Desire and the perfect phone

This is a twittish, Vox-dot-commy article which accidentally hits on something profound.

There is a lot of talk, especially on those sorts of self-help feel-good nonsense programs that tend to air on PBS during Pledge Drive—Daniel Dennet referred to that genre as “deepity”—of the importance of fulfilment.

But on the contrary, fulfilment would be a kind of self-extinguishment.

When you were a child, or if you cannot remember think of children you have observed, do you recall how you would always ask for something? If you asked mother for milk, and she gave you milk you would ask for a cookie. When you got the cookie, you would ask for a banana, and when you got that a piece of cake and so on until she would not give you any more things.

Or perhaps, especially as you were older, The Toy. A TV ad told you that you wanted it and you obeyed. But if you got it, when you got it, it never satisfied.

What is going on here? How can it be that The Toy which seemed the-most-important-thing-in-the-world to get (this was before puberty, mind) could amount to so little? Played with a while and then abandoned.

In Girls, its often ponies.

When you get to be my age its often sexual, a specific act or a specific person. And then you get it, or him and somehow it’s just not like in the movies where the music swells and the camera swoons and the light changes and….

But the advantage to Ponies is that virtually nobody gets a pony. And so, the Desire for the pony may be held indefinitely, or at least until there begins the mania for boys (or girls). In this we begin to see how it works.

Desire is connected to lack. In Continental philosophy Lack (manque) is often spoken of in terms of “that which is beyond the demesne of language”, in other words the impossible unspeakable thing which cannot be put into words which cannot be imagined (for we only can imagine in language) and which cannot be properly experienced.

We never desire something. We desire to desire. In other words, we desire desire itself. The fantasy is more important than the thing fantasized for to obtain the thing (the fantasand?) extinguishes the lack and kills the fantasy.

We can see how this works in the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. In the movie, an unexplained event, possibly aliens, created a place called The Zone in which there is found a building with a Room. Those who enter the room receive their hearts innermost desire. They are, “fulfilled” in a way that is a Deeptyists wet dream. It would seem that here is the solution to all mankind’s problems, but to enter the Zone is illegal and attempted only by the desperate. The film focuses on two such desperates, lead through the Zone by a guide, the titular Stalker.

Yet… at the threshold of the room the characters hesitate.

05-At-the-very-end-of-their-quest-Stalker-Writer-and-Professor-hestate-on-the-very-threshold-of-The-Room.

There are lots of ways to analyze this. The film suggests one: they receive what they desire, not what they ask for. What they think that they desire may not be what they wish to think it to be. This is another dimension of Desire which could be a whole post to itself.

The unnamed Stalker mentions a cautionary tale of another Stalker named Porcupine whose brother died and so he broke the cardinal article of Stalker ethics and ventured into the room himself. When he got home his brother was still dead but he had won the lottery.

He hanged himself.

But another way, a subtler way is to understand what a total leap into oblivion it would be to fulfill desire, to no longer lack.

Necessity is the mother of invention, hunger was the father of agriculture and from pain was birthed medicine and on the most fundamental level it is from this Lack that springs all of civilization and identity and all that it means “To Be Human.” To relinquish Lack is to relinquish Humanity and enter the domain of That Which Cannot be Said.

It truly would be unimaginable terror.

The Entirety of Western Economics is based on this. We Lack, so we buy. We buy ostensibly to fill the lack, but in reality, to highlight the lack. We buy to use up, to discard, to move on in the never-ending cycle of masturbatory consumption.

In the eerily prophetic movie Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Howard Beal—mad prophet of the airwaves—is summoned before Mister Jensen, boss of bosses to receive a new message for the masses. Here is the relevant part of the famous “The World is a Business” speech, embedded in full below.

Jensen: The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.

Beale: But why me?

Jensen: Because you’re on television, dummy.

But what a catastrophe this would be! No wonder Mr. Jensen’s message goes over like a lead balloon and the ratings begin to fall off (leading to one of the most perversely funny endings of any movie ever.)

Therefore, there must not be a perfect smartphone, for if there were it would be a catastrophe.

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Political cults (Donald Trump wins IV)

A person of outright and obviously immoral character has been elected president. This has been done legitimately, according to the rules and without tampering. Furthermore, this person is simply not fit to conduct an effective presidency. He does not have the experience, temperament or wisdom.

These defects of Mr. Trump were obvious, nobody can claim to be surprised by them, unlike was the case with, say Nixon. But Donald Trump is not a normal politician: rather he is the leader of something which resembles a political cult. And as is always the case when we are dealing with cults, it is necessary to build ‘off ramps’ so that his supporters can make an exit. At what time should we do this? Immediately.

When people are entranced by a person or thing which is actually quite bad they often are immune to reality for a time, but eventually the shine wears off. They then go through a period of internal and external defensiveness. Eventually, they will deescalate their emotional investment until they leave the fold.

If you will excuse a facile, even cheeky example this pattern has recently been observed with products made by a certain fruit company.

But back to seriousness. It is imperative to accelerate the de-escalation of emotional investment because primaries are coming up: all the House and 1/3rd of the Senate in two years. If people bristle in anger and blame and use destructive negative rhetoric (such as the obsession with trying to get the newspapers to use the word ‘lie’ and smearing all people who voted for Trump as bigots, etc) then the de-escalation will not take place.

Applying deviance-labels to people who have erred does nothing to improve or even meaningfully explain their behavior. It’s important to remember that nobody ever considers themselves to be in a cult. Experts who study cults say that one of the main reasons why people remain in cults, even after extreme behavior such as violence occurs, is that the cost of exiting is rejection and not just by coreligionists.

Cult members fear being scorned, called stupid or deemed mentally ill by the ‘outside world.’ However, how do I justify my terming of Trumpism as cult-like?

  • Cults target alienated people who have suffered some sense of loss or dislocation. * The cult then provides simple, albeit false, answers to complex (or imaginary) problems.
  • Cults subtly discourage critical thought.
  • Cults are hugely oriented towards a single person, only he knows the secrets of the world.
  • Cults seek to distort the victims’ understanding of reality with alternative facts.
  • Cults are isolating, they keep their victims’ in filter-bubbles.
  • Cults avoid individualistic expression. They speak of ‘we.’ This is because…
  • Cults are very often marked by a distinct “us” and “them” mentality. Cults tend to have an enemy.
  • Cults devalue the intellect of others without rational basis. Foes are ‘failing piles of garbage.’ A cult usually does not attempt to disprove evidence but to reject it out of hand.
  • Cults are obsessed with symbolism and pageantry.
  • Cults exhibit outwardly-directed negative emotions such as fear, hate and anger.

It should be apparent how these features apply to Trumpism.

As for the broader question of how our political system became amenable to cultish behavior, let us realize that our world has changed very rapidly.

If we look back to the world at the end of the 19th century, we see massive political, cultural and economic change due to the transition from a largely agrarian and rural to largely industrialized and urban lifestyle. This came to be known as the fin de siècle and it was marked by uncertainty, fear, malaise and pessimism as well as a rejection of rationalism and Enlightenment thinking. This perfectly set the stage for fascism. It’s also eerily familiar, no? Perhaps future historians will speak of “début de siècle.”

Now, Donald Trump is not a fascist. I know that this phrase has been bandied about and I am guilty of having carelessly used it myself. Defining “fascist” is notoriously slippery, but to my mind the core distinction between fascism and authoritarianism is the emotional investiture in the state as the embodiment of national glory and the agent of her millennial destiny. So far, this is not present. The bad news is that these elements are pretty easy to get to from where Mr. Trump is standing. The even worse news is that this is not important. It’s not actionable.

The real problem is not just that Mr. Trump is evil, but that he is IRRATIONALLY evil. It is not possible to accurately predict how he will behave.

As you may know, a huge scandal has erupted in South Korea. It has been revealed that the President, Park Geun Hye was under the thrall of a shaman-like figure who has apparently influenced government policy and has allegedly used her closeness to the President to shake down companies for “donations.” There are also other, wilder allegations.

I read an article which asserted that what truly galled Koreans was not the corruption, it is endemic and something to which they are to a degree inured but the irrationality of the corruption. Koreans realized that they could no longer dismiss allegations and rumors as “too absurd” because nothing now is too absurd. Likely, many of the hurricane of innuendos to consume the Blue House are exaggerated or false, but the comforting basis of “no rational person would…” has been swept away. There is no suggestion that Mr. Trump has fallen in with anything quite like this. (Though, upon even brief examination the religious ideology of Betsy De Vos is… terrifying.) But there is no questioning that we cannot ever dismiss anything Donald Trump threatens to do, tweets about or is rumored to be going to do with a sentence which begins “no rational person would…”

Chaos Reigns.

Consider just one small part this. Can we say “no rational person would ignore an order of the Supreme Court.” Can this sentence apply to Mr. Trump? If not, and if eventually we come to this point what happens? A Constitutional Crisis is more at this point a question of ‘what will trigger it and when and how bad?’ and not ‘will it take place?’

The Republic is at risk. This is why it is so important that we off-ramp Trumpists because we will need their help in two years. It is likely that many congressional Republicans are going along with Trumpism because they saw which way their district went and are afraid of losing their seats. Until that changes, Mr. Trump bears no credible threat of impeachment, defunding* or blocking. He knows this.

We do not need a blue-wave to put a firewall on Trump, we just need off-ramping. We just need to shift the political calculus so that Republicans find it politically advantageous to stand up to Trump.

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* Congress’ supremacy in taxation, borrowing and spending is the key. Not only can Congress refuse to authorize borrowing or taxing to fund projects, it can frustrate the president from rearranging the existing budget by passing a law prohibiting the expenditure of “appropriated funds” on anything it doesn’t want the Executive branch to do.

Donald Trump wins II

In the thirty years since the fall of Communism, we have lived in an intellectual famine. Basically, the left and right stopped developing, frozen like insects in amber. Our politics became consumed with Manichean zero-sum fables.

‘There is no Alternative,’ Margret Thatcher said, “T.I.N.A.” We came to agree with her. The right-wing historian Francis Fukuyama termed it “The End of History.”

Have you noticed how even a supposedly socialist candidate did not call for the abolition of property of markets and of normal buying and selling? That’s not socialism. It’s not even fabianism.

But the politics of fear which defined that era did not go away, rather than fear the Reds, we came to fear each other. This fear sank in and stained our minds.

I have a troubled and uneasy relationship with the American left which to me seems to have lost its teeth and mind and to have settled for a sort of economic-neoliberalism with fuzzy-edges and a penumbra of weak, arrogant thinking. Liberalism is like a cheap suit, it fits me—but poorly. It always sucks being more catholic than the pope.

The Internet and the modern media landscape have made it so easy, so natural to find only those who we agree with and to see only the information which confirms our biases.

The Left is very good at diagnosing this problem in others (Fox ‘news’, Brietbart) but cannot diagnose it in itself.

In 1972, Paulene Kael delivered a speech to the Modern Language Association in which she famously said “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” Far too many of us live in Kael’s “rather special world.”

This is a part of what went wrong.

This election reveals that the Left has utterly failed to convince people of certain things that we thought were at least the grudging consensus.

Presented with the “establishment-Left” candidate nonpariel, 58+ million people rejected capitalism-lite and more than 90 million thought the whole matter so insipid that they did not bother to vote at all (or they cast pointless ballots for 3rd party candidates.)

Yes, your math is correct: only about 25% of people voted for the man who will become President of 100% of Americans.

“There is no Alternative!” we said. Many agreed and decided to make no choice. But some said “Aha!, You are wrong! The Alternative is Trump!” And we could not answer them because they were technically right.

It seems history did not end, though we may wish it had.

Donald Trump wins I

Donald Rumsfeld (a broken clock is right twice a day, hear this out) famously spoke of the “Known Unknown,” the gap in knowledge which we are aware of and of the particular danger of the “Unknown Unknown,” that which we do not begin to realize that we do not know.

Slovenian postmodernist semi-philosopher (a broken clock is right twice a day, hear this out) Slajov Zizek spoke of the “Unknown Known”, being that which we know but but do not acknowledge knowing. The obscene, dark, Lynchian side of daily life. The hidden practices which are always on the periphery.

The news has been greeted with much popping of monocles and clutching of pearls. I have read many insincere choir-preaching, huffy Gawkery rants. I have read many sincere and humble professions of total shock.

I have heard and read so much that begins “I can’t believe…” But is that really so? Or is it, rather, that we knew but did not know we knew? “I COULD not believe…” or “I DID not believe…” One word, so much difference.

Might it not be the case that we knew far more than we knew?

Why did Bernie Sanders’ campaign fail?

Are you sure it failed? Certainly, Sanders has been precluded from being the nominee for a long time but it prevented the no-challenge Clinton coronation that everyone was afraid of. That is not to be sneezed at.

Beside, by out flanking her ideologically he has forced her into the unfortunate position of having as her best argument “I’m not Trump.”

But let’s examine some things that undermined the campaign.

  1. TOO NICE – Sanders was a remarkably civil, high-concept opponent. Not to sound cynical but that doesn’t really work in presidential politics.
  2. THE WORD SOCIALISM — There are two problems with using the word “socialism.” First is the obvious one. It’s just not true.

    Sanders is no socialist, nowhere near it. Nationalization of industry and abolishment of normal buying and selling are central and inseparable to the definition of socialism and both are conspicuously absent from Sander’s agenda. Sanders is a garden variety social democrat (which is a world of difference from “democratic socialist” a term with no accepted prior definition.) This left the unavoidable impression that Sanders was either uninformed or reaching for shock value. Neither is a good look on a presidential candidate.

    The second problem with “socialism” is that it invites false but hard to rebut comparisons to failed states such as Venezuela. What is happening in Venezuela is the inevitable result of the combination of price controls and artificially fixed currency exchange rates which encourage the normally economically irrational practice of buying things in order to export them out of the country. This has very little to do with socialism and the majority of Venezuelan industry is privately owned.

  3. WRONG PHRASING — I cannot say it enough, “income inequality” is a junk concept. To be sure, it’s a real and existential threat to the stability of our civilization in the long-term and when it entails rigging and economic fakery, which is more commonly than imagined, it is morally wrong but the problem lies in how it is termed. “Income inequality” sounds greedy and entitled. You get nowhere with that. Try talking about “dramatic collapse in upward mobility.”

    When you phrase it that way, many Sanders initiatives such as free at the point of use healthcare and higher education sound less like lazy-bum handouts and more like investments in that thing Donald Trump keeps talking about: Making America Great. The tack that Sanders and the left at large are taking is ideologically immoderate and renders cross-aisle support unlikely.

  4. IMPRACTICALITY — You don’t have to have a degree in politics to determine that there is zero chance in hell of Sanders implementing even a single plank of his platform as long as Republicans control the House and/or Senate. More likely than not they will retain the House and Senate. Sanders never articulated any idea as to how he was going to actually implement this. Rather, he embraced what is sometimes termed “whig history” – the idea of historical inevitability of progress towards certain ideas. That is to say, no action was required other than a vague “political revolution.” We all know what happened to the Whigs.
  5. TACTICAL ERROR — I admire the spirit of the comment about “your damn emails” but that was a mistake. We, voters, are obliged to consider the matter. Not necessarily because of alleged illegality per se but because of what pattern of secrecy, contempt for rules and disregard for appearances of propriety they evince.

Buzzword decoder

Here is your bubble buzzword decoder, 2016 edition:

“The Cloud” → “Some Servers”

“As-a-service” →”Outsourced”

“Gig economy” → “Piecework”

“Responsive” →”A mobile website automatically, and badly, reformatted to fit on non-mobile devices.”

“Disrupt” → “Destroy”

“Creative destruction” → “Pillaging”

“At scale” → “Monopoly pricing”

Income inequality

The left has convinced itself that prattling on about “income inequality” is the way to go. This is wrong; Americans want to be rich themselves so soaking the rich is not an attractive proposition.

It’s also too easy for the right to bat aside as “politics of envy” or something like that.

What the left really needs to do is rephrase their points to be about the “dramatic collapse of upward mobility.” Americans like upward mobility, after all, they want to be rich.

Polls show the majority of Americans believe their children will not have superior standard of living and the overwhelming majority of “middle class” adults believe their own standard of living is difficult to maintain. Most under-30s believe they already are the lost generation and have little hope for the future.

There’s your hook.

Managerese

Managerese: ”Everyone is empowered to ensure task completion.” Translation: “We can’t get him to do work either, so we’re going to blame you.”
– – – – –
Managerese: “We can’t do that.” Translation: “Too politically tricky for my pay grade.”
– – – – –
Managerese: “The customer is always right.” Translation: “I know that there customer is extravagantly wrong in this case, but I am a coward.”
– – – – –
Managerese: “My peers.” Translation: “These rivals I absolutely despise.”
– – – – –
Managerese: “The needs of the business.” Translation: “I don’t know why we are doing this either.”
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MANAGERESE: Proven methodology. TRANSLATION: We’ve turned our company’s name into a clumsy acronym.