Monday, August 13, 2018

No Fate But What We Make

One of the more obnoxious things about contemporary literature is how every MFA grad thinks they're the first to break the fourth wall or mix philosophy with satire. You can probably find a best-seller in Barnes & Noble right now, celebrated by all the respectable rags for being bold and experimental when really it's an overwritten shaggy dog story that does the "Dear Reader..." thing you forgot Dickens put into every single novel he ever wrote.

Truth is fiction has always been much more wild and experimental than the best-selling beach reads. Case in point: Dennis Diderot. A contemporary of Voltaire, you didn't hear about him in AP English because his philosophy is too complex and self-critical to fit as neatly into the American "common sense" dogma. Also he's French and Americans have long failed to appreciate the nation that midwived their own.

"Eyy!"
What sets Diderot apart from more acceptable thinkers like Voltaire are two things antithetical to American sentiment: his material atheism and his determinism. Now this might seem contradictory on the face - how can a totally godless cosmos still be determined? - but that confuses determinism with Fate.

Determinism simply posits that A leads to B leads to C. That cause leads to effect. Fate, on the other hand, holds that a certain outcome has already been pre-determined. Or rather pre-ordained, as Fate can only exist in a metaphysical framework as posited by religion, whether modern iterations or the pagan pantheons of the Axial Age.

Thus, a Deterministic cosmos is compatible with a metaphysics of material atheism, however this framework is still incompatible with Fate.

The debate between Fate and Determinism matters because both imply - indeed require - their own ethos that are fundamentally opposed to one another. If Fate, the Will of Heaven, then there is comfort that even misfortune has a good reason but also implies said misfortune may be deserved. Illness and poverty are divine judgements, or at the very least tests, and mass political action to alleviate this suffering becomes a defiance of that same conscious, almighty Will. That is in fact where the Protestant Work Ethic comes from - Calvin's doctrine of predestination and Adam Smith's Invisible Hand are opposite sides of the same idea that there is an order, a purpose to the world which is reflected in material wealth.

However, if events are determined but not pre-determined, if there is still a reason but not a transcendent or at least benevolent one, the ethical implications change entirely. Misfortune is not a test or punishment but a hazard of existence faced by all. This raises the issue of how a people or a society should manage these misfortunes, a moral imperative in a deterministic cosmos that can turn on all of us.

Diderot communicated this Determinism through comic vignettes, often to the point of self-parody. The title character of Jacques the Fatalist argues that all is pre-determined, written up above on a great scroll ("tout ce qui nous arrive de bien et de mal ici-bas était écrit là-haut") but his examples from his own life are all clearly the products of his own foolishness and incompetence. Fate would make a great comfort to a fool, as it absolves him of the moral responsibility for his own foolish actions.

But can the fool still be held accountable under Determinism? Does he bring the angry cuckolded husbands on himself or is it again the indifferent cosmic winds? That's a question no physicist can answer so it falls back to the philosophers and there is indeed a long philosophical tradition of grappling with how to improve the human condition. Karl Marx himself even cited Diderot as his "favourite prose-writer."

Because if the world is Determined but not ruled by Fate, we can shape the causes to gain beneficial effects. We can "hack" our lives, in the jargon of douchebags, achieving greater happiness and tranquility. But only if we can get over the primitive prejudice that Fate makes you rich or poor.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Adventures in Outreach

One of the hardest challenges facing public libraries is reminding the public they exist. Especially your local neighborhood branch, which lacks the advertising - and impressive architecture - of central libraries. That same central library will often have an "outreach office," partly a marketing department and partly a community program clearinghouse. And always stretched too thin to get the word out on every little satellite of a municipal library system

Which leaves much of the branch outreach in the hands of the branch librarians. This is difficult because nobody gets into librarianship because we like talking to people. Patrons are the one drawback to an otherwise sweet gig. Unfortunately, since we have to defend our existence to the local government bean counters - who will always cut public services before their own bullshit jobs - we have to get those numbers up. And that means outreach.

I've had the fortune - good or bad - to work in both a central outreach office and a small neighborhood branch in one of the largest municipal library systems in the country. For plausible deniability, we'll call it Booker. While stationed in the main branch of the Booker Public Library, I sat in on every conceivable outreach scheme from oral histories to Tumblr feeds to holding seminars on household pests. It was comprehensive and well-funded and when pressed I still can't describe anything I'd describe as effective outreach strategy.

Except the day we spent handing out fliers when I worked at a small neighborhood branch. We had our work cut out for us since this particular branch had been closed for renovation for 18 months, owing to a busted HVAC that they didn't fix. Gave us lots of new furniture for the kids' section though. That's also typical of the big municipal systems.

Fortunately, everyone really liked the library. Across five blocks of store fronts, I heard from people how excited they were we'd be open again, how much they missed the library, and could they have their own stack of the flyers to hand out. A better experience than expected all around.

Then I came to a small barbershop with just the barber. A sour Russian sort you see all the time in this particular city. I gave my then well practiced spiel about the library re-opening and would he mind posting our flyer.

"What type of business is this!" he demanded.

"Uh, it's not a business. It's a public library -"

"I no like libraries!"

Fair enough. I wished him a good day and moved along.

I told my colleagues later - because the librarians are always talking about you - and they asked if this barber had any customers. When I said he didn't, they all said, "Exactly!"

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Rambo Revolution

Before winning the Vietnam War and joining the Mujaheddin, John Rambo fought the law. People often forget this first chapter in the Rambo saga, since it has the lowest body count and keeps its reactionary politics under wraps until Stallone's climactic monologue. Those politics have been better scrutinized elsewhere, so I'd like to talk about the subversive streak in the movie that introduced the Rambo character, First Blood.

Beginning with dialogue-free scenes of John Rambo drifting across small town America. It sets a somber mood, putting the audience in the shoes of a socially alienated vet in the dreary fringes of Reagan's America. Where the Carter malaise still lingers and the local sheriff is the sort of power fetishist who will harass and jail anyone who looks weak and unimportant.


The sheriff in First Blood is a villain that couldn't exist in the present time, despite being much more timely. Such sheriffs certainly exist in reality - from Joe Arpaio to the wannabe fascist who ticketed you this morning - but the Police lobby is much too vocal these days. And the whole culture is much more policed, especially since 9/11.

Not so in the First Blood era. People forget but in the years following the Vietnam debacle and the Watergate scandal, police and other symbols of power were a dirty word in American discourse. Nixon and Reagan had to work over time to make "law and order" - the sheriff's mantra for his own doomed pursuit of Rambo - a palatable concept to the public at large. Their base were already fans of course, because their base were just the sort of atomized suburbanites who cheer police shootings and vote for Trump. The mindless, moronic fascism of ordinary people.

Rambo, in his first iteration, didn't fit that paradigm. Clothes too dirty, hair too long, the sort the "law and order" types always target because the order they seek is an ordered appearance. As the sheriff says, "We have a nice town." And keeping it nice means keeping out the undesirables.

It doesn't stop there, of course. It can't because just by existing, Rambo threatens the sheriff's sense of order. He must be broken down, made to fit in if not disappear completely. He doesn't, he rebels, and the whole power of the police-state descends upon him. All because he wanted to eat in a diner in peace. Rambo's desperate cries of "I didn't do anything!" fall on deaf ears because he has no voice in this system - like more and more Americans in this ever more authoritarian and neoliberal state.

So he takes up arms. It's the only logical path, when reasoned argument and civility did nothing to dissuade a police state that is not so much corrupt as corrupting, the power it confers with a badge really just license to continue being the schoolyard bully into adulthood. This is also where the film finally breaks with reality - at least our sick and sad modern reality - as Rambo is a product of the military-industrial complex.

What you call home, Rambo calls Hell.

A full-bird colonel - meaning a company man - arrives late in the third act to talk up Rambo's battle prowess in the exaggerated manner of all stunted twerps who provide fascism with its shock troops. In the original ending of the film, as in the book, the colonel kills Rambo as he's nothing but a defective part in the machine that bombed and massacred the Vietnamese for the crime of wanting to be something other than American. In the film, Rambo surrenders peaceably after a largely bloodless rampage, setting up the cartoonishly jingoistic sequels.

But in this first film, even with the lost cause malarkey at the very end, Rambo serves as the everyman caught between the insatiable Pentagon empire and a homefront dominated by the democratic feudalism of respectable neighborhoods and pigs with badges. It's very weird how films can age.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Steven Pinker is an Idiot

For the longest time I've been blissfully unaware of the thought - or what passes for thought - of Steven Pinker. At most, I've seen him mixed together with Jordan Peterson and other intellectual lightweights on the Bad Philosophy subreddit, usually being mocked for their attempts to critique modern philosophy without ever engaging with its ideas. Due to circumstances I'm not going into, I finally read some primary Pinker sources over the weekend and those wry internet barbs have been much too kind to him. He's not just an idiot and embarrassment to academia, he's an apologist for the worst crimes of the day.

Specifically his latest pop-sci book, Enlightenment Now, which claims to be a defense of reason and humanism against all those dastardly postmodernists. Like Ayn Rand and other such imbeciles before him, Pinker picks a fight with a statistical minority within the already statistically minor world of tenured professors, then goes on to not actually quote any counterarguments to his thesis. The closest he ever gets is disparaging the sort of liberal arts syllabus that Limbaugh and Hannity would whinge about but which is never actually seen outside a graduate seminar:
In The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman shows that prophets of doom are the all-stars of the liberal arts curriculum, including Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Cornel West, and a chorus of eco-pessimists.
A charitable reader may assume Pinker makes such a broad - and wrong - generalization because he's not read any of the listed authors, just this Herman hack. That appears to be the only excuse for lumping Schopenhauer (a pessimist), Sartre (a Marxist), Nietzsche (a Nietzschean) and Heidegger (???) in with social critics like Foucault and Adorno. Nevermind the explicitly ant-colonial projects of figures like Fanon and Said, whose worldviews hinged on the faith that the world is not getting worse and transformations for the betterment of oppressed peoples is a real possibility.

But that would mean engaging with their thoughts and arguments, something Pinker never does because it would get in the way of his Pollyannaish boosterism for "progress." Pinker incidentally strongly objects to being labelled a "Pollyanna" or a "Pangloss," likely because he flunked comparative literature as an undergrad.

Had he not, and had he actually read any of his proposed opponents, he might understand the difference between pessimism as a psychological disposition and philosophical pessimism. Pinker conflates the two, the better to dismiss it with a sneer and graphs. Lots and lots of graphs, the last refuge of the thin-skinned dullard. He's got graphs showing declines in war! Increases in life expectancy! Growing civility on the internets! And I'm not posting any of them because they're all so fucking stupid!

"Great Scott I'm dumb!"

Take Pinker's assertion that war is on the decline. That depends how you define and measure "war," which Pinker does in such a way to paint a rosier picture. He only tracks conflicts between "Great Powers" running from about the 14th Century to today. That's an awfully broad view, seeing as some "Great Powers" like the Ottomans cease to exist halfway through. Further, he explicitly leaves out colonial wars and proxy wars and all the other wars that have ever been more common than some Game of Thrones-addled clash of empires.

He follows the same murky methodology in his tracking of human well being. Yes, it is nice not to be dying of the plague these days but what of wealth inequality? And healthcare inequality? And the exponential rise in rage massacres since the 1980s?

Also, his claims of online civility are blatant lies, simply for the fact that there's no way he researched the entire Internet for every racist and sexist joke when he couldn't even be arsed to read a little of Being and Nothingness.

Ah, but that's all taking Pinker's arguments in good faith. And as anyone who's read the recent hagiography of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson knows, these sorts of pop-sci "intellectuals" are not arguing in good faith at all. They stake out positions tied up with their own particular sense of self and bellow that all the pointy-headed know-it-alls are wrong and you can see how if you just buy this new book.

It's a sales pitch masquerading as a sermon, and Pinker is a particularly egregious offender as he claims the language of reason and rationality to argue that things are fine. He rails against climate change skeptics and "eco-pessimists"in equal measure, turning the golden mean fallacy into a moral imperative. His book reads less like a well-reasoned rejection of nihilism and more like any other half-bright yuppie talking back to the evening news:
Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.
Have you seen those smartphone reports from Syria? Pinker sure hasn't, because it would make a mockery of all his precious graphs. And probably make him puke.

However, none of this should be taken as some call to challenge Pinker as he pretends to challenge two centuries of Continental Philosophy. He doesn't deserve that much consideration and he's much less consequential than his ever unnamed antagonists among the tenured guild who supposedly oppose progress and humanism. Rather, Steven Pinker is just the sort of idiot who comes along every five years or so, selling the same security blanket of a book to all the middlebrows with degrees, IRAs, and crushing debt. He's not assuring them the world is getting better so much as he's distracting them from their own personal experiences getting worse.

Forty years ago it was est and the evangelical revival. Today it's Silicone Valley and shoddy cognitive science. It gives white collar drones and centrist muddlers something to chew on, pretend they have real thoughts, while the real work of philosophy is done by folks like Ray Brassier, who will never get his books excerpted by a billionaire ghoul like Bill Gates.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Netflix Killed the Video Store

When I tell people I'm a librarian, they often ask me, "Isn't Google a threat to libraries?" This is a stupid question, asked only by stupid people, but it skirts close to the observable truth that the Internet has made a number of other forms of media obsolete. At least from a market perspective.

I've been seeing this myself over the past week. My wife and I are finally extricating ourselves from the festering sore of New York City and one of my self-appointed tasks has been selling off all our old crap. Most of this has been bag after bag of books but no small shortage of CDs and DVDs. And as far as the latter two are concerned, nobody's buying.

There are certainly still music stores - and music for sale in big box retailers - but I've been hard pressed finding anyone willing to buy old used music. On CD. What few music shops persist in Manhattan and Brooklyn revolve around vinyl, that favorite medium of snobs with more money than brains.

Likewise, you can still find DVDs for sale around town but no store wants to buy them off you. Look through what they have in stock and you'll see why - things are marked down to the ground. A buyer's market, should anyone care to show up.

They don't. All y'all would rather #NetflixAndChill. Much as MP3s decimated the CD market, streaming services and other such digital distribution are so much more convenient than going out and buying your preferred movie or TV show. In the latter case, you can even cover every season of Friends without ever getting up to change the discs. A brave new world for couch potatoes.

And this has all happened before. Not two decades ago, DVDs did the same thing to VHS tapes. A decade before that, CDs did the same to audio cassettes - which did the same to 8-track tapes, which did the same to vinyl, no matter what those snooty hipsters might say.

Plenty of Boomers and Gen-Xers have lamented these changes as stripping their favorite pop music of all the tertiary goodies, like album art and inventive packaging and travelling four hours to find the one indie record store offering the latest Butt Trumpet LP. But that's just it - all that high-art malarkey always was tertiary to what is a very ephemeral art form. Jazz musician and expat Eric Dolphy said it best, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." People have been trying to capture music for a century regardless, but the vast storage space afforded by modern digital technology just reinforces Dolphy's point. With a hundred thousand songs mixing together in your hard rive, everything becomes an intermingled and meaningless soup of noise. The old-fashioned scolds are right to cling to their old record sleeves as it lends a sense of permanence to something fundamentally impermanent.

It's taken a little longer but the same is now happening to film and television. How permanent can a TV show be if you can watch the new season in a single day? How can you stay focused across such a mind-deadening stretch of time? How are all these woke and prestigious serials not just so much dull porridge of light and noise?

Music and film became dominant art forms in the 20th Century not because of inherent aesthetic value but rather due to the evolving media technology of a post-war boom in consumption. Now that we live in the belt-tightening austerity era all this storage media is so much clutter, the kipple of a middle-class suburban dream from which we've been forced awake. And no one wants to buy that bitter revelation.

But while these reams upon reams of optical discs collect dust in basements and thrift stores - and deteriorate rapidly - used book stores are still doing a brisk business. Borders is shuttered and Barnes and Noble is shit, but Mercer Street and Alabaster Bookshop have better philosophy, poetry, and pulp sci-fi offerings than Amazon. And they'll happily pay cash for your old books. Books trade more easily, and for cheaper, than the aforementioned mediums because what they store can be accessed as easily today as when the first Gutenberg Bible rolled off the press. You don't need a stereo or turntable or busted old Betamax, just the capability to read.

So is the Internet a threat to libraries? Probably not, since it still hasn't killed the indie book stores.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Fly Eagles Fly

Usually I wouldn't address something that is just sports but the recent Superbowl between the Eagles and the Patriots is a very special case. Very personal. My wife is a huge Eagles fan and Tom Brady is the Devil, so this was the one game I've been most invested in since the last one I played myself back in high school. That direct experience, which I've mentioned before, is also how I plan to show that this game has some interesting socio-political implications, as well as this whole post just being an exercise in self-indulgence.

Brandon Graham

First, let's look at the politics of this game as they are just within the world of professional football. Everyone with a lick of sense already hated the Patriots - even their own fans resent them for their cheating - and the Eagles came in as the scrappy underdog Americans are conditioned from birth to cheer for. But as anyone who's followed an NFL season knows, uplifting narratives don't have half the staying power as the demoralizing success of teams like the Patriots, who were shooting for their sixth Superbowl victory, which is currently a club of just one. For all that old timey grit and hometown love driving the Eagles, these sorts of contests in America have historically gone to the crass and the sleazy, as best personified in the Brady-Belichek tenure of the Patriots.

Bill Belichik and Tom Brady represent a common wisdom that is much too common in America. The power of the single, unencumbered superstar to drive a franchise to ever greater heights of wealth and fame. It's the logic that got Donald Trump elected and caused the housing market crash, the logic of ubermensch capitalism that has been harder to kill than Rasputin or Dracula. Tom Brady himself is exactly the sort of hero Ayn Rand would dream up, a completely self-certain and self-satisfied prick who's sole skill - throwing a goddamn ball - is presented as justification for his rich vampire lifestyle. This is aided and abetted by Belichik's management style, where every Patriot player is just a cog in the Fordist machine. This is visible not just in Patriots' fans' own dismal slogans, like "Do Your Job," but also in how Belichik's machine revolves around the arm and ego of Tom Brady.

Nick Foles

When it comes together, the Patriots offense really is worth the hype. Brady proved this with some of the longest Superbowl throws in history, usually to high-functioning freight rain Gronkwoski. The Brady-Gronk pairing, as sports journalism knobs have dubbed them, carried the majority of the scoring during the game and, when the stars were right, proved unstoppable.

But building a franchise around one or two star players is as risky as building a political movement around the mythology of the strong leader. The Patriots proved that too, in all their pre-game hagiography of Brady which was both reminiscent and reflective of the typical American presidential campaign circus, where whatever tired old hack the party's money-men agree on is puffed up and deified like a Roman Emperor. It's the Great Man theory in history, which has looked more and more like a fantasy for power-worshipping nerds ever since Election 2016. And since the collapse of the Patriots offense in Superbowl LII.

Jay Ajayi

Whereas the Eagles' offense proved the old mantra of "four yards and a cloud of dust." Every other first down, they sent the ball up the middle, which will never clear ten yards but will always close the distance a little, giving a team more flexibility with their passing. Nick Foles didn't throw as many passes as Brady, let alone throw as far, but he didn't need to as the rest of the Eagles' offense could be counted on to keep moving the ball down the field. This makes for a slow but inevitable advance, bringing the Eagles close enough for field goals even when the Patriots managed to stop the run.

Teamwork, as the after school specials like to say, but it bears repeating as so much of popular American myth revolves around a single rugged individualist, rather than the long grind of group effort. It may not be as photogenic as Brady's long bombs but, as demonstrated, it gets the job done better. All it takes to make a good quarterback is a good arm, but a good offense needs a quarterback who knows when to swallow his own ego and get out of the way. That's how a good team can carry a mediocre quarterback, but not the other way around.

Chris Long

The Eagles still couldn't have pulled it off, though, if their defense wasn't so scary. A good defense isn't a wall, it's a grenade that sows terror and confusion. A great defense is a white squall descending on Tom Brady's stupid preppy face. The pressure they kept bearing down on him had him throwing for the stands more often than not, anything to save himself from a blitz that would make even Jack "The Assassin" Tatum wince. With Brady in retreat, the morale of the whole team collapsed because, like all tyrants, they had everything to lose in this game and no support from their bloodless oligarch of a coach.

There's a lesson in all of this. The lesson I've been circling around in all the football talk - that the powers that be are not gods, not invulnerable, just contemptible little schemers like Brady and Belichik. No different from a crooked auto mechanic or a Brooklyn hustler, mortal and alone. A great mass movement can unseat everyone from the Patriots to the Senate, if they follow the example set by the Eagles in Superbowl LII: keep driving forward and never give your opponent the space to breath. It won't be an easy victory but it'll still win elections like it wins games.

*sad trombone music*

Also, Justin Timberlake is a twat.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fiction Friday Returns!

A small boy with a kiddie-hawk haircut and holograph of happy cartoon mutants on his shirt gaped at Jerome. “Mommy, what’s wrong with that man?” he asked in innocent wonderment.

His mother, one of those high-strung yuppie sorts with a severe haircut, reluctantly looked up from her phone. “I’m so sorry,” she said automatically. Adding, grudgingly, because it was expected, “Would you like to sit down?”

As much as he enjoyed watching these sorts squirm, Jerome’s knee just couldn’t keep up with the train today. “Thank you. Yes, thanks.”

The woman tried her best to politely ignore him once he was settled on the seat, between a grumbling fat man in a heavy suit and a fatter woman who sniffed with indignation at Jerome, the train, and just the whole world in general. They all tried their passive aggressive best but the little boy just couldn’t let things go - “But what’s wrong with him? Why’s his skin look like that?” His little voice carried up and down the subway car, even over the squeal of the rusty tracks.

“Mason, stop it!” his mother hissed back. And again to Jerome, she said with repressed bitterness, “I’m so sorry. He knows better than this.”

He clearly didn’t but Jerome just chuckled. “It’s fine, really,” he assured her, making a magnanimous gesture with one gnarled hand. Then, addressing the little boy directly, “Hey Mason, want to know how my skin got like this?”

The boy answered with an excited "Yeah!" while his mother tittered "No he doesn't – No you don't!"

Ignoring her, Jerome told Mason with more than a hint of pride, "I let it happen! I let myself grow old!"

Learn Jerome's shameful secret here, exclusively at Eastern Iowa Review!