Face down

We all had a good laugh when Apple decided that the future of technology was making you unlock your phone by wiggling it in front of your face, every time you need to use it, in public. But the thing about extremely stupid ideas is that they have real underlying causes, which is why the funniest things are often simultaneously the most serious. This is no exception, and the real issue here is particularly not pretty.

We should start by admitting an oft-ignored truth, which is that passwords are good. They’re the correct form of security at the level of the individual user, and the reason for this is that they are a proper technical implementation of consent. The problem is that, when a system gets a request to provide access to an account, it has no idea why or from where the request is coming in; it just has the request itself. So the requirement is that access is provided if and only if the person associated with the account wants it to be provided. The way you implement this is by establishing an unambiguous communication signal. This works just like a safe word in a BDSM scene: you take a signal that would normally never occur and assign a fixed meaning to it, so that when it does occur, you know exactly what it means. That’s what a password is, and that’s why it works. “Security questions,” on the other hand, are precisely how passwords don’t work, because anything personally associated with you is not a low frequency signal. Anyone who knows that information can just send it in, so it doesn’t accord with user consent. All those celebrities who got hacked were actually compromised through their security questions, because of course they were, because personal information about celebrities is publicly available. They would have been perfectly fine had their email systems simply relied on generic passwords.

Furthermore, none of the alleged problems with passwords are real problems. The reason for all the stupid alternate-character requirements on passwords is supposedly that they increase complexity, but this doesn’t actually matter. The only thing that matters is that the signal is low frequency, and the problem with a password like “password123” isn’t that it lacks some particular combination of magic characters,1 but is simply that it’s high frequency. But anything that wouldn’t be within a random person’s top 100 guesses is, for practical purposes, zero frequency, so a password like “kittensarecute” or “theboysarebackintown” is essentially 100% secure. There’s no actual reason to complicate it any further, and in fact several reasons not to, because forgetting your password or having to write it down are real security threats.

Literally the only problem with simple passwords like this is that they can be hacked; that is, a computer program can derive them from a fixed pattern. If your password is a combination of dictionary words, then a “dictionary attack” can derive it from all the possible combinations of all the words in the dictionary in a relatively short amount of time, because that’s actually not all that much data. The frequency isn’t low enough. But the thing about this is that it’s portrayed as an end-user problem when it isn’t one at all; it’s a server problem. A user can’t actually guess how their password is going to be hacked; the attacker might use a dictionary attack, or they might pick a different pattern that happens to match the one you used in an attempt to evade a dictionary attack. The real way to prevent this is for the server to disallow it – the server shouldn’t allow a frequency of attempts high enough to convert a low-frequency signal into a high-frequency one. Preventing this isn’t the user’s job, because they can’t actually do anything about it. The server can.

And of course no one is ever actually going to hack your password. You don’t matter enough for anyone to care. What actually happens, as one hears about constantly in the news, is that a company’s server gets breached and all the passwords on it are compromised from the back end. When this happens, the strength and secrecy of your password are completely irrelevant, because the attacker already has your credentials, no matter what form they’re in. Again, this is not a problem with passwords. The passwords are doing their job; it’s the server that’s failing.

So the thing about biometrics is that they’re worse than passwords, because they don’t implement consent. At best, they implement identity, but that’s not what you want. If the police arrest you and want to snoop through your phone without a warrant, they have your identity, so if your phone is secured through biometrics, they have access to it without your consent. But they don’t have your password unless you give it to them. Similarly, the ability of passwords to be changed when needed is a strength. It’s part of the implementation of consent: if the situation changes such that the previously agreed-upon term no longer communicates the thing its supposed to communicate, you have to be able to change it. In BDSM terms, if your safe word is “lizard,” but then you want to do a scene about, y’know, lizard people or something, then the word isn’t going to convey the right thing anymore, so you have to come up with a new one. This is the same thing that happens in a data breach: because someone else knows your password, it no longer communicates consent – but precisely because you can change it, it can continue to perform its proper function. Whereas if someone steals your biometric data, you’re fucked forever. So when Apple touts the success rate or whatever of their face-scanning thing, they’ve completely missed the point. It doesn’t matter how accurate it is, because it implements the wrong thing.2

So, given all of this, why would a major company expend the amount of resources required to implement biometrics? We’ve already seen the answers. First, passwords look bad from the end-user perspective, because they feel insecure – unless you’re forced to use a random jumble of characters, in which case they feel obnoxious. And in either case you have to manage multiple passwords, which can be genuinely difficult. Biometrics, by contrast, feel secure, even though they’re not, and they’re very easy to use. They also feel “future-y,” allowing companies to sell them like some big new fancy innovation, when they’re actually a step backwards. In short, they’re pretty on the outside. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, Apple is invested in the conceptualization of technology as magic.

More than that, though, biometrics demonstrate a focus on the appearance of security at the expense of its actuality – that is, they’re security theater. What all those data breaches in the news indicate is that, for all the ridiculous security paraphernalia that gets foisted on us, companies don’t actually bother much with security on their end. They don’t want to spend the money, so they make you do it, and because you can’t do it, because you don’t actually have the necessary means, the result is actual insecurity. Thus, the appearance of security, mediated by opaque technology that most people don’t understand, provides these companies with cover for their own incompetence. The only function being performed here by “technology” is distraction.3

What this means, then, is that technology isn’t technology. That is, the things that we talk about when we talk about “tech” aren’t actually about tech. Indeed, “tech companies” aren’t even tech companies4. Google and Facebook make their money through advertising; they’re ad companies. The fact that they use new types of software to sell their ads is only relevant to their business model in that provides a shimmery sci-fi veneer to disguise their true, hideous forms. Amazon is not actually a website; it’s a big-box retailer in exactly the same vein as Target and Wal-Mart. A lot of people thought it was “ironic” when Amazon stated opening physical stores, but that’s only the case if you assume that Amazon has some kind of ideological commitment to online ordering. What Amazon has an ideological commitment to is capturing market share, and they’re going to keep doing that using whatever technological means are available to them. Driving physical retailers out of business and then filling the vacuum with their own physical stores is precisely in line with how Amazon operates – it’s what you should expect them to do, if you actually understand what type of thing they are. Uber is only an “app” in the sense that that mediates their actual business model, which is increasing the profits of taxi services by evading regulations and passing costs on the the drivers (Uber’s business model doesn’t account for the significant maintenance costs incurred by constantly operating a vehicle, because those costs are borne by the drivers, who aren’t Uber’s employees. But Uber still takes the same cut of the profits regardless.) Apple is the closest, since they actually develop new technology, but even then they mostly make money by selling hardware (after having it manufactured as cheaply as possible), meaning they’re really just in the old-fashioned business of commodity production.

So if you try to understand these companies in terms of “tech,” you’re going to get everything wrong. There isn’t a design reason why Apple makes the choices it does; there’s a business reason. Nobody actually wanted an iPhone without a headphone port, but Apple relies on their sleek, minimalist imagery to move products, so they had to make the phone slimmer, even if it meant removing useful functionality. And of course no one is ever going to be interested in a solid-glass phone that shatters into a million pieces when you sneeze at it, but Apple had to come up with something that looked impressive to appease the investors and the media drones, so that’s what we got.

But this isn’t even limited to just these “new” companies; it’s the general dynamic by which technology relates to economics. There’s been a recent countertrend of elites pointing out that, actually, modern society is pretty great from a historical perspective, but they’re missing the point that this is despite our system of social organization, not because of it. That is, barring extreme disasters along the lines of the bubonic plague or the thing that we’re currently running headlong into, it would be incomprehensibly bizarre for the general standard of living not to increase over time. As long as humans are engaged in any productive activity at all, things are going to continuously get better, because things are being produced. The fact that we’re not seeing this – that real wages have been stagnant for decades and people are more stressed and have less leisure time then ever – indicates that we are in the midst of precisely such a disaster. Our current economic system is a world-historical catastrophe on par with the Black Death.

Do I even need to explicitly point out that this is why global warming is happening? It isn’t because of technology, it’s because rich fucks have decided they’d rather destroy the world for a short-term profit than be slightly less rich. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the physics are such that everyone is going to die, but the decision itself was made a long time ago. If it wasn’t greenhouse gasses, it would be something else. There’s always nuclear war or mass starvation or what have you. The fact of the matter is that we’ve chosen a social configuration that doesn’t support human life. That’s the whole story.

To address this technically, it’s certainly true that the age of capitalism has seen a vast increase in worldwide standards of living, but it’s not capitalism that caused that. It’s actually the opposite: trade and industrialization created the conditions for capitalism to become possible in the first place. Capitalism is not the cause of industrialization or globalization, it’s the response to these things. It is the determination of how the results of these things will be applied, and what actually happens it that it ensures that the gains will always be pointed in the wrong direction. The fact of globalization has nothing to do with any of the problems attributed to it; the problems reside entirely in how globalization is happening: who’s managing it, what their priorities are, and where the results are going. Like, it’s really amazing to consider how much potential productivity is being wasted right now. All the people employed in advertising, or in building yachts, or in think tanks, or on corporate advisory boards, or in failed attempts at “regime change,” or designing new gadgets that are less functional then the old ones, or all those dumbass “internet-connected” kitchen appliances, all of that, all of the time and energy and resources being spent on all of that stuff and far more, is all pure waste. Imagine the kind of society we could have if all of that potential were actually being put to productive use.

And it’s deeply hilarious how committed everyone is to misunderstanding this as thoroughly as possible. Like, the actual word we have for someone who negatively fetishizes technology is “Luddite,” but the Luddites were precisely people who cared about the practical results of technology – they cared about the fact that their livelihoods were being destroyed. They attacked machines because those machines were killing them. Every clueless takemonger inveighing about how globalization is leaving people behind or social media is dividing us or smartphones are alienating us is completely failing to grasp the basic point that the Luddites instinctively understood. The results of technological developments are not properties of the technology itself; they arise from political choices. The technology is simply the means by which those choices are implemented. In just the same way, attacking technology is not merely a symptom of incomprehension or phobia or lifestyle. It is also a political choice.

An engine doesn’t tell you where to go or how to travel. It just generates kinetic energy. It can take you past the horizon, but if you instead point it into a ditch, it will be equally happy to drive you straight into the dirt. There’s nothing counterintuitive about that; the function of technology is no great mystery. It just obeys the rules – not only the physical ones, but the social ones as well. All of the problems that people attribute to technology (excepting things like software glitches that are actual implementation failures) are actually problems with the rules. The great lesson of the age of technology is that technology doesn’t matter; as long as society continues on in its present configuration, everything will continue to get worse.


  1. The way you can tell that complexity requirements are bullshit is that they’re all different. There are plenty of nerds available to run the numbers on this, so if there really were a particular combination of requirements that resulted in “high security,” it would have been figured out by now and the same solution would have been implemented everywhere. But because the actual solution is contextual – that is, it’s the thing that no one else is guessing, which also means it’s unstable – you can’t implement it as a fixed list of requirements. The reason it feels like each website’s requirements are just some random ideas that some intern thought sounded “secure” enough is because that’s actually what they are. 
  2. I mean, face-scanning can’t actually work the way they say it does, because of identical twins. If the scan can distinguish between identical twins, that means it’s using contextual cues such as hair and expression, which means there are cases when these things would cause it to fail for an individual user, and if it can’t distinguish between identical twins (or doppelgangers), then that’s also a failure. I’d also be curious to know how much work the engineers put into controlling for makeup, because that’s a pretty common and major issue, and I’m guessing the answer is not much. 
  3. The real situation is significantly more dire than this. It isn’t just that Equifax, for example, sucks at security, it’s that Equifax should not exist in the first place. Taking the John Oliver Strategy and making fun of Equifax for being a bunch of dummies completely misses what’s really going on here. 
  4. I’m not giving up my “tech assholes” tag though, it’s too perfect. 

A glass darkly


Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump are the same person. If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand anything.

First of all, they’re both rich fucks. This isn’t, like, a coincidence. People don’t “just happen” to get rich. Your relationship to the material conditions of your existence is one of the primary determinants of who you are as a person. Before we even get into any other considerations, the actual act of being rich is itself immoral. When you or I imagine being “rich,” we imagine things like having a big house in a quiet neighborhood and a fancy car and an extensive record collection, but this isn’t what being actually rich is like. Being actually rich means literally having more money than it is physically possible to spend – even after resorting to ridiculous luxuries like owning three summer vacation mansions filled with rare art collections that you only visit one week a year or buying a Hawaiian island. It’s difficult to really imagine what things like this are like, which is why a lot of people resist this argument: they can’t imagine a situation where losing money results in no material deprivation whatsoever. But this is the real situation that our society has decided to create for some people, and it’s the situation that Winfrey and Trump both inhabit every waking moment. Every dollar they hoard is a dollar’s worth of food taken out of the mouth of a starving person. There is no word for this other than “evil.”

People like to talk about whether rich fucks “deserve” their money or not, but this is completely irrelevant to the argument. Remember, we’re talking about money in excess of the amount that you can actually spend on all the luxuries and projects during the amount of time you’re awake each day. Since you would lose absolutely nothing by giving it away, since your life would remain exactly the same with or without it, whereas lots of other people’s lives would improve immeasurably upon receiving even the tiniest fraction of it, there can be no possible justification for keeping it, regardless of its source. It doesn’t matter whether the money came from a big sack you found in the street or whether it was a boon bestowed upon you by god herself in recognition of your exceptional personal character. Philanthropy, which we’ll discuss further in just a moment, has no effect on this, because the issue is not how much money is being given away, but how much is being kept. A person living paycheck to paycheck does not lose virtue points for not giving to charity, because all the money they have is already being put to valuable use. A rich fuck does lose virtue points for every dollar they keep in the bank, because that money is being kept from people whom it could be helping. It is the actual holding of the money, in a situation where billions of others need money to survive, that constitutes the immorality. And considering the scale of the situation, this pretty much overrides any other possible concerns regarding what kind of person someone is. Like, if you knew someone whose construction company built concentration camps, you wouldn’t really give a shit if they seemed nice and empathetic in person. This is almost exactly the same thing.

But even if we do feel the need to interrogate the source of money as an indication of its recipient’s character, Winfrey and Trump are still in the same situation. Just as being rich is not a coincidence, getting rich is also a matter of a particular type of interfacing with present social conditions. Again, when you or I imagine getting rich, we imagine things like getting a big promotion or writing a bestselling novel or something – something that reflects our own abilities and doesn’t hurt anyone else. This isn’t how getting actually rich works. In a capitalist society, they way you make money is through exploitation. People who work for a living can only ever make enough to cover their own expenses, maybe with some extra left over for luxuries and savings if their skills happen to be in demand at the time. The way you make walking-around money is by extracting the value of other people’s labor, and the way you make a lot of money is by extracting a lot of value from the labor of a lot of people. The way you get actually rich is by building an empire. I mean, that’s exactly the term we use, we call things “media empires” or “construction empires,” and that’s exactly what they are. They’re giant exploitation engines in which the lives of millions of people are ground up into lubricant for the lifestyles of the rulers. It’s really not even a metaphor; they literally consume people’s flesh and blood. The fact that Winfrey is a self-made man and Trump is a trust fund baby doesn’t really impinge on any of this. If anything, it reflects worse on Winfrey; Trump inherited his father’s immorality, while Winfrey built her towering edifice of bullshit with her own two hands. Because we live in a society that allocates resources immorally, the people who succeed in it are the people who are the most immoral. Making money is a bad thing that makes you a bad person.

Those are the general principles, but this particular comparison is especially interesting, because Winfrey and Trump are not merely representatives of the same class, but representatives of the same belief system, with exactly the same M.O. Like, Bill Gates got rich by being a monopolist, but his company actually did produce products that people use. He added something to the world. Winfrey and Trump do not merit even this basic distinction; they are pure self-advertisers whose only product is their own image. The way Trump operated was not by actually building things, but by buying other people’s products and inflating their value through hype campaigns. Since the hype always far exceeds any actual value (especially since Trump has negative taste and can therefore be counted on to always select the worst products), there’s inevitably a collapse, at which point Trump sends out his lawyers and accountants to pocket the proceeds and leave other people holding the losses. In almost exactly the same way, Winfrey attaches herself to other people’s books and ideas and uses them to inflate her own image. Since the marketing of these things always far exceeds their actual content (especially since Winfrey is a credulous hack and can therefore be counted on to always select the most diluted variety of snake-oil on display), the fad inevitably dies out, at which point Winfrey shields herself from any fallout by simply moving on to the next trend (or occasionally issuing a Serious Apology if there’s a real scandal). People like this are worse even than rentiers, since they don’t even own the things they put their names on. They are pure value extractors; perfect parasites.

Even more than that, though, the similarities in Winfrey’s and Trump’s approaches point to something deeper than circumstantial convergence; they point to the same underlying ideology. Focusing solely on image and advertising necessarily requires complete adherence to existing values and standards. This is because symbols have to have referents; people have to know what you’re talking about, and if there’s no actual underlying product with its own value, the only way this is possible is if you’re saying something that people already believe.

When personal computers first came out, they were a new type of thing, so people didn’t already understand what they could do. This meant they couldn’t be marketed with pure bullshit, but had to actually function such that people who used them got something out of it. The same thing happened with smartphones; Apple’s insufferable advertising notwithstanding, it was only once people started using smartphones and experiencing the various things they could do (not all of it good, but still) that they became popular. A less compromised example is the Sriracha hot sauce guy. Sriracha has become a cultural buzzword in the complete absence of any marketing or promotion of it whatsoever. I had no idea where the stuff even came from until I saw that article. Because it’s a quality product, you don’t have to conjure up fantasies of fun-loving bikini girls or rugged manliness in order to sell it. It’s actually good; it has its own value, and is therefore able to speak for itself.

So here’s the important part: if you don’t have something with its own value, then you do have to rely on all that other stuff; you have to piggyback off of preexisting sources of value. You obviously have to have some sort of value claim in order to make a pitch to people. If you have a valuable product, this claim can potentially be something new. The concept of “personal productivity” didn’t used to be a thing, but once various types of machines became popularly accessible, it became something that could actually exist and was therefore possible to value. New values like this may or may not end up being good things, of course, but at least they’re new, and they’re based on real things that people can do. If you don’t have a source of value, you have no basis from which to make a new claim, so you have to make an old one. You have to play to a preestablished fantasy.

The fantasy that Trump plays to is the fantasy of opulence. It’s the idea that money determines everything in the world, and therefore aligning yourself with money gets you the best possible experience. Buying Trump-branded products ensures that you’re getting the most expensive and therefore highest-quality goods, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. The fantasy that Winfrey plays to is the fantasy of self-help. This is almost exactly the same idea: that choosing the right products and thinking the right way amounts to a secret formula for living a perfect life. Buying the products and following the trends chosen by Winfrey’s magical insight ensures that you’re getting real true meaning, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. (Also, do people really not notice that Winfrey specifically plays to the Magical Negro stereotype? Her whole thing is being “spiritual” and “authentic” and using that to serve as a lifestyle guide for rich white women. I don’t understand why people who would raise hell about this sort of thing in any other context give a pass to the one person who deserves it the least.)

The only actual difference between Winfrey and Trump is aesthetic. Specifically, Trump caters to the masculine side of the consumerist fantasy, selling suits and steaks and golf club memberships to promote the ideal of being a big important businessman, while Winfrey caters to the feminine side, selling diets and empathy and mindfulness to promote the ideal of being a magical unicorn princess. The reason this makes Winfrey look better on the TV is that femininity is significantly closer to a real standard of what being a decent person is like than masculinity is. (As just a few examples, femininity includes care, attention to detail, a focus on practical reality, and a basic level of concern for other people.) But a) aesthetics, while nontrivial, do not override morality, and b) Winfrey’s aesthetics are still overwhelmingly the aesthetics of rich fucks, which is to say their similarities with Trump’s are greater than their differences. Trump’s business books actually are self-help books, just marketed to a different audience. Trump University is exactly the same thing as The Secret, sold with exactly the same language.

Thus, Winfrey, no less than Trump, is a complete prisoner of the existing social order. Under ordinary circumstances this would merely be pitiable, but because these people have actual power, they do not only suffer from but also actively advance these harmful values. Their ideological commitments go so deep that they are unable to escape them even when they’re trying to help. Trump’s idea of charity is giving way free rounds of golf, and his idea of helping people is Trump University, an actual shakedown factory so blunt mafiosi would consider it beneath their honor. Winfrey, while less of an explicit con artist and more of an actual philanthropist, still favors spectacle over substance, as most famously illustrated by her stupid car giveaway stunt. Like, first of all, this was a stunt. I fucking cannot stand people who treat stunts like they’re real things. They’re fake. That’s the whole thing that a stunt is. Anyway, the point is that this is also bad charity. Cars are a modern necessity, so people generally have the number of cars they need, and people attending Oprah tapings are not exactly those in the most dire need of financial assistance. The reason she did this was not out of any consideration of how much it would help people, but because it would reflect well on her: because the recipients are sympathetic and the narrative plays into the “American Dream” – and of course because it gives her a big televised platform to grandstand on. Indeed, this is the exact definition of “philanthropy”: even “good” philanthropy isn’t actually good, because philanthropy is bad charity that promotes the giver more than it helps anyone.

The more concise way to put all of this is that Winfrey and Trump have both killed people through active negligence. Trump hires undocumented workers on the cheap and skimps on safety, resulting in injury and death. Obeying the capitalist imperative to generate profit, he stiffs contractors for his own gain, forcing them to forgo medical care and other necessities. Winfrey promotes quack science, fad diets, and fraudulent psychology, covering up their reality with her own aura of glamour. These are things which people, trusting her, take into their bodies, physically harming them. It’s hard to trace causality here, but given her reach, it’s a statistical certainty that this has harmed people’s health and resulted in deaths. There’s no room for sentimentality here. (Also, people with sentimental feelings toward Winfrey should consider that Trump’s fans have exactly the same sentimental feelings towards him, for exactly the same reasons.) People like this have no place in any decent society. I mean, come on. Both of them sell magazines named after themselves with pictures of themselves on the cover, every month. Come on. I’m embarrassed to even be talking about this.

Maybe this line of argument strikes you as a particularly unfair variety of false equivalence, because Winfrey is clearly a much better person than Trump. Of course she is. Trump is the worst possible person; you get exactly zero virtue points for being better than him, because literally every human is a better person than Donald Trump (as are most dogs and cats and probably a fair number of moles and squirrels). Like, the fact that Winfrey is against sexual assault rather than being a confessed sexual assailant is, y’know, better, but it’s not impressive. Back in the day, we used to call things like that “meeting basic standards of human decency.” More to the point, though, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a good person or not. It matters what you do; it matters what effect your existence has on the rest of the world. It matters whether you’re doing something useful for people or whether you’re paving the road to hell.

I genuinely cannot believe that it has come to this, but I’m actually going to throw the fucking bible at you:

13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Our only access to reality is through perception, and perception is always partial. Sometimes what we’re seeing is obscured by the glass we’re looking through, and sometimes what we’re seeing is actually just a smudge on the glass itself rather than something on the other side. Because of this, no piece of evidence is ever a slam dunk. Anything that looks good from one angle might turn out to be hideously ugly from another. What this means is that you need to have an organizing principle with which to make sense of your observations. Without that, each individual observation can only stand briefly on its own before the changing wind sweeps it away into insignificance; “whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” If you don’t have the truth, you don’t have anything.

The tricky part, of course, is to determine what kind of thing we’re really talking about here; that is, what exactly is meant by “charity.” It’s originally a translation of the Greek word agape, which means something along the lines of selfless loyalty. It’s not something that you like or that makes you feel good, but something that you choose to be for, regardless of circumstance. Thus, the fact that someone says something that sounds good or does something that appeals to you can never be taken as independent evidence. It must always be evaluated for its accordance with the truth. As Nietzsche puts it, “the knight of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends.” (You’re reading claws of love dot com, the internet’s #1 source for Nietzschean bible study.)

The part of this that’s wrong is the part where the truth is magic. It is incorrect to say, as people often do, that perception is “flawed” or “misleading,” as this implies that there exists a source of “correct” information that reveals things “as they really are.” In fact, there is no reality outside perception, but rather only reality through perception. This does not license us to engage in knee-jerk subjectivity. It does exactly the opposite. It requires us to go beyond each individual impression and to formulate a broad understanding composed of the data from multiple lines of perception. “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” It’s not just that “that which is perfect” will never actually come, but that there is no such thing, which means that “that which is in part” constitutes everything that there is. We can never get out of the wicked game; no one is ever a saint or a hero, no indicator is ever universally reliable and no narrative is ever complete. We always have to do the work of figuring out how things fit together, how multiple perceptions accord, and how to create understanding out of disparate parts. You can’t do this using “just the facts,” because the facts themselves can’t tell you how to organize those facts. You need something outside of the facts. Christians call this thing “charity,” Nietzsche calls it “will,” but I just think of it as the truth. And in a society that insists on smooth, clean, one-line narratives, the truth will always cut hard against the grain. It is the responsibility of anyone who claims to be a person to make those cuts. This is the only way to make anything make sense. As Hamlet learned, there’s nothing contradictory about smiling, and smiling, and being a villain.

Good albums of 2017, part 5

Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

Out in the Storm

I originally felt that what was good about Waxahatchee was the arrangements – that is, the basic hyper-raw stuff was, like, fine, but it wasn’t all that compelling until it was formed into interesting songs. Then I saw her do a solo set that was totally amazing, and it completely reversed my viewpoint – the most basic aspects of her songs are what really weave the magic. So hearing this album after that was kind of A Thing, on account of a) it’s a polished and professional rock album, so it’s both highly stylized and completely straightforward, b) the demos were all released alongside the album, so you also have all the songs in their elemental forms, and c) it’s actually about changing perspectives.

The thing about the demos is that they make it very clear that the whole of each song is already there at that point. With rock in particular you’d think that you don’t have it unless you have the big sound, but the demos clearly have it. The two notes and the vocals on “Recite Remorse” actually are the whole thing. Of course, the importance of the vocals is far from trivial – they don’t have any particular gimmick or even complexity to them, but Katie Crutchfield’s plain-sounding voice is deceptively powerful. But it’s also the majesty of structure, the way that, when you have things organized in just the right way, you barely need anything at all. So this is almost like a white paper on songwriting; you can see the whole thing being built from the ground up.

And yet, as much as it all sounds like everything coming together, it’s actually about things falling apart. It’s a calm and dignified act of coughing up blood. With the extreme amount of polish and professionalism, as well as rock being particularly suited to expressing confidence, the heavy self-abnegation and even shame in the lyrics comes across very strangely. The singer here is someone committed to her own smallness and vulnerability, while the foil she sets up for herself consists of overbearing self-assurance. The album opens with “Never Been Wrong” as a criticism of the kind of person who promotes “narcissistic injury disguised as masterpiece,” and the singer’s complete admission of her failure here (“I got lost in your rendition of reality”) ends up being her active defense. Recognizing that “I could have fought with you forever and never break through,” she chooses to quit the war for order and let go of comfort. The album’s straightforward and even placid nature ultimately forms a commitment to chaos: “I went out in the storm, and I’m never returning.” This decision isn’t made in resignation, as grim acceptance of an unalterable reality, but as a positive choice, as the actual right thing.

“Sparks Fly” is the center from which the rest of the album grows out. The fact that the song doesn’t sound at all live-wire-y physicalizes the conclusion that things aren’t just how they feel to one individual. Electricity is a potential difference; it doesn’t arise by itself from one particular type of material, it happens when wires cross, or when things strike together. It’s by changing her perspective, by “seeing myself through my sister’s eyes,” that the singer is finally able to make the choice to stay unreconciled – which includes the irreconcilability of other perspectives, the absolute inability to get through to some people, and the necessity of dropping dead weight. “I know you don’t recognize me, but I’m a live wire, finally.”

Continue reading

Good albums of 2017, part 4

Austra – Future Politics

Future Politics

I’m putting this on here because I’m completely conflicted about it. I’ve tried, but I can’t bring myself to like it. The vocals are still killer, but the music here is chill in the worst sense to the term: neither energetic enough to be exciting nor unpleasant enough to be interesting. It’s dull and unevocative, and all the more so for the blatant provocativeness of the titles. It completely goes to sleep halfway through and never really wakes up. None of the lyrics add enough context to compel attention (again despite the titles; for the record, this was written before the bottom fell out of the world, so it’s not explicitly about that, but as you know, everything happening now has a cause and was foreseeable and is understandable, so addressing anything in this vicinity bears on that endeavor. Not that that matters right now).

But despite all this, I don’t actually think it’s bad. I mean, it’s clearly not a “mistake”; it’s clearly exactly the album it’s supposed to be. But I don’t feel like any of the available options here really add up. One is that it’s a good album in the service of evil – obviously not, like, in the Leni Riefenstahl sense, but nonetheless a bad idea that happens to be expertly executed. This is putting the line in entirely the wrong place, though; if you actually accepted this proposition the amount of aesthetic culling you would have to do would be totally untenable. So the alternative (the one that most people accept implicitly and that you’re probably rolling your eyes at me for not just assuming) is that this is a perfectly salutary work that just happens not to be to my taste. That’s certainly the easy answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s too easy. I’m pretty sure my objections here are substantive. I’m not personally against chillness; I’m actually low-energy to the point of immorality. Rather, chillness is rationally harmful in ways that can be elucidated in technical philosophical terms. So I’m intellectually obligated not to close this case. I feel a very strong gap here, and I don’t know where it is, and I’ll admit that right now that’s all I have, and that my only claim on your time here is that I think this issue is worth highlighting. I guess this is the sense in which this album really did make an impact on me. It’s something I can’t understand yet, but which I’m forced to acknowledge right now.

Continue reading

Good albums of 2017, part 3

The Dollyrots – Whiplash Splash

Whiplash Splash

One time when I saw these guys somebody called out one of their super old songs, and Kelly was like “Hmm, I don’t think our drummer knows that one. She could probably do it though, it’s just like the dumbest possible punk song,” and Luis goes “Well, yeah, that’s all our songs.” It’s certainly true that, from a modern perspective, where every random asshole is a classically-trained historically-informed avant-garde revolutionary, The Dollyrots are an extraordinarily dumb-sounding band. The naive fervor of their devotion to the most mundane and trivial aspects of their genre make it difficult to understand them as anything other than a joke. Which is exactly what they said about the Ramones.

The truth is that looking dumb and being dumb are not the same thing, and “Just Because I’m Blonde” directly addresses this very topic. The song is indeed a broadside against “dumb blonde” stereotypes, which initially seems ridiculous. No one actually thinks that blonde people are dumb; the entire thing about blonde jokes is that they’re a parody of stereotype-based humor. Except that isn’t really the case; the reason tropes like this endure is precisely because people really do adhere to them on a deep ideological level, despite how ludicrous they appear on the surface. The fact that people say they’re “joking” about things like this belies the fact that they care enough to bother in the first place. More importantly, I lied when I said “blonde people“; what these jokes actually are is sexism dressed up as triviality. The presumption of good faith is based on the assumption that no one is “really” sexist, that everyone “means well” in spite of their actual behavior. Superficiality – pointing out that “it’s just hair, don’t be dumb” – is not a retreat, but an accurate defense against this. (Also, I’m not overinterpreting this; if you require corroboration, there’s a non-album B-side called “Get Radical” that proves it.)

So the fact that the song also sounds dumb, that its rambly lyrics and singsong chorus make the singer come across as an actual ditz, reveals the true nature of the opposition: looking like a moron while making an incontrovertibly true point is preferable to play-acting depth while being, on the merits, a dumbfuck. This resolved contradiction defines the band’s entire body of work (their previous album has a hardcore song about being pregnant, which sounds completely silly, until you realize that pregnancy really is the most hardcore thing), and it’s on its fullest display here. There’s actually a fair diversity of emotional states, anchored in sentiments as simple as “I Do” and “Squeeze Me” (and of course “Dance Like a Maniac”), rendered all the more faithfully for being cartoonishly blown up and garishly colored. It’s pretty fast, but it’s actually propelled forward by complex and thoughtful production, layered with precisely applied backing vocals and stabbed through with shouts and breaks. It sticks to its guns, but also fully explores its possibility space – in other contexts this is called “minimalism,” which reminds us that complexity and nuance, while assumed to be indicators of underlying intelligence, can just as easily be used to disguise the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Hence why the album ends with a joke song and a joke cover, neither of which is a joke: because joking is the most serious thing you can do. The mermaid, which would appear to be an arbitrary reference, is in fact central to the point. It’s a creature of two worlds that registers as a single entity, a living reconciled contradiction. Mermaid mythology continues to resonate because it’s immediately comprehensible even in the face of making no sense. Just so, this album is a mess of goofiness and also exactly what it says on the label: a message in a bottle that is also a molotov.

Continue reading

The unreal and the real

Ursula K. Le Guin is dead. I’m not totally okay with this.

Le Guin is usually glossed as a “big ideas” writer, with a focus on concepts and worldbuilding rather than memorable characters or dramatic scenes, and while this isn’t exactly wrong, it’s misleading in an important way. What continues to impress me about her work is her unflinching focus on the texture of life. She develops ideas by making people live through them, and she explores principles by creating physical locations and functioning institutions that embody them (or don’t). I’ve actually been going through some of her short stories recently and a lot of them aren’t even about anything. They’re just particular but unremarkable people living in particular but unremarkable circumstances and getting along with it, one way or another. Even “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which is an explicit philosophical treatise, is told exclusively by describing a real society and then the actions of the people who live in it, in response to the way it is. She’s able to make stories like these not only compelling on a technical level (one of the downsides to her writing is the way that its effortless grace makes it painfully clear that you are never going to be good enough at anything to matter) but meaningful not despite but because of their complete lack of anything that would normally register as “meaning.”

Maybe this sounds like faint praise, like I’m just outlining the basic qualities that make someone a competent writer, but it’s not. It’s the most important thing. The only thing any of us actually has, ever, is the experience of lived reality (there’s nothing less “lived” about hearing about other people’s experiences or reading philosophical treatises). Fiction whose only purpose is to supplant this reality with a different one is properly called “escapist,” but so is fiction whose only purpose is to congeal reality into a nondescript mush of Ideas and Statements. In both cases you are ignoring the only thing that there actually is. Le Guin’s great achievement was the creation of worlds unlike our own that show us what our world is really like – unreality that makes the world more real. This is more than merely compelling or thought-provoking writing. It’s one of the secret keys to the truth.

This is also an important point about genre fiction in general. If Le Guin’s work counts as “genre fiction,” which it does, then the term doesn’t mean anything, which it doesn’t. Genre is not a property of a work but an after-the-fact critical appellation; it’s potential use is only as a tool, not a definition. Genre work often falls into the traps of getting lost in minutia or reverting to Big Moral Statements, but literary fiction has exactly the same problem: it’s often nothing but status-signalling lifestyle details coupled with half-baked pretension. The categorization isn’t the thing that matters; in fact, focusing on categorization is precisely a way of avoiding what actually matters, of pretending to do criticism when you’re really just doing bookkeeping. Nor is there anything wrong with the categorization itself; there certainly are comment elements and things that you can use to accurately (assuming you’re being honest about the endeavor and not just parroting received value statements) classify a story as “literary fiction” or “magic realism” or what have you. But if you’re doing this to say that literary fiction is “real” and genre fiction is “just for fun,” then you’re factually wrong, and Le Guin proves it.

Her feminism, for example, is significant not because of any particular big ideas or provocative analyses, but because she actually portrays the lived experiences of women, both in terms of their inner lives and the ways they navigate the social structures they exist in. This particular version of the double bind is that focusing only on “oppression” turns women into a homogeneous class of “oppressed people” who do nothing but reflect the pressures of their oppression, i.e. it makes women not people in exactly the way that patriarchy says they’re not. Whereas insisting on “agency” and “strong female characters” implicitly denies that oppression is a real thing: if overcoming oppression makes women superhuman, then oppression is actually a good thing, because it improves women. (Overgeneralization was the great failing of second-wave feminism, which was then overcorrected for in the third wave, and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that mistake.) These are the problems you run into when you try to talk about things abstractly, but the truth is pretty obvious: people are all kinds of fucked up in all different ways, and that includes social structures, which are made of people, but there are nevertheless recognizable patterns that recur in certain areas, and the combination of these things is what creates real-world behavior.

Le Guin transcends the dilemma by mastering both worlds: she puts believable people in understandable societies and lets us watch what happens. A simple example of how this works is the story “Semley’s Necklace,” where a fallen noble goes to ultimately self-destructive lengths to retrieve a priceless family heirloom. We understand this decision both in terms of who this person is and the pressures of the structure they inhabit (also, we understand who she is both as a product of and a reaction to the social structure she inhabits), and not in terms of handwaving ideological abstraction, a.k.a. magic. (I haven’t read a lot of her fantasy, but she understood that if magic were real, it would be rule-bound in the same way that everything else is; what she says about this is that, in fantasy writing, “you get to make it all up, even the rules of how things work, and then follow your rules absolutely.”)

This aspect of her work is why The Dispossessed is such an important book. The problem that all varieties of revolutionary politics share is that, because they are talking about a world that has never existed, they are necessarily completely abstract. The common complaint that they “only work on paper” is simply a failure of imagination; after all, actually-existing capitalism is precisely a system which sounds good in theory and is destroying the world in practice. The Dispossessed creates a believable anarchist society, and it does so by portraying the way that people actually live in such a society. The point isn’t that the book makes any particular political argument; the point is that reading it grants you the ability to imagine the world other than as it is, in practical terms.

In fact, the novel even has an explicit hero-character, Odo, the original leader of the anarchist revolution, who is revered and referenced as a source of wisdom and insight, but even in this case, her work is portrayed through people’s use of it in their own lives. That is, we see them reference and quote her as part of real-world in-the-moment arguments – we see how even explicit idolization unavoidably manifests itself as just another part of practical reality. Indeed, there’s even a separate story about Odo that portrays her as a confused old woman, puttering about and embarrassing herself and not accomplishing much of anything. Even when she creates explicit heroes, Le Guin insists on making them people. She denies everyone, including the reader, the ability to in any way “get out of” ordinary life.

And, of course, including herself. I don’t really know how she pulled this off, but she managed to become a famous writer without becoming a Famous Writer. She’s revered, sure, but not in the sense that people “praise but don’t read” her; she’s revered because people read the hell out of her. (On second thought, genre fiction might be more than categorization – it might be a mask. Maybe you have to embrace trivialization in order to avoid the greater danger of idolization.) Part of this can be ascribed to simple intellectual modesty. The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet whose inhabitants have only one gender that performs both human reproductive functions as needed, uses masculine pronouns to refer to them. At the time, Le Guin judged this to be the least bad of the available choices – as explained in the novel, “he” is, while not actually neutral, more neutral than “she” or any other alternative. But she didn’t insist on this choice as a matter of dogma; quite the opposite, she knowingly walked into one branch of a trap. For a later republication of “Winter’s King,” a short story set in the same world, she switched gears and used feminine pronouns, while preserving gendered titles, so the story features “Kings” and “Princes” who are referred to as “she.” This isn’t necessarily the “right” choice, either, but it gives the story a different subconscious color that reveals different aspects of it. So she ultimately did better than making the right choice; making both choices gave us both things to think about. And it also prevents her from being anyone’s hero on the subject. She was nowhere near dumb enough to think it was possible to be “neutral,” or to “just ask questions,” but the stands she took were impossible to piggyback off of, so the only available action was to take your own stand in response.

So the problem I’m having is that we really need this right now, because we’re falling into both holes. We’re suffocating in a flood of daily minutia that doesn’t connect to anything and vanishes as soon as it’s done stealing our oxygen, and we’re also falling back on vague generalizations and unexamined principles without instantiating them in real-world actions. We’re creating as many heroes and villains as we possibly can in attempt to understand the world, yet in every case we use them as an escape from understanding, as a simplistic substitute for reality. We need to make the connection the Le Guin was capable of; without her key, we’re locked in this room.

And yet, it is precisely here that she bequeaths us her final gift. Because she was never a hero, we always had to get along without her anyway. Nothing has changed. There’s really nothing to even complain about; we haven’t missed out on anything. She gave everything she had to the world, and she left what she didn’t have up to us. So now that we finally have to accept that we aren’t getting anything more from her, we have no remaining choice but to do what we should have been doing all along: we have to take what we’ve got and figure out what we’re going to do with it. We have always been on our own, and now, at the end, she forces us to confront that fact anew.

Still, on this particular subject it’s only polite to let her have the last word, so here’s a not entirely random passage from the story I happen to be reading at the moment:

Our daily life in the auntring was repetitive. On the ship, later, I learned that people who live in artificially complicated situations call such a life “simple.” I never knew anybody, anywhere I have been, who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit.