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.