Thursday, July 13, 2017

Noise


I live, and have spent the vast majority of my life, in Southwestern Ohio. Ohio is often called (by the state government) the “crossroads of America” because of the interstate highways that pass through it, or, as I like to call it, “The state of ubiquitous and pervasive traffic noise.”

The entire eastern seaboard is like this, and that is why I have been accustomed to hearing traffic noise my entire life. No matter how deep I go into the woods, or how far I drive within the small radius in which I am confined — that is, how far one can drive on a weekend and still be back for work on Monday — I hear it. Traffic noise. The distant dry echo of cars speeding over pavement. It’s not unbearable, of course; I’m not in constant agony. It’s just… there is literally nowhere you can go, save inside of buildings, where you won’t hear it. Standing in the woods, listening to the birds and bugs, you can still hear the cars. Always. Day or night, it’s there.

Perhaps it’s due to a desire to be modest and not complain too much, a desire to be positive and avoid revealing my oversensitivity, but in all honesty, I have slowly come to hate that noise. Yeah, yeah, I’m a whiney oversensitive millennial precious snowflake blah blah blah shut up. People didn’t have to deal with this a century ago, and forgive me for wanting some frickin’ peace and quiet in which to, I don’t know, think a little? Solitude is an important part of thinking. You need to be alone, to feel alone, in order to really think about anything, and the constant reminder that you’re in the middle of a giant ant-hill pullulating with mankind tends to screw that up just a tad. “Well, it doesn’t bother me!” That’s because you either have repressed it, or you don’t ever go outside, or you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind a lot of noise because you don’t think very often. No, it’s not because you’re so tough. Spare me.

I realized just how much this bothered me when I found myself websearching for noise maps of the United States and noting the quiet places for future vacations and/or habitation.

It’s not just traffic noise, either. It’s not even just noise. It’s constant distraction. As I write this, I have no fewer than three devices designed to make noise and deliver electronic messages to me within arm’s reach - and they’re all things that I need in order to function. I can’t pay any bills without this computer (nobody my age uses checks) and I can’t wake up without that alarm clock and there is no way in Hell I could navigate today’s world without this phone. Like everyone else, I am so tangled up in this system that I need to be jabbed and assaulted by noise several dozen times a day in order to know what I need to do later this week.

I can remember fifteen years ago, when few people had cellphones. If you called someone and they weren’t at home, well, tough - you’d have to wait and try and catch them at home. Now that everyone has cellphones, it’s taken as a given that you can reach anyone at any time - and they have an obligation to pick up their phone. Common wisdom has it that it is irresponsible of everyone else not to be at my beck and call every waking hour of their lives, and it has been this way for fewer than twenty years. Solitude is not just rare, it’s actually suspicious; if you turn off your phone, you are clearly either committing a crime or masturbating. How does anyone manage to sit and think for a friggin’ minute?

(During all this, I have my air conditioner on - not because it’s hot here, but because it makes a constant low-level noise that blocks out everything else.)

Is it any wonder that so many people suffer from anxiety now? Is it any wonder that so many people have panic attacks on a regular basis? Is it any wonder that people are so distractable that the only way to catch their attention is to write something under 140 characters on Twitter or make a YouTube video no longer than 30 seconds? Is it any wonder that people are hypersensitive and distraught, that we’re all neurotic basket cases? Is it any wonder that psychological stability and healthy ipseity are rapidly becoming a thing of the past? I am not at all surprised that my state, the state of ubiquitous and (sadistically) pervasive traffic noise, is also the opioid capital of the country. Dayton, my present city of residence, is literally the worst city in the country for this kind of drug. Why is that? No doubt a depressed economy is the main factor, but I think that our ADHD-afflicted modern lifestyle doesn’t help. It’s no wonder people dope themselves with hydrocodone and morphine and heroin and fentanyl. The noise is probably much more tolerable when you’re doped out of your mind on a chemical that makes the world feel like a giant fluffy pillow.

I’m not sure how to end this rant, and it is a rant, as I haven’t got much of a point beyond the usual “modernity is bad” message. All I can say is that I hope to God I eventually can make a living online, from home, so I can move to some idyllic mountain valley with no highways, and I won’t have to leave that valley except once in a blue moon for groceries or whatever. There will still be the occasional plane, of course, but I can deal with that because those beautiful aeons-old stone ramparts, giants standing on the edges of old stories and songs, will block out ALL THAT FUCKING TRAFFIC NOISE.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Cultural Hypocrisy

I have often thought that, whenever a culture seems to abhor and revile certain personal defects, you will find that that culture displays those exact faults. Perhaps not everyone in the culture does, but the culture as a whole falls prey to those exact sins that it claims to hate.

Take ancient Persia. Ancient Persian culture idolizes, or at least, seems to idolize, the truth. A common prefix for Persian kings was “arta,” meaning “the true” or “the legitimate.” So there was a ruler named Xerxes, and another ruler named Artaxerxes. Herodotus said of the Persians, “Persians educate their boys to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth.” And yet, the ancient Persians were no stranger to bribery and deception in warfare. Indeed, the Corinthian war in ancient Greece was initiated at the behest of a Persian satrap and his coin. And historically, internecine conflict was not unknown there.

Or, for that matter, take the ancient Roman culture and its valuation of discipline. Roman culture viewed self-indulgence as “womanish” and weak. And yet, when Roman satirists wanted to skewer Roman culture, they did so by pointing out its hedonism and amorality. The idea of decadent Romans gorging themselves to excess is not a modern invention - even contemporary writers commented on it, for example in Satyricon.

Roman culture despised self-indulgence, particularly in sexual matters.

Speaking of which, one can learn quite a bit about the sins of a culture from satirical and critical writers. For example, Germanic cultures, from Germany up to the Scandinavian countries and even England, seem to have a thoroughgoing regard for humility and not thinking of oneself too much or praising oneself too much. And yet, Schopenhauer, writing in 19th century Germany, had no qualms about writing a lot of spiteful invective toward his countrymen and their apparent over-concern for other people’s opinions of them. You see this during the British Empire as well, where it was taken as common wisdom that one ought not to take oneself too seriously - and we all know about the pomp and grandiosity of Imperial Britain. William Golding, a British novelist, notes this dryly in Lord of the Flies, where he has one of his characters say something like, “We’re English, and the English are best at everything.” And contemporary Sweden has something of the same issue - a cultural ideal of individual humility, together with an unshakable conviction that Swedish culture is superior and best for everyone. For that matter, look at Russian culture, where absorption in one’s own minutiae is considered to be weakness and selfishness. And yet, every great Russian novel seems to mostly consist of the main character brooding.

And my own country?

American culture values, or claims to value, humanity, fair play, and civilized behavior. And to see how this works out, we can look to Frank Zappa, one of the cultural satirists of the 20th century:

I got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper
Let her do all the work 'n' maybe later I'll rape her
Oh God I am the American dream
I do not think I'm too extreme
An' I'm a handsome sonofabitch
I'm gonna get a good job 'n' be real rich
And I’ll do anything to get ahead…

I tend to accept this as simply how the world works. Might doesn’t make right, but it does let you make the rules. And I’d rather be the rule-maker than the rule-follower. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of this phenomenon that, in addition to having this mindset myself, I don’t see any problem with it. Then again, that doesn’t make me wrong.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

There Will Be Blood

You may remember the movie, There Will Be Blood, from 2007. In case you haven't seen it, it's a movie about an oil entrepeneur in the 1930s, who becomes rich over the course of the film by doing awful things. At the very end, he snaps, and it culminates in this famous scene:


A lot of people don't like this scene because it's overwrought, although I disagree with that assessment because I have witnessed people (both in person and via video) undergoing psychoses and emotional breakdowns who acted in a similar manner to this. It has been years since I last watched the whole movie, but it brought up something that has been on my mind lately. This movie seems to be about ruthlessness or American cynicism or capitalism, and that's probably what its makers intended, but to me, it looks like an indictment of the optimistic modernism of the early 20th century. This is not incompatible with (what I assume are) its intended themes.

In a nutshell: there was an optimism in the United States in the early 20th century that we'd reached the end of history, and There Will Be Blood showed the final outcome of that optimism. Let me explain.

Whenever I read contemporary American texts from the early 20th century, I can almost feel the smugness radiating off the screen, or page, as the case may have it. People then were convinced that they had found The One Way Forward for humanity, that a benign liberal humanism would create a perfect world. There was a lot of Utopian thinking, a lot of faith in progress. The Theory of Evolution was still new and technology was advancing by leaps and bounds. Skyscrapers, a kind of symbol of the 20th century that set it apart from the 19th, were already being built in New York and Chicago. Thanks to technology, man was finally master of his own destiny.

One found this same optimism in Europe up until World War One; after World War One, the Europeans became disillusioned with modernity, T.S. Eliot wrote The Hollow Men and everybody realized that scientific progress was being used to make horrifying weapons and not Utopias. The Europeans saw their countries ravaged by the first World War, and the ironic pessimism of postmodernity was already in its nascent stages. In the United States, however, the first World War was something for returning veterans and newspapers, not a visceral event that everybody saw firsthand. There was no blood and thunder on the shores of the United States itself. Americans wouldn't see that firsthand until the 21st century when a couple of planes were flown into the World Trade Center, an event that would sound the death-knell for American optimism. We are still working through that process, but it has begun, although not everyone can see it yet.

There Will Be Blood is a lovely film because it shows the final outcome of this. The unfettered freedom of the individual, the secular liberalism, and the optimistic humanism all culminate in a charnel orgy where the most vicious person claws their way to the top. You can almost see the beast emerging from the optimism of modernity as Daniel Day-Lewis, a rich pragmatic oil tycoon, hobbles forward, face twisted in rage while pointing at himself and screaming "I am the Third Revelation!"

The really sad thing is that American capitalism was better than the alternatives. Neither European fascism nor Communism were able to provide better societies than American capitalism. In fact, they were even worse. All three were different attempts at creating a workable modern world. The aforementioned death of American optimism has led to an amusing phenomenon where ineffectual revolutionary movements have popped up, complete with clueless college students proclaiming the virtues of anarchism engaging in "anti-fascist" demonstrations. Sorry, guys, I think you got the wrong century. Nobody wants it.

The crossroads the world is coming to is the point where modernity itself is seen to be defective, and we realize that the whole modern project was unworkable to begin with. I do not know what will replace it, but we can't keep it up forever. The capitalistic American liberalism has only proven superior to Communism and fascism as a result of its ability to maintain a more open society and, more importantly, the fact that it has simply survived longer. Whether it's Josef Stalin smoking a Herzegovina cigarette while signing off on a list of gulag-bound political enemies, or Hitler cramming people into ovens, or an oil tycoon beating some poor loony preacher's head in with a bowling pin, modernity always seems to terminate the same way; the beast emerges and devours.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Misanthropy, pt. 8 - Homogenized and Full of Rats



An organism that breeds quickly and eats anything you put in front of it will survive nearly anywhere, because the requirements for its survival are simple. It doesn't need a lot of specific conditions in place to keep breeding. Such an organism can eat nearly anything and keeps breeding regardless of whether the environing area can support its offspring, so it spreads like the Plague and soon it's everywhere. When there is little food, mass die-offs happen, and then the process repeats as soon as a new source of food is found. Yeast reproduce quickly until the alcohol they produce kills them, for example. By contrast, organisms that are more complex and have specific needs are easy to kill, and much harder to keep alive. A bird that nests only in mature trees and has a specific diet cannot live in the little copse in your suburb, because it must have very specific conditions in order to stay alive. This is one reason you see the same kinds of animals over and over in suburban neighborhoods, because only species that can eat leaves and garbage and live anywhere can live in such a place. You see deer, squirrels, rabbits, the same few species of bird, and maybe one or two other kinds of animal that can eat anything and breed quickly. If you want a lot of biodiversity, you need a complex ecosystem with lots of niches to fill, so those specialist organisms that have specific survival requirements can have a place to fit in. There is a thing in biology called the competitive exclusion principle, which states that, if two species are competing over one resource, one of them will be driven to extinction; accordingly, if there are very few ecological niches, very few kinsd of resources, you end up with very few species. For example, if all you have is huge amounts of one kind of food, the landscape is eventually dominated by one species that eats only that kind of food. If you homogenize the world, if you turn everything into a giant suburb, you lose the specialists, the species that occupy unique niches. A homogeneous ecosystem with a low degree of complexity will support fast-breeding omnivorous pests and little else.

The point of this little philosophical excursion into ecology is that, taken as metaphor, this can illuminate something about human society, but first, we have to lay a little more groundwork. When we began to industrialize in the 1800s, we decided that standardization as the coolest thing ever and began standardizing everything. Fast forward a century or two and we've standardized everything - everything! Whether or not you're a good person is decided with reference to your "mental health," which has, in the United States anyway, its own special rubric (the DSM). Whether or not you're a good thinker is decided by whether you jumped through the appropriate hoops to get the right certificates. This standardization has helped in some areas (medicine, technical fields) and absolutely killed others (everything else).

Now, given the two observations above, what should we suspect about human society? As I said above, homogeneous ecosystems favor fast-breeding omnivorous pests; a simple homogeneous environment favors vermin because it lacks the nuance to support any organism more complex, which makes such environments boring and depressing. And, since industrialization, human society is just such an environment, in a metaphorical sense. So, what kind of person is dominant in our time? Sure, there are thinkers and writers and leaders, but they're all just people who jumped through the right hoops. A rat with a professional certificate is still just a rat.

Thoughts On Writing

These are not hard and fast rules. These are just ideas you could use, if you felt so inclined.
  1. One way to express yourself is to forget about expressing "yourself" and start expressing things. Consciously putting yourself into your writing is a niche skill for ironic comedians or people writing autobiographies. If you want the "real you" to come through, focus on making the most objective expression you can of things outside of yourself. If you're describing a fictional character, describe them as though writing an objective expression of a real person. Your personality (the thing you want to express so badly) will come through from writing this way.
  2. When a comic book artist draws a brick wall, they sometimes forego drawing every brick in favor of drawing a cluster of bricks here and there. Looking at the picture, you get the impression that the entire wall is made of bricks. This is a useful method for descriptive writing. You needn't list every detail. Just describe the most salient aspects of the thing, and the reader's mind will complete the picture. If I tell you that I'm in an old library, and that there's a person sitting at an antique wooden desk in that library behind a pile of dusty books, then what does that person look like? In all likelihood, you've already decided that the desk has carven claw feet and that the person behind it is either a wizardly old man or an old lady who looks like a Victorian schoolteacher.
  3. The surest way to screw up when you're making art is to do whatever you think people expect you to do, rather than making work that reflects what's going through your head on a day-to-day basis.