On reading & writing

Some days you read twenty, thirty, maybe even forty pages of hard, dense prose containing some of the most complicated, nuanced and abstract ideas the greatest philosophical minds of the present and recent past can produce… and end up feeling like you are less sure about what you yourself actually think at the end of it. Less sure of where to even begin in forming some kind of appropriate, measured and worthwhile addition. And you do this fully knowing that these same minds and thinkers have been on the exact same trajectory before you, and it changes precisely nothing about how you feel about the whole affair.

When a glitch inspires culture

This story of Microsoft Office programs’ mangling the ‘smiley face’ emoticon in emails is excellent. For some reason related to the horrible Wingdings font (yet another crime) Office programs often end up replacing smileys with a ‘J’:

I recall a story (possibly apocryphal) of somebody who regularly exchanged a lot of e-mail with Microsoft employees and who as a result started signing their own messages with a J, figuring this was some sort of Microsoft slang. The Microsoft employees who got the J-messages scratched their heads until they were able to figure out how their correspondent arrived at this fabulous deduction.

The full post has more explanation, but the idea of a glitch or a non-human computer activity infecting human culture with ‘wrong’ or ‘fabulously deduced’ cultural activity seems like a lot of fun to me. I’m struggling to come up with a similar example of a technical error being mistaken for a cultural peccadillo – obviously all technological features in the broadest sense (“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!”) can inform or even determine human behaviour, but we often infuse our explanations with the caveat that someone, somewhere intended something about the feature even if the actual results are less than perfectly predicted.

But there’s something about the origin of this glitch that sets it apart – there never was an intent behind the glitch-intoduced ‘J’. It’s not even the result of a well meaning typo missed in QA, nor is it likely the result of mental confusion, poor planning or oversight.  The glitch happened when software talked to other software and got confused.

We can deal with culture as coming form other people, and we’re getting better at dealing with it as it arises from the technologies we engage with, but even when talking about technology there is always the knowledge at the back of our mind that someone made this. In the case of our strange J-glitch, no one made it.

But perhaps we might say it “emerged” from the unforeseen interactions of systems (“You should have anticipated this, Jeff.”) but I like the idea of emergence less and less as I’ve read about theories of it. It’s too much of a kludge for me – a half-way-house between the human-oriented world of intentions and (yep) the object-oriented. The archaeology of intention and the uncovering of human plans and designs twice-and-thrice removed begins to feel extremely tired.

I didn’t mean to make this a blog post about object-oriented otology, honest!


Lefty Zeitgesity-ness

Terry Eagleton in an interview for The Oxonian Review (???) has some interesting things to say, even if the questions put to him are a bit dry (the mark of a good interviewee!):

I suppose one of the advantages of a left downturn, ironically, is that it gives you time to think around politics, not to fetishise it. Politics isn’t the be-all and end-all. I never really believed that it was, but when the left is on the ascendancy, it’s hard not to believe. So there are ironically gains from the situation at the moment that you can then begin to lay in ideas or think around the topic, and I suppose that’s partly what I’ve been doing. Not deserting politics but trying to add a depth to it, and also, in doing so, breaking with the holy trinity of class, race, and gender. Vital topics though they are, they’ve become such tram-lines on which the cultural left has been moving.

That’s pretty striking stuff, and probably too controversial for many of my fellows on the left interested in those particular three. It’s on a rising wave of this kind of sentiment I think that SR/OOO has gotten such a commanding hold.

Eagleton then gets asked about his faith and religion and he beings up a certain sort of lefty religious Zeitgeist that has been brewing for a few years, which I’ve noticed in a few things I’ve been reading in just these past few days:

I suppose it’s a certain theological mainstream that interests me, and the political implications of such. And of course that’s been coming much to the fore in the past few years. If you think of the number of agnostic and very theistic leftists from Agamben and Zizek to Habermas and Badiou, who have been raising theological themes, it’s very much part of the Zeitgeist.

On the subject of leftists embracing religious ideas, I read this review of Quentin Meillassoux’s latest book The Number and the Siren which did my head a number. I’m reading Meillassoux’s After Finitude at the moment for a PhD chapter I’m writing and think it’s so far beyond praiseworthy I don’t know where to even begin. His newest book sounds even more bizarrely mind-expanding, if you can believe it. I’m going to quote a large slab of Adam Kotsko’s review to give you a sense of the appropriate scope of Meillassoux’s weirdness:

In Meillassoux’s reading, Mallarmé is reflecting on the task of the poet in the wake of the “shipwreck” of traditional poetic form occasioned by the rise of free verse. Where he breaks with most contemporary interpreters, however, is in seeingUn Coup de Dés as part of Mallarmé’s attempt to create an artistic form that could found a modern ritual with all the power and meaning of the Roman Catholic Mass. This project centered on the composition of a liturgical poem called “the Book” that would be part of a numerologically structured ceremony of public reading.

Many critics view this ambition of Mallarmé’s as crazy and embarrassing, something that he surely got out of his system by the time he wrote his final great work. Meillassoux, however, not only claims that Un Coup de Dés is a continuation of the project of the Book, but that—thanks to Meillassoux’s own investigation, which effectively unlocks the meaning of the poem—Mallarmé has in fact actually succeeded in an achievement that could found a new poetic religion that would be secular modernity’s answer to Christianity.

Stéphane Mallarmé is, in short, a modern-day Jesus, and Meillassoux is his St. Paul.

Yes, Meillassoux (lefty, atheist intellectual) has a book out about a poet starting a new religious order. Alright, Terry – let’s ride that wave.

Submitted as further evidence of the schism between thinking and doing

Great, great, great long blog post by Crikey’s Possom Comitatus on ‘What Australians Believe‘. Just going to pull some excerpts to give you the cliff notes version. I would be willing to bet serious money that near-identical things are happening all around the western world.

The core of Possum’s findings from aggregating a metric ton of recent opinion polling data:

…we support the idea of small government, but only as a broad motherhood statement since we can’t find any area we would actually like government to become smaller in. We believe that government isn’t doing enough on public services like health, education and public transport infrastructure. We support industry assistance, we support government owning things and oppose privatisation. We believe that the economic reform program didn’t benefit ordinary Australians and that most of the benefits went to corporations. We don’t appear to have much trust in those corporations and are more than willing to regulate their activities at a higher level than we currently do, including increasing their tax burden. We also believe that labour market flexibility has mostly benefited employers and that those employers should be required to provide more permanent jobs.

Which, needless to say, flies in the absolute face of every common sense politico-media narrative you will hear anywhere today.  There are just no (loud!) voices saying anything to the contrary, and yet this is clearly what we think (albeit in an abstracted way disconnected from the day-to-day of politics).

And the stunning conclusion, which I think needs to be nailed to the door of our public democratic institutions, Martin Luther style:

What comes out from this broad snapshot is that what Australians believe about the role of government in our society and economy isn’t necessarily what our institutions believe or practice, and probably hasn’t been for a while. Our beliefs as a country are certainly far removed from many participants in the national debate that pretend to speak on behalf of our population and on behalf of our interests.

Whatever the faults, foibles or otherwise of these national beliefs… our national debates on the role of government in our society and economy are becoming increasingly isolated from what the majority of the country actually believes.

Our national debates need more participants and institutions talking with and to the public, acknowledging what they believe, explaining the increasing complexity of the world and bringing the population along with them in the debate through persuasion. What we have now – a political system struggling to be heard calmly, institutions talking among themselves and a bunch of vested interests shouting and threatening everything that moves – let alone a media unsure of how to be a constructive participant anymore – it will only end in grief.

There’s plenty more that I could add about the difference between what people say when polled and how they actually vote come election day, but the same theme appears – substantive engagement with ideas has long since dried up in favour of personality politics, with the result turning our national elections into contests between increasingly furious contenders.

And as if you needed more evidence that now is precisely the time we should be re-organising our world to deal with and engage the significant threats posed by climate change, etc. here’s David Roberts at Grist talking about “Getting used to being in charge of the planet.” At present, those in charge are increasingly distracted, and distrusted, by a public that knows they’ve long since given up on involving them in the process of politics.

At least the problem seems to be more “out in the open” than it was even a year ago. Whatever benefit that may be…

Internet comments and the “candid clarifier”

There is a kind of response that happens in some internet comments sometimes – I’m going to call it the ‘candid clarifier’.

If the piece of writing is in anyway even mildly controversial it will invariably provoke at least one, probably several, of what I call the ‘candid clarifier’ comment. This type of comment will often say things like “Yes, but…” or “That may be true, but also…” and end up stating trivial (and often unspoken) omissions in a rote and mechanical way, as though clarity were somehow achieved by piecing together bite-size ‘facts’ and by seeing from all directions. Reminiscent of the journalistic “view from nowhere”, this commenter behaves as though seeing all perspectives at once were not only valid, but as if that decision itself were not a discursive (and often distracting!) tactic.

Being an earnest, candid clarifier is one of the most banal, perhaps even damaging ways one can contribute to a discussion online – if it even is contribution.