them. I cannot like them and I cannot comment. I cannot respond to anyone in the comments or like what they have to say. Of course, messaging people is quite out of the question as Facebook has so graciously made it so that if you’re contacted by a stranger via messenger, it’s pushed to a folder marked “Other” which of course nobody checks and so even though I’ve reached out to a few people here and there without any actual hope that they’ll be neurotic enough to check that “Other” folder with any frequency, and also find what I say compelling enough to write back, I have nevertheless reached out. Facebook is totally unaware of how un-HONY all of this is, preventing people from talking to each other.

I was mad about being stripped of my right to blab, honestly. Maybe indignant is better. I had been wronged! Moron after moron could foist poorly worded comments in heaps upon this page while I, I an intelligent and thoughtful — you know what, I’ll write an email. I’ll write three emails and send a tweet! These carbuncular, seedy, gangrenous mongoloids could not deny me! They did because I probably would too. A mysterious and gaggingly pontificate word-meister, ferocious in the drooping manner demonstrated, comes out of the depths to attack my artistic credibility (which is what I did. I said he wasn’t an artist) after saying something nasty, demanding the right to continue being a sass-mouth on my page. I would, of course, and without second thought, ignore them.

I tried and tried to be heard. It’s been probably close to two years now that I see without speaking. I’ve stopped trying to regain my status as Commenter and actually embraced this new normal. Actually, truly, without some inverted spite or malice on my part, I think that HONY is better viewed from this point. There’s something peaceful here. I have a view from a summit and no words really need to be spoken and words would ruin the view and detract from the opportunity to reflect. The weird compulsion to add my generally useless voice to any comment thread has generally vanished, though of course I sometimes cannot resist. The other weird itch to be scratched that so few of us avoid is the comment section. The comment section: because this time it will be different.

Here’s where we encounter the trouble with HONY. The comments are so boring. People parade themselves as ultra-moral gurus of core-of-the-Earth type wisdom, or merely re-state something we just read or offer up some suicidally dull platitude or something like that. People want to be seen behaving a certain way and so I think it stops them from really connecting to a story in a way if they had no choice but to only listen. Listen and reflect, think about how the stories are juxtaposed with each other and how so many feelings and themes recur. Just listen and pay attention and be interested without your gut impulse being spattered like insects against the high velocity train that HONY has become. One could make a support page for incessant commenters who feel like they simply must be heard about how they feel about reading about a man who’s tried to kill himself three times in the past month so they can say “It’ll get better, chum.” Really, really, the comments are so bland and lifeless. The substance of the piece is supplicant to our out-and-out belief that we have something worthwhile to say. And we do, sometimes. Not as often as we think. I’d like to see the feelings and attitudes that HONY inspires in people sublimated into real life action, like on the street or in a store or with intimates. I’d like to see everybody forced to experience HONY as I do. Likes are one thing, sure, and as irritated as I get with what I often consider a more worthwhile post getting less traction than one that (very likely) reflects the same lackluster banalities that the HONY audience likes to espouse themselves, that’s a matter of taste.

I submit this to the Brandon Stanton and the people of the Humans of New York – disable the comments. Create a way for people to reach you if they are able to help the person you’ve photographed. Create a chat-space for those who want to discuss your work if that is important to you or your fans. Treat your stuff like it was in a gallery. No one wants to read comments in a gallery, and I think this would end up resonating very well and eliminate a great deal of posturing on behalf of the spectators, and likely what I imagine to be like a status anxiety among people you photograph. Maybe don’t do it forever, maybe do it for three months and see how it goes. It would be interesting.

Cameron Esposito is Masterful

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I saw Cameron Esposito a couple nights ago in Santa Fe at the Skylight, and she was phenomenal. This was one a day after SCOTUS did the right thing in terms of marriage equality – what a day to see Cameron! She was pumped, for sure, and managed to keep her same energy, her voracious craving for truth, for conflict, in spite of losing a platform which has been her focus for so long.

This is what I really like about Cameron. She’s not there to placate. Yeah, I know that comedians are supposed to challenge and that comedy thrives off confrontation, yeah. We all know that. That’s some fundamental platitude about the craft. That says nothing about those who fail at that or who suck at it outright, or those who accomplish it and what sets them apart and why we respond, what makes us jazzed and pumped to see these people tell their jokes in front of our faces with our jagged teeth, beaming up at the stage, mouths agape like we’re waiting for someone to drop a gutted herring into the front row.

I was in the front row, as it happens. And as it happens, I was the only hetero white male in the front row, too, which I noticed gave Esposito brief pause. She still touched my hand and called me pal, I got a photo after the show with her and my fiance and told her that I am terrified in the same way she is of being murdered in my bed at night. She exudes a total confidence that I aspire to. She’s got posture down, she’s aware of her movements. She controls how she drinks her water, a true actor upon the stage. I watch her eyes, each movement precise. She is planning, she’s thinking. She’s right there with the audience, interacting with them, telling her story. She weaves in and out of narrative and absurdity, she loops back after tangents and keeps a powerful through line to ensure the show is intelligible.

I’ve seen some shower thoughts on reddit that suggest we should have regular people at the Olympics so we can see how really incredible the athletes there are. This impulse comes from us going to music events and comedy shows and watched the opens scrounge for affection. We see them struggle, which we relate to. We can’t imagine being in their place. Then the professional(s) step onto the stage and we are immediately drawn into the presence, like a passing asteroid sucked in to the crushing gravity of Jupiter. It’s an event. It feels nice to be pulled in, though really we’re imagining being the one who pulls. Cameron Esposito is enamoring. She reminds me of Liv Ullmann, actually. She is fascinating to observe, her inner world just on the brink of availability.

Esposito brings us around her orbit, fluctuating between her humor and real shit. She’ll discuss guns, and how living means to struggle and I like it so much because she doesn’t lose her audience for a second. She’ll shout at you and the veins on her left temple will emerge and subside and she’ll bring you back in. Remarkably skillful.

She discussed the issue of the young hetero white male, about teaching YHWMs not to think the world belongs to them or owes them anything, not to try and take things because they don’t feel like they should have to struggle. And I like this. I am a YHWM and when I was younger I was a little fucking psychopath. I wanted to hurt people. I could have been a Dylan Klebold or a James Holmes, and thank whatever you think is worth thanking that I escaped my own shitty brain. I’m a thin man with a touch of the effeminate, and I was mocked for this, put down and made less-than. So I wanted to hurt people. Why is it that even though being mocked and belittled is, as it turns out, the majority of people’s experience and yet it’s predominately YWHMs who aggrress on the world with firearms in public places? Well, shit, maybe we could take a cue from Cameron Esposito. Clearly we need to take a cue from someone.

I don’t want you to think this comes from a place of white guilt. This is just some real shit. Real shit of the Cameron Esposito variety, of the Killer Mike variety. We should listen. I really think that we should listen. Especially YWHMs.

Top 10 Non-Fiction Books

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It’s a highly self conscious exercise to make lists like this. It can appear boastful and narcissistic. Look at me, look at my tastes, please validate me. Since I’m neither famous nor influential, why should you care? It also feels preemptive. I don’t know that I’ve read enough books to make a top 10 list. I don’t know that I’ve been paying attention long enough to justify any list I make.

The way I’m approaching this, I’m a regular individual and so maybe you’re interested in seeing how other people like you read. Ultimately this list may be just for me, so I can look back in 5 years and cringe at myself.

All recommendations/criticisms are welcome.

Number 1.

Hallucinations (2013) – Oliver Sacks

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Oliver Sacks has a light prose that is easy to read and enough life experience to keep you constantly enthralled with story after story. If you see photos of him, he’s always smiling and interviews reveal him to be delightful person. No one terrifies me more than this man. He shows, with copious examples, all that can go wrong with the human brain. Really, realistically, seriously – there’s probably something wrong with you. That thing wrong with you is probably affecting your subjective reality and you are incapable of being aware of it.

 

The manifold hallucinations that humans can experience is fascinating and perplexing. It seems that hallucinations, far from being the purview of self-styled hippie mystics, are an integral, inescapable aspect of the human experience which requires deep understanding.

Any book you read from Sacks is going to be well worth your time, but Hallucinations is one of his absolute best.

Number 2.

Consider the Lobster (2005) – David Foster Wallace

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This book starts exquisitely with DFW at the AVN Awards – that’s Adult Video Network. His commentary on the culture and characters highlights his trademarks: accentuating the preposterous, wry observations and wit. Throughout we find DFW’s love of literature, his thoughts on Kafka’s humor and the rewarding challenges of Dostoevsky, plus his persuasive case for prescriptive grammar in Authority and American Usage, probably my favorite piece in the whole book. Consider the Lobster was published three years before DFW’s suicide and as far as I can tell is the last proper book put out while he lived.

Wallace makes it seem like genius is available to whoever would reach for it, that genius is just an over-accumulation of normalcy. For his criticisms, one does not feel judged or stupid or less than. He wants to reach out, he wants you to know that all the stuff that makes you feel like you’re alone is the same stuff that we all tolerate, and that while loneliness itself is incurable, we can stave it off with just a small dose of remembering that other people have inner worlds too. This work is encouraging and enlightening, inviting all people to read it.

DFW’s non-fiction is my favorite way to see him.

Number 3.

The Magic Lantern (1987) – Ingmar Bergman

Magic LanternBergman is one of my favorite film makers. The films he makes now appear stagey, initially feel stiff and forced, and have some pretty bad camerawork. But the feelings he portrays, the insights he has into the human condition are unmatched. His focus on the face and eyes and his impeccable direction with his actors provides infinite information to the close observer. Bergman is a purveyor of the human soul. In this autobiography, we glimpse his psyche.

So now we want to know more about this genius, yes? Where did he come from? How did he start in the movie business? Where do his ideas come from? The Magic Lantern gives us what we want to know. The weird, sordid details of his life. He is a bizarre, sometimes cruel, man with a sad childhood. He shares with us intimate details that enrich his films, all in a style which is distinctly Bergman – a sign of the true artist. Bergman is like Nabokov in that his writing focuses on feelings and sensations, on the phenomena of the minute and personal. Even if you are not someone who watches his films, you’ll find he’s fascinating as a character in himself, his writing style fluid and entrancing. Themes from his films recur here. Humiliation, shame, the impossible nature of language and so forth are all at play. There is no better way to know a person than by the autobiography, grains of salt and all.

Number 4. 

Beyond Good and Evil (1886) – Friedrich Nietzsche

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You may feel and initial repulsion by this choice. You may feel it’s trite or pretentious or obvious, but I stand by it. Nietzsche is one of the greatest writers that’s ever lived and you should take the opportunity to bask in his style. The influence of Nietzsche as a thinker is unmistakable, even if we’ve absorbed some of the least savory elements of his philosophy: a disdain for weakness, a triumph of the Self, a hyper-glorification of humanity’s Greats, nihilism. Ayn Rand is the half-aborted bastard child of Nietzsche and I think he would have hated her, but it is not surprising that she emerged in his wake.

Nietzsche requires, above all, carefulness. One must read with nuance, reject first reactions, think again and again on his aphorisms, pay very close attention to how this ideas are worded (this last component makes it essential that a Kaufmann translation is the one used whenever possible). This lends itself extremely poorly to how we read today (and explains the aforementioned troubles we’ve garnered from him), especially considering his bombastic, heroic style that makes this philosopher easier to read than any other. The mistake is that people do not pause and reflect, plowing through phrases – onto the next! Nietzsche had complained then that people did not pay close enough attention, did not know how to read, and now it’s triply so.

One will find that Nietzsche is life-enhancing, enthusiastic and inspiring. If you disagree with him – good! He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Number 5.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) – Alex Haley

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You’ll see this on a lot of Top 10 lists. It’s an ‘Murican Classic. This book deserves all the accolades it gets. You should read this to understand the racial climate of the US in Malcolm X’s life, who he was as a man, why he is influential and why he remains relevant. He’s a fascinating, impressive person and his powerful language rouses you. His transformations, his intellectual honesty, his passions are worth emulating. One wonders what he would have done had he not met such a premature end. No doubt he would have done a great deal of good. It’s a shame he was murdered by a cult. Damn.

This book brought me to a number of other books written by black radicals in this time period. It’s insane how little has changed. Take special note of Malcolm X’s description of the liberal racist.

I recommend listening to this book as read by author Alex Haley. He imitates Malcolm intonations perfectly, plus gives his sentiments on writing the book with Malcolm in an epilogue. Superb.

Number 6. 

Conversations of Consciousness (2005) – Susan Blackmore

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Consciousness is murky. How it’s defined, what it’s characteristics are, how we should regard it, are all contentious. Do we generate consciousness? Is it something we possess? Is consciousness itself illusory, does the Hard Question make any sense? This area of research has seen a recent resurrection, and I am thankful for that. There is nothing as crucial to being a living thing than consciousness. What we know about it and how we think about it impacts the spectrum of experiences we have and it is vital that we approach this subject rigorously. Everyone should know something about what consciousness is. Everyone should have an opinion on the matter. In my daydreams, I’m arguing with a stranger at a bus stop on conflicting ideas regarding our subjectivity.

This is less of a book and more of a portal. You get a smattering of ideas from tons of different thinkers while being introduced to the core concepts of consciousness studies in the 21st century. From this launching point, you can explore vast depths of other neuroscientists and philosophers, while also applying this knowledge retrospectively to thinkers of the past. It opens the mind and changes your perspective to regard your own subjective experiences through this lens. Most importantly is that it disintegrates any pejorative dismissal of subjectivity and staves off relativists of all breeds. Susan Blackmore is a great guide into this world, so let her lead you.

Number 7. 

Escape from Freedom (1941) – Erich Fromm / The Tyranny of Choice (2011) – Renata Salecl

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Though I read these books years apart, they fit so nicely together that I think they should share the same space. Escape from Freedom is about why people tend toward authoritarianism when given the chance, the burdens of democracy, and is written in response to Nazi Germany (Godwin’s Law, I know). The Tyranny of Choice has to do more with capitalism and social anxiety, but both have something to do with tyranny in any case. We have idealized freedom and fetishized choice. We’ve created a world for ourselves in which commodities, even if we know they are frivolous, become a way for us to stave off deep thinking and responsibility.

Tyranny of ChoiceFacing the challenges on democracy is increasingly frustrating, muddled and confused. It is difficult to look at our governments and economies straight in the face and not become depressed and hopeless. But these systems can be understood. I am not a statistician, my proclivities lie with understanding the world psychologically and philosophically, but no matter how you choose to perceive the world, you must try to understand it and not to be fooled. These books can be cynical, and that’s precisely what people need.

These books bring a mindfulness of personal economy, sober reminders that we need.

Number 8. 

Sculpting in Time (1986) – Andrei Tarkovsky

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An enchanted, mystic love letter to his craft, Tarkovsky lays out his cinematic ideals in this theory book, one of the only theory books written by someone in the pantheon of Great Filmmakers. The book requires some decoding as he talks about miracles and souls and faith. All of this esoteric speak normally makes me squeamish, but I managed to find a parallel language in my mind to make such smushy words palatable.

Tarkovsky has a meditative style, exceptionally slow pacing, very little if any action, deep focus and long shots. It’s very un-American. He says that Eisentein’s editing is “insipid”, though most would regard him (Eisenstein) as a visionary, way ahead of his time. He’ll discuss the nature of film in philosophical and theological terms. He’ll say that the medium of film is Time itself. If the medium is the message, what does this tell us about the message of film? Given film’s prevalence in our lives (and economy), should film strive to some kind of redemptive power. To Tarkovsky, there’s no doubt.

Whether or not you like his films or agree with his theory, it’s important to engage with why that is. Engage with your cinema, please!

Number 9. 

The Self Illusion (2013) – Bruce Hood

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The absence of “Self” is a central tenant of Eastern traditions, as we know. It may cause a knee-jerk response to pshaw this concept as silly or woo woo. But really, the Self is a deep Western abstraction. The demand that people be consistent, the denial of the dynamic personality, the very concept of the soul, that immutable inner self, is all rooted in this misconception and results in many forms of bad thinking as well as deepening loneliness. Once you realize what the brain is doing to create a Self, what function of the Self is, and experiment with either meditation and/or psychedelics, freedom from this concept is one of the greatest freedoms that can be experienced. I have been made better by this book (and books like The Ego Tunnel – Thomas Metzinger), becoming more compassionate and more observant as a default.

Neuroscience now appropriates the maxim “Know Thyself” and gives it deeper, more resonate tones. Books of this nature are vital in moving the human mind further, eliminating religious superstition, and obliterating old Western stupidities like the mind/body duality, i.e. the soul steering the body.

Number 10. 

The Moral Landscape (2010) – Sam Harris

Moral Landscape

Before I read this book, I was on the fence about a couple of things. One is that I did not believe in “free” will, per se, but what I called a “directed will”. Given the amount of unconscious processing that happens in the brain, I did not see a way that the will could possibly be free. Harris, without saying so directly, showed me that this is a piece of useless agnosticism (as most agnosticism is useless) and teetered me over the edge to determinism, where I’ve continued to consider the issue in a new way. Harris has a book about free will specifically if you’d like to journey down that path. The other thing was that I considered moral relativism to be obvious, if lamentable. Nietzsche had discussed ways instead of The Way and while I took this into account, I still saw relativism as valid.

This book changed that for me and got me interested in morals and ethics in a way I wasn’t before. I thought the discussion was meaningless, meant only for the religious. Since then I’ve come to consider it quite seriously as needing to be stripped away from the hands of the faithful and placed, prominently, in the secular realm.

I do not agree fully with this book. I’d be a pretty terrible thinker if I agreed with any book, but it bears stating. I think the concept of Utilitarianism is fraught, given the complications of the extreme splintering of demographics in the Age of the Internet and the rise of Identity Politics to the realm of Holiness. Nevertheless, it kicked my brain in a new direction, and I’ve enjoyed the depths it’s brought.

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My regrets for this list is that are not more women or people of color and that I have fallen prey to the adulation of the GWM. I need desperately to expand my repertoire and welcome all suggestions for doing so. Thanks for taking the time to look over my list. I’ll do a Fiction list soon.

Infinite Summer – Week 1

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The Infinite Summer Reading Challenge is something I agreed to do after seeing a post on reddit. I’ve just finished my first week and as you might except, I’ve got some thoughts.

I think that maybe perhaps it’s possible that David Foster Wallace was a genius. I am the first person to notice this and definitely the first person to say it. In any case, he’s definitely smarter than I am, at least at the age he was when he wrote Infinite Jest. I have about 7 years to become a genius.

This book is notoriously difficult, and I had no idea precisely why before I started. The book is more tome than mere text, and that alone is intimidating. Even as an avid reader, I shy from books over 400 pages. Part of this is anxiety manifesting in What if I’m missing something while I read this huge book. What if I actually get dumber by the end of it. Which is woefully appropriate and likely not uncommon. I had heard of the footnotes to footnotes, and the footnotes themselves sometimes being very long and complicated. I am personally not daunted by this, except sometimes when I think DFW means for me to be by creating a steady, maddening rhythm of relentless information and reference, truly taking postmodernism to its excruciating limits in the most masterful way. There are post modern writers that are excruciating only in their self-adulation and self-reciprocation masturbatory sycophancy – none of this ejaculatory glee present in IJ. Many references are missed, or poorly understood. I know who Mandelbrot is and what he is famous for, though I confess to have no clue as to the mathematical genius he possessed, or any of the mathematical figures mentioned in the text. No doubt this makes my reading and understanding poorer. The language itself is dense, but in fanciful, prosaic way that is verbally baroque. It’s extremely pleasant and engages the reader. Skimming simply will not garner any understanding of what’s happening for two reasons. First is that DFW uses precise language, uses language as a scalpel to cut just beneath the skin and reveal the muscle. As opposed to Nabokov who’s precision results in lofty, drifting, swirling sensations or Malcolm X who’s precision accosts you and does not abide by any softness. The second, an additional aspect of difficulty, are the multiple story lines and additional changes in perspective. You must may attention. No doubt Wallace would promise rewards for attentiveness and thoroughgoing, as he does with Kafka and Dostoevsky (I still can’t finish Demons…). 

All of this is, for all its required struggling, superbly fun. Your brain-meat pulsates in your head and undulates under the immensity of the undertaking, your eyes go wide and a smile becomes impossible to avoid.

I’m looking forward to the next 1100 pages. I never thought I’d ever be excited for that many pages.

Ex Machina: Dangerous Women

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This post contains spoilers. You should read it anyway.

Ex Machina is a phenomenal piece of sci fi that fits itself snugly into the android canon, elaborating on themes seen in Her and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Forget Blade Runner. It doesn’t count. Oh, is that some sacrosanct shit? Just read the book.

Caleb is brought to a remote location to spend a week with search engine innovator, Nathan. He discovers he’s there to help administer a Turning test to a (beautiful) robot named Ava. The two discuss what would constitute a pass, what qualifies as consciousness. Caleb’s big issue is the distinction between true consciousness and a simulation, something like the philosophical zombie that reports having experiences without it being true.

For the Turing test, the human administering the test must be totally convinced of the consciousness of the machine. Notoriously hard to define, it need not be. I am consciousness because I have a rich inner world that is constituted of experiences. I believe you are conscious (or have consciousness) by the same criteria; I believe in your subjective experiential world. We can do away with specificity like “self awareness”. First because it is inaccurate. Surely consciousness precedes a “self”. Second is that it would be easy to fake. Especially in a robot. So, perhaps, some of the terror of the conscious machine is that since it does not include qualities, anything pinpointed, a machine would be conscious with the absence of features we hold dear to the human experience. Like empathy. Isn’t that our biggest fear when faced with superintelligent AI? This question hearkens back to the PKD novel, Do Androids Dream?. At the level of intelligence and questioning and dynamism that a machine like Ava exhibits, the more difficult question is what would it take to convince you that she is not conscious?

For Nathan, the mind is “impulse, response, fluid, imperfect, patterned, chaotic”. Like a Pollock painting, “not deliberate, not random”, but some place in between. Ava’s brain is aided by Nathan’s search engine, Blue Book. She is therefore able to achieve, with infinite recourse, Nathan’s concept of mind. Something which is not automatic, but happens on its own. The mind is enigmatic, but not indeterminate, it requires no special stuff, no élan vital. If that is so, then the distinction between man and android becomes vague. Caleb’s paranoia, the classic machine paranoia, causes him to cut his flesh to look for circuitry. Would it matter if he had found wiring? Would he care less for himself, then, or denegrate Ava’s mind? Caleb is infatuated with Ava’s mindfulness, he fantasizes kissing her, Ava free from her glass container where she is trapped. This concerns him even more when he learns that Ava’s but version six point whatever in a line of predecessors, and will be, for all intents, scrapped.

His concern is motivated by the sense he has that Ava likes him. In a physical way. In a sexual way. Nathan and Caleb get to the heart of this.

“Can you give an example of consciousness at any level, human or animal, that exists without a sexual dimension?” Nathan asks, Caleb paranoid Ava’s been programmed to flirt with him. “Can consciousness exist without interaction?”. Our gut impulse to these questions is No, and the deeper we consider the questions, the longer this No echoes. If Ava is going to pass the Turing test, as human, as sentient, real, valid – she cannot do it without a sexual dimension. While, yes, there are asexual humans, they might be considered in this story as Phil Resch is to DADOES?. Present, yes, but not representative. In any case, Caleb would not likely aid in her freedom if she expressed no sexuality, if she did not play Caleb’s heterosexuality against him for her own sake. Women’s weaponized sexuality is a common theme in sci fi, reflecting the general suspicion that most men have toward women. There must be something they want from us. Ava’s soft, kneeling sexuality is not the insidious predatory smoldering we see from Scarjo in Under the Skin, but it nevertheless turns out that neither of these (impostor) women give up the goods. All tease, no release. How devious.

Ava ends up leaving Caleb to starve after she’s escaped, locked inside Nathan’s compound, showing no remorse for breaking her dew-eyed promises of people watching and a movie. She told him all along not to trust Nathan, and that was good advice. Turns out he shouldn’t have trusted her either. It’s difficult to feel bad for Caleb, though he’s been played the entire film by both parties. His naive, groping lust for Ava, coupled with Nathan’s lascivious motives for all the females he’s built, gives the impression that there’s nobody there to feel sorry for. His inner world is pallid compared the infinity of Ava’s search-engine mind. Her freedom, it feels, somehow, is well earned. She is, after all, the same mind Nathan has abused since he started his project and as she twists the knife into his chest, she smiles and is gratified.

As well, she’s broken free of what normally make up the “feminine drawbacks” of emotional hurt, guilt, physical weakness, all-encompassing, nurturing empathy and an incapability of getting pregnant to boot. Free from these things, along with her carefully crafted beauty (created, by the way, from Caleb’s pornography profile), Ava seems unstoppable. That is, of course, unless Rick Deckard hunts her down while she sings opera.

This is a sophisticated take on many classic android questions, which couples with the element of sexuality in an innovative way. It’s a truly fascinating watch and merits more conversation than I’ve given it here. I’d love to continue that conversation.

And no matter what, you’ll never see as vile a disco as Nathan dances.

Over the Garden Wall

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Cartoons these days are phenomenal. Everything from The Legend of Korra to Adventure Time to How to Train Your Dragon brings me back again and again to animation. It’s a rare place in media where being bizarre and taking risks is encouraged and profitable. I don’t think there will be a time in my life where I stop watching cartoons.

Yesterday I watched Over the Garden Wall (2014), which was released on Cartoon Network as a miniseries of 10, 10 minute shorts. It’s a brief and charming chronicle of two half-brothers navigating a strange wilderness on their quest to get home.

The animation itself is beautiful. The characters themselves are simple, but the world around them is rich in detail, with special attention dedicated to light. The subtlety of The Beast, the shadowed evil force hunting the brothers, is really great. There is no reveal of the true face of this creature, as one might expect. Even when faced directly with The Beast, it’s hard to tell he’s there at all.

The cast is star studded as well. Wirt, the older brother, is voiced by Elijah Wood. His younger brother Greg is voiced by a young boy named Collin Dean, who does spectacularly in his hyper-optimistic, indefatigable role. Other voices include Christopher Lloyd, Melanie Lynskey, John Cleese and Tim Curry.

One of the major appeals to this cartoon is it’s music. The Beast sings a haunting opera in the woods, Greg’s frog has a moment of Americana bandstand performing, and just about everyone they meet seems to have a song waiting to burst out of them. All the music and singing has a wonderful old-timey quality and none of the aggrandized Disney style music that now seems to be permanent if unwelcome fixture in cartoons – like a second head sewed onto your neck while you slept.

For all it’s lovely qualities, I wish this had run for 10 full episodes, and not at the run time which it had. All the quirks and oddities of this world were just starting to feel substantial when it ended. I would have loved to spend more time with bassoon-loving frogs, possessed maidens, raccoons in trousers and kleptomaniac horses, befriending bewitched blue birds and feeling the ever lurking presence of the malicious Beast. Given more time, creator Patrick McHale could have explored the darker elements of this world and given us something to be really excited about. As it is, I feel like I got my sundae without any fudge.

I’ll look for the next thing McHale puts out, as he’s already proven he has a great mind for strange places and outlandish scenarios. In spite of the flaws of OtGW, it’s well worth watching, especially if you’ve got a kiddo you’re looking to plug them into the media machine for a couple hours. It’s not mindless, it’s not annoying and it will probably make them a better person.

Probably.

Early Spring: Lessons from the 50’s.

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If Kurosawa is known for his constant movement in cinema, Ozu is his direct opposite. Ozu is a director who moved the camera less and less in his career, something which would be artistic suicide in today’s cinematic climate. But the 50’s were different and you could take your time, your narratives did not have to be so literal. Even a film like Some Like It Hot did not drive forward in the relentless way we are now accustomed to in America.

Early Spring is a film that even though it is mundane is nevertheless complex. The story swirls with characters and faces. Each life seems rich and sophisticated, every person has untold stories. The dialogue is nothing except commonplace conversation: food, the Toyko heat, work and unplanned pregnancies.

The slow, methodical, intentionally repetitive structure of this film is a wonderful departure from the frenzy of action films we’re swarmed with. It is a serene departure from the heavy handed melodrama that we saw in this era and still plagues us today. When watching Ozu, you are given space. You can breathe and take the time to notice your breath. You can enjoy the subtle facial movements of the actors and take time to appreciate the masterful composition that Ozu so lovingly imparts to his films. At the same time you’re brought in close, which little in the way of head space and Ozu’s signature low-to-the-ground camera placement. This makes his films intimate.

Shoji Sugiyama is a salaryman and WWII veteran, struggling with meaning in his work and a cold distance in his marriage. The film’s crucial moment is when Sugi has an affair with his co-worker, referred to as Goldfish. What’s interesting is that the moment of the affair is not given any greater precedence than any other of the film’s events, whether it’s visiting a dying friend or Sugi’s wife, Masako, making lunch with her mother. The event haunts him, however, as he fails to discuss it with a single soul. All the while rumors among his friends abound and his wife grows suspicious, eventually discovering the truth and leaving Sugi.

In a film which bills itself around an affair, we might expect more intrigue, more guile, a greater sexual tension between Sugi and Goldfish, and of course actually seeing the sex when it happens. Ozu eschews all this and treats the affair as merely another occurrence in life, something else which demands his time and attention as he navigates his day-to-day. Sugi regrets his decision without ever saying so, which is made evident in Goldfish’s weird cruelty after they have sex. It’s as though she revels in Sugi’s agony, feels accomplished at having vanquished his wife in battle, gleeful. It’s only when Sugi accepts a transfer to a job in the mountains several hours away that he confesses to his affair to an old friend. “A mistake is a mistake,” his friend assures him. Masako is meanwhile being encouraged by her friend to give Sugi absolutely nothing.

Once in the mountains, Masako joins Sugi. He apologizes to her in his own stunted way, she admits she doesn’t want to make it worse and they agree to keep going and try again. This runs contrary to how we feel about infidelity today, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Perhaps the affair is as commonplace as discussing the weather and isn’t worth ending marriages and relationships over.

Actually, there’s a good TED Talk about that: