one thing that is particularly characteristic of contemporary discourse in many areas, including politics, is the transformation of the merest concepts, or even sheer general terms, into actors or forces or beings with causal effects in the material world. i am going to assert that in a wide range of cases, such an approach can explain absolutely nothing. this is also the language of advertising, for example. here's a pretty classic example:
how does optum help you out? it uses wellness to keep away illness. a medical breakthrough! like it was an aesthetic breakthrough when the beatles used grooviness to keep away suckiness. what can save us in our terrible predicament? innovation! that's why optum is an innovation company.
or here's richard cohen: our enemy isn't islam or immigration or something; it's 'intolerance': the very same force that caused catholics and protestants to war in the 17th century. it's like intolerance is a substance or entity with physical effects: cupid's nasty little twin. or it's a force, like gravity. unlike gravity, however, it operates intermittently and its mechanisms are not well understood at any level. what accounts for its sudden emergence, the way it suddenly takes over individual heads or drives movements or peoples and then fades as progress again takes hold? now that we say the enemy is intolerance and half-assedly trace the history of particular people and events here or there to their participation in intolerance - their manifestation of intolerance in physical reality - what do we understand that we did not before?
i'd say i've been resensitized to this problem by the works of bruno latour. but anyway, as soon as you focus on this, or try to spell out the ontological status of the abstraction so that it can have effects in the world, you see its emptiness and also its ubiquity. it's a general style of explanation, where we explain some specific event or object by its relation to or participation in an abstraction. we might call it contemporary platonism. i'm going to start collecting examples, for this is a dominant dimension of the nonsensical yipyap that is our public discourse.
it's hard not to do this: our languages suggest it especially when they permit converting adjectives into nouns. the germans have a fascist ideology. pretty soon, fascism is sweeping across the continent like a gas. then if you're kerry, the same gas is arising from the middle east: a chemical weapon, only with non-material chemicals. or: why the heroin epidemic? it's 'the economy.' why should we increase social welfare spending or something? 'progress', etc. in some cases it might be a relatively harmless shorthand. but in every case, we should immediately prick up our ears: ok, have i just formulated an explanation in any sense, or just posited a whole realm of dormitive virtues and fantastical beings? or: what might this be a shorthand for? if pressed, how might we give meaning in terms of specific phenomena to the abstractions we are tossing around? what do i understand by means of the abstraction that i could not understand without it, and is it distracting me from what is actually happening to specific things and people at specific places and times? a lot of these things just fall apart as soon as you press them at all.
kerry has doubled down on "a medieval and modern fascism, both at once." here, concepts are mating willy-nilly in the nether-world of platonic heaven, committing adulteries like the greek gods. how would someone reach such a point in their 'thinking'? well, you have a few categories in your head, a few periods, a few ideologies. then the new phenomenon has to be jammed into the existing taxonomy. someone like kerry is so inured to the idea that abstractions or concepts cause events in the world, that he works backwards from any given event to the concept that must cause it. but he has an extremely limited repertoire of concepts. he generates a god to explain the phenomenon, even if it is a bizarre chimera. then he feels that he has reached rest, that he understands something puzzling and can convey that understanding to us.
i remember when my son was 2, he had a vocab of fifty words or whatever. now, for whatever reason (he had some mild speech issues, perhaps), it narrowed down to two nouns: "dog" and "ball". everything was a dog or a ball: cars were dogs, whereas blankets were balls. his sister took to calling him 'dogball.' we finally figured out the principle: things that moved themselves were dogs, whereas things that had to be kicked or whatever to move were balls. but at least there are really dogs and balls and he was responding to actual aspects of the real world. still you're going to need a few more categories.
or like the bush admin was hypnotized by abstractions when they formed their iraq policy; they were fighting the war on terror and bringing freedom to the iraqi people. i think that the neo-cons were actually operating at that level of abstraction, and that it made them profoundly insensible to the particular events on the ground; i think these pseudo-explanations relying on non-entities often drive practical disasters.
eventually, the whole world looks like the playground for concepts, while particular things and events take on a flickering quality as themselves reflections of the abstractions, which are the real actors. then you'll be surprised when a particular bomb blows up your particular body.
speaking of 'the internet of everything is changing everything', expedia's latest campaign goes: 'this is the summer. the summer of this'. seriously they paid someone to compose that. actual writers should be much richer than we are. i have a feeling that we've been replaced by interns or random phrase-generating algorithms. but it is definitely not working out.
often i think to myself, as i watch television ads: did y'all pay someone to write that? cisco systems' current slogan: "the internet of everything is changing everything", to be uttered in a highly emotive groan, on account of its profoundly profound profundity.
Rod Serling was a TV writer and producer in the 50s and 60s. He got fed up and since he was rich, he kind of left it all and spent a lot of time on his yacht going up and down the Erie Canal and the Finger Lakes as well as other places. Used to berth at a Senaca River Restaurant outside of Baldwinsville and drink beer and talk Syracuse Football with my Dad in the 60s and 70s after the Twilight Zone went off the air.
The Twilight Zone was his major TV product as well as a ton of independent TV productions. He gave the censors fits, unintentionally at first, by trying to write stuff that was intelligent, current and culturally challenging. I found an excerpt of this interview online and decided that the whole thing was worth providing. Public intellectuals used to speak this way -- imagine Ed Schultz and Sean Hannity having to use this level of logic, clarity and vocabulary. We are all fellow travelers in the great conspiracy of mediocrity. The story of the time that Lassie had puppies and the show got hate mail over showing puppies and the miracle of birth is worth the cost of admission alone, especially since it's free.
(I pulled the interview from The Internet Archive. I generally use it to look for and listen to concert footage, but it's an incredible asset -- kind of like browsing a really good library or book store with a lot of everything. It's one of my leading bookmarks, and I recommend it to anyone who might suddenly want to watch an Eisenstein film with the Greatful Dead playing in the background. https://archive.org/)
Speaking of public intellectuals, one that very few people think of that way is Ray Davies co-founder of the Kinks and cultural provocateur. Davies and his brother Dave made the Gallagher Brothers and the Everly Brothers look like the Brothers Four with their fights, feuds and general hair-pulling. However, they well deserve their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Ray has just been elected to the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. This was a 2006 commentary on "Yob culture" and fits with Serling in an odd way...
"Jack the lad has become Oscar Wilde And the followers of style say, "It's the latest thing" And William Shakespeare is the schmooze of the week And anyone who says different is a fuckin' antique And Noel Coward has become very hard and the comic says "Bullocks" and everybody laughs and that's that
"Style, I mean, never was much, never has been But the little bit that was was all that we had And the clown does a belch and we all belch back And that's that.."
It always bothers me when progressives and liberals say stuff that is incredibly stupid or just knee-jerk reaction to some stimulous. There is a problem among true believers that is relevant largely to true believers...anyone who has not confused themselves with God can usually sense the absurdity of their silliness and maybe even stop...
So, if you want to check out some music and read my argument, visit the link. Links posted in this one are all to music. Dylan has published enough stuff and had enough of it bootlegged to guarantee some decent stuff. Comments are always welcome. Cripsin will undoubtedly explain why he thinks Dylan less of a figure than Blondel the Troubador or Blind Lemon Jefferson, and that's ok.
here's a plausible candidate for the worst advertisement in the history of our species, and of course advertising is what separates us from the lower animals. you don't see squirrels or viruses trying to get you to buy stuff with a steaming pile of hooha. obviously, the whole thing is neuro: this thing triggers the advertising region of your brain, which is just at the crown of the head. and of course, any very pervasive feature of our species has been selected for by evolution, and really bad ads are evolution's crowning achievement, the only reason that we have, sadly, survived and adapted and become so amazingly incredible.
y'all have got to check out this hilarious parody of david bowie. with extreme precision it shows everything that was ever wrong: the tuneless dreck; the preening and self-obsession; the unmeaning lyrics; the ridiculous outfits; the cheesy personae; the basic inability to sing; the yawning void at the heart of his values and his art: it's all there and more. the dude even sort of looks like bowie. a devastating takedown.
here's a good example of how absurd advertising has become. it's utterly overblown, insanely hyperbolic, yet it's formulaic from soup to nuts. indeed it might have been written by software that detects features of other car ads. also it is completely meaningless, and yet the whole presentation (music, voice, and image) is supposed to say: these are world-alteringly profound observations. really i think it does not matter what you say at all, as long as it takes a predictable rhythm; you don't even hear words anymore, just some kind of mood i guess. perhaps the script is based on the promo copy for the clinton global initiative or something. naw it's not quite that bad, but if your quest is to build the world's smartest luxury suv for mankind, you must hold yourself to the standard of mankind.
i was all gearing up to endorse a ban on high-capacity magazines. but this, from the back cover of the march 25 new yorker, though it shows that magazines should indeed be banned, also demonstrates that you can never have enough bullets; it is not clear what would count as an adequate number of bullet holes in this person, his outfit, his luggage, or his yacht. i'd be looking to achieve nothing but hole, so to speak: where this was, there should be no being. the region should be replaced by an absence of region, and then that nothingness itself should be annihilated, expunging these items and any images to which they gave rise retroactively, so that it becomes the case now that they never existed at all. this will require developing the next generation of firearms.
like i say, it's not that i'm just endorsing peterffy's ad. but there is one thing wotrth thinking about (again); whether to measure, say, welfare or justice in comparative or absolute terms, or perhaps some other aproach. 'under socialism, the rich became poorer, but the poor also became poorer.' almost anyone, i think, would not regard this as a good trade-off (whether that is an accurate depiction of socialism here or there is another matter). so if we frame the thing in terms of income percentiles, a la 1%/99% and define the problem as inequality, a situation in which we reduce the wealth of the highest group to 1/10 of what it was, while reducing the resources of the poor by half is an improvement, though people begin to starve. you might think about whether you would choose an unbelievably unequal distribution of goods where everyone has (at a minimum) enough, or a much more equal distribution where some people don't if you are even tempted by the latter i think self-reflection is called for: is the driving force justice or mere envy?
i'd say that thomas peterffy's pro-republican ad shows the right use of the possibility of unlimited campaign spending unleashed after the decision. really, for one thing, it is the most - the only - compelling political spot i've seen this year. well, look it basically asserts - though in a compelling way - that obama is a socialist, which makes people all mad and stuff for some reason. but the ad is personal; it completely takes ownership of its message by a particular person, and there is no doubting its sincerity. peterffy is a billionaire. even so, i say that any law or regulatory decision that would make an ad like that illegal is deeply misguided. maybe we should prohibit the campaigns from advertising instead. have you seen that shit?
the one person i least want to be, or for that matter want to be around, is john malkovich as represented in the iphone ads. his taste and his demeanor are so fucking precious, so gratuitously yet blankly pretentious, so numbly self-satisfied, that all i want to do is eat a burger, pull on a baseball cap, jump into the truck, throw on some george jones, and head to nyc to kick his ass. that's what siri is thinking as she talks to him; you can hear her rolling her eyes.
the scariest thing on television today is this ad for "mfs investment managers": stepford people with square pupils autonomically intoning meaningless phrases: "i exist to help financial professionals do their very best": i'm glad your life has purpose. "i'm all about the alpha." huh? it is hard to communicate with machine intelligences. you sort of expect their voices to slow down and drop into a lower register as their batteries run down.
i think now that the beatles are on every third television ad, they're finally getting their due. consider the following, heard on television at all times:
There's nothing you can do that can't be done. Nothing you can sing that can't be sung. Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game It's easy. There's nothing you can make that can't be made.
No one you can save that can't be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time - It's easy.
etc. in my best stab at interpretation of this goop, i would say that that it is a series of tautologies: that is, if you can do it, it can be done, which would be hard to quibble with. or to put it into first-order predicate calculus with modal operators, it is not the case that there exists a thing such that someone can do it and it is not possible to do it. or, simplifying: (x)(y)(Sxy -> ^Sxy) (where the little upside-down v is the possibility operator; should be a diamond): that is, for anything x and anything y, if x sings y then it is possible for x to sing y. or cutting to the chase, p -> ^p: if p then it is possible that p. or if p is actual then it is not impossible. love is good. but it's probably not all you need.
correction, 11.20: actually, i guess there is modality on both sides of the conditional, so maybe it just says ^p -> ~~^p: if it's possible, then it's not impossible. or ~(Ex)(Ey)( ^Dyx & ~^Dyx): there is nothing such that it's possible for someone to do it and it's not possible for someone to do it.
when my daughter jane (9) puts together her rock band, we're gonna call it "ultra-concentrated joy" after the dishwashing liquid (which we also use to produce giant bubbles). she just read it out one day while i was doing the dishes and we were all like: yeah! it's hard to imagine anyone in wal-mart bypassing ultra-concentrated joy and buying something else.