Tuesday, December 31, 2019

nomenclature & its miscontents

Hmm. I haven't thought about it until now, but Beyond Easy is fast approaching its tenth year.

I don't want to dwell on this—but this time of year, we're all of us prone to retrospection, evaluating where we've been and what we've done since the last time we had to toss out another obsolesced calendar. Now that we're on the verge of 2020, it's hard not to extend the survey range from now back to when the sight of the "1" in the third column of the CE year was a disconcerting novelty. Updating this blog—sometimes regularly, sometimes sporadically—has been one of the few constants in what's been a decidedly tumultuous decade for me.

Almost twenty years ago(!!) I made a webcomic that a lot of people were reading, if only for a few minutes. If the counter was to be trusted, 8 Easy Bits was getting something like 700–900 daily views for a while. Nothing internet-breaking, but I wasn't pixelling in total oblivion. Now I don't do comics anymore. It's out of my system.

Then maybe fifteen years ago(!) I started writing exhaustive essays about video games. I'm still shocked by the reach those had, and how many emails I still get about them. I've given those up, too—for the most part.

Now I'm mostly writing fiction (I've got a new short story appearing in a forthcoming issue of The Southwest Review) and putting down a few thoughts here once a month or so. Let's not talk about what the page views look like on a given day.

This is to say I have no illusions of prestige. If I was ever Relevant, I hit my expiration date. Ten years ago, this would have bothered me. But at this point I'm just happy to be making the stuff I want to make and following my interests wheresoever they take me with what time is available to me.

In other words, this blog isn't going anywhere anytime soon. I don't care if blogging is passé, or if the only regular reader I have at this point is my mother, checking up on what I'm doing because I don't call often enough. (Incidentally: hi mom.) Organizing and setting down my thoughts is a valuable exercise, and the public (however unnoticed) nature of the format enforces a rigor that I'd probably fail to observe if I were just jotting down fragmentary thoughts in a journal.

Now that we've established that Relevance is not my motive concern, I'd like to rattle off some thoughts on a topic that's become most fascinating to me over the last few months: the strain of medieval philosophy called nominalism.

Still with me?

Oh well.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

some notes on superheroes: reactionaries & revolutionaries

I.

The Washington Post sometimes publishes a column by one Sonny Bunch, executive editor of the conservative Washington Free Beacon. Bunch's opinions are seldom inoffensive to right reason, and I don't ever know why I click on them. Nothing he's written has ever lingered in my recollection—with one exception. Back in January, he wrote an op-ed titled "Environmentalists make good movie villains because they want to make your real life worse." Though this would be perfectly sufficient (and perhaps preferable) as a tweet, without the nine paragraphs of redundant elaboration, let's look at a couple of excerpts:
Radical environmentalists have really been taking it on the chin at the multiplex. They are perfect villains for our times: well-intended enough to often seem somewhat reasonable, but meddlesome busybodies whose hopes and dreams are to radically reduce standards of living in order to effect some utopian scheme or another that will return the world——or worlds——to an unsullied Eden. 
Thanos, the villain (and protagonist, really) of the $2 billion-grossing megahit, "Avengers: Infinity War," was basically an omni-powered Paul Ehrlich. Driven insane by his home planet's self-immolation after a series of resource wars...Thanos used the Infinity Gauntlet...to kill half of all living things.
Again, this is Ehrlichian in its madness: The author of “The Population Bomb” argued for years that the planet is overpopulated and that famines will wipe out a significant portion of humanity. It could still happen, I suppose...but, frustratingly for the doomsayers, life on Earth keeps getting better despite the "overpopulation" our precious blue orb continues to shoulder....

Environmentalists make a useful villain because their malevolence can be obscured by a patina of reasonableness. Global warming and other manmade problems are going to end the world if we don’t do something——so just about anything is justified! But their villainy resonates with the masses because they actually do want to make life worse for people, for the most part.
Laying aside his specious remark about life on Earth getting better and better, let's grant that Bunch is the rare right-wing troll who, despite his best efforts of bad faith, puts forth the germ of a lucid and useful point amid all his self-confident boneheadedness. That point has little to do with the nagging and doomsaying of real-life environmentalists, and everything to do with the conservatism evinced in our pseudo-mythical heroes' exploits on page and screen.

Monday, October 28, 2019

AC/DC (air conditioning / digging complex)

borne ceaselessly into the future

An old episode of The Simpsons ("Homer the Vigilante," s05e11) concludes with a parodic riff on It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. A frenzied mob tears through Springfield in search of a cache of stolen riches buried at the foot of a T-shaped tree. After it becomes obvious that they've all been bamboozled, a handful of dimwittedly tenacious treasure hunters perseveres in the excavation until they've tunneled themselves to the bottom of a veritable well shaft.

"How are we going to get out of here?" Otto asks.

"We'll dig our way out!" Homer declares, and with undiminished vigor the doomed adventurers resume plying their spades.

"No, dig up, stupid!" Police Chief Wiggum reprimands them after the fade-to-black.

That was the first bit of cartoon tomfoolery I was reminded of while reading a piece in the Washington Post about how Qatar has taken to air-conditioning its outdoor spaces as anthropogenic climate change puts the thermal screws to the small (but exceedingly wealthy) Persian Gulf state:
Already one of the hottest places on Earth, Qatar has seen average temperatures rise more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial times, the current international goal for limiting the damage of global warming. The 2015 Paris climate summit said it would be better to keep temperatures "well below" that, ideally to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.... 
To survive the summer heat, Qatar not only air-conditions its soccer stadiums, but also the outdoors —— in markets, along sidewalks, even at outdoor malls so people can window shop with a cool breeze. “If you turn off air conditioners, it will be unbearable. You cannot function effectively,” says Yousef al-Horr, founder of the Gulf Organization for Research and Development. 
Yet outdoor air conditioning is part of a vicious cycle. Carbon emissions create global warming, which creates the desire for air conditioning, which creates the need for burning fuels that emit more carbon dioxide. In Qatar, total cooling capacity is expected to nearly double from 2016 to 2030, according to the International District Cooling & Heating Conference. 
And it’s going to get hotter.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

conferatur: The Human Evasion

Edvard Munch, Angst (1896)

As a supplement to the last post, I'd like to submit some excerpts from Celia Green's The Human Evasion (1969). If you were paying attention, you might have found a hyperlink to an etext of that book.

I know I've posted links and quoted excerpts of The Human Evasion before. It's a very old favorite of mine—even if I take issue with a lot of its contents, and I can't say I've ever much jived with Green's radical libertarian politics. Green is in any case an exceptionally luculent writer, and she's on point (though perhaps unduly contemptuous) where she describes humanity's "pathological" interest in itself.

Green terms this so-called pathology "the human evasion," identifying it with the psychological syndrome called "sanity." Any discussion of anthropocentrism (or "humanism," as per Hartshorne) undertaken without consulting Green's diagnostic notes would be incomplete.

Observe that Green takes as a given that reality is "inconceivable," whereas Hartshorne insists that it is (or can be made) "intelligible." I suspect Green would give Hartshorne some credit for at least thinking about reality, while criticizing the lack of imagination (or abundance of sanity) he evinces by arranging it such that it looks something like a socially concerned anthropic entity.

She wouldn't hear any disagreement out of me.


Society begins to appear much less unreasonable when one realizes its true function. It is there to help everyone to keep their minds off reality. This follows automatically from the fact that it is an association of sane people, and it has already been shown that sanity arises from the continual insertion of 'other people' into any space into which a metaphysical problem might intrude.

It is therefore quite irrelevant to criticize society as though it were there for some other purpose——to keep everyone alive and well-fed in an efficient manner, say. Some degree of inefficiency is essential to create interesting opportunities for emotional reaction. (Of course, criticizing society, though irrelevant, is undeniably of value as an emotional distraction for sane people.)

Incidentally, it should be noticed that 'keeping everyone alive and well-fed' is the highest social aim which the sane mind can accept without reservation or discomfort. This is because everyone is capable of eating——and so are animals and plants——so this qualifies magnificently as a 'real' piece of 'real life'. There are other reasons in its favour as well, of course, such as the fact that well-fed people do not usually become more single-minded, purposeful, or interested in metaphysics.

It has been seen that the object of a sane upbringing is increasingly to direct all emotion towards objects which involve other people.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Beyond Humanism

marginalia.

Over the summer I read a book that aggravated and perplexed me like no book has since I graduated from school and left compulsory reading assignments behind. Today I would like to share some of that aggravation and perplexity with you. You're welcome.

I picked up Charles Hartshorne's Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature (1937) on a whim at a used bookstore in a quaint little village ensconced behind Western Massachusetts' so-called Tofu Curtain. I'd never heard of the book before, and Charles Hartshorne wasn't a name I recognized. But if this isn't your first visit here, and if you've read at least one of my lolloping screeds against anthropocentrism, you might guess why a volume with BEYOND HUMANISM printed on its spine in bold gold letters might be an object of an impulse buy of mine.

"Humanism" may convey any number of context-dependent meanings. To someone studying the Renaissance, the word might conjure the image of an itinerant scholar-poet with a fetish for ancient Greek and Roman literature. An American history buff might think of the Thomases Paine and Jefferson. For most of us in the twenty-first century, I think the word most likely brings to mind somebody likely to mention their atheism in their Twitter bio, and who retweets Seth MacFarlane and Richard Dawkins. This is the humanist Hartshorne has in mind: a scientific/philosophical materialist who places his utmost faith in human reason and empiricism, and who rejects theistic dogma wholesale.

Humanism does not equate to anthropocentrism straightaway, though a strong correlation may be safely assumed. The humanist rejects the notion of a benevolent, intelligent, transcendent "higher power" as the outmoded vestige of primitive superstition, and contemns religious institutions as peddlers of a world- and cosmic history that have been discredited long ago. All well and good: we're probably better off not living in fear of an angry, invisible man in the clouds who intends to send us to burn forever in a dark, fiery pit should we fail to observe the rules of conduct devised by a Semitic tribe some three millennia ago. And if we're going to live here, we ought to  know with as much possible certainty where "here" is. We can do without an Earth science whose methods depend on the consultation of biblical and vedic chronologies, or doctrines that persist in placing the Earth at the center of the universe by virtue of the literature regarding divine covenants, humanity's creation in the likeness of the deity, and the presentation of a purportedly infallible and exhaustive cosmic narrative that disregards every location but the third planet from an unremarkable yellow dwarf star in a typical spiral galaxy.

Humanism, however, implicitly reinstates human beings at the center of all things. If there's no deity, no providential destiny that we and the cosmos are working together to enact, and no ghosts speaking to us from the interstices and depths of the universal mechanism, then our attention must invariably fall on those things which immediately sympathize with and interest us: human beings, their actions, their creations. The other entities sharing this spacefaring terrarium with us are regarded as significant only insofar as they are useful to us, dangerous to us, or objects of fleeting appeal that we can take pictures of in hopes of getting Instagram likes. Cosmic bodies arouse our fascination as possible sites of human activity in a spacefaring future, and as subjects of scientifically meticulous gore stories about how horribly they'd kill a person who came too close.

Hartshrone and I are pretty much in accordance here. That last paragraph is something I could have typed well before picking up Beyond Humanism, and I can't even be sure of where Hartshorne's influence might have seeped in. Let's look for a moment at Hartshorne's formulation of the issue in his own words, taken from Beyond Humanism's introduction and conclusion:
In the best sense, "humanism" is simply the expression of an interest in man; in the worst sense it is this interest become a monomania, excluding interest in anything else.
Humanist exclusiveness has two aspects: one, a narrowness of interest; the other, a doctrine which rationalizes, more or less unconsciously encourages, this narrowness. In effect, the doctrine is always a theory that the non-human portions of nature, and nature as a whole, need not interest us because they are not intrinsically interesting——however useful they may be as a means to our ends. They are interesting as a bank check is, for consequences which human behavior can cause to flow from them.

Monday, August 12, 2019

shaming racists: behavioral speculations

A few weeks back, I whiled away an hour or two of an afternoon with my friend Oli, keeping her company in the parking garage office where she sometimes works. I forget what we were discussing that prompted it, but Oli told me she's a strong believer in the virtues of shaming as a means toward changing peoples' habits for the better. She wasn't talking about dogpiling, doxxing, and death threats, but rather the basic practice of establishing a taboo and relying on members of a group to socially punish those who violate it.

I concurred with her to the extent that it can work: the example that came to my mind had to do with smoking. Nobody automatically assumes they have your permission to light a cigarette inside your car or house these days, and part of the reason for this must have to do with enough hosts sternly asking enough guests to kindly take it outside. The social group erected a boundary and enforced it by calling out infractors, eventually establishing a new standard of behavior which we observe with little need for continuous policing or squabbling.

Our conversation flindered on, with neither of us dwelling on the point. We were already in the middle of disputing at least two other topics (I enjoy talking to Oli because she's intense, and because we can argue ideas in good faith without the mood growing acrimonious) and I didn't want to swerve too far away from the matter at hand. But I did continue thinking about it afterwards.

Shaming is more often than not a palliative: it targets the symptoms of undesirable habits instead of their causes. Any educator worth his or her pension will tell you that the stick works best when paired with the carrot. By itself, punishment is a short-term solution that must be applied and reapplied and reapplied for as long as the factors responsible for the problem continue to operate—and punishment usually leaves those factors untouched.

How, then, to account for the usefulness of shaming in stopping people from stinking up your car without your permission? It works because the smoker ultimately receives a reward—a cigarette—for deferring from lighting up in a closed, shared space. In this case, the host's ire functions as a guard rail. The carrot and the stick are wielded in tandem to achieve a satisfactory result.

To see why shaming, in and of itself, is an ineffective means of social control, we need only look to current events. The ghastly spectacle of a crowd chanting "send them back" at a Trump rally in North Carolina last month (to say nothing of last week's massacre in El Paso) was all the reminder anyone should need that the United States is still sick with racism.

What has been our strategy for combating this problem? Just what Superman recommended in the late 1940s: calling out people who express bigoted sentiments.


While there have been institutional efforts at combating racist attitudes through education, diversity training, etc., the most frequently used tool in the reformist's arsenal has been shaming. Linguist John McWhorter has often said that "racist" is only slightly less toxic a label as "pedophile." Even racists, he says, are embarrassed to be called racists. And yet, white racism continues to stain the United States' social fabric. If such a widely acknowledged social ailment has not been cured, part of the reason must be an ineffective mode of treatment.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

adaptation, aesthetic, & alienation

Image result for grove
Gustav Klimt, Tannenwald (1902)

Sometimes a friend will email me a photo of a bird they spotted and ask me if I can identify it for them. More often than never I get asked about winged insect and spiders, too. Half the time I can't answer without pulling a field guide from my bookshelf, and I freely admit the fact. Still, the people neighborhood had no shortage of streets to roam; why did I visit the woods instead? An affinity for "nature" probably had little to do with it. I wanted to be alone. I didn't want anyone to see me as I paced, talked to myself, and acted out dialogues and dramas of my own clumsy invention. If and when I came to appreciate the parkland for its own sake, the mode in which I engaged with it didn't change. The woods were an ambiance. I recall few concrete details from those afternoons. There were trees and rocks. Leaves on the ground. Little green plants during the warm months and briers all year round. There were hills and a path along a creek. I couldn't discriminate one type of woody plant from any other or hear anything more significant than "tweet tweet" from the canopy, and had no interest in expanding my knowledge regarding what lived out there. I didn't touch anything. I seldom paused. I don't think I ever focused for very long on any one object I encountered. I might as well have been shambling through in my life seem to believe I have some idea of what I'm talking about when we talk about "nature." I'm not sure that's true. All I've done is try to pay attention when I go outside and occasionally take notes.

It's a fairly recent habit.

When I was a teenager, I frequently retreated to the Jackson Brook trail to take shelter from household tensions, the sturm und drang of puberty, and the despondency of public education. The a green and greybrown cloud.

Nearly a decade later, during my aimless and idle mid-twenties, I'd visit the Hidden Valley trail across town when I had a day off from Borders or the small office I worked in for a while, or if I needed a break from getting high and writing about Final Fantasy games. This was when the cloud finally began to concresce.