29 June 2011

Midrash

Yes.

The only way to cultivate organic symbols is midrash. As a discourse, midrash is completely different from scientific discourse. [...] Scientific analysis strives to reveal the conceptual world of the creators of symbols; midrash tends to ignore the conceptual world of these symbol-creators. Scientific analysis sees the symbol as a means to reach the past; midrash sees it as a way to reach the future. Scientific discourse aspires to be objective; midrashic discourse is intentionally subjective. Midrashic discourse takes symbols out of context; scientific discourse strives to place symbols in their contexts.
....
Children do not like to be spoken to in the analytic mode of discourse. They are eager for midrash of organic symbols. At a very young age, they discover that the world is round, but their inner world stays pre-Copernican, and angels climb the ladders of their world and slide down slides into their sandboxes.

22 June 2011

Identity politics

Lady Gaga: “Essentialized conceptions of gender, sexuality, and other identity categories compel a celebration of diversity. Also, at Haus of Gaga we're bored with Matthew Barney videos and have started watching a lot of Kenneth Anger and Ken Russell instead.”

Weird Al: “Your Ladyship, if anyone is a demonstration that gender, sexuality, and other identity categories are performative, it's you. Also, don't go all highbrow, you're ripping off Madonna's act more than anybody else's, and I started doing that before you were born.”

Advantage: Weird Al.

On the behalf of all Generation X cultural theory nerds, I'd like to offer our apologies to the Millennials. We tried really hard to sort this identity stuff out in the ’80s and ’90s, but it's harder than it looks. And I'm afraid it's not getting any easier; now we have the transgender liberation movement trying to make both arguments at the same time ...

15 June 2011

Lifestyle advertising

I stumbled across this clever little trifle today. It's a takeoff on Ice Cube's “It Was A Good Day,” depicting a good day as a young tech startup employee in San Francisco. I recommend you watch it. It's cute.




It filled me with disgust.

The romanticized vision it offers of this character's life ... or, I should say pointedly, lifestyle ... is part of the waters I swim in. I meet folks all the time who want to believe in this romantic image, want to live it, want to think they are living it now.

I myself am living something like it. And I believe in the embodied life, the urban life of simple pleasures and bonhomie and all that. I believe in it fervently, like I believe in democracy and feminism and good design. I believe that making The Good Life happen is a technological, personal, social, political, even spiritual victory in a struggle with a world that too often conspires against it. No small thing.

I know I'm overthinking this, but I felt that the video makes that profound little victory somehow small, just the sum of its pleasures. Less than the sum of its pleasures, with the implication that small pleasures are not only important, but the only thing. And the video is actually — in a weird recursive loop of self-reference — a San Francisco startup advertising their product. It's lifestyle advertising, selling both the product as a marker of the lifestyle, and the lifestyle itself as an object of desire. And the video represents the victory of the transformation of the rakish San Francisco of my youth — the transformation that began with the first dot-com wave in ’99 — away from countercultural and toward being merely hip. And the video deracinates the Ice Cube song “It Was A Good Day” that has more than a bit of political context.

I'm not too serious to enjoy trifling celebrations of The Good Life. I actually think the product advertised is quite a good one, made by a good company. I don't wish for some kind of unchanging San Francisco, trapped in amber. I'm in favour of playful, artful remixing of culture. I'm not radically opposed to any of these things I'm complaining about.

But still. It's smug. It irked me.

Sorry. I'm being a cranky middle-aged man today. Haters gotta hate. I guess I'm a hater.

12 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class is elaborately plotted, smart, and melodramatic. It's full of in-jokes, sexy ladies in absurd costumes, and symbolic subtext. It plays clever games with the continuity established in the other X-films, and opens up opportunities for endless sequelæ. It ends with sock-o action and anguish.

In short, it's even truer to the spirit of the Claremont X-Men comics I grew up on than Bryan Singer's two X-films.

There's a lot to like. McAvoy and Fassbender are terrific as Xavier and Erik, both individually and playing off of one another; it's a tall order to play characters who are going to age into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and they deliver the goods. As villain Sebastian Shaw, Kevin Bacon is even better; he's as terrifyingly convincing a psychopath as Hopkins' Lecter. There are a number of other good performances as well, including some pleasant surprise appearances by great character actors like Michael Ironside, and Nicholas Hoult as an anxious young Hank McCoy. The production design is marvelous, with great little winks toward the world of early James Bond movies. The movie delivers good superheroics — incredibly it even sells Banshee's power of flying by yelling really loud, which seems goofy even in the comics — with nifty special effects and the characters using their distinctive powers intelligently. The movie is smart and fun and a lot of the characterization is rich.

That said, it has a few serious flaws. There are patches in the middle where it bogs down with Too Many Mutants; my non-comic-book-fan companion fell out of the movie at that point, and never quite found her way back in. Surrounded by good performances, January Jones' Emma Frost stands out as, well, looking great in '60s hair. The uncanny blankness of her Betty Draper in Mad Men is apparently the only note she can hit; the computer-generated diamond version of her is a better actor. The evocation of '60s sexism, which could have been witty, is undercut by the sexism of the movie itself. Among other things, having established that movie Mystique walks around blue and nude, and having included Emma Frost as a character, you'd think there was more than enough womens' skin showing, but no we have see every female character in her lingerie at some point while the men get all the good lines. There's racism to go with the sexism; all of our central characters are White ... though there is one Black guy in the movie. Just guess how things work out for him. I try not to let that sort of thing get under my skin too much, but it is especially disturbing given the Civil Rights Era subtext of X-Men in general and the choice of the early '60s as the setting for this story.

Still, First Class is a much, much better superhero movie than I was expecting, and suggests that the series will recover from the hugely disappointing X-Men: Last Stand. Joe Bob says check it out.

11 June 2011

Magick, reason, and science

This, in a nutshell, is how I reconcile magickal practice and the understanding of reality we get from the natural sciences.

I take Uncle Al's maxim “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion” to mean that magick is to one's personal, subjective experience of one's life as science is to the physical universe. Your life is the material you're working with in magick.

Obviously your subjective experience is profoundly conditioned by your encounter with the material cosmos. What you see is shaped by what's in your head, yes. But what you're looking at, outside your head, also has a big effect. (At least, it does if you're sane.)

Science organizes the application of reason to the physical universe through the use of meticulous experimentation and observation within controlled conditions, confirming its models of the world through reproducible results. These rigorous standards produce High Quality Truth. Let me say that again. Science produces High Quality Truth. If you are wise, you will not fuck with it.

Magick organizes the application of reason to your life through the use of meticulous experimentation and observation ... but in your life you cannot have controlled conditions, and you cannot get neatly reproducible results. In studying your life, it is impossible to use the full rigorous standards of science. But you can still apply reason and experiment to get very useful results.

Science produces models of how the physical universe works. Models are regarded as strong to the degree that they predict what the universe does, using the simplest explanation of the widest range of phenomena. Again, this marvelously rigorous standard gives us extremely reliable models. These models tell us that at the scale we live in the cosmos has crisp, mechanical rules for causality in which the operations of the mind do not directly affect what the cosmos does.

Yeah, yeah, quantum mechanics, I know. QM does not apply at human scales. Do not kid yourself with some What The Bleep bullshit about how QM proves that the universe is just craaaazy. It does not. That is fucking with the High Quality Truth of science, and I warned you about that. The world of people and teacups and cheeseburgers that we live in is Newton's clockwork automaton. But don't worry, it has plenty of room for magick.

Magick produces models of how your life works. Consider two types of models that can describe the effects that you get: Consciousness and Spookiness. In the Consciousness model, you understand a magickal operation as having altered the processes of your mind, resulting in changes in behavior and perception that produce the effects that you get. In the Spookiness model, you understand a magickal operation as having connected to spooky patterns in the cosmos (gods! angels! demons! egregores!) which use spooky means to reshape the cosmos, bringing the effect to you.

Both models provide explanations of the results you get from magickal practice. Early in your magickal practice the Consciousness model seems tidy and straightforward — “after the ritual for A New Job, I started talking to people about A New Job more, started preparing for it, started looking for it, so it's no surprise that I was able to bring myself A New Job when I bumped into it in the form of Jane at that cocktail party” — while the Spooky model seems elaborate and tortured and, frankly, a little goofy. This is comfortingly consistent with Newton's clockwork universe that we know about from science; you can see all the material, causal connections at work. But as your magical practice progresses, the Consciousness explanations you can come up with for the magickal effects you get become increasingly elaborate and tortured ... while the Spooky explanations become increasingly tidy and straightforward.

Models should be regarded as strong to the degree that they predict what your life does, using the simplest explanation of the widest range of phenomena.

Both explanations will always continue to apply. You will never get magickal results that outright conflict with a Consciousness model consistent with the scientific understanding of the material world. But your life is inherently a great big irreproducible result, with plenty of room for the improbable. Looking at your life, performing magickal experiments, seeking the simplest explanation, things can get very, very Spooky.

10 June 2011

SlutWalk

I just succumbed to the temptation to respond to someone who said this:

I do not want anyone to assume this is anything to do with trying to excuse the actions of the perpetrator.

What I want to talk about though is that I think we should be able to acknowledge that people should try to not put themselves in bad positions. Lets be realistic. The world is not a perfect place, in fact very far from it. Should we be working to make it a better place? Absolutely. But in the mean time we also have to live in the world as it is.
....
What I am saying is that the “slut walk” is absolutely right to be trying to change the culture, but I think it got started for the wrong reasons. I think the police were absolutely right to suggest that people make decisions to improve their own safety in the imperfect terrible world that we have to live in.

Damn. Duty calls. I responded with this:

There's a meaningful distinction between blaming victims and talking about what behavior is wise in an imperfect world. Surely there is stuff that would be wrong to say to someone who had just been victimized that is entirely appropriate to say during a safety training.

Let's look at the incident that sparked the SlutWalk movement. It was a safety training, but it wasn't even an appropriate comment in that venue.

Constable Michael Sanguinetti made the stunning remark during a meeting about safety at Toronto's York University.

While a more senior officer was talking, Mr. Sanguinetti interrupted and reportedly said: ‘You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this, however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.’

So what's wrong with this picture?

There's the important context that we live in a culture where there is a lot of victim-blaming going around. So one should step carefully to avoid reïnforcing that pattern. Constable Sanguinetti didn't make any effort at that; in fact, he alluded to having been warned about it and dismissed that warning.

If you look at his comment, he implies that dressing differently is reliable protection against being victimized. He's not talking about improving your odds; he's implying that it's a way to be safe. Which we all know isn't true. You may protest that I'm reading the comment too closely, and that the constable meant to say only that dressing provocatively increases the risk of being raped. If we grant him that meaning — which in his position as an expert offering his expertise he should have made more clearly — then he's still wrong because there is no reliable evidence that how a woman is dressed significantly affects her risk of being raped. (Look it up.) So even if we set aside the cultural politics, this was a very irresponsible statement.

And he didn't say “dressed provocatively,” did he? He said “dressing like sluts.” Sluts. Not a neutral term, a derogatory term for women who are “too willing” to have sex. Using the term “slut” at all is using a slur; using it linked to the threat of sexual violence is even worse.

So no, the police were not absolutely right.

08 June 2011

Lasagna sauce

I used to go for cocktails at a restaurant bar near my old apartment, where they sold “soup shots,” which were exactly what they sounded like: soup served in shot glasses. It sounds like a goofy restaurant gimmick. It was a goofy restaurant gimmick. But they were also really good. Eventually, I figured something out about them which explained to me something about the old TV series Moonlighting.

I was a teenager when Moonlighting was first shown, and found it exhilarating. I saw a few episodes recently and it doesn't look as good now — we forget how clusmy TV was before our current Golden Age — but at the time it was one of the gutsiest, craftiest, most inventive things ever broadcast. The show was ostensibly about a detective agency, but the episode's mystery was almost incidental to the the point of the show, which was much more about banter between the characters and the show's generally surreal tone. Usually the mystery only took center stage in bookends at the beginning and end of each episode: a prologue at the beginning which often excluded the show's recurring characters in favour of the guest stars who inhabited the mystery, then an encounter when the main characters solved the mystery at the end. Often the prologue had an intense thriller / noir tone quite different from the rest of the show's comedic voice. I'd think that the mystery, while it was onstage, was wonderfully gripping and intense, and wish for a different show which delivered more of that.

But I eventually realized that the tone of the mystery sequence was actually unsustainable: so intense that it would be laughable if you tried to maintain it for an hour of TV. It only worked because it came in such a small dose.

Like the soup shots.

I figured out the soup shots because I do the same thing when I make lasagna. If you use your normal spaghetti sauce recipe to make the tomato sauce for lasagna, it doesn't work right. You have to overspice the sauce, or else it will get drowned out by the other lasagna ingredients. Like the thriller portion of Moonlighting.

It seems to me that this is a design pattern useful for a lot of things.

02 June 2011

Affluence

Via Rick “Nixonland” Perlstein, I learn of a disconcerting article about the demographics of affluence in Ad Age, seen through the creepy lens of appetite for luxury goods.

Before the downturn, luxury marketers embraced the concept of “mass affluence.” Buoyed by fatter stock portfolios and exploding equity in real estate — and encouraged by easy credit — a larger portion of the population, mainly in the Aspiring tier, considered itself wealthy enough to buy luxury goods. But in 2011, these consumers no longer “feel rich,” and they are not particularly likely to graduate into affluence later on (and thus are not a particularly promising future market for luxury brands to seed). In 2011, those in the Aspiring tier firmly self-identify as middle class.

This article points to something that I suspect is going on in our current process of increasing income inequality. Lefties like me talk a lot about the stagnant wages and weakening security of the lower 80% or so, and the stratospheric wealth of the upper 1%, but I see a great deal of weirdness in the in-between of technocratic professionals where I live.

I'm sure that this is partly a symptom of living in left-ish San Francisco, but among folks like me I'm seeing an awareness that the unforgiving American economy is treating us relatively well combined with several kinds of anxiety. First, there's class anxiety that we directly experience in our working lives how we are the courtiers hard at work running the country for the benefit of wealthy oligarchs. Second, there's political anxiety that the majority of the American people rightly should see us as complicit in running the system that screws them. Third, there's the economic anxiety that our economic class lives on a slippery and shrinking ice floe, and it's easy to fall off of it; you see this particularly in the sense of barely contained panic parents have about their children's education.

There's also a weird frustration with what my relatively good income will and won't buy. I think I'm not alone in this. I'm conscious that not worrying about money day-to-day is a profound luxury, and I enjoy a number of small luxuries as well — more restaurant meals than are really responsible, a few nice pairs of shoes, some spiffy consumer electronics. But I cannot afford a fancy car or take elaborate vacations or enjoy many of the other trappings of “wealth.” I don't have as much money saved as I'd like. And I don't feel confident that my economic fortunes are secure in the long run.

I do indulge in one very big luxury, which is not living in the great American suburban wasteland. This not only makes my housing breathtakingly expensive, it also nickels-and-dimes me with every carrot and bar of soap. Suburban living is actually more resource-intensive than urban living, but we've made it cheaper through a whole range of public policies. It is decidedly weird that a smaller living space, relying on public transit, and encountering hungry, miserable people asking for spare change every day is an expensive luxury.

That last point is exceptionally frustrating. Being acutely aware of the systems of social injustice that I participate in, even benefit from, I make an effort to contribute to charities and such. But another one of the things which I want but just cannot buy with my relative wealth is social justice.