A while back I read this rather on-point post about the fundamental hopelessness of the current terrorism situation, and I figured I should fill in the other half of the argument. Because there is a real solution here.
The issue is that low-tech, uncoordinated attacks are impossible to really do anything about. The only way to fully prevent people from doing things like making bombs out of pressure cookers or driving trucks into large crowds is to establish a police state. And while these things are scary, we’ve been hyperventilating so heavily about terrorism for so long that we’ve forgotten what it is that we’re actually looking at. You’re familiar with the statistics, I’m sure; you’re more likely to be struck by lightning or killed by your own furniture than you are to be a victim of a terrorist attack. And it’s not like terrorism is the only source of random, meaningless death. People actually do up and have strokes or step backwards and fall into the Grand Canyon or whatever. So terrorism is neither a distinctive nor a prevalent source of danger. Small-scale attacks can never be stopped, but they’ll also never add up to more than a tiny percentage of the deaths caused by heart disease or car accidents or suicide.
But if this is so obvious, then why do terror attacks scare people? Precisely because they do not feel like accidents or forces of nature; they feel more purposeful than they actually are. This is why it’s so easy to get people to believe that there’s a single belief system called “radical Islam” that is the direct cause of all terrorist attacks: because this explanation makes more sense than the truth. And once you’re there, the natural corollary is that terrorism can be “stopped,” that we can “win” the “war on terror.” When an attack happens, the idea that we could have done something to prevent it is what’s actually scary.
This is more than just irrationality, though. There’s a specific reason we’re unequipped to deal with this problem, which is that the ideal of America is actually just the ideal of perfect safety. Some people use the term “American Dream” to refer to the idea that you can get a job and work hard and you’ll be guaranteed a comfortable middle-class existence. This concept is rather ingrained; even among people who position themselves in opposition to the current social system, you’ll often hear the claim that the American Dream is “no longer” achievable, or that it has been “betrayed.” But even if we assume there was some point in time where the American Dream was within reach of all people (which is not even close to being the case), it’s still bullshit, because it’s just flatly impossible as an idea. You cannot have a perfectly safe, risk-free existence, ever.
I’m not one to give much credit to grand plans; history is far more random than anyone’s really comfortable with. But intentionally or otherwise, ISIS’s actions are exposing this critical contradiction in the American promise. They are proving, the hard way, that Americans and Europeans are not special, that “Western culture” is not a magical force field, and that well-off white people die just as easily as everyone else. And this is the part of the fear of terrorism that is actually legitimate: if you’ve lived your life valuing only comfort and security, if you thought you were safe because you only went to cafes and concerts and never did anything “dangerous,” then ISIS is a critical threat to you, personally. They’ll never actually put a bullet in your head, but they’ve already put one in your heart. They have destroyed the world that you thought you were living in.
One of the more disturbing aspects of ISIS specifically is the fact that people from developed nations have on occasion joined them voluntarily. This is why that happens: America has nothing to offer people but safety and stability, so if that’s a lie, then there’s no reason to stay. The thing about the American Dream is that you either make it or you don’t, and if making it isn’t a realistic possibility – if, for example, you can be randomly murdered at any moment and therefore have no expectation of safety – then America is worthless. If danger is unavoidable, comfort becomes hollow; if you’re going to die, you might as well die in a real fight. And precisely this is ISIS’s pitch: join us, and die a meaningful death.
Of course, this is also a lie. ISIS isn’t actually waging a worldwide holy war; they really are just murderers with delusions of grandeur. Their mythology is just as much of a con as America’s is. And living even a meaningless life in relative comfort is a hell of a lot better than getting shot and dying in the desert. That’s the thing, though: the fact that something like ISIS is able to pose any kind of threat at all to a country as rich and powerful as America ought to be deeply embarrassing. This is what’s so upsetting about all those politicians going on about all the drastic measures we have to take because of terrorism. We’re being ruled by incompetent cowards.
Naturally, there is a third option, which is to say that civilization has a purpose beyond mere comfort. And when you think about it that way, the correct response to terrorism becomes fairly obvious. Everyone has something that they actually live for rather than something that they’re merely trying to avoid, and the extent to which America allows people to pursue such things – minus the extent to which it actively prevents other people from doing so – is the extent to which it is justified as a human endeavor. Valuing safety is a category error; what you actually value is the stuff that safety enables you to do. In other words, the way civilization works is perpendicular to how it’s normally portrayed. We don’t start from a state of maximum danger and then gradually progress towards perfect safety. What actually characterizes the state of nature is uselessness; when you’re constantly focused on survival, you can’t get anything else done. So what happens as civilization progresses – and this is true even in the ideal case – is that people gain more and more opportunities to do different things, and in so doing they are exposed to correspondingly to more and more dangers. Utopia is impossible on the logical level; there will always be another mountain to climb. Given this, we ought to stop aiming at impossible goals. The focus of civilization must be on opening doors rather than closing them, even though doing so lets the monsters in.
As a small personal example, I go to shows fairly often, so the Paris attacks spooked me a little bit. Given my temperament, I have on occasion mused that if some shit were to go down while I was standing in the middle of a dense crowd, I would be completely fucked. But it would be absurd for me to consider changing my behavior on this basis. The fact that there’s nothing I can do about it is exactly why I should ignore it in favor of something that’s actually worth focusing on. Indeed, everyone makes choices like this every day; no one actually goes around trying to be as safe as possible, because it’s just ridiculous to even think like that. Applying this broadly, then, while there is such a thing as reasonable caution, there is also such a thing as cowardice. Nobody can “keep you safe”; you are definitely going to die, and you are going to die with regrets. So pointing out those terrorism statistics really misses the point: terrorists or no, there are things to be afraid of, and the only reasonable response to them is to be afraid, to reject the fantasy of security. I mean, it’s not even a good fantasy. Security leads naturally to paranoia, because when you think you’ve got everything under control, each tiny imperfection sticks in your skin like a splinter. The more you hunker down, the more the demons close in on you. So given how bad of a deal this is, the simple alternative is to just not make it, to stop pretending and accept what is inescapably the case.
Politicians aren’t in a position to make this argument. They have to act like they’re tough and they’ve got all the answers; they can’t actually admit that they can neither keep you safe nor provide meaning to your life. And we shouldn’t expect them to be able to do so – the fact that we so often do is our failing, not theirs. Politicians have a job, which is to make policy, and beyond the basics, terrorism cannot be solved by policy. There are few straits more desperate than those in which you’re seriously looking to a politician for salvation. Tolerating the existence of the ruling class is one thing, but it is among the worst mistakes a person can make to adopt ruling-class values as their own.
And yet, this is precisely the situation most of us are stuck in. Even those on “the left,” or whatever you want to call it, too often talk as though the “American Dream” really were both possible and a desirable goal. Conservatives are criticized not for believing in the wrong things, but merely for being factually mistaken about the best way to reach the same fantastical goals. The Sanders campaign was all about going back to good old fashioned liberalism, when everyone had stable jobs and corporations played nice (the unionized New Deal era is the liberal version of conservatives’ hard-on for the cultural repressiveness of the 50s). It does suck that we aren’t even doing that well; it would be pretty great if people had consistent access to things like healthcare and living wages. But politicians want us to believe that these things are enough, so that they can dangle that carrot over our heads for eternity.
And this is exactly how fear becomes fuel for racist resentment. Valuing safety above all else leaves you defenseless against risk blackmail. Any politician can say “vote for me or X will kill you,” and as long as there’s any chance that they’re right, you’ll have to do it. If all you care about is protecting what you have, then anything foreign is a threat. And those of us who consider ourselves more rational than that are far too often complicit in this lie. Naturally, everyone wants to make their own political philosophy sound like the one that’s going to lead to the land of milk and honey, but there are times when good tactics become bad ideology. By accepting safety as a valid goal, by evading our responsibility to push the bitter medicine that is required to cure this disease, we have allowed this to happen.
At risk of grandiosity, it is the task of this generation to fix this mistake. The only way out of this is to come up with a new value system which resists these sorts of manipulations. Yes, the world is a dangerous place. It would be irrational not to be afraid. But it is nihilistic to aim for a life confined within an Absolutely Safe Capsule. If we conceive of our task as “fixing” society in order to “get back” to an imaginary time when everything was in order, we will have failed before we start. The past is what led to the present; we require a different future. We have to have something that makes living in fear worth it, because there’s no other way to live.
Freed from the anguish of choosing, music listeners can discover all kinds of weird, nettlesome, unpleasant, sublime, sweet, or perplexing musical paths.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I encountered a howler as blatant as claiming that choice is now less important because of the multiplicity of options offered by the internet. Obviously, the opposite is true: choice is now so omnipresent as to have become tyrannical. It used to be that you were justified in just listening to whatever was on the radio, or whatever the officially-licensed music weirdo at the record store recommended, or whatever bands happened to be playing at your local venues, because you didn’t really have any other options. Now you have all the options; you have to choose. At every moment of every day, you must choose the one thing out of an infinity of options that you will spend this portion of your finite human existence on, and you must do so with the full knowledge that you are damning yourself to miss out on all the things you didn’t choose, forever.
I think that much is pretty obvious. But here’s the important part. This:
These paths branch off constantly, so that by the end of a night that started with the Specials, you’re listening to Górecki’s Miserere, not by throwing a dart, but by following the quite specific imperatives of each moment’s needs, each instant’s curiosities. It is like an open-format video game, where you make the world by advancing through it.
is also wrong. (Also this is a typically terrible video game analogy made by someone who has no idea what video games are actually like, but one thing at a time here.) Just because you have theoretical access to every song ever made (which is not actually the case, but seriously, one thing at a time) does not suddenly transport you into an unfettered wonderland of pure personal choices. In fact, the author cites a rather strong piece of evidence against himself: Spotify carries about four million songs which have never been listened to, by anyone, ever. So it is clearly not the case that people are freely venturing into heretofore unexplored terrain. Indeed, the fact that internet discourse is crammed full of nostalgia suggests that people actually aren’t seeking out new experiences at all. You may have noticed that, post-internet, pop stardom and celebrity are bigger industries than ever. The paradox of internet culture is that a practical infinity of choices makes people more likely to stick with what they already know. Except that’s not a paradox at all, because of course that’s what’s going to happen. The internet does not magically remove society’s existing constraints. On the contrary, by strengthening people’s ability to engage, the internet enables people to cleave more strongly to the things that they were already into. Ergo, Beyoncé’s Twitter mob.
This part makes the failure of analysis pretty clear:
Just five years ago, if you wanted to listen legally to a specific song, you bought it (on CD, on MP3), which, assuming finite resources, meant you had to choose which song to buy, which in turn meant you didn’t buy other songs you had considered buying. Then, a person with $10 to spend could have purchased five or six songs, or, if he was an antiquarian, an album. Now, with $10, that same person can subscribe to a streaming service for a month and hear all five or six songs he would have purchased with that money, plus 20 million or so others.
What’s missing here is very obviously the non-monetary component of opportunity cost. A person has only so many hours in the day to spend listening to music. So yes, it’s great that money is less of a constraint now, but the more important constraint, the issue of what you’re actually going to choose to do with your finite human existence, is as strong as ever. In fact, it’s stronger: there is now more nonsense to engage with, more to attend to, more demands on your attention, and hence less time to make these supposedly free choices we’ve all been gifted with.
These factual inaccuracies point us to the deeper philosophical problem, which is that choice is not simply a matter of the raw number of options you have. Having more options makes it more likely that your choice-set will include good choices, but it also makes it harder to find those choices amidst the noise.
Think of it this way: imagine all the songs on Spotify were unlabelled. All you could do was listen to songs at absolute total random out of its entire catalog. Total horrorshow, right? But this is the maximum amount of free choice: it is totally unencumbered by any kind of bias, including your own. Now imagine that the songs were all labelled, but there were no other discovery tools. This is better, because you can at least find things you’ve already heard of and check out new songs with interesting names, but it’s still pretty hard to discover stuff. Now consider the internet as it currently exists, where you’re constantly being barraged with recommendations and promotions and soforth. This is both more constrained and better than any permutation of the above examples, because you actually have stuff to go on: you can find recommenders you trust and branch out from things you already like and etc.
What’s happened here is that our choices have gotten better as they’ve become more constrained, and the reason this happens is because the constraints are operating in the correct direction: towards things you might actually want to listen to. There are, of course, also constraints that operate in incorrect directions; the reason most of what’s on the radio is garbage is because it’s selected based on what executives think will make money rather than what actually sounds good. So, naturally, there is a situation better than the current one, which is one where all of those recommendation engines and music bloggers and soforth don’t have ulterior motives in the areas of commercial appeal and popularity. This is, of course, an additional constraint that removes things from your search queue that got there because of advertising or whatever, and it, again, makes things better. Choice is a false idol; freedom isn’t free.
And this is a good thing, because if your choices really were totally unconstrained, they would be essentially random, which is to say chaotic, which is to say meaningless. Remember that bit above about “each instant’s curiosities”? Yeah, that’s nihilism. If you’re seriously just going off of your pure momentary whims, you’re an animal. Whereas when you do things like check out formative artists in genres you like, or explore the various bands that were part of a scene you’re interested in, you are engaging with the structure of reality and making choices that are actually connected to the things you care about. While there is a real and important distinction between coerced and uncoerced choices (and lack of options can be a form of coercion), a choice has to be based on real-world conditions in order to be meaningful; the concept of an “unconstrained” choice is oxymoronic. It’s only by being attached to contingent circumstances in the real world that your choices have any chance of being worth a shit.
Indeed, this “free choice” framing betrays a disturbing assumption: that any experience is just as good as any other. If the pure number of options you have is what’s meaningful, that can only be because the content of the options themselves is not meaningful. Which, if true, would mean that all experiences are meaningless. This, for example:
When I hear a song for the fiftieth time, I remember the wall color of my studio apartment on Mt. Vernon Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996, and I remember how cold the awful landlady kept it, and I remember her shivering whippet scratching at my door so that he could come in and curl up in the hollows of my giant furry Newfoundland.
is nothing but the worst kind of banal egoism. If the only significance of music is that it reminds you of some arbitrary shit from your past, then music is meaningless. It might as well be a scrap of paper or an oddly-shaped rock.
Luckily this is a lie, which is obvious when you consider why this is wrong:
Play the songs you heard on February 2, 2013, in the order in which you played them, and you can recreate not just the emotions but the suspense and surprise of emotion as it changes in time.
Dude has literally never heard that a person cannot step into the same river twice. What makes music powerful is the fact that its substance emerges out from particular experiences, not that it is buried within them. Contingency and temporality are what make existence meaningful; without them, you are a portrait and not a person.
Oh and by the way all of this actually has dick to do with the internet. Internet technology enables all of this, but the actual power sources behind these dynamics are political and psychological, just as they always have been. The basic failing of almost all writing about the internet is that it assumes that the same old patterns of behavior somehow assume an unprecedented radical significance now that they’re happening On The Internet.
So, okay, let’s hit this. The first part is easy: the reason people want their experiences to be permanently frozen in time and eternally retrievable is because they don’t want to die. Tough shit, friends. Your name has not been written in the book of life. You’re going to exist for a while, and then you’re going to stop existing.
Moving on, the choice fallacy is a clear outgrowth of consumerism. The idea that picking your very own very special choice from the largest possible menu of options is the ideal situation is a fantasy concocted to sell shit in supermarkets. If contingency matters, then goods are not fungible and capitalism loses its claim to meaning. Which is of course the case; even under the most charitable interpretation of capitalism, what it’s good for is producing enough goods to give people the opportunity to do things that are actually meaningful. Taking economic growth itself as a goal is a blatant capture of the ends by the means. In the same sense, to assume that having the largest number of possible options for which music or movies or books or whatever to experience is what matters is to forget what makes these things worth experiencing in the first place.
The last piece of the puzzle is why everyone constantly talks about The Internet like it actually has its own agenda, rather than simply being an amplifier (or a suppressor) for existing motivations. This is pure ideology. The internet just happened yesterday, so it’s easy to take it as an explanation for everything that’s happening right now and thereby avoid any examination of the underlying forces. Because those forces are not the lizard people and the reverse vampires; those forces are you. The actual conspiracy is the one inside your head, constantly arranging everything you experience to serve its invisible ends. Aggregating data ain’t going to get you out of this. You’ve got to fight theory with theory.
I’m reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, which I probably should have done a while ago and which you should probably do at your earliest convenience. Despite the moderate philosophical jargon and the frequent references to Hegel, it’s really very practical. I don’t really see it cited much as a big important philosophy book, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that it was written by a woman. Actually, the fact that philosophy has one of the biggest gender gaps out of anything really gives the lie to the whole story about men being good at numbers and women being good at words. The truth, obviously, is that men bully women out of any field they consider to be prestigious or important, or that is high-paying.
Anyway, I ran into some stuff that I thought was awfully relevant to certain modern-day issues. One of the things that’s become increasingly apparent via the internet is the fact that a lot of specialists are complete morons about anything outside of their specialty. As the saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Now that we’ve got Twitter giving people like Richard Dawkins the opportunity to mouth off about anything whenever they feel like it, doubt is increasingly being removed.
But the actual issue here isn’t new, as evidenced by the fact that de Beauvoir totally nails it:
“Almost all serious men cultivate an expedient levity; we are familiar with the genuine gaiety of the Catholics, the fascist ‘sense of humor.’ There are also some who do not even feel the need for such a weapon. They hide from themselves the incoherence of their choice by taking flight. As soon as the Idol is no longer concerned, the serious man slips into the attitude of the sub-man. He keeps himself from existing because he is not capable of existing without a guarantee. Proust observed with astonishment that a great doctor or a great professor often shows himself, outside of his specialty, to be lacking in sensitivity, intelligence, and humanity. The reason for this is that having abdicated his freedom, he has nothing else left but his techniques. In domains where his techniques are not applicable, he either adheres to the most ordinary of values or fulfills himself in a flight. The serious man stubbornly engulfs his transcendence in the object which bars the horizon and bolts the sky. The rest of the world is a faceless desert.”
The fact that a specialist tends to rely on techniques which are not universally applicable is pretty straightforward. The insight here is how this error manifests itself. One option is as a “flight,” meaning a retreat from significance via dismissal. Anything to which the specialist’s techniques do not apply must by that very fact be meaningless. This is the most obvious problem with the New Atheists (or whatever we’re calling them now): anything which doesn’t fit into their schema is a “myth,” something that people should just get rid of. It’s even more obvious when it comes to science fetishists, who put the cart entirely before the horse: rather than defining science as the domain of the measurable, they wholly reject anything that isn’t measurable so as to be able to define science as everything.
This is also where the “fascist sense of humor” comes in: it makes it easier to dismiss things. Internet atheists have a constant boner for making fun of how dumb those silly fundamentalists are with their silly stories about angels and demons and their silly preoccupations with virginity and swear words, which conveniently keeps them from considering that maybe these things aren’t what religion is mostly about, that maybe in their blithe dismissal they’re actually missing something important. On the other hand, they’ll completely flip their shit on you if you point out that assuming your own position as the default and requiring people to argue you out of it is a fucking stupid way to communicate.
The second option is even more intriguing: outside of their specialty, specialists tend to revert to conventional values. Why should this be so? Any specialist is aware that the common understanding of their own discipline is usually oversimplified and often completely backwards. Dawkins, for example, could probably say quite a bit about the common understanding of evolution. Shouldn’t one be able to relate this same insight, that greater understanding often leads to a fundamental reassessment, to disciplines other than one’s own? Many find it odd when someone like Dawkins rejects the traditional superstitions of religion only to fall back on the traditional superstitions of white supremacy, or rejects the divine guidance of god only to fall back on the faux-divine guidance of Western imperialism.
But in fact, this is to be expected. Acknowledging the inapplicability of one’s expertise requires confronting the enormity of one’s limits as a finite human being. Someone who devotes their life to mastery of the scientific method must accept that, because of this devotion, there are things that they can never know. The temptation to overapply one’s techniques originates from the fear that the only alternative is nothing. But since these techniques aren’t actually applicable to everything, they don’t actually work. You actually can’t use science to learn about politics. The specialist is thus in a position where they must have an insightful perspective on some topic, but can’t actually develop one. Hence, conventional wisdom dressed up as contrarianism.
Speaking of contrarianism, de Beauvoir follows this attitude through to one of its natural developments:
“Nihilism is disappointed seriousness which has turned back upon itself. A choice of this kind is not encountered among those who, feeling the joy of existence, assume its gratuity. It appears either at the moment of adolescence, when the individual, seeing his child’s universe flow away, feels the lack which is in his heart, or, later on, when the attempts to fulfill himself as a being have failed; in any case, among men who wish to rid themselves of the anxiety of their freedom by rejecting the world and themselves.”
This not only explains the annoying phenomenon of teen contrarianism, but why this phenomenon is concentrated among the privileged. Naively, one might assume that the least oppressed people in a society, the people with the fewest obstacles and the greatest opportunities, would consequently be the least nihilistic. The problem is that a person who can choose to assume any burden tends thus to be “serious” in de Beauvoir’s sense of the term. A person – a white male – who canalready do as he likes, who can freely choose to be a family man or a businessman or anarchist, evaluates each of these goals on their own merits, and finds them all wanting. Of course he does, because no real-world goal actually means anything by itself.
(Writing persona pro tip: de Beauvoir uses “man” and “he” as general referents for “person” because of language and the past and so forth. When I say “he,” it’s because I mean “he.”)
Meaning is found not in goals themselves, but in the transcending of limits. Black people tend to have stronger family ties than white people, not despite but because they live in a society that is actively trying to destroy them. Women pursue professional achievement because they live in a society that tells them the realm of business belongs to men. Gay people fight for marriage rights because they live in a society that devalues their relationships. This is why nihilism tends to manifest itself as a philosophical luxury. Not because it is luxurious, but because it and luxury share a natural habitat: the world without struggle.
But of course there is no such thing as “practical” nihilism, since you have to do something, so the teen contrarian makes the same move as the specialist: adopting conventional values, but dressing them up as iconoclasm. This is most obvious in the common case of Randianism (which, as Hamlet would say, really is common). It presents itself as a great individualist revelation, but in practice it pretty much just means letting capitalism do whatever it wants.
And it’s also the case for poor old Nietzsche, who, despite his best efforts, wound up as the preeminent representative of precisely this sort of banal contrarianism. When Nietzsche railed against “slave morality,” the morality of amelioration rather than achievement, he was talking about historical events that led to a particular mode of thought. He was not dumb enough to believe that the ruling class of his day was actually concerned with making everyone’s lives more comfortable.
But we can see why this misinterpretation is useful to the teen contrarian. If you believe that the problem is that society is “too accommodating,” it gives you something to oppose while doing exactly what the ruling class wants you to do: ignoring morality. It allows you to extract the sense of meaningfulness out of the concept of struggle without the inconvenience of actually challenging yourself. This is all especially sad when you consider that Nietzsche’s philosophy is basically an instruction manual on How to Be a Great Artist, but it winds up being used to support an utter dearth of creativity.
If you frequent some of the internet’s more desperate quarters, you may have encountered people claiming in all seriousness that nowadays white men are oppressed while everyone else has all the advantages. Same deal. Blaming women and minorities for stealing all your advantages seems iconoclastic now that society has accepted the validity of identity-based arguments. But the ancient pattern hasn’t changed: attacking the less advantaged instead of fighting to better yourself and your circumstances is still what society actually wants you to do, so you get to take a stroll down Easy Street while imagining that you’re running a gauntlet. As an added bonus, conceiving of yourself as oppressed in a philosophical sense without actually running into any practical obstacles allows you to maintain a permanent sense of self-serving victimization. If this isn’t the case, if you really are free, then all your failures are all your fault.
And that’s how 70-year-old philosophy explains the internet. The broader point is that theory matters. If you try to react to every dumb thing that happens individually, you’re going to be here all day. A good framework allows you to chart your own course.
This is from Obama’s last State of the Union address (via):
“And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.
Too many Americans feel that way right now.”
As though they were wrong, as though feelingthat way were the problem rather than, you know, the actual problem. This sort of feint is characteristic of Obama’s rhetoric. He identifies a real problem only to blame people who didn’t cause it for being “cynical” about it. The implication being that the whole thing is actually our fault for not hoping hard enough. This concept is the referent of the title of Obama’s campaign-hyping memoir The Audacity of Hope, and he occasionally likes to refer back to it by using the word “audacity” in this sense.
The problem is that this is the bad kind of audacity, and the bad kind of hope: not perseverance through adversity based on the belief that your efforts will eventually amount to something, but adherence to what you know to be a lost cause based on the fact that you have no other options. This is the kind of hope that precisely prevents problems from getting solved.
It’s the same hope that, among other things, motivates people to play the lottery. The lottery is not, as is often claimed, “a tax on people who are bad at math.” This implies that people who play the lottery are actually doing an expected value calculation, getting it wrong, and choosing to play on the basis of the results, which is clearly ridiculous; it also ignores the obvious non-linear utility of money. The people who come up with wacky stats about things that are more likely than winning the lottery are merely engaging in the standard college-educated-liberal tradition of pretending to be wise and thoughtful while actually just sneering at poor people (poor people foolishly gamble, rich people prudently invest). The truth, in fact, is worse: the lottery is a tax on hope.
Desperation is one thing, but much of the lottery hysteria comes from middle-class people who are actually fine but are still looking for their “big payday.” This is why attacking the lottery from a rational economic perspective misses the point: people like the lottery. I recently overheard someone saying that winning money is “the best feeling in the world.” One assumes/hopes this was ironic hyperbole, but this was a person who actually was playing the lottery; the sentiment was genuine. The fantasy, of course, is not really about money, but about being saved, about something else swooping down from the sky and solving all of your problems forever. This is why the “winning” aspect is important: what’s enjoyable is precisely the fact that you didn’t earn it.
Hence, the “American Dream” ultimately amounts to the desire to be able to fuck off and do nothing for the rest of your life. This is what people are actually dreaming about when they dream about winning the lottery. And if the only thing you really want out of life is to have “no problems,” to be “free” in the most trivial sense of the term, you’re a nihilist. Most Americans really can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than free money.
(Speaking of which, Patti Smith had her finger on this pulse 40 years ago. “Free Money” addresses precisely this fact: that money is only desirable to the extent that it actually lets you do things. The song’s fantastical positiveness negatively highlights the fact that money is not freedom, but rather lack of money is coercion.)
There is/was a lottery commercial where the powerballs or whatever they are are raining down from the sky, and somebody catches the winning one while faux-gospel music plays in the background. This literally portrays winning the lottery as salvation, which would seem to be as absurd an inversion as there ever was. But as with all commercials, what’s sickening about it is that it’s true: this is what Americans actually believe.
People who argue against the idea of America being a “Christian nation” are missing the forest for the trees. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people follow which religion, or what religion the “founders” were, what matters is that our national mythology is Christian mythology, adapted to the world of politics. “Manifest Destiny” is the same thing as the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Obama’s ascension was portrayed by liberals in explicitly messianic terms (and by conservatives in explicitly apocalyptic terms, which amounts to the same thing). He was the person who was going to “transcend” politics, to save America from itself. Recall, if you can stomach it, this asshole:
“Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.”
The truth is that liberals actually did win the lottery when Obama was elected. They got their messiah. The reason Obama didn’t save the world is not because he wasn’t “tough” enough or because he “compromised” too much, but because there was no salvation to be had.
In Christian mythology, the second coming of Jesus, the culmination of history for which the world endlessly waits, does not herald an improvement or a revelation or even a purification. It heralds the end of the world. The great dream of Christianity is that someday, at long last, the world will stop existing, and the faithful will never have to worry about anything ever again. American politics subsists on this same hope: that one day a great leader will “fix” the government, such that everyone will agree on everything, and we’ll never have to engage in politics ever again.
Of course, this is impossible. Conservatives actually have a leg up on liberals here, because they recognize that conflicting politics cannot be reconciled. Liberals persist in the delusion that conservatives are “misguided,” that they’re being “mislead” by “demagogues,” that they’re “voting against their own interests.” The truth is that conservatives know exactly what they want. They don’t want economic security or health care or global stability. The reason they pursue symbolic victories is that they want a symbolic victory.
This is why the outcome to be hoped for from the primary elections is Sanders vs. Cruz. This would be a real battle, a genuine conflict of values. America would finally be forced to stop hiding behind civility and show its true colors. Yes, an extreme reactionary candidate would present a huge danger to the country. That’s the point. One who values truth courts danger, confident that the truth is strong enough to win through. Anyone who supports a candidate based on “electability” is a coward.
Playing the lottery is essentially the same form of cowardice. The winner gains the ability to circumvent their problems and not address them (obvious disclaimer: none of this applies to people who actually don’t have enough money to survive on. Meaning is a luxury; survival is the law). If you actually won the lottery, you’d tell your boss to fuck off, bask in a haze of giddiness for a few weeks, and then settle into a routine of obsessive money management on top of the usual life-wasting activities that you already engage in with your current amount of free time. You will not be saved.
My post about level ups needs an addendum, as there’s a related issue that’s somewhat more practical. That is, it’s an actual threat.
The concept of power growth can be generalized to the concept of accumulation, the difference being that accumulation doesn’t have to refer to anything. When you’re leveling up in a game, it’s generally for a reason, e.g. you need more HP in order to survive an enemy’s attack or something. Even in traditional games, though, this is not always the case. There are many RPGs where you have like twelve different stats and it’s not clear what half of them even do, yet it’s still satisfying to watch them all go up when you level. This leads many players to pursue “stat maxing” even when there’s no practical application for those stats. Thus, we see that the progression aspect of leveling is actually not needed to engage players. It is enough to provide the opportunity for mere accumulation, a.k.a. watching numbers go up. This might sound very close to literally watching paint dry, but the terrible secret of video games is that people actually enjoy it.
The extreme expression of this problem would be a game that consists only ofleveling up, that has no actual gameplay but merely provides the player with the opportunity to watch numbers go up and rewards their “effort” with additional opportunities to watch numbers go up. This game, of course, exists; it’s called FarmVille, it’s been immensely popular and influential and has spawned a wide variety of imitators. The terror is real.
Of course, as its very popularity indicates, FarmVille itself is not the problem. In fact, while FarmVille is often taken to be the dark harbinger of the era of smartphone games, its design can be traced directly back to the traditional games that it supposedly supplanted (the worst trait of “hardcore” gamebros is that they refuse to ever look in the damn mirror). Even in action-focused games such as Diablo II or Resident Evil 4, much of the playtime involves running around and clicking on everything in order to accumulate small amounts of currency and items. While this has a purpose, allowing you to purchase new weapons and other items that help you out during the action segments, it doesn’t have to be implemented this way. You could just get the money automatically whenever you defeat an enemy, as you do in most RPGs. But even in RPGs where this happens, there are still treasures and other collectibles littering the environment. This is a ubiquitous design pattern, and it exists for a reason: because running around and picking up vaguely useful junk is fun.
This pattern goes all the way back to the beginning. Super Mario Bros., for example, had coins; they’re one of the defining aspects of what is basically the ur-text of video games. Again, these coins actually did something (they gave you extra lives, eventually. Getting up to 100 coins in the original Super Mario Bros. is actually surprisingly hard), but again again, this isn’t the actual reason they were there. They were added for a specific design reason: to provide players with guidance. Super Mario Bros. was a brand-new type of game when it came out; the designers knew that they had to make things clear in order to prevent players from getting lost. So one of the things they did was add coins at strategic locations to encourage the player to take certain actions and try to get to certain places. And the reason this works is because collecting coins is fun on its own, even before the player figures out that they’re going to need as many extra lives as they can get.
And there’s something even more fundamental than collectibles, something that was once synonymous with the concept of video games: score. Back in the days of arcade games, getting a high score was presented as the goal of most games. When you were finished playing, the game would ask you to enter your initials, and then show you your place on the scoreboard, hammering in the idea that this was the point of playing. Naturally, since arcade games were designed to not be “completable,” this was a way of adding motivation to the gameplay. But there’s more to it than that. By assigning different point values to different actions, the designers are implicitly telling the player what they’re supposed to be doing. Scoring is inherently an act of valuation.
In Pac-Man, for example, there are two ways you can use the power pellets: you can get the ghosts off your ass for a minute while you try to clear the maze, or you can hunt the ghosts down while they’re vulnerable. Since the latter is worth more points than anything else, the game is telling you that this is the way you’re supposed to be playing. The reason for this, in this case, is that it’s more fun: chasing the ghosts creates an interesting back-and-forth dynamic, while simply traversing the maze is relatively boring. Inversely, old light-gun games like Area 51 or Time Crisis often had hostages that you were penalized for shooting. In a case like this, the game is telling you what not to do; rather than shooting everything indiscriminately, you were meant to be careful and distinguish between potential targets.
So, in summary, the point of “points” or any other “numbers that go up” is to provide an in-game value system. What, then, does this mean for a game like FarmVille, which consists only of points? It means that such a game has no values. It’s nihilistic. It’s essentially the unironic version of Duchamp’s Fountain. The point of Fountain was that the work itself had no traditional artistic merit; it “counted” as art only because it was presented that way. Similarly, FarmVille is not what you’d normally call a “game,” but it’s presented as one, so it is one. The difference, of course, is that Duchamp was making a rather direct negative point. People weren’t supposed to admire Fountain, they were supposed to go fuck themselves. FarmVille, on the other hand, expects people to genuinely enjoy it. Which they do.
And again, the point is that FarmVilleis not an aberration; its nihilism is only the most naked expression of the nihilism inherent in the way modern video games are understood. One game that made this point was Progress Quest, a ruthless satire of the type of gameplay epitomized by FarmVille. In Progress Quest, there is literally no gameplay: you run the application and it just automatically starts making numbers go up. It’s a watching paint dry simulator. The catch is that Progress Quest predates FarmVille by several years (art imitates life, first as satire, then as farce); it was not parodying “degraded” smartphone games, but the popular and successful games of its own time, such as EverQuest, which would become a major influence on almost everything within the mainstream gaming sphere. The call is coming from inside the house.
Because the fact that accumulation is “for” something in a game like Diablo II ultimately amounts to no more than it does for FarmVille. You kill monsters so that you can get slightly better equipment and stats, which you then use to kill slightly stronger monsters and get slightly better equipment again, ad nauseum. It’s the same loop, only more spread out and convoluted; it fakes meaning by disguising itself. In this sense, FarmVille, like Fountain, is to be praised for revealing a simple truth that had become clouded by incestuous self-regard.
There is, of course, a real alternative, which is for games to actually have some kind of aesthetic value, and for that to be the motivation for gameplay. This isn’t hard to understand. Nobody reads a book because they get points for each page they turn; indeed, the person who reads a famous book simply “to have read it” is a figure of mockery. We read books because they offer us experiences that matter. There is nothing stopping video games from providing the same thing.
The catch is that doing this requires a realization that the primary audience for games is currently unwilling to make: that completing a goal in a video game is not a real accomplishment. As games have invested heavily in the establishment of arbitrary goals, they have taken their audience down the rabbit hole with them. Today, we are in position where certain people actually think that being good at video games matters, that the conceptualization of games as skill-based challenges is metaphysicallysignificant (just trust me on this one, there’s evidence for it but you really don’t want to see it). As a result, games have done an end-run around the concept of meaning. Rather than condemning Sisyphus to forever pushing his rock based on the idea the meaningless labor is the worst possible fate, we have instead convinced Sisyphus that pushing the rock is meaningful in the traditional sense; he now toils of his own volition, blissfully (I wish I could take credit for this metaphor, but this guy beat me to it).
This is an understandable mistake. As humans, limited beings seeking meaning in the raw physicality of the universe, we’ve become accustomed to looking for signs that distinguish meaningful labor from mere toil. It is far from an unusual mistake to confuse the sign for the destination. But the truth is that any possible goal (money, popularity, plaudits, power) is also something that we’ve made up. The universe itself provides us with nothing. But this realization does not have to stop us: we can insist on meaning without signs, abandon the word without losing the sense. This is the radical statement that Camus was making when he wrote that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” He was advising us to reject this fundamental aspect of our orientation towards reality.
We have not followed his advice. On the contrary, games have embraced their own meaninglessness. The most obvious symptom of this is achievements, which have become ubiquitous in all types of games (the fact that they’re actually built-in to Steam is evidence enough). Achievements are anti-goals, empty tokens that encourage players to perform tasks for no reason other than to have performed them. Many are quite explicit about this; they’re things like “ 1000 more times than you would have to do it to complete the game.” Some achievements are better than this, some even point towards interesting things that add to the gameplay experience, but the point is the principle: that players are expected to perform fully arbitrary tasks and to expect nothing else from games. In light of this, it does not matter whether a game is fun or creative or original or visually appealing. No amount of window dressing can counteract the fact that games are fundamentally meaningless.
If you want a picture of the future of games, imagine a human finger clicking a button and a human eye watching a number go up. Forever.
While renouncing games is a justifiable tactical response to the current situation, it’s not a solution. Games are just a symptom. Game designers aren’t villains, they’re just hacks. They’re doing this stuff because it works; the problem is in people.
Accumulation essentially exploits a glitch in human psychology, similar to gambling (many of these games have an explicit gambling component). It compels people to act against their reason. It’s not at all uncommon these days to hear people talk about how they kept playing a game “past the point where it stopped being fun.” I’m not exactly sure what the source of the problem is. Evolution seems unlikely, as pre-civilized humans wouldn’t have had much opportunity for hoarding-type behavior. Also, the use of numbers themselves seems to be significant, which suggests a post-literate affliction. I suppose the best guess for the culprit would probably be capitalism. Certainly, the concept of currency motivates many people to accumulate it for no practical reason.
“They are told to forget the ‘poor habits’ they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: ‘Climb the wall,’ others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, ‘I’m Peculiar’ — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.”
(Okay real talk I actually didn’t remember the bit about the “virtual award.” I started rereading the article for evidence and it was right there in the second paragraph. I’m starting to get suspicious about how easy these assholes are making this for me.)
What’s notable about this is not that Amazon turned out to be the bad guy. We already knew that, both because of the much worse situation of their warehouse workers and because, you know, it’s a corporation in a capitalist society. What’s important is this:
“[Jeff Bezos] created a technological and retail giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics . . .
Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”
What’s happening in avant-garde workplaces like Amazon is the same thing that’s happened in games. The problem with games was that they weren’t providing any real value, and the problem with work in a capitalist society is that most of it is similarly pointless. The solution in games was to fake meaning, and the solution in work is going to be the same thing.
And, just as it did in games, this tactic is going to succeed:
“[M]ore than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.
‘A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,’ said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, ‘The Amazon Way.’
. . .
Amazon has rules that are part of its daily language and rituals, used in hiring, cited at meetings and quoted in food-truck lines at lunchtime. Some Amazonians say they teach them to their children.
. . .
‘If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,’ said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.
. . .
[I]n its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more.
. . .
‘I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from.’”
It’s only once these people burn out and leave that they’re able to look back and realize they were working for nothing. This is exactly the same phenomenon as staying up all night playing some hack RPG because you got sucked in to the leveling mechanism. It’s mechanical addiction to a fake goal.
The fundamental problem here, of course, is that Amazon isn’t actually trying to make anything other than money. A common apologist argument for capitalism is that economic coercion is required to motivate people to produce things, but this is pretty obviously untrue. First, people have been building shit since long before currency came into the picture; more importantly, it’s obvious just from simple everyday observation that people are motivated to try to do a good job when they feel like they’re working on something that matters, and people slack off and cut corners when they know that what they’re doing is actually bullshit. The problem with work in a capitalist society is that people aren’t fools; the reason employees have to be actively “motivated” is because they know that what they’re doing doesn’t merit motivation.
The focus with Amazon has mostly been on that fact that they’re “mean”; the Times contrasts them with companies like Google that entice employees with lavish benefits rather than psychological bullying. But this difference is largely aesthetic; the reason Google offers benefits such as meals and daycare is because it expects its employees to live at their jobs, just as Amazon does.
As always, it’s important to view the system’s cruelest symptoms not as abnormal but as extra-normative behavior. The reason Amazon does what it does is because it can: it has the kind of monitoring technology required to pull this off and its clout commands the kind of devotion from its employees required to get away with it. Amazon is currently on the cutting edge; as information technology becomes more and more anodyne, this will become less and less the case. Consider that Google’s double-edged beneficence is only possible because Google is richer than fuck, consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company pulls, and then consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company would pull if it had Amazon-like levels of resourcefulness and devotion.
So, while publications like the New York Times are useful for getting the sort of “average” ruling-class perspective on the issues of the day, you have to keep the ideological assumptions of this perspective in mind, which in this case is super easy: the Times assumes that Amazon’s goal of maximizing its “productivity” is a valid and even virtuous one (also, did you notice how they claimed that this is happening because “technology wants” it to happen? Classic pure ideology). All of the article’s hand-wringing is merely about whether Amazon’s particular methods are “too harsh” or “unsustainable.” The truth, obviously, is that corporate growth itself is a bad thing because corporate growth means profit growth and profits are by definition the part of the economy getting sucked out by rich fucks instead of actually being used to produce things for people. This goes double for Amazon specifically, which doesn’t contribute any original functionality of its own, but merely supersedes functionalities already being provided by existing companies in a more profitable fashion.
And this is where things get scary. With video games, the only real threat is that, by locking themselves into their Sisyphean feedback loop, games will become hyper-effective at wasting the time of the kind of people who have that kind of time to waste. Tragic, in a sense, but in another sense we’re talking about people who are making a choice and who are consequently reaping what they’ve sown. But the problem with the economy is that when rich fucks play games, the outcome affects everybody. And when those games are designed against meaning, and all of us are obligated to play in order to survive, what we’re growing is a value system, and what we’re harvesting is nihilism. Bad design is a fate worse than death.
“’In the office of the future,’ said Kris Duggan, chief executive of BetterWorks, a Silicon Valley start-up founded in 2013, ‘you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I’m supposed to guess what’s important, a world filled with meetings, messages, conference rooms, and at the end of the day I don’t know if I delivered anything meaningful.’”
Can you imagine living in a world where values are determined by humans? It’s getting kind of difficult!
When the situation is this fucked, even the New York Times has its moments:
“Mr. Bohra declined to let any of his employees be interviewed. But he said the work was more focused now, which meant smaller teams taking on bigger workloads.”
You know you’re an asshole when the shit you’re pulling is so blatantly horrific that even the “paper of record” is scoring sick burns on you from behind its veil of ersatz objectivity.
The thing is, when it comes to values, “money” in society has the same function as “score” in video games: it’s a heuristic that maps only loosely onto the thing that it’s actually supposed to represent. Ideally, economic growth would represent the actual human-life-improving aspects of a society, and to an extent, it does. Despite everything, most people really are trying to make the world a decent place to live. But a capitalist society is one where “growth” is pursued for its own sake, where spending a million dollars to feed starving children is just as good as spending that money on car decals, or on incrementally faster smartphones, or on weapons.
This is why you need to watch the fuck out any time someone starts talking about “meritocracy.” The problem with “meritocracy” is the same as the problem with “utilitarianism”: you have to actually define “merit” or “utility,” and that’s the entire question in the first place. With utilitarianism this is less of a problem, since it’s more of a philosophical question and this understanding is usually part of the discussion (also, when utilitarianism was first introduced it was a revolutionary new idea in moral philosophy, it’s just that today it tends to be invoked by people who want to pretend like they’ve solved morality when they actually haven’t even started thinking about it). But the meritocracy people are actually trying to get their system implemented; indeed, they often claim that their “meritocracy” already exists.
To be explicit, the word “meritocracy” is internally inconsistent. Claiming that a society should be a “democracy,” for example, establishes a goal: a society’s rulership should be as representative of the popular will as possible (that is, assuming the word “democracy” is being used in good faith, which is rarely the case). But the concept of “merit” requires a goal in order to be meaningful. It’s trivial to say that society should favor the “best,” because the question is precisely: the best at what? The most creative, or the most efficient? The most compassionate, or the most ruthless? Certainly, our current society, including our corporations, is controlled by people who are the best at something, it’s just that that “something” isn’t what most of us want to promote.
The problem isn’t that these people are hiding their motives; they talk big but they aren’t actually that sophisticated, especially when it comes to philosophy. It’s worse: the problem is that they have no goals in the first place. For all their talk of “disruption,” they are in truth blindly following the value system implicitly established by the set of historical conditions they happen to be operating in (see also: Rand, Ayn). This is necessarily the case for anyone who focuses their life on making money, since money doesn’t actually do anything by itself; it means whatever society says it means. This is why rich fucks tend to turn towards philanthropy, or at least politics: as an attempt to salvage meaning from what they’ve done with their lives. But even then, the only thing they know how to do is to focus on reproducing the conditions of their own success. When gazing into the abyss, all they can see is themselves.
Thus far, the great hope of humanity has lain in the fact that our rulers are perpetually incapable of getting their shit together. The problem is that they no longer have to. If nuclear weapons gave them the ability to destroy the world on accident, information technology has given them the ability to destroy values just as accidentally. A blind, retarded beast is still capable of crushing through sheer weight. The reason achievements in games took off isn’t because anyone designed things that way, it’s because fake-goal-focused games appeal to people, they sell. The reason Amazon seems to be trying to design a dystopian workplace isn’t because of evil mastermindery, it’s simply because they have the resources to pursue their antigoal of corporate growth with full abandon. Indeed, what we mean by “dystopia” is not an ineffective society, it’s a society that is maximally effective towards bad ends. And if capitalists are allowed to define our values by omission, if the empty ideal of “meritocracy” is taken as common sense rather than an abdication of responsibility, if arbitrary achievement has replaced actual experience, then the rough beast’s hour has come round at last; it is slouching toward Silicon Valley to be born.
Way to Go is the first full-length album from Survival Guide. You’d probably call it an electronic pop album, but the connotations of both of those terms are misleading. Contrary to the typical “layers of buzzing sounds” aesthetic that the term “electronic” brings to mind, this is a very precise album. It’s not quite minimalist, there are actually a lot of neat effects, but each one makes a specific contribution to the tone of each song, the production is careful and balanced, and many of the songs make powerful use of empty space. As for being a pop album, while the songs are generally short, have simple structures, and borrow from a variety of styles, there’s a pervasive sense of seriousness and urgency that prevents any of it from feeling ephemeral. The overall tone is actually really dark, more in the subtle shadowy sense than the oppressive industrial sense, contrasted by vocals that are both crystal clear and bright as day.
The cohesiveness of the album is what takes it from “impressive” to “serious business.” While the songs use a lot of different styles and tones, it’s not just for fun (I mean, it’s also for fun); it creates a progression of ideas that allows the album to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time (the songs are mostly of standard pop length, but the overall directness and economy give the album a bit of a punk impact). The sequencing, including precise and occasionally surprising transitions, builds an emotional and thematic arc over the course of the album, culminating in a harrowing climax.
The pop angle is also partially subverted, in that the contrast between the inviting song structures and the sober tone makes the whole thing feel kind of unnerving. In fact, it’s more than that; many of the songs are not just ambiguous but outright two-faced. This is apparent right from the title, which, first of all, is kind of overly general and not really evocative, starting things off on unsteady footing. Furthermore, “way to go” is commonly a sarcastic expression, which immediately presents a central uncertainty: is this supposed to be encouraging or insulting?
The other thing the title refers to is death.
“Ugly Side” opens the album with a burst of noise. This is sort of the opposite of setting the tone: it’s a reminder to watch out. The title is, of course, another hint at the album’s two-faced nature, and the song itself carries it though. The combination a strong beat in the foreground and a nervous guitar line in the background gives it an inside-out feeling, with a sort of deranged piano melody completing the atmosphere of uncertainty. The lyrics start out soft and gradually dive into the depths. Each verse feels innocuous at the start, but before long there’s “garbage in tow” and “poison that spreads.”
The other thing about the title is that it means business; we’re not talking about something cute here. The song has a pretty standard “opening single” feel if you’re not paying too much attention, but in fact this only conceals how serious the song really is. The chorus is the exact opposite of uplifting. It’s a passionately delivered statement of hopeless desperation. In particular, it includes a very smart inversion in the line “I can’t shake-shake-shake.” By taking a standard pop song filler line and turning it on its head, the standard pop music theme of liberation through physicality is also inverted; here, not only is the problem something that can’t be shaken off, its physical nature is precisely what makes it intractable. This is emphasized by the aforementioned physical descriptors in the lyrics, as well as the fact that the singer doesn’t have a “shield” to protect herself.
As a whole, the song is neither fully hopeless nor particularly uplifting. The uncertainty builds to a tense, open-ended climax:
Closing my eyes makes me kind of nervous
You’re nearby; I can feel it
I will not succumb to whatever it is you’re trying to make of me
This declaration, though powerful, is ultimately a statement of mere resistance, and this sets the tone for the rest of the album. The alternate version of the chorus drives it home with a sharp, repeated “I can’t.” Victory is not an option.
“Prohibition” goes in for denial, or “how solve your problems using alcohol.” It’s a slow song, but a lopsided, double-time drum line gives it an insistent sense of momentum, pushing into a dense, reverberating haze through which the vocals “whisper how things should be.” Fittingly, it’s the most opaque song on the album, but the horror-movie atmosphere never lets it get comfortable. “The screams are in the distance, but their hearts are pounding loud.” Of course, as the title implies, this isn’t going to work out. Halfway though, the haze breaks, that voice in the background that’s been saying “run, run, run, run” is suddenly right behind you, and there’s nowhere to hide.
“So Super Slow” breaks things open with a direct assault on complacency and obliviousness. The lyrics are a series of direct accusations, carried forward by a hard, straight-ahead rhythm. The delivery is aggressive but also precise, making the underlying rage feel justified. The accusations are contrasted with the singer’s own situation: “I put it on the line and you don’t care.” While this seems like an admission of failure on her part, it actually ends up strengthening her argument. A line like “I made you breakfast, you never showed up” should come across as pathetic; the rational conclusion would be that she shouldn’t have wasted her time. But the framing turns this completely around: it’s precisely because breakfast is made that you’re obligated to show up. The song takes a radically naive approach to the problem of devotion by coming at it from the other side. Instead of waiting to find something that’s worth devoting herself to, the singer commits herself in advance, and then uses that commitment to impose a moral obligation on everyone else to catch up, to make themselves worthy of her efforts. This is a particularly provocative approach in an age of complete information, where we know all the options and they all seem like dead ends.
Yet, while the song uses rock aggressiveness to make its point, it’s not really that much of a rock song. Despite the insistent vocals and the driving beat, the guitar plays coy in the background, leaving the verses mostly empty. The contrast between the vocals and the emptiness, leading into the wrathful anti-siren-song of the chorus, perfectly conveys the feeling of shouting into a void, which is exactly the situation. If you’re talking to someone who has no idea what’s going on, how is exhorting them going to help? The situation in the song is necessarily futile; if you’re in the position of having to yell at someone like this, it’s because you’re out of real options. In this sense, the song’s aggressiveness actually starts to backfire. It’s hard to say things like “you’re doing a terrible job of sticking to my plan” without sounding a little unhinged. Even the one line in the song that would normally read as genuine encouragement, “don’t say you can’t because I know you can,” comes across as domineering.
“So Super Slow” transitions smoothly into its exact mirror image: the supremely chill, discoesque “Get Your Don’t.” The singer’s position is reversed; now she’s the one targeted by devotion, but here it’s an obsession that she calmly rebuffs. What’s enthralling about this song is, ironically, the way it creates distance. The title, of course, is deliberately obfuscatory; despite being a direct quote, the impression that it conveys is exactly backwards. The music pulls you in with a smooth synth line, but the cold tone and mangled chorus keep you at arm’s length, as well as just stating directly: “don’t get your hopes up.” Even the dance break is awkward enough to be off-putting. The vocals pick up but also recede into the background, like it’s a party and you’re not invited.
This song is a great example of how the album uses its electronic effects for good instead of for evil. The verses play it cool, supporting the lyrics and allowing them to clearly make their statement, while the chorus brings out the synthetic droning to push you back, a physical manifestation the theme of the song. The dance break kicks it up into a high, oscillating warble that sticks to the back of your head, gives you a second of calmness to refocus, and then carries it through to the end, leaving you with an ominous feeling that this isn’t over.
The very fact that the song expresses itself so well is actually its own contradiction. It’s so much fun that it ultimately fails as a blowoff. After all, getting your hopes up is kind of the point of music. This is acknowledged by the sharpest line on the album: “You hope these words are the key to your own personal mystery.” Clearly ridiculous, but at the same time, who hasn’t been there? As with “So Super Slow,” this song implies its own futility; the fact that you’re telling someone not to get their hopes up means it’s already too late – and doing so with a song is only going to make things worse. In particular, “it’ll hurt worse on the way down” comes off less like a warning and more like a prophecy.
By this point things are tied in a bit of a knot. These are two contradictory songs addressing the same subject matter, and they each contradict themselves. But the songs aren’t exact opposites; by using negativity to close off the bad options on either side, but leaving space between them, they imply a correct path. For instance, one of the singer’s accusations in “So Super Slow” is that “you’ve got it easy, I’ve been studying,” while in “Get Your Don’t”, she warns not to “jump ahead and read the end before you start.” These lines are actually making the same point: you can’t be complacent, but you also can’t expect to get everything at once. You have to put in the effort to do things the right way, even without knowing how it’s all going to work out.
There’s another hint in the careful line that “Get Your Don’t” traces through its subject matter. The singer refuses to “bare her soul,” choosing instead to “keep [her] gold armor on.” But as the confidence of the delivery makes clear, this isn’t about giving up. It’s an argument that active artifice (it’s specifically gold armor) is not just healthier but better than basic emotional rawness. In terms of popular music, it isn’t just that perfect authenticity is impossible to ask of any performer, it’s also bad for the listener. It’s a con; it makes it seem like you’re getting something you’re not. There’s no such thing as an unmediated experience. Since everything has to go through the veil of subjectivity, pretending like you’re directly conveying your raw emotions is a lie, and it ends up making for worse communication. What’s required, for both the performer and the listener, is to work through the necessary complications rather than to pretend like they don’t exist.
So, despite the overall negative focus of everything so far, it feels like we’re getting somewhere, and “January Shock” picks up on that feeling. It begins with a jarring transition from fading synths to rising acoustic guitar, emphasizing the song’s anomalous position on the album. It’s right in the middle, and it’s the one song that actually feels bright and open; compared to the rest of the album, it’s like the break of day. It seems, at first, to be responding to the negativity of the first half of the album with a message of hope. We’ve all got problems, but “it’s not the end,” and you can always count on the fact that “the sun will rise again.” Unfortunately, this song also has an ugly side.
The first verse is a series of sarcastic statements mocking the sort of excuses that justify a fatalistic outlook. This is simple enough at first, but by the end of the verse it gets a little too real, particularly with the line “love is useless when I die.” It’s true that this isn’t an excuse, but it’s still kind of serious business. The second verse is more straightforwardly vicious, hammering home the point that fatalism ends up becoming its own justification. But it does this by compounding the problem: if “you blew it all in the last seven years” because you “thought you were safe,” then yeah, you’re kind of throwing yourself a pity party, but you’re also actually fucked. When the singer rejects this defeatist attitude with a blithe “not sorry now,” she’s washing her hands of the problem without actually resolving it.
The fact that the lyrics in the verses are actually fairly cruel is the first clue that something’s wrong, but cruelty isn’t really the problem. The arguments are still valid, and the kind of attitude they’re addressing deserves at least a little harshness. The problem is that the verses recontextualize the chorus. If the problem is that you’re stuck in a situation where it seems like nothing is going to work out, then the fact that the world is going to keep moving on without you doesn’t help; it makes things worse. With this in mind, the exultation of the chorus starts to feel a little disturbing. The thundering drums and soaring vocals rise up and tower over you, shining with an imposing brightness as terrible as daybreak itself. It’s not a promise, it’s a threat.
In particular, with the subject of death having been broached, the chorus acts as a reminder of what the actual endpoint of the sun rising over and over again is. Rather than offering reassurance, this brings the first side of the album to a unsettling conclusion. Identifying your problems and making plans doesn’t actually affect the implacability of reality. You can’t control your circumstances, especially not the circumstance of being a temporary physical object. Thus, rejecting fatalism seems to come at the cost of hope; the fact that you have to do something doesn’t imply any possibility of success. This new problem sets up the second half of the album, where the self-assured nature of the first half begins to fade, the pop sheen diminishes, and the negativity turns inward.
“Nowhere Anywhere” begins the process by creating a parallel structure between its two verses that brings two perspectives face to face. The song’s clanging guitar and insistent staccato rhythm create a claustrophobic atmosphere, making the confrontation feel tense and personal. Furthermore, the song anchors itself in specific locations and uses physical objects to provide evocative details, bringing the album down to a more mundane level.
The first verse builds an atmosphere of alienation, starting with the first use of third-person perspective on the album (“he” is literally the first word), and continuing through a series of oppressive physical details. The setting is, in fact, an office building, which is about as alienating as it gets. Furthermore, the lyrics never manage to reach inside to the actual perspective of the subject. “He looks in the mirror, nothing is clear, where’s he taking it from here?” We can tell what’s going on, but what “he” is actually thinking and feeling about the situation remains a mystery.
The second verse sets up the contrast immediately: “I have a hard time wanting to help.” Not only has the perspective shifted, but the focus is now on the singer’s feelings and desires. The setting shifts to the domestic, emphasizing the personal while staying grounded in reality. The physical details are now considered in relation to the singer’s viewpoint and actions, as things that people use rather than as mere objects. The most direct example of the difference is the way that doors are referred to in both verses. In the first, “the locks are turning, doors in the hall, there’s no way out.” A door here is merely a physical obstacle that closes off space, regardless of whether any actual humans are present (or care). In the second verse, the singer won’t “open the door, no matter who for.” Here, not only is the focus on the decision being made, but the importance of the door is in its social context: it’s a threshold that brings people together, or, as in this case, keeps them apart.
And that’s exactly what happens. The parallel construction highlights the failure of the two perspectives to connect, and it also implies the singer’s acceptance of her share of the responsibility. Her target may be hopeless, but regardless of the situation, she’s the one making the decision to disengage. There’s ultimately no point in blaming someone else for your inability to get through to them. No matter how frustrating other people’s failures are, all you can really control is yourself. There are hard limits on our ability to ever really get inside someone else’s head, and sometimes there’s not really anywhere to go from there. Thus, the conclusion is that “we’re two brick walls.” It’s not just that the singer has run into a wall, but the frustration has caused her to turn away herself. The song’s anticlimax is finalized with an abrupt ending, and this sense of resignation leads into the album’s darkest hour.
The inward turn continues with the deeply introspective “One to One.” A dirge-like keyboard presides over a jittery rhythm and repetitive, brooding lyrics. The previously accusatory “you” turns in on itself in lines that start out as accusations but resolve into personal failures: “you put it all on me,” “turn on the light but I can’t see,” and especially, “what do you want from me?” The tone is entirely desperate. The negativity seems to be taking its toll; the singer has tried everything, and she’s at the end of her rope. The vocals are alternately rushed and plaintive, overlaid with a heavy sense of dread, suggesting nothing so much as an impending nervous breakdown.
Which doesn’t happen. Just as the desperation reaches its peak, the song drops off into nothingness. A few scattered notes and beats barely hold the line. And just as everything seems to fade, it all comes roaring back. The piano surges and the vocals build to a final cry of, despite everything, strength. There is, finally, a line that can’t be breached. Even under the weight of everything, it turns out there’s still one viable option – a forced draw. “Say whatever you want to say, it’s always one to one in this game.”
The title track carries this strength forward, though it might not seem that way at first. Its tone is mournful; the soft, choppy vocals are suffused with pain. Lines like “friendly fire, it never ends” are presented without any kind of resolution or even consolation; they’re just the way things are. The fact that people who care about you are going to hurt you isn’t something that can be changed or even really addressed. Even when the song says that the “only way to move is forward,” is doesn’t feel encouraging, it feels like a lament. It isn’t the “only way” in the moral sense, but in the physical sense: it’s literally the only possibility. This is underscored by the marching band-like drums that accompany the chorus. A march isn’t really “encouragement,” it’s forced forward movement. The chorus even drifts off before finishing the title, as though lacking the strength to continue. This isn’t a song providing motivation to move forward, it’s a grim acceptance of the fact that moving forward the only thing you can actually do.
But grim acceptance is actually the song’s positive conclusion. “Way to Go” pulls the same trick as “January Shock,” but in reverse, and harder. It’s here that the album actually retracts its commitment to ambiguity: the contradictory nature of this song doesn’t offer two competing interpretations; the contradictions resolve into one deeper interpretation, the only one that works. Despite how deeply sorrowful the song is, and despite everything the album’s been through up to this point, it can’t be interpreted as a funeral march. “A voice in my head says stand up and be brave.” This doesn’t really amount to encouragement, it’s just a fact, but it’s one place, at least, where you know you can stand, even when you’re on your own. The album has finally arrived at a reliable source of strength: the paradoxical strength of active, considered acceptance. The song insists on this interpretation, less because there’s any compelling reason to than because it’s the only way.
And that might have been a nice ending, but there’s still the issue of whether it’s actually possible to accept the unacceptable. “Shrouded in Steel” is where the terror that’s been lurking in the subtext the entire time finally breaks loose.
This song is actually kind of off-putting at first. It starts out painfully raw: dramatic vocals that barely establish a meter are accompanied only by storm noises and a few guitar twangs, and it stays this way long enough for it to get uncomfortable. It starts off seeming like kind of an overwrought torch song; the first appearance of the chorus – “I was unaware of the pain involved, and I’m a little scared of emotions so strong” – comes across as almost embarrassingly naive.
But by the second verse, the fear starts to seem justified. “There’s no telling fire what to do, and metal can go straight through.” It’s even punctuated with a gunshot to make sure you get the message. The real subject here is the intersection of love and death – the fact that the extent of your devotion is precisely the extent of the universe’s ability to destroy you. In which case, it turns out there really is something to be afraid of.
The title comes from the line “your heart’s not shrouded in steel,” meaning not protected. But that’s not what the word “shrouded” means – it means “concealed.” It means that you can’t hide from your own humanity, your own emotions. The fact that you’re “unshrouded” means that you’re constantly exposed to the fundamental brutality of existence, and that everything you think and feel is on the chopping block. The flipside is that a “shroud” is also what covers a corpse; the fact that you’re not shrouded also means that you’re not dead yet.
After the first half of the song establishes its raw emotional basis, the second half kicks things into gear. The guitar wakes up, and a low, driving beat propels the song forward. The helplessness of the first half transforms into a hard determination that pushes itself through mounting agony. But what’s most important isn’t the change, it’s the continuity. The chorus stays the same, becoming more haunting with each repetition. It stops feeling naive and starts feeling like a radical understatement. The maelstrom of emotions continues to build, reaching the limits of tolerability with the line “it scares me a bit too much to know that someday it’s all going to end.”
Am I being clear about the fact that this song is completely incredible? The power and emotion in the singing here is unbelievable. It would be otherworldly if it weren’t for the fact that it also feels deeply real. You can actually feel the “chill spread fast and deadly,” it actually feels like “cutting away.” The whole thing builds up this incomprehensible amount of emotion while staying sharp and focused and engaging. I think maybe I’m being a little too reserved here. You really need to listen to this thing.
So, okay: this song is about death, and this is what crystallizes the entire album. It’s what makes all of this matter: both the fact that we only have one shot at this and the fact that there’s only one conclusion. And through all of it, we really have nothing more to go on than our own dread. There’s nothing approaching an answer here; that country is going to stay undiscovered.
“Shrouded in Steel” is a pure cry of torment; it not only doesn’t but can’t provide any kind of resolution. It puts everything right on the surface, leaving nowhere to hide. It could be read as an expression of nihilism, if it weren’t for the fact that that’s impossible. Music is transient by nature; performing a song is a commitment to expressing meaning in the face of oblivion. More than that, it’s impossible to actually be a nihilist, because you have to make some kind of decision based on some kind of values (choosing to do nothing is just as much of a decision as anything else). The only way to go is forward. And it’s totally impossible to express nihilism in a song, that is, an intentionally constructed artistic object that conveys emotions. This is why the “nihilism” of punk resulted in an explosion of creativity: it wasn’t actually nihilism; it was actually a revolution of values.
So, if the existence of art is the ultimate argument against nihilism, then the subtext of this song is the fact that it exists at all. It proves that even this amount of pain can’t force a surrender. The point isn’t that the pain is “worth it,” it just exists, it’s part of a deal whose terms have already been decided. But what also exists is the other half of the deal: the fact that we have to keep moving forward in time and making decisions. And this is where finding strength in acceptance stops looking like quite such a raw deal, because one of the things that you have to accept is that nihilism, and consequently any other form of philosophical surrender, is physically impossible. The universe is actually on your side on this one. The final repetition of the chorus echoes out with a piercing intensity, not as a lament, but as a commitment: to accept what’s certain and what’s unknowable, to keep suffering and being afraid, and to keep moving forward.
With the earth having been thoroughly scorched, the closer, “Remembered in a Song,” is necessarily desolate. The suffering hasn’t gone anywhere; the slow, effortful delivery evidences the weight that’s still being carried. But in the context of everything that’s led here, the deep melancholy of the song doesn’t feel maudlin. It’s a clear-eyed, determined gaze into the future – a future that’s not dark.