6/26/14

Ann Coulter is not so much wrong as stupid about soccer

Responding to Ann Coulter is like what shooting fish in a barrel would be like if fish were immortal and guns had no effect on them: easy but pointless; fun for a second, but ultimately futile. Every inch of her is covered with the criticism-resistant armor of narcissism, Teflon-grade shamelessness, Kevlar-quality self-confidence so unearned as to be unfathomable. She just wrote a terrible article, bizarrely divided into a series of bullet points, about soccer. Now look -- I don't care if people don't like soccer. I don't care if people don't like anything. Unless people don't like the things they don't like in the style of assholes. I don't like Ann Coulter. I don't like her so much it makes me an asshole. She sucks me into this wormhole of loathing where I loathe her so much that it makes me loathe myself. It's like all your bullets ricochet off the impervious fish and caromb around the room before lodging in your own ass.

So, in a sisyphean exercise in trying to get to the bottom of what I don't like about myself for not liking Ann Coulter, here is what I can't stand about this fucking silly Ann Coulter article.

According to Ann Coulter,

  • In soccer, the blame is dispersed and almost no one scores anyway. There are no heroes, no losers, no accountability, and no child's fragile self-esteem is bruised.
Ann Coulter is crazy, here, in two distinct ways. First, the point of "team sports" is not, primarily, "individual glory" and the ruthless gutting of losers and the goats who it fuck up for everybody else. Sure, this is a part of sports, but if what you're looking for is one man left holding the bag, then individual sports are the sports for you -- and I'm not sure Ann Coulter is ready to get on board with tennis, boxing, amateur wrestling, or golf, where the athlete is actually alone in responsibility and glory. And yet, she keeps making recourse to football, of all things -- just about the most tightly orchestrated, highly organized team sport there is, and the only sport where every player has to line up in a line and stand totally still in exactly the position mandated by the rules until the leader-player says a word, at which point every player takes precisely as many steps as were diagrammed for them by the middle-management, a bourgeois class of coaches whose iron-fisted control over the player's movements is positively Stalinist.

More importantly, there is -- in point of fact -- an almost lunatic level of individual accountability in soccer, and especially soccer at the international level. Most famously, in 1994, Columbia defender Andrés Escobar was murdered after he scored an own-goal in the World Cup. He accidentally kicked the ball into his team's net, and he was murdered for it. Not only is soccer absolutely chock-full of personal responsibility, it is so chock-full of personal responsibility as to be, all too often, morally indefensible and repugnant.

But Coulter wants more! Way more.
  • The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport. Most sports are sublimated warfare. As Lady Thatcher reportedly said after Germany had beaten England in some major soccer game: Don't worry. After all, twice in this century we beat them at their national game.
This is incoherent. The implication seems to be that personal humiliation and major injury are not part of soccer, which is on both counts demonstrably false. But then Coulter argues that most sports are sublimated warfare, and to prove it, she offers the example that soccer is, in fact, a form of sublimated warfare. 
  • Baseball and basketball present a constant threat of personal disgrace. In hockey, there are three or four fights a game — and it's not a stroll on beach to be on ice with a puck flying around at 100 miles per hour. After a football game, ambulances carry off the wounded. After a soccer game, every player gets a ribbon and a juice box.
This is, quite possibly, the least sufficient metric imaginable for evaluating the merit of an athletic contest. You know what else offers the constant threat of personal disgrace and violence? ABC's WipeOut. NBC's Fear Factor. Coulter's weird, atavistic bloodlust is precisely what's supposed to be sublimated out of warfare. Otherwise we've got the Roman Coliseum with its lion-eating Christians and Russell Crowes screaming "Are you not entertained?!" 

In 1962, welterweight champion Benny Paret called Emile Griffith a "marricone" (faggot) before their third fight. Griffith -- who was gay, but not exactly out, being as he was a professional athlete in the 1960s -- was humiliated. In the twelfth round, Griffith hammered Paret with dozens of unanswered headshots, including 18 punches in 6 seconds while Paret was slumped against the turnbuckle, unmoving and unresponsive. After ten days in a coma, Paret died. The fight was broadcast on ABC. Millions of people watched Benny Paret get pummeled to death by a man he had humiliated.

These are not the things we want in sports.

Any increasing interest in sports that lead to this kind of pain, shame, and death can only be a sign of the nation's moral decay. 

Junior Seau was one of the "wounded" casualties after hundreds of the professional football games he played in. According to Seau's teammate and friend, Aaron Turner, "Any time you play a sport that requires an ambulance to be on-site, it's inherently a fucking dangerous game, right? 'Getting your bell rung' was the euphemism, and I think we all took pride in it. If you didn't light somebody up or get lit up in a collision, there was a sense that we weren't doing our jobs." After years of depression and insomnia, Junior Seau shot himself to death. Researchers who studied his brain discovered definitive signs of CTE, a degenerative neurological condition caused by repetitive head trauma. The fucking terrifying symptoms CTE include "memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, suicidality, parkinsonism, and eventually progressive dementia." 

Why does this woman want more things like this to happen? 

Why is she so callous?

This isn't exactly a rhetorical question. My (admittedly speculative) guess is that she's kind of a fucking sociopath who gets off on the bad feelings, pain, and shame of other people -- especially strangers. I'm not being intolerant, here -- it's not that I don't tolerate people like Coulter so much as I'm grimly fascinated and baffled and a little repulsed by them. They have the right to exist. They're just so... gross

When Ann Coulter doesn't like something, that thing is immoral and un-American. That means Ann Coulter's caprices, tastes, and predilections are, for Ann Coulter, the guiding lights of Americanness. The biggest supposed problem with soccer -- the refrain that has droned on and on, to incredibly boring effect -- is that soccer is boring. 
  • Do they even have MVPs in soccer? Everyone just runs up and down the field and, every once in a while, a ball accidentally goes in. That's when we're supposed to go wild. I'm already asleep.
They do have MVPs in soccer. In fact, there is a fairly clear consensus on the greatest players of all time. It goes:
  1. Pelé
  2. Diego Marradona
The ball only seems to go in accidentally because Coulter doesn't know what she's watching; her criticism is basically similar in spirit to those people who think baseball is boring because they don't know what's going on when they watch it, or those people who think calculus is boring because they don't know how to do it. There's nothing wrong with thinking either of these two things, in my view, until you try to foist them on other people like you're Jesus sermonizing on the fucking Mount.

Actually, maybe the best analogy for Coulter's view of soccer is a non-gambler's view of poker: "What's the point, it's all random luck, nobody has any idea what's going on and it's just a chaos of numbers." Except Stu Ungar won the World Series of Poker 3 times and made probably $30 million dollars playing cards in his career. 

There's actually a name for this kind of uninitiated disdain -- the Dunning Kruger Effect. In the most basic terms, what happens is: a person who is shit, and has no idea what it takes to be good, at something assumes it can't be that hard. My mom, for instance, whom I love very much, insists that no NBA basketball player should ever miss a free-throw, because they're "free points." She has, god love her, absolutely no flying fucking idea what on earth she's talking about, and absolutely no conception of what a mind-bendingly difficult thing she is witnessing every time she sees anyone make any shot in front of 20,000 screaming assholes. 

But having no idea what the fuck she's talking about is, for Coulter, a badge. It's a credential of her Americanness. Ann Coulter, to quote Chris Rock, loves to not know. Not knowing anything about soccer lets Ann Coulter feel superior to it, even though Ann Coulter, of all people, shouldn't feel superior to anything in the world for any reason.

Here's a complete sentence from Coulter's article, one of the coffin nails she uses to shore up her case against the beautiful game:
  • It's foreign.
Point of fact, soccer from England. But the point isn't the origin, for Coulter. Foreignness is a class- and race-based criteria for discrimination: you know who to hate by knowing what they like! After all: 
  • If more "Americans" are watching soccer today, it's only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy's 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.
Liking soccer is a cultural aberration that will be boiled off in the melting pot. A fondness for soccer is, in fact, incompatible with being a Real American. The same way you know a computer isn't a person because it fails the Turing Test, you know a person isn't a Real American because they like the most popular game in the world. To be a Real American, you have to love watching Real Men (never women) play HARD-HITTING, PHYSICAL games... or baseball. 

One of the awesomest parts of Coulter's unwound rant is her oblique takedown of the metric system. 
  • Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it's European. Naturally, the metric system emerged from the French Revolution, during the brief intervals when they weren't committing mass murder by guillotine.

    Despite being subjected to Chinese-style brainwashing in the public schools to use centimeters and Celsius, ask any American for the temperature, and he'll say something like "70 degrees." Ask how far Boston is from New York City, he'll say it's about 200 miles.

    Liberals get angry and tell us that the metric system is more "rational" than the measurements everyone understands. This is ridiculous. An inch is the width of a man's thumb, a foot the length of his foot, a yard the length of his belt. That's easy to visualize. How do you visualize 147.2 centimeters?
The switcheroo is precious. "Liberals get angry" and say the metric system is "more 'rational,'" but that's "ridiculous," because the real reason they like it is because "it's European." Liberals are under the weirdly hybrid thrall of "Chinese-style" social engineering and "European," I don't know, anarchism? Constitutional Democracy? The failed project of Revolutionary violence and terror? Whatever it is, it can't be good! But don't sweat it, because "any American" uses the U.S. system of measures, despite the fact that it is actually a holdover from provincial, pre-Enlightenment Europe. 

Seriously, check out the wikipedia article for the foot. The foot, which is as long as a man's foot, is clearly more rational than a universal standard of measure: "Historically the foot, which was used in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, England, Scotland and many Continental European countries and which varied from country to country and in some cases from city to city, was part local systems of units. Its length was usually between 250 mm and 335 mm and was generally, but not always, subdivided into 12 inches or 16 digits." Which is why architects, carpenters, and civil engineers never go anywhere without "a man's thumb," "his foot," and a "belt." Because they really want to get things exactly right.

Seriously, though, what do people see in Ann Coulter? She's like your college friend's girlfriend whose appeal you just can't fathom, but your friend is like "dude, she's a completely different person when we're alone together," except there is no "alone together" version of Ann Coulter -- she is just, purely and simply, this awful ipecac dram of a public persona. Go away, Ann Coulter. In the immortal words of Edward Albee, you make me puke.

4/11/14

L'esprit de l'escalier

In some ways the most interesting people to deal with, for me, are the ones whose two most pronounced feelings towards me are, so far as I can tell, disdain and fear.


They are interesting, partly, because whenever I see them, it's a surprise to both of us -- we rarely plan to meet up, these people I scare and disgust -- and the way they choose to cope with the situation is by very, very studiously ignoring me. You know, the kind of ignoring that takes way more concentration than actually paying attention to someone -- making sure you're always keeping them in your peripherals so you can make sure you never actually have to focus on them.

There's a girl I had a crush on for like ten minutes a year ago. I don't know her very well. She seems very nice. Point of fact, I really don't know her at all. She's charming, and that's usually good enough for me. The barebones backstory here is that, the day after I met her, I asked her out via facebook message; she responded guardedly but not forbiddingly; and then I didn't respond for like a year, during which year we basically didn't interact with one another because MEN ARE FROM MARS AMIRIGHT, though when we ran into each other was generally polite and decorous, if sort of tense, because MEN ARE FROM MARS AMIRIGHT. Then, one day, I had a very bad day indeed, and a very unpleasant conversation, during which conversation I had a couple of beers. When I got home, I saw that she had liked something I had written on the facebook machine, which she had never done before. And I thought to myself -- though I reserve the right to disown this whole line of thought with the benefit of hindsight -- well, that was nice of her and makes me feel good; I will write her a message to make her feel good about herself! 

The effect of the message I wrote seems to have been precisely the opposite of that intended. Though I will not analyze why this is the case, I will include, in its entirety, the message itself, to enable the armchair diagnosis (and assuage the curiosity) of the reader:
Hey [redacted]. I'm writing to say that, when the above exchange happened, almost a year ago, I was asking you out because I totally thought you were rad, and also completely adorable. I didn't respond because it made me anxious, because I thought that it was totally sweet and also completely unexpected that you did respond, and frankly I just kind of savored it and didn't want to screw it up. I am writing now to say that -- while I don't think you should ever go out with me, because you are way too pretty for me, and I'm not stupid -- it remains the case that you are totally rad, and every time I see you I'm like, wow, she's awesome and adorable, and also says really interesting things. All I'm trying to do, here, is acknowledge your objective level of radness. Well played, and be well, and good day!
I imagine you can see how the good-hearted but somewhat vertiginous and swirling motives in back of this missive could, depending on the recipient, make it fly astray and hit the "I am confused and he is a stalker what the fuck" part of the brain instead of the "Aw what a nice little unremembered act of kindness and of love" part of the heart. 

Anyway, the upshot of this message is that I cannot have an interaction with [redacted], now, that does not result in:
  1. Her just stone-cold, straight-up ignoring me
  2. My feelings being hurt
  3. Me giggling uncontrollably right after it's over
Once, for example, while she was studying in the lounge, I walked in through the door directly behind her and said "Hey!" She reflexively said "Hey!" back. But then, when turned around and saw it was me who had said "Hey!" the automatic affectation of good humor and camaraderie just instantly crumbled out of her face and her posture, and she swiveled back to scowl at her laptop with an unbreakable focus until I left the room. I had had every intention of sitting in the lounge and reading (in the chairs, incidentally, directly in the path of what would have been her sightline if she had looked up from the screenglow) but it seemed too much like social terrorism, so I just pretended to look in my mailbox -- which has not actually contained mail for something like two years -- and bolted. And then, I collapsed into a chortling heap in the hallway. And, at the same time, felt like a real piece of shit.

Today, on the other hand, I was sitting in the lounge reading, headphones over one ear the way I do sometimes when I would rather interact with people than a musty old book, when she walked in. I gave her the ol' reflexive "Hey!" greeting and it was met with -- or rather, I guess, decidedly not met with -- the contemptuous silence one associates with the caste system in India, or the treasurer of the A/V Club trying to get a ride home from the homecoming queen. 

So why is this funny, to me?

Because this reaction -- this posture of obviously counterfeit zenlike disinterest -- presents to the ignored party an absolute ocean of possibilities, simply because, when it's so obvious that someone is paying painfully close attention to you, but so obviously does not want to be paying any attention to you, and is not willing to seem to be paying any attention to you, you can do ALMOST WHATEVER YOU WANT with absolutely no consequences, and with absolutely no reaction from the ignoring party. It's a social carte blanche, and they're just giving it to you, begging you to take it, with no conception of its pricelessness. As long as you don't ask that person a direct question -- "What time is the talk later?" -- or indicate that person's concrete state of being -- "Your fly is unzipped, you dumb bastard" -- you can get away with everything. If they refuse to look at the register, it's the perfect crime every time.

In the maybe three seconds it took her to run the gauntlet from door to mailbox to door, I thought of the following things that I really wanted to blurt out, apropos of nothing:
  • "I like hamburgers better than I like hotdogs, but today I want a hotdog!"
  • "I smell amazing because of clean laundry!"
  • "It's such a nice day, it makes me want to fucking blow my brains out!"
I didn't say any of these things, because I am not the worst person -- I am merely a terrible person. I let her off the hook kind of easy -- just said "Bye!" in the dopey, mocking voice of the untipped bartender -- because I don't want her to dislike me more, or to think I'm scarier, than she already does. But I resent her resentment and I'm afraid of her fear, so obviously I dwelled on the situation for some minutes after she left, chuckling to myself merrily and sadly, self-loathingly and misanthropically. And, while I was sitting there, unable to read for the mild adrenaline rush that comes with a good, solid spurning, I came up with the following other things I could have, and in some ways would have really relished, said to her, all of which, I imagine, she would have just pretended not to hear, because people are crazy and interacting with them is a nightmare clusterfuck of anxiety, unspoken rules, and implied boundaries that are deep and black as the Styx:
  • "The Ultimate Warrior died, but he'll live on, in the hearts and minds of millions."
  • "Haven't wet the bed in a while, but I can't imagine the last time was the last time."
  • "If I had a million dollars in ones, I would make it rain on the Quad."
  • "It's hard not to admire Oprah, but what has she really done for people of color?"
  • "Artie Lange, R.D. Laing, K.D. Lang -- wow, that's weird."
  • "I can eat a whole box of popsicles, but maybe not all in one day."
I will be coming up with more of them throughout the afternoon, because people are crazy and interacting with them is a nightmare clusterfuck.

8/18/13

Singer; Actor; Weaselly Soul-Patch Grower: The Authoritative Marc Anthony Timeline

1968 (age 0) 
Anthony enters the world slimy, naked, and possibly undercover, as Marco Antonio Muñiz

1995 (age 27) 
After growing to his full height of 5'7", Anthony is mercilessly out-acted by Bunk from The Wire as U.S. Secret Service Cyber-Terrorism Division Special Agent Ray Kee in the futuristic cyber-thriller Hackers, which goes on to be voted Sight and Sound's perennial #1 greatest movie of all time, and also 2-5 probably

1996 (age 28)
Anthony looks eerily older and more haggard than his classmates as high-schooler Juan Lacas, a murderous and sort of rape-y drug gang kingpin, in the accidentally-franchise-launching film The Substitute (which, unlike The Substitute 2: School's Out, The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All, and The Substitute 4: Failure Is Not An Option, does not star Treat Williams)

2000 (age 32) 
Anthony is awarded music's highest honor when his single, "I Need to Know," is chosen for inclusion on NOW: That's What I Call Music, Vol. 4

2006 (age 38) 
Anthony marries the surprisingly height- and age-appropriate, 5'5", 37-year-old Jennifer Muñiz, née Lopez, who strikes most observers as much too tall and young and also pretty and famous for him

2009 (age 41) 
Anthony first displays an interest in the National Football League when he purchases a small stake in the Miami Dolphins franchise with wife Jennifer Muñiz, née Lopez, who seriously looks taller than he does in those heels; also I feel like they had some babies or something

2012 (age 44) 
Anthony divorces Jennifer Lopez, née Muñiz; their twins go missing and are widely presumed dead

2012 (age 44) 
Anthony accepts a dare from his cool new roommates, Noah and Landon, to fill his mouth simultaneously with Pop Rocks and warm Coke; after a brief rampage, he goes missing and is widely presumed dead

2013 (age 45)
After assuming a new identity and undergoing a controversial anti-aging gene-therapy procedure, Anthony is selected by the Baltimore Ravens as 23-year-old, six-foot tall defensive prospect Marc Anthony in the 7th round of the NFL draft (247th overall)

1/7/12

The Worst Commercial Ever Made: Chevy Silverado

In this commercial, a man is asked which house is his. He says, "The one with the Silverado out front." So far, there's no real problem here. A Silverado is a pretty singular marker -- I don't see a lot of people driving them, and can't imagine why anyone would -- and a good way to identify something as distinct from other things, like "the woman with the hairy goiter" or "the dog with the huge balls, you know the one I mean."

Then, friendlily enough, the interrogator asks, "What do you do?" The man -- our hero -- says, "Well," and seems on the verge of answering the question like not-an-asshole. At which point, the commercial smash-cuts to a montage of the man doing the following things: Swimming; pulling dirt bikes with his truck; driving his family and singing; playing paintball; wearing a hardhat and throwing lumber in the back of the truck; fishing; chopping a log; washing his hands with a hose; loading the back of his truck with hay; playing chess with an old guy; pulling a boat; lighting a barbecue; and having dinner with his wife, who is giving him the googly-eyes. Then, he says, "Ayyyyye," trails off, furrows his brows, and looks down, discouraged, overwhelmed by the glut of possibilities. Then, Tim Allen tells us something about how manly and efficient the Chevy Silverado is, and then the anti-actor who plays the jock on Numb3rs gives you some specifics about a sale because his rate per hour in the recording booth is way more reasonable than Tim Allen's, and finally Tim Allen comes back and there's something about "From work site to home front, Chevy runs deep," which if you think about it doesn't make any sense at all. Does Chevy burrow under the ground to get from one of those things to the other? Is Chevy an underground river, and is the entire neighborhood going to collapse into it when it erodes the cave ceiling?

Ok, so ultimately the message the commercial is trying to convey is the ol' 'Merkin corporate standby, "If you buy our product you're a rugged individual who, like Thoreau, cannot be bound up by definitions or constrained by the strictures of society. And like Whitman, you contain multitudes. You're not like everybody else, everybody else being sheep and ciphers." In this, the commercial is only as egregiously awful as just about every other commercial ever made. It becomes uniquely terrible in trying to be specific about the unique multiplicity of the asshole -- our hero -- in question.

A couple of points. First, the two men are at a children's party. The interrogator is drinking out of a clear kitchen cup; the Silverado doucher is drinking out of a blue flippie-cup. So he's probably wasted in the middle of the afternoon at a kid's birthday party, so fuck that guy.

Second, no American of average-or-better intelligence doesn't know that when someone asks "What do you do?" the question is actually shorthand for "how do you make money, what do you do for a living, please don't walk me through a list of all the things you actually do with your life like walk, eat, breathe, drink water, and smirk at your own cleverness." This last, you will have noticed, is exactly the function of the montage.

It seems to me there are three options here: First, the man is unemployed, and so he's trying to come up with a way to answer the question that doesn't cause him public humiliation, exacerbated by the fact that he's just moved into a bougey new suburb and owns a brand new truck; second, he doesn't understand the utilitarian function of the question "what do you do" and thinks it is an open, metaphysical question -- "what do you really do, y'know?" -- and is therefore the kind of person I can't imagine anyone enjoying to be around; and third, that he understands perfectly well what the question implies, but smugly thinks that his job, his career, the source of his income, doesn't encompass his identity, so the question insults his personal special-snowflakeness, and he is therefore the kind of person I can't imagine anyone enjoying to be around.

For the sake of argument, we'll assume he has a job, and are left with options 2 and 3. Based on the list of options presented by the montage, there are two new options: 1) he is a construction worker (loading lumber), or 2) he works in some agro-business or livestock capacity (loading hay). He is not, that is to say, in all likelihood a professional swimmer, a professional dirt bike rider, professional chauffer for his own family, a professional paintball player, a professional fisherman, a professional lumberjack who specializes in splitting a single log at a time by hand, a professional hand-washer, a chess grandmaster, a barbecue chef, or a kept man. Why, then, he doesn't simply answer that he is either a) a construction worker or b) in agro-business in some capacity isn't easy to say without making him look like a terrible, terrible person.

Let's also remember that the man is new to the neighborhood -- his house still has the "sold" sign out front. He's making a first impression at somebody else's party in this back-and-forth. And it actually flashes through his mind to say, "Well, sometimes I eat dinner with my wife and then I probably fuck her based on the look she's giving me," and, "I play chess with an old guy," and, "Me and my asshole friends won a paintball tournament and then we got all rowdy about it, it was sweet." He thinks about saying "I own a boat and some dirt bikes and I pull them with my truck." This is an infant who, when you ask him his name, tells you that he's Adam and he's five-and-a-half and he has 112 Pokemon cards exactly wrapped up in a rubber band want to see them? This is the waitress-who-says-she-is-an-actress elevated to the nth degree, and made even worse by the fact that this guy doesn't define himself by an aspiration, a goal to someday reach, but by perfectly trivial day-to-day activities that nobody outside of his little clan of mouth-breathers could possibly give a shit about.

But the worst part about this commercial, to me, is the implication that this guy, who does all this trivial shit, is inherently deeper than the other guy, who is a fucking schlub, too, obviously. The other guy probably drives, like, a Honda Camry or a Ford Accord or something, and is just as entrenched in the breeding, nose-wiping middle-class as Silverado Man. He has enough disposable income to have a cute little montage of his own where he, I dunno, sits in an expensive La-Z-Boy and drinks brandy out of a crystal snifter and hits an expensive golf ball with an expensive golf club and goes to a jazz concert and slaps his daughter for back-talking and blindfolds his wife after they come up with a safe-word. All of this is possible. But it's not necessary. You know why? Because as awful as this man no doubt is -- the commercial invites us to disdain him, so we might as well play by its rules -- he doesn't need this montage. Because when somebody asks him what he does, he says "I'm an accountant" or "I'm a pharmacist" or "I run numbers for the mafia." And he does this because he is, against all odds, the less awful man in this awful, awful commercial: The Worst Commercial Ever Made.

2/28/11

M'lady is possessed of haunches

A Lover's Plaint,

By

The Good Sir Mix-A-Lot

I am given to rotund backsides. I, duty-bound against prevarication by the strictures of honor, trust none amongst my peers-at-court can repudiate the honorarium of tumescent attention he pays when a lady, svelte of belly and plentiful of thigh, strikes his fancy. These gentlemen halt, no matter their endeavors, upon observing this lady's derriere, squeezed pleasingly and with no room to spare, into her pantaloons. For myself -- when in the presence of such damsels, my fixation is almost monomaniacal. I would not only like to engage these peerwomen in sexual congress, but also to capture the image of their orbitual posteriors for obituary posterity.

When my chums, confederates, and confidants note me in this comportment of desire, they attempt to give me pause by prophesying hexes and mongering doom. I, however, am unable to attend to their advertisements as the sapid hindquarters inspire me with a lasciviousness rather difficult to brook.

Oh woman, since it is the case that the flesh of your rump has the look and feel of something soft as felt or suede, I invite you to exploit my attentions and affections for the use of my equipage, for you are not a common whore of the street. You are something more.

I have seen these vaunted women performing saltations; such sights render me inimical to the conventional proprieties of courtship, as when a lady is glistening with perspiration, moist as the morning dew, and in such spirits as a well-bred mustang, high of blood in the mating season.

I find myself fatigued by certain recent popular periodicals, endorsing the position that buttocks of attenuated convexity are attractive. On the contrary, put the question to the representative man of equatorial complexion and, I pledge, his response will be, "The marked convexity of her buttocks is paramount!" So brethren, fellows, is your paramour possessed of adequate hips for birthing? If indeed she is pleasingly shapely, enjoin her to waggle her goodly rump.

M'lady is possessed of haunches!

Her countenance is of a sweet, angelic city; her privity of a land of hardwood trees.

It is to my preference that the anatomical oddities in question be both spherical and bountiful, and whilst engaged in bardic oratory I become enraptured, ravished, ecstatic -- all but deprived of my humanity. But soft, friend, it might be controversial, nay outrageous to opine that it would be desirous to me to retreat with this paragon of femininity to mine own abode and, so to say, make the beast with two backs, if you will.

This truth is not to be had by the blue-books of our time, and not to be found in them. The embellishments undergone by these publications in the pursuit of voluptuary delight instead give the impression of playthings.

What is wanted, on the contrary, is authenticity, density, and a preponderance of moisture. And yet not without danger, for I, the good Sir Mix-A-Lot, am often afflicted with doubt and botheration by these aphrodisiacal lures.

Even as we speak, I turn my attention to musical tableaus preferred by the occidental rabble, and in them see coquettes with thighs so emaciated that their knees percuss in the manner of bone rattles. These coquettes are less to my taste than, for example, the esteemed track-and-field athlete Jackie Joyner--Kersee.

An aside, to the women of corporeal solidity and ethereal mystery: My desire is to fornicate with you. I will neither upbraid you verbally nor abuse you physically, but it is my duty to be forthright, and therefore to tell you my desire is to fornicate with you for many hours, perhaps until the sun rises. You are sexually desirable, and I desire you sexually.

Many philistines will disapprove of my lover's plaint because they fornicate with these women in question but once; I on the other hand, due to my abundance and mesomorphism, am more inclined to create heat through repetitious rubbing of tumid flesh and the slapping of bone on bone for sustained, hedonic duration. If you, fair lady, are possessed of these qualities, demonstrate them outwardly and you will be rewarded with the ululations of even the fairest of youths.

Some men's concubines, in the pursuit of shapeliness, employ the routines of Jane Fonda, and, for the purposes of rhyme, drive popular and economical Japanese automobiles. Yet backside of the former, Ms. Fonda, is bereft of the power afforded by the locomotive engine of the latter, a Honda, and as such, the longing of my serpentine phallus is unprovoked by this undesirable want of curvature. I grant the importance of exercise, and cast no prohibitions upon it as long as it comes in the form of side-bends or sit-ups. However, I enjoin and remonstrate, to perform exercises such as those demonstrated by Ms. Fonda might have the loathsome result of slimming the callipygous fundament in question.

There may even be those diabolical tricksters and madmen who argue that sizable haunches are less valuable than lead run through the alchemist's alembic and, in their phrenzy, part with you as lovers. In a way, I even thank these men -- their castoffs are my treasure, my dread pirate's booty!

Though the aforementioned popular periodicals confuse your copious voluptuousness with corpulence, I cannot agree with this assessment. Your stomach does not protrude, but your hips and breasts protrude mightily, and I want to have sex with you. The overly-linear ladies proffered by these periodicals are not to the taste of the times; rather, a woman who has not been denied a diet high in starches and complex carbohydrates is to the liking of the modern man.

Even some men who prefer these zatfig ladies, as is proper, are nothing but fools and charlatans. Though practiced and successful in the ways of wooing, these mongrels smite their embonpoint maidens with fists. But again, the rakes' refuse is my reward, and even as the unfortunate women nurse their wounds and anoint their bruises, I anxiously approach with the intention of engaging them in prurient caresses.

In conclusion, damsels and peeresses: If your hindquarters are orotund, and you are desirous of engaging with me in lubricious and shocking contretemps, dial 1-900-Mix-A-Lot and divulge to me the perverse and demoniac motive and content of your phantasies.

M'lady is possessed of haunches.

2/18/11

Your Life Stitched Shut

In a hysterical Wired UK article about social networking called Your Life Torn Open: Sharing is a trap, Andrew Keen decries the "increasingly ubiquitous social network -- fuelled by our billions of confessional tweets and narcissistic updates -- that is invading the 'sacred precincts' of private and domestic life." He wants us to know that he thinks narcissism is bad, and that exposing strangers and would-be voyeurs to the machinations of our private lives is sacrilege, defilement of the holy ground that makes and keeps us human.

But he also wants us to know what a fucking cultured world-traveler he is, so he begins the article with this: "Every so often, when I'm in Amsterdam, I visit the Rijksmuseum to remind myself about the history of privacy. I go there to gaze at a picture called The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, which was painted by Jan Vermeer in 1663." See, he's in Amsterdam a lot, but sometimes when he's in Amsterdam -- he'd like us to know -- he goes to "the Rijksmuseum," which, he would further like us to know, he refers to as if he only speaks with people who know what that is. It wouldn't be enough to tell us that this painting exists; he has to set the scene, placing himself front and center, standing with his fist pressed thoughtfully to his chin, contemplating reverently this monument of Great Art. Because Andrew Keen, you understand, is very sophisticated.

The painting, Keen tells us, "is of an unidentified Dutch woman avidly (?) reading a letter. Vermeer's picture, to borrow a phrase from privacy advocates Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren, is a celebration of the 'sacred precincts of private and domestic life'. It's as if the artist had kept his distance in order to capture the young woman, cocooned in her private world, at her least socially visible." This painting, in which a girl who doesn't know she's being watched is captured in a moment of privacy, is a "celebration" of not invading private spaces. I guess you've got to show a kid what his bathing area is before you can tell him that it's wrong for strangers to touch him there. Painting is one way to do it, but I tend to celebrate this blessed sacredness by watching women towel off while sitting on a tree-limb just outside their bathroom windows.

So Vermeer's painting keeps its distance "in order to capture" this poor woman "cocooned in her private world," which is basically the equivalent of preserving the magic of its transformation into a butterfly by tearing open a chrysalis and freezing a caterpillar with liquid nitrogen. Nothing celebrates what you love quite like killing what you love, embalming its corpse, pinning it to a wall, and inviting any dilettante with enough money to fly into Schiphol International Airport to take a look.

But Andrew Keen isn't just an appreciator of the arts and a champion of privacy -- he's a student of philosophy (and an ogler of corpses) as well. Oh, and he's still a fucking sophisticated, jetsetting, globetrotting playboy, he'd like us very much to know, and he's still strongly opposed to narcissism. "Every so often, when I'm in London, I visit University College to remind myself about the future of privacy. I go there to visit the tomb of the utilitarian social reformer Jeremy Bentham." See, sometimes he's in London -- but he's in London a lot, and only sometimes when he's in London does he vouchsafe his bougie taste and sophistication, and also his intense concern over the issues of the day that will be up to him to diagnose and, if this article is successful, maybe even cure, by communing with the dead body of a man he regards as his ideological enemy. Because, you see, Jeremy Bentham didn't believe in privacy, so it's not at all creepy for Andrew Keen, who says that looking into the private lives of other people is a kind of secular sin, to stand, fist pressed thoughtfully to chin, to gander at the "glass-and-wood mausoleum... from which the philosopher's waxy corpse has been watching over us for the last 150 years." Dead people don't have private lives. You can't rape a corpse.

Keen also demonstrates that I'm not the only writer in the world who can come up with misleading analogies: The compromised "real life" we're left with after the encroachment of omnipresent digital networking "could have been choreographed by Bentham." Moreover, Mark Zuckerberg's idea of "sharing," Keen writes, "could have been invented by Kafka." I like this misleading analogy very much: "Just as Josef K unwittingly shared all his known and unknown information with the authorities, so we are now all sharing our most intimate spiritual, economic and medical information with all the myriad 'free' social-media services, products and platforms." Except for the superficial differences -- like Joseph K being denied jurisprudential due process, being forced to undergo all kinds of meaningless and bizarre rituals that make it all but impossible for him to carry on with the job he hates at a shitty bank, and, in the end, being convicted for an unspecified crime and then stabbed to death by anonymous officials as punishment for this obscure guilt -- I am persuaded. Perhaps Kafka was secretly working on a manuscript he destroyed before his death called The Social Network, in which a number of shallow-yet-clever people search for meaning in their lives, against all odds and in the face of the strangling authority of the Law of the Father.

Keen further doomsays, "Today's digital social network is a trap. Today's cult of the social, peddled by an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and communitarian idealists, is rooted in a misunderstanding of the human condition. The truth is that we aren't naturally social beings. Instead, as Vermeer reminds us in The Woman in Blue, human happiness is really about being left alone." This, of course, is preposterously stupid, and is based the idea that lasseiz-faire liberty -- "being left alone" -- is the opposite of being "social." If Keen is setting himself in diametrical opposition to the sociality offered by networking, then his ideal of human happiness -- and his idea of the truth of the human condition (!) -- is that we don't want to be watched or touched by anyone. The ideal manifestation of our humanity is solitary confinement, in which prisoners suffer "memory loss to severe anxiety to hallucinations to delusions and, under the severest cases of sensory deprivation, people go crazy" (CNN). This craziness, according to a different psychiatrist, is a "a specific syndrome" due to "inadequate, noxious and/or restricted environmental and social stimulation. In more severe cases, this syndrome is associated with agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization."

The Woman in Blue, we should remember, isn't left alone -- she just doesn't know she's being watched (by Vermeer and by us, voyeurs all). She is reading a letter, and enjoying the social contact that can be created -- miraculously -- in the void left by the absence of loved ones. Social networks, sinister as they can be, also let us feel watched by people we care about; and the feeling of their eyes on us is, not to put too fine a point on it, a reason to go on living. Keen asks, "What if the digital revolution, because of its disregard for the right of individual privacy, becomes a new dark ages? And what if all that is left of individual privacy by the end of the 21st century exists in museums alongside Vermeer's Woman in Blue? Then what?" Then we'll go on living our lives, just like they did in the "dark ages." And when the next renaissance comes, they'll have persecution and crusades, just like they did the last time. And if this is the beginning of the apocalypse, Keen will just be lucky to have blindfoldedly pinned the tale on the ass of the donkey every other fearmonger in history has missed.

10/17/10

High Theory: Accessible at Last!

The prose style of what is known as literary theory -- a hodgepodge of German metaphysics and French gibberish spun out by a loose coterie of gay continental philosophers, post-gendered beard-strokers, half-mad babblers, and the odd full-on hypocrite -- is about as preposterous as a three-legged triceratops gouging with its horns at a whirlwind of duck feathers. (Witness, for instance, Judith Butler's infamous Bad Writing Contest-winning sentence for 1998.)

This style is adopted, argues evolutionist-cum-jester and disliker of theory Richard Dawkins, by "intellectual impostor[s] with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life." In a legendary depantsing of theory, reformed hoaxers Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont declare that a work of uncut Theory-with-a-capital-T is lucky to squeak out "a handful of intelligible sentences -- sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous" -- like so many pearls cast before, gobbled up, and shit out by swine. Semifamous (serious) philosopher Thomas Nagel isn't sure which piston drives theory's engine more forcefully: "invincible stupidity," or "the desire to cow the audience with fraudulent displays of theoretical sophistication." In fact, no one seems to be sure whether theory is the work of a dangerous cabal hellbent on undermining the very fabric of intellectual discourse, or a b-squad of Mr. Beans whose ineptitude would almost be charming only they could stop drooling all over their MedicAlert bracelets that warn of allergies to peanuts and lawn-grass.

Indeed, the rage for order shared by these unmaskers -- this desire for words to make sense -- wouldn't be nearly as interesting if the venom wasn't in part meant to conceal the deep anxiety that perhaps there exists an almost-unimaginable third way, somewhere between diabolical evil and developmental disability -- what if this theory stuff isn't total horseshit? What if it's brilliant and I just don't get it?! When it's invoked, this anxiety is brushed aside with a mirthful chortle, as if these hatchetmen were conceding, as an afterthought, "Of course, everybody knows it's true that OJ Simpson is technically innocent, according to the Constitution -- but come on."

Noam Chomsky, who has had Serious Documentaries made about him and is referenced in Good Will Hunting, and whose intellectual credentials are therefore unimpeachable, has offered the most concise example of the confused combination of rage and insecurity, condescension and defensiveness that characterizes any really rollicking anti-theory screed: "No one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of 'theory' that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out." It's a dazzling rhetorical strategy -- Chomsky plays the wide-eyed naif who is loathe to think an entire international industry of professional writers, thinkers, teachers, and students is... well... it's too horrible even to say!

But if he is capable of scoring from the goalie box, he is also adept at playing offense-as-defense, crossing and striking so as not to be struck. Of seminal theory bigwig Jacques Derrida, Chomsky says, "I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain." You see? Even as a baby -- or close enough -- Chomsky would have been hip to the con. Derrida's work is appalling. Pathetic. A failure. Unless it's actually really good. Doubt it though.

This dexterous double-doubt -- "is it good or does it suck, and either way, why am I so mad about it?" -- wobbles on the crux of that age-old problem, the problem which is very nearly theory's only subject of concern: Is the meaning of a given statement comprehensible in all its facets and tints, or does some of its significance evade ready comprehension? Put another way, "Does this here word-caterpillar mean something smarter than what it looks like?"

Well, in a half-assed attempt to clear up this confusion, to tear down the language barrier between self-evident Dawkinsian or readily-intelligible Chomskese and the Nonglish of English departments worldwide, I have gone beyond the pale and violated the unspoken pact that binds all of us who make our living, no matter how obliquely, through the incantations and ululations of the unkempt and savage hobo-philosophy known as high theory. I have taken it upon myself to Benedict Arnold the whole theory enterprise by translating select paragraphs by certain theoretical luminaries -- without losing an iota of intended meaning (jk lol) -- into voices that might be less alien to those casual readers repelled by theory's uncircumcised pomp and smooth-shaven circumstance. In so doing I hope to allow self-loathing positivists, pragmatists in the throes of a dark night of the soul, and scientists on their brain-period to accept the brilliance, profundity, and salubrious revolutionary power of theory, as God intended, or to reject it wholesale once and for all, without the self-conscious pussyfooting of men wearing skirts for the first time publicly.

On with the show. First, the abstruse theoreticians in their own words. Next, their words banged and yanked into the everyday speech of unicorns and pegasusi.

  • Theodor Adorno, sourpuss: "Cultivated philistines are in the habit of requiring that a work of art 'give' them something. They no longer take umbrage that works are radical, but fall back on the shamelessly modest assertion that they do not understand. This eliminates even opposition, their last negative relationship to truth, and the offending object is smilingly catalogued among its kind, consumer commodities that can be chosen or refused without even having to take responsibility for doing so."
  • Theodor Adorno, as translated into an embittered-but-lazy art school traditionalist: "Posers who say they care about art but really don't care about art, man, all they want to do is take, they don't want to give anything back. But they're too stupid, or too scared to be wrong, even to be mad that this gallery is showing poop sculptures and blood paintings. They just stand there looking at some installation, like some mobile made out of used tampons glued to turtle bones, and they're all, 'I don't get it.' They don't even call bullshit. They're just like 'well, that's not really my thing.' That's bullshit, man. They don't even take a stand for anything. That's why the art is dying."

  • Giorgio Agamben, crypto-fascist: "Being in force without significance:...What, after all, is the structure of the sovereign ban if not that of a law that is in force but does not signify? Everywhere on earth men live today in the ban of a law and a tradition that are maintained solely as the 'zero point' of their own content, and that include men within them in the form of a pure relation of abandonment. All societies and all cultures today (it does not matter whether they are democratic or totalitarian, conservative or progressive) have entered into a legitmation crisis in which law (we mean by this the entire text of tradition in its regulative form, whether the Jewish Torah or the Islamic Shariah, Christiam dogma or the profane nomos) is in force as the pure 'Nothing of Revelation.' But this is precisely the structure of the sovereign relation, and the nihilism in which we are living is, from this perspective, nothing but the coming to light of this relation as such" (Homo Sacer, 51).
  • Giorgio Agamben, as translated into a caricature of an Appalachian wingnut: "The gubmint just do what it want for no good reason. The gubmint always hangin' 'round behind you, but you can't see it, you don't know when it be making you do something and you don't even know it's making you do it. Everybody in the world being run by gubmints, and gubmints don't care none 'bout people -- just suck us dry. Everywhere in the world, Muslims and liberals and fascists and pinkos, all the same. They take away your freedoms. Gubmint's the enemy of the common man. It don't care none. Never did."

  • Walter Benjamin, tragic tramp: "What does language communicate? It communicates the mental being corresponding to it. It is fundamental that this mental being communicates itself in language and not through language. Languages, therefore, have no speaker, if this means someone who communicates through these languages. Mental being communicates itself in, not through a language, which means that it is not outwardly identical with linguistic being. Mental being is identical with linguistic being only insofar as it is capable of communication. What is communicable in a mental entity is its linguistic entity. Language therefore communicates the particular linguistic being of things, but their mental being only insofar as this is directly included in their linguistic being, insofar as it is capable of being communicated."
  • Walter Benjamin, as translated into a stoned dude who just put down an acoustic guitar at 3 in the morning: "It's like, we think we say stuff with language. But what does language say? What if what language says is itself. Like, do you ever feel like when you say something, it's not like you're talking with language, it's like language is talking with you? Like, what if language is like, this body, and we're all just like little cells in it. No, think about it -- like, sperm is part of us, but at the same time sperm are these little animals in our bodies. What if we're just language's sperm? So like, what we think we mean isn't really what we mean, because like we're just on a mission for language, and we can't see the bigger picture. So like, when we say stuff, we mean what we think we mean, but we also mean, like, way more. Because, like, language means all this other stuff, too."

  • Paul de Man, Nazi-sympathizer who Jews sympathized with, fan of irony: "In the study of literature, the question of the self appears in a bewildering network of often contradictory relationships among a plurality of subjects. It appears first of all, as in the Third Critique of Kant, in the act of judgment that takes place in the mind of the reader; it appears next in the apparently intersubjective relationships that are established between the author and the reader; it governs the intentional relationship that exists, within the work, between the constitutive subject and the constituted language; it can be sought, finally, in the relationship that the subject establishes, through the mediation of the work, with itself. From the start, we have at least four possible and distinct types of self: the self that judges, the self that reads, the self that writes, and the self that reads itself. The question of finding the common level on which all these selves meet and thus of establishing the unity of a literary consciousness stands at the beginning of the main methodological difficulties that plague literary studies."
  • Paul de Man, as translated into a middle school English teacher so careful to be precise that she almost becomes confusing: "In this class we're all going to put on different hats and go to a lot of faraway lands without leaving our seats! You're all going to have opinions about what you read. But what's funny about reading is, someone else's words are in your head! Think about that -- you're thinking in your head, but you're thinking somebody else's thoughts! That'll tickle your noodle! So we're all going to have to try to figure out what the author was trying to say in his book, and what it means to us. But also, it's important to think of what it the writer thought his book meant. So we're going to have to put on four hats in all. We're going to be reading, and thinking about what we read, and writing about what we think, and even thinking about what we think! Did that blow your mind? Believe you me, it's not easy to wear those hats all at the same time! Have you ever put on four hats and looked at yourself in the mirror? It might be a fashion no-no, but it's an English yes-yes!"

  • Jacques Derrida, grand wizard of nonsensical sense: "The two concepts (friend/enemy) consequently intersect and ceaselessly change places. They intertwine, as though they loved each other, all along a spiralled hyperbole: the declared enemy (Blake declares the enemy by ordering him to declare himself: be my enemy), the true enemy, is a better friend than the friend. For the enemy can hate or wage war on me in the name of friendship, for Friendships sake, out of friendship for friendship; if in sum he respects the true name of friendship, he will respect my own name. He will hear what my name should, even if it does not, properly name: the irreplaceable singularity which bears it, and to which the enemy then bears himself and refers. If he hears my order, if he addresses me, me myself, he respects me, at hate's distance, me beyond me, beyond my own consciousness. And if he desires my death, at least he desires it, perhaps, him mine, singularly. The declared friend would not accomplish as much in simply declaring himself a friend while missing out on the name: that which imparts the name both to friendship and to singularity. That which deserves the name."
  • Jacques Derrida, as translated into a teenage girl who wants you to think she's more distraught, and more thoughtful, than she really is: "Omigod, sometimes I hate my friends so much. I know it sounds totally stupid but I feel like my enemies are the only people I can trust. It's like, I trust my friends one minute but then they stab me in the back. Ashley is totally acting like we're total BFFs, but ten seconds later she went through my bag while I wasn't looking and she's using my lipgloss again without asking, which is just super disrespectful. It's my property and she doesn't even have the common courtesy to ask if it's ok, and I've already told her not to do it a bajillion times. She totally would ask if we weren't such good friends, so it's like, what good are friends anyway? But like, when Blake told me I was his worst enemy when we were playing badminton in gym, I totally trusted him. I know it sounds retarded or whatever, but it's true. It's like, at least I know where I stand with Blake. I feel like Ashley just hangs out with me because people think she's cool, she does it just to be seen with me, so she doesn't look like such a spazz like she did when she was all fat and had acne last year before I showed her how to put on foundation and not eat three Fruit by the Foots every day at lunch. But Blake like totally hates me and he doesn't even care how it makes him look. It's so honest that sometimes I almost feel like he's, like, in love with me. He doesn't go rooting through my bag and taking my stuff and pretending he didn't think I would be mad. Even if he did, at least he'd just be doing it to piss me off. He'd be thinking of me and not just how everybody thinks he's totally popular because I let him smoke with me in my car during open period. God, Ashley is such a bitch!"

9/15/10

You know what's fucked up? I'm not even high.

It's interesting that people who are intellectually invested in defending evolution and denigrating intelligent design are also, in a strange way, backed into the corner of viewing intelligence as a uniquely human thing, qualitatively different (and more valuable) than whatever animates the other bits of space-junk randomly bumping uglies out there.

The design argument runs that the world has clearly been planned and built with such care that some intelligence must be in control, must have lain the ground rules and must in turn be enforcing them. Nonsense! cry evolutionists. It's perfectly plausible that it was merely a random string of events, and as we all know, on an endless timeline the infinitesimally unlikely becomes all but predestined. It's science, not intelligence! There's no wizard in the sky! The heavens are filled with trudging mechanisms, spasms of inky plasma, stars swallowing other stars and spitting out comets that crash operatically into balls of unimaginable flame in a fit of cannibalistic rapacity even more harrowing for the fact that the universe has no desires. It doesn't want to destroy. It doesn't care either way. It just destroys, because insensate things are fucking cruel. Except not really, because again, they don't give a shit.

It's odd, right? We say that there's no intelligent force governing everything, which in a sneaky way ratifies the idea that there's something fundamentally unique, special, and singular about human intelligence. Our atheism becomes a kind of self-congratulation -- we're special! -- that we're trying to critique in believers. Instead of arguing that there's no such thing as intelligence, or at least that human thought -- and life in general -- isn't qualitatively different than all the other crap that's going on, we implicitly argue that we're the only tiny pocket of intelligence for as far as the eye can see. Creationists argue that there is a god and we are created in his image; we argue that there is no god, because he would have to be created in our image it would just make too much sense and shit would be cool and nice and pleasant to live in when clearly that's not true. I mean, look around, man. Everything is a swirling mass, a primordial blob of who knows what, and we're a privileged enclave whose spasms of thought make us special, if for no other reason than the exquisite awareness of our impeding, collective doom, the fact that someday we will be washed away by the cosmic equivalent of Scrubbing Bubbles, and our recorded history will become a cold, dead monument to nothing. The power of observation will be gone, and with it will go any shred of significance, in any sense of the word.

On the other hand, we take heart by reading BBC Science articles and saying things like, "it's a statistical near-certainty that there are other intelligent life-forms somewhere in the deep reaches of space!" But we belittle people who believe -- based on what they swear is experience but what we insist is misguided faith -- that they've seen, say, a UFO. We have to say we believe wholeheartedly in the fantastically improbable, but we don't believe it cares about us, and to suggest otherwise would be lunacy. Because, again, we're the only thing in our neighborhood with the special skill to care about stuff; and even if we weren't, we're not that interesting anyway. (Narcissistic self-loathing.) If there's anything intelligent out there, it hasn't found us yet, because we haven't found it. And we're kind of the gold standard around here, I don't know if you noticed. We're kind of the only game in town.

Quantum and string theory -- not that I understand the first thing about them or can talk about them without mumbling like a nincompoop -- are fascinating in this respect: By suggesting that, say, the universe is just a tiny bubble in an endless sheet of bubble-wrap with and endless number of other sheets of bubble-wrap above and below it that an insane toddler is taking its sweet time popping, one bubble at a time, we get to imagine all kinds of insane Rube Goldbergish scenarios for the creation of the world.

If our argument, as Free Thinkers and all that shit, is that the universe makes an elegant kind of sense insofar as nearly impossible things become necessary in the long run, does it become logically necessary to suppose that at some point, a three-eyed troll in negligee named Carter Burwell once vomited up a celestial pool of filth, one lonely rising bubble of which was the Big Bang, or a Bigger Big Bang before the Big Bang that contains our Big Bang and a billion like it? And Carter Burwell is, in turn, a quivering quark in a monumental atom of gold so vast it's dense enough to make you cry and valuable enough to cause a war between a Greek in a loincloth and an Egyptian with a weird animal head, which the Egyptian wins because the Greek is crushed from out of nowhere between the thumb and finger of the lunatic toddler?

The forms bigness this big take on are predictably anthropomorphic & anthropocentric. I can't imagine the kind of new, mind-incinerating entities I hope straddle universes, and what kinds of personalities they have, and what kind of complicated things they might do that, if we had a vantage on them, would look strikingly like intelligence, except of a sort so vast that it merks humanity's like '86 Tyson did Marvis Frazier.

So I imagine awesome, slobbering babies and giant titans fighting over shiny stuff I wish I had. But this is optimism. More likely, the universe and the universes around it are cold, dark places lit up periodically with terrifying flashes of rending light none of it matters, in the scheme of things, any more than we do. Which is to say, not at all. Fortunately for us, the antidote to despair is ignoring its causes and acting like we're fucking awesome. We're so fucking smart, it's incredible.

Here's what bothers me about, but also saves me from going insane under the weight of, eternity and infinity -- it's impossible not to think of them as, respectively, A WHOLE BUNCH of time and A WHOLE LOT of space or stuff or whatever. But that's never seemed quite right to me. Eternity and infinity are the same as no time and no space; not just the biggest number you can imagine +1, but the smallest number you can imagine and then it vanishes. Absolute zero. This, to me, is a great consolation. If it turns out we're wrong -- if it turns out there's a smartypants god and he invented everything and the last will be first and the first will be last and the last and the first will be judged by their acts, it's comforting to know that an ever-lasting suffering in a never-ending lake of fire is also a never-starting suffering in a non-existent lake of fire. Hell takes so long that it's over in literally less time than an instant, the smallest division of time imaginable but even shorter; and heaven is so big it can fit in the shoe of one of the army of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

8/20/10

On attention sp... hey, look, a beaver!

Speed is important to me in a really troubling way. Basically I mean efficiency, as in "requiring little time to work," but I would be wrong not to mention the dextroamphetamine salts in the generic Adderall I get from my psychiatrist who looks like a skeleton. Mentally, I am a rat-race addled working man. I just happen to have the schedule of a bum. I want to do things as efficiently as possible, with as little effort as possible, and glean maximum results with minimum expenditure. I don’t like spending a lot of time on anything except trying to absorb things – recently, it’s been podcasts about things I half-care about.

I listen to hours of podcasts every day or two. Semi-professional production values meshed with semi-articulate talkers all served over a bed of self-serving unselfconscious hypocrisy and convenient position-taking. It doesn't really matter what they take themselves to be about; that's what they all consist of. Every podcast I listen to is basically terrible, but they’re all comforting. I don’t learn very much, except by a sort of osmosis – I’m only half paying attention, and I’m not paying attention to learn so much as I’m paying attention so I don’t feel so alone. This is one of the amazing things about all new media, to me – especially new media that captures the voice or movement of another human being. I’m pretty sure we haven’t entirely learned to parse the fact that they’re not really there – it’s a presence that feels good, that takes a certain burden of solitude away. Radio, at its best, is like being told a bedtime story all day.


There is this sense of absorption – of learning without trying, of doing or being able to do without trying. This was what I was trying to do by getting lots of audiobooks and mp3 lectures about my field. I wanted to replace reading and learning via elbow grease with the facility of absorption. But it hasn’t worked for me, and it won’t. And that’s partly because I’ve come to identify literature – particularly American literature from the 19th century, the subject of the aforesaid audiobooks – with work. And work is something that I believe you should only do on the clock.


I have a more or less evil, capitalistic sense of time. I’m entering my fourth year of grad school – my writing year, in which I’m supposed to produce on my own time and with my own schedule – so I don’t have a clock. Nobody watches me, or makes me do anything, so I always have the sense that I’m shirking responsibility to do something fun at the expense of some Scrooge-ish overseer who, for once, isn’t paying attention. It's like, the only way I can make my dalliance with irrelevancy significant is by making it a romanticized "fuck you" to the powers that be -- which, make no mistake, actually exist, but also don't give a fuck what I do with my day to day. I think deep down I feel I’m cheating my employers out of something by getting paid not to do any work, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about that – I am exploiting them right back for exploiting me, the bastards.


But there’s also something absurd and pathetic about it all. It’s just such a waste, such an orgy of resentful feelings and bad faith. I don’t do anything because doing stuff is hard, and doing stuff is hard because it’s work, and it’s work because it’s what I do. It’s who I am. It structures my identity and my reality. But I hate my reality and I hate my identity and I want to escape it. How can I use literature or theory as an escape from my identity or my reality – which is WHAT LITERATURE AND THEORY TELL ME I’M SUPPOSED TO USE THEM FOR – if they’re the very things that structure my identity and my reality? I want to escape from these things, not use them to escape something else.

So I do.

I play Red Dead Redemption, which I bought for my new Playstation 3. It’s an incredibly immersive experience. It will never yield anything. But it's awful fun, though.

Yesterday I took a legally-procured Adderall. I have a medical condition, you see, called attention deficit disorder, the symptoms of which only rear their heads when there's something I am supposed to be doing but cannot do because I lack the willpower and ability to care and gumption and tenacity and sticktoitiveness. It's in the DSM-IV, look it up. I fully intended to do some work after taking said psychostimulant, but my new HDMI cables came and I just had to see how Red Dead Redemption would look on my new LCD TV without decades-antiquated component cables.


I ended up playing for 9 and a half hours or so. Finally forced myself to stop out of disgust when I couldn’t find any cougars – I’m supposed to kill two cougars with my hunting knife to become a “master hunter” – and I kept getting mauled by grizzly bears, which are entirely too stealthy and entirely too aggressive to be plausible in this fucking game.

I stopped to go to Target to buy a wrench so I could finally put together the Ikea kitchen shelf unit that’s been obstructing some pathway or other since I moved into this new apartment some weeks ago. The cheapest adjustable wrench at Target was $20, so I bought a $5 pair of non-needle nose pliers and stripped the shit out of the bolts tightening them up. So I hope I don’t ever have to take it apart, but at least I put it together, and now it stands there, monolithic, holding up my microwave, my Foreman grill, my coffee maker, and my toaster oven. A true monument to convenience. Except I accidentally installed one of the shelves in such a way as to block the outlet, and I haven’t the gumption to take it out and put it back in. I blame my ADD.

But the point of this story is that, when I drove to Target, I felt simultaneously like I was sleepwalking and like I was still playing a video game – everything felt consequenceless, and everything seemed at a remove, as if through a screen, projected onto my windshield instead of existing on the other side of it. I knew I was driving recklessly and dangerously, but I couldn’t make myself care enough to correct it. I fiddled with the radio, flipping until I found a song, not that I wanted to listen to, but that I wanted to soundtrack my experience. When I got to Target, I stared at the wall of tools long after I’d discovered that the kind of wrench I wanted wasn’t to be had, as if it was a problem I could solve if only I scoured the terrain long and concentratedly enough.

An interesting question, to me, is whether or not video games and the like are actually going to destroy the attention spans of generations to come. I guess I’m in one of the first generation of kids who never knew what it was like to write without having a word processing equivalent on a personal computer at home, and I never knew what it was like not to have recourse to, say, Microsoft Solitaire when I got bored. I have played Microsoft Solitaire for entire days, before, honing technique, subconsciously learning probability, adjusting the way I move the mouse for speed and precision. I have dreamt in solitaire. I have lived life seeing things and people as if they were solitaire cards, and as if what I was supposed to do with them was turn them over in the proper order.


The first time I took Adderall, I looked at porn for eight hours.


Adderall is a wicked drug. Some new users, yours truly tragically included, enter a state called "hyperfocus." Hyperfocus is about what it sounds like -- at the expense of everything else, you sink into the Fire Swamp quicksand of whatever subject happens to be at hand, and you don't leave until the subject or the drug is exhausted. It's a race for last place.


Adderall also makes you incredibly, preposterously, Pepe Le Peu-ishly horny.


But mainly what Adderall does is suck all the non-essential blood out of your body and send it to your brain. The effect of this is more or less what you'd expect: In the end it's something like being a late-career Philip Roth character -- desperately wanting, prurient, desiring, wanting, needing, lusting, craving. But there's just not a lot going on down there.


On the other hand, you can concentrate forever. On anything. But you don't want to concentrate on anything, because this hotshot of speed to your brain has made you into a quasi-impotent sexual dynamo -- you're like one of those Greek statues of a fertility god with the dick broke off. Pornwatching, in this state, makes you a kind of ultramodern Tantalus, reaching for grapes but not having long enough arms. There's a terrible pun to be had in there in there somewhere.


So anyway, the first time I took Adderall, I sat there looking at gallery after gallery of still shots. I decided to play a game. With most Thumbnail Gallery Post sites, certain thumbnails will redirect you to an entirely new TGP site with entirely new thumbnails of entirely new and promising galleries, which in turn direct you to new TGP yadda yadda yadda. The game I made up was to click on every thumbnail that -- at the time -- struck me as "undeniable," and only stop when I had managed to close every single gallery and every single TGP array.


I completed this mission. It is possible. It is horrible, horrible, and it takes eight hours, but it's possible. When I stopped, I started seeing porn in my life the same way I had seen solitaire years before. Everything took on a certain positional or appendagial significance that was wholly unwanted and thoroughly unsettling. When I finally went to bed, 36 hours after my first dose of the drug, I dreamt about porn. But not porn as in porn -- porn as in everything in life is porn. I was able to focus for eight hours on this thing that I really did not want to be focusing on, and for hours and hours after that it wouldn't leave my subconscious -- it provided a kind of organizing principle for my entire life.


Yet, I have trouble sitting down to read a single page, or to think about – much less write down – what’s been on my mind. The idea of paying attention to something at the expense of everything else is an almost crippling affliction to me.

When I was a kid, I had a paper route. Every morning, I would deliver 40 or 60 newspaper, and at the end of the month, I would get 40 or 60 dollars. It was a pretty shitty gig, but it gave me exactly enough money to spend exactly one entire day at the arcade. My mom would drop me off in the morning and pick me up a workday or so later. I would be drenched in sweat, almost post-coitally spent. And in those eight, ten, twelve hours, I would have participated with full focus in a fantasy world built out of pixels by other people. I would have a near-obsessive drive to correct mistakes I’d made, to approximate the goal of perfection that videogames, so much more than life, render approachable and plausible – even if, like life, they leave it lingering past the horizon of your limited capabilities. It was a state of deep concentration, totally oblivious to time or space, only interested in Street Fighter 2 or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Simpsons or even – and most agonizingly – that fucking machine with the tub full of cheap toys and The Claw.

I spent hundreds of dollars on that Claw, always winning an armful of stuffed creatures and cheap watches before my money was up, never feeling like I got my money’s worth, and always returning to it with a sense of indignation, as if THIS TIME would be the time I wouldn’t let the machine beat me – I’d come away on the upper hand. This is, I imagine, what it feels like to gamble – to develop an animistic relationship to “the house” that makes you resent your own (probabilistically pre-ordained) failings as the sinister machinations of some imposing but faraway intelligence. Winning becomes personal, but it’s personal against no one – it’s nothing but a measly point of pride, and your triumph wins you no plaudits and tarnishes no rival's honor.

Later, as a young teen, I punched holes in my bedroom's plaster walls – perhaps a dozen holes. Some of them were because I was growing up in small-town Iowa and the small-town Iowa girls I thought at the time were hot but have gone on to learn were on the threshold between gross and average didn't like me like I liked them; but most of the holes were punched over Mortal Kombat II for the Sega Genesis. I would come home from school, where I had been bullied and shamed in a million disparate, and always somehow novel, ways, where I'd been marginalized and made to feel insignificant – and, what’s more, like I was playing a game for which everybody else knew the rules, but they were so baroquely complex that I’d never be able to make sense of them without a crib sheet I’d never be given. And I’d come home to this box, which I’d play for hours every day, until my parents told me to stop – that is, until I realized I could just keep playing after they told me to stop and they’d eventually stop trying to get me to stop.

This made sense to me. I knew that if I honed my reflexes, learned very specific and recognizable patterns, adapted my idiosyncratic way of understanding the problem to the fully intelligible problem itself, I would end up solving it. I could win, which was a sensation I was promised nowhere else in life. Not in art or literature, not in social interaction, not in organized athletics – and I was a good athlete, goddamnit, but I was mercilessly bullied off the soccer team by a kid who was bullied so much he finally had to transfer. The big wheel keeps on turning.

I certainly couldn't hope for this kind of promised success academically. I couldn’t win at school. I couldn’t escape the sense that no matter what I did I was a disappointment to someone, that I couldn’t delegate my time in a way that would make my efforts satisfactory to everyone looming over me in judgment – a half-dozen teachers in wildly disparate subjects and two parents who only showed genuine interest when something was wildly wrong, and who brought me up to think I was at my best when I didn’t cause trouble but didn’t do anything that warranted special attention, so exhausted were they from dealing with my terrorist of a criminal of a sister.

It’s not that I particularly wanted to underachieve in school. I didn’t much care either way. But my teachers so thoroughly drilled it into my head that I was underachieving so prodigiously that my young, stupid mind only took away that I was young and stupid, and that I couldn’t really do any of the things they wanted me to do, so I should only do what I want to do. I can only assume that their attempts to shame me for putting zero scholarly effort in were intended as motivational, intended to stoke the fire of passion for knowledge they suspected burned just under the surface ashes of my cartoonishly morose persona. You should have seen my shock when I saw that my history teacher, who I’d only given the form to that morning in spite of the fact that we were supposed to give at least 2 weeks notice, gave me all 1s on a scholarship recommendation. But I didn’t catch any of these subtle signals. I thought he was just fucking with me. It was all part of the game I so stupendously misunderstood at the time, which I now take such delight in trying to decipher. I’m not sure if it’s across-the-board difficult to hint kids in the right direction, but I do know that it was impossible to hint me into doing what they wanted me to do. I wanted to be told, and no one ever told me shit -- the nudged and finessed and cajoled, and if there's one thing I've learned from my romantic life it's that I'm entirely too thick to take hints. So I did what I wanted to do.

And I wanted to play Mortal Kombat.

And when that didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, I wanted to punch holes in my wall.

This seems off the beaten track of concentration and attention span. But consider what people bemoan when they talk about the intellectual decline they see in the youth today. Great Books. Epic Poems. Ethics. Fucking Opera. Intellectual issues considered broadly, apart from soundbites or blurbs.


Youth’s inabilities are painted as a decline in the faculty to pay attention to shit we don’t care about, and have no reason to care about (or at least, are given no incentive to care about). And, what’s more to the point – these things are unpleasant. And nobody makes bones about this. Reading a Henry James novel, for the mass of men, is awful. Sure, there’s the odd odd duck who does enjoy it – and these are generally the people who try to make everybody else feel guilty for not enjoying it – but enjoyment isn’t really the game, here. Rather, it’s about tradition or heritage or genius or greatness or fucking human dignity (which I’ve always found to be a remarkably curious concept for a species whose coping strategy for dying appears to consist of forcing the aged to become senile and shit themselves and move very slowly and take very seriously things nobody else takes seriously at all.) It's about doing what people have always done, because that's just the way people do it, and it would just be a shame to lose that.

With videogames, the rewards are immediate and visceral.


They’re not, on the other hand, metaphysically satisfying. At least not when they’re your primary means of subsistence, the thing upon which your life is predicated.

But here’s the thing. NOTHING that you predicate your life upon is satisfying to the least degree. Literature is not satisfying unless it’s an escape from the horrors of your own life. Work is not a solace unless it blocks out the horrors of home. Alcohol isn’t any fun if you drink it all day, every day -- then it's just another fucking job. Vocations are miserable. But most of the people who tell us we should be doing more things that are intellectually rigorous – that require more attention, that force us to concentrate – seem to have no idea that we can immerse ourselves, life and mind and body and all, into Madden ’06 for 18 hours straight without eating or drinking anything. They have no idea that when they tell us we’re failing when we don’t learn this shit they think we should learn for the betterment of our souls even though none of us believe in souls anymore, we want to fail because what did THEY ever succeed at? I would love to be shown the generation who excelled at mathematics and concentrated on things that aren’t fun and really hunkered down to read long works of literature who didn’t, at the end of the day, feel as empty as we do, and who didn’t, at the end of the day, engage in wars and crimes and rape fantasies and wicked thoughts and petty thefts just as callow and horrifying as our own. It would give me something to shoot for.

The only problem now is, I hate all of my peers.

The end.