I’m editing EarthBound. While reworking a section near the end of the book, I wrote this summary of the section’s paragraphs so as to not lose the thread of my argument because I am dumb and need help. Considering this summary, art feels like law, but fuck you anyway, Bismarck:
We consume, produce, and reproduce too much.
This scientist agrees: “If we don’t do something radical, we’re fucked.”
Doing something means reproducing less and consuming less. But it also means making less art and making simpler art.
Lately, people have made “new” art out of extant art by transforming it then re-presenting it.
It’s easy to make “new” art out of extant art. We need to stop making complex art, but our desire to make art won’t lessen. These pieces of “new” art made from extant art are a step toward making simple art.
This complex art-maker agrees: “The argument that you choose life or you choose art is false. Life is the art. Making complex art products is harmful. We shouldn’t make products. We should all make simple, ephemeral art.”
What about games? Going back to “vintage” video games is not enough. Maybe we go back to the earliest board games. No: We go back to games that require nothing but ourselves.
p.s. Don’t listen to anyone who seriously compares editing a book to working in a coal mine.
The financial crisis of 2008 had a long gestation period that can be traced back to 1783, when Alexander Hamilton persuaded Continental Army soldiers, desperate for cash, to sell their war bonds to his speculating friends at one-thirtieth of their value. In the earliest days of the republic, Hamilton and financier–politician Robert Morris were making shady deals to funnel American wealth to the banking class of New York. Hamilton wanted to centralize the country’s wealth and power as fervently as his nemesis Thomas Jefferson wanted a decentralized nation of agrarian, self-sufficient wards. But of course we adopted Hamilton’s vision, not Jefferson’s, and as a result the United States now has the largest income gap of any country in the northern hemisphere — one that is now wider than at any point in our country’s history.
In their 2009 book, The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett concluded that every societal problem, without exception, can be tied directly to income inequality. The United States has higher levels of mental illness, infant mortality, obesity, violence, incarceration, and substance abuse than almost all other “developed” countries. And we have the worst environmental record in the world. When they died, the twenty-nine West Virginia miners were digging coal that the rest of us consume twice as fast as Americans did in the 1970s. Yet still we leave unquestioned the overarching goal of infinite economic growth on a planet of finite resources. The American economist Kenneth Boulding once remarked, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever is either a madman or an economist.” But as we listen daily to the president, to members of Congress, and to the financial analysts who sail by on cable news, the dominant message is that endless economic growth is this country’s singular destiny.
In his biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow wrote, “Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Exactly. We are indeed Hamilton’s heirs, and to repudiate his legacy will mean repudiating what modern capitalism has brought us: toxic loans, toxic securities, toxic energy sources, and toxic growth.
But what if we replaced our Hamiltonian economy with a Jeffersonian one? Or, put in other terms, what if we took as our model not an economy of unchecked growth, but one based on the natural laws of the watershed? By its very nature, a watershed is self-sufficient, symbiotic, conservative, decentralized, and diverse. It circulates its own wealth over and over. It generates no waste, and doesn’t “externalize” the cost of “production” onto other watersheds. In a watershed, all energy is renewable and all resource use is sustainable. The watershed purifies air and water, holds soil in place, enriches humus, and sequesters carbon. It represents both a metaphor and a model for an entirely new definition of economy, whereby our American system of exchange in the realms of wealth and energy is brought into line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.
— Erik Reece, from The End of Illth
Posted this over at Medium, but I’m reposting it here for you:
In Kurt Vonnegut’s BLUEBEARD, a character argues that a revolution requires “three types of specialists”: a genius, a citizen in high standing who vouches for the genius, and a person who can explain anything to anyone.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is all three.
Taleb’s a financial trader gone philosopher/mathematician. In his five volume philosophical tome called INCERTO—including the bestselling books THE BLACK SWAN and ANTIFRAGILE—he plumbs philosophy, history, and mathematics to illustrate humankind’s dangerous misunderstandings of risk.
His latest book, ANTIFRAGILE, classifies stuff—professions, technologies, medical treatments, political systems, philosophers—into three categories: the fragile, the robust, and the antifragile. The fragile breaks easily.The robust is something that withstands stressors but doesn’t gain anything from them. The antifragile benefits from volatility (up to a point). Think hunter-gatherer tribes, Nietzsche, entrepreneurs, and the hydra pictured above.
Showing that modern society is highly fragile—prone to massive blowups that are unpredictable and contagious—Taleb proposes plenty of ideas to limit our exposure to deadly risks and fragility. He wants humans to stick around. So do I.
The revolution he proposes throughout his work, best presented in ANTIFRAGILE, is not a revolution in the utopist sense—there’s no call for a violent uprising or reformation. Instead, it’s a call to simplify, to omit, and to subdivide.
According to Joseph Tainter’s analysis—which Taleb cites—all societies collapse when they can’t effectively use complex solutions to solve new problems. Tainter also shows that modern society is showing signs of empirical decline. To prevent this collapse, societies needs to find new energy sources and voluntarily simplify.
There’s no better way to encounter Taleb’s ideas than by reading his work—he’s an erudite and bullshit-free storyteller—but I think his proposals need to be repeated everywhere:
Eat locally. This both fights the march towards the global risk of GMOs and it limits your exposure to highly-processed and unhealthy food.
Buy from small businesses and artisans. Large corporations benefit from an ethical blindspot—their managers can rig the system in the short-term for massive personal bonuses then retire before their companies blow up; for example, take the entire financial crises of 2008. Also, large amounts of something are disproportionately more harmful than small amounts—think militaries, poison and pollutants. And, ultimately, it’s harder to cheat someone when you look them in the eyes.
Be a local activist. Participate in local politics. Beyond the obvious good of knowing what’s going on down the street, this engagement mimics Switzerland’s antifragile political system—there’s a bunch of local disagreements, but that keeps a messy and dangerous central government from forming (and involving itself in global disagreements, like wars).
Use older tools. Think of new technologies like bombs that go off on a delay—remember trans fats, tobacco and Thalidomide? Humans are geared to love novelty, but our obsession with novelty makes us too willing to adapt new technologies that are untested by time. To quote Robert Zajonc, “If it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet.”
Don’t be surprised by iatrogenics. I take a drug called Cimzia every month to manage my severe case of Crohn’s disease. The drug’s new, but the drug class has been around for about fifteen years. This type of drug hosts some gnarly potential side effects, including fatal lymphoma. Who knows what longterm side effect might show up once it’s been used by people for thirty years. If you need to take a new drug or use a new technology, don’t let yourself be blindsided by its hidden risks.
Remove something instead of adding something. When dealing with complex systems, removing something harmful—be it carbohydrates or cigarettes—is always safer and more measurable.
Take advantage of convexity. Be on the lookout for situations where the cost of doing something is small but the potential gain is vast. Think like Bob Ross when he said, “We don’t make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.”
Keep your skin in the game. Don’t advocate risks that you haven’t taken yourself. Just think of those asshole Goldman Sachs managers. Actually use the products you create and sell. Or if you’re feeling extra honorable, act like a firefighter by putting your skin in someone else’s game.
Avoid shame. Instead of defining your goals and actions by what you want to be or do—a huge, overwhelming field of possibility—use the much clearer definitions of who you don’t want to be, of what you don’t want to do. Keep your personal villains in mind. As long as you let those negative examples to guide you, you’ll be shame free. It’s a much clearer metric than “happiness.”
The world gets more complex and unfathomable every day. I hope you find Taleb’s thinking as useful as I do.
Recently, I used the InterroClayton to ask Clayton Cubitt—a brilliant and generous photographer, director and writer—a question:
If it makes sense to not have kids because of ecological worries (overpopulation, superfluous consumption), does it make sense to not make art because of ecological worries (overtaxed attention, superfluous entertainment)?
A day later, he responded:
Perhaps on a societal scale such concerns can be balanced by a hypothetical master planner.
But nature is selfish and passionate, and if she wants children she’ll have them, no matter what plans we make. And if she wants to kill those children she’ll kill them. And so too must artists be selfish and passionate, and put their artistic “children” out into the world, welcomed or not. Needed or not. Whether there’s hope they’ll survive or not.
We don’t make art because there’s a logical reason to. We make art because nature makes us make art, like nature makes us breathe, and nature makes us fuck, and nature makes us die.
Cheaper and more thoughtful than a cup of caffeine. You can find the InterroClayton here.
(first posted this over at Medium)
It’s funny to me when novelists and short story writers discover that monomythical stories work on most people.
It’s also funny when they decide that well-built narratives should be delivered with beautiful language 100% of the time, as if that combo is some Platonic ideal.
Should you try to write a great story with poetic language? Sure. Do it because it’s the hardest thing to pull off, not because you think it’ll work on everyone and deliver a perfect thrill.
But don’t forget the people that are bored by a lot of monomythical stories. Don’t write off writing for people that want a strange experience. Write the book you want to read.
Also, it might be worth asking if the corpus needs another traditionally plotted book. There are plenty.
There are enough extant mythological stories to entertain the world for the rest of human history. They stick. But the weird stories get buried.
And because human consciousness way overshoots its survival duty and presents us all this excess energy, we repeat ourselves. We keep making art. This won’t stop.
Maybe the strange stories—the stories that feel unfamiliar and deeply unsettling—need to be repeated more often.
And as always, in the name of the ecology of your attention, please consider ignoring all of this.
Nothing like distracting myself from my imminent novel deadline by reading Artaud and Guattari and then having to shout at myself—out loud—to put down the copy of A Thousand Plateaus and just get to fucking work already. And now here I am, writing into this box instead of the novel box.
In the introduction to Watchfiends & Rack Screams, Clayton Eshleman points out that Artaud’s life conforms to the shamanic journey, popularly referred to in Hollywood and in comparative religion studies as the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell popularized his idea of the monomyth (a word borrowed from Finnegans Wake, which is arguably Campbell’s favorite work of literature), and now Clayton has shown that even the life of a madman—especially the life of a madman—follows the patterns. What Artaud’s shamanic journey lacked, though, was a vital role in keeping his community together.
Now, with philosophers like Deleuze & Guattari ingesting & transforming Artaud’s work into a total philosophical shitstorm of radical analyses and practical methods, maybe Artaud’s view of the world and its pains will have the last laugh, as far as artistic prophecy goes. The world certainly feels crazier every day. Find a person alive that would argue otherwise.
It’s interesting to me that Campbell—who labored his entire life to find the connective spirit in the world’s body of myth/self-narration—would key into Finnegans Wake so much. I love Finnegans Wake. It’s one of those books that I could rave about for hours and hours, and often have, to the distress of anyone around me with ears. But Campbell’s love makes makes sense in a way, in that Joyce compresses so much cultural information, and with such an angle of play and pun and humor, that it would be an unlocked treasure chest for a guy as erudite and open as Campbell. I love the book because of what it does to me, and what I think it’s meant to do. The book takes the rhythms of speech and reminds you that they exist. It brings the music back to communication. Although, I wonder: If Finnegans Wake was translated into Swahili (lord god, I wouldn’t want that job), would the primarily West Germanic and Gaelic rhythms of the book—in its massive use of English and Irish—would they work in Bantu’s structure?
One of my oldest friends and I are engaged in an argument that has lasted about a decade. Our positions, crudely stated: He thinks narrative is a salve, I think it’s a war crime. Of course, we both oscillate between these two feelings, but he more often embraces Story as a Very Important Human Endeavor, while I often think that Story and our brain’s over-reliance on peeing neat little streams of causality on everything is Ultimately Bad, and Will Be The Death Of Us. Trademarks pending.
This is a roundabout way of pointing back at myself and the novel I’m currently avoiding. It is strictly chronological. Mostly. It is narratively comprehensible. Mostly. It’s structurally complicated, but definite in its shape. It feels like a puzzle. I’ve had a hard time with it, because it also dwells in reality. Mostly. I haven’t written anything with such strict limitations and such deep ambitions, in lockstep. It might never see the light of day. Who knows.
Reading Artaud and Guattari, and rereading Straw Dogs, has reminded of a question that I’ve posed to a bunch of friends in the last couple years. It’s this: Because of humanity’s glut of existing and accessible culture, and our ecological precariousness, might it be better to stop making new culture and instead live a life that is as quiet and non-generative as possible? In simpler terms: If there is too much of everything, shouldn’t the next few generations stop making more of everything? Wouldn’t that be a noble sacrifice? This is the question that is posed and radically answered in A Task. But unlike the central presence of the novel, I don’t think suicide is a viable answer to any problem, except the outstanding experiences of excruciating pain, as addressed by people like Dr. Kevorkian.
But every person I’ve put this question to—every artist—has blanched. People that normally will entertain the wildest notions do not want to touch this idea. And I get it. Who in the hell wants to be told that it’s bad to do the thing they most want to do? Especially when it’s something as benign as making and sharing art.
My answer to this question, when I question myself (which is often): Art is about the only domain left we can inhabit without the possibility of hurting people. Its potential to improve someone’s life is intense and private, and its potential to vitally wound someone is slight and singular. (Insert counterpoint.) The most common ill side effect: You waste someone’s attention. Which isn’t harmless, but I’d still rather waste someone’s attention than their health, wealth, or abilities. Art seems like a little pyramid scheme, but the capital is instead attention and imagination. (SECOND DRAFT EDIT: Nice domains that tangibly save lives? Firefighting. Nursing. Be a surgeon, or a social worker. Ken: Please keep inhabiting your little fancy flitty art world, you dummy.)
Apologies if you’ve read this far and have already read writing from me that moves into these ideas. I don’t claim novelty, or the ability to not repeat myself. Yet.
Goodnight and goodmorning.
I just wrote this in a response to this, and I’m reposting it here because it feels right:
I’m going to use numbers here because it’s late and I’m zonked.
1. Time is the greatest hero and greatest villain to culture. 99%+ of what’s been published in the last ten years, small press or big press, is not going to be actively read in the future. I don’t think this changes with the more history-agnostic platform of the internet in any deep way, except that maybe there will be a wider dispersion of niche audiences for single titles (which has already happened), and an expansion of culture’s “fat tails” — the stuff that, for whatever reason, gets found and revived and finds a huge audience, will have an even larger potential audience as access to the internet expands.
1A. Book reviews, except in the NYT, do not sell many books.
2. I chalk the advertising inadequacy of small publishers up to two main reasons: they disdain advertising, and they don’t know how to sell shit/make shit look interesting. The whole “lack of resources” thing sorta goes out the window, as anyone with a web browser can find & see shit at whim — although, advertising campaigns do cost money, and money is something that most small presses don’t have (beyond production costs). I blame myself for the disdain of advertising thing, and have tried (with various shades of success) to circumvent that by promoting a book in a mysterious way (as with Mooney), or a way that fits the content (as with Confessions) or with a collaborative art project on the side (as with The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover). But, as the super wise Mark Leidner once said — or said something like this — the poets of the future will master the poetry of advertising (HELLO STEVE ROGGENBUCK).
3. The thing that I think about THE MOST is ecology. And, because I love and make and write and sell books, I think about the ecology of culture. I feel that’s something that isn’t considered; there’s a taboo to it. Every time I bring up the ethical implications of publishing something in this day and age — asking for attention (an increasingly strip mined resource) for a cultural object, let’s say a book, amid the hundreds of thousands of books IN ENGLISH published EVERY YEAR — let alone the massive treasures of past, time-tested classics, works in translation, etc. — every time I bring this up, the artist I’m talking to sort of flinches, scared of the idea’s inevitable conclusion — that, right now in America, as an American, HELL, even as a white dude that’s not a criminal or radical dissident or that doesn’t totally inhabit some fringe of society that is underrepresented in literature — that maybe publishing is unethical. Ecologically wasteful. Etc.
4. It all boils down to suicide. Silence. Omission. (Fucking Camus was no dummy.)
5. I’ll start to slow down here, and just sum up the only stuff that is empirically true to me, all that subjective glory — I write because it feels good, and I also love & fetishize literature and its capacities. I publish books because I love & fetishize books, and I love supporting writers, and I love designing objects. I don’t LOVE selling objects, but I do love the response of a reader, and I understand that in order to grab that amazing, transcendant art-transformation (that AWAKENING, no less than an awakening), I have to sell some fucking books.
6. Is it right? Who knows. We have not eyes long enough. I’ll leave the zooming out to the god I don’t claim to know a thing about, if there is one.
7. In this way, we are all a bit reckless. But to know that, and to still pay as much attention as we can to what we do and how we do it, and most importantly, who we do it for… that’s as transcendant as it gets.