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

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


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.


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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A Bad Carver

Consider the Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Hohle Fels, and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. These three paleolithic statuettes were made from different materials – stone, mammoth tusk, ceramic. Each depicts a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks. Each head is abbreviated, with no face; the legs taper to points. What were they for? What purpose did they serve?

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

The only guess we can make with any confidence is that they likely served multiple purposes, whatever those purposes were. Paleolithic people were obliged to carry everything they owned with them. The material culture package of nomadic people was severely constrained. Each item was absolutely necessary, and often served multiple purposes. [Read more…]

The Art of the Conspiracy Theory

To give a denotative definition of the term “conspiracy theory” is profoundly misleading. While in some sense a conspiracy theory is “the belief that a group is secretly coordinating toward criminal or evil ends,” the fundamental content of the term “conspiracy theory” is connotative: conspiracy theories are bad. In most cases, the point of mentioning conspiracy theories is to feel superior to the silly people who hold such embarrassing beliefs. Most research is conducted by a body that might be known as the Institute for the Undermining and Humiliation of the Naughty Outgroup’s Pathological Epistemology (IUHNOPE) (an example).

Readers of Ribbonfarm expect more. Here, we will explore how to feel superior not only to the conspiracy theorists, but also to the people who hate the conspiracy theorists. We will look at the interplay between the “crippled epistemology” of conspiracy theorists and conventional epistemologies. Rather than viewing conspiracy theories as mind viruses that infect passive participants, I will defend the view that the conspiracy theory is an active, creative art form, whose truth claims serve as formal obstructions rather than being the primary point of the endeavor. False conspiracy theories might even help us understand reality.
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The Origin of Authenticity in the Breakdown of the Illusion of the Real

Authenticity is real. It is a repair process within the order of symbols, within the hyperreal, in which efforts to destroy the order of symbols are channeled into acts that strengthen and expand it.

What is authenticity? Once upon a time things seemed pretty real. Then, gradually, things started seeming totally phony. People asked “how are you,” but they didn’t really care what the answer was. People said, in a professional capacity, “I’m sorry for your loss.” People wore t-shirts made in factories with the word “AUTHENTIC” printed on them.

Some people were more sensitive to the phoniness than others. It was a lonely time for a special snowflake. The good news is that now, you, you yourself, the only one who sees through the facade, must go and find the real. It’s probably far away, in another place, if not in another time. It’s exotic and bizarre. It demands a great deal from you. There won’t be a Starbucks there.

Authenticity is the object of the quest defined above. It may be an illusion, like the Fountain of Youth or pirate’s gold, but the search for authenticity has real effects upon the world.
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The Quality Without a Name at the Betsy Ross Museum

Warning: some of the haiku and tweets reproduced herein contain naughty language and references to having intimate relations with an inanimate national symbol.

Is beauty subjective? People have strong feelings in both directions. A stylized representation of possible opinions about the nature of beauty might look like this:

  • Strong Subjectivism: the phenomenon of beauty is essentially random with little regularity, a purely personal response that is not predictable across time and person.
  • Weak Objectivism: the phenomenon of beauty can be partly predicted by definable regularities in its perception as a result of our specific environments of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA).
  • Strong Objectivism: the phenomenon of beauty can be predicted by definable regularities because of regularities in our EEAs and in the phenomenon of intelligence itself.

[Read more…]

The Systems of the World

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Martial artist and folk hero Bruce Lee founded the martial art known as jeet kune do, “the style of no style.” Lee said of his style, “True observation begins when one sheds set patterns, and true freedom of expression occurs when one is beyond systems…I hope to free my comrades from bondage to styles, patterns and doctrines.”

Compare my friend David Chapman on the post-systematic system of thinking sometimes (probably misleadingly) called postrationalism: “The systematic mode can, should, must be superseded—not by the communal mode, but by something that combines benefits of both.” The systems and patterns that can oppress us are also extremely useful. Growing beyond them does not mean throwing them out. Chapman describes skillful use of systems as piloting nimble watercraft on a sea of meaning.

Bruce Lee begins his article with reference to a Zen koan:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too. …” and so on.

Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

A naive reader might expect that Lee would only accept novice students, already-empty cups, free from the shackles of systems. But in fact he generally selected experts in some style of martial arts as his students. This is not a contradiction. Both Lee and the subject of the koan were speaking to those who already have a full cup.

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