Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: January, 2012

Where Have All The Bootstraps Gone?

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Think or thwim.

The last time I ever moshed was at a Melvins show at Nashville’s notorious Exit/In in 1999.

I remember slamming away to some crashing sonic intensity, battling through rolling gauntlets of elbows-arms-shoulders-knees-boots, smashing and being smashed, then staggering free, lurching into the greasy chill to grab some more beer, laughing for the rude madness of it, mesmerized for the music and the jumping fields of humans–and finally, noticing the blood.

Not mine, I quickly realized, though it easily could have been. But then whose?

Funny the way we always look for the one who bleeds.

That was when I took stock of my dance partners, saw the junkie arms and the prison tattoos, and realized I would never enter the mosh pit again.

Fuck. That.

Perhaps this was why no one was moshing at the Tool concert I went to this past Thursday night. Skin means sweat and sweat means… who knows. I remember at the Y once, I made the mistake of asking this ex-con friend of mine to spot me on the bench after he had finished his cardio. He looms above me, haggard as an aging Italian hitman, and a bead of sweat drops from his brow and lands square in my open eye.

That was the last time I asked for a spot from someone sweaty.

The internet is atwitter with the release of Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart, wherein he provides an in-depth statistical analysis of what I’ve been calling compartmentalization all these years. One of his primary theses: that universities have become cultural and economic sorting mechanisms, dividing America into those who embrace what he calls the ‘founder’s values’ of industriousness, marriage, religiosity, and honesty and those who do not. It turns out that the ‘elites’ so despised by the Right are the ones most likely to exemplify conservative social values!

Murray, you might remember, is the conservative/libertarian AEI scholar who made big news with The Bell Curve several years back, so as you might imagine, he makes ideological hash of his data: apparently the real culprit for this growing cultural gulf isn’t rising income inequality (which only makes us better people by providing incentives) but state-managed, incentive-killing entitlements. If America’s Hard Right Turn over the past three decades is accompanied by worrisome social and economic trends, then it has to be because the turn wasn’t hard enough!

It just has to be. Hasn’t it?

Now I grew up ‘white trash.’ I know the mentality of the white working poor first fucking hand. Almost everyone I knew had some kind of little scam going. Phoney back problems. Small time drug-dealing. Welfare fraud. Petty theft. Even getting pregnant to qualify for social assistance. At the same time, almost everyone I knew would self-identify as a conservative of some description. Guys scamming welfare literally arguing that welfare should be abolished!

I also know first hand the impact of the slow parade of right wing policy decisions: welfare drying up to a pittance, the draconian restrictions on workman’s comp (which seemed to have a bigger impact on those who deserved it (like my father) than those who didn’t). Meanwhile, I watched the slow evaporation of unionized jobs, the erosion of working class wages (I actually made more in the late 80’s working in a grocery store than my buddies make now!). In other words, I watched the ‘incentives’ pile higher and higher.

If you think about it, the common thread connecting Murray’s four ‘positive values’ is duration. Why do you work hard? To build some kind of future. What is marriage? A long term romantic and reproductive commitment. What is religiosity? A working relationship with the eternal. And what is honesty? An unwillingness to succumb to linguistic convenience.

Everyone I knew back then had what might be called a ‘scavenger mentality.’ They were disenfranchised and they knew it, no matter how much they crowed about their self-importance. The society they lived was not their society, and so, in a sense, they took what they could when they could get it. Short term advantage. It was literally the case that you were a fool if you failed to exploit some johnny-on-the-spot opportunity. The people I grew up with bragged about how this or that stereo component was ‘hot,’ or how they falsified the job-search forms they needed to fill out to qualify for welfare. They laughed.

You take what you can get. That was the Golden Rule.

Now this is a horrendous over-simplification, I know, but what if what Murray is tracking is actually the expansion of this mentality? What if ‘social scavenging’ is a kind of mode we are all primed to slip into given certain social conditions. One of the things that struck me about the grocery store when I first started working there in the 80’s was simply how proud everyone was, a pride that slowly became disaffection and then outright resentment as the company strangled the union into a lapdog, and slowly put screw after screw to us as the years went by, to the point where they provided breakdowns–to the fraction of a second!–of how much time it should take for us to put up a jar of peanut butter. You understand pretty quickly that there’s no quid pro quo with your employer. I distinctly remember my own revelation, asking myself why I should give as much as I could to a company that was bent on giving me as little as it could. Quid pro quo, Motherfucker. I distinctly remember becoming a scavenger employee, one that took what he could every chance he could–simply because his employer was doing the exact same thing.

One (and just one) of the painful things about ‘incentives’ (if you want to see how painful, watch the Freakanomics documentary) as an economic (let alone moral) explanatory concept is that there are just so many kinds. When an economy punishes you, are you incentivized to work harder or to work smarter? And what counts as ‘smarter’? Given that the system is bent on giving you as little as possible, on maximizing you as a tool for the benefit of shareholders, you would have to be an idiot not to reciprocate–not to take what you can get. Scavenger mentality, as socially corrosive as it is, makes a whole helluva lot a sense at the individual level. You give me a shit job and tell me I’m lucky?

Don’t worry, Boss. I’ll look after the store for you.

Libertarians, like Murray, prize inequality because they think it provides the magic fuel that makes economies go: incentives. Like the communists, they would much rather assume a human nature than research one. Like the communists, they raise policy mountains upon fanciful, simplistic caricatures. What if, in the information age, all these ‘market reforms’ are more prone to create scavengers than builders? Perhaps the more real opportunity dries up (last I checked, the USA has the least economic mobility of any advanced economy) the more opportunist we’re liable to become. The more ‘incentives’ cut against the long term social grain.

Which brings me back to the mosh pit. Junkies and cons and grads and heirs. Some of us angry. Others pretending. All of us bouncing and slamming, slicked and shining beneath the brilliant throb of lights. Guitars scratch tectonic, and some stranger wails louder than God…

Learn to swim.

Why did I get out? Because I feared the company I was keeping.

Fucking scavengers, man.

Mind Your Tools, Motherfo…

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Critical Thinking: 1) the transformation of intellectual sophistication into absolute moral superiority; 2) a way to make verbal radicals out of functional conservatives; 3) an archaic process for making goat cheese.

So I made the mistake of doing a vanity Google the other day and once again learned the peril authors face making overt political claims. The most obvious problem is – surprise-surprise – the human brain. You say something like ‘trickle down economics does not work,’ and the brain, which is designed to sort, clumps you into some crude category like ‘commie.’

I believe that in many (but not all) economic contexts, markets are far and away the most efficient means of distributing goods and fostering innovation. Food is an example where markets are extremely efficient: you don’t want governments managing your groceries – unless you find yourself in the middle of a famine. I append that ‘unless’ to explain why markets, although great for food in times of relative equilibrium, are horrible when it comes to things like healthcare. The social utility of supply and demand breaks down anytime the individual utility of a commodity becomes existential, which is to say, demand becomes a matter of life and death.  In these situations, the very dynamics that render distribution efficient in times of plenty overturn the applecart.

Given the combination of social super-complexity and human stupidity, centralizing social decision-making is often (but not always) the worst thing to do. I like to show Marxist-leaning friends of mine my wife’s index of jobs and professions, a book that will shortly become the size of a phone-book, I’m sure. ‘This,’ I tell them, ‘is why centrally planned economies had to fail.’ Why? Because in market economies all these social positions come about spontaneously. Could you imagine any bureaucracy capable of developing and administrating the mind-boggling complexity of contemporary economies?

Market economies are social selection mechanisms, the same way brains are neural selection mechanisms and nature is a natural selection mechanism. The economic problems societies pose are generally too complicated for any brain to tackle, so we have a system that – ideally – both fosters and tests a variety of solutions. An experimental system. I am pro-market through and through, where markets actually seem to work. Where they don’t seem to work, I am anti-market through and through. How else should I look at them?

Markets are simply social tools. Who gets turned around when someone suggests that your hammer is the wrong tool? Who actually thinks their hammer is right tool for every task?  

Idiots. What else could they be? Granted, the complexities often fool people into thinking they should hammer in screws and screw in hammers – that goes without saying. It’s the dogmatism that’s the problem. Anyone who insists up and down that a screwdriver is the best way to hammer nails is either insane, a retard, or a screwdriver salesman.

So why is it that people who are perfectly willing to be experimental in their garage suddenly become ideologues in the voting booth? Well, because something funny happens when problems become social as opposed to individual: our brains actually switch to a completely different problem-solving mode, one that is the product of endless generations of violent social competition (and perhaps presently steering the US toward disaster). Suddenly the simple question of what tool to use (and how) becomes fraught with questions of social identity.  Saying ‘trickle-down economics’ is an ineffective tool – a claim as close to factual as you can make in the ‘dismal science’ – identifies you as a member of some competing group. It literally turns you into a kind of ‘enemy.’ Since violence and scarcity characterized so much of our evolutionary past, these identifications often tend to be ‘low-resolution,’ simplistic and facile, because the consequences of multiple false positives are generally more benign than the consequences of one false negative. It’s literally better to write off whole communities than it is to be wrong about one potential threat. Parochialism paid real dividends in our evolutionary past, and now (when it could be the end of us) we simply cannot stop acting those ancient imperatives out.

Thus the peril of authors making overt political claims.


The Great Graduate Diaspora

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The inside, at its most devious, will swear up and down that it’s been locked out.

First, I would like to apologize for falling behind on replying to comments: I hope to have an opportunity to catch up soon.

Also, I’ve been refraining on commenting on the FAN FIC submissions simply because I was afraid that it would stifle discussion. But I’m starting to worry I was mistaken. I’m thinking it might be cool to set up a FAN ART page as well, to keep adding to the amount of available content.

Larry at the OF Blog has actually reviewed both of the Atrocity Tales – welcome to the Information Age! Not only are authors effortlessly publishing drafts for universal consumption, reviewers are effortlessly publishing reviews of them. Larry is one of a growing number of ‘independent scholars’ who are helping tear down the boundaries between popular and academic culture. Over the past few decades the ratio between graduate students in the humanities and tenure-track positions has become more than dismal. I have friends with encyclopedic CVs who simply cannot find work anywhere within the Anglosphere–short of dead-end, poverty-level-paying sessional positions.

On an individual level, this is nothing short of disastrous. On a policy level this raises troubling questions about funding, since most graduate programs draw on the public purse. On a cultural level–at least I think, anyway–this ‘excess interpretative capacity’ has revolutionary potential.

Academic culture breeds ingroup specialization, which in turn breeds identification against non-specialists. The apparently endless rightward creep in voter attitudes over the past few decades, even in the face of middle-class stagnation and the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, is a supercomplicated social phenomena with supercomplicated contributing factors. One of them, I have been arguing, is the thematization and popularization of anti-intellectualism.

For years now I have been voting for the socialist New Democrats here in Canada, not for any ideological reasons (I actually have many problems with their platform), but because all the economic promises made by the right in the 80’s simply never materialized–unless you happened to be rich in the first place, that is. The primary problem with anti-intellectualism, as I see it, is not so much the way it makes a virtue out of ignorance as the way it tribalizes claims. The brain is a reluctant problem-solver: it’s far more interested in sorting claims according to social criteria rather than evaluating them on their independent merits. So when a relatively uncontroversial claim such as ‘Money is Power’ is painted with the colours of the enemy, it literally becomes impossible to debate the kinds of problems that inevitably fall out of the concentration of wealth. Thus the genuinely crazy irony of working-class voters consistently voting against their economic self-interests at the ballot box. Trickle-down economics simply does not work. If three decades of middle-class stagnation aren’t proof enough, then what is? Meanwhile more and more capital/power falls into the hands of the wealthy, who happen to be hardwired to confuse their narrow self-interest with divine law.

Even right-wing moderates (such as the estimable David Brooks, or even the editorial board of The Economist) are alarmed at the trends.

The ingroup excesses of liberal academia, I think, and the mass reaction against them, have rendered a whole demographic swathe of the North American population impervious to any kind of traditional appeal. As soon as you identify yourself against, conceding claims becomes a form of ingroup defection–‘treachery.’ In other words, what was difficult to begin with becomes all but impossible.

What might be called the Great Graduate Diaspora could very well be the remedy to this vast and potentially catastrophic social short circuit. Barred from the very ingroup they have toiled to join, humanities graduates are forced to join the rest of us, to communicate to people not like themselves. And they’re also forced to critically reevaluate what they were thinking in the first place, which is to say, the nature of the institution they thought they were buying into. There’s nothing quite like being locked out to make you critical of what’s within.

Viva Golgotterath

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Suicide is the one thing that anyone can do that everyone will take seriously. This is why, as lonely as it is, self-destruction is so profoundly social.

A new Atrocity Tale is up.

I had a lot of fun with this one, reaching back, as it does, to a pivotal moment in Far Antiquity. So much so, that it’s got me thinking about the way serial fantasy demands so much more of readers than any genre short of experimental avante garde stuff. Writing “The False Sun” felt… I dunno, thick, semantically dense in a way that my return to philosophical concerns can’t hope to. A fantasy world is a reality where Soul and World are coextensive. Our world (or even worse, the world of the Blind Brain Theory) is one where the Soul has shrunk to a delusional ember, and ‘profundity’ is little more than bell cruelly tied to a lap-dog’s tale.

But the very reason I enjoyed writing “The False Sun” so much is also the reason I need to issue a SEVERE SPOILER ALERT. The Second Apocalypse is big, so big that the narrative and thematic dimensions only come into collective focus here and there. “The False Sun” is a story about the origins of the Consult, and so brings together the historical and metaphysical dimensions of the greater saga in a decisive way. Nothing is spoiled in terms of plot, but in terms of setting, this story cuts against the way the details of the World have been rationed over the course of the series. Drawing the curtain back on Golgotterath is something I’ve reserved for The Unholy Consult.

Thus the spoiler alert: Reading “The False Sun” will have a profound impact on your reading of The Unholy Consult, and if you are as jealous of your narrative surprises as I am, you might want to set this story on the back-burner.

Otherwise, dig in. There’s several things that I’m not certain about, and as always I appreciate any kind of feedback that can help me put these or other qualms to bed.

Life Unopened

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The only thing new about the year is how bloody old you’re getting.

I intended to post over the holidays – Christ, I intended to do a lot of things over the holidays. But we were simply overrun, with shrieking, santa-mad, little girls for the most part. But friends and relatives as well… and booze. Christmas and New Years are always a strange time. There’s the calendar and all that, the changing of the guard on that little corner called ‘date’ on everything you sign. But it’s the people that really mark the passage of time. You, know, that uncle you only see once every holiday, who always manages to shock you into saying, ‘Did you see how old he’s getting?’ on the drive home – year after year after year.

That’s how we reckon our passage: the annual holiday survey of our cohort and others, the aging mobs, still getting drunk, still giggling the way they did getting baked behind the gymnasium when they were sixteen years old. All these kids, you think, wearing their parents’ and grandparents’ clothes – which is to say, skin. And those strangers – who invited them? And then there’s the gaps, the missing giggles, the way the ranks have been thinned.

A part of me always wakes up over the holidays, even as other parts take the chance to snooze. A part me wonders as I participate, thoughts warm and complicated. I’m nice. Everyone is nice. And it’s nice that we’re all so nice. It’s beautiful that forgetting is so effortless. A part of me wakes up and understands what it means to sleep, to roar with happy delirium, bringing in the Mayan year of doom.

Going into the holidays, I had resolved to not leave the ‘Bestiary’ up – what kind of Christmas message was that? 2012? That’s your end? Here’s an apocalypse for you…

I wanted to be nice. Lot’s of people talking, which means lots of people following up on the web about this and that. What kind of way is that to greet prospective readers?

But then I thought, fuck it. I’m not quite sure why.

That said, humans are still behind the literary wheel. And The White-Luck Warrior was fortunate enough to make it onto a handful of best of 2011 lists. In a bundle of rooms on a cold continent on a world that is a speck in a universe as vast and old as itself, I watched my little girl grasp the wonder of the gift for the first time, and for that moment the present was my present, unopened, and warm to the touch.

Welcome to 2012.