Once upon a timei there was a land called America. It was the apogee of innovation, industriousness, prosperity and opportunity.ii Torrents of energy surged through its veins, individuals abundant in extraversion dominated the social landscape, assertiveness was rewarded, the family unit was prized, third places blossomed, military conscription was upheld, sound money principles were valued, and a Christian God ruled from above. But that was then… pre-1973.
Today, nearly 50 years later, we survey a socioeconomic landscape dominated by algorithmically-enhanced autists (as Su Zhu observes above, mostly looking in the mirror), unable to calculate the median voter theorem or even make sustained eye contact, despite having memorised the square root of pi to some absurd number of digits and of course knowing what Proof of Work actually means. The net result of this Paper Promise Era, inadvertently caused by dysfunction pretty much everywhere that matters, is a historically curious (and questionable!) distribution of cultural resources away from a lot of “normal” shit and towards a lot of “weird” shit. From there we get a broken healthcare system, dumbed-down education, an incompetent bureaucracy stifling every ounce of pride, dignity, self-worth from society, celebrity politicians with neither pedigree nor poise, rampant homelessness, and widespread psychological and pharmacological abuse, all while adderall-addled script kiddies with the fashion sense of a retarded chimney sweep accrue disproportionate monetary rewards, effectively because they can play mine-sweeper through our hyper-financialised, fragilised, deintrustrialising economy better than the rough-handed normies.iii
And what do my fellow spectrumistas do with the newly found wealth and prestige that we didn’t particularly ask for but were bloody lucky enough to be blessed with?iv Mostly create detached and disoriented internet-enabled lalalands (apps! metaverses!) obsessed with minutiae-driven masturbation. Strange, but true. But don’t take my cynical word for it! Take it from the King Of Comedic Social Commentary – Jerry Seinfeld – on his recent podcast interview with Spike’s Car Radio:
Jerry Seinfeld: To what do you attribute this “cultural obsessiveness” for lack of a better term – the watch world, the car world – these details, obsessing on these details… why is that so prevalent in our culture these days amongst a lot of guys? Looking for meaning, looking for…
Zuckerman: Something special?
Jerry: This has value, this doesn’t. This is the one you want, not this. Why is everyone, seemingly, over the past 8-14 years, become [obsessed with] the deepening inspection of collectible items. So obsessive! In fact, I would put this “[Rolex Submariner] Kissing 4-0” at the top of this pyramid of the most obsessive, meaningless, tiny details I’ve ever heard. Why?
Zuckerman: We’ve got nothing else to talk about!
Jerry: Why not? There’s plenty going on in the world! I’ll throw you a theory: everyone feels like they can’t control or affect anything in the world anymore and this they can decide and control. “We decide and control that this is the value”. Someone said said “oh that’s cooler” and they gave it a name.
Zuckerman: I think you’re 100% right. I’m going to give you credit on this theory. We have such little control or influence in our lives because we feel so meaningless and insignificant so we have to make everything around us “special.”
Jerry: Interesting isn’t it? It’s really become a psychological balancing mechanism. And I’ll say right now, I tell my wife “I don’t care if you make fun of me with all the cars and all the stupidity and the number of cars.” It completely balances my psychological stability that I have this thing I’m interested in. I can’t imagine functioning without it. I see my life as a scale – like a balancing scale – on the one side it’s all the things that are important, like family and work, but if that’s all I had, and I didn’t have this nonsense on the other side, I think I’d go nuts.
Zuckerman: You have to be able to check-out from all of the other stuff.
All of which is to say that “none” of us have control of our lives because the weirdest and most socially inept of us have what little control there is! Not that it’s our fault… We didn’t create a world of fake ass paper promises, that’s just the hand that our grandparents started dealing in the 70s when they chose peace instead of war, as if there could ever be a choice but the hard one. Which brings us to today, where our greatest weapon in the fight against the homogenising forces of bureaucratically-minded socialism and botox-faced superficiality is finding solace in – go figure – smallness! Quoth the new TLP, CEBK from his latest article “Addendum to Omelas“:
Much as modern states are defined by their borders rather than their cores—any “rule of law” must pretend that it can’t distinguish lawful goods from lawful bads, just like every right is necessarily a right to be wrong. So if an edge case comes under legal protection, only social discrimination keeps it from assuming a position of centrality: precisely because laws are forces of homogenization, slippery slope scenarios require aggressive enforcement against each counterfeiter, or else they cease to be lawfully governed. In other words, by definition, the law has trouble discriminating, which is why interpersonal norms must. As Carlyle put it, “Tolerance has to tolerate the unessential, and to see well what that is. Tolerance has to be noble, measured, just in its very wrath, when it can tolerate no longer. But, on the whole, we are not altogether here to tolerate!” Or do you take your ethical cues from shifts in mechanisms of governance, like the transition from status to contract? If so, then follow through enough to issue personal “moral compass” shares, and follow where their holders point.
Should we send up monks into mountain sanctums, to imagine hypothetical exceptions from standard rules—like women who somehow aren’t women—and then wail down at us about how hard it might be to classify them? We have become so very small, have so thoroughly shriveled into compulsive tics, able to fit inside the screens on our phones, that we neither take solace in such koans nor try to build perpetual motion machines atop their logical contradictions; much less do we ignore them. Instead, we demand that someone, anyone, cover us all in enough duct tape and WD40 to fix this anomaly, or at least cover it up.
Why have we shrivelled so? For the slightly-bewildered autists on the throne, it’s probably because we fundamentally misunderstand the function of seating chartsv and the value of the physical world, and for everyone else it’s because acting (performance art!) is very hard, especially when so many constants are switching to variables right in front of our eyes. The definitions of marriage, gender, currency, nation, education, mental disorder, success, beauty, and more are like quicksand beneath our collective feet. One day we “all agree” what these things mean, and the next day a bit is flipped and we’re all supposed to keep up with the pravda script (to the extent that there even is one at the cutting edge), which we struggle with mightily. As outlined in my early 2020 article “What’s up with all the anxiety?“:
This is definitely a part of the reason why my generation is collectively chewing its fingernails into nubs. We’re not all trained actors! And it’s bloody hard to keep all the “correct” narratives straight IRL. And we’re rightly ashamed at how badly we’re tripping over our shoelaces on the stage of the grand theatre called “Life.” So we posture a lot to make up for it. Which is ironic because if we were better actors in the first place, we wouldn’t need to act so much to make up for our bad acting! Of course, it’s not all the individual’s fault. Nothing is. There’s also genetics and parenting to blame, the latter of which is tightly correlated to a broader culture of shame.
But still there’s hope! There’s always hope. And at least to my eyes, the most optimistic vision for the future, if for some reason I should be so bold as to propose one, isn’t the slovenly EAness vi of SBF et al., but rather the Modern, perhaps we might even call it “High-Modern”vii approach, id est maintaining the highest standards in the face of the destructively “humanistic” forces of post-Voltaire-ism. Contra the meanviii depictions of art, culture, and society, projected most recently in the “Derelicte” “post-modern” expressions. As our old friend Clement Greenberg observes in his essay “Modern and Postmodern” from 1980:
I come at last to what I offer as an embracing and perdurable definition of Modernism: that it consists in the continuing endeavor to stem the decline of aesthetic standards threatened by the relative democratization of culture under industrialism; that the overriding and innermost logic of Modernism is to maintain the levels of the past in the face of an opposition that hadn’t been present in the past. Thus the whole enterprise of Modernism, for all its outward aspects, can be seen as backward-looking. That seems paradoxical, but reality is shot through with paradox, is practically constituted by it. […]
The yearning for relaxation became outspoken in presumedly avant-garde circles for the first time with Duchamp and dada, and then in certain aspects of surrealism. But it was with pop art that it became a fully confident expression. And that confidence has stayed in all the different fashions and trends of professedly and supposedly advanced art since then. What I notice is that the succession of these trends has involved, from the first, a retreat from major to minor quality; and a cause for concern about the state of contemporary art is just that: the retreat from the major to the minor, the hailing of the minor as major, or else the claim that the difference between the two isn’t important. Not that I look down on minor art, not at all. But without the perpetuation of major art, minor art falls off too. When the highest levels of quality are no longer upheld in practice or taste or appreciation, then the lower levels sink lower. That’s the way it’s always been, and I don’t see that way changing now.
If you, like me, can’t help but think that there has to be more to life than counting the interior angles on Rexhepi movements, or fussing about bathroom signs and pronouns and masks,ix or “getting together” for Zoom cocktail hours, or even for that matter getting sucked into DOOMPORN about European energy crises in a pallid attempt to “optimise” our macro-oriented portfolio strategies, how are we to rediscover the Modern? To push back against smallness, the minor, and papered-over virtualism, to find the major once again?x
My current best guess is that it has to come from the past. From the best of yesteryear. From our roots. From tradition.xi Starting with sound money, military conscription(!), monarchy(???), and maybe even chucking our smartphones in the wastebin.xii From there, might we have the foundation needed to effectively rediscover our shared humanity. I’m not quite sure how we get there from here, but we can only pray that it doesn’t involve a slate cleaned by fissile atoms, revealing nubile yin atop deformed yang.xiii Surely we can do better than a future of sticks and stones. So let’s not allow ourselves to just recline like chacmool just yet! Not even our unwittingly prestigious autists would advocate that…
___ ___ ___
- No, this isn’t a “fictional” story, but these days you can never be sure! ↩
- I shit you not we’re STILL running on the fumes of Bell Labs (archived). ↩
- Kanye excepted! He’s arguably the most Modern artist we have left, not only for his attention to quality and his religious zeal but for his rejection of the virtual in favour of the physical. Not only is he anti-NFTs (for now) but he also recently tore up his agreement with GAP because the clothing retailer had failed to bring his new YZY collection with them to physical stores and was only selling them online. ↩
- Being born with just the right amount of unsocialiability to make net-enabled computer feel comfy is a remarkable stroke of historical fruition. ↩
- Everything is seating charts, per Matt Levine, but the problem is that we autists don’t understand hierarchy implicitly! Everything has to be explicit for us, to be made “transparent,” because we’re so fucking socially thick in the head. Except the real world is not and cannot be fully revealed to anyone. No amount of “big data” or “AI” can make anyone omniscient Gods. And there’s GREAT power in the unseen and the unsaid, but that power is almost entirely beyond our grasp. ↩
- Archived. ↩
- in the van der Roheian sense. ↩
- Do you think it’s a coincidence that the verb “mean” as in “petty, lacking dignity or honour” is exactly the same as the statistical average? ↩
- I don’t have a problem with any of these things, mind you, I’d just really prefer that you do your fucking thing and move on. Stop trying to convert everyone around you to your small-minded causes. Having a bunch of people obsessing about the same small thing doesn’t make it any less small. ↩
- “But Pete, you can’t be in favour of the physical, you have to pump your digital bags!” Well Timmy, I don’t really have to do anything, least of all talk my book (or even bet in favour of it, ask Jiran!), but I do have to be sane. At least as sane as Wonko. ↩
- It’s why I’m happiest betting on religious people with a deep sense of tradition, regardless of faith or creed, but of faith and creed. The “secular” larp is by and large just a sail waiting for a breeze, and that’s not a terribly reliable foundation for a long-term relationship imo. ↩
- As post-modern as Demna is, even he intuits that smartphones are probably net-negative on society. ↩
- Ya ya I know you can mine bitcoin on pencil and paper, but do you really want to? (archived) Unless we really are just Icaruses with bomb vests, soaring towards self-detonation, as Henry Moore feared, in which case maybe we won’t have so much of a choice. ↩