About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter

Treasure Hunting

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln nominated Orion Clemens to the post of Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Clemens’ brother, a Confederate deserter who would later be known as Mark Twain, went with him to Nevada as his assistant.

Roughing It is Mark Twain’s account of his time in the Nevada Territory, an epistemic potpourri of lies, jokes, exaggerations, folklore, and – occasionally – facts verifiable from other sources. It’s a mistake to try to read too much of Roughing It at once, because every story follows essentially the same pattern:

  1. The narrator is tempted into some adventure or other,
  2. about which the narrator is extremely ignorant,
  3. but he nonetheless constructs fantasies based on romantic or biased sources and his own imagining;
  4. his adventure does not accord with his credulous fantasies.

However, these are anything but morality tales about the importance of shrewd dealing and hard work. Mark Twain’s heroes, including his narrator in Roughing It, are defined by gullibility and laziness as their great virtues. A sensible man would not fantasize about the lure of the frontier, and if he did, he would certainly not actually set out for the frontier in a stagecoach at the first opportunity he got. A sensible man would be content being the assistant secretary of the Nevada Territory; he would not run off to prospect for gold, or to stake a timber claim. Therefore, a sensible man would not have so many interesting stories to tell. “Gullible” and “adventurous” are near-synonyms, but each emphasizes a different emotional valence of the characteristic. [Read more…]

Light of the American Whale

It’s fun to use  phrases like “the nineteenth century,” as if there existed some vantage point from which one might apprehend one hundred years of life for over a billion people. To say “the nineteenth century” is to pretend that there’s a mountain, if only a figurative one, from which one can look down on the topography of a hundred years’ time, and somehow come away with a general picture of it. Furthermore, to casually mention “the nineteenth century” is to suggest that one personally visits this vantage point, as one does, to keep an eye on the entire century.

When I think about the nineteenth century, most of what comes to mind seems to be cinematic in nature: “costume dramas.” In movie consciousness, the past is primarily a kind of fashion. (“Movie consciousness” is the kind of being that dominated reality during the 20th century, until the rise of social media.) There might be exotic modes of transportation (train, horseback, carriage), special ways of speaking, and archaic architecture, but primarily, there is a particular kind of fancy dress. These cues together – the sound of the train whistle, say, and the way women move in heavy skirts, and perhaps a formal, clipped interaction between parties of distinct social class – these items of cinematic vocabulary are enough to suggest the American Western nineteenth century, as it is known at the end of twentieth century Hollywood movie culture. The nineteenth century in China, as it is known through twentieth century Hong Kong movie culture, has altogether different fashion, accessories, speech, mannerisms, architecture, etc., but the signs add up to meaning in the same way.

Some movies deal with specifically nineteenth-century moods and problems; others use archaic trappings as a kind of “skin” (in the video game sense) to make an essentially modern story look more interesting. One groans when a nineteenth-century police officer administers Miranda rights to a suspect, or when a nineteenth-century person says “I’m sorry for your loss” verbatim. It’s not authentic to merely transport modern concerns and mannerisms into historic fancy dress. But who is to know what’s authentic and what is not, other than through epistemic accident?

[Read more…]

Social Media Consciousness


The most amazing consequence of the recent transition to social media consciousness is nothing. [Read more…]


Most texts and speech utterances are produced on the spot, by a particular writer or speaker, translating meaning into a linear arrangement of words. The final products of this process tend to be amazingly unique: you usually only need to google a short string of words in order to find the single source that they come from. (Try it – you rarely need more than four or five words, even very common words, and a whole sentence is usually overkill.) How incredible that most short strings are never repeated! Meanings are repeated over and over, expressed in different ways, but their manner of expression varies. However, there is a class of texts and speech utterances that are interesting precisely because they are boilerplate: they are reproduced over and over, pretty much verbatim, by different writers and speakers.

One class of these texts is the chain letter: a document whose content implores the human reader to reproduce it (or to share it on social media). But some of the most widely copied texts and speech utterances do not themselves ask to be copied. These pieces of boilerplate language are copied verbatim for reasons outside the context of the texts themselves. For example, boilerplate language in legal contracts is included not because the language says “include me in your contracts or you will be visited by the Litigation Demon;” rather, they are included because specific linear arrangements of words have been judged in the past to have a specific legal effect. Historically, in contract law, it was difficult to tell when a late performance still counted as performance. Courts held that the boilerplate incantation “time is of the essence” demonstrated that a performance had to be on time to count, and that exact string words still makes its way into contracts in order to ward off claims that late performance is good enough. [Read more…]

Hedonic Audit


Work and leisure are opposites inextricably entangled with each other, like yin and yang. In economics, the distinction has been formalized in a variety of ways. One distinction focuses on market work, and proposes that work is a disutility (a bad thing, an annoyance) that people have to be paid to do. Leisure, on the other hand, is a utility (a good thing) that people have to be paid to abandon. (See, e.g., Gratton & Taylor, “The Economics of Work and Leisure,” 2004.)

However, not all time outside of market work is truly leisure: there’s a big difference between washing the dishes and watching television. An alternative economic approach is to distinguish work and leisure by the degree to which they can be substituted with market inputs: work is something for which market substitutes exist (Aguiar and Hurst, “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades,” 2006). For instance, the work of cooking can be substituted with restaurants, prepared meals, microwaves, and the like. Watching television is leisure, by this definition, because one “cannot use the market to reduce the time input into watching television (ibid.).” In this approach, “the leisure content of an activity is a function of technology rather than preferences.” It doesn’t matter if you enjoy cooking or not; it counts as work because there is a market substitute.

A synthesis of these might define work as a disutility for which one must be compensated, OR for which one would have to compensate others to do.

Consider an alternative definition by Robert E. P. Levy:

Any human activity or feature of human activity undertaken as a means to some desired state of affairs can be called work, and thus any kind of play is pervasively laden with elements of productive work

Work is different from play only in that the means are valued less than ends

Play is different from work only in that it is already realizing its value by its means, independent of what might come of it.

So clearly there is no dividing line between work and play, just work-like and play-like aspects of human activities.

[Read more…]

The Well-Being Machine


Social policy is a machine for turning force into utils.


A Rube Goldberg machine. Nancy Cartwright analogizes the “nomological machine” to this type of contraption.


This is an extreme reduction of a view that is widely held (if unconsciously), but, I will argue, wrong. As my friend David Chapman says, “Philosophy has no good new thoughts to teach you. However, you can learn why the thoughts you didn’t know you had are wrong.” The subjects here are two of the messiest folk concepts in existence, and they are the most central to whatever it is that we care about: causality and well-being. [Read more…]

Notes on Doing Things

I have a stupid hippie mantra that my brain says to itself when I’m running and I notice that I’m second- or third-guessing myself over some little decision, like which route to take or how far to go:

Body is driving.

When my brain says this to itself, it’s using a dualistic metaphor similar to the one Jonathan Haidt uses in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Briefly, there are two selves, one conscious, introspective, logical, and verbal; the other subconscious, sensory, emotional, and largely non-verbal (therefore relatively opaque to introspection by the verbal self). The elephant is apparently responsible for a great deal of behavior.

One upshot of this model is that you can’t just do things: you have to somehow get the elephant to do them. The popular tradition of productivity and getting things done is built around techniques for imposing the will of the rider on the elephant.

However, I am here interested in another way of looking at the duality, which I think my embarrassing, intrusive running mantra explains concisely: how to give the elephant the ability to do what it wants, sometimes even taking a rest and abdicating on behalf of the elephant. [Read more…]

Deep Laziness

Imagine a person who is very lazy at work, yet whose customers are (along with everyone else concerned) quite satisfied. It could be a slow-talking rural shop proprietor from an old movie, or some kind of Taoist fisherman – perhaps a bit of a buffoon, but definitely deeply content. In order to be this way, he must be reasonably organized: stock must be ordered, and tackle squared away, in order to afford worry-free, deep-breathing laziness.

Consider this imaginary person as a kind of ideal or archetype. Now consider that the universe might have this personality.

There is intense laziness apparent in the natural world (which one might come to understand simply by watching household pets). Christopher Alexander (in The Nature of Order, Volume II, pp. 37-39) notes many disparate examples of natural “laziness” that hint at an underlying principle (in history of science, the “principle of least action”): a soap bubble minimizing surface area, Ohm’s law, the shape of a river’s meander. “Many systems do evolve in the direction that minimizes their potential energy,” he says. “The deeper problem is that we are then faced with the question, Why should the potential energy be minimized?” [Read more…]

Luxuriating in Privacy


In my writing over the past few years (Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture, What is Ritual? The Essence of Peopling, A Bad Carver), I have been somewhat of a cheerleader for group ritual and small group agency, lamenting the capacities and mental states lost in the transition away from a communal, close-knit society, toward an atomized, market-driven society.

In reality, the thought of living in a communal, close-knit society, surrounded daily with family and friends, perhaps living in close quarters with many siblings or children, fills me with horror. Here I will allow my own heart its expression, and be a cheerleader for privacy. For something precious has been gained as well as lost in the transition to social modernity.

Consider obesity. A stylized explanation for rising levels of overweight and obesity since the 1980s is this: people enjoy eating, and more people can afford to eat as much as they want to. In other words, wealth and plenty cause obesity. Analogized to privacy, perhaps the explanation of atomization is simply that people enjoy privacy, and can finally afford to have as much as they want. Privacy is an economic good, and people show a great willingness to trade other goods for more privacy. [Read more…]

Justice Fantasies

Justice is seen mostly clearly in its absence. It is easier to notice injustice than justice, and when people talk about experiencing justice in positive terms, they usually mean that a previous injustice has been remedied.

The experience of injustice spans behaviors ranging in severity from rudeness and negligence to violent crime. But it can also include the distribution of property, as when it is alleged to be unjust that some are very wealthy while others are very poor. If justice is what is revealed by negotiations of injustice, then it is a very broad category, including not only all behaviors, but also the distribution of income, wealth, roads, transportation, housing, food, clothing, fresh water, pollution, education, art, fun, and much more. Bad actions may be judged to be unjust, but even good actions are targets for justice talk when they are considered suboptimal; consider how many people berated Elon Musk for frivolity in sending a car into space, implying that he had a duty to use his resources to solve certain social problems instead (such as buying houses for poor people). Injustice is simply the state of a misfit between the fairness expectations of a group of people and reality.
[Read more…]