To Attack and Dethrone Gods

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the series Recognitions
Still of Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, 1968.

Borges was introduced to the original terrorist somewhere between Sir Thomas Browne and Marcel Schwob. He had no face and a name like a resonance chamber: Herostratus, arsonist of the second Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; punished with Oblivion, redeemed by Spectacle.

His subsistence, despite his damnatio memoriae, means Spectacle is not beholden to its Debordian trappings ―commodity fetishism, the mass media, etc― but rooted in the fundamental problem of representation, and so of art-world-historical interest. And as mundane as the Herostratian claim to infamy may seem today, it also took stock of change in the epochal temperature. To cite Debord himself: “[t]he growth of knowledge about society, which includes the understanding of history as the heart of culture, [and] derives from itself an irreversible knowledge, is expressed by the destruction of God.” Herostratus’ arson ushered in a new and outré aesthetic limit-experience, and it is interesting that legend has it Alexander was born on that very night.

The terrorist organisation as we know it ―cast as the asymmetric shadow of the modern state on a cellular level― lays no claim to the Herostratuses of the world, who are after attributions more exclusive to the State ―or, indeed, God― than the means of production. To become as the State, or like God, is to seize and control the means of destruction, no matter how fleetingly. To “attack and dethrone God” is to pay off an entire world’s accursed share.

The society of the spectacle decorates the serial killer with the benefit of Method, but it is the Herostratian terrorist who has κόσμος. He is destruction as the herald of a new world order. He may look like Descartes or like Terence Stamp in Teorema, but for his act to be effective and to ―maybe― resonate within collective, folk, historic or genetic memory, it must be unrepeatable and unforgettable. Therein his nod to Spectacle: the Herostratian knows that, more so than beauty, terror has aura.  

Two days ago, social media was ablaze with reports of “baby witches” hexing the Moon. The implications of their assault on not just Artemis, but the Thing-In-Itself, are occult and even philosophical, but they are not artistic, or historic, or spectacular. This attempted deicide was borne not from irreversible knowledge, but from a dearth of knowledge so profound as to be irreversible. As a charge on the Debordian House of Representatives, it didn’t even nick Representation.

Two Spooks

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Recognitions

It may or may not be true that there are no extant photographs of Johann C. Schmidt, aka Max Stirner. The ones I may know of lack the auratic power of the two penetrating character sketches Friedrich Engels did of him: the first, a remarkable, vulpine profile he drew from memory for John Henry Mackay, Stirner’s biographer, near the end of his life; the other, a dramatic standing portrait of the author of The Ego and Its Own, smoking calmly behind a toppled chair in a riotous group sketch of Die Freien done sometime around 1842. This is the source code of the Stirner meme.

Stirner casts one of the longer trickster shadows in modern political philosophy, his variegated reputation built on little more than an opaque biography, a yet more opaque essay and a historic, if circuitously occluded, difference of opinion on its merits by two more notable contemporaries. To exaggerate, but only slightly, Stirner was to Marx and Engels what Judge Schreber was to Freud and Jung: the forked foreshadowing of their future theoretical endeavours, the haunt their funhouses were later built around as partial efforts at containment.

The existence of a Stirner meme speaks to this hauntological capacity, especially as it relates less to Stirner’s ontology of egoism than to his subordinate notion of “spooks”, the eidetic non-entities that preclude egoist ownness. At its best, it seems to operate as an identifier for a contemporary Union of Egoists, a makeshift, voluntary, sovereign coalition of non-aligned “spookbusters” and well-read trolls.  

Even in its stark and sharklike graphic language, the Stirner is in dialectic contrast to another famous, black-outline cartoon meme: the gormless Wojack or “feels guy”, who lacks self-possession and is beholden to the spooks of sentiment, morality, appetition, political commitments, identitarian leanings and every sort of yearning-to-belong.

Though both have been subject to the usual memetic distortions, the Stirners have gained apotropaic, maybe even exorcistic traction, while the Wojack has become the figurehead of NPCs, a spook-unto-himself, incapable of self-rule. And while the Stirner is, of course, a perverse, self-parodying spook by merely representing ―rather than enacting― ownness, the Wojack flags the iterations of its absence. In Internet parlance, the Stirner is in a relation of ownership with the surrounding world; the Wojack is [p]owned.

Two spooks are fighting inside you. Take, and ye shall be given, goads the Stirner. The Wojack has only two choices: submit, or be dragged.  

Weirding Diary: 9

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

I’m noticing a resurgence of interest in classical systems theory that mildly worries me. I suspect it is being driven by an infectious desire to theorize the Great Weirding systematically. It is an impulse that is in some ways a natural complement to the parallel resurgence of interest in traditional religion as a mode of meaning-making (which worries me much more). Both are driven by the anomie and anxiety induced by the weirding (classical systems theory, like Singularitarianism, is a religion for people who understand compound interest).

I have a dog in this fight, which I call spooky systems theorizing (note the conjugation), occupying pride of place in the top right quadrant in my handy 2×2 of the clash of ideas here. Classical systems theory is in the doghouse at the bottom left, where I always put ideas with which I have beefs (my beefs tend to be with ideas rather than people).

A new generation of curious people is once again asking the same sorts of unreconstructed high-modernist questions that have been tempting ambitious thinkers since the 1960s. It is a disease peculiar to postmodernity, with Von Bertanfly, Forrester, Wiener, and the rest emerging as patients zero precisely at the historical moment when high modernism began to systematically fail, inviting attempts to save it through baroque mathematization.

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Pleasure as an Organizing Principle

The organizing principle of the modern world is pain. 

Avoiding it, yes. But also trading in it, taking refuge in it, and using it to justify our actions. Pain has so many uses. Why would you ever give up such a versatile tool?

We trade in pain when we use it to bargain for progress. We assume that the bigger the impact we want to have, the more dramatic the change, the more we have to suffer. Isn’t that how it works? Isn’t the depth of my sacrifice a measure of how much I care?

But the pain of suffering can become its own metric, and get optimized to an extreme as all metrics eventually are. In the face of a stubborn world that doesn’t yield to our efforts, it can be easier to use the pain we are enduring as a proxy.

We take refuge in pain when we use it to hide from our problems. Pain is all-consuming, a powerful distraction from the things we don’t want to face. Pain is self-annihilating, temporarily turning off the ego that accuses us of not doing enough, not being enough. Pain can be a refuge where the overwhelming complexity of modern life is reduced to a simple, pulsating throb.

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This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Regenerations

Tomorrow, along with my wife and cat, I’ll be getting on a plane on a one-way trip to Los Angeles, where I will be living for at least a year. As I mentioned in passing last week, it’s for a year-long fellowship with the Berggruen Institute (details in this Twitter thread). I’ll hopefully be working on a second book. But as big geographic moves always are for me, this move is also a convenient excuse and opportunity to regenerate.

And for the first time in my life, I find a part of me doesn’t want to regenerate (which is of course the best reason to do so).

It is that part of me that wants this particular Seattle chapter of my life to continue uninterrupted. I have been happy here for 7 years, the longest I’ve lived in one place as an adult, and I suppose I don’t want to interrupt a stream of consciousness that appears to be working.

I’m not certain what we’ll do after the year. Perhaps we’ll return to the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps we’ll like SoCal enough to stay. Perhaps we’ll head off in a new direction.

What is certain though, is that there is no coming back as such. One can only go back to a place (and only sort of), not to a time. Which is why moving with big jumps in space is so valuable. It forces you to catch up with time.

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The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

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What If We Already Know How to Live?

This is a guest post by Oshan Jarow.

Sometimes, an event seismic enough to rip a fault line through history forever divides time into two equally infinite halves: before said event, and after. Among the previous divisive events in time, I can think of fire, and language. Suggesting the internet did so for society is nothing new, but I suggest the digital age did so for the most basic, insoluble of human questions: how to live. The question is a pure expression of philosophy, distilled and stripped of distractions. I view digitalization on the seismic scale of fire and language, forever changing the landscape of the question, splitting the history of our existential strivings into before and after.

Philosophy is, in part, kept alive by ever-changing sociocultural circumstances that demand new lived responses to its question. But the changes brought by the digital age are of a magnitude beyond the routine vicissitudes of history. The global distribution of knowledge is arming, perhaps overloading us with more information than ever before, and the proliferation of digital interfaces is reprogramming how we experience life itself, our attentive and perceptual faculties.

Annie Dillard asked in 1999: “Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” Asking the same question now is a new inquiry, for things are no longer as they were. That was all before. Inaugurated by information abundance & global connectivity, philosophy begins a new timeline. The ‘after’ has just begun. How has our inquiry into how to live metamorphosed? What new challenges animate our search for a fullness of being? What is philosophy after the internet?

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Worlding Raga: 3 — Slouching with God

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

Last week, my wife and I watched the new Captain Marvel movie. It strikes a slightly quieter note than the typical Marvel Cinematic Universe romp, and it occurred to me that that’s because the character is arguably the most powerful in the MCU, like Superman in the DC universe. She’s more like a god than even Thanos or Thor, so the usual wisecracking smart-assery would have struck a false note.

A line in Ian’s Worlding Raga episode last week, What is a World, leaped out at me in relation to this:

This voluntary desire to surf chaos, metabolize it into new order, and then do it all over again, is sometimes called “walking with god.” Maybe it’s more like slouching with god around here.

In the MCU, Nick Fury walks with many gods, and Captain Marvel appears to be the most powerful of the lot, which is why Fury sends a prayer-pager call out to her as his last act in Infinity War. Presumably she’ll play a key role in defeating Thanos in Endgame.

Since I’ve been jokingly referring to Ribbonfarm and its surrounding web zone as the “Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe” (RBU), Ian’s characterization immediately provokes the question: am I Captain Marvel or Nick Fury in the RBU? I hope I’m not Hawkeye.

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Remembering Pierre Kabamba

I think it was sometime in 1998 or 99. I was walking down the hallway of the faculty floor of the Aerospace Engineering department of the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student at the time. One of the professors had tacked a recently published paper by his door, as professors like to do. It was something about computing asteroid rendezvous orbits, and it used some rather pretty continued-series approximations of a sort that were popular in the 19th century. The professor in question was chatting with another, Pierre Kabamba, and was making some sort of self-deprecating remark about his paper (though he was clearly pleased with it), but Pierre was having none of that.

Pierre T. Kabamba, 1955-2014

He exclaimed with a characteristic ebullience, “But this is wonderful! You’re doing ROMANTIC mathematics!”

The remark made me smile, and put me in an unreasonably cheerful mood for the rest of the day. At the time, I was working with another professor, and growing increasingly depressed and jaded (I was too inexperienced at the time to recognize a fundamental incompatibility). I didn’t know it at the time, but I would go on to switch topics and advisors, and complete my PhD with Pierre. I would spend a wonderful three years in his company, rediscovering, as an adult, the spirit of romanticism in engineering that had me memorizing airplane silhouettes in high school.

Last week, I learned, much to my shock, that Pierre passed away just over four years ago, in 2014, of lung cancer. He was only 59, and the last time I saw him, in 2011, he had been his usual cheerful and energetic self. We had last collaborated in 2006, on a course we co-developed and taught in parallel (me at Cornell, Pierre at Michigan).

The easiest way to describe Pierre is this: he was a real-life Hercule Poirot, and in many ways, the person who taught me to think in the ways I still try to practice on this blog. So let me tell you about Pierre and what I learned from him.
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Why We Slouch

All physical structures can sag, but only sentient beings like you and me can slouch. To slouch is to adopt a degenerate behavioral posture. One that is aware of the potential for less degeneracy, and retains within itself a seed of an ability to actualize it, but consciously takes it out of play. Slouching is a posture of self-aware incompleteness of presence; a kind of dehydrated behavioral state of lowered availability that is less than fully engaged in the here-and-now.

Slouching is the essence of enlightened mediocrity; the recognition that you’ll live longer overall if you don’t try to be 100% alive all the time. Slouching is a good thing. I attribute many good things in my life to my ability to slouch well.

When you slouch, you sag like a non-sentient physical structure, your body physically conforming to a shape dictated by the interaction of environmental forces and backstop constraints. Think couches and floors. When you slouch and sag, these constraints activate, and support you automatically against a prevailing environmental force, without any need for you to adopt an appropriate attitude towards optimal performance in the environment.

When a chain is hanging under its own weight between two supports, it adopts a shape known as a catenary. A child who goes “boneless” as a form of passive resistance also takes on a rough catenary shape if picked up and carried by hands and feet.

Here’s a question that’s I’ve been wondering about. Why do we slouch? The answer to save energy is no answer at all. That’s merely a possible (but not necessary) consequence of slouching; one shared with many other efficient behaviors that look nothing like slouching.

So why do we slouch?

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