Friday, October 8, 2021

The Very Large, and the Very Small

Notices fly by, but they are nearly all unrecoverable by the time I realize that they'd caught my interest. The new iPhone OS provides me a very promising tool to capture alerts and then to present them to me at intervals. And so I spend inordinate time trying to track why it, and other things on the updated phone, are not quite working. 

I hardly ever pay attention to social media, so that's a start. Perhaps our congress will catch up with my reasons.

But I'm really lazy. I just keep saying the same thing over and over. But today I write at a table, sitting upright, so that's a start. Plus I do read an awful lot. I hold in my hand most mornings this gorgeous piece of technology even though, along with lots of other techie types, I think the entire business model is disgusting. A metaphor?

My social security payments will start soon, if the government doesn't shut down, and anyhow it's somehow the first time in my life when I face nothing urgent or pressing. I have that thing that I've wanted all my life; a blank slate on which to do something. Another start.

I'm reading some Jonathan Franzen essays from the library. That's a help. Thank god he's not lazy. As far as I can tell, he never has been. Somehow he wants what we all want, which is recognition, and he goes and gets it. Of course, since he doesn't exactly hew to established norms for opinion, he also becomes an easy target for socially-mediated certainties. I guess he's big enough to deflect those. 

Yes, of course, my iPhone addicts me to the fascinations of the daily news. Franzen provides perspective. It's been awful for a while now, and it's not going to be getting better. He uses his fascination with birds as a kind of overarching metaphor. Filtered down to the local level anywhere, the birds are screwed, and thus we are screwed. Men shoot them wantonly in the Middle East, starting with armed Italian import hunters, because it's what they've always done and now they have MP3 birdcalls to deploy from iPhones, and really deadly firearms, and a fearsome mobility.

Americans have always been on the move with wheels, and we shall drive over the cliff that way, just like the Buffalo did when tricked. Our trajectories all combine to something that feels like near certainty that life on earth is in big trouble.

Franzen pokes holes in the current sets of socially-mediated obsession, especially including global warming and wokeness. That makes him a target, except that he's right. Global warming, in particular, takes the wind out of all the possible local sails which might power doing actual good. For birds, for underclasses, for the people whom wokeness should be serving, wokeness not being the same as action. Every little piece of social justice work is more effective than any amount of fretting toward slowing global warming. 

We spend so much time correcting one another needlessly, and in needless anger. Who are we making better? Lots of people who believe stupid things are doing good work.

I see no point in even barely trying to write as well as Franzen does. I miss David Foster Wallace, who had a gift with the written word that even, by my lights, his pal Franzen can't approach. I don't mean that as criticism. I really don't. Although the actual publishable critics can't seem to leave Franzen alone.

So, as I marvel at my white teeth in the mirror now, trying to detect what has to be the first deposit of stain from the type of coffee I drink, I wonder why I endure the truly hateful opinionating foisted upon me as I lie recumbent in the chair once every six months as mandated by insurance norms, and then the actual pain of the cleaning. The office takes joy, and I partake in it, in the Russian-descended woman's self-defined torture chamber. It will soon be decorated for Halloween, and I am disappointed that my six month span will miss it. Maybe I'll pay them a visit, when I inevitably have to remind them to submit my insurance claim again.

I have vague mental intimations that stain removal doesn't even matter to the longevity of my tooth enamel. Also, that it may even be harmful in at least the sense that leaving a clean surface must also be opening up the raw enamel for more staining. But that's not a system I can buck, or that I care to. Well, it hardly matters anyhow, since I and my enamel are way past their prime. I'm lazy, remember? I'm just taking advice, despite not really caring all that much if my smile isn't perfect. There is a poster there in the office, of a perfect female face with perfect teeth and I am mesmerized. Still, at my age.

So the purpose of this sitdown here today is to detail my own certainties, not socially mediated, just for the record, as it were. 

Along with, apparently, Franzen, and a very few others, I am not convinced that there is anything particularly awful about our current position in the cosmos. Ends are always a part of beginnings, and both are always traumatic. If I look in one direction - take sex trafficking for instance - I can't even begin to imagine how things will ever be made better. Like Franzen's birds, I suppose. 

I guess the difference now is that we really are awake to how we're all in this together, whatever this is.

But if I look in a different direction, more locally, I realize how very nice a certain segment of the educated white middle class did make life for a while, for a sizeable number of socially numb humans. Such life is mostly without excess and very pleasant, really. I imagine that Franzen and I both enjoyed a similar niche for at least a while, although I may suffer more guilt than he does. Which seems strange. 

But in my brief lifespan, we did move from where I personally could afford a nice apartment with space left over to acquire and rebuild a wooden sailboat and live aboard and sail it for a long long time. Even wood now is the exclusive province of the very wealthy, and "nice" apartments start way beyond my means. My point is that, until recently, I never had to mortgage my soul to do what I wanted. Well, of course I'm white and I'm male.

I would like to write stories or even a novel for the simple reason that I could get rid of the first person, apart from quotes - Franzen gives such advice for fiction writers. I will have to stop drinking for a very similar reason, which is simply because the physical feedback amplifies the actual pain of old age. I doubt that I will ever take any such advice. That's how lazy I am. I don't seem to have a novel in me. Consider yourself lucky, dear reader.

So here you go:

  • I am certain that globally universal time and position-keeping to atomic-clock precision is a more important metric than almost any other about where humanity is headed. (That doesn't mean that it can tell us anything about the direction, just that it's important.)
  • I am certain that what we broadly call 'technology' will provide exactly zero solutions to anything, even while it may exacerbate certain negative trends (like wealth concentration, global warming, toxic masculinity, WEIRD supremacy, hate mongering, sex trafficking, worker disempowerment, rhetorical vacancy, bird eradication, and on and on). That doesn't mean that we can't use technology to find solutions.
  • I am certain that there is something very important with the explosive proliferation of video, and the concomitant valorizing of visual perception. I suspect that has to do with how vision can discriminate, and thereby amplify difference. 
I am certain that:
  • Oil is a fated gift, and global warming was always part of the deal. We have to deal with it. We can't or won't stop it. The gift remains neutral in outcome. There has been plenty of good.
  • Red and Blue, Left and Right, both participate equally in the desacralizing of humanity. Religious belief to the anti-ironic extreme espoused by the Right (especially panderers of evangelical or Catholic certainties) enacts the identical godlessness of the humanist Left.
  • Ratiocination is neither the highest nor the defining factor for what it means to be human. (laughter is, haha! No, really, Aristotle said so.).
  • Belief is what gets suspended in play. Religious ceremony is a form of play. You aren't in the thrall of belief when you are in church, you have suspended it. Every child knows better than to claim that the play is more real than what's real. Play may be more important. Belief in what's inside the magic circle is important during play, but it doesn't help with life in the real except by actual improvements to physical and moral and rational accomplishment. Those are also possible.
  • Time's direction is not a physical quality.
  • Chance is never meaningless. Indeed, it is the basis for most so-called agency.
  • Love defines the direction for life's evolution (a series of chance interactions) in a way similar to how gravity (force/acceleration) defines physical motion and position after a certain threshold for aggregation of the very small - the subatomic "particles".
  • There is no certainty to be had by philosophy or science. Certainly no certainty for direction.
  • Love defines the highest aspiration for humanity, and composes its most difficult set of stepwise thresholds.
  • Ratiocination is as neutral as physics about which is the best direction for any individual or collective action.
  • Scientific or religious certainty is as futile as lead shielding to preserve privacy and moral integrity, useful though it may be to shield secret motives for militant purposes. 
  • Rationalization takes ownership of directions arrived at by chance, in just the way that our convictions can fool us about our motives.
  • Love is eternal, and so life is eternal. Species come and go not as failures but as fodder for love.
  • Apocalypse arrives just as does the death of a young child in the wilderness. It is just as tragic and needless.
  • Science and technology can move us toward or away from love.
  • Money is a virus on what we typically call the soul of humanity, and tends toward the soul's destruction if left untreated.
  • Capitalism as practiced first in these United States and as now a global infection, will surely bring us to apocalypse. Techno-humanists and evangelicals want the same thing in this regard.
  • Whether by collective death or by divine chance, we will disappear by embrace with the godhead. 
So we must rock on! For whatever random reason I recently watched the original Woodstock and Altamont (Rolling Stones) documentaries. These somehow bookended Bob Dylan's "Don't Look Back," even though Dylan's came first. The poles of rock and roll with Altamont marking the descent into commercialism spiraling down. The Dead pulled out. No shit.

Yes the earth is in the throes of terminal death. It ain't dead yet, but it ain't looking good. 

But I give credence to how much good is happening, and how humanity is growing up, by and large, and getting better at not being rapacious and awful. In many senses, the earth is at its prime. 

The messaging that its already too late empowers only the capitalist dead-enders, who will become ever more obscenely wealthy based on your embrace of their fevered escapism. They are all versions of Peter Thiel and Donald Trump, and they really don't believe that anyone else matters as much as they do.

It's not too late to wake up to the facts of life, which include the fact that all life must end somehow sometime, but what a shame that this life should end in this way and in this time. It is so unnecessary. 

I maintain that democracy is not dead yet, and that we can still build a truer democracy than the one we now suffer, which is a last gasp for Homo Ludens. Proof is in the agonistic opposition of two political parties, both in the thrall of neoliberal dead enderism. They are teams on a field. They have lost their religious responsibility to help us to suspend the belief that we shall destroy the earth. 

Our democracy can and will rebound when our elected leaders show, once again, that they understand what is really important and act on it. They will need to learn new certainties. Take mine, for instance. They aren't doing me any good.

I can understand almost any criticism of almost anything. What I have a harder time understanding is the anger that criticism now often seems to embody. I understand a coherent critique of Franzen and his privileges. I just don't understand disliking, or even hating, him for that. Where does that come from? I would say that it comes from "inside" the hater, and that hate is a bigger problem than to do whatever it is that one is trying to do with the criticism.

On the other hand, there is Mark Zuckerberg.

But, you know, on the other other hand I'm not too thrilled with Bill McKibben being friends with Ray Kurzweil. Like, I'm pretty sure that if you turned inside their circles, some of the Nazi brass were nice too. Shit, there I go crossing the line again. I suppose that Kurzweil is earnest in his beliefs, but so are the Monsanto chiefs who rationalize their need to patent nature because then enable us to get what we want. Ditto fossil fuel industry. They hide their truths from themselves for the same reason they hide them from us. Because we want the oil more than we want the truth.

These are the solutions to our despoiling of our planet, our planet's gene pool, and perhaps life in our cosmos that I can't, quite, abide:
  • Population control. Population is the symptom, not the problem. It is a measure of the extravagant success of capitalism, which is the root problem.
  • Transhumanism. That would be the same as conscious evolution, geoengineering, terraforming and the rest. Post-humanism is fine with me, but nobody's really proposing that
  • Infinite energy. Clean fusion, say, or whatever. All that can do is to power capitalism to eternity, which is to say to the devastation of the planet and the end of the story.
  • Reanimating extinct species. I agree with Kim Stanley Robinson, a cheap science parlor trick.
So what can I abide? 
  • Removing ourselves to cities, perhaps, provided copious gardens and lakes and streams. Even zoological curation there. 
  • Recognizing that equity and social justice and even universal basic income are more powerful than any imaginable rational eco-solution toward the goals of sustainable ecology.
  • Deconstruct the economy to disallow expropriation and enclosure of any and all commons, which are those things that all of us require to remain vital, which means most everything.
  • Rewrite corporate law. Socialism, anyone? Everyone?

Like, I don't really know anybody that wants to live inside a computer game, even though that is the only thing that I can imagine when people get excited about any supposed techno-future. Really, most people dread those futures, and think of them in Mad Max terms, and not in terms of the creature comforts we enjoy. Really, once you have HVAC, hot water, drinkable cold water, lights and plenty of relaxing entertainment, what more is there?  

The trouble with optimistic futurists - meaning really that they are blind to the obvious insolubility of the problems that we face - is that they too (like the religionists) have expanded the magic circle of game playing until it encompasses all of life. That is not reality, and never shall be.

Simply by turning our attention to providing all people everywhere with adequacy, we can solve all the other issues. But adequacy sounds like a come-down. Think of it more as what a cat or a monkey has gotten when it is perfectly content. I mean there is quite literally nothing that Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk has that I would like. Recognition? Pah! A nice nap in the sun is plenty.

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