So this has been a mad summer in pretty much every respect. The first week of May, my hard-drive died, and I lost pretty much everything I had written the previous six months. My wife was in Venezuela at the time, marching, so I had a hard time wrapping my head around the psychological enormity of the event. It’s not every day you turn on the news to watch events embroiling your loved ones.
Anyway, I’m still pulling the pieces together. I had occasion to revisit some of my first blog posts, and I thought I would post a few snippets from way back in 2010, when we could still pretend technology wasn’t driving the world insane. Rather than get angry all over again at the lack of reviews, or fret for the future of democratic society in the technological age, I thought I would let my younger, less well-groomed self do the ranting.
I’ll be back with things more substantial soon.
September 14, 2010 – So why are so many writers heros? Aside from good old human psychology, I blame it on the old ‘Write What You Know’ literary maxim.
Like so many literary maxims it sounds appealing at first blush. After all, how can you be honest–authentic–unless you write ‘what you know.’ But like all maxims it has a flip side: Telling practitioners what they should do is at once telling them what they should not do. Telling writers to only write what they know is telling them to studiously avoid all the things their lives lack–adventure, romance, spectacle–which is to say, the very things that regular people crave.
So this maxim has the happy side-effect of policing who gets to communicate to whom, and so securing the institutional boundaries of the literary specialist. Not only is real culture left to its own naive devices, it becomes the unflagging foil, a kind of self-congratulatory resource, one that can be tapped over and over again to confirm the literary writer’s sense of superiority. Thus all the writerly heros, stranded in seas of absurdity.
September 16, 2010 – The pigeonhole has no bottom, believe you me. I used to be so naive as to think I could climb out, but now I’m starting to think that it swallows everyone in the end. I wonder about all the other cranks and crackpots out there, about all the other sparks that have been snuffed by relentless inattention. It’s no accident that eulogies are so filled with cliches.
After all, it’s neurophysiology that I’m up against more than any passing cultural bigotry. The brain pigeonholes everything it encounters to better lower its caloric load, to economize. We sort far more than we ponder. Novelty, when we encounter it, is either confused for something old and stupid or comes across as errant noise. Things were this way long before corporations and capital.
So I find myself wondering what I should do. Maybe I should just resign myself to my fate, numb the pain, mellow those revenge fantasies. Become a fatalist.
But then there’s nothing like bitterness to keep that fire scorching your belly. And there’s nothing I fear more than becoming old and complacent. Only the well-groomed don’t have chips on their shoulders.
September 18, 2010 – What really troubles me is the way this hypocrisy has been institutionalized. So long as you treat ‘culture’ as a what, which is to say, as a abstract construct, a formalism, then you can congratulate yourself for all the myriad ways in which your abstractions disrupt those abstractions. But as soon as you treat ‘culture’ as a who, which is to say, as a cartoon we use to generalize over millions of living, breathing people, the notion of ‘disruption’ becomes pretty ridiculous pretty quick. All it takes is one simple question: “Who is disrupted?” and the illusion of criticality is dispelled. One little question.
The conceit is so weak. And yet somehow we’ve managed to raise a veritable landfill of illusory subversion upon it. ‘Literature,’ we call it.
Says a lot about the power of vanity, if you think about it.
As well as why I’m probably doomed to fail.
September 20, 2010 – But our culture has become frightfully compartmentalized. The web, which was supposed to blow open the doors of culture–to ‘flatten everything’–seems to have had the opposite effect. Since we’re hardwired to reflexively seek out affirmation and confirmation, rendering everything equally available has meant our paths of least resistence no longer take us across unfamiliar territory. We can get what we want and need without taking detours through things we didn’t realize we wanted or needed. We can make an expedient bastion out of our parochial tastes.
February 27, 2011 – These people, it seems to me, have to be engaged, have to be challenged, if only so that the masses don’t succumb to their own weaknesses for self-serving chauvinism. These people are appealing simply because they are so adept at generating ‘reasons’ for self-serving intuitions that we all share. That we and our ways are special, exempt, and that Others are a threat to us. That our high-school is, like, really the greatest high-school on the planet. Confirmation bias, my-side bias, the list goes on. And given that humans have evolved to be easily and almost irrevocably programmed, it seems to me that the most important place to wage this battle is in classroom. To begin teaching doubt as the highest virtue, as opposed to the madness of belief.
The prevailing madness.
Funny, huh? It’s the lapse in belief that these guys typically see as symptomatic of modern societal decline. But really what they’re talking about is a lapse in agreement. Belief is as pervasive as ever, but as a principle rather than any specific consensual canon. It stands to reason that the lack of ‘moral and cognitive solidarity’ would make us uncomfortable, considering the kinds of scarcity and competition faced by our ancestors.
January 13, 2011 – The problem is that human nature is adapted to environments where the access to information was geographically indexed, where its accumulation exacted a significant caloric toll. We don’t call private investigators ‘gumshoes’ for no reason. We are adapted to environments where the info-gathering workload continually forced us to ‘settle,’ which is to say, make due with something other than what we originally desired, when it comes to information.
This is what makes the ‘global village’ such a deceptive misnomer. In the preindustrial village, where everyone depended upon one another, our cognitive selfishness made quite a bit of adaptive sense: in environments where scarcity and interdependency force cognitive compromise, you can see how cognitive selfishness–finding ways to justify oneself while impugning potential competitors–might pay real dividends in terms of in-group prestige. Where the circumstantial leash is tight, it pays to pull and pull, and perhaps reach those morsels that escape others.
In the industrial village, however, the leash is far longer. But even still, if you want pursue your views, geographical constraints force you to engage individuals who do not share them. Who knows what Bob across the road believes? (My Bob was an evangelical Christian, and I count myself lucky for having endlessly argued with him).
In the information village the leash is cut altogether. The likeminded can effortlessly congregate in innumerable echo chambers. Of course, they can effortlessly congregate with those they disagree with as well, but… The tendency, by and large, is not only to seek confirmation, but to confuse it with intelligence and truth–which is why right-wingers tend to watch more Fox than PBS.
Now, enter all these specialized programs, which are bent on moulding your information environment into something as pleasing as possible. Don’t like the N-word? Well, we can make sure you never need to encounter it again–ever.
The world is sycophantic, and it’s becoming more so all the time. This, I think, is a far better cartoon generalization than ‘flat,’ insofar as it references the user, the intermediary, as well as the information environment.
The contemporary (post-posterity) writer has to incorporate this radically different social context into their practice (if that practice is to be considered even remotely self-critical). If you want to produce literary effects, then you have to write for a sycophantic world, find ways not simply to subvert the ideological defences of readers, but to trick the inhuman, algorithmic gate-keepers as well.
This means being strategically sycophantic. To give people what they want, sure, but with something more as well.
Jorge linked this, and for transparent reasons I thought it worth linking again. I can almost see the idol of Ajokli, laughing.
Life was so much simpler back when children could just pull the legs off insects.
I’m doing a Q&A on Reddit Fantasy beginning next Monday morning, April 3rd. With The Unholy Consult completed I’m looking forward to talking more freely about the World (trying to be mindful, of course, of any potential spoilers). Spread the word. The organizers recommended I keep the intro jaunty and light, so I decided to begin with, “If God is dead, then fantasy is His grave.”
I’m also scheduled to do a couple podcast interviews, one for Everything is Pointless, and another for Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My hope is to keep doing as many interviews, media pieces, as I can running up to the release of The Unholy Consult. Ideas are always appreciated.
I’ve also accumulated a fair number of book related links, thanks to emails sent and comments posted. Barnes and Nobles had a readout of Book Three, The Great Ordeal, which The Fantasy Faction selected for their Best of 2016 list (weird, isn’t it, the way everything ‘pre-Trump’ seems ancient and naive). The Great Ordeal was also given a rave review for SFF Den by silentroamer, who can see the narrative lens drawing into tighter focus. JP Gowdner offers an excellent aesthetic assessment of the series so far, though he finds himself morally troubled by many of my apparent decisions. For those hemming and hawing about starting The Aspect-Emperor, I heartily recommend Leona Henry’s eloquent review of The Judging Eye. I’ve noticed, lately, that almost all reviews of my books concede that they may inaccessible to the tastes of some readers, and even though this is undoubtedly true, the whole point of writing fantasy, for me, is to challenge actual readers as opposed to ‘ideal philistines,’ to confront folks with an unfamiliar (and probably uncomfortable) story-telling sensibility. If the election has taught us anything, I think, it’s that we desperately need to create a culture dedicated to spanning ingroup boundaries. We need to be urging one another to take risks, to drink from strangers’ glasses instead of hogging the same old straw for the entirety of our lives. We need to shame our most talented communicators back into honest dialogue with the communities that make their ingroup luxury possible.
Next up for TPB, someone not only stumbles across the semantic apocalypse in complete independence from my work, they even end up calling it the ‘semantic apocalypse.’
This is a picture of where (I think) my books belong, somewhere in the blurry boundary between these folk/commercial and scholarly/non-commercial genres of intentional confusion.
It’s been a mad couple of months, but the final draft of The Unholy Consult is out the door. Now I can only wring my hands while pretending to crack my knuckles… My seventeen year old self stands agog.
My schedule is still brimming, but it now includes finishing off a number of posts left hanging by the arrival of the manuscript. First up will be a piece on heuristic neglect and correlationism.
The Journal of Consciousness Studies published “On Alien Philosophy” today–a nice way ring in my 50th year on this planet! The quotable version can be found here, but I’ve also uploaded the preprint version (with a handful of errors, including one on Dennett caught by Dennett himself no less) here. This paper has it all, only laid out in a way that saddles critics with an enormous abductive challenge. Quibbling with this or that atom of my argument is easy–too easy. The challenge is to do so in a manner explaining as much as parsimoniously.
Abstract: Given a sufficiently convergent cognitive biology, we might suppose that aliens would likely find themselves perplexed by many of the same kinds of problems that inform our traditional and contemporary philosophical debates. In particular, we can presume that ‘humanoid’ aliens would be profoundly stumped by themselves, and that they would possess a philosophical tradition organized around ‘hard problems’ falling out of their inability to square their scientific self-understanding with their traditional and/or intuitive self-understanding. As speculative as any such consideration of ‘alien philosophy’ must be, it provides a striking, and perhaps important, way to recontextualize contemporary human debates regarding cognition and consciousness.
Having contributed my bit to the great endeavour to unravel the mysteries of consciousness and cognition, I now turn to more traditional methods of unravelling consciousness and cognition… gracefully, or not. 50 deserves a hangover.
Cosmos and History has published “From Scripture to Fantasy: Adrian Johnston and the Problem of Continental Fundamentalism” in their most recent edition, which can be found here. This is a virus that needs to infect as many continental philosophy graduate students as possible, lest the whole tradition be lost to irrelevance. The last millennium’s radicals have become this millennium’s Pharisees with frightening speed, and now only the breathless have any hope of keeping pace.
ABSTRACT: Only the rise of science allowed us to identify scriptural ontologies as fantastic conceits, as anthropomorphizations of an indifferent universe. Now that science is beginning to genuinely disenchant the human soul, history suggests that traditional humanistic discourses are about to be rendered fantastic as well. Via a critical reading of Adrian Johnston’s ‘transcendental materialism,’ I attempt to show both the shape and the dimensions of the sociocognitive dilemma presently facing Continental philosophers as they appear to their outgroup detractors. Trusting speculative a priori claims regarding the nature of processes and entities under scientific investigation already excludes Continental philosophers from serious discussion. Using such claims, as Johnston does, to assert the fundamentally intentional nature of the universe amounts to anthropomorphism. Continental philosophy needs to honestly appraise the nature of its relation to the scientific civilization it purports to decode and guide, lest it become mere fantasy, or worse yet, conceptual religion.
KEYWORDS: Intentionalism; Eliminativism; Humanities; Heuristics; Speculative Materialism
All transcendental indignation welcome! I was a believer once.
The cover is out as those of you who frequent Wertzone already know. The Unholy Consult, the penultimate book of The Aspect-Emperor, is set to be released this July, ending a story arc that has been my obsession for some thirty years now. I’m far from done with the Three Seas, of course: The Second Apocalypse possesses one final chapter. But this arc was the animating vision, the feverish sequence of glimpses I used to paint the whole.
The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog has it listed among their top twenty ‘can’t wait to read’ 2017 releases, but I find myself growing… not so much reluctant as coy, I think—you know that wariness you get when encountering circumstances you should know, but don’t for some reason. Ever since the catalogue with the cover arrived in the mail everything has felt marginally displaced, troubled by a mismatch between shadows and sources of light. It’ll be strange, for instance, being able to talk candidly about the story. What if I decide I want to remain entombed?
It would be nice if The Unholy Consult pushed the popularity of the series over some kind of threshold, but the entire project has been a slow fuse, so I’m not going to hold my breath. The Great Ordeal made the Fantasy Hotlist’s top ten of 2016, but I’ve found that the reviews take longer to trickle in the deeper I get into the series. Epic Fantasy has become an astonishingly crowded subgenre, blessing these crazy books, I hope, with the distinction belonging to landmarks, even while increasing the number of attractions in between. My guess is that it’ll take time.
By coincidence, I just sent out the final proofs “On Alien Philosophy” to The Journal of Consciousness Studies, so in sense this summer will see my two great artistic and theoretical aspirations simultaneously fulfilled. Cosmos and History, meanwhile, just accepted “From Scripture to Fantasy,” my critique of Continental philosophy a la Adrian Johnston, so you can even throw a little revenge fantasy into the mix! If I were in my early twenties, I would worry that I was developing schizophrenia, so many threads are twining together. Add Trump’s election to the mix, and the fear has to be that I’m actually a character in a L. Ron Hubbard novel…
Not Phillip K. Dick.
Happy Holidays, all. I came down with the flu a couple days before Christmas, turned me into a pile of lumber, then on Christmas Eve the plumbing backed up, first in the bathroom, then in the kitchen, then in both, meaning, I belatedly realized, in the sewer line, reminding me of the wash-drain in the ‘mudroom’ floor, which was spouting raw sewage like the White Whale, so I grabbed a potato and dove upon the spout the way a braver soldier than I might dive upon a grenade, then jammed the potato into the spout, ripping my thumbnail half off as I did so, then cleaned shivering for fever, before going out to the garage to grab my thirty foot snake, which I dragged into the basement, where I popped the sewer line access, and proceeded to snake, hauling out human feces, which of course whisked across me because the fucking thing was a minion of the Unholy Consult, after which I went upstairs, had a second mudroom holocaust realizing my snaking had been in vain, then discussed the possibility of having to cancel the big family dinner on Christmas Day with my wife, after which I resumed snaking, hauling more mire, even a washcloth, but to no avail, again and again into the wee of night, until finally, damp with effluent, I went to bed, carefully for some retarded reason, as if that would save the linens indignity or something, and I breathed, and I closed my eyes, and I heard my daughter scream, “Santa was here! Santa was here!” at which point, I got up and did not simply make joyous, but was joyous, glazed in my family’s excrement and overwhelmed with fucking gratitude, and my wife texted everyone asking who could host dinner in our stead, and my brother-in-law called back saying he just happened to have (it’s a complicated story) a hundred foot power snake in his basement, a miracle (because let’s face it) that I loaded into the back of my van mere minutes later, and used with his help to pierce the cocksucking Clog of Doom, and my wife drove him home, and I went upstairs and had a long hot shower, crawled into bed, felt like something clasped between palms held in prayer… my every surface thankful, and woke up to a glowing house booming with laughter.
Now that’s a fucking Christmas story, I think. Of course, the flu just hammered me the next morning. Viruses eat happy endings the same as everything else.
In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, the late Clifford Nass presents research using ‘computer confederates’ to study, among many other things, the way introverts and extroverts respond to self-promotion: it turns out introverts prefer self-deprecation, whereas extroverts prefer self-glorification. Since the last post was a shameless exercise in the latter, I was hoping to throw a blanket of self-deprecation over it with the following post. But alas, nothing fitting that description has come to fruition, so I thought I might as well be truly shameless and post links to the latest batch of reviews from a wide variety of venues around the web… The first one is truly special, I think.
I had some luck at the craps tables in Vegas, finishing $10 ahead, which is nothing short of a miracle. I made several others a small fortune shooting. Vegas, as far as I’m concerned, is the holiest city in the world, just edging out Jerusalem and Mecca, and leaving Rome in the dust. Why? Because of the living monumentality, all of it dedicated to the simulation of exceptionalism.
Just a few fiction related tidbits from the web (thanks to those of you who sent me links):
“If you are waiting for George R.R. Martin’s next book to come out, make sure to read some R. Scott Bakker. It’s epic fantasy of an entirely different flavor, alien and grimdark, convoluted and terrifyingly beautiful.”
Dan Smyth over at Elitist Book Reviews has posted a decidedly less enthusiastic review (but still, a sight better than the personal offence he felt reading The White-Luck Warrior). When it comes to books, some people are prone to shout “poison!” when you serve them the wrong brand of tea.
Fantlab.ru, the biggest SF&F website in Russia, has posted a Russian translation of “The False Sun,” the preeminent Atrocity Tale, I think it’s safe to say.
Omni has listed Neuropath among the “Best Philosophically Driven Sci-Fi Books” in their Buyer’s Guide. My first experience with Omni came in grade seven, when Mr. Allen (who once gave me some Pascal to take home!) read “Sandkings” aloud to our class, convincing me there was something with staples cooler than comic books. So I guess you could say this closes an ancient circuit, wonder to wonder.