On Some Possibilities for Life as a Joke

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

If we hear the metaphor “life is a joke,” our usual inference is a negative one: that a joke is a pitiful and sad thing for life to be, that life should be more than a “mere” joke. It seems to be a negative judgment of both life and humor.

Here I will explore the difficulties of living life as a joke, a feat that requires agency, intelligence, creativity, and hard work, and has perhaps been achieved by only a handful of sages throughout history, if at all. I will examine other common metaphors for life, and see how they compare to life-as-joke on moral and aesthetic grounds. A joke is itself a complex cognitive phenomenon; I will review the most promising theory of humor from cognitive science, that of Hurley, Dennett, and Adams, to highlight the technical problems of the phenomenon of life as a joke. I will distinguish mere deception and other phenomena that might first appear to be living life as a joke, but upon closer inspection are lesser things. Finally I will present a few candidates for successful lives-as-jokes: Laozi and Zhuangzi, Socrates, and Andy Kaufman. I will argue that a joke is an excellent thing for a life to be, though of course very few can achieve it.
[Read more…]

An Ecology of Beauty and Strong Drink

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

According to the theory of cultural evolution, rituals and other cultural elements evolve in the context of human beings. They depend on us for their reproduction, and sometimes help us feel good and accomplish our goals, reproductive and otherwise. Ritual performances, like uses of language, exhibit a high degree of variation; ritual performances change over time, and some changes are copied, some are not. As with genetic mutation, ritual novelty is constantly emerging.

The following presents several ecological metaphors for ritual adaptation: sexual selection, the isolated island, and the clearcut forest. Once these metaphors are established, I will explain how they apply to ritual, and suggest some policy recommendations based on this speculation.

[Read more…]

Ritual Epistemology

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

If you are reading this, you are probably aware of the existence of the rationalist community. The community is characterized (broadly) by a scientific worldview, skepticism of religion and paranormal claims, atheism, and an almost fanatical devotion to Bayes’ rule. The skeptic wing of rationalism devotes itself to debunking “woo” – paranormal phenomena, energy healing, psychics, spoon benders, and the like. The wing known as “effective altruism” devotes itself to doing good in the most rational ways possible: donating money to charities that save the most lives per dollar, for instance. (My personal observation is that many self-identified effective altruists are vegans, evidencing their concern for not only human but animal lives as well.) Overall, the rationalist community is concerned with having correct beliefs; a troll might even call this their sacred value. Frequent topics of discussion include artificial intelligence, game theory, and optimizing effectiveness in personal goals.

You may or may not be aware that there is such a thing as post-rationalism (see, e.g., this and this). Post-rationalists tend to value true beliefs, but have more sympathy for religion, ritual, and tradition (including monogamy) than the rationalist community. They are skeptical of the ability of science (as it is practiced) to solve humanity’s problems and provide a sense of meaning or happiness.
[Read more…]

Meaning and Pointing

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

A cognitive phenomenon that can happen to you (if you are unlucky, perhaps) is known as depersonalization or derealization. It is a mild relative of the symptom recognized in psychology as disassociation, a component of many mental disorders.

Derealization is the loss of the felt sense of the world as real, as an unchanging and solid world differentiable from the mock world perceived in dream states. It can cause significant anxiety. It is a condition often articulated in art, for instance in our own time in the movie Waking Life by Richard Linklater.

As with many abnormal psychological phenomena, the existence of derealization points to its absence in the normal world: the negative phenomenon of the loss of the sense of the average-everyday orientation points to the positive phenomenon of constructing the sense of the real. We can ask how people experiencing derealization can snap out of it and begin to experience life as ordinary and meaningful again. But more importantly, we can ask how people not experiencing derealization come to construct a meaningful, solid, ordinary world out of their stream of experiences. In this essay I will explore a cartographic metaphor for the ways people create meaning and navigate the complex systems of meaning they create, based on pointing, reference, and maps.
[Read more…]

Cartographic Compression

Cartography is the practice of making maps. In the narrowest sense, a map is a symbolic depiction of geographic, spatial information, inscribed onto a two-dimensional surface. In a broader sense, a map is an abstract representation of information about any domain, spatial or otherwise – “abstract” in the sense that certain features or kinds of information are highlighted to the exclusion of others. But not every abstract representation is a map. Maps have axes, usually at least two; they elucidate relationships between features of the domain; and they are useful for orienting, navigating, or engaging in goal-directed behavior within that domain.

Maps that are inscribed on some kind of surface – paper, clay, rock, or an electronic screen – are useful for sharing, pointing at, and comparing with the domain. But the cognitive capacity for map-style thinking likely precedes cartographic inscription. Intimate familiarity with the domain, viewed through the special attention-directing lens of language, is enough to generate mental maps in different minds that are verifiably highly similar. [Read more…]

Frontierland

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960


[Read more…]

Cooperative Ignorance

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

“Ironically, once ignorance is defined, it loses its very definition.”
—Linsey McGoey, “The Logic of Strategic Ignorance

In game theory, rational parties try to maximize their expected payoff, assuming that the other parties are rational, too. Rationality can be a handicap, though: a rational party is limited in the threats it can make compared to an irrational party, because a rational party can’t credibly threaten to harm its own interests. An irrational party may be harder to cooperate with and less likely to be chosen as a cooperation partner, but in certain situations, it has more powerful strategies open to it than a party limited by rational maximization of expected value. An irrational party is not to be messed with, and can often demand concessions that would not be given to a rational party. Evolutionary psychologists, for instance, posit that altruistic punishment is an adaptation that fits in this slot – giving people sufficient irrational motivation to harm their own interests for the sake of promoting fairness norms. Rationality is good, but a little strategic irrationality is better – especially in the service of promoting cooperation. [Read more…]

Puzzle Theory

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Let me set the mood by revealing that the starting point for this investigation was the movie Room 237, a “fan theory” documentary about people contemplating Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. A fan theory is an interpretation of an item of art, usually fiction of some kind, that is surprising, bizarre, novel, or disturbing, and puts the item of art in a new perspective. TVTropes calls the phenomenon “fridge brilliance” (that is, theories that you fumble toward after the show is over, when you’re camped in front of the fridge swigging from the milk jug). Movies, television, and books are the usual stuff discussed in the mode of fan theory; the phenomenon also manifests in discussions of the meanings of song lyrics.

In Room 237, theories about The Shining range from the plausible to the bizarre. We are presented with evidence for a subtext of the holocaust, and for a related subtext of the genocide of the American Indians. Individual frames are scrutinized for references to minotaurs and labyrinths. The case is made that Kubrick cunningly alludes to faking the documentary footage of the Apollo moon landings (while the fan theorist explicitly says his theory has no bearing on whether the famed moon landings are factual and happened, he proposes that the iconic Apollo video footage is fake).

One has the sensation of creeping into a labyrinth of enormous size and complexity. The movie is pleasantly chilling, but also profoundly satisfying, hinting at promised gifts, unexplored creation, a frontier. [Read more…]

Weaponized Sacredness

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Author’s note: The thinking that gave rise to this essay was committed in collaboration with St. Rev. Errors, suspicious implications, and dubious conclusions are my own.

On March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, just north of Los Angeles, California, failed catastrophically and sent a wave of water through the valley that caused the gruesome deaths of hundreds of people. No one had predicted the disaster, but after an investigation, it was decided that the dam was built on inadequate soil; the disaster was, in theory, predictable – after the fact. People thought they had control over a massive force (the water), but their control turned out to be illusory.

Considering political and social disasters like the famines of the Great Leap Forward in China or the French Revolution, a similar explanation for the resulting piles of bodies seems apt: social forces over which humans thought they had control (in the sense of being able to coordinate with each other for well-being and sustenance) turned out not to be under their control. No one ever sees it coming, but after the fact everyone is anxious to demonstrate how inevitable it was. If mass violence and destruction seem impossible in our time, consider that everyone who was about to experience revolution felt pretty much the same way. Even the revolutionaries themselves often think they have little chance of success until the revolution is already underway.
[Read more…]

The Essence of Peopling

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Nouns for human beings – “people” or “person” – conjure in the mind a snapshot of the surface appearance of humans. Using nouns like “people” subtly encourages thinking about people as frozen in time, doing nothing in particular. “People” is an anchor for thinking about human bodies separate from their environment, from the buildings and streets and farms and parks that they build and use to go about their business.

I prefer to think about “peopling” – the process of human beings going about their business, whatever that is. I take this usage from the 1971 movie Bedknobs & Broomsticks, in which the main characters visit a magical animal kingdom, where a sign warns them away:

image

Much of the modern built environment seems to bear this message as well, presenting a hostile face to ordinary human activity, and preventing all but an impoverished subset of peopling from occurring at all.
[Read more…]