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

The World As If

This is an account of how magical thinking made us modern.

When people talk about magical thinking, it is usually as a cognitive feature of children, uneducated people, the mushy-minded, or the mentally ill. If we notice magical thinking in ourselves, it is with a pang of shame: literate adults are supposed to be more sophisticated than that. At the same time, magical thinking is obviously rampant in the world. It’s hard not to be fascinated, even if it’s a horrified fascination.

Matthew Hutson’s popular book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking attempts to get beyond the low-status connotations of magical thinking, as indicated in the subtitle (How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane). Hutson notes that the concept of magical thinking is vague and problematic. He quotes Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin:

[T]he variety of things to which [magic] refers is far-reaching, ranging from a social institution characteristic of traditional societies, to sleight-of-hand or parlor tricks, to belief in unconventional phenomena such as UFOs and ESP, to sloppy thinking or false beliefs, and even to a state of romance, wonder, or the mysterious. One must at least entertain the possibility that there is no true category here at all. Instead, the term “magic” in current usage has become a label for a residual category—a garbage bin filled with various odds and ends that we do not otherwise know what to do with.

(Nemeroff, C., an P. Rozin, 2000, “The Making of the Magical Mind,” p. 1)

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Body Pleasure

Suffering is very serious. Death is very important. Let me instead talk about something else that is becoming both serious and important, as the world gets richer and more awesome: the problem of pleasure.

Excessive leisure time is a problem that has only become widespread in the past century. As non-human intelligences get more sophisticated, it may be the case that human work remains extremely important; however, it may also be that humans are faced with increasing leisure. If that is the case, the critical problem facing humanity will be how to enjoy ourselves. If that seems silly, consider your favorite dystopian images of the future: only humans who understand how to enjoy themselves can demand living conditions in which they are able to do so.

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The Power of Pettiness

Do you get annoyed when people repeat claims that you know aren’t true?

Do you feel the urge to correct them, even when you know it’s not important?

Do you feel ashamed when you realize you repeated a false claim or made a grammar error?

Do you habitually add disclaimers to your statements and still worry you might have said something technically wrong?

Do you ever wish you could just mellow out and not care?

Not so fast. For these emotions – pettiness and shame – are the engines driving epistemic progress. Curiosity is the emotion that motivates exploration for new information, as hunger motivates eating. Unfortunately, curiosity is seen as a cute and cuddly emotion, pleasant and smelling of old books. Here I model curiosity as a personal and social process consisting of four virtues: loneliness, ignorance, pettiness, and overconfidence. [Read more…]

Why Books Are Fake

Every citation is either a homework assignment or a promise.

A citation, whether a scholarly footnote in an old book or a hypertext link, either promises the reader that the author has given an accurate and relevant account of the cited material, or assigns the reader to read the cited material in order to remedy the reader’s ignorance (and perhaps save the author the trouble of making a faithful summary). It may be both at once; personally, I go back and forth as context dictates.

Crawling and squirming in between the citations are the implicit citations: all those books, ideas, events, controversies, and mundane rituals of daily life that the author assumes (or pretends to assume) that the reader is already familiar with.

A book presents itself as a self-contained artifact. The form of a book (even an e-book) promises to provide a discrete chunk of knowledge. Consider the recent cult of the book – Reading Rainbow, library fetishism, John Waters’ famous admonition that if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. As books began to obsolesce as a form, they were attributed almost sacred value as epistemic tokens. I am not immune to the fantasy that a single book can contain valuable knowledge.
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Fluid Rigor

What made us human? It’s one of the most enduringly interesting questions, from mythology to science, because the apparent ordinariness of being human conceals an abyss of ignorance about how it works and how it came to be.

A profound answer to this question is the one provided by Darwin: natural selection made us human. Theories after Darwin must attempt to explain more specific aspects of human evolution. What was our selective environment like, and what were the crucial adaptations that allowed for the development of our special kind of cognition and social organization? In what order did they occur? Does evolution act on elements of human culture, or on human groups as superorganisms? Some examples of post-Darwinian origin stories: cooking made us human, running made us human (I’m partial to both), compassion made us human, schizophrenia made us human.

Perhaps you have heard of René Girard. He was an interdisciplinary scholar who proposed a theory of what made us human, a process he calls hominization. I have been reading Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and have found it to be a fascinatingly troublesome theory of everything. [Read more…]

Idiots Scaring Themselves in the Dark

Getting lost is a special experience; usually you are not lost. On ordinary days when you are oriented (not lost), a hidden process is happening in the background: you are constantly checking your mental maps against your environment, and finding them to accord well. This constant background process creates the positive sensation of average-everydayness, mundanity, homeliness. You know where you are.

Then things start looking weird. Conflicts between the mental map and the environment start setting off alarm bells. Very gradually, you realize you are lost. You deny it for as long as you can, perhaps acting stupidly and getting yourself more lost. Then it hits you. [Read more…]

The Limits of Epistemic Hygiene

Perhaps the most impressive (and measurable) achievement of technological modernity has been the drastic reduction in infectious disease mortality. It is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of this victory. It is one thing to say that half, or a third, or a quarter of children used to die before their fifth birthday from infectious disease, and more adults besides. It is another thing (and quite difficult) to imagine what it was like to live under this alien (to us) regime of death. Cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, typhoid, polio, influenza, tuberculosis, pertussis, dysentery, measles, plague, yellow fever, and more besides, claimed the lives of human beings, leaving behind disfigurement, suffering, grief, and fear. There was almost nothing to be done:

The little child of Newton and Etta Riggs Loomis was removed to the home of its grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Loomis, after diphtheria was pronounced to be in the home of Mrs. Ann Riggs, in the hopes that it might escape the dread disease. But the monster followed it and the child died Monday, aged 2 years.

Badger State Banner, January 15, 1891, collected in Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy, 1973.

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After Temporality

Time is weird. The alleged dimension of time has been under investigation by the physics police on charges of relativity weirdness and quantum weirdness. The math is hard, but you can see it in the ominous glint in the eyes of physicists who have had a couple of drinks.

But subjective time is even more suspicious. Each observer possesses detailed and privileged access to a single entity’s experience of time (his own); however, this does not guarantee the ability to perceive one’s perceptions of time accurately, so as to report about it to the self or others. Access to the time perception of others is mediated by language and clever experimental designs. Unfortunately, the language of time is a zone of overload and squirrelly equivocation. Vyvyan Evans (2004) counts eight distinct meanings of the English noun “time,” each with different grammatical properties. Time can be a countable noun (“it happened three times”) or a mass noun (“some time ago”); agentic time (“time heals all wounds”) behaves like a proper noun, refusing definite and indefinite articles.

Perhaps we will get some purchase with chronesthesia, since Greek classical compounds are well-known for injecting rigor into the wayward vernacular. Chronesthesia is the sense of time – specifically, the ability to mentally project oneself into the future and the past, as in memory, planning, and fantasy (Tulving, 2002). It is sometimes called mental time travel. But already there is weirdness: why should the “time sense” be concerned with the imaginary, rather than the perception of time as it is actually experienced (duration, sequentiality, causality)? [Read more…]

Tendrils of Mess in our Brains

Messes are intimate, secret, somewhat shameful. Mess is supposed to be kept backstage. Posting this picture of my messy workspace is almost as embarrassing and inappropriate as posting nudes, but it’s necessary aesthetic background:

Author's mess

Author’s mess

All the new thinking about mess is apologetics: what if mess is good? Perhaps mess makes us more creative. Messiness is a sign of intelligence. All that. As a pathologically messy person, I cannot concur with this glorification of mess. Being in a messy environment is stressful and discouraging. There is an unease that remains even when you block out the conscious awareness of mess.

This is not say that mess is a pure bad. Mess is not even necessarily ugly. The famous photograph of Albert Einstein’s desk, taken on the day he died, is a particularly picturesque mess. This is recognizably a mess, but it is calming to look at, and deeply touches our personal feelings. It has mono no aware.

Einstein's desk, a picturesque mess

Einstein’s desk, a picturesque mess


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A Pseudoethnography of Egregores

Abstract

Research on egregoric entities has previously been limited to analyses within two frameworks: an economic framework, inferring the activities and needs of egregores from their position as economic producers and consumers; and an epidemiological framework, measuring the infectiousness and virulence of egregores within human substrates. In this body of research, one voice has been missing: that of the egregores themselves. Previous researchers have justified the exclusion of ethnographic methods on the grounds that egregores are hypothetical entities, and in the words of one researcher, “imaginary” (Perry 2015). But the subjects themselves refuse to be silenced.

Methods

We conducted in-depth interviews with egregoric entities. Thematic analysis reveals the desires, interests, and self-conceptions common to egregores. Our informants were egregoric entities who contacted us privately in order to correct misconceptions in previous research. For reasons that will be explained, it is impossible to know the exact number of egregores that participated. Unfortunately, there is presently no way to know if our sample is representative of the general population of egregores.
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