• rationality

    Joshua Rothman writes about rationality in The New Yorker, and various recent bestsellers written about the concept. He makes reference to the Tyler Cowan/Less Wrong/Effective Altruism circles, surveys the way that different social science disciplines think about it, and explores the value a good rational friend can have on your decision making.

    I often feel pulled toward these web communities. I love exploring ideas with people who get excited by ideas, and by people who share my attitude that many things are knowable, and the only reason to give up on curiosity is when you discover exactly what is still unknown. Unfortunately, these communities also frequently have blind spots around race and gender that end up pushing me away, and I was disappointed to not find anything in this article that touched on those issues.

    One of the disciplines championed by these intellectual internet communities is spotting cognitive biases and putting our on ideas to the test. They struggle to recognize and respond to this pattern: the more an internet community values rational argument, debate, an “anything goes” intellectual freedom, and an appeal to “honor” to mediate interpersonal conflict, the more its social hierarchy looks like a white supremacist heteropatriarchy.

    One could imagine that on the internet, considering its global reach and English’s status as a global lingua franca, if you create a community centered around the value of rational intellectual discourse, you would bring together the members of myriad groups of people that are most interested in that value. Earlier in the history of the internet, when access required computer equipment that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, perhaps you could believe that the demographics skewed white and male because that’s who had access, and diversity would come as more people gained access to the network. That’s not an excuse any more, and it hasn’t been for a couple decades. 

    Here’s my two cents: in my time on the internet, I’ve seen many communities fracture when some part of its membership brings a social inequality present in the community to light. There’s a little dance the defenders do, some mixture of these steps. The pushback goes like this:

    • There’s no inequality.
    • All right, here’s the unbiased, pragmatic reason why there’s inequality, it has nothing to do with prejudice.
    • OK, sure we have prejudice but who doesn’t? It doesn’t have anything to do with the core mission of this community.
    • So, it seems like this bias has always been deeply intertwined with the foundational history of this community, but isn’t this all a distraction?.
    • Why are you trying to destroy this community?

    Anybody from a group that experiences discrimination is well familiar with this pattern, and if you are a highly educated knowledge worker from such a group you deal with this shit all the time and are not seeking it out for fun. There are spaces on the internet that have done social engineering to disempower the default to white straight male experience. I like the Metafilter comments sections and Learned League, and Andy Baio and the XOXO team developed a lot of good ideas for facing these dynamics head on and being willing to experiment with fundamental assumptions

    I’m still looking for that great space, though. For every narrow, well moderated group I come across, there are many others that make room for social reactionaries. If you’ve found a community you like, I’d love to hear about it. 

  • the grind

    I am preparing to move house in a few weeks, so I have been going through and downsizing some of my things. I am very selective about the items that I choose to attach to. At least that’s what I tell myself; for the past three years I have moved at the end of the summer, and at each move I find more things to let go of. This move, one of the big changes is that I am ruthlessly culling my sheet music library. For the past 15 years, I have basically said yes to everything, and I built up a full 2X4 IKEA Kallax full of music. This has meant a lot of wandering down memory lane and revisiting all of the piano music that brought me to the present.

    I am always surprised to find the pieces of music that are 80% finished. There’s a Haydn sonata that I worked on in college but I could never get the fast movement going fast enough. The last piece I worked on with my hometown piano teacher was a Clementi sonatina, and it too has piano markings that stop on the second to last page. I was so close. I was also drowning in shame, I hated the scale and arpeggio practice needed to smooth out my performance, and I didn’t know how to use a metronome.

    There’s an article I like by Jacob Kaplan-Moss (I think he writes about computer programming) about how incredibly tedious work can appear like a magic trick:

    I once joined a team maintaining a system that was drowning in bugs. There were something like two thousand open bug reports. Nothing was tagged, categorized, or prioritized. The team couldn’t agree on which issues to tackle. They were stuck essentially pulling bugs at random, but it was never clear if that issue was important.. New bug reports couldn’t be triaged effectively because finding duplicates was nearly impossible. So the open ticket count continued to climb. The team had been stalled for months. I was tasked with solving the problem: get the team unstuck, get reverse the trend in the open ticket count, come up with a way to eventually drive it down to zero.

    So I used the same trick as the magician, which is no trick at all: I did the work. I printed out all the issues – one page of paper for each issue. […] I spent almost three weeks in that room, and emerged with every bug report reviewed, tagged, categorized, and prioritized.

    The trend reversed immediately after that: we were able to close several hundred tickets immediately as duplicates, and triaging new issues now took minutes instead of a day. It took I think a year or more to drive the count to zero, but it was all fairly smooth sailing. People said I did the impossible, but that’s wrong: I merely did something so boring that nobody else had been willing to do it.

    I have a very quick intelligence, but it has some limitations. When problem solving, if I find the right answer, I will find it first. If I don’t see the answer quickly, I will never see it myself. The patient work, the “grind,” is very hard for me. If I can see the next 10 steps to a fix, I get the dopamine reward. Completing those 10 steps does nothing for me.

    In piano, like so many other things, doing the small patient work is the whole game. I love improvising music the most. I can sit down at a piano and play for hours before running out of juice. Yet for every one hour that I spend working through a piece of written music that is pushing the edges of my skill range, I get better and sharper in a way that I couldn’t when improvising. Practicing improvisation makes me quicker and calmer while performing, but it doesn’t make me better.

    I’m still learning to love it, though.

  • limits

    Five and a half hours into our drive from San Francisco to Portland, I got into an argument with A. about the return to mask mandates. I was wrong, but that didn’t stop me from digging in and getting increasingly frustrated. My rage at the situation, at the people choosing not to get the vaccine for political reasons, at my mother for being one of them, all bubbled up into white hot anger and contempt.

    Since last March I have seen people get fired up by small inconveniences in daily life. Fear of reality gets sublimated into rage at the service being slow or an item being out of stock. It was my turn. I lost my hold on rational thought. Other countries with flawless pandemic responses are also seeing Delta variant surges. It’s not rational to blame the reappearance of distancing and masking on vaccination refusal. Wearing a mask indoors is the right thing for everyone to do right now, and that fact broke me.

    One of the assumptions I held about climate change is that there would be some disaster so obviously terrible that the powerful—and the financially invested—would have to take action to save themselves. This year has taught me that there will be no such disaster. There will be death and destruction, the powerful will retain their hold on power, the invested will have the government pick up their losses then be paid to “rebuild.”

    The kind of humility and international cooperation it will take to save our home is nowhere to be found. If the augur is true, I can expect an adulthood of social fracture, solutions slipping out of our grasp, and rapidly disintegrating ecosystems.

    I worry that I won’t resist becoming uglier as our planet becomes uglier. With each passing day, the pressure grows to look at others as my competition for dwindling resources or problems to be solved. I will be pressured to learn how to dissociate from the feeling of distress that comes with noticing the increasingly loud warning signs the Earth is sending. Or tuning them out altogether. I don’t have much appetite for those kind of changes.

    Why does the fact of human climate change hurt my heart and the fact that the earth will fall into the sun not hurt? Choice is the difference. Choice, and the unfulfilled dream that we could transcend our biology. What comes next is the same thing that happens to every other animal population that exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat.

  • revolution

    “Everyone knew it. Rarely has revolution been more universally predicted, though not necessarily for the right countries or the right dates.”

    Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution

    “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now […] We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”

    Ursula LeGuin

    When a crack appears in a dam, there’s only a small window in which a repair can be made. Once the crack passes the threshold of repair, the forces of gravity and the weight of the water held back make the endpoint inevitable. The dam will be destroyed, the water will flow, a stream will appear.

    In the period of 1789-1848 in Europe, there was such a dam. Built of rigid social hierarchies, the absolute power of aristocracy, and the moral sanction of the church, it restrained and extracted value from the great mass of feudal subjects and a much smaller number of middle class craftsmen and merchants. At the end of the 18th century, two cracks appeared in this dam at nearly the same time. By the beginning of the 20th century, the dam was gone and every inch of the globe had experienced aftershocks its disappearance.

    The first crack was the French Revolution. It transformed the king into a mortal man, from divine symbol into mere politician. It turned the church from the house of god into land to be confiscated, and introduced the idea everywhere that reforms by vote that are ignored become reforms by blood.

    The second crack was the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. A great many contingencies had to come together for the British Empire to arise and for the engine of the domestic economy to turn from pastoral agriculture in the English countryside towards William Blake’s dark satanic mills. But they did come together, and that produced such a huge buildup of wealth that it broke the world, like a black hole distorting the very fabric of spacetime.

    The work of the French Revolution never quite got finished, and the problems with a capitalist industrial economy—problems that were spotted almost immediately by both participants and observers of the new industrial paradigm; thinkers that thought it was not a tenable system included economists, politicians, factory owners, journalists, and bankers, as well as utopian visionaries—broke social contracts and created the need for poverty to enforce labor discipline. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are dying of this work left undone.

    Progress toward political equality has stalled almost everywhere. All of Earth’s ecosystems are in existential distress because of the demand for extraction and growth by the modern global economy. In the last 15 years, I my mind has opened from the attitude that people who prophesize about “the revolution” were unserious and to be dismissed, to thinking that they are certainly right. What the damage to the planet is, I don’t know, nor do I know what things we are going to be asked to accept as normal as conditions deteriorate and freedoms dwindle.

    But the status quo cannot hold. The forces of social unrest that are at work in the world right now will not return to the status quo ante, any more than the water can be returned to the reservoir once the dam breaks.

    I picked up this book because I do not have the ability right now to imagine what comes next other than a broken version of now. I think that reading about the circumstances in which industrial capitalism arose has opened my eyes to how many things could have gone a little differently and produced a different result. Hobsbawm is a genial and stylish guide to this time, and I felt like I got a lot out of this reading experience, despite a couple places where his frame of reference serves him wrong, specifically gender and racial analysis and not being able to see the future past when this was published in the 60’s.

  • epiphany

    In the last year, many of us have gotten weirder. I have become more religious.

    I was raised in the church, and because I like books and ritual and community and art, it rooted deeply. When I went to boarding school, I was surrounded for the first time by people who were not raised in generally the Christian church. Some were non-religious and raised in families where religion was not present at all. Many were from other countries where the majority religions were other than Christianity.

    I found myself surprised to have nothing to say to these people—all of my evangelizing concepts had been developed around what bringing Jesus Christ into your life, and they did not have much to say to why Christianity?

    The church I was raised in had no respect for a pluralistic faith that saw the light in other religions, nor the value in faith that did not try to convert others. That became the tip of the wedge that drove religion out of my life. By the time I started discovering my sexuality and having to accept or reject the idea that my church offered me two paths: denial and heterosexual conformity or a lifetime of tortured marginalization, I decided that there was no room for me in the church.

    I could never break from it completely. The art and music still moved me. The sensitivity to something other than this world, the place from which I could look at the world and see how contingent all of our circumstances are on social ideas and history, I also found in Plato’s realm of Forms, and E.T.A. Hoffman’s realm of art and music beyond language, and Jean Toomer’s vision of a future beyond race and sexuality.

    Over time, my sense of myself began to settle into something that could not be blown around or bullied, and the church environment became less threatening. I miss the sense of cross-generational community, and the beauty of singing in a body of untrained voices. This is a tough world to maintain a sense of meaning if you are not making it.

    Other artists trying to integrate faith into the life of an artist made their way to me. The incredible, literary quality and artistic integrity of Stephen Cone’s films floored me, particularly Princess Cyd. Discovering the drive of Dorothy Day to do good, and of the poet (I can no longer remember who) that would sit in the back of the church during Mass, never returning to the church but in some kind of relationship with it nevertheless.

    It’s still hard for me to imagine attending church services regularly. I no longer have the expectation that things or people must be perfectly resolved and completely comprehensible in order for me to engage with them. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine attending church services regularly. Could I really be seen, be myself? Do I dare to dream that that aspect of myself, in all of its keen and sinister dimensions, can be experienced in loving community?

    I suspect not, but I have less patience now for the sterile and monotonous loneliness of a life holding myself apart from others.

  • Veneno

    Veneno is a bio-drama miniseries from Spain about La Veneno—a trans hooker who was “discovered” by a TV tabloid show in the mid 1990’s and who became a hypersexualized, circus figure on talk shows. For a younger generation of trans women, she was a representational icon at a time where there was no room for anything but ridicule for them in Spanish society. Veneno dramatizes both La Veneno’s life, and the coming out and transition of a young teen fan that idolizes her and with whom La Veneno publishes a memoir, bringing her back to media attention in the weeks before her untimely and mysterious death.

    Marcos Sotkovszki as a young Veneno in Veneno on HBO Max

    Veneno takes several strains of queer TV/film aesthetics and turns up the volume and executes them very well. Operatic set pieces, bright and postmodern set designs and surreal storytelling devices from gay auteurs like Russel T. Davies, Pedro Almodóvar, and Ryan Murphy mark emotionally important moments in Veneno’s life. There is a commitment to queer actors playing queer parts and incorporating members of the communities depicted on screen, as in queer shows like Vida and Work in Progress. There’s some exploration of how queerness moves around in families across generations from Transparent, and the beautiful rush and heartbreaking pain that comes with depicting mental illness from close up and on the inside from Eurphoria and I May Destroy You. These are my points of reference, all excellent.

    Isabel Torres as La Veneno and Paca la Piraña as herself in Veneno on HBO Max

    Veneno is often beautiful—you can see the set design budget stretched when sets are reused one too many times, but everyone looks great—and there are several moments where costuming choices took my breath away, like when we first see teenage Veneno’s outfit to wear to a village festival. The writing is strong too, although there’s only so much I can say about that given that I am watching in a subtitled translation. Some emotional notes are hit a little too often for me, particularly in montages of the young trans writer, Valeria, gazing adoringly at Veneno, but any bum notes are saved by the incredible talent on screen. Highlights in the cast include Marcos Sotkovszki, Jedet, and Isabel Torres, who all play La Veneno at different ages, Paca la Piraña, Veneno’s longest friend and appearing as herself, Lola Rodriguez playing Veneno’s young disciple Valeria, and Lola Dueñas who plays the amoral TV producer that first finds La Veneno.

    Lola Rodríguez as Valeria, Isabel Torres as La Veneno, and Paca la Piraña as herself in Veneno on HBO Max

    Veneno was a charismatic monster to Spanish TV audiences in the 90’s, and she’s a bit of one now. Her understanding of queerness and sexuality, her love of commoditizing and sharing her body, her hunger to be objectified, these are all uncomfortable traits for queer heroes as we round into 2021. We are not supposed to so nakedly hang our self esteem on how we are desired by men. It has taken a whole apparatus of corporate gay organizations to send the message that being queer is not synonymous with risky sex, sex for money, sexual violence, mental illness and drug addiction, but these were all important parts of La Veneno’s story. At the end of her life, all of her friends that loved her wished that she had a different life. We get a sense of the arc of her whole life, how she hungered for safety and love in every chapter of her life. She didn’t often get it, and we have a chance to give her some of that love in death. She made for great television, and it appears that she still does, and we as viewers have to sit with that knowledge too. 

    other voices

  • Dhalgren

    This review discusses racial and sexual violence. A lot. And make a reference to gross stuff with poop.

    “Some people need sun, clear nights, cool breezes, warm days—” I said.

    “They can’t live in Bellona,” Tak went on. “In Helmsford, I knew people who never walked further than from the front door to the car. They can’t live in Bellona. Oh, we have a pretty complicated social structure: aristocrats, beggars—”

    “Bourgeoisie,” I said.

    “—and Bohemians. But we have no economy. The illusion of an ordered social matrix is complete, but its spitted through on all these cross-cultural attelets. It is a valuable city. It is a saprophytic city–It’s about the pleasantest place I’ve ever lived.”

    Samuel Delaney, Dhalgren

    “When Dhalgren came out, I thought it was awful, still do… I was supposed to review it for the LA Times, got 200 pages into it and threw it against a wall.”

    Harlan Ellison
    Dhalgren book cover

    In times of crisis, we look backwards for the ideas and leaders we need to transform the present. Ideas, intellectuals, visionaries, artists, philosophers are as strings in a vast sitar: when an idea in the present is plucked, a whole host of others from the past vibrate in sympathy. This is unfortunately as true for MAGAs as it is for the visionaries working to resurrect Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign or 70’s black feminism.

    I started reading Samuel Delaney’s 800-page epic Dhalgren because he fascinates me as someone who made space for himself in a sci-fi world that did not want him because of his race and his sexuality, and because he seemed to embody a fearless self-expression that is rare in any writer at any time. While I have seen his work mentioned in the context of black queer writers who brought the physicality of sex into the forefront of their work like Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde, and ideas from 1970’s revolutionary movements in general, it seems like Delaney’s work is more respected than read.

    Samuel Delaney

    Dhalgren is not easy to read. The novel’s protagonist, Kid, experiences memory loss, bizarre dreams, and psychotic breaks, all narrated in a formally experimental, stream-of-consciousness style. Episodes blur into incoherence without resolution, characters’ names change throughout the book, and trying to imagine a geography is a fool’s errand. Delaney himself compared the novel to a Necker cube—a simple graphic cube that seems to shift orientation by redirecting your perspective, but neither can be said to be the “right” answer. I was able to make headway once I surrendered to the feeling of being lost in the text and decided to forego trying to decode each line. Slowly, Bellona, USA, came into focus.

    Bellona is a large city, on the scale of Chicago or Philadelphia, somewhere in the midwest, in which something terribly strange has happened. Communications with the outside has been disrupted, no tv or radio signals make it into the city, there are only a few gateways to get in or out, and parts of the city have been destroyed, as through there were an attack or a bombing. Out of a city of millions, only some thousands remain. Those who remain scavenge food and supplies from abandoned stores, squatting in apartments and carrying on some version of their life before. There are hippies that live in a commune in the park, with utopian visions of rebuilding. A small number of middle-class characters try to carry on their routines despite increasingly ridiculous obstacles, commuting to abandoned office buildings and enjoying family dinners made of dwindling supplies. There is a Clockwork Orange-style hyper-violent street gang that lives communally and dominates the less weak on the strength of their weapons and the strange digital shields that they wear, which make them appear to be large, colorful, holographic animals. There is an apocalyptic cult, centered around a hyper-sexual, predatory black man named George Harrison, that plasters posters of his genitals around Bellona. Finally, there is a small group of remaining aristocracy centered around Calkins, the editor of a bizarre newspaper in which the dates and day of the week are random, and which is one of the few points of reference that cut across all of the social groups in Bellona. 

    We meet Kid at about the same time as he enters Bellona. He does not remember his name or his past and does not know why he is drawn to the place. The narrative is loose, basically a picaresque, with some metafictional elements as Kid picks up a notebook filled with some half-finished poems and begins to re/write them. Over the course of the story, Kid rises from naive outsider to leader of the Scorpions gang, to a larger-than-life figure that all of Bellona becomes fascinated by.

    All of the things that make Dhalgren difficult to read make it impossible to tidily suggest what it might be about. There are some questions that clearly interest Delaney, however: What keeps society going when there is no possibility of economic growth or a future? How do hierarchies change when the outside world can neither influence the culture nor enforce power structures? Would a world in which everyone was free to express their sexual desire be dystopian or utopian? What is good writing anyway? How do you write about sex with no referent to shame? The images and textures that seem to fascinate Delaney such that they shoot through his writing include the slightly gross underside of sexuality, the ripe genitals and fluids and wounds and scars; the way that white Americans view and talk about black Americans, especially their sexual fascination with them; mental illness, psychiatric hospitals, and thought control; predatory and nonconsensual sex; classical mythology; violence that comes out of interpersonal disrespect; and this incredible vocabulary (I have a pretty large vocabulary, and I was constantly looking up words while reading).

    Delaney’s idea of how society responds to collapse basically boils down to this: people are who they are, and they will generally just keep going even if all of the environmental feedback that they get is sending the message that it is a doomed strategy. This is my point of reference, probably not Samuel Delaney’s (although it certainly could have been), but I kept thinking about Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas, Bablyon, in which an isolated community survives following a nuclear attack. In that novel, neighbors throw off social hierarchies, band together, and pool resources and skills to start to make a new life for everybody. No such communal spirit emerges in Bellona. Delaney’s survivors maintain their social privileges, cling to familiar routines, and generally exist in a state of inertia slowly coming to rest. It is impossible to separate my reading of Dhalgren from the circumstances of my life: I recognized this futility in the various routines and rituals we have tried to bring into the coronavirus era. I am currently writing this from an empty office building in a massively depopulated downtown core.

    On the other hand, there is no way for the formal institutions that backstop social hierarchies—no police, government authority, state or federal power—to enforce their norms within the boundary of the city, which creates a kind of utopia for transgressive sexuality. This is something so radical for its time (Dhalgren was published 6 years after the Stonewall Riot) but so normal now that I missed it at first. Nightlife in Bellona revolves around Teddy’s, the last remaining bar, in which a nude trans (this is a contemporary label, the character never discusses their own identity the way we would now) dancer is the nightly entertainment. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual pairings happen at Teddy’s, and even George, the avatar for predatory male heterosexuality, refers to queers with a mocking amusement and seems to enjoy their admiration of his posters. There’s a kind of attitude of presumptive bisexuality, to the the point of comic absurdity. Jack, an astronaut representing institutional, bourgeoise squareness, complains, “I was real nice to people; and people was nice to me too. Tak? The guy I met with you, here? Now he’s a pretty all right person. And when I was staying with him, I tried to be nice. He wants to suck on my dick, I’d say: ‘Go ahead, man, suck on my fuckin dick.’ And, man, I ain’t never done nothin’ like that before…I mean not serious, like he was, you know? Now, I done it. I ain’t sorry I done it. I don’t got nothin’ against it. But it is just not what I like all that much, you understand? I want a girl, with tits and a pussy. Is that so strange?

    Kid meets Lana, a musician and teacher with more or less middle-class manners and attitudes, and Denny, a 15-year old hustler that seems to remind Kid of a younger version of himself. He has sexual relationships with them separately, and then they form a thruple, the relationship takes on a character of its own: “The scent of Denny’s breath, which was piney, joined Lanya’s, which reminded Kid of ferns.” I’m so hungry for representations of those forms of relationships that these were my favorite parts of the book. Delaney’s willingness to push way past the boundaries of taboo and taste make room for surprising moments of tenderness. When Kid intuits that Denny has a kink for degradation, he explores hitting and spitting and verbally humiliating him. After a few more times having sex, Denny nervously tells Kid—who has shown himself to be capriciously violent in the context of being the gang group leader—that he doesn’t particularly enjoy the physical roughness, and Kid instantly changes his approach, saving small bits of verbal humiliation for sexual encounters. In the context of musing about whether he subconsciously wants to get gang banged (when does that happen in a novel, even today?), Kid remembers to the night before where, even though he finds bottoming too painful to enjoy, he let Denny fuck him. “…the emotional thing there, anyway, was nice,” he remembers. His relationship with Layna is totally hands off and non-controlling. When a character tries to shame Kid for Lanya pursuing other relationships, Kid growls back, “if my old lady wants to fuck a sheep with a dildo strapped to her nose, that is largely her concern, very secondarily mine, and not yours at all. She can fuck anything she wants—with the possible exception of you. That, I think, would turn my stomach.”

    This utopian picture of prejudice melting away in isolation does not extend to race. Dhalgren is saturated with racialized language language to an extent that is just extremely uncomfortable to me. N****r is used 80 times in the text, and there are several more epithets used commonly and casually. One of the most provocative uses of race in the novel is in the character of George Harrison, who embodies the racist stereotype of a buck from his physically dominant frame, hyper-sexuality, and predation. When Kid arrives, Bellona is recovering from a riot in the black neighborhoods precipitated by an incident where George rapes a 17-year old white girl, after which photos and an interview where George boasts at length about the rape are printed in the newspaper. A subplot moving through the novel involves various Bellonians keeping the girl from finding George, there’s an almost supernatural suggestion that if they were to get together then Bellona would really be finished. Delaney treats racial aggression, degradation, white consumption of the black body like Kara Walker’s plantation cutouts: symbols of erotic power that are literally unspeakable in civil society but hugely active on the subconscious of the culture.

    I did not quite like Dhalgren. It is hard to read, it is often disgusting, a lot of it is very boring. I cannot write it off, though, because look at how much there is to think about! I was hoping to have this encounter with a radical black, queer voice, and I don’t think I was open enough, at the beginning, to understanding that Delaney and his work has it’s own set of interests apart from being a defanged mascot for me in the present. There is so much depicted in this novel that has become even more taboo in sexual culture now than it was at publication: racial fetishization, sex with teenagers, rape fantasies, gang rape, physical violence, piss drinking, scat eating. I don’t think that it would have occurred to Delaney back then that there was even a question that depiction could be different than endorsement. Right now we have this weird thing going on—an interim period where renegotiation of sexual norms that were not working for many people is going on, something that is more good than bad, on balance—where the distinction between erotic fantasy, public reputation, and real-life sexual conduct are all collapsing.

    The kind of freedom that Delaney takes to simply explore, with his imagination, flies in the face of an ethic that says that perpetuating harmful images does real harm to vulnerable communities. Who has more right than he to make that judgement? He writes about gang raped, and he was gang raped by three men while hooking up with men across a language barrier. He writes disgusting things about black people, and he was the grandson of slaves with family stories of lynchings and various artists of the Harlem Renaissance who were friends with his father. Delaney understood the power of disgust, how closely the feeling resembles pornographic thrill.

    Put another way: if a man and a woman fantasize about enacting and being raped, and the real-life consequence of their fantasy is a mutually consensual sexual encounter, and another couple admits no erotic fantasies but has bought into wild Q-Anon fantasies that there are pedophile rings and sex trafficking on every street in America, who are the perverts?

    The swing from sexual repression to sexual liberation is a pendulum, and right now I cannot see what part of the arc we are in. It seems like there is a lot of pressure on queer conduct from the right wing, and a lot of pressure on the queer imagination from the left. I cannot imagine writing Dhalgren. I can barely admit to reading it seriously. I wish for myself the freedom of imagination that Delaney granted himself, and I wish for myself the fearlessness he had in sharing it. That, I feel confident, is something Dhalgren has to give to the present

  • skyrim

    It’s dark in the tailor’s shop. As I extinguish each candle, the light dims and the bright yellow children’s dresses, green ladies’ gowns, and smart purple waistcoats settle deeper into dull nighttime grey. In a few minutes, I will close the front door and return to my rooms above the shop for a quiet supper. A bottle of cheap Alto wine and a heavy volume of A Dance in Fire will keep me company on the journey into sleep.

    The door opens, and a striking woman made of cuts and muscle walks in wearing nothing but her smallclothes and a gaudy Amulet of Diabella perched on her head. She carries no knapsack, she has no pockets, but she walks slowly, groaning under the weight of a vast unseen treasure. An unhappy looking woman in full battle gear follows, too ashamed to meet my eyes.

    “What do you sell here?,” the unclothed woman asked. “Ah, fuck it. Doesn’t really matter, does it? Here’s the deal: I would like to take all of your gold, and in return I will sell you these 700 decorative spider carcasses I found, for premium prices.”

    What the fuck would I do with one decorative spider carcass, I wondered,  but when I opened my mouth to answer, the words that came out of my mouth were “I do hope you’ll remain in Solitude. The city could do with some new blood.”

    I play video games one of two ways: like an addict or not at all. It’s not easy for me to complete a game. Online multiplayer stresses me out, I don’t have the interest or patience to refine my skills enough to master platformers or racing games, and sports games mean less than nothing to me. I can get very immersed in single player narrative games, but I quit in frustration when a puzzle or battle gets hard, and over time it becomes demotivating to boot up the console and immediately be faced with a difficult and frustrating scenario to move through before I can get back to having fun. I like action RPGs because their controls tend to be pretty simple and their short missions can produce a reward relatively quickly.

    In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I spent a lot of time playing Skyrim. Skyrim is over 10 years old but I tend to play the same games over again rather than seeking out new ones. RPGs fascinate me because they are nothing like life. Even if they do not have a fantastical setting (Is The Sims a deconstructed RPG?) they incorporate the fantasy that skills advance linearly, that we get to make informed decisions at the crossroads of our lives, and that we can reliably predict the consequences of those choices. If RPGs were more like real life, skill descriptions would all have conflicting information, all of it bad. Advancing one more level in one skill might close off others without warning. Halfway through your game a new tool might make all of the skill points you allocated obsolete, and you might discover late in the game that your buddy with all of the achievements started the game with a handful of advantages that you aren’t allowed to mention in their presence.

    If you look at RPGs not as games, but as spiritual training tools—and why not so look?—you might notice that even though RPGs simulate the hero’s journey of growth and empowerment with all of the uncertainty and unpredictability  edited out of that process, there is one deeply human dilemma that emerges late in every RPG: the featureless boredom of a life lived too long or with too much ease or with too many resources.

    In this play-through of Skyrim, I have progressed to the level where no battles are that challenging, loot and potions are plentiful, and the acquisition of trophies make no emotional impact. Take too much friction out and there is no story in the world that will keep a players interest. Most people are not inherently interested in optimizing weapons or endlessly visiting shopkeepers in a circuit to try and convert loot into gold.  There are different strategies out there to try and mitigate that boredom. GTA: V  brings in a property ownership layer to slowly convert the game into a simple resource management game; Destiny points you increasingly firmly toward online multiplayer content; Fallout 4 slows down your progression by introducing side quests that must be completed quickly to not lose conquered territory. 

    So you start to do the things that are rewarding: weird collections, dressing up avatars, making virtual dollhouses, playing the parts of the game that you still find fun and ignoring the rest. I had a friend who tried to collect every coffee mug in Fallout 3, and in another game he kept a house filled with human skulls picked up elsewhere. Which—forget the skulls—is about the range of options that any human has left, once your needs are attended to. You also have the option of trying to figure out ways to break it, there’s a huge catalog of Youtube videos of players catching the perfect bug or perfect coincidence.

    This also explains some of the stranger, anti-social behavior of the hyper-wealthy, behavior that I do not understand and yet affects my life so much directly and indirectly. Anybody with any interesting qualities or a healthy self-esteem would have taken the freedom to not have to work and done something more interesting with their time well before their wealth could be measured in billions. Gamers, playing an RPG past the point where the game had any challenge, compulsively optimizing their gameplay for gold acquisition is as good a lens as any to describe their affect and behavior. Time to prestige.

  • Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat!

    This delightful tweet from Linda Holmes sent me down the rabbit hole this afternoon exploring “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” and learning a little more about its composer, Frank Loesser.

    “Sit Down” is a showstopper from the musical Guys & Dolls: the gambler Nicely-Nicely bullshits a temperance congregation into buying that he has been reformed after a religious epiphany in a dream. A context that isn’t as visible to today’s audiences, as both the early 1930’s in which the musical is set and the early 50’s in which it was staged blur together in the rear-view mirror, is that Dolls was a loving tribute to the outsize characters of a time past; it is a similar project to the 80’s movies/musicals that pay tribute to 50’s and 60’s styles, like Grease, Dirty Dancing, Footloose, American Graffiti, and Little Shop of Horrors. Most of Dolls is written in a sophisticated pastiche of Big Band and Swing-era jazz, and it’s a mark of success that so many songs from the musical have become standards. For story reasons, “Sit Down” also draws upon the densely chromatic close harmony choral style that you might be familiar with from Disney animated musicals like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or Dumbo, and the white gospel/tent revival style from a song like “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’.”

    Frank Loesser was a truly fascinating American character. His father was a pianist and made his living teaching, but for whatever reason—reading between the lines here, some tough personality clashes—his father never formally taught Loesser. He was self-taught on several instruments on the incredible strength of his ear, but seemed never to develop his musical reading or writing skills. Still, I think all of that dense European classical harmony is shot through his music.

    The first song of his that really came to my attention is “Inchworm,” from the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. It has a beautiful childlike melody, and wrings so much sensuality from small and deceptively simple harmonic movements. [In addition to the many jazz and pop artists that covered it, it was a special favorite of David Bowie, who wrote, “Ashes To Ashes wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for Inchworm. There’s a nursery rhyme element in it, and there’s something so sad and mournful and poignant about it. It kept bringing me back to the feelings of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they’re so identifiable even when you’re an adult.“]

    Loesser was always connected to music but had to make his way in the world from a young age and made his living as a young man in various creative fields like advertising and business. His first entrance into show business was writing jokes for Borscht Belt comedians, then started writing lyrics for other composers. It is astounding to me, given how fresh and unique his musical style was, that he was well into mid-career and his forties before he was able to compose and write lyrics for his own musicals.

    The lyrics are great! Steven Sondheim singled out Loesser as having virtually perfect lyric writing technique, marveling at his ability to sound both conversational and stylishly playful in verse. Just look at that line I quoted in the title: “by the sharp lapel of your checkered coat”—those marvelous assonant plosive p’s in sharp and lapel and c’s in chekered and coat (by assonant, I mean the same consonant sound is repeated, and by plosive I mean that the consonant sound is made by a sudden burst of air). Those are the kind of words that demand to be sung, even if they weren’t also funny and charming and told a story.

    But it’s the music that has been stuck in my ears all day. I love the way that the sopranos in the chorus keep going up the pentatonic scale to hit the high note at 1:16 in the first video, and the way the chorus builds a chord in the phrase after at 1:23. I love the surprising cadences that lead into the verse, the chordal motion echoing church hymns. For such a big company number, the verses are surprisingly slow and its an incredible role for somebody who has the energy to ham it up.

    Other notable videos…

    Walter Bobbie at the 1993 (94?) Tony’s

    Just a murderer’s row of early 90’s talent, including J.K. Simmons, who is dead center and looking totally committed (this was even before his breakout role on Oz as a sadistic gay neo-Nazi), Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sambella (who would voice Timon and Pumbaa a few years after this performance).

    Titus Burgess at the 2009 Tony’s


    This was before Burgess’ breakout performance as Titus Andromedon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and really shows off his incredible upper range. Worth it to watch the moment when he had to roll with switching the mics due to a technical malfunction on live TV!

    Justin Keyes at the Guthrie Theater

    I have a secret to admit—I’m not actually much of a musicals or theater person, very much an interested casual fan—, so I didn’t know what the Guthrie Theater was. If this is representative of the average quality of productions out there in Minnesota, though, I think I need to make a visit to Minneapolis. Fantastic singing, incredible costuming and choreography.

    Clive Rowe on Great Performances


    Rowe has a wonderful voice for this character (he does an incredible vocal trick at 2:02 that made my jaw drop). The tempo here is a little sleepy and takes a lot of energy out of the number, imho, but the orchestration is a little less swing-band and a little more Dixieland/hot jazz, which I thought was cool.

    The Cast of Glee


    Given the influence of Glee on theater kids, gay boys, and future Broadway cast members of my generation, I thought it was interesting that “Sit Down” was featured on the very fist episode of the show, showing how central it is to the American songbook.

    Ashton Harris & The Hillsboro High School Players

    This was far and away the best high school performance I found on YouTube. Ashton Harris did a great job here. If you look through other high school performances, you can see where the trouble spots for less-trained voices are: In the narration verses, a lot of the long belted notes are high in the range, so if the young singer does not have strong pitch control it is very easy to go sharp. The choruses are very lyric-dense for the soloist, the words come fast, the tempo is fast, adrenaline is cranking your heart rate up and throwing your internal clock off, everyone around you is singing at full volume so you can’t hear the pit very well, and the line is syncopated. Almost all of the high school soloists rush through “And the devil will drag you under” and end up a full beat ahead by the end of the choruses.

    Frank Loesser with Frank Loesser

    Here’s the man himself. He had a perfectly serviceable voice, and it’s interesting to hear this simplified solo piano reduction by the man who wrote it, it shows what he thought was the essence of the song, and which lines he liked to mug with.

    …and one orthogonal connection.

    Loesser’s other big Broadway hit was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which also has a faux-revival big production number, “Brotherhood of Man.” NBC inexplicably chose this number for their network promo in 2012, which I was introduced to by this tweet. It feels insane to see this chosen, given NBC’s institutional problems with sexism in leadership and the no less than 4 sexual predators featured in the casts here. Every segment has something hilarious to look at. [Also it’s catchy as fuck and I will pay you $10 to tell me what that insane dance move that Ken Jeong does is.]

  • geek fascism

    aerial photography of seashore
    Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

    To my mind, there is no better place on the internet where highbrow and lowbrow mingle freely and in various novel mixtures than the Los Angeles Review of Books. Their contributors feel young and fresh compared to other “serious” book review outlets, their interests range from narrow academic topics to popular culture and any given essay or review draws freely from a full range of epistemology from first-person experience to the most obscure hermaneutics. I think that the context in which it was launched—a time when the academic market is in free-fall and with anybody with a specialized field of knowledge, particularly those at the beginning of their career doubting whether any of it means anything—gives it a kind of freedom to take leaps and make wild syntheses that I’m not seeing elsewhere.

    I can’t be sure about this, because LA institutions are certainly capable of looking diverse while maintaining racist disparities out of the public eye, but it also seems that there is a greater general expectation that the LARB audience is diverse than some of the “traditional” reviews (London, New York).

    Anyway, I’ll stop gushing. I just enjoy them so much.

    LARB published two articles marking the 50th anniversary of Frank Herbert’s Dune: one placing the novel in the context of the West Coast counterculture, and another exploring how online fascism has adopted it into their subculture.

    They are both great, and full of interesting ideas and connections. In the former, I was struck by Herbert’s upbringing, a unique mixture of experiences that fed into a work of writing outside of the usual left/right, conterculture/conservative binaries:

    Frank Herbert grew up on the political fringe. His grandparents were members of the Social Democracy of America — an ancestor of today’s Democratic Socialists of America — and helped found a socialist commune in Washington State, north of Tacoma. That’s where his father was raised, and it’s where Herbert spent many of his young years. Though the formal experiment in socialism died a few years before his birth in 1920, Herbert recalled inheriting some “rock-ribbed ideas about the ways people should live together.” Mainly, these concerned autonomy and mutual aid. The Depression ravaged the country but left his family, which grew its own food, intact. Herbert remembered those dark years as “marvelous times.”


    It’s easy to imagine that this socialist-raised, Native American–sympathizing young man would become a leftist. But for Herbert, commune living and Indian Henry’s backwoods lessons firmed up a hostility to the federal government. He came to oppose “any kind of public charity system,” he explained, because he “learned early on that our society’s institutions often weaken people’s self-reliance.” So, rather than following the trail of cooperative socialism to New Deal liberalism, he tacked in the opposite direction. Herbert became a Republican.

    Daniel Immelwahr, “Heresies of ‘Dune’”, LA Review of Books

    Our present moment is so deeply shaped by the conflict over counterculture and the antiwar movement. Although the movie was flawed for all of the same reasons that Aaron Sorkin is flawed, I thought The Trial of the Chicago Seven dramatized that well. Our boundaries of what are acceptable things to say, acceptable left-wing opinions to hold, are still constrained by the high water marks of that movement, and the scars of its failure. All of the compromises, issues that were never given center stage because they were feared to be unpopular, they are the millstones around our neck now. Thinking back to Herbert’s Pacific Northwest utopia, a community of white socialist colonizers on the same land that had been taken in active genocide only 30 or 40 years previously, it is clear to me that the America (or West Coast) that fomented the counterculture is such a dramatically different place that I don’t understand it.

    It’s also a bit of a dire warning that people don’t always draw the conclusions we expect them to from their life experiences. I couldn’t help thinking of latinos who voted for **** this past election.

Matthew Eilar

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This is my personal blog. I’ve been blogging since 2008, and self-hosting this blog on Linode since 2020.

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