Sunday, December 27, 2015

A paragraph

If we were to paint this as a picture, we would get a diagram of alienated subjects. Which, to be blunt, is the opposite of the actualized subjects our syllabi talk about. Modernity is present, and we are far from the idyllic democratic world the Ancients are depicted as living in. It's a fractal picture of the present, and it contains the opposite of the traditional dot that proclaims "you are here". We are not there, but are nevertheless expected to be.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A philosophical point

Texts can be organized in two ways. The first way gradually builds up to a conclusion, each step leading to the next in a logical progression. As an argument is made, the text points back to it and says “thus”. The next argument is then made, and the text points back to it and says “thus”.

This is a way of pointing at the logic of things. The text works if and only if it is internally coherent, and the appointed arguments follow from each other. If a, then b, then c. Tendency is discouraged.

The second way is what we might call externally coherent. It points first to this thing, then to that thing, then to a third thing, and then to some sort of conclusion or imperative. The difference being that these things can be anything, without apparent connections to each other. The argument is not made by the things themselves, but in the order and way of their presentation.

This might seem counterintuitive, but an example should clear up any confusion: look at the nice weather outside (point one), remember that time we went on a picnic and had a wonderful time (point two), you always bury yourself in words this time of year and need to be cheered up (point three), let's go picnic (argument/imperative).

As philosophers are wont to point out, most actual arguments found in the world follow the second path. Whilst pointing this out, they usually make sure to also point out that the philosophical way of explicating each step of the way is better than to wantonly go on picnics. You never know what you might get yourself into otherwise, and then you're none the wiser.

Thing is. There's an economy to human communication, and humans can only summon so much mental effort before they deem something incomprehensible. No matter how logical the progression. This makes it imperative to know the most expedient route from point a to point b, and how to mobilize someone's imagination into a shared understanding of this route. That is to say, what to point at in order to mobilize the inherent understanding already present in those reading.

A blunt example would be someone shouting FIRE in a crowded building. Whilst the inherent premise of the danger of a fire spreading in a crowded space remains unstated, it is nevertheless effective in mobilizing the knowledge of such dangers. It moves about, rhizomatically enthymemic.

The proper lesson here is to listen carefully to those talking about fire safety procedures.

As a writer, what you want to take away from this is that most things do not need to be explained in order to be understood. You can safely assume that they know that the sky is blue, and that you can point to it in order to ground what you are saying. You can also safely assume that they know the general correlation of water and wetness, and that the specifics doesn't matter when you point out that it's a rainy day. You know, they know, and this mutual understanding is a firm basis for future communication. It is up to your text to act on it.

Let the philosophers play their word games. They know too well that the things we understand need to be explained, rather than the other way around. -

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Rant on privilege bubbles

Privilege is not having to deal with shit.

This is a radical and comprehensive way of defining it. Radical in that it goes to the root of the matter, and comprehensive in that it can be applied across the board. No matter how privileged you are, there's always someone else who doesn't have to deal with the shit you have to deal with, and thus they are more privileged than you. In the grand scheme of things, there's always a bigger fish.

Thing is. The human condition is dealing with shit. Both literally and figuratively. There's always uncomfortable things to be done, and the more you are called upon to deal with it, the less privileged you are.

Which makes sense intuitively. Some people never catch a break, and always have to deal. They have to constantly struggle to fulfill even the most basic of life demands, and when they try to go home after a hard day of Maslowing they remember that they do not have a home, and have to deal with being outside all night. Or seek fleeting refuge in warm places where they are not welcome, but that are sometimes less guarded than usual.

Some temporary heat is better than no heat at all, given enough cold.

In reverse, some people have dealt so little with it that it literally never crosses their mind that they might have to. Or that others have to on a daily basis. It is so completely removed from their minds that they, for all intents and purposes, live in another world. Not having to deal with it is the same thing as not knowing about it, as knowledge is gained from the experience of dealing. No experience, no knowledge.

Approaching privilege from this angle, the notion of a privilege bubble is completely understandable. That is to say, privileged lives are so shielded from the experience of having to deal with certain aspects of human suffering that they are free to devote themselves to arcane and frivolous things. All that energy that otherwise would have been spent on avoiding cold and hunger are channeled into concept interior decoration, and suddenly it makes sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on creating the perfect kitchen/living room experience. Inside the bubble, priorities are free to roam in the darnedest directions.

Which is not to say that those inside the bubble do not have to deal. But they have to deal with different things. The bursting of the housing bubble and the rampant foreclosures following it is a brutal example of this; the rampant tendency of working oneself to death in order to afford said kitchen/living room experience is another. Which doesn't lessen the effect of living inside the bubble - it only points to the fact that there are those who do not have to deal with those things.

Which, to be sure, makes the male experience privileged by default, no matter how poor it might be. No matter how dire and hungry the straits, it's a plus to not have to deal with being constantly sexually harassed on top of everything else. And if you do not understand what this means, then that is an imperative to checking your privilege bubble - no experience, no knowledge, and so forth.

The universal human condition is to worry about things, and taking measures to alleviate this worry. Being in a privilege bubble does not change this - it only changes what you worry about. Some worry about starving to death, and take measures to find food, so be it if it happens to be out of a trashcan. Others worry about not being seen as a worthy member of their social group, and invest millions in a yacht just to be one of the crowd. The impulse is the same, but the measures taken to deal with it differ brutally. And the means available to do so.

Do not mistake this rant as a plea for sympathy for the privileged. There are plenty of privileged people who know so little about those without that they literally wish they'd just die and disappear - for real, and not just in their lived experience. This needs to be called out and acted upon. Understanding is not automagically the same as sympathy, though, and understanding privilege bubbles is the first step towards dismantling them in a way that actually works.

Or towards getting out of them, as the case might be. -

Friday, October 30, 2015

Why is school a traumatic experience?

We've all gone to school. It doesn't matter which class we happen to belong to - working class, upper class, struggling remnants of what used to be the middle class. We all went there.

And we all have stories to tell therefrom. Good, bad, indifferent.

The biggest argument in favor of public schooling is that society needs a common fount of shared experience to cohere. Which, in a sense, is true. But it does point towards the question of what these poor pupils really get to learn during these experiences - especially as the notion of them getting their own personal experiences is frowned upon during the process. Johnny can't read, and thus he's not allowed to do anything else until he can.

You learn things in school, and not only those who are specified in the curriculum. Even more effectively, you learn things that are not in the books, by the very design of the school as an institution. Things such as the inevitable ordinariness of rising and shining in the early morn to be punctual and on time yet another ordinary day.

Now, there's nothing in the act of educating children that demands that things begin in the morning hours. The school day could just as well begin at noon without loss of utilized learning potential. But it simply would not do to have a generation of kids who weren't disciplined to rise in time for business hours.

The kids also have to get used to other things. Such as constantly being interrupted. Most brutally through the schedule, where the day is segmented into predetermined blocks of arbitrary content. As soon as one activity is initiated, the bell rings and it is time to go to the next block, which may or may not have any relation to those previous. Which hampers the learning of those interested and uninterested both - those interested are interrupted in their learning, and those uninterested won't have enough time to become interested.

They learn to ramble aimlessly between arbitrary activities, and to indifferently obey the arbitrary instructions given. Without any note of their interests.

Moreover, they learn to be constantly surveilled. Not only by their teachers, whose stated functions are to be present and vigilant, but also by virtue of the records. Everyone present is noted, those not present are sanctioned. Thus they learn to constantly monitor their relationship to the system - no one gets away, even when they get away. Those who do are swiftly punished.

Especially for younger pupils, whose attendance is measured down to the last minute. What is taught by such constant combination of documentation and surveillance?

The definition of being disciplined is the preparedness to be watched. In a strictly controlled environment such as a school, being watched is the default mode. Not just in relation to the teachers and the ever present schedule, but also in relation to other pupils. There are very few private spaces in a school where it's possible to breathe and look less than presentable. They will be seen and noted.

Speaking of other pupils - one of the most repeated lessons is that cooperation and mutual effort is a sin. The words used to describe such behavior tend to be synonymous with "cheating" and "plagiarism". And punished as such. In order to judge and discipline the pupils properly, they need to be taught to do things on their own, and woe betide those who dare to improve their learning capabilities by mobilizing available social resources.

So. What are we teaching kids these days?

To wake early, to arrive on time, to tolerate constant interruptions, to move from one arbitrary boring activity to another, to be constantly watched, to be constantly judged, that cooperation is cheating, and that there is no escape.

If this sounds eerily familiar to being imprisoned - well, Foucault did say that schools, prisons, factories and military bases operate on similar principles. Discipline and punish.

Is it really that strange that many think school was (and still is) a traumatic experience? And is it really necessary to systematically perpetuate these experiences in the name of social cohesion?

There's no lack of those who'd answer yes.

Originally published November 15, 2011

Monday, October 12, 2015

Freeriding the dark train of anxiety, pt 2

A while back, I wrote a post on Foucault (and the subtle art of freeriding on trains). When writing it, I planned it to be twice as long as it turned out to be. The reason for it being at half length being that as I finished the part on Foucault, I was tired of writing and thus thought that I'd write the second part later. I already knew the general outline, and it would just be a matter of filling in the blanks. Piece of cake.

Not to put a fine point on it, but July 9 2014 happened quite a while ago.

Thing is, I've been thinking I should write that second part ever since. Which is a long time to think about doing something. To make matters worse, I forgot the general outline, because of course, and efforts to recapture it have proved unsuccessful.

Thus, I've decided to unwrite it. That is to say, write something that is not it, but is close enough to put its spirit to rest.

Now, the general metaphor of part one is being on a train without a valid ticket. There is no getting out of the situation, as the train is at once both a moving and confined space. You can either endure the ride, or get caught and suffer the consequences. Which, being a metaphor, transports over to other life situations, be they large or small - you can probably recall similar situations from your own past.

My helpful advice, as someone who surfed these situations freely for years, was the ever helpful imperative to not beat yourself up over it, seeing that the situation did that very efficiently all on its own. It's good advice, to be sure, but it's incomplete.

Hello, Bauman. Your time has come.

Zygmunt Bauman, of sociology fame, wrote about many things. Among these things are parvenus, people who for whatever reason cannot be themselves. Or, to quote him quoting Hannah Arendt, people who are "denied the right to be themselves in anything and in any moment". People who, try as they might, will never quite fit in, even thought they might understand the game better than those who were born to play it.

A prime example of this would be immigrants who excel at learning the culture and customs of their new home. While they may in fact know more about where they are than the natives (pun very intended), there will always be that smidge of "but where are you really from?" clinging to them. And to their children, born and raised right here. They have all the qualifications and pass all the tests for being true citizens, yet they will always be seen as not-quite-it. They are Other, and will always be, even though they are more assimilated than those who would wish them to assimilate.

Ponder the similarities to the ticketless situation. As I galavanted around, I learned the intricacies of the rail system: where connections are made, how to get from one place to another, which part of the train to board to be able to disembark closest to where you're headed - and so on and so on. Useful inside information that I on multiple occasions put to good use in helping confused newcomers. Nevertheless, the fact that they had tickets and I did not created a rift between us that had nothing to do with who knew more about what was going on; the fact that I felt more at home than they did, did not change the fact that they were more at home than me.

The train has the advantage that it is a very confined social situation. The associated anxiety can be dealt with, as it has very definite end states: eventually, you arrive. And there is always the choice of not embarking in the first place - a choice best described by the word 'privilege'.

The aforementioned immigrant, though, does not have this luxury. No matter how hard they work, study and live the 'right' way, they will always be parvenu. Pretenders, impostors, whose scam can be exposed at any moment, for any reason, their loyalty always in question, their sincerity viewed with suspicion even (and especially) when there is no fault to be found. They are not seen as belonging to the legitimate Us that makes the distinction between Us and Them. They are, forever, potentially Them.

This goes for any number of categories, to be sure. Bauman most assuredly did not write about "fake gamer girls", but the principle is the same; no matter how encyclopedic a girl's knowledge of games and game lore is, the notion that she's fake still permeates the situation. Those who deem themselves 'true' have always-already decided the falsehood of those untrue. Yet they keep insisting that the standards of true gamerdom be strived for, even as they deny access to joining their select fellowship.

The omnipresence of these demands to live up to the standards of inclusion is mirrored by the brutal absence of any institution that would officially proclaim them fulfilled. It is not possible to simply buy a ticket and become a member of the club - that's not how these things work. The fate of the parvenu is to endlessly strive to fit in, to succeed at it, and to live it - forever at the mercy of those who would suspect them of not doing any of these things. There is no stamp of approval, only an endless arsenal of stigmas to brand those deemed unworthy.

This is another level of anxiety, different yet similar to that of Foucault. It creates situations wherein one asks for permission, and where this very action denies the possibility of it being given. To invoke a parable from Kafka:

I ran past the first watchman. Then I was horrified, ran back and said to the watchman: "I ran through here while you were looking the other way." The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. "I suppose I really oughtn't to have done it," I said. The watchman still said nothing. "Does your silence indicate permission to pass?". . . 

This silence, of course, does not mean either permission or anything else. It only means that nothing has been done yet that warrants action. Yet. But the watchman is still watching, waiting, in case you slip up and prove that you are indeed as fake as suspected. You are never above suspicion; there is always a reason for anxiety.

Yes, the pronoun has shifted. You are in focus now - as a potential terrorist, there's really no reason to ever let you out of range of the watchful eyes of the watchmen. Or the data mining algorithms, as it were. You too are suspect.

And thus, I can finally conclude and complete the advice given in the first post:

Don't beat yourself up over this either.

Monday, September 28, 2015

If rhetoric is wrong, I don't wanna be right

When I say I've studied rhetoric, I'm frequently asked this question:

What is rhetoric?

Which is a fair question. In fact, it is the yardstick of fair questions - it's straight to the point, no beating around the bush, no hidden assumptions. Especially since I've just claimed something, and am ever so directly being asked to clarify this claim.

Answers to this question differ.

When I'm in memetic mode, I answer along the lines of this here enormous picture you've no doubt seen long before you actually got to reading this part. It's point and click, basically - you point at something, say something related to it, then point at another thing, say something related to that, and so on.

I rarely use this answer, though, since the notion that such things as "truth" and "justice" and "a proper taste in culture" are pointable is hard to convey in everyday settings. Which is the opposite of effective, given the everyday setting I've recently pointed at. Thus, another answer is called upon:

Rhetoric is the art of making things up.

This is both easy to understand, and fun to demonstrate. It's easy to understand since it's what most people already think anyway, and thus comes as no surprise. It's fun to demonstrate, because it's true: as a rhetor, you are good at making things up. And since the most recent pointage happened to be at this very fact, you now have a proper and sufficient kairos to simply make anything up. Anything at all.

Even if these things are totally wrong. Especially if they are totally wrong.

Some think rhetoric is all about finding the proper thing to say. This is true to a point. In the process of finding this right thing, you have to discard many improper things. And most of these things are unexpectedly funny, seeing as they are both improper and wrong.

This, too, builds on preexisting doxa: most people have an intuitive sense of propriety and genre, and know what to expect from people in general. Public officials speak a certain way, doctors another, presidents a third, and so on. This is known. Thus, it can be worked with. Like, say, pointing out that it would be funny if Obama began a speech with the immortal words:

Dear fellow anime lovers of America!

This gives ample opportunity to goof around, and to get to the point: that your rhetorical superpowers consist mostly of making things up until you find something that sticks. Most of these things will never see the light of day, but those that do will be better because you've seen how much worse they could be. There is gold in them hills, among all the mud and lost irrelevant relics and animes.

It's all about making things up. And it's all about speeding up the process in such a way that it can be done on the fly.

...and about making sure you don't make too much an ass out of yourself whilst doing it.

Most of the time, it works. Then you fall in love, and all bets, definitions and pointers are off. -

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Tendency

Virilio has a very important concept, that of the 'tendency'. Much like the accident, it is one that is hard not to think about once it has made its appearance. It introduces itself, and then it reintroduces the world.

The gist of it is to take what is given and extrapolate it three steps ahead. Take it from where we're at, and go to where it's logically going. Without doing the proper philosophical move of explicating every step of the way in expounded detail.

I encountered my favorite example of this in an episode of This American Life. It went something like this:

"I had noodles for breakfast"
"Oh yeah. Cheap ones, or expensive good ones?"
"Dunno, my girlfriend bought them."
"Do you love her?"

As you can see, there are intermediary conversational steps that are brutally bypassed in this example. It also makes for an interesting conversation - rather than focusing on the minutiae of noodles, it went straight to a point. Not the point, mind, as conversations rarely have one singular predetermined point, but a point nevertheless.

In writing, this takes the form of applied enthymemes. A paragraph begins with an opening statement, some expansions of this statement, and then ends by moving everything along. Without remorse, it moves from the present to what could be, should we but think about it. It harnesses the tendency and displays it before our electronically weary eyes. It is but a step on our way to becoming immortal cyborg heads.

This, to be sure, is one of the reasons many who attempt to read Virilio give up after a while. Either because they haven't been clued in to this, and are thus confused by the sudden leaps, or they see what the deal is, and rejects it as lazy writing. Either way, the tendency is real.

In life, you can apply this in any way you want. I would suggest poetry. -

Friday, September 18, 2015

Social structures made simple

Social structures might seem abstract and hard to grasp. But really, they are not. They are simply what happens when nothing in particular is happening.

For instance: unless society malfunctions on a massive scale, you are likely to pay taxes. You don't have to figure out how or why, or negotiate the specific percentages. It is not a personal endeavor, as you simply do what is expected of you. It's not personal, it's structural.

It happens when nothing in particular is happening.

If you can get your head around this, you can get your head around the notion of structural sexism. It's not personal, and it's not something the individual actors actively think about doing. It's just what's happening when nothing in particular is disturbing the ordinary. Such as when women get the same patronizing questions over and over and over again from random people they've never met before. It's not personal - it's just that the combined tendency of everyone to do the same thing have effects above and beyond any one particular instance

How do you affect these things, you ask?

Why, that follows from the definition! If these things are what happens when nothing in particular happens, we have to make something particular happen. Perturb the status quo and unnerve those who simply follow the path of least structural resistance. It's easy to simply do as expected; it's hard to do so when there are things abound that makes the default mode seem highly inappropriate.

Make people uncomfortable. Make them question what they are doing. Point out that they are not determined by the structures they find themselves in, and that they are quite capable of being autonomous subjects with agency.

It's not personal. Until it is.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Metasocial by the numbers

I recently realized that I didn't have someone's phone number. Which, as I pondered the realization, made me think about the interplay of change and inertia. Of how as things change, they yet somehow remain themselves.

On the one hand, it would be a trivial thing to simply conjure it up using search engines. I have enough circumstantial information to narrow down the results enough to glean the signal from the noise (probably to such an accuracy that there will only be one search result). This, however, would be slightly stalky, and should I proceed along this course and send a text down the line, it might well be perceived as such.

On the other hand, simply asking them (or any of our mutual friends) about it might be construed and misconstrued in any number of ways. As you might well imagine.

This is interesting, as it shows that information is not socially neutral. Moreover, the way information is acquired is anything but socially neutral. It never was, to be sure, but it is even less so now. Even though information wants to be free, acting on it is not.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

In thinking about this, I also realized that this line of inquiry is more interesting than actually, you know, getting a hold of that number. Which only goes to show that attention is socially awkward. -

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Writing as selfgenerating competence

Reading and writing are central skills in our society. Our school systems spend an almost worryingly large portion of its resources (and of the pupils' time) on making sure these skills are acquired. When the metamorphosis from pupil to student takes place, the most common realization is that it takes even more reading and writing to get along in the world of the university. Not to mention worklife with its more or less sensical demands. If you're a broken human being should you not have a cell phone, you've almost broken your bond to the human species should you not be able to read and write.

Learning to handle the text medium - both as a consumer and a producer - is therefore of central importance. While it might not be necessary to turn everyone into a Marcel Proust, who successfully wrote 600 interesting pages of fiction where the protagonist doesn't really do anything but lie on their bed wondering whether they should do something interesting or not, some level of proficiency is required in this society of ours. Achieving minimal levels of literacy doesn't take too many years, admittedly, and some would say that this level is usually achieved at around ten years of age, but the fact that there is a minimal level says more than the contingent fact of where it happens to be.

Reading and writing are linked, but not identical. It is possible to be a phenomenal reader whilst at the same time a terrible writer; and, conversely, it is possible to not be able to read the backside of a milk carton whilst being able to formulate the most delicate of poetry. (Blame postmodernism.) In general, though, it goes that the more one reads, the more proficient one becomes in both reading and writing. And the same goes for writing, mutatis mutandis. Practice is skill in this case too.

One thing that separates reading/writing from other skills, such as cooking, biking or gardening, is that it's hard to argue that there's an upper limit to it. Cooking might be a difficult art, but you will eventually learn the perfect ways to cook a noodle. The perfect way of making a text, however, is forever out of reach. James Joyce was on to something in his more peculiar works, but just as there are just about as many interpretations of Finnegans Wake as there are readers, there are no doubts that it could have been written better. Not better as in more comprehensible - Joyce's texts are not to be understood, as it were - but rather more interesting. The fact that you can parse a ridiculous amount from the shifts and interplays between the mutually exclusive yet juxtapositionally present interpretations is one thing, but that does not say that any of that is as interesting as it could be.

For those of you who haven't read Joyce (and who have the good notion of not doing it any time soon), it helps to know that good ol' James systematically used misspelling, puns, convoluted sentencing, unclear subjects, annoying moves and at times pure busywork (such as, say, not doing punctuation for fifty pages or so) to create literary effects. Rules for good languaging and virtuous habits in text production are seen as helpful suggestions, to be ignored at will. It's not that he didn't know what he was doing - he knew exactly what he was doing, and did it anyway.

Fortunately enough, we don't always have to know what we are doing when we do writing. Most of the time, all we need to know is how things are usually done, and then do this until it becomes a habit. Many good authors claim to not know what they do when they do what they do, yet are still able to continue doing good texts with the same goodness that made them good authors. Those writing shorter texts - such as, say, filling out requisition forms in their workplace capacities - don't even have to know they are doing writing. They are filling out a form, after all, which is a whole other thing than performing a text, and all the pretension that goes with it.

Likewise, we don't really need to know what we're doing when we're reading. Most of the time, we don't even need to remember the names of the protagonists to get something out of reading - even when we're not reading Joyce. It's not necessary to consciously note that this particular text does thing other texts don't do, and you can usually get away with doing a standard reading. They are words on a page - why making things harder than it needs to be by noting all these tiny details?

If you only remember one thing from reading this, I hope it's something along the lines that texts - and their reading and writing - are far more complicated than they seem. Not to mention the relationship between reading and writing. One could of course, learn the basics and declare oneself done with it, just as there are many who learn arithmetic and declare themselves done with mathematics. It cannot be denied, however, that there are many exciting things one can do with the more elaborate forms of algebra. As soon as one's relationship to texts reach a sufficiently complex point, everything changes - literally everything.

The basics of any notion of text production is that there is something to be said, and that this is to be said in an effective way. There are - evidently - certain ways of doing a text that are more effective than others at performing that which is to be performed (and said). The more artful you become at this, the more intuitive and immediate it becomes to find the how that goes with each what. How should this particular text behave in order to do what I want it to do?

This something that ought to be said is sometimes also something that must be said. When transcending the basics, we stumble upon the realization that what must be said is not always congruous with that which can be said, and that we cannot say some things we must say due to things we are forced to say that exclude these things from the realms of possibility. To be brutal about it: in conditions where it is mandatory to prefix everything with "heil Hitler", it is a hard sell to proceed with the words "thus the democratic revolution begins, comrades!". The one excludes the other, and that which must be said has precedence over that which can be said; when the former has been uttered, it has brought along a whole arsenal of thoughts and ideological positions from which it is hard to backtrack. Which goes without saying.

This critical perspective (any perspective that can see that things do not have to be the way they are is automatically critical) eventually leads to the realization that this exclusion of certain possible utterances in practice amounts to the exclusion of certain possible subjects - possible ways of thinking and being. When that which has to be said includes certain fundamental assumptions about the world, it becomes that much harder to be someone who does not share there assumptions. And somewhere about here, the title of this post starts to make sense: writing as selfgenerating competence.

Text is not only about that which is said, or how it is said, or if it is allowed to be said, but also about who is saying that which is said. The text generates the subject, with words, and being able to write becomes (literally) a self-generating process. Being able to write is not only about writing a text that works in the specific context one happens to find oneself in, but also about constructing a subject in general. Mainly one's own, but also, increasingly, the reader's.

You of course see where this is headed. -

Originally published February 26, 2010

Friday, August 28, 2015


Time is a central part of our lives. In fact, it's so central that it's usually used as the prime definer or descriptor of what life is - our time here on earth, the time at our disposal, the times of our lives. Whatever we do, we do it within the allotted time frame; our works might live on through the millennia, but we only live through the decades. We are while there is still time; should time suddenly stop, so also would we.

It's easy to talk about time in terms of calendar time. Time usually occurs to us in terms of hours, days, weeks, months; usually with an implicit telos in mind. Now is now, deadline is then, and if I am to do all that there is to be done between now and then, I'd better begin now. Deadline is added to deadline, weeks to months, and before we know it a whole year has passed unnoticed. We run through the calendar, run through time; hopefully not towards the deadline.

Merely stating that time is identical with what the calendar has to say won't do, though. Calendars change over time, after all, and such changing foundations are not suitable for further eternities. One could argue that we - meaning "we who happen to be here and now when this discussion takes place" - should kickstart (pick your meaning) our own calendar to measure time, just because we can. I won't go into different calendar systems or details such as whether one should base it on the sun or the moon or the seasons, but merely mention them so as to encourage you to find your own time.

I want to repeat again that time and calendars are not identical. Calendars change over time, but time can't be said to do the same. We can reasonably assume that it is the same as it's always been, that is to say tautologically itself. That is to say, persist. We could say it's a kind of objective time - time in and of itself, the raw stuff of the universe to do with as we see fit. Time comes, time goes, and in either case it does not care about us or what we do; our lives, dreams thoughts, friendships, loves - everything disappears in the end, one at a time.

We all know that time doesn't always move at the same speed. Depending on mood, situation and circumstances, it can either fly or crawl. We've all been in situations where time seems to be off the clock and occasionally even move backwards, where syrup becomes the paradigmatic image of fastflowing progression. Conversely, we've all been in the opposite situation, where a day lasted but an instant of immense joy. There's, in other words, also a subjective time, moving in some sort of relation to its objective counterpart.

This relation is often expressed in clock time. If four hours passed by like an bullet train, they went by fast; if five minutes managed to encompass the entire rise and fall of the Roman Empire, they went slow. Clock time is the closest representation we have of objective time - the clock has no measure of care for what we do with our lives. The clock does its thing, second by second, whether you live or die; time passes, moment by moment, caring little for what transpires.

Clock time is not always a reliable basis for planning one's life. Instead, it might be better to plan according to biological time - that is to say, the time since you last slept, ate, took a dump, exerted ourselves, rested, etc. As physical and biological beings, there are certain things we have to do, and that we have to do with a certain regularity. Not necessarily with the regularity of a clock, but regularly enough that we ignore it at our own peril.

When confronted with the vastness and real age of the world, neither clock time nor biological time manages to grasp just how vast this vastness is. Thus, we grasp for geological time, where a life is but an instant and the gradual shifting of the landscape moves along to the tune of millions of years. The paradoxical thing about here is that there's both very much and very little going on at the same time. The moon as we know it today, for example, came forth during the passing of geological time, but most of it wasn't what we would consider action-packed. What we can see today came out of continual asteroid strikes shaping and reshaping the landscape; while violent, the process is such that between these strikes, there's a whole lot of nothing in particular going on. You can't live geological time in an interesting way, but you can summarize it ever more vividly.

Speaking of summarizing, media time is its own special form of time. Some news stories have a running time and longevity that go beyond what anyone would have ever suspected, while other news explodes into being and fades just as quickly. Trying to find a unit of measurement for media time is a tricky proposition, even though some have attempted a geographical route by measuring the kilometers of published text on a subject. Media time exist in a sublime space, such as that feeling present moments before the sub breaks the horizon a summer morn. Hard to define, but definitely there. There are times when everyone knows about something, and can refer to it without having to specify further, but at some point this knowledge passes from zeitgeist to past tense.

Many experience work time, and the many derivations thereof: full time, part time, flex time, overtime. (There's even the strange condition of zero-hour work time.) Work time consists of those hours where work is to be done, and can only be conceived in relation to free time, whence leisure shall commence. You can't have one without the other, by definition. If you only have free time and no work time, you're apparently not simply free, but unemployed. If you, conversely, have no free time but only work time, you're either in slavery or the kind of person who live solely through your work; in either case, work lasts for a lifetime.

Corporations - especially the larger ones - have their own perception of time. They have, through some accident of history, adopted a viewpoint that time progresses in a steady tri-monthly beat, where the most important thing is to have a bigger number than the last time around. Bigger is better, but no matter how big, next time needs to be even bigger. The restlessness expressed in the quarterly report time is profound, to be sure.

The political time is similar to the media time, but has more formal constraints, such as laws and constitutions and deep-rooted traditions. Depending on the form of government, these times can either be longer or shorter. Absolute monarchy defines political time in terms of generations (and in terms of biological time, such as when the health of the kingdom is synonymous with the health of the body of the monarch). Representative democracies, on the other hand, count in terms of election cycles. Political time not only defines how long someone holds the reins of power, but also how long certain questions are up for debate. Certain questions can stick around for the longest time, while others fade with quickness; some rulers stick around for years and years, while others are quickly dethroned. Just as with media time, these things are hard to predict.

Rhetoricians use a term for the most appropriate time - kairos. Kairos is that perfect moment when one can deliver the perfect answer, when the punchline is at its peak punch. Usually, we only realize what this line would be long after the moment has passed, and subsequently express the sentiment that - if only we'd said that instead! We now know the best of all possible answers, but alas, the moment has passed. But, have faith. There will be more perfect moments, and if you keep your eyes open you'll see them coming.

Speaking of appropriate times, this seems to be a good time to end. Whether I succeeded in my standing ambition to keep my posts interesting, entertaining and educative is an open question, and as the poets affirm, something only time will tell. -

Originally published February 18, 2010

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

War and not-quite peace

War is something most of us have been forced to realize is something huge and hard to grasp. Not least due to the plethora of movies to be found on the subject. Some of them try to depict war as something glorious and heroic, making heroes of young men, giving even the scrappiest of lads a chance to perform great feats in the name of the State or the Nation (or Virtue, or whatever). Other movies give a different account, less optimistic and more realistic: open wounds, maggots, death, decay, psychic trauma, extreme stress, exhaustion, uncertainty with regards to as to whether there will be a tomorrow, the constant presence of very lethal and very mobile things with every intent on closing the distance, and, worst of all, bad food.

If I had such a bent, I'd quip about this second image being unnervingly close to everyday life. However, that would be making light of the topic, and that simply would not do.

Even everyday life is described in different ways, in movies and in other mediums. Just as in the depiction of war, there are cheerful rosy accounts insisting that there is goodness and beauty to be found even in the smallest of God's creations, should we just keep our eyes open. And, conversely, the opposite: the depiction of the relentlessly grey Monday mornings with their brutal disdifferentiation of past, present and future into a brutal-eternal now, where the prospects of anything ever changing are engineered out of the realm of possibility. (That is, until the protagonist meets a manic pixie dream girl who changes everything. But still.)

If I at this point would say that there is an inherent similarity between war and everyday life, I'd be somewhat disingenuous. The fact that both war and everyday life have been depicted in similar ways at different times doesn't say anything about either war or everyday life, and to compare these discourses is more of a discourse analysis than a comparison proper.

There are thinkers who have endeavored to connect war and everyday life in a more concrete way. Paul Virilio writes in War and cinema about how the ways we use to communicate with each other - radio, cell phones, internet, the works - were invented by the military for military use in wartime. Which might seem a simple restatement that war is the mother of all invention, and that when inventions have been invented it's hard to uninvent them, and that they might as well be put to use by those who need them. Which, to be sure, isn't much to phone home or tweet about. Virilio's twist on this is that the military paradigms that these inventions were first used in - the paradigms of war - slowly but surely are bleeding over to everyday life and civil society, along with the inventions themselves.

Before we continue this line of thinking, let's turn to Clausewitz. In his monumental book On war, he discusses just about everything there is to discuss about war. He gives us the rather counterintuitive definition of war as the continuation of politics through other means. This might seem odd, but think about wars happen. It's not because two people hate each other - the hate tends to be a product of the war, rather than the other way around. Rather, war happens when a state sees something it wants in/of another state, and use the military to procure these things. Politics through other means, as it were.

He then continues to differentiate between two types of objectives, present in every war. The first kind is the political objective, which is to say what the government of the attacking country (and the defending country, to be sure) wants to achieve, whatever it might be. The second is the military objective, which is what the military needs to conquer in order to secure the political goal (fortifications, strategic locations, transport networks, supply lines etc). If these objectives coincide, as when the objective is the annexation of territory, then achieving the one achieves the other. If the political goal is more diffuse, then the relation between political and military objectives is less clear. In either case, the projection of military force is a means to an end rather than an end unto itself.

The overall military objective, in any war, is to destroy the enemy. Or, rather, to destroy their capacity to enact and project resistance. If the enemy has been effectively and totally incapacitated (ponder this word), then they have lost. By definition, there is nothing they can do. When this happens, the only option is to surrender and give in to the political demands, whatever those might be.

We see here how politics and resistance are intrinsically linked to war as such. Politics is to want something, and if this want is to procure something someone else has, then this someone else can either mobilize a resistance to this will, or give in to it. There is no third option.

Returning to Virilio. The military inventions, first used in wars and related situations, have ever so slowly found their way into civil society. And along with them, the paradigm that necessitated and facilitated their use. The military has an endemic interest in keeping its troops ready to either attack or defend, to either overcome resistance or mobilize it. The ability to quickly and effectively organize large numbers of people has always been a key military interest, and is a critical component of every hostile situation.

As these military technologies become civil, military thinking has as well. We all carry cell phones, and we have grown accustomed to changing our plans whilst out in the field. Or out on the town. We do it more or less automatically these days, and feel strangely incapacitated whenever we - for any reason - can't do it. When our phone runs out of battery, it's not just our phone that's lacking in functionality. A part of who we see ourselves as is no longer operational. Which, incidentally, is how we see people who for whatever reason choose to live outside our infotechnobubble - nonfunctional people.

The thought of organizing ourselves in collective and efficient resistances (plural) became manifest in the wake of Gategate. [A Swedish 2010 event concerning two policemen demanding that a recording of them acting objectionably be deleted. The recording was subsequently recovered and spread far and wide through social media. The name denotes the fact that this took place near the gates to the Stockholm subway, which is to say a literal gate.] Before this, the possibility of quickly organize a response to government abuse was latent, dormant; after, it became something of a civic duty to document and signal boost these whenever they occurred. Whilst it is not always clear what these resistances attack or defend, it still weighs heavily upon us as an imperative in our daily lives.

Now, this is not to say that this is necessarily a negative thing. Being able to resist the inherent totalitarian tendencies of the state is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Being able to quickly organize a meeting on short notice in order to discuss what is to be done in a crisis situation can save lives. But it is worth pondering that while it is true that this country [Sweden] hasn't been in a formal state of war for over two hundred years, there is still a constant presence of war in our everyday lives. Not as a heroic adventure or a sudden onset of post-traumatic panic, but as an ambivalent gray something which is neither this nor that. It's in the air, but it's not something we usually think about. It's just there, waiting, a latent possibility inherent in being. The constant readiness to mobilize. At a moment's notice.

It is sometimes said that these new communication technologies have changed our lives beyond recognition. I think we've barely even begun to scratch the surface of this statement. Or even begun to suspect how many kilometers this surface extends. Old virtues become incommensurate with new realities; old imperatives subsumed by new ones. "Be a good person", they used to say. "Be able to resist", we now say. But resist whom, in whose name? What new objectives are posited by our politically mobilized selves and communities?

What even is this new everyday life we are suddenly living?

Originally published February 23, 2010

Monday, August 24, 2015

The war on accidents

Virilio defined accidents as the unavoidable side-inventions of new technologies. A commonly used example is the train accident - you cannot invent and build a train system without at the same time building the possibility of trains derailing. The mere act of moving trains on rails necessitates the possibility of them going off them. You can't have one without the other, as Sinatra sang it.

Then, in September 2001, someone weaponized the accident. Rather than using a conventional weapon, such as a bomb or a missile, they used the inherent and unavoidable potential for accidents built into airplanes. (That which goes up and so on.)

Ever since, the fear of accidents have been ever present. Of course, it has not been packaged as a fear of accidents, as that would be a hard sell. Rather, it went (and still goes) by the fancier name War on Terrorism. The difference between terrorism and accidents in this case being merely propagandistic - it is hard to conceive that the ever more draconian measures put in place are meant to stop bombs, missiles and other traditional tools of the trade. The aim is not to stop terrorism - it is to prevent accidents.

Thing is, though. Accidents are inherent to everything. As in, everything. The only way to prevent them is - as Aristotle put it - do nothing. Even then, nothing is guaranteed. There is no shortage of accidents of the human body, and even being in a position to read these words puts you at risk of the unforeseen (or worse, foreseen) accident.

One day, you too will die.

Question is how to live until then. Embodying the war on accidents is an option. It can be chosen as a way of life. It doesn't work, but nevertheless.

Always the less, as it were. -

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Working through it

There are different levels of working through something. Something like, say, the statement that everything is water.

One way of working through is it to not. To simply dismiss it as nonsense and move on to other, more important things. Which, to be sure, isn't much of a workout, but it needs to be mentioned as a baseline. And it is one of the most likely outcomes when people are confronted with something they do not immediately understand.

Everything is water. So what? Who cares?

A more engaged level of working through something is to take it at face value. "Everything is water". Which, on the face of it, makes little sense, as there are visible things around you that are clearly not water. The presence of things that are not water is a serious drawback to the notion that everything is in fact water.

The end result of this workthrough would be that the statement does not measure up. It makes sense, it is tested, and it is not true.

An even more engaged level of working through it would be to see it as some sort of metaphor. Things are not literally water, but share some property with it. Like water, things are in a state of fluidity, always in motion. Always changing, as it were. Since nothing is ever not changing (entropy does that), the statement that everything is water would serve as a general theory about everything.

The most engaging level would be to treat it as an emotional trauma. Everything is water, everything changes. Everyone who loves me could change their mind about it, and one day I could change my mind regarding those whom I love. Everything I love could end, and it could do so at any moment. Everything is water, and engaging with this thought is a source of much anxiety.

There are different ways of working through something. Sometimes, one way is more appropriate than the other.

I leave it to you to work out which is when.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You don't like muslims

There are one and a half billion Muslims in the world. Plus/minus. That's roughly a fifth of all humans. One in five things that humans do is done by a Muslim. Every fifth thing humanity does, a Muslim does.

This means that there's a large sample of humans, activities and human activities to choose from whenever one wants to say something about Islam. In fact, the sample is large enough that you can say just about anything, and there will (by virtue of statistical necessity) be Muslims who have done this very thing. Which has very little to do with Islam, and everything to do with statistical methodology and sample sizes.

This is a boon for those who wish to rail against Islam. They only have to come up with something that is both humanly possible and unsympathetic, and there will automagically be some Muslim somewhere who has done that very thing. A fifth of everything that is humanly possible is, statistically speaking, done by a Muslim, and it is humanly possible to do many unsympathetic things.

A propaganda machine could not wish for better conditions even in its wildest dreams.

Translated from the Propaganda Machine
Mars 17, 2015

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Virtuous troll management

The ancient Greeks spared no efforts when it came to answering the question about the good life. What is it, how do we attain it, when is it time to eat? Important questions that resonate even today.

Since they were ancient Greeks, the answer most of the time turned out to be synonymous with what ancient Greeks did anyway. That is to say, philosophizing, cultivating their virtues and in general being free spirits.

This raises an important obvious question: what to do with those who do not live the good life? And, moreover, what to do with those who don't even attempt the effort to live it?

The ancient Greeks answered this by putting their women and slaves to work, so that the free spirits could have more time to cultivate their virtues. Which simply won't do for us modern people, leaving us with this ancient unanswered question:

What to do with stupid people?

Or, to use a slightly more modern terminology: what is the proper way do deal with aggressive trolls, who beyond any reasonable doubt have communicated that they never will see reason, never enter into a dialogue, and in general intentionally act as if they are bereft of anything that is not stupid?

We could try to be understanding and meet them halfway. Be friendly cospirits in a common search for the good life. Which is a good solid ambition to have in any kind of human interaction. But, alas, it requires that the other meets us halfway, and any collaborative effort needs some measure of cooperation to succeed. Which is not forthcoming in this case, and thus leaves us with the question: how to preserve dignity in the face of unreason?

We could attack them head on. That is after all their main method of communication, and there's an old saying about being in Rome. If nothing else, they should be able to understand themselves, right? Which, indeed, they should. However, this too fails due to the fact that they intentionally act as if they were bereft of reason. That which is bad when one person does it seldom becomes good when two persons do it, and you have nothing to gain by acting stupid when you clearly are not.

We could ask them to see reason. Remind them that the Enlightenment has been a thing for a couple of centuries, and that there are plenty of self-help texts on the subject. However, once again, seeing reason is the one thing they explicitly will not do, so this won't work by definition.

We could see them the same way as we see the weather, that is to say something that happens regardless of anyone wanting it to happen or not, and talk about them should it fit the social situation. Which, admittedly, strips them of their status as human subjects, and is slightly morally problematic if you ask Kant. But seeing as they intentionally act as if this is already the case, there really is no reason not to do it. Moreover, there is no reason to see their speech acts are anything more meaningful than changes in the weather - things that can be talked about when all other subjects fall short.

There is not much we can do with regards to people actively renouncing the good life and its virtues. Sadly enough. But we can at least avoid doing it ourselves. Retain some dignity in the face of unreason.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.

Originally published June 1, 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Read this, and then you'll know better

One of the most difficult things about being ethical is knowing what you are doing, and then proceeding to do it anyway. It is one thing to not know what you're doing; there's divine forgiveness for such things. But knowing what you're doing is another thing altogether. Especially in cases where you know better.

There are three ways to read a text. They are as follow:

A neutral reading. The reading begins at the start all through to the end, and the reader tries to take the text for what it is.

Benevolent reading. The reader tries to understand what the text wants to say, and forgives those cases when the argument is weaker than it ought to be. If there are passages that can be interpreted in different ways, the most charitable interpretation is chosen.

Hostile reading. The reader begins with an intent to find flaws and weaknesses. If anything is less than 100% irrefutable, it will be refuted. If there are passages that can be interpreted in different ways, the least charitable interpretation is chosen.

It goes without saying that a text changes depending on how it is read. That which according to a benevolent reading is a minor mistake, is an active act of ill intent according to a hostile reading. The reader provides as much information as the text itself, and depending on how the reader reads, the text can be either this or that. The fact that we can choose which reading to employ does not change this.

Thus. There are three ways to read a text, and we can choose which reading to employ.

Remember that first paragraph? The one about ethical dimensions in knowing what you are doing, and the inescapable ethical weight of knowing what you are doing yet proceeding to do it anyway?

From this point on, you will always know if you choose to read something in a particular fashion. Especially if you choose to read someone in particular in a hostile fashion. You will never again be able to claim that you do not know what you're doing, because you from now on explicitly know exactly what you are doing. Because you are choosing to do it.

Welcome to your new, more ethical life.

Originally published April 23, 2015

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The geopolitics of birds

My old home had a very special, very present feature. No less than thirty meters from it, some thousand jackdaws made their nests, and they did it with great alacrity.

They also did it with a large degree of noise, as you might imagine. When they all took flight at the same time, it was like hearing the ocean lapping onto shore. Or, to quote a line oft repeated by me, "their rising all at once was as the sound of thunder heard remote".

If you know the first thing about jackdaws, you know that they cackle. If you know the second thing, you know that anything (any thing) can set them off. If you know the third thing, you know that they are a flock species that reacts in a collective manner to individual distress.

Knowing all this, you can figure that there was a lot of birds and bird sounds going on. At all times.

There was also an (one, 1) owl living somewhere around. Just the one, mind.

Thing is, this state of being/birding was not an accident. (Except for the owl.) It was a result of a deliberative municipal policy. Specifically, it was a result of a policy to drive the jackdaws out of the city center. Not to any place in particular, just away from the parts where the commercial activity went down. Away from the, as you might imagine, rich people.

I did not live in a part of town where rich people resided.

This policy resulted in two things. The first thing is that the jackdaws migrated away from the central parts of town, out to the periphery, giving me this lovely experience. The second thing is that the jackdaws, after a while, moved back in to the central parts, being clever animals capable of outmaneuvering any attempts to keep them out. Only, they now resided both in the central parts and the periphery, whereas they before only kept themselves in the centre. Which, if you want to be blunt about it, means that there are now more jackdaws in the city, rather than less.

The cackling swirling vortex of solid blackness approves of this. It will not be moved.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

On critique

The word "critique" is widely misunderstood. Or, rather, it is partially understood, and this partial understanding makes up for its incompleteness by underscoring what it does understand to a fault. This understanding is that critique is all about finding faults, flaws and errors in the thing being critiqued.

To be sure, these are important aspects of critique, but they are by no means the only aspects, and by no means the most important.

The most important aspect of critique is the formulation and sharing of an understanding. For the most part, this understanding is with regards to some particular object (a text, a piece of art, a musical work). It is, however, not limited only to the object in and of itself. Critique also extends to the context, genre, politics and whatever else might be important for the conveyance of the understanding.

You might be beginning to suspect something right about now. This something ought to be something along the lines that a good and proper critique takes up a whole lot of space. Which is true, and moreover sort of the point: the clearer and more explicit the critique, the more verbiage it requires. The expression "it goes without saying" does not apply in this case, as the point is to express those things that tend to go without saying.

When someone has read a critique, they should not only understand the object being critiqued. They should also get a picture of why it has been chosen as an object of critique, its place within the genre and its political or cultural implications. The text should convey the understanding required to situate the object within the context is supposed to be understood in. It is not only a reading of an object, it is an objective reading. It is a shared understanding, in the many meanings of the word.

The most important question a good critique should seek to answer is: what can be said that could not be said before this object came into being?

Most things have flaws and errors, and it behooves a critical reader to note these. However, the point of reading is not to perfect grammar, but to think things that would not be thought otherwise. And the point of critique is to point out these new thoughts, situate them among older thoughts, and ponder what it means that we can now think in this new way.

Thus, the kindest thing you can do to your friends is to do a proper critique of them. -

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Counting my blessings

Any given statement has more than one reason for being made. Some of these reasons might be readily apparent - such as "could you pass the salt" - while others might be more opaque. Most of the time, it's not so much what is said but the fact that it is said at all.

Such as this:

This tells you many things. Such as that I'm soon gonna move (yay!), that I've done some preliminary scouting around the new place, and that I've found no less than seven pizza places near it.

Good news all around, as you can see. Until we encounter these followup statements:

You might think that the first tweet would cover the last one - eight is in fact also not less than seven. Six would be wrong, eight is just one more than advertised. From a position of pure formal logic, they are identical.

Thing is, though, that the statement is not a logical proposition. The words "no less than" do more that simply state a minimum, and the number is more than just an amount. There's more going on here than just a simple statement of fact.

What reason could I have for retracting the seven and restating the eight? Of all the possible things I could have said, I said these things in particular. Why?

There could be all sorts of reasons, and we could speculate endlessly about it. Which is the position we find ourselves in most of the time when pondering why people say what they say. Sometimes, we have nothing but the statement itself to go on, leaving us free and/or forced to invent any number of fanciful reasons for why it was said. Sometimes, these speculations lead us down paths that are less than spectacular.

This time, though, we have me around. And I can tell you what's what. Shed some light on this pizza mystery.

I the first tweet, what I say is this: there are seven pizza places near my new place of residence, AND IT'S GOING TO BE AWESOME!

In the second tweet, what I say is this: IT'S GOING TO BE EVEN MORE AWESOME THAN I THOUGHT!

This has implications. Both for how to read and understand what people are saying, and for my continual well-being.

I predict good things in the future.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Freedom of expression and blockbots

Freedom of expression exists on a scale. It has two poles, two extremes. On the one end, you're alone in the middle of an empty forest, as far away from everything and everyone as possible. On the other end, you are literally centimeters from someone's ear.

With this image in mind, it's very easy to intuit that you can scream as much and as loud as possible when alone in the desolate forest. It's just as easy to grasp that you might want to tone down your volume as you get closer to the ear. You can common sense your way into an understanding of when it is appropriate to scream and when it isn't.

Just to be absolutely crystal clear: your freedom of expression does not include the right to scream into random people's ears. You are free to express yourself with screams, albeit at a distance.

If you don't take this into account, you get into strange territories when discussing freedom of expression. It does not limit your freedom to use common sense. You can easily understand why you'd not want people to scream in your ear, and with a bit of empathy you can just as easily understand why others wouldn't want it. Yet if you don't, even the most mild-mannered suggestion to please tone it down will be recast as a limitation of your freedom of expression.

Which brings us to the topic of blockbots.

Blockbots are what the name implies: bots for blocking (in this case social media accounts). It's a hassle to block large numbers of accounts, and to boot you have to keep doing it if you want to keep the blocklist updated. It's as easy as apple pie to create new, unblocked accounts, and while it is just as easy to block them as they appear, it gets old after a while.

Why would anyone need a blockbot? The answer is not subtle: because a large number of people are screaming at one's ear, and won't stop no matter how politely one asks them to.

Just as when it comes to sound, volume matters. In this case, it matters in terms of numbers rather than decibel. When a large number of people send what amounts to the same message over and over again, the volume is unbearable. Even more so when responding to any one of them only results in more of the same, and in a sense only serves to pump up the volume.

When a voluminous group of people assemble outside one's residence, it is only prudent to close doors and windows in order to keep the noise out. The same goes for social media: volume speaks louder than words.

Blockbots are, to put it bluntly, volume control.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Death of the student

Today, I did something that might be considered sinful.

I went to the library, pulled out a ~500 page book, looked up two things, made a note of the pages where these things were written, and went home.

Thus concluded my engagement with the course literature. Or that particular part of it, at least. That book needed to be cited at some point as a proof of having been read; having the page numbers of the aforementioned two things is the absolute minimum required proof. Grammar will do the rest.

On the one hand, this might be construed as something wrong. I'm supposed to struggle with the ideas and concepts and assumptions found within that book, and through this engaging struggle come out as a wiser, more knowledgeable and well-read person. It's the journey that's the point, and taking the helicopter route misses it entirely.

On the other hand, academic writing is all about reducing the presence of self. The whole point is to make everything as intersubjectively accessible as possible, in such a way that whomever approaches it shall (in theory) be able to retrace the steps taken and get to the same place. The text stands on its own, as an autonomous object with its own internal deterministic dynamic. Whether the author has read the works cited or not does not matter: if these works objectively fulfill the function the text assigns them, the argument holds.

Thus, we find myself in a bind. On the one hand, there's the already mentioned goal of getting students (ie me) to read their appointed texts. On the other hand, the point of reading these texts is to get a feel for the nature of academic writing and the autonomy of the written word. On the one hand, I'm supposed to acquire knowledge; on the other, I'm actively acting on this very knowledge and putting it into very solid, very concrete action.

To invoke Wittgenstein: to understand something is to know what to do next.

There is a way out of this bind, however, and that is to insert me into the equation. That is, I cannot afford to buy the book in question, and the library copies have waiting lists longer than my arm. If I am to get anything done before the due date, doing it on the fly is the only way.

Such are the contradictions in the life (and death) of the student. -

Friday, March 20, 2015

Build your own filter bubble in eight easy steps

1. Build your own social reality. Minimize contact between the bubble inhabitants and the rest of the world. Do it in such a way that the primary (preferably only) social contact happens within the bubble. Encourage the creation of a shared jargon and worldview. Encourage shared practices and rituals. The more distinct and self-contained, the better.

2. Create an ingroup and an outgroup. Remind the inhabitants that they possess a very specific form of knowledge, and that this obliges them to act in certain ways. Create strong norms that excludes those who do not act in these ways, and thus also strongly encourages conformity. Present dissidents and outsiders as ignorant and less worthy. Take every opportunity to remind the inhabitants about the virtue of the ingroup and the vices of the outgroup.

3. Successively raise the stakes of participation. Begin with small acts of participation, and slowly but surely increase what is expected. Most people are willing to help out with small tasks, and once it is done it's easy to happen upon doing it again. And again. And again. And each time, a little more. One thing leads to another, and before long, the accumulation of small things is a significant portion of one's life. Once invested (in terms of time, energy, and eventually money) it's hard to leave.

4. Create a mythology surrounding the leadership. Make it known that those who matter within the bubble matter for a reason. Tell legends of their virtues, accomplishments and past experiences. Solidify their significance and legitimacy. Encourage the inhabitants to tell these stories and legends to each other, and subtly inspire them to add more reverence with each telling.

5. Send out the initiated on proselytizing missions. Let them preach the virtues and worldviews of the ingroup to the masses. Let them suffer the scorn and ridicule of these same masses. Strengthen the bubble through repeated and continuous negative experiences with the outside world. Strengthen the group bonds by enacting and encouraging supportive practices after these experiences. Make the ingroup into a support group (in all things). It's the group against the world. The stronger the negative reactions become, the stronger the group becomes. Unity in the face of adversity.

6. Distract the initiated from unwanted thoughts. Keep them busy with constant activities, constant conflicts, constant constants. By continually keeping the buzz abuzz, the news anew, and the further reading ever so slightly further, distraction is assured. Unwanted thoughts and criticisms are drowned in the now. The bubble becomes a constant now, where every next thing is a natural continuation of the preceding thing.

7. Constantly invoke a bright future. Everything will be better, but not yet. It is within reach, but we have to keep working. The revolution is around the corner, we just have to get there. The singularity awaits. All we need is a slightly bigger bubble, a little more money, just one more turn. We can do it if we want to. Forward!

8. Constantly invoke a dark future. Everything can take a turn for the worse. The threat is ever present. It is looming just over the horizon, and it is heading this way. Only the specific knowledge possessed by the group can turn the tide, and only by putting this knowledge to use can we be saved. We must, therefore we can! We can, therefore we must! Keep going!


It's not hard to construct a filter bubble. It is also, the current hype notwithstanding, not a new phenomenon. The text you've just read is based on a book published in 1992, which in turn is based on material from decades and literal millennia ago. The thing presently called "filter bubbles" used to go under other names back in the days.

The book in question is Age of propaganda, authored by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aaronson. The chapter this text is based on is titled How to become a cult leader.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Originally published March 17, 2015

Friday, February 6, 2015

Disjointed paratextualities

As you might have noticed, I'm sometimes translating old encrypted posts from the past. By 'encrypted' I mean Swedish, and by 'old' I mean anything from posted years ago to something posted last week.

You can find all the translated posts here.

As you will soon notice, should you click this finely crafted hyperlink, there's really no rhyme or reason to which posts gets translated. The selection process, to the best of my knowledge, is something approaching pure randomness. (Should you see a pattern, PLEASE TELL ME.)

Most of the time, it goes something like this: I remember something exists, look it up and set out to translate it. A short, sharp shock of reshaping languaging, as it were.

One translation in particular turned out to be more interesting while under translation than afterwards. This one.

Go ahead. Read it. This is text - it will patiently wait for you to complete your intertextual adventures.

A first point of interest is that it's a response to a particular discourse at a particular time. This being that unemployed Swedes are being subjected to ever greater demands from unemployment agencies to search ever more jobs, seemingly without any regard to as to they can actually get these or not. They are encouraged to show initiative, which the post harps on: don't settle for less than the very top!

The situation has gotten so out of hand that employers routinely get job applications in the hundreds, which has led some to not post new job offerings with the employment agency. Instead of DDoSing these people, why not go for someone who might actually get the message?

(The introduction, beginning with "it's summer", is also a result of the time of writing: the original was posted on June 24, the translation on December 6. It jars somewhat, but there you have it.)

A second point is that the language in and of itself acts as a marker for this particularity. I think you won't be surprised to learn that Swedish doesn't have the largest language area in the world. It is in fact so small that things can be referred to in general terms, without context or understanding being lost. Saying 'the government' or 'the head of government' connotes the government and prime minister of Sweden, by virtue of these being the default connotations. Unless stated otherwise, there's only one government it could refer to. Without context, context is given.

(You could argue that those speaking Swedish in Finland might object to this. The same goes for them, however, mutatis mutandis: 'the government' is the government of Finland, and there's seldom any confusion on this point. Even less so with regards to their president, who is very much not the prime minister.)

It goes without saying that this does not work in English, especially considering that I (the author function) am not in a loci where context is given. 'Government' could connote any number of governments, and without context it is unclear as to which or where. Is it the US, the UK, somewhere in the Commonwealth, somewhere else? It's un(der)defined, up to the reader to define for themselves. It has to be for the text to work - an imperative to apply for the position as head of the Swedish government is nonsensical.

Moreover, the titular "head of government" is a translation into abstraction. In Swedish, you can get away with saying "sök jobbet som statsminister". That's four words instead of eight, the context being that there is only one primal ministerial position. Other countries and other contexts don't have this certainty, though, and moreover, they might not even have prime ministers - they might have kings, presidents, chairmen, viceroys or whatever. A translation that wants to make sense must take this into account, and universalize this particularity. Find a category above any particular category.

A third point is that many of the intertextual jibs and gabs that are apparent in the original aren't in the translation. This again goes with the language: if you live in the area, you've absorbed the local debate through a process of osmosis, willy-nilly. If you don't, you haven't, and the text stands alone. Rich web of cultural narratives and literary references nonwithstanding.

A fourth point is that I imagine this text working far better in the UK than in the US. This might be my personal bias, having heard the horror stories of the DWP and their jobcentres. This goes back on things being "the" thing, with the UK being small enough to have a department for work and pensions. The US, being bigger, has not just one, but fifty plus. The parallels between Swedish and British horror stories ought to resonate. The US situation - I wouldn't even hazard a guess.

There's something about having a singular slightly dysfunctional government entity nondoing its designated thing. It's reassuringly European.

These are the things I think about when translating things. Things that do not make it into the translations, or into any text. So I thought - hey, why not translate some of these excess thoughts into something useful?

Paratext for the paratext god.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

How stupid are these people? You can't believe who I tricked next!

There is a certain group among us that's far more easily fooled than other groups. You can trick them into just about anything, and they won't even notice. Even as they charge ahead over the nearest cliffside, they will continue to think they're approaching truth and reason.

I am, of course, speaking of antifeminists.

You might think I'm exaggerating, but this is actually far less complicated than you think, and far easier than it should be. Just say that a feminist has done or said something stupid, and they will believe it. It doesn't matter what you say (or even how you say it) - they will be all abuzz. And whatever you say after that, they will be abuzz to such a degree that they will accept it out of sheer momentum.

It is super effective.

It becomes even more effective is these people think themselves rational critical thinkers. All that energy that could go into critical analysis of what you say is channeled into being critical of that feminist you've mentioned. With happy enthusiasm they'll go ahead being critical, and once they've spent all their energy they are more than happy to accept whatever you have to say.

But this is amazing! you might be thinking. Followed shortly thereafter by the thought that the utility of this is slightly limited by your lack of knowledge of feminism and feminist thinkers. Which is a rational thought. Thing is, though, that the antifeminists don't know much about these things either, and that you have a large degree of freedom to just make up stupid feminists as you go along. It doesn't matter if these feminists actually said anything stupid or not (or even if they even exist) - the response is the same. And once their critical thinking is exhausted -

Ah, you see where this is going. Good.

I can see that you're eager to test this rhetorical superpower, so I won't keep you. I just want to end this by carefully selected quote from a famous feminist:

With great power comes great responsibility, and that is why men lose their faculties of reason real fast whenever they are confronted with a woman.

Good luck!

Originally published November 23, 2014

Monday, January 19, 2015

Modern ruins

We live in a world in ruins. Every day, we walk and talk amongst these ruins - everything around us is to some degree in a state of decay. Every day we can see how ideas that were once modern trace themselves in the ragged, tired faces of our peers. The idea of a perfected world is a ruin once revered as a castle, yet its inhabitants seem reluctant to leave; everyone knows that our current way of life cannot go on forever, yet we still assume we will. Everyone knows that status quo is a reminder from a past with greater ambitions than the present, yet the thought of being reminded frightens us more than a potential realization that we ever forgot.

You only have to look at contemporary politics to see more ruins than is warranted. There is, to be sure, talk of growth and new constructions, but when push comes to shove it's only the same old same old. The thought of eternal progress, categorical purity, apotheosis hiding just around the corner of the next megaproject. The thought that problems can be planned away, the thought of central control, of five year plans, of market efficiencies.

Always the same question lurks behind these thoughts, the one question every politician and ideologue does everything to avoid answering: are we there yet?

The biggest ruin of them all, whose inhabitants seem to be ever resistant to the notion of moving out, is of course the notion that there is something to arrive at. That there is a "there", but not yet. That the present is an anomalous state of being, a waiting phase before history proper begins. You are free to choose your own props: the revolution, the apocalypse, a state of full employment, the ethnically cleansed motherland - choose your telos. It is a good map to these ruins of ours, telos. Everything will be fine after the revolution; the world as we know it just has to end first.

It is one of the greatest ironies of these modern ruins of ours. They remain.

We are not only surrounded by political ruins. There's plenty of physical ones too. Small factory towns whose main factory closed its doors and was promptly attacked by green growing things and forget alike; wharves that do not ship anything but nostalgia; city centers that fall apart because no one looks after them. In Detroit, whole parts of the city are uninhabited, and there are plenty of other places where the past insists without the cooperation of the present.

One of the most insistent and oft repeated messages we bombard our kids with is that we are entering new times. Some say these new times began at the end of the Cold War, others point to the beginning of the War on Terror, others to the advent of the internet, others to the financial crisis. There's plenty of news regarding the times about to begin, and news aplenty regarding those about to end.

Things do not disappear just because they are not newsworthy. Usually, they end up in storage spaces of different kinds, out of sights and minds. Sometimes, they are used in ways never intended. In other cases, such as with furniture, they simply remain in people's homes without much further ado.

The present - that thing we do when we do what we do - is a collection of thousands upon thousands of solitary things that happened to become the way they became, who insists on remaining. In that sense, the present is one big ruin, moving slowly and majestically towards the triumph of entropy.

What separates modern ruins from ruins in general, is that we for the most part already know that they are in fact ruins. We know it to such an extent that we tell our children: the industrial society is fading out, the information society is fading in. Even if few are so blunt as to say it out loud, the thought occurs: that many of our fellow human being are but living ruins from another time, whose only way to contribute to our modern contemporary world is to make room for it by dying. To no longer remain.

Growing up among ruins is one thing. Wanting to take care of them quite another.

Our children know that they are expected to live in the ruins of waiting, in preparation for a future that is very much not like today. It is a phenomenon that goes together with the telos of the day. The future is always-already a little closer than it used to be. A whole new world is within reach. It is, to be sure, already here, and those of us who arrived earlier than the rest of humanity will be all the merrier once company arrives.

New times. Yet, at the same time, very much remains of the old times, regardless of news to the contrary.

Strange times.

There will be much discord between the old political ruins and the new ones. When the salvation of the revolution will be replaced by the salvation of the global communication networks, the revolutionaries and the netizens will have interesting things to say to each other. Or whichever telos you prefer - the thought of getting there soon does not have to be a revolutionary thought, after all.

Some talk about "digital natives", to differentiate those who were born into the new world from those of us who remember the old world. Those who never lived without instant constant global communications, from those who once had the joy of discovering them. It is an intuitive metaphor - one intuits that it is reasonable to think there's a difference between those who grew up with something and those who didn't. Yet, at the same time, the notion of historical materialism is not new, and it is not a challenge to find modern ruins based on it.

Things do not happen with historic necessity. But there is no lack of effort to instill and imprint a feeling of inevitability in our postdigital newborns. Through the constant imprinting and overcommunicating that the new generations are living in new times, a feeling of historical necessity intuits itself. A feeling of sufficient intensity to rule out that these new generations want anything to do with any searches for lost times.

Modernity has never been kind to earlier times. They are lost for a reason. And why should it begin to show kindness at this particular time? It's almost there, yet.

Political ruins. Physical ruins. A time in economic ruins. A manifold of social ruins.

It is not surprising that this new time of ours sometimes feels very old.

At times, I think what's missing is a certain feel for the weight of history. Not the historical overload that Nietzsche went on about, but a more general feeling that those things that happen happen because of previous happenings. Those things that are are not random: behind many of even the seemingly most modest of things are thousands of dreams and ambitions. That things turned out the way they did is often a result of chance, but the massive amounts of thought and effort that went into attempting to nudge the odds of historical probability are hard to dismiss as mere historical accidents. There is a weight to these things.

Many have dreamt of making the world a better place. Many have acted on these dreams. Many have succeeded, many have failed. As these attempts have happened - all of them, many as they were - many things have been created, used, forgotten and turned into the ruins we know today.

The present is the sum of million dreams never fulfilled. Dreams and the millions who dreamt them. Millions of teloses never arrived at, whose ambitions were inherited by those who followed.

The present is a monument to the past, consisting mainly of the ruins we are remaining in.

The ruins of tomorrow will be the sum of what we choose to do in the ruins we happen to live in. Neither the revolution, apocalypse, full employment or any other telos will differentiate us from our children, and they will (just like us) live in a time where it is possible to create a better tomorrow.

The world will not end. Endings are good in stories, which have clearly defined beginnings, middles and ends. Only in stories will we live happily ever after, and only in stories will everything be solved by the time our telos arrives.

Only politicians, ideologues and dreamers dream of the end of the world. We, realists, historians and literary theorists, are stuck in an eternal middle section, until we end.

That, at least, is worthy of a monument. A monument to finitude, signed Ozymandias, asking:

are we there yet?

Originally published February 14, 2011