synthetic zero

October 31st, 2009

Watching old Cary Grant movies on Roku/Netflix makes me think about the odd realignment of what people think of as “snobbery” in America; time was, films depicted the sophisticated, urban American as upper class, wealthy, with a Republican, patrician manner. And voting patterns matched this; rural white people were willing to vote in large numbers for Democrats (at least in some elections) as recently as Jimmy Carter. Now, however, TV, movies, blogs, etc., depict “snobbish” urban Americans as upper middle class (instead of upper class), liberal, and Democratic, and the rural poor have, strangely, aligned themselves with the party of the wealthy.

Of course, well-educated urban areas have always been more liberal, but it’s strange that the term “snob”, which people used to apply primarily to the conservative upper class now seems to be applied primarily to the educated urban middle class.

What happened? I’m not entirely sure, but I have some ideas. In the 60’s, Ivy League schools dramatically expanded their financial aid programs; this changed, for example, Harvard’s student body from predominantly wealthy to predominantly middle- to upper-middle class; this expansion of affordability of the school was correlated with an increase in average test scores: these schools became smarter and more middle-class. With this shift came a shift in the perception of the “elite”: as the typical Ivy League student became more middle class, middle class aesthetics, dress, and manners became, oddly enough, more symbolic of being part of this elite. When I was in college, most of my classmates dressed casually, almost self-consciously trying to avoid appearing stereotypically patrician, and even my classmates from wealthier backgrounds tended to hide this fact, for the most part. You can see this shift in perception very clearly in Whit Stillman’s hilarious depiction of the fading pre-college debutante scene in Metropolitan, in which upper class, Ivy League-bound teenagers subtly but unmistakably begin to recognize the passing from dominance of their class, and its replacement with a newer, smarter, more successful group of people from “normal” backgrounds. But even as Ivy League students began to shift their perceptions, so too did the public at large; the word “elite” no longer applies to the super wealthy so much as the well-educated, bright, urban populations of the coasts.

At the same time, of course, the Republican Party shifted its rhetorical strategy. In an attempt to find a way to gain popular appeal, the party came up with a strategy based on various powerful populist ideas; freedom, small government, but in addition, as a way of appealing to at least some of the rural poor, they started to champion small-minded religious fundamentalism. Although the poor still votes primarily Democratic, the rural white poor now votes Republican; a historic and rather odd shift. What the Democrats have failed to recognize is they need to clearly articulate that Republican policies are not about freedom so much as they are about lack of accountability; they’re not about increasing the freedom of the public, they’re about decreasing public scrutiny of what large corporations are doing. However, something strange happened along the way; old Establishment Republicans lost control, to a large extent, of the party they built; and the rural poor, who outnumber them, have largely taken over. Ironically, this caused a large number of former Establishment Republicans to vote Democratic in the last election; it’s hard to know whether this is a harbinger of a permanent realignment of the wealthy elites with the liberal “elites”, reunifying the Ivy League with the upper classes, or if this was a one-time phenomenon which we’ll see reversed in future elections. Unless the Democrats find a new populism, however, the “elite coastal snob” moniker may continue to hurt Democratic attempts to reach out to the heartland.

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October 29th, 2009

I’m not sure if the structure of my desire is similar or different from other people, but one thing I’ve long noticed is that I desire others not only for their own desirability to me, but based on their desire for me. This isn’t to say I haven’t desired people who haven’t seemed to be interested in me overtly; but I certainly only desire people who I think harbor some regard for me, whether it is overt or I imagine it to be covert. Desire is a necessary, though not by itself sufficient, condition for me to desire in return; and when I discover or realize that their desire is insufficient, that’s when my desire drops or disappears entirely. It’s as though the fact that someone is interested in me is itself a quality I admire; I literally think, if this person doesn’t desire me, then they’re not the sort of person I want. Perhaps that’s a rather egotistical or solipsistic element to my desire, but this happens at some level below conscious thought, so there’s not much I can do about it. But it’s also, I suppose, that a large component of my desire is how I imagine making the other person feel, how I imagine giving them happiness — it turns me on to think about the other person being turned on; without that, what’s the point? So there are both egotistical and generous components to this.

As for my own opinion of myself: I suppose I think of myself as very desirable, but I also think only certain people can really appreciate that, and I (involuntarily) reserve my desire for them.

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October 29th, 2009

Magda O writes about porn:

Sometimes I feel like I am the only person in the world who doesn’t watch porn. I don’t watch porn because I haven’t found any porn I enjoy and I really really want to watch porn!

I wrote a comment on that post which I will repeat here, with a few edits:

I’ve always loved looking at pictures of beautiful, naked women, and so I thought porn would be a natural extension of this; but when I finally saw what people think of as porn (movies, videos) I found it as utterly unarousing as watching a nature show. Though I am a man, for me, the mental element of seduction is essential; with still images I can create that element for myself, but with video or film, that element is typically replaced by an incredibly banal plot combined with what seem to me to be clinical pictures of the mechanics of sex both of which are, for whatever reasons perhaps peculiar to me, incredible turnoffs.

Even when I find myself fantasizing about women around me on the bus or subway, I have to say I don’t immediately jump to the mechanics of sex, but I start to imagine a world where the two of us become lovers in multiple dimensions, including the sexual. Perhaps one could say that my sexual fantasies always seem to involve a romantic or at least a seduction component, and perhaps that sets me apart from most men — and it certainly places me outside the market for most porn.

This is not to say I don’t find any films or videos arousing — I do, but they’re usually not porn videos. It has to have some element of seduction, of intrigue, of persuasion, perhaps.

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October 28th, 2009

I went to see MeKaniKdolls perform tonight at the Sapphire Lounge, a cozy little bar in Soho just off of Houston. They (Jess Ramsay and Seyhan Musaoglu) combine electronic/experimental/noise/music and performance using electronic devices which allows Seyhan to modulate and produce sound correlated with her body movements; they also often include film projection and other multimedia elements, though not at this performance. I’ve always loved, for some reason, this sort of experimental/noise/improvised music; for me it means something that can takes one beyond boundaries, outside the outlines of the room, the shadows of our skin, even past ordinary time, yet it is also concrete, embodied; particularly when combined with body movement/sensors which allow physical movement to correlate with the sound. Their work reminds me a little of my friend Atau Tanaka’s work with Sensorband.

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October 18th, 2009

Orion asked us to give her our crazy thoughts on 2012, so here is my theory.

The world already ended in 2000. We’re living in a vast virtual reality simulation created in the far future by the descendants of the few survivors of the Great Y2K Apocalypse to imagine what would have happened had, contrary to all predictions, nothing much happened when the computers rolled over to the year 00.

The creators of this simulation decided they wanted to fuck with us (the simulated inhabitants), of course… so they’ve thrown in all sorts of crazy, inconceivably improbable events into our simulation, things too ludicrous to have credibility, hoping that some of us will “wake up”, once we realize that our “reality” is far too fantastical and unrealistic to be believed — i.e., Bush v Gore, hanging chads, the World Trade Center destroyed by terrorists wielding box cutters, then, contrary to all reason, we wage war against a country that had nothing to do with said destruction, etc., etc… culminating (so far) with a black man being elected President of the United States, and, of course, now, balloon boy.

So what happens in 2012? Whatever the hell the programmers want to happen to us. It is going to be damn good, though, and even more fantastic than what has already happened since 2000; because I think they’ve got a competition going on between them to top each other with each successive absurdity.

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October 14th, 2009

One thing I wanted to clarify about my “bad boys” post, yesterday; I said that I don’t do things for people because I want to be “nice” — which is true. But I do things for people, all the time, and I find it very satisfying. It’s not that I don’t feel sympathy for people at all; like most people, I feel sympathy and affection for people (and in the case of romantic love, I feel tremendous emotion and passion, see below); but I don’t do things for other people for that reason, for the most part; it doesn’t play a large role in my motivational structure. What motivates me is something else — an aesthetic sense of flow, of what feels right, of trying to reduce waste, of wanting to help create something beautiful and interesting in the world. Helping people, attending to the needs of others (while not, of course, ignoring my own), strikes me as simply the most sensible way to live. So while I am not strongly motivated by any feelings of sympathy I might feel, I am strongly motivated to help others in many situations.

This may sound rather cold; in a way, it is, but as I said before it’s not that I don’t feel things for others; I do, of course, especially people close to me. But the reason I think I act this way is that it’s a kind of impartiality; that is, if someone does something bad to me, so I would have reason to dislike them — that doesn’t mean I will then try to “get back” at them. Unless there’s some reason why I should do something about it (i.e., the person is harming others so I need to intervene in order to stop that, etc.), I tend to simply withdraw my help or support, etc., as I wrote below — but even that isn’t done in anger, it’s simply because I am going to turn towards other parts of the universe (people, etc.) where I think I can be more effective or helpful, where I won’t have to fight against the tide, so to speak. However, even if someone has slighted me or otherwise attacked me, I might still help them if I think that help is necessary or useful at that moment.

In ancient times there was a proscription against samurai killing in anger; if one kills someone (which is a terrible act, of course), you should do it not because of anger, but because you are forced to, in some sense. I think the same applies to my sense of helping others; I don’t do it because I feel sympathy, even if I do, but because I feel it is aesthetically beautiful, it contributes to the world, it makes sense, it fits. And I’d do it even if I don’t like you.

Love is something else, on the other hand — I love with tremendous passion and emotion. Love seems to me to be something different from compassion as I’m defining compassion, above; it’s a domain where feeling and sentiment are very important. Love is not just a matter of aesthetic beauty, it’s very particular, it’s about the unknowable, mysterious Other, someone in your life who is both inseparable from you and yet radically unknowable in their entirety, it’s not comprehensible, it’s not necessarily practical or logical. I don’t really have a theory about love or why it seems to be a place where feeling is both paramount and seems to me to be necessary; but it is somehow different from the case of compassion, for me. So, in a way, I don’t think of love and compassion as the same thing; romantic love is a kind of insanity, but a necessary, wonderful one; compassion is an expression of beauty, of interdependence, of interconnectedness, but for me is less about feeling than about natural expression of existential reality.

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October 13th, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently about the notion of “nice guys” vs “bad boys” or “dangerous” men as it plays out in Western culture, or at least in, say, North American culture, because that dichotomy has never made sense to me, intuitively, despite the fact that I was born and grew up in the US. This came home to me when I was on the plane the other day watching the forgettable teen flick “I Love You Beth Cooper” about a valedictorian who, for some reason, is in love with the head cheerleader, who, aside from being pretty, doesn’t seem to have much going for her. Watching this guy I was struck both by how I identified with some aspects of the lead character (nerdy, intellectual, considerate, etc.) and found other aspects totally unfamiliar (nervousness, awkwardness, inability to execute his plans, clumsiness, fear in the face of physical threat, not to mention atrocious taste in women.) This movie really epitomizes the ways in which the typical nice guy/bad boy dichotomy never made sense to me.

It’s not that I don’t have a weak/strong duality in my mind — it’s just that it looks very different. My version of it draws, I think, more from Japanese culture, and it relates a bit to the difference between Japanese ideas about the relationship between power and virtue, and Western ideas of the same. In the West, there’s a sort of presumption that to be “good” is to be somehow a bit of a sap; being good is sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others, not being willing to do what it takes to get ahead, and so on. People have to be threatened by a vengeful God in order to act in a virtuous way; without that threat, the idea is that you would act selfishly and crassly.

In the East, and particularly in Japanese culture, however, the idea is a bit different. Instead of a meek saint, you have the image of a Zen master or a samurai warrior. A samurai is not someone you’d want to fuck with, he’s someone who could kill you in a second without a second thought if he needed to, and someone who could easily crush the average asshole, yet whatever motivates the samurai isn’t selfishness. Selfish people, on the other hand, are seen as weak (because they are); selfishness provides many targets for manipulation, for being open to getting conned, it’s a weakness, with even an air of the pathetic. In the West, selfishness is seen as an advantage; in the East, particularly in Japan, it’s a weakness. The most paradigmatic insult in Western culture is to call someone an asshole; in Japanese culture, you call someone an idiot (bakatare) — because being selfish (an asshole) isn’t seen as the primary vice, it’s ineptitude that’s the vice.

In the end, I think of the Western idea of nice guy vs bad boy as a sort of unevolved notion; that is, a samurai is basically an “advanced” bad boy. In the end, in other words, I am on the side of the bad boys, because I myself am not someone who is motivated by sentiment or by sympathy for people in the ordinary sense; I don’t do things for people because I feel their pain or am trying to be “nice”. Beneath my apparently nice exterior is actually a fairly ruthless person, just like my samurai ancestors. But I’m not out to get you, or anyone else, because, unlike the asshole bad boys out there, I find the notion of working primarily for your own selfish ends to be quite simpleminded, an easy way to get taken advantage of, a vulnerability, and a form of ineptitude. If you really examine the world, the way things work, and you really do your best to find a way to live in the world in the most effective way possible, then the idea of being primarily selfish makes no sense, it’s stupid and constraining, and it leads to failure and loss in the long run, because it’s based on the false notion that we can be separated out from everything around us. It’s a weakness in the most direct sense: because it’s based on a limited perspective, nine times out of ten, the selfish person is going to be defeated by the unselfish, but not meek, strong, together person.

The samurai personality does share some traits with the bad boys of Western culture: we do think of ourselves as the alpha male (or in the case of women, the alpha female), the top dog, in most situations. It’s an egotistical stance, of course, but there’s an egalitarian component to it: it’s not that we think that we’re on top and everyone else has to be “below” us by virtue of our birth, or something — everyone has the potential to be great, everyone could be great if they woke up to their full potentiality, their full dimensionality. And it has a humble aspect, because in this same world view we recognize that there are other people who have it together, or even more so (our comrades, the ones we “fight” alongside, as well as the people who agree to be our spouses, or our teachers, our parents, etc.) The fact, however, that the samurai personality or the Zen master may be considerate and honorable doesn’t, however, make them akin to the “nice guys” of Western culture. However much we want to acknowledge the true potential of all people, there is, for better or worse, an arrogance about us, which takes the following form — unlike, perhaps, the Western “bad boy” who might demand respect, in an odd way, the samurai simply withdraws their respect (or our support, or our desire) from those who don’t respect them. We withdraw from those who don’t recognize what is really going on: if someone mistakes consideration for weakness, that person simply gets to be free from what we might have offered to them. We are arrogant, but unless you attack us or other people we’re trying to help, the worst we’ll do to you is withdraw what we’d offered, whether it’s help, support, desire, love, or whatever else.

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October 6th, 2009

After a lot of travel finally back in New York, which means, finally back online more regularly. While I was travelling I kept my internet usage primarily to working, a little bit of IM, Facebook, and Twitter, but generally speaking spent less time online than usual. This was great in a lot of ways; yesterday I explored Lava Canyon near Mt. St. Helens in the afternoon, and it was a wonderful adventure… lots of dramatic lava rock formations that have been exposed by a powerful mudflow caused by the 1980 explosion/eruption of Mt. St. Helens; so strange to explore a canyon which basically was covered by soil and trees up until less than 20 years ago… and on that hike I had no connection to the internet at all.

But now I’m finally back in New York for an extended period, and in a way it’s kind of a relief to be here in my familiar, beautiful loft, and able to just relax and be at home — but also to be back “home”, online.

On a different note… I realized recently that I have a lot of capacity to accept situations, when I have some idea why people are behaving the way they are; but when I don’t understand, it’s very difficult for me to let things go. It’s as though I need to have an idea what it is I’m accepting before I can really accept it. Yet, once I have an idea what the situation is, how people feel, etc., I can accept nearly anything. I suppose I just need to really feel that there’s nothing I have left undone, nothing I ought to do that I haven’t tried; if nothing can be done, then so be it: I can live with it.

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