Sunday, September 16, 2007


When psychologists with 6 volt batteries and a stable of monkeys they didn't mind torturing figured out that there was classic "stimulus/ response" and that some rewards were better than others, we were all screwed. The psychologists might have claimed noble motives more than Nobel motives, but what they had discovered was why we gamble. Needless to say, the gambling palaces have since been the hungry beasts sucking from all the addiction scholars. Every time someone studies "what makes suckers into victims," the golden palaces read it and try to use the research to make more suckers into dependents. Let's face it: if you, Mr. Common Good Psychologist, find out that payouts at exactly 8.6% are associated with the most addicted gamblers, the casinos are going to change their slot machines and tables to offer a payout of 8.6%. If you think anything else will happen, then you are the sucker.

Today is Sunday, and Sunday is the Christian sabbath and the first day of the week. That seems fitting, to me. (Christians, by the way, are not let off the hook about the sabbath, but most of my co-religionists think they are -- if they even realize that Saturday is the 7th day.) The service today coincided with something I've been thinking about. From Collect to readings to sermon, the subject was forgiveness and sin. That's not the usual thing in my denomination. We're a more light hearted lot than the ranters. However, I've been thinking for a long time about a particular basic human desire and how it leads to the other addictions and mistakes.

The myth of perfectibility is one of the most important functional truths of our lives as individuals and our agglutinations as societies. Don't get me started about perfectibility and Original Sin. (Really: don't. I'm semi-pelagian. That will come up later, probably.) No, not that, but the binary concept of ultimate depravity vs. perfectibility goes through all recorded history, both western and otherwise. How bad are you? How much of that is inevitable? Is it possible to be better? What is better?

Should I break this into pieces?

Start with the obvious: the hope of amelioration is necessary for motion itself. If you don't think things are better over there than here, then you're not moving. If you don't think that you'll be better off with the pay than without it, you're not working. If you don't think that your bodily desires are better with a partner than without, you're not sacrificing for one. In other words, movement in all our senses is motivated by dissatisfaction and the hope of improvement. Additionally, parenting is all about better. It is largely what learning is about, as well. We waste time talking about unconscious things, though. The sort of better that is pathological is the sort that has as its end point the perfect.

You gamble because it's fun, but you keep gambling because there is enough regularity that you believe you can master the game and enough chance that you never can. You keep beating at Wikipedia because it seems like you have a real chance at a fair game and can make a perfect entity. The success of Wikipedia, in particular, is related to this hope of perfecti
on. Why would the author of the article on the Death Cap mushroom write it on Wikipedia? Is it that this kind of above-journalism and below-specialist prose has no journalistic home in a contemporary Life Magazine? Is it because print encyclopedias would never allow such a contributor who was not a professional myconologist? Perhaps both of those things are true. Perhaps, also, it is true that we have more competent writers alive today than ever in the past, that we lack journals and paper enough for all the good writing. However, there is something else involved. The print encyclopedias are a rigged game, in most people's minds. They demand superbly qualified writers and then demand that they write at a superficial level. The person who is a true expert on fungi is not going to be strained, except negatively, by trying to write a general, "I Am Joe's Bad Shroom" article. At the same time, the people who have a skill for gathering up a hundred details and writing a compact narrative will have no access to the print editions. Furthermore, the author may think that the print piece is requiring an artificiality: the permanent record.

You see, what Wikipedia actually offers its authors is a double hook: instantaneous gratification and the mirage of perfectibility. First, it lets the person get "in print" instantly. Like the slot machine, there is the sound of spinning wheels, the flash of lights, the aroma of a chair cushion that is well worn and deeply imbued, and then a "ping" as the article appears. However, it also provides the intellectually defensible position that there is no permanent truth and that, therefore, it is more reliable and useful to the world to offer up an article that is cont
inually in revision and perpetually sliding toward perfection than it is to write a draft, mail it off to the encyclopedia, and then see it in print three years later.

Wikipedia is thus a very Catholic form of perfection. It is the gamer's encyclopedia. Like a video game, it promises infinitely growing mastery and infinitely nearing perfection. Plato suggests the basis of his belief in the singular god in Timaeus, where he gets it from, of all things, the number line and the great Lambda. The thing is, his perfection -- his god -- is an infinite zero. It is the wholly self-contained perfection that never moves, never does anything. It is all being and no existence, because existence is inherently imperfect. When you get nearer to perfection by following along an eternal scale, you repeat Plato's regression to zero, and your only consolation is that you know that you'll never get there without winking out of existence.

You can aim for perfection of the "prevenient grace" sort, where the perfect finds you and overwashes your imperfections, or you can go for the work-for-it grace, where grace just tells you you really should start cleaning up your act. This distinction, tied as it is to the concept of total depravity of mankind, is reflected in the sorts of habitual vs. conscious attempts at perfectibility that hook people. On the one hand, you can desire the whole person makeover of a new screen identity -- this time one with friends and good looks and body image -- or by becoming king of the discussion board or top posted feeb at Slashdot. You can take up the challenge of really, really, really, really knowing your omphalos, or you can feel the perfection coming on you as you eat another lettuce leaf instead of french fry. Diets are a form of perfectibility, and so are meditation courses. There is the perfection of enlightenment and the perfection of education, the perfection of rebirth and the perfection of mastery. However, what is critical, what is vital, what is most hidden and yet most central to all forms of human perfectibility in existence is that they must not work.

Remember: gamblers give the casino their all because they get random rewards, because there must be the appearance of an even game and yet the impossibility of ever getting a even break. Wikipedia has generated "wikiholics," just as Slashdot did before it (slashdotters, of course). These things follow on late from the unlamented CB radio, which rests in an empty tomb of its own. CB was the first to give us all "handles" and fun rendezvous with hookers and outsized personalities that bore no connection to our own. It offered up that new you with a simple investment long before the www came along. None of this can work, though.

Think for a moment. Really, do. What would happen if the implied promise were made good upon? If you could win at blackjack with a simple guide, there would be no more games. If you can have a perfect Wikipedia article, then all of those people eager to be just like you will have to be shooed away. If you can have a new life with your screen name, then everyone else must, too. If you can be the life of the party and the honored and beloved hero, then there won't be any admiring crowds, because they'll be the heroes, too.

If you hit the perfect, you wink out of existence and join Plato's infinitely regressive zero.

This kind of perfectibility is both unworthy of the effort and an addiction that will drain, rather than fulfill you. On the other hand, there is sufficiency, activity, and power in grace because, as I said above, it is the perfect reaching out to you, not your trying to become the perfect. Essence is possible. Essential salvation is real. It is not, however, to be found by your mastery of a technique, nor, alone, your actions.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Concusion of the foregone

It's one thing to rant and rave about kids today, shaking one's cane furiously as the children make splatters of dog feces running after their whiffle balls in the yard and tearing up the daisies and... Anyway, it's easy to yell at all of you for using computers as surrogates for hope, but there is a time to put one's vitriol where one's hands are.

Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I announce:

and encourage every other Second Lifer, every Wikipedian, every Thing2er, every Slashdotter, every "social" engineer of every sort and stripe to follow my lead.

I may continue to post to this blog, as it is at least an honest monolog, with neither the pretense or desire of audience or input, but I'm going on strike. It won't make a difference to anyone but myself, but it isn't designed to make a difference to anyone but myself. Why?

First, because the others aren't real. They're all segments of an inchworm, all phantoms of personae, all poorly scripted hauntings. Second, because those who are motivated to type online for psychological need or social deficit are not going to follow the call of anyone. They can't. Even though they are not getting actual calories from the simulated foodstuff of websites, they are getting their hunger pangs blunted (and no other alternative is as easy). Third, because, while it can happen to me, it can't happen to them. They're too self-aware to get disgusted. Fourth, because, if it were possible to persuade anyone of anything by this means, it wouldn't need to be quit. Fifth, because I am the only one in the room when I'm typing.

Why, then, bother to tell you about it? What good is it to announce a strike to people who aren't reading, won't care, and can't follow Norma Rae out the door in any case? Well, I can hope that you, individually, are better than all those other people. Yes, I mean you. While the other clowns who read this blog are hopeless cases, there is some small chance that you can see that striking is a way to remind the network that it is made of actual people who are presenting only a single profile, and you may also see that striking will enable you to feel, and possibly make up for, the pains that you have been palliating with this dope.

Don't let me down. Copy the image above (released free, no copyright) to every web endeavor you are expected upon. Do not answer questions. Do not make demands. This is not about trying to get something from the boss: this is about simply declaring independence and the third dimension.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Hey, Bebby, let's fornicate with our second bodies...

I want to thank everyone who responded with the correct Spanish for "quiet is healthy." I should have entitled the last post "Senex est habilis." Regardless, I have to respond to one of the most common queries I get on this blog. "Hey, The," my readers write, "tell us more about your sex life." At the risk of overloading the web and being the first person to ever talk about sex on the Internet, I will offer the following prurient and scarifying tale of lust and sweat.

I dated a student of mine, once. Ok, I had a student once. I should say that, first. Then I should say that I had a female student. Then I can reveal that I dated her, once, when she was no longer in my class. You see, I was five and twenty, and she was in the bloom of physical perfectibility at nineteen or twenty. I understand that the massive gap in ages makes my confession shocking, and that we had no chaperon makes it all the more alluring. This is what comes of letting your daughters attend a secular college. What makes it even worse is that she had known me prior to becoming my student. She had even been, she said, a "fan" of mine! I mean a fan of me, particularly, and not our future-gay singer, future married drummer.

Obviously, the lady had troubles.

Anyway, she thought I was witty, intelligent, and cool. I thought she was unbearably cute, lively, interesting, and with a compelling, but worrying, back story. (Her father was not the nicest person in the world. Something about having been in Laos in 1967 in action, even though, of course the US was not in Laos then, but maybe that was just a coincidence.)

We had one date. We had exactly one date.

There was no break up, because there was nothing to break. The chemistry could not have been worse for dating, and in the post-mortem I think I figured out why I felt so bad. Why she felt bad is instantly understandable: I'm not worth any woman's time and biological resources. I am desperate, though, so why wasn't I heartbroken?

The thing is, you see, I felt like only part of a person (and that's no good, no matter how you slice me). Witty, cool, and intelligent trapped me. I had always presented that face, and now it was the basis of her attraction. As long as I was around her, I couldn't like bad art, couldn't be wrong, couldn't enjoy stupid music, couldn't watch dumb movies, couldn't praise sports on television, couldn't be bland. A single, consciously inflated but genuine, part of myself was going to have to mask the rest of me. It was wretched. It wasn't the pressure. I was a teacher, and a popular one, so I was accustomed being engaging and smart for hours at a stretch. I couldn't have fooled her into thinking that I was admirable if I didn't have some admirable or shiny bit in my corpus.

Rather, I was not satisfied with this much sacrifice of freedom. The freedom I needed was the freedom to be who I am, in whole and various, rather than the freedom to do some particular thing.

Self-determination may be overrated, but when it comes to the making, handling, distribution, and consumption of love, I find that it's somewhat critical. I also find that the amount of time one spends with another person in the postures of love, the more of the designed self gets eroded, and the nearer the core gets to exposed. This is why being selected by a partner for an attribute is absolute doom. Unless the lover pulls back the layers and likes each one, or at least most of them, there is no hope whatever. If you try to become the attributes that the lover likes, you'll go mad. In fact, you pretty much are mad. It is delusional and mentally ill, as well as dishonest, to try to become the projected image.

No sugar that night, then.

That's not the issue, though. I'm not really writing this blog entry about my date or passing on my words of wisdom to the lovelorn or love handled or short horned. What I'm actually writing about is the fact that screen names and screen identities are self-projections. They are what we think of as the diamond inside us, when we hold the cutting knife. They are also the bit we wish were inside. Either way (self-selection or fantasy), they are projections of attributes or aspects onto a screen. Like all projections, they are two-dimensional, and social websites are these screens. They allow lateral movement, but they never allow stacking meanings, contradictions of action, paradox, frustration and aspiration. They never allow hope. They have no history. They are a continually dragged out "now," where, interestingly, the moment is ineluctably pre-defined by the attributes contained in the screen name. In a sense, the screen name is the moment.

They have the ability to seem like social life in exactly the same way that television can persuade the gullible that soap opera characters are real. (This, incidentally, is not a small amount. Don't you dare laugh at the woman in the line at the grocery store getting Soap Opera Digest and expressing audible fears about Monica's baby. You are no more clever than her.)

Suppose you do the wish self, the conquering hero(ine) self. If you chose your online self when you were thirteen and looking to get chicksman ("Chicks, man"), then you gave yourself the name Cooldude (because we all know that chicks like the cool dudes), and that is your present moment. For the rest of your time with that name, you are thirteen. Or you're Catherine de Lily, the impetuous belle for now, and now forever. For the rest of the time online, you are Cooldude or Lady Catherine, and all the scribble and dribble you did at that age, suffering as you were from testosterone poisoning or green sickness, is your present moment.

Suppose, instead, you take the shining gem star of your heart and do that. Stampman15 and Birdergirl3 have singular interests. They can't have mortgages to meet. They can't lose jobs that they do not admit to having. They cannot be swamped by PTA meetings or have to rush to arrange a relative's funeral or decide, most of all, that stamp collecting is fey and birding is too expensive. No: they're locked down. That neglected corner of the user's soul that needed watering is now claiming the whole pot.

Above, I argued that avatars are inherently psychotic. This is what I meant. It isn't your avatar that is psychotic, and it isn't that psychotics create avatars, but rather that you have gone out to date the entire universe of computers with a tenth of a personality. More, you have decided to stay there. You can be glamorous and say that you are an actor stuck in a role, but that's wrong. You are a liar stuck in a lie. You have decided on the role yourself, written it, and now cannot change the script. Even if you could change the script, though, and even if you could correct the lie, you would only have the binary choices of one or the other or the other or the other. You are in a two-dimensional society. You are flat. You must be forever operating as a pair of ragged claws surfing across the surface of prattling seas.

Is that how you want to spend your free time? Is that personality? Is that a second life? Is that life at all?

Give me a rocket or a big red switch.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Silences est saludas?

I can't speak Spanish. I don't even know if it's true, but I saw a movie that was pretty bad, and it featured a professor explaining, in a Latin American History class, that in the midst of the disappearances of Chile, there was, coincidentally, a public health campaign to cut down on noise pollution. Thus, just as people were being killed for free speech, there were signs up saying, "Silence is health."

Now, for myself, I'm given to inner debate, or ... You know, that's not true. I just wrote a lie. I have almost no inner debate. Like most middle aged men, I'm over arguing with myself. In fact, what stands between me and contentment is inner judgment, not inner debate. It's as if there is a court room with a judge, no jury, and no lawyers -- just edict after edict and evaluation after evaluation. It is a tyranny of the self, in its way, because the internal dictator has been chained to the internal criminal -- the petty potentate (ugh, I'm so sorry for that alliteration, but this is the kind of thing I'm talking about) is handcuffed to his most impotent and inept critic. They don't argue. It is simply the actions of the fool and the condemnations of the censor, groaning away, and each has the power to make the other miserable, while neither has the capability of making the other better.

I'm rather sick of words. I'm sick of them in two ways, and one of these ways is prophetic, or at least bellwether.

First, I'm sick of my own words, as you should be sick of yours, if you have any sense of shame at all. Every day, every place I go, I feel as if all the words I have uttered, the lies, jokes, stories, witticisms, ill graced vitriol, preparatory patter, stuttering interjections, curses at misfortunes, comparisons between things, evaluations of history, valuations of artworks, deep readings, shallow readings, eunuch pleasantries, lustful compliments, disjointed non-sequiturs, sing alongs with the car radio, growlings at editorials, strings of words that must follow, choices of words that make fresh points, and all the rest of the symbolic junk are there. It's all there, all the time. It's all there, everywhere. It's all there, getting in front of my eyes, filling my ears, crawling on my cheek. Words, everywhen. Words, like a cloud of gnats that cannot be swatted.

Silence would be health indeed, and you should agree with me, because every time I see you, I see the swarm around your head, too, you know. All of those words are history for both of us, and they're the flood. If you concentrate on floating, you're sure to sink, I was told when I was tossed in the swimming pool.

The other way that I'm sick of words is the Internet. You know me, though: I'm always going on about symbolic abstractions of rhetorical constructs of semiotic deferrals! Oh, that's me, alright, in a nutshell.

Well, see, you do know me, but you know this me, which is nothing but a system of words. I know you, too, the same way. People on the Internet are not people at all. They are no more than constructions of rhetoric. They're symbol streams. If I am LordViper on Wikipedia, then I have not only fashioned a self, but I have ... and this is important, so do please pay attention... destroyed a self at the same time. The Litgeek cannot speak of himself, if he's LordViper. The past, hopes, insecurities, desires, balls and brains of the Litgeek must be omitted in LordViper's discourse. LordViper may get to have things that the Litgeek lacks (a criminal record, for instance), but he loses massive amounts, and therefore Litgeek cannot be himself as LordViper. Those who meet LordViper don't know Litgeek. They will never know him. They only know a selection of propositions -- the truth of which are self-verified and meaningful only as they are enacted rhetorically -- that are projections of a rhetorical "I."

Well, I'm sick of it. First, most of these authors suck as fictional biographers. Second, the rhetoric is uniform. Third, I like people, and therefore I like e-people in inverse proportion to their rhetorical sutures. They are all very fundamentally sick.

No, I don't mean they're all neurotics who need "avatars" to be whole. Who cares about that, anyway? No. I mean that the avatars are sick. Because they cannot have pasts, futures, and aspiration, they cannot be whole. They are fractures of personality. As such, no matter the "real people" back there, hanging around e-people is a day trip to the asylum. Since they are only words, silence is health.