Saturday, April 27, 2019

On John Rhys-Davies' Tantrum

Recently I chanced upon John Rhys-Davies' nasty behavior toward Green Party MP Caroline Lucas on the BBC's Question Time. In particular the bit where he responded to her questioning of Donald Trump's legitimacy through reference to his having lost the popular vote by a wide margin with "Oh woman! Have you not read Kenneth Arrow and the Arrow's theorem? Any system has its problems."

As far as I can tell the criticism of his behavior has generally focused on his rudeness and sexism. I do not dispute any of that, but am in this post more interested in the manner in which he argued, or appeared to argue. In not only citing Kenneth Arrow's "impossibility theorem," but presuming that his work was common knowledge which he could expect anyone he meets to know (it is not), he implied (unsubtly) that he is not vastly only more knowledgeable, but altogether on a higher intellectual plane than his opponent.

However, he also gave away his superficiality. Arrow's theorem is a piece of neoclassical economics, after all--the same neoclassical economics that for the last century and a half has been an exercise in physics envy, Scholasticism, and the dressing up of simple-minded but ideologically convenient (read: extreme-right wing) ideas in mathematical symbols and language (hence, "theorem") to lend them the illusion of having all the force and immutability of physical law (and of course, intimidate the callow). Its value has been virtually nil where understanding actual economic life (you know, an economists's job) is concerned--and naturally the approach in general, and Arrow's theorem (vulnerable to every one of the criticisms listed here) is, at the least, rather more open to question than Rhys-Davies implied (that reading it one could not but accept the matter as settled now and forever). It certainly is not a mike-dropping answer to a specific criticism of the outcome of a specific election.

The best that one could say for Rhys-Davies was that he answered Lucas' criticism with a platitude ("You can't have everything!" "You can't please everyone!") passed off as not being a platitude by its being dressed up with a famous name and the aforementioned mathematical language. The ungenerous would suggest that Rhys-Davies' answer was the non-sequitur of a bully who substitutes name-dropping for genuine thought and argument, and that brings me to something I have had much occasion to think about recently, having time and again seen Internet trolls act in this way.

Bluntly put, how Rhys-Davies spoke is not how intelligent people speak but rather how stupid people imagine intelligent people speaking.

Why People With High IQs Don't Go Around Bragging About Their High IQs
4/27/19
Of Assholes and Bullshit
4/14/19
The Politics of Trolling: A Few Reflections
4/13/19
On the Word "Entitlement"
4/13/19
Toby Young, Again
4/4/19
My Posts on Trolls, Bots and Other Cancers on the Internet
3/25/19
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Anti-Intellectualism
8/18/13

Why People With High IQs Don't Go Around Bragging About Their High IQs

I have been struck time and again by the number of trolls who claim to be intellectually superior to anyone they are likely to meet in their profiles and handles. One claimed in his profile to have a "top IQ," and insisted that "you won't find anyone who knows more about life than me." Another, less subtle, incorporated the word "genius" into her handle.

Anyone who has spent time among actual "high IQ" people would recognize these people as fakes instantly, simply for their having done so--as people who actually have high IQs do not go around telling people they have a high IQ.

I think one reason is that they know how little IQ really means. By that I do not necessarily mean that they think the test is worthwhile (even if they are likely to realize that a test administered on a single occasion which attempts to offer a general estimate of the extremely complex phenomenon that is intelligence is apt to offer a result more precise than accurate), but that they know how little it counts for in real life. I recall, for example, that when his reported IQ of 170 came up in an interview, Herbert Stempel remarked that that "and two dollars can get you on the subway."

It is a reminder that in real life, however much addicts of the propaganda for meritocracy insist upon it, society is not ruled by the smartest, nor inclined to lavish its rewards upon them. Picking your parents well, playing the dirty game of getting ahead, stands one in far, far better stead there.

They know how little it means even where purely intellectual life is concerned. I doubt a high IQ has completely saved anyone from the painful experiences of working harder than they should for longer than they should, making mistakes, getting frustrated, and outright failing. (Often, high intelligence is an obstacle to getting good grades in a school system more concerned with students being able to take direction well than think for themselves; get good scores on standardized tests than acquire deeper capability.)

Even the highest intelligence ever possessed by a human being is not automatic, effortless omnicompetence, a free pass to a life of Faustian adventure in which one gets to do and to be everything. Quite the contrary, where the stupid have the Dunning-Kreuger effect to insulate their egos, they have a fairly good idea of the limits of their competence, even where they are competent--even when a narrow specialist, all too alert to how little they know about that, and how much less they know about the rest, the bar higher for them, and the capacity for self-criticism without which they would have accomplished little, can leave them underestimating themselves. Because they have worked, they have known burn-out (and the deflation of confidence that goes with it). Because they have been recognized as something, they have wondered if they have not been impostors (the more so in the wake of those inevitable frustrations and failure). Because people have seen potential in them, they have wondered if they have lived up to it. (You have a high IQ, you say? Well, what did you do with it?)

This is also the more poignant as they are likely to have spent much of their life around other, similarly intelligent individuals, whose failings and insecurities are less visible to them than their own, who may seem the more formidable than they. They know there is always someone "better" out there. And they are smart enough to know that no one likes a braggart, not least because they, like everyone else, have been on the wrong end of it.

Indeed, in that particular milieu most closely identified with conspicuous intellectual demands and achievement, they are, far from the super-individualist so beloved of bad science fiction, all too aware that they "stand on the shoulders of giants," and manage that only with the help of others. (Never mind winning Nobel Prizes, as Brian Keating point out in his book--publishing a run-of-the-mill paper is likely to be a highly collaborative effort.) Robert Merton put it well, the more so for how provocative the term sounds to orthodox ears--"communism" is a cornerstone of the ethos of the scientific enterprise.

Does this mean that the intelligent are incapable of arrogance, whether in their taking an exaggerated view of their powers, or their possession of a sense of superiority to others? Of course not. Indeed, one can picture all the sources of insecurity described here driving them overcompensating. But at the least it makes the IQ test score-flogging crudity of bad fiction and much inane real-life personal behavior by the fakers a rarity among "the real thing."

Of Assholes and Bullshit
4/14/19
The Politics of Trolling: A Few Reflections
4/13/19
On the Word "Entitlement"
4/13/19
Toby Young, Again
4/4/19
My Posts on Trolls, Bots and Other Cancers on the Internet
3/25/19
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Anti-Intellectualism
8/18/13

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Prime Time Network TV Time Warp

On CBS we have Hawaii Five-O, SWAT, Magnum P.I., MacGyver.

On NBC we have Will & Grace and Law & Order, on FOX The Simpsons and Family Guy and The X-Files.

ABC is still airing the misadventures of the Conner family.
Not quite in their league, but still following the trend, CW has Dynasty, and Charmed, and Archie and Jughead (it's called Riverdale), and Roswell, and maybe Nancy Drew and the 4400 as well . . .

As to the shows not on before the current crop of college students was born--we have on CBS three NCIS series'--extending a franchise that began way back in 1995 with JAG, while a second Law & Order show is trying to stretch out its even older franchise. FOX has Lethal Weapon (?), and Tim Allen ranting about manliness . . .

And we haven't started on the reality shows yet.

Postmodernists might find this cause for ironic bemusement.

While their endless capacity for ironic bemusement reminds us how convenient their attitude is toward, among so much else the Establishment loves, the foisting of recycled crap on the viewing public. Not only did you see it all before, figuratively speaking--you have seen this all before, literally. Most of it probably wasn't worth watching the first time (I'll be generous here), and unlike a fine wine, it generally did not improve with age.

Instead, like Theresa May's jam, it only got moldy.

On Cinemetrics

Aesthetic reactions are very difficult to discuss objectively, but nonetheless, a work of art does have features which are objective, and sometimes precisely quantifiable. One of these is the length of the shots in a film, both in particular scenes, and over the entirety of the film. Among those who study this kind of thing it is a commonplace that the "Average Shot Length" (ASL) of film is getting shorter. This partly reflects the digitization of film editing that made cutting easier than it used to be (one doesn't have to literally cut up celluloid anymore); partly the increased share of action films in the mix, which were always quicker cut than other kinds (John Ford had shorter ASLs than Billy Wilder); but partly also the fact that action movie-makers have relied heavily on this approach to ramp up the intensity of their movies.

As it happens, the web site Cinemetrics maintains a massive, freely searchable database of such measurements, which I made plenty of use when writing about these trends in Star Wars in Context. And reading it I found that, yes, ASL has fallen, and hard. In fact, it has fallen so much that they cannot go much lower. Think of it this way--in 2004 Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil 2 already lowered ALS to below 1.7 seconds (which means that the entire film is cut faster than the classic Bond-Grant fight scene in From Russia With Love). In the fourteen years since no one has gone beyond this, not Anderson, not anybody, suggesting that we have hit a wall here. Any action director who wants to show they're not all out of tricks will simply have to go at things in a different way.

A bigger surprise was that the films that have been more aggressive with ASL were not the highest-budgeted, most over-the-top films, but films with more limited budgets or more grounded material. Thus it was Paul Anderson, not Michael Bay, who pushed the envelope furthest. And relatively down-to-earth films like The Bourne Supremacy and Quantum of Solace had markedly lower ASLs than, for example, space operas like the Star Wars films or Guardians of the Galaxy. (The database reports more than one figure for many of these films, but where Bourne and Bond are usually scored in the range of 2 seconds and often less, the ASL for the space movies is more like 3-4.)

Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the '80s Action Film
8/27/13

Review: The Chimera Vector, by Nathan Farrugia

Nathan Farrugia's The Chimera Vector being the sort of thriller where plot twists and "big reveals" are critical to the entertainment, it is difficult to discuss in spoiler-free fashion. Without giving away much, though, I can say that the essentials are familiar--a covert operative betrayed and forced on the run to survive, resulting in their trotting the globe with the enemy close behind them and discovering behind the mysteries of their own past, and the dangers they face in the present, a conspiracy of global proportions.

However, Farrugia's handling of the material makes it feel fresh, helped by his clean, crisp prose--a far cry from, for example, Robert Ludlum's often bombastic verbosity. It seems significant, too, that while action-packed for the most part Farrugia eschews over-the-top, physics-defying set pieces (as exemplified by Matthew Reilly) in favor of relatively brief, relatively grounded fight and chase scenes that fit in well with his narrative style. (For all the gunplay, I didn't catch myself pausing and backtracking to work out what is going on at that level--which was especially handy given that the edition supplied for review was an e-book rather than a print work.) It helps, too, that there is more than the usual canniness and substance in the thinking about the reasons behind it all. (Indeed, a good many will come away from this book feeling that behind the science fiction trappings, the story is fairly close to the truth about the times in which we live.)

High-Speed Pulp Writing: How Did People Do It?

Those who delve into the history of the more commercial kinds of fiction--the old pulps and paperbacks and so on--encounter what seem like extraordinary feats on the part of writers from the standpoint of sheer volume of output, authors cranking out whole novels in days (a Lester Dent, for example, particularly famous for this approach).

The prospect of being able to do the same is, for many, enormously appealing. After all, who hasn't wanted to finish a piece of writing more quickly? Who doesn't dream of being more productive?

Just how did they do it? The answer is that there were several enabling factors, not least in regard to the sort of books they were writing:

1. They were shooting for short works--50,000 words or so.
2. Those short books tended to be formulaic--the writer simply coming up with different factors to plug in rather than thinking up a narrative arc from scratch.
3. These short, formulaic books were also simple books, with relatively straightforward structures and straightforward prose, and minimalist in such respects as detail. This meant that they didn't have to do so much fleshing out of their scenes, which was another time-saver.
4. There was a certain tolerance for roughness and repetitiveness in the product--like a good deal of serviceable but awkward phrasing.

There was, too, the manner in which they worked.

1. They had to be able to work without interruption, with working through the night, and the next day, a common feature of the approach.
2. They had someone ready to take the work off their hands when they were done, so that they could move on to the next thing, rather than being stuck poring over what they'd finished.
3. They had the opportunity to do this again and again and again, putting such work out as much as they were physically capable, building up experience at this kind of endeavor.

The combination of the kind of project with its particular demands (and the things it didn't demand), their opportunity to work without interruption and then let go of a project to start a new one of a similar type over and over and over again, are a very far cry from how today's aspiring novelist is likely to work. They are expected to shoot for works of 100,000 words or more, books which are not just longer but more complex. Producing this longer, more complex book they are apt to hold down a day job, which by itself not just commands a large and perhaps critical part of their time and energy, but chops the rest to pieces, with fatal consequences for any sort of intuitive flow. And they are, of course, very unlikely to have a publisher waiting to take a work off their hands as soon as they are done. (Especially if they are unpublished and unagented, they might have it on their hands for years, and maybe forever.) If a writer feels that they must strive for originality, get the facts right, polish their prose; if they have been subjected to lots and lots of form rejection letters that wound enormously while teaching nothing; if they have been working in such conditions for long then they will likely get used to the unavoidably slower, more deliberate way of working; well, then the approach of a Dent is that much further outside their reach.

Those of us who would find their seemingly unselfconscious, spontaneous, intuitive approach a relief, or even liberating, can only breathe a sigh; but it may be some comfort to consider the reality that in today's market we would have a very tough time selling the result anyway.

My Posts on Writing and Publishing
7/22/13

The '80s Never Ended

Recently reading David Sirota's Back to Our Future I thought again that the 1980s do define our decade, though the explanation I find satisfying, I dare say, runs somewhat deeper than his--specifically that it was the time when the right-wing cultural counter-offensive underway since the 1940s (an adjunct to the more central political-economic counteroffensive we think of as neoliberalism) finally dominated the mainstream.

Why then and not earlier? Simply put, as the stimulus of post-war reconstruction and automobile culture ran their courses, as the war economy ground down the economic machinery sustaining it (the Cold War killed the gold standard and the Great Society together), as Europe and Japan's remaking of themselves after American-style mass-manufacturing made the world market very crowded; and related to all these, the pace of technological innovation and its associated productivity increases slowed, while the old resource profligacy proved unsustainable; Big Business already felt its profits squeezed in the 1960s. In the 1970s post-war boom altogether turned to post-war bust, worsening matters, while inflation may have made manufacturers uneasy but was positively toxic for finance. Meanwhile the leftward shift of society was felt as intensely threatening, even in the core, Western, industrialized nations. (Remember, for instance, the hysteria of British right-wingers about some imminent union/leftist takeover of the country that had them cooking up coup plots against Harold Wilson?)

At the same time, amid danger there was also opportunity, the decay of the post-war consensus making their going on the offensive seem not only more urgent, but like it had a chance--as by getting the public to think the trouble was that things had gone too far left, rather than not left enough. Meanwhile, both sides of the counterculture provided material to work with--not just the much ballyhooed backlash against it, which, in a demonstration of the validity not of the horseshoe theory by which they set so much store but the fishhook theory they have marginalized, shifted ever-shaky "liberal" centrists right into its ranks in practice and even in name, but the counterculture itself (certainly, as it appeared in the U.S.). More emotional than intellectual in its foundations, strongly inclined to individualism, never very strong on the issues of economics and class, it was possible to exploit its impulses on behalf of not just consumerism (as Thomas Frank has made all too clear), but the full-blown neoliberal economic agenda--turning the hippies into yippies and just plain yuppies.

What we have lived through in the last four decades has been the epilogue. But, perhaps, also the prologue to a new story . . .

Nostalgia and the '80s
4/7/19
An Anorak's Thoughts On Ready Player One (Film Adaptation)
4/7/19
Reading Ready Player One: A Few Thoughts
4/7/19
Why Do (Some) Democrats So Vehemently Deny Their Party Was Neoliberal?
4/4/19
The Twentieth Anniversary of The Phantom Menace: A Brief Note
4/4/19
Schooled Does Star Wars
4/4/19
Getting Schooled
4/4/19
Watching The Goldbergs
4/4/19

Why Was Hollywood So Slow to Capitalize on the Action Film?

The original, EON-produced James Bond movies of the early 1960s are generally regarded as the starting point for the modern action film--the movies that established their characteristic filmic structure, its range and density of set pieces, and its cinematographic and editorial techniques (and even the "blockbuster" mode of releasing them). Yet, Hollywood seems to have only properly begun to assimilate this practice in the mid-1970s, while it seems that it was another decade before they really became a staple product for the industry. In other words, a full generation seems to have passed between those foundational Bond films, and the rise of the Hollywood action film. Just why was that?

One might imagine that such a question had already been asked and answered numerous times, but so far as I can tell, this has far from been the case. One reason, I suppose, is that the sorts of serious, rigorous scholars of film who would do the hard work of tracing the development have little time for action-oriented blockbusters, whose rise many of them even seem to regard as an annoying aberration, or even a disaster for film. Another would seem to be the extent to which action films are defined by form rather than the kind of content to which they prefer to devote their analytical energies, in part because it is easier to talk about themes than it is the subtleties of cinematic technique--while the fact that the form is of a kind they do not respect does not encourage them in such efforts.

The question is a tough one, too, because it raises the question of why something was not done, a necessarily trickier matter than explaining why something was. Still, the well-known history of Hollywood, and the Bond films, offers a possible explanation.

When the early Bond films came along they were thrillers tinged with science fiction--at a time when thrillers and science fiction were both B-movie stuff, and B-movies looked like they were dying. It might be added, too, that spy films were a relative exoticism for American culture--a genre rather less well-established than, for example, hard-boiled crime. A survey of the reviews written about the films at the time also makes it clear that observers were not so sure about what to make of them--not so sure that they were looking at the rise of a new kind of film. Rather it seemed to them that they were looking at merely a parody of existing material--a parody of Hitchcock, a parody of science fiction, with such a view the more understandable because of the illogic and self-parody that was part of the warp and woof of those movies from the start.

None of this stopped Hollywood from imitating the Bond films. Yet, the imitation was for the most part superficial, and lightweight. The movies imitated the theme of the globe-trotting, gadget-packing superspy, for the most part parodically, rather than displaying a real grasp of the action movie mechanics, because the former was all that could be done with the slight understanding of or interest in those movies. The superficial, parodic route was also much less expensive. After all, in less than half a decade the Bond films upped their budgets tenfold, You Only Live Twice running a hefty near $10 million--and it would have cost Hollywood far more to make such a production at home. It is safe to assume that this was rather more than it was ready to risk in trying to compete head to head with the Bond brand by making a glorified B-movie with the kind of A-movie budget they were used to spending on other, very different kinds of film.1 Finally, the reality is that in the mid-1960s the Bond films were already passing the peak of their popularity, and by the 1970s looking increasingly repetitive, derivative of other material and outright decadent, lessening the interest in the movies and what they may have had to offer (that still unmastered action movie form), turning attention from them toward other directions.

And even before that point there were two other trends that galvanized Hollywood's attention, one more natural given its history, the other more radical. The first was an extension of the turn to splashy musicals evident in the '50s, with the years of Bond's greatest successes in America overshadowed each year by a hugely successful film of the type. In 1964 Goldfinger was #2 at the American box office, and From Russia With Love #5, but My Fair Lady was #1. In 1965 Thunderball proved the series' biggest ever success, but wound up at only #3, overshadowed by, above all, the biggest box office phenomenon of the whole decade--The Sound of Music, which took in twice as much in America and globally. In the next several years Hollywood sunk much of its money into trying to repeat that success, and never quite accomplishing it, Camelot doing all right, Oliver! better than all right, but 1969's Sweet Charity, Hello Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon a trio of big-budget ($20 million) letdowns that largely ended the trend.

The other trend was, of course, the "New Hollywood." Pioneered by directors less habituated to Hollywood tradition, they had relatively little interest in the kind of movie the Bond films represented. Their sensibility, after all, was oriented toward the arthouse, toward youth and the counterculture, toward social criticism and urban grit, toward aesthetically and politically edgier fare, rather than Bond-style crowd pleasers, even if, eventually, it was a New Hollywood director who brought the action film to Hollywood--George Lucas, in Star Wars, for which the Bond films had been an influence.

At that point Hollywood repeated the pattern of superficial imitativeness with Star Wars, imitating the space theme more than grasping the mechanics of action moviemaking, such that the Alien and Star Trek franchises did not began as action movie series', and only became such over the course of the '80s. The original Star Wars trilogy ran its course in 1983, and by then the larger fashion for space operatic movies was waning (few such appearing until the mid-'90s), but by then Hollywood had had the chance to pick up the pattern, routinize it in a period when it might have been more open, because it was more prepared to learn from its own successes than those of others, because B-movies were becoming the new A-movies, because "high concept" had become king and even if it was not yet closely identified with action-adventure, Lucas and his cohorts had given the studio heads the strongest foundation for high concept success of all.

1. The 1967 Casino Royale wound up pricier than any Bond movie made to date with a $12 million budget, but this was the result of a chaotic production process that led to cost overruns; and in any event, that film very much an exception.

Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on the '80s Action Film
8/27/13

Darko Suvin and H.G. Wells

Darko Suvin's collection Metamorphoses of Science Fiction includes such classics of his criticism as "Estrangement and Cognition" (available at Strange Horizons).

It also includes a piece dealing with "Wells As the Turning Point of the SF Tradition." In it Suvin remarked that Wells was the "first significant writer who started to write SF from within the world of science, and not merely facing it" (220); whose scientific romances were the "privileged form in which SF was admitted into an official culture that rejected socialist utopianism" (220); and "endowed later SF with a basically materialist look back at human life and a rebelliousness against its entropic closure" (221). "For such reasons," he declares, all subsequent significant SF can be said to have sprung from Wells' Time Machine" (221).

Others are often credited with founding the genre, sometimes Mary Shelley, sometimes Jules Verne, but when one considers science fiction from the standpoint of what made it really unique within twentieth century fiction, from the standpoint of what might be considered its cultural niche or even its special purposes that it alone and not other kinds of fiction could perform, it seems to me inarguable that, as Suvin contends, Wells was by far the most important of these three.

Shelley, Verne and Wells--especially Wells
9/8/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

My Notes on a Green New Deal

Considering the Green New Deal, I sat down to write a post about it.

In fairly short order, one post turned into three.

The first considered the familiar World War II analogy--in particular what might be entailed in an all-out effort to remake the national infrastructure and plant, how today differs from the 1940s, and how such an initiative might be resourced. (Past experience, and the advantages we enjoy now, suggest that these could be rebuilt along far greener lines within the space of a few years if the political will were there.)

The second proposed four principles by which such an effort should abide (namely scale, global thinking, pragmatism about the role public power would have to play, and equity).

The third discussed a few items that I thought merited more discussion than they generally receive as part of such a program (cellular agriculture, materials science, Generation Four nuclear energy, and megastructure construction).

I realize now that it will not be the last.

My Posts on a Green New Deal
4/12/19
My Posts on Neoliberal Environmentalism
4/12/19

Of Assholes and Bullshit

The last time I checked one still could not say the words "asshole" or "bullshit" on network television. Yet, academics have been writing books about these titles. Aaron James recently published Assholes: A Theory. Even before that, Harry G. Frankfurt paved the way with On Bullshit.

This may seem like a matter of writers trying to sell books by grabbing attention with a few swear words where, in even this vulgarized era, they might be least expected. However, that strikes me as not just ungenerous but inaccurate. The plain and simple truth is that these words have no precise synonyms in the English language.

James contends in his book that an "asshole" is a person whose sense of entitlement translates to their immunity to others' criticisms, reflected, not least, in their systematically exploiting advantages they may have over others--an idea no other word in English captures equally well.

This is even more the case with "bullshit." Bullshit, as Frankfurt makes clear, is not a lie. A liar, after all, is attentive to the truth, enough to know it and for some reason wish to conceal it. For all their faults, they at least know what the truth is and in some way respond to reality. The bullshitter, by contrast, is indifferent to the truth or falsity of what they say. They simply do not care. It is a whole other level of bad faith--and again, no other word captures this equally well.

All that being the case, these terms have been used in serious social science analysis. James applied what he discussed in Assholes: A Theory to the analysis of a then-presidential candidate in Assholes: A Theory of Trump, while David Graeber successfully used the concept of "bullshit" to offer one of the most original and significant critiques of the neoliberal economy in decades, Bullshit Jobs.

All that being the case, will these "dirty" words gain greater acceptance within daily usage? Somehow, I doubt it will happen anytime soon. Still, they seem to me indispensable, and unless we come up with satisfactory equivalents usable in polite society, we will have no choice but to go on speaking of assholes, and bullshit--especially in an age that has made an idol of the asshole, and unavoidably seems in danger of being buried in bullshit as a result.

My Posts on Bullshit Jobs
4/13/19
"Are the Arts Just For the Rich?"
12/23/18
Bullshit Jobs and the New Hollywood
12/23/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Politics of Trolling: A Few Reflections

It seems to me that the label "troll" is much misused. Certain lazy writers will apply it to any criticism. Straightforward political commentary, or satire, are routinely mislabeled this way.

A troll is not merely someone who disagrees with you, or who even happens to annoy or offend you in their disagreement. A troll is someone who makes it their business to annoy you or offend you with disagreement. They do not address themselves to the world at large, but make a point of going specifically where they are not wanted. They enter other peoples' civil conversations in uncivil fashion. "Stop your talking among yourselves and address me!" they demand, putting others on the spot, and often demanding they answer absurdities and irrelevancies, often absurdities and irrelevancies which the troll themselves recognizes as such, or otherwise endure their attacks (though in fairness, they also mean to go on attacking you regardless of what you say).

This is because they are uninterested in an exchange of ideas. They are not even interested in persuading others. Rather they are the self-appointed police of what is acceptable, meting out punishment to those they see as unacceptable, or even disrupting it. They cannot shut other people down by command, but they can waste their time, and still more, make them miserable. They can confuse and distract, disgust and offend, embarrass and wound. They can, in short, harass them, sabotage them, bully them.

That last word is critical. Bullying is something those with more power do to those with less; something those who feel less inhibited do to those who feel more inhibited. The exploitation of the asymmetry is critical. And the asymmetry itself points to a reality not often owned to which is that, in practice, bullying tends to go from right to left.

Writing those words, I could almost see the right-wingers foaming at the mouth with rage--and not simply out of the over-the-top self-pity of those right-wingers whose overreaction in thinking they are persecuted because on a few issues (mainly cultural) they do not get their way all of the time reflects just how much they have had their way in recent decades.

I remind them, however, of the way I have defined trolling here--not simply any critical or satirical statement, but a statement presented in this particular way, for this particular effect.

I remind them, too (or explain to those who have not read this blog before) that not everyone they think of as left really is of the left--with many an "identitarian," for example, really a right-wing nationalist whose nationalism simply happens to attach to a traditionally marginalized group.

Finally I remind them that, as a rereading should suffice to confirm, my statement is not absolute. I do not say here that bullying can never go from left to right, just that it is less common (I suspect, much, much less common), because it so much less consistent with their values, and so much more dissonant with them; while their practical situation reinforces this.

The reason is that it is those on the left who value reason, freedom, openness, fairness. Many a conservative insists that they are all about these things, but conservatism is, at bottom, defined by a more guarded attitude toward them. Conservatism is founded on a skepticism about reason, especially in the realm of human affairs. Its respect for freedom is limited by its fear of what "too much" freedom might mean. It is, accordingly, more concerned with order--with enforcing rules for the sake of enforcing rules--and more accommodating of irrational bases for action, not least authority and prejudice (in the broad sense of the term), and the sacrifice of openness and fairness to them.

One can go still further and consider certain attitudes, certain kinds of behavior--an admiration of self-assertion and aggression for their own sake, even when, or because, this goes along with callousness and meanness; inegalitarian and even anti-egalitarian sentiments. Being an "asshole" is hardly a deep or sophisticated basis for a political ideology, but there seems no shortage of those who treat it as if it were that, and it would be tough to argue that the "cult of the asshole" is not something more prevalent on the right, much of which, in the age of "greed is good," status politics and the rest, positively revels in such attitudes.

Moreover, those on the left feel keenly that they have reason and fairness on their side, not power. They want, need, to persuade others of their rightness. At the same time, those hostile to them can and do exploit their commitment to dialogue and fairness by sucking them into exactly the position where they are left trying to defend themselves in a legitimate fashion against the unfair tactics of a troll.

There is, too, the hard reality of who actually has power. We live in a profoundly unequal society, with regard to wealth and status, and it is those who are on top, those who are comfortable with things as they are and ferociously hostile to those who would have them another way, who determine what is allowably respectable and mainstream in speech and expression. By and large, the further to the right one is, however much they may complain, the safer and more secure they can feel; the further to the left one is, the greater the risk they take when they express themselves, the more easily are they put on the defensive and faced with the outrage of a mob. (Bill Maher may pal around on his show with degenerates like Steve Bannon and the rest of the Breitbart crowd. Can you picture him similarly paling around with genuine Marxists? Of course not.)

There seems every reason to think that this does make a difference with regard to how often a person will act out in this way, whether they end up aggressor--or victim. And it seems pointless to deny this all in the name of that pseudo-fairness which assumes that both sides must be equally guilty or equally blameless in a given situation.

My Posts on Trolls, Bots and Other Cancers on the Internet
3/25/19
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie
11/24/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

On the Word "Entitlement"

As James Cairns observes in his recent book The Myth of the Age of Entitlement, the term "entitlement" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "a legal right or just claim to do, receive or possess something"--and this is its usual, conventional meaning. However, as he also points out, psychologists' different use of the word equates it with false claims to such rights and claims, reflective of narcissism--extreme selfishness and grandiose views of oneself to which they expect others to pander. "You are acting very entitled," a person who regards themselves as superior might chide another individual they think needs a "reality check" and a "privilege check"; someone who needs to "get over themselves"; someone they think needs to be brought "down from the clouds," and "welcomed" back "to the REAL world" (awful, awful phrase, but alas, best left for another post).

The second usage is not a description of a matter of fact, but an accusation. And that second, accusatory usage would seem to raise the danger of turning the first usage, any usage, into such an accusation; of turning a mere report or acknowledgment of legal rights or just claims into a way of undermining or denying such rights and claims by declaring the claimant of an entitlement to be a selfish, deluded narcissist. Moreover, given the way in which society misuses and abuses the language of "moralistic" scolding to legitimate inequality and injustice and worse (evident in the manner in which people use the word "deserve"), it would seem in danger of systematically misusing and abusing the word in exactly this way.

And indeed, that is exactly what has happened.

Consider how we in the United States refer to our social safety net--to the Social Security that provides a measure of protection to the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled. This are all other such programs are consistently called "entitlements" in common usage, and the double-meaning is all too evident. They are undeniably legal rights to those for whom they are intended. Sane people would recognizable that they are a just claim as well--not only because society is obligated to provide for its most vulnerable members, but because everyone pays into the system in the expectation that if and when they needed this program, it will be there for them.

However, from the very start a significant and influential swath of opinion has been fiercely opposed to the existence of any such program, and even the principle of mutual aid underlying it--begrudging the contributions they make, and even the idea that human beings have any obligations to each other (with the frothing-at-the-mouth meanness-wrapped-in-pseudointellectualism of the Ayn Rand-loving "libertarians" who befoul the Internet only the most blatant such expression).

Of course, this swath of opinion has only grown more vocal and influential as the country has continued its rightward march from the 1970s to the present. And this, too, is at least as evident in every usage of the word "entitlement" in reference to a program like Social Security. In fact, the attitude, and the usage, have progressed so far that ostensible progessives use the word "entitlement" to beat down working class discontent with the erosion of their social protections, wages, benefits and prospects in the neoliberal era--as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott so shamefully does in his review of 2016's Manchester by the Sea (in which he charges figures like Lee with a sense of entitlement as "white working men" to a "working man's paradise," the "prerogatives of whiteness," and ultimately confesses that he does sound like he is "making an accusation").

What is as notable as such usages of the word "entitlement" is the ways in which the word is not used. Working class people, especially working class people whose ethnic background makes it clear that they are disadvantaged by class and not race in a society and a discourse neurotically hostile to acknowledging class at all, are charged with being "entitled" in this way--with being unreasonable narcissists for expecting to be able to find work, and then when putting in their hours on the job, living in something better than abject poverty.

However, those whose sense of entitlement is arguably greatest in terms of their expectation that society really will cater to their needs above all others, and press hardest and most successfully for it are, it is difficult to deny, not those who have least, but those who have most. In the neoliberal age that tells the poorest and weakest that they are "entitled" narcissists for having any expectations at all from life, the economic conventional wisdom is that all economic and social policy, all political life, must revolve around creating a good "business climate." Which, in practice, means that the needs of wants of business--to low or nonexistent taxes even as it supplies business with colossal services and subsidies, to weak or nonexistent regulation of them to protect the environment, consumers or anything else and intensive regulation to suppress organized labor, along with much, much else--come before the wants and even the needs of all else, in every other way.

Yet, "no one" considers neoliberalism to be an expression of the sense of "entitlement" of business owners and managers.

In the 2008 financial crisis, as bailout followed after bailout, transferring the consequences of institutional behavior by banks and brokerages whose stupidity and irresponsibility beggar description from private balance sheets to public, government balance sheets, and in turn precipitated fiscal crisis and economic crisis that rocked the political system to its foundation with consequences we are still witnessing today, there was much criticism--but few thought, or dared, to say that the financial institutions which demanded these bailouts "acted entitled." (Indeed, in the seven hundred and twenty pages he devoted to this revolting history, Tooze did not use the word, or any synonym for it, even once.)

Of course, those who hate welfare for working people have innumerable excuses for the corporate kind. Much of it, they would argue, is not corporate welfare at all--pointing to such things as the lame "Tax breaks are not subsidies" argument (debunked here). Where such dodges are insufficient, they contend that, well, those corporate types getting the welfare--or as they prefer to call them, the entrepreneurs--are the "wealth creators," the ONLY wealth creators (the natural world on which we rely, the working people who actually staff their companies by the thousand and million, the public services supporting their activity are not wealth creators, only parasitic scum in contrast with the "God on Earth" that is the wealth-creating entrepreneur), and they have to do what they have to do.1 In any event, There Is No Alternative.

But don't you DARE call them entitled you entitled plebs!

1. It does not seem excessive to say that the neoliberal's attitude toward the "entrepreneur" is a near-parody of Hegel's attitude toward the state in The Philosophy of Right--God on Earth.

Yes, Tax Breaks ARE Subsidies
10/31/18
My Posts on Stupid Words, and Valid Words Used Stupidly
5/13/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
The Writing Life: An Economist's Perspective
8/28/13
On The Word "Deserve"
10/21/12
On the Word "Lifestyle"
11/19/11

The Writing Life in an Age of Bullshit Jobs

"What does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet musicians but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law?" David Graeber asked in Bullshit Jobs.

One can equally ask--why so little demand for novelists and filmmakers, painters and sculptors, dancers and musicians?

My first thought regarding this issue was the answer C.P. Snow and John K. Galbraith gave to that question--that it reflects elite priorities in an industrial society, which are, above all, growth. They were more interested in art vs. science, but no one would deny that the "shock troops of capitalism" are rated more favorably than the artistes in this regard (and frankly, more favorably than the scientists).1 More recently I considered the possibility that the explosion in the range and convenience of electronic, digital media was the key factor, bringing on a "post-scarcity" age in regard to word, and image, and sound, at the very time that readership collapsed--all as ours has been an age of scarcity in every other area.

Both these ideas still seem persuasive to me. Yet, reading Bullshit Jobs Graeber had me rethinking the matter yet again, not least the possibility that this may be another instance of that perverse tendency he identified in our economic stage at this curious stage in its development, its rewarding people in inverse relation to the actual value of their work to other people.

"But artists aren't useful people!" you protest?

Okay, perform this simple thought experiment, the next time you think of artists and the arts as somehow "unimportant"--a world without them. For the moment, let us not concern with the fine arts and high culture that, it must be admitted, are enjoyed by a comparative few and think of what even the "cultureless" many have. Picture the aesthetic element removed from every article we use, from our consumer electronics to our cityscapes. Picture your life without every note of music you have ever heard, every film or TV show you have ever watched, every video game you have ever played.

Would you not feel that your life has been impoverished, perhaps gravely so? So much so as to diminish the value of the technological achievements of which we make so much? Those worshipping at the Church of Apple foam at the mouth and reach for their torches and pitchforks if someone tells them their iPhone is not the telos of five billion years of evolution, but would people value their phones so much without the content they access through them--content created overwhelmingly by artists?

Does the existence of corporate law as such mean as much to you as what would have just been lost?

1.Anyone not taken in by the silly Edisonade propaganda and the idiot cult of the tech billionaires so beloved of the libertarian/neoliberal right (Atari Democrats as well as Reagan Republicans) knows that in real life the vast majority of working engineers and researchers are poorly treated. However, when that is how "late capitalism" treats what it supposedly regards as its most precious workers, one can well imagine how much more shabbily it treats artists.

My Posts on Bullshit Jobs
4/13/19
"Are the Arts Just For the Rich?"
12/23/18
Bullshit Jobs and the New Hollywood
12/23/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
The Writing Life: An Economist's Perspective
8/28/13
My Posts on Writing and Publishing
7/22/13

Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road--The First Great Novel About Bullshit Jobs?

Time and again I have been struck by the absence of fiction in any medium--print literature, film, television, anything--which even makes a serious attempt to depict work. People have jobs, we hear about them incessantly, but where what they do is concerned, we either get glamorized, sensationalized nonsense (as with the cops, lawyers and doctors that a visitor from another planet might think are ninety-five percent of the work force), or nothing at all.

Some respond by saying that the reality of work is simply not entertaining. We get legal dramas where lawyers' work seems to consist entirely of dramatic courtroom speeches and confrontations in high-profile murder cases because what lawyers really do is just not all that interesting. I do not dispute that this is at least partly the case. But I think it falls far, far short of a complete answer. After all, even if writers might not necessarily write whole works about that reality, there would be some acknowledgment, here and there, in the occasional popular work, something more in those films which are fewer than they used to be but which still get made that aspire to art.

One explanation to which I have long inclined is the view that the avoidance of work is a matter of those who write the novels and films and television shows simply do not know very much about the world of work as the vast majority of people experience it, with Hollywood an obvious case.As David Graeber remarks in his book Bullshit Jobs,
Look at a list of the lead actors of a major motion picture nowadays and you are likely to find barely a single one that can't boast at least two generations of Hollywood actors, writers, producers, and directors in their family tree. The film industry has come to be dominated by an in-marrying caste.
Take, for an example, Joss Whedon-- hailed the world's "first third-generation television writer" a generation ago. Only a slightly more extreme version of the culture industry as a whole, virtually monopolized by the "liberal" elite of the coastal big cities, it is inconceivable that this kind of thing cannot have consequences for their frame of reference.

However, some fiction indicates that the problem isn't that writers don't know (even if this surely goes for a good many of them), but that there isn't so very much for the writers or anyone else to know--because (even if this is admittedly worth knowing in itself) work has substantially become a matter of bullshit jobs, not least the sort of bullshit job in which the apparently gainfully employed person does little to no work, to little to no useful end. There are not many such works, but they do exist, with the single most striking example in my mind Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road, which contains a scene reminiscent of the cocktail party anecdotes with which Graeber begins his book. John Givings (Michael Shannon, to those of you who only saw the movie), visiting with the couple living next door to his parents, the Wheelers, asksFrank Wheeler (Leonardo diCaprio) about his work at Knox Business Machines--"Whaddaya do you there? You design the machines, or make them, or sell them, or repair them, or what?"

Frank lamely responds
"Sort of help sell them, I guess. I don't really have much to do with the machines themselves; I work in the office. Actually, it's sort of a stupid job. I mean there's nothing--you know, nothing interesting about it, or anything."
And from what we see of Wheeler at his actual workplace, his description of his duties in the company's "Sales Promotion" department ("where nobody worked very hard except old Bandy") seems accurate enough. He and his colleagues come into work and then do not do very much but take up space in the office, drink and attempt affairs on their lunch hour, and sometimes cover for their colleagues' more extreme dysfunction, like Jack Ordway, representative of what happens to those who have been here too long, moving "from one glass cubicle to another," his career "distinguished by an almost flawless lack of work," and, save for those days "when a really bad hangover laid him low," walking around the office, charming others and making them laugh. Still short of that point, Frank nonetheless suffers from vague but severe discontents that threaten to tear him and his wife and his family apart, leading to a half-baked plan to relocate to Paris, and in the end domestic disaster.

The outcome is extreme, but far from inconceivable, and overall Yates' novel so powerfully dramatizes the dynamics Graeber's book discusses that I think it merits recognition as the first great novel first great novel about work in an age of bullshit jobs.

Moreover, it would seem that its accomplishment exerted an influence even before the novel was rescued from obscurity by Sam Mendes' film adaptation. While little read in the half century between its original publication and the screen version, those who did pay attention to it seem, disproportionately, to have been writers, while Yates had an interesting personal connection to one of the bigger (and more work-inclined) pop cultural phenomena of our time, Seinfeld. The show's cocreator, Larry David, dated Yates' daughter Monica for a time, and even wrote a Yates-like figure into the early episode "The Jacket."

Looking back, I am struck time and again by George Costanza's experience of work--how much of the time he does nothing, how he is constantly befuddled regarding his bosses' expectations of him. In "The Barber," after taking that job from Mr. Tuttle, the mystery of the Penske file is opaque, the broader situation Kafkaesque. Later, working for the New York Yankees, George makes a point of looking annoyed so as to create the illusion that he is busy, and builds a shelf under his desk so that he can discretely take naps during the work day. I never took it all that seriously. But it strikes me that Seinfeld, perhaps thanks to Yates' influence, had at least something to say about bullshit jobs as well.

My Posts on Bullshit Jobs
4/13/19
Bullshit Jobs and the New Hollywood
12/23/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
The Writing Life: An Economist's Perspective
8/28/13
My Posts on Writing and Publishing
7/22/13

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