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.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

thump thump thump skreeech

Paul Klee, Irrung auf Grün (1930)


This would be the web-logger's correlative to the orator's nightmare of fidgeting at the podium, squinting into the darkness beyond the stage lights and awkwardly tapping the microphone.

Is this thing on? Is anybody out there? When did I lose control of my life?

Perhaps you've noticed there's been some downtime around here. If so—good for you. Not only are you still pausing to read a blog in the frenetic age of YouTube, Twitch, and Instagram, but you're checking one that hasn't been updated in six months. Your fidelity to a down-and-out scribbler and his moribund media format is a comfort and an assurance in these distracted, inconstant times. Keep watching the horizons for sails, friends.

I let the domain expire. Not because I intended to hang it up, but because I'm an idiot who didn't pay the bill on time. Well, I sent Google its fifteen dollars and it looks like things are back to normal around here.

You may remember at the start of 2019 I said I'd be trying to update more. You and I should have both expected half a year of silence to ensue: saying "I'm going to write in my blog more often" on New Year's is more often than not a declaration that you'll be closing the shutters and taking a very long nap, in spite of your intentions. It's like a jinx.

My only excuse for my inactivity around here—except for "I'm busy" and "funny how a day job becomes a job, am I right?"—is that I'm still allotting most of my productive leisure time and creative faculties to a third novel. No matter how many times you enact the process, you're certain to grossly underestimate how long it will take, how crazy it will make you, and how feverishly horrible it will be. But you've heard this all before. Haven't you?


This would be me tapping the microphone and wincing as the feedback stabs through the dim auditorium.

Well, let's touch base.

1.) I'm still living in Philadelphia. My roommate now is the lovely and talented Madalyn, whose illustrations and paintings can be gazed at and admired on her Instagram*. For my own part, I'm taking an indefinite leave from drawing comics. If you've been paying attention to this sort of thing, you probably guessed as much from the January 2017 date stamp on Comics Over Easy's front page.

Here's the issue: I'm probably left-handed, but during my pre-K years I was rigorously taught to grip a pencil in my right hand. This means that my wrist never quite does what my brain wants it to do. My circles look like round squares. I am incapable of drawing a straight line on the first try. When I was drawing more regularly, I assumed that I'd improve with time if I kept at it. I no longer believe that to be the case. It takes me five hours of drawing and erasing and drawing and erasing to put together something that an illustrator like Madalyn can whip up in thirty minutes. Even little people made out of shapes require an inordinate amount of time to make presentable, and I reached a point where I had to accept that my illustration capabilities have plateaued. I'm not going to get much better or faster, and the amount of time it takes to make a single comic that can be read in twenty seconds is more than I can viably commit. I'm gonna keep the comics page up just so it's there, but it's probably good as fossilized.

*Hm. "Her Instagram page?" "Her Instagram feed?" "Her Instagram profile?" Or is it just "her Instagram?" I don't know what the accepted usage is anymore. At any rate, it's funny that you can scarcely point to an illustrator's repository of work without invoking a brand name. Not "her site," "her online portfolio," "her blog." Her Instagram, her Tumblr, her Pinterest. In the future even our limbs and organs will be proprietary.

2.) Earlier in the year a (long) short story of mine called "Diogenes" appeared in the eleventh volume of Dark Alley Press's Ink Stains anthology. Sorry to say it's behind a paywall, but it's only four bucks if you have some means of reading Kindle books

3.) Remember when I used to write longform articles about Final Fantasy games? Well, I've been at it again. Though I'd prefer not to discuss how it came to this, I'd be happy to link you to a short novel about Final Fantasy Tactics Advance if that's the sort of thing you get your kicks from. But if you've already played this dreadful game once in your life, you're probably better off not wasting any more time on it.

4.) Speaking of games. Though I seldom play video games these days, I haven't become some kind of fuddy-duddy ascetic who doesn't know how to have fun anymore. I have lots of fun. Why, during a recent visit to the Great Swamp National Park I invented a game that I like to call "Frogger." Play begins when you're out in the wetlands and you hear the distinctive squealing and plipping of amphibians diving into the water to escape the carnivorous ape loping their way. What you do then is approach the pool's edge and stand perfectly still. You win the game if you can trick at least one of the little fellas into believing the coast is clear and peeking its head out above the water line. Standing still for such a long time isn't easy, but the real challenge kicks in when the mosquitoes start perforating your flesh as the sun pounds on the back of your neck and the sweat from your brow seeps into your eyes. But the frogs win if you give up and move on without spotting any of them. In most cases, the instant you bestir yourself you'll hear the yelping and plopping of at least five frogs that emerged without you noticing. Well played, muckdwellers!

Nobody wants to play "Frogger" with me. My friends and family have been citing it as evidence that I'm "getting worse."

5.) Last week my therapist asked me how I was doing. "Fine, I guess," I answered. Then I asked if any of her other patients report ineluctably feeling as though the ground is slowly and silently collapsing beneath everybody's feet, and find themselves vacillating between trusting their senses and panicking or taking a cue from the people around them and continuing about their business as though the world isn't imploding, overheating, spinning out of control, and jerking itself off to death.

She suggested that I've had enough shit happen to me during my adolescent-to-adult life that I'm uncomfortable with things being pretty okay and am unable to convince myself that there's not another shoe waiting to drop. I think she might be gaslighting me.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Auld Lang Syne

As in "been a while." Pertinence to the date is an added bonus.

In spite of enjoying the principal benefit of having no audience—owning nobody an explanation—I should like to account for my absence these last few months, even though there's not much to say.

Some time ago I mentioned working on a longform fiction piece. It's still underway, and it's been my exclusive creative focus. (A file-naming snafu forced me to go back and redo almost two months' worth of work, but the less said about that, the better.) It's still some ways away from being finished, but progress is being made. I wish this were a world where I could write unmonetizable blog content in the morning and then work on a novel that no imprint wants in the evening, all while being able to afford to pay my grocer and rentier—but it is not. I've had to prioritize.

But: lately I've been reading Roland Barthes' Mythologies, and it's given me an itch to return to this format.

For a long time now, an impediment to getting this thing updated at all was not having any kind of regular schedule. For the time being, I'm going to try to produce one post per month. However short or long it is, the post of the month will be substantive and written with forethought.

Elsewhere, I am attempting something I've never done before: going to bed early and getting up early. As in conking out at 10:00 PM and rising at 5:00 AM. For the last couple of years, my writing routine has been:

1.) Come home from work.

2.) Decompress for a couple hours.

3.) Attempt to write, despite fatigue and the demotivational effects of decompression. Procrastinate for at least an hour.

4A.) If unable to write: go to bed in a bad mood.

4B.) If able to write: bang out some pages, stay up too late, be miserable the following morning and probably unable to write the next evening.

Perhaps getting up at the crack of dawn and spilling my ink before going to work will be a more productive way of going about it. We'll see.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Brief: mendings & metaphors

Hedden Park in Morris County, New Jersey consists of 389 acres of forest—predominately maple, beech, and witch hazel. Many years ago, during my awkward youth, it was a favorite after-school wandering place; in my awkward adulthood I came to frequent Hidden Valley.

These woods took a savage pounding when Hurricane Sandy rolled through in 2012. During my first visit home after the storm, the trunks fallen over the trails and gaping holes in the canopy were disheartening sights indeed. The most concentrated area of devastation lay on a hillside where every standing tree within an area of about half an acre was knocked over. Looking at it though an elevated distance (it lies in a depression within sight of a trail) was like looking out over the cusp of an impact crater. Seeing into the clearing from the path was (and still is) difficult—the dense shrubs and creepers prevent walkers from getting close unless they're prepared to crawl through the dirt and suffer the briers. All that's visible is the evidence of a rupture in the treescape.

Four days ago, on a different trail than I usually take, I followed a line of flattened weeds up the hill and found myself inside the hollow.

Here's what it looks like now: ecological succession at work.

I'm certain this image would deliver a greater impact with a "before" picture preceding it. We'll just steal one from a (serendipitously relevant) Atlas Obscura article to get an idea of what this scene would have looked like in October 2012.

In conversation I heard myself likening the scene to scab tissue forming over a wound—and immediately regretted it.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

the pristine, the natural, & the anthropogenic, pt. 1

Frederic Edwin Church, El Rio de Luz (1877)

There's a certain cast of person I've met—he tends to be a somewhat overweight grad student or adjunct humanities professor with a stubbly neck—whose lip curls slightly when I tell him about my interest in conservation and wilderness preservation. I give him credit for listening, at least: usually when I grouse to a stranger about land-use policy and diminishing biodiversity or share my frustration with our inadequate conceptions of "nature," a visible frost accrues on their corneas. But after hearing me out for a minute, this sanguine fellow raises a finger to remind me that "pristine" spaces in the world are a cultural fiction, adducing theorists like Baudrillard and scientific studies. He's eager to cite a 2017 piece in The Atlantic which summarizes the findings (published in the journal Science) of an exhaustive, cross-disciplinary inquiry into the natural history of the Amazon rainforest:
For more than a quarter-century, scientists and the general public have updated their view of the Americas before European contact. The plains and the Eastern forests were not a wilderness, but a patchwork of gardens, they’ve found. The continents were not vast uninhabited expanses but a bustling network of towns and cities. Indigenous people, we’ve learned, altered the ecology of the Americas as surely as the European invaders did. 
For more than 8,000 years, people lived in the Amazon and farmed it to make it more productive. They favored certain trees over others, effectively creating crops that we now call the cocoa bean and the brazil nut, and they eventually domesticated them. And while many of the communities who managed these plants died in the Amerindian genocide 500 years ago, the effects of their work can still be observed in today’s Amazon rainforest.... 
[C]ultivation eventually altered entire regions of the Amazon, the study argues. Levis and her colleagues found that some of these species domesticated by indigenous people—including the brazil nut, the rubber tree, the maripa palm, and the cocoa treestill dominate vast swaths of the forest, especially in the southwest section of the Amazon basin....
Some geographers, anthropologists, and indigenous people have all rejected the idea that the Americas were an untouched wildernessthe pristine myth,” as they call this tale—since the early 1990s. (Fifteen years ago, it was the topic of 1491, Charles C. Mann’s article in The Atlantic, later a best-selling book.) But this paper further belies that myth in one of the most biodiverse places in the continent, suggesting that humans did not just farm in the Amazon but helped determine some of its major ecological communities.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

excerpt #1: Montesquieu

Alfred Bendiner, Coffee (1936)

Some months ago I read The Persian Letters (1721), Montesquieu's seminal faux-naïf epistolary novel about expatriates from Isfahan settling in Paris and trying to figure out French society. It is at once a vehicle for the author's humanist beliefs, a series of satirical episodes, and an uncomfortable cautionary tale about patriarchy. What we'll be looking at today are some passages from the letters written by the character Rica, who of all the emigres goes the furthest in assimilating to French society and is the most eager to explore the city, converse with the locals, and issue sardonic reports on what he discovers. (To give credit where it's due, the edition from which these were stol'n was translated by Margaret Mauldon.)

In the following excerpt, substitute in your mind the coffee shop wits debating Homer with YouTubers, bloggers, and comments-section dwellers arguing about video games. The academics and students who "live on obscure reasoning" in the final paragraph can still be academics and students; just imagine they are dressed differently.
Coffee is widely drunk in Paris: there are a great many public establishments where it is served. In some of these establishments news is disseminated; in other, people play chess: there is one place where coffee is prepared in such a manner as to sharpen the wits of those who drink it; at any rate, of those who emerge from there, not a single one fails to be convinced that he is four times cleverer than he was upon entering.