Category Archives: Cynics & Cynicism

The Bastard Sons of Postmodernism

gavin-mcinnes-red-eyeThere is a type of person (you know this person) who loves things (e.g., musicians, bands, musical styles, authors, ideas, causes, movements, etc.) until they become popular. If you ask this person what their favorite Bowie song is they’ll invariably choose some random, obscure song found on the b-side of one of his lesser known albums. Gavin McInnes is one of these people. And his bizarre political trajectory makes sense as soon as you realize that. Like many hipsters of his age, who were schooled (directly or indirectly) in the postmodern nihilism of thinkers like Foucault, Gavin equates being radical, not with any vision of social justice, but with being provocative, pissing off the bourgeoisie, and making fun of people who really care about stuff (any stuff). I know people like Gavin who enthusiastically supported Trump, and probably even voted for him, not because they liked any of his proposed policies, but because they just wanted to watch the world burn. As a guy I know put it, with gritted teeth, “I just want Trump to win so I can see the look on Jon Stewart’s smug little face.” Gavin and Milo Yiannopoulos, and others like them, are, in a sense, the bastard sons of postmodernism.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)


Elfwick’s Law

A fortnight back, The Guardian newspaper (1) published a worrying article about the rise of fascism—in its new shiny manifestation, spurred on by various online forums. The sub-headline was worrying enough:


“It started with Sam Harris, moved on to Milo Yiannopoulos and almost led to full-scale Islamophobia. If it can happen to a lifelong liberal, it could happen to anyone”. (2)

It made for grim reading, talking about “cult-like” aspects and flirtations with the far right. The poor author, who had started out as a “normal white liberal”, had been almost brainwashed into the “alt-right” was enveloped in a web of “indoctrination”, but just drew themselves back from the brink because “[D]eep down, I knew I was ashamed of what I was doing…”

Some of us who have followed Sam Harris, and his much-maligned attempts to raise the level of public intellectual debate above the banal and asinine, smelled a rat at the first headline. But, for those unfamiliar with him or his work, there were some not so subtle signals. The brainwashed writer went on: “On one occasion I even, I am ashamed to admit, very diplomatically expressed negative sentiments on Islam to my wife. ‘[W]e should be able to discuss these things without shutting down the conversation by calling people racist, or bigots.’”

(Horrifying indeed!)

Oh dear. Anyone who had not seen the signs by this time had been led up a garden path, one decorated with crazy paving, and bordered by Mad Dog-Weed.

The Guardian had been spoofed.

“I’m not a ‘Grammar-Nazi’, I’m ‘Alt-Write’”…

The article had not come from some anonymous anxious young white man who had just managed to pull himself back from the brink of full-blown Nazi extremism after all. So, where had it come from?

There is a scurrilous (and sometimes hilarious) online troll who calls himself “Godfrey Elfwick” and styles himself on Twitter:

“Genderqueer Muslim atheist. Born white in the #WrongSkin. Itinerant jongleur. Xir, Xirs Xirself. Filters life through the lens of minority issues.”


His account parodies the self-abasing virtue signalling of elements of the far left, and is frequently painful reading for the liberally inclined.

“Elfwick” came forward and admitted that the piece was his. It certainly fits with his normal output, and in the time I’ve been aware of him, this is the first time he’s broken through the fourth wall and come out of character. Some were outraged at his fooling of The Guardian, but I think his example is a reminder of the important role that satire has to play in the modern marketplace of ideas.

The Day the Music Died.

The great satirical songster Tom Lehrer dramatically declared the death of satire on the occasion of awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. How was he, a mere satirist, to approach ridiculing by parody and extension the awarding of the world’s highest peace honor to a man who ordered the carpet bombing of civilians on Christ’s birthday? As the cliché has it: you couldn’t make it up.

This supposed death of satire was much exaggerated. There is always a role for pushing the boundaries of beliefs into absurdity, and one such is when the bearers of such beliefs seem not to have realized that the absurd is where they have taken up more or less permanent residence. And let’s be specific about what I mean by “absurd” here: It means to have abandoned one’s critical faculties to the extent that one is governed by wishful thinking. And one of the ways this is revealed is that the difference between real and fake no longer matters to you. Talk of post-truth worlds or fake news is hot air. We humans have always been suckers for hearing what we want to hear. Satire has always been one of the cures.

But it’s more than just fun at the expense of the hoaxed. A foundational ability in any discipline must be able to tell the real from the fake. Art experts who praised the “furious fastidiousness” of the brushstrokes of Pierre Brassau (actually Peter, a four-year-old chimp from Boras zoo) confirmed what many of us suspected about modern art expertise. (3) The knowledge that wine experts can be fooled by switching expensive and fake labels casts a lot of their expertise into doubt. (4) In the 1970s, Rosenhan’s classic “Being Sane in Insane Places” study threw the whole of the psychiatric community into disarray; by showing that mental health care professionals of the time couldn’t distinguish real patients from ones who were faking it. (5)

Why can’t the opposition just recognise that they are evil and stupid?

An oft-repeated finding in psychology is that expectation conditions perception. We are notoriously easy to hoax when you give us what they want to see. From the Cottingley Fairies, to the Roswell Alien Autopsy, through the Book of Mormon, to Uri Geller, the history of humanity is a history of people seeing daft things because they wanted to.

This is one reason I advise all my students to study a bit of magic. Not enough to turn pro, but just enough to see how hoaxable we all are. It’s like any self-defence course, although in this case it’s mental self-defence. It’s a humbling experience. Anyone can be blindsided and beaten in a fight. Likewise, any of us can be fooled if someone matches our expectations to their pitch.  Ideally, of course, a good scientist should have no expectations, but scientists are human too. Uri Geller for instance, managed to hoax a number of famous physicists but no magicians.

This is one place where satire comes in. In the 1990s Sokal gloriously hoaxed a post-modernist journal called Social Text. (6) He produced an article of high-sounding gibberish that the editors happily let through to publication as it appeared to speak to their idea that science was just one way of knowing among many. It was filled with supposed physics support for bizarre claims about “physical ‘reality’” [being] fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct” and with needs for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.


When he revealed the hoax, what did the editors do? Remove the article in embarrassment? Sore up their editorial policies? Laugh along? Not a bit of it—they somehow tried to maintain the fiction that this tosh was meaningful all along, losing any opportunity to develop their thinking, if thinking it ever was. After Rosenhan’s study, the field of Psychiatry made a concerted effort to tighten its procedures—resulting in new editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Whether it was 100% successful is a different question, but there was an effort to reform in response. But Post Modernism as a field never took this option. Having effectively amputated itself from critical self-reflection, it is now largely moribund, although versions of it still exist to poison efforts at critical reflection in the academy.

Don’t like my opinions of post-modernism? Well, they are true for me…

Now, I’m not claiming that expertise rests on getting it right every time. Expertise does not imply that. But the desire to understand a phenomenon must involve the disciplined attendance to mistakes—so when one is fooled (by nature, colleagues, the maliciously mischievous, or oneself) then one goes back and studies how so it doesn’t happen again. To not do this is to forever live wishfully, rather than authentically attending.

So, what’s the next step? Here’s my suggestion: There are a number of famous Internet laws. Rule 34 is the famous law that somewhere there is a porn version of everything. (7) Godwin’s Law is the tendency over time from all Internet discussions to tend towards an accusation that the opponent is Hitler. An addendum to Godwin’s Law is that the opponent to first yield to the temptation to Hitlerise their opponent automatically loses. (8) Poe’s Law is the rule that any right wing fundamentalist internet site is indistinguishable from a satirical parody of right wing fundamentalist Internet sites. A few minutes on Alex Jones’ will confirm the truth of this. But why should the right wing have it all their own way when it comes to being mocked?

I think we need a new Internet Law to invoke that mirrors Poe’s Law. If a piece of far left virtue signalling cannot be reliably distinguished from a satirical version of it, then this deserves its own nomenclature.

Given his latest achievement I would like to propose the term “Elfwick’s Law” to mark such occasions. If nothing else this would serve as a reminder that descending into parody, and not caring about real or fake, is not the preserve of any political tribe, but is part of common humanity. That’s real equality for you.

—Robert King



1) For those not in the UK—The Guardian is a respectable left-leaning broadsheet newspaper.

4) Hodgson, R. T. (2008). An examination of judge reliability at a major US wine competition. Journal of Wine Economics, 3(02), 105-113.

5) Rosenhan, D. K. (1973). On Being Sane In Insane Places. Science, 179, 250-258

A good write-up is here

6) Sokal, A. D. (Ed.). (2000). The Sokal hoax: the sham that shook the academy. U of Nebraska Press.

7) My advice is to never, ever, check on the truth of this.

8) In the light of recent events the use of Godwin’s Law is under judicial review

9) For more details of the Heterodox Academy see:

((Of course it’s also possible that Godfrey Elfwick is playing some elaborate game of double bluff and I have been fooled along with others. Which would have a touching irony about it! But–let the record show that when respected newspaper (the Guardian) and respected journalist (Glenn Greenwald) were confronted with the hoax accusations their response was to double-down  and, in Greenwald’s case, to insist that truth was not the issue–the piece spoke to a “deeper truth”.

No it doesn’t. Not if it’s false it doesn’t. That’s what true and false mean.
“Elfwick” broke character for the only time I’ve known to share his workings on the hoax the day after and I reproduce them here. Could these also be faked? Well, of course they could but its worth asking –why would he pick this one to lie about? And even if he did–what is going on with a journalist telling the world that mundane sorts of truth (you know, those ones that are actually true) no longer matter? When Harris retweeted a story that turned out to be false he apologized publicly. This is how public debate should be conducted


(Shared via screenshot from Godrey Elfwicks Twitter account on 29/11/2016)


The Strange Faith of the Centurion

“Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die. And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this: For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof: Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.”—Luke 7:1-10 (King James Version)

Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Foto: Klut
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Foto: Klut Paolo Caliari gen. Veronese 1528 Verona – 1588 Venedig Der Hauptmann von Capernaum Öl auf Leinwand; 178 x 275 cm Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Gal.-Nr. 228 Verwendung nur mit Genehmigung und Quellenangabe

I must confess that the centurion in this story has always rubbed me the wrong way. If Doubting Thomas had an older brother with perfect hair and a winning smile—an older brother who got straight A’s in school, did well in sports, and excelled at pretty much everything—one of those “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” brothers—that brother would look like this centurion. His faith is like that spotless house that’s so flawless it’s annoying. This isn’t the faith of a grown man; it’s the faith of a child, or a simpleminded idiot like Forrest Gump. And yet this guy’s clearly not a child. Nor is he a simpleton. He’s a military man, a leader of men, with a serious job and some thoroughly grownup responsibilities.

Shouldn’t this guy be a little more jaded? A little more worldly? A little more cynical? Where’s the fashionable nihilism we find in world-weary Pilate, who famously retorts, in John 18:38, “What is truth?” My guess is that this centurion’s exceptional faith in God’s order was rooted in his exceptionally positive experience with Roman order. My guess is that he was an exceptionally lucky man, and an exceptionally good leader.

We need to remember how profoundly strange this story is. Relations between representatives of the Roman state and the Jewish community were often contentious—especially in places like Capernaum, known for its radicalism. What might we reasonably expect to find in a place like Capernaum: a place that looks like Ferguson, Missouri: a place defined by the heated relationship between an oppressed minority group and the state representatives who are supposed to keep them in check. Instead, we find a Roman centurion who’s adored by the people, a guy who builds synagogues, a guy who’s willing to move heaven and earth for a slave. This is no ordinary centurion!

Unless you were stationed way out on the periphery of the Empire, where battlefield deaths opened up positions for advancement with some regularity, the Roman military hierarchy was notoriously rigid and maddening. If the soul-crushing cubicle-world of the 21st-century office made Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, one of the wealthiest cartoonists in the world, the soul-crushing hierarchy of the Roman military made Stoicism one of the most popular philosophies in the Empire.

In many ways, Stoicism is about learning how to deal with a world that doesn’t make sense: a world where your boss is an idiot, a world where the wrong person gets the promotion because they’ve got the right connections, a world where the people working for you are often clueless, a world that’s often highly dysfunctional. And yet this Roman centurion seems to have experienced none of that. Quite to the contrary: his description of how his commands are heeded brings to mind the flawless factories depicted in old Soviet propaganda films. Perfect order reigns in this centurion’s ranks: “I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion’s faith in Jesus’s power is, I suspect, rooted in his own experience of Roman power. And can we really fault the Israelites for having a less than rosy view of Roman power? These are a subjugated people after all, a minority population that was crushed under foot from time to time. And yet Jesus says we ought to have faith like this privileged man, this centurion, this extraordinarily lucky man. What are we to make of this? Is Jesus just being mean? Blaming the victim? I don’t think so. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says that we must “become as little children” before we can “enter into the kingdom of heaven.” What could this mean? What do children and exceptionally privileged men have in common? I think they share a kind of naïveté. And I think that Jesus is saying that there’s a wisdom in that naïveté, just as there’s a wisdom in innocence.

We know that Paul debated “Stoic philosophers” in the public square (Acts 17:18). And it’s not hard to imagine what they argued about. Stoicism, especially its more popular and less sophisticated forms, was all about being reasonable and realistic, whilst Christianity was all about being unreasonable and unrealistic. As the philosopher Slavoj Žižek rightly observes: “Christianity is anti-wisdom: wisdom tells us that our efforts are in vain, that everything ends in chaos, while Christianity madly insists on the impossible. Love, especially a Christian one, is definitely not wise. This is why Paul said: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’ . . . . We should take the term ‘wisdom’ literally here: it is wisdom (in the sense of ‘realistic’ acceptance of the way things are) that Paul is challenging, not knowledge as such.”

We’re often told in this day and age that the privileged are all deluded and the underprivileged see things as they are. In practice, this is usually just a covert defense of the cynical perspective, because seeing things clearly always seems to mean seeing things cynically. But I don’t buy it. Never have. I think lack of privilege reveals just as much as it conceals. Just as you need to have seen blue things (like the sky on a clear day) in order to understand what blue is, you need to have experienced beauty and love and order to know what beauty and love and order are. If you’ve never really experienced true love, you might be tempted to conclude that it’s a myth. If you’ve never seen government work well, you might be tempted to conclude that good government is a myth. You have to believe that “Another World is Possible” before you can make another world possible.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Colorblindness and Cynicism

test-250We often imagine that people who are exceptionally good at something are endowed with special strengths, extraordinary talents, or rare virtues. However, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb quite rightly maintains, this isn’t always, or even usually, the case: “Success in all endeavors requires the absence of specific qualities: 1) To succeed in crime requires absence of empathy. 2) To succeed in banking you need absence of shame at hiding risks. 3) To succeed in school requires absence of common sense.”

Success is often a function of some sort of absence. Seeing through camouflage is a case in point. We now know that there’s an upside to colorblindness: the colorblind can see through many kinds of camouflage. Because they’re not distracted by colors, they can often see the contours of a thing—its outline—with unusual clarity. Even so, despite this upside, being colorblind is, on balance, a net handicap to the colorblind individual. They’re missing out on a great deal.

I’ve always been amazed by people who know how to cut through the crap with ease, people with extremely well developed bullshit meters, people who are exceptionally good at discerning the real motives behind actions, people who always seem to know what’s really going on. People, in short, who are exceptionally cynical. But I’ve long since noticed that these very same people frequently fail to see a great deal that the rest of us mere mortals do see.

Cynics often sneeringly maintain that whatever they can’t see or experience isn’t real (e.g., true love, genuine altruism, empathy, divinity, spirituality, transcendence, communion with nature, etc.). And this leads me to suspect that those who are especially good at seeing through bullshit pay dearly for their gift. I suspect that being able to see past nuance comes at a cost. The ability to rapidly reduce complicated moral questions into simple either/or propositions is probably a function of an absence. To wit: the moral clarity of most cynics is probably a function of some sort of emotional colorblindness.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Dear Cynic

Dear Cynic:

aw-Alan-20Cumming_20120118111628316010-420x0You write pithy aphorisms which show us, via your use of rich vocabulary, witty insight, and rhythm in word choice just how smart you are. I am particularly impressed with your ability to dissect the nuance and latitude of the human condition in 10 words or less. Many thanks for your most recent quote of the day.

And yet, as amused as I am by your general aptitude for prudence in cutting through our most recent collective bent towards embracing all manner of bullshit, I must say I am also worried about you. And yes, in case you are wondering, worry is actually a meaningful category of emotional distress that can, at times, point in the direction of insight. I worry because I care. And I worry that you do not.

Dr-Gregory-House-dr-gregory-house-31945344-1918-2560Why? Because all manner of cynicism is a worry, I suppose. It is, after all, a rejection of the human condition in our collective desire or ability to do better. But it’s also because your brand of cynicism, with all of its smart edges and brand sensibility, seems so devoid of the messiness and beauty of affirmation without qualification.

You have so much potential, dear brother—why play it so safe? I know what you find boring, and silly, and stultifying, but what excites you? What do you say ‘yes’ to, even if you end up being wrong? Or are you so afraid of being wrong, or saying you made a mistake, of taking a giant leap forward only to possibly take a step back, that cute insight seems the only intelligent path to take?

Please, I implore you, reconsider your next 10 words. Direct them to something slightly more bright, incomplete, partial, and perhaps less frugal in their estimation of things. I implore you for your benefit, and mine. It’s a sad sight, after all, to see so much ability bent toward dissection. But, more importantly, what we need now, more than ever, is people like you trending toward innovation, construction, and compromise if we are ever going to get out of our immediate and long-term mess. For God’s sake, stop selling us short.

—Anna-Liisa Aunio

Optimism and Cynicism

“Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”
—Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

IMG_2532-001When children are born, they have few skills, little ability to protect themselves, but as anyone can see, a wild-eyed curiosity and openness to wonder and beauty, with an unconscious but solid expectation that their parents and community will keep them safe. They are unbridled optimists, drinking deeply of openness and exploration, who have, of necessity, outsourced any cynicism to their parents and community.

IMG_2533-001Usually we bear the burden of such cynicism and protection willingly, and call it love. This gift of being allowed unselfconscious engagement with the world lets the sense of openness, adventure, wonder, trust, and yes, love grow strong enough that it may survive the coming challenges. Our achievement is a kind of mystical golden orb living somewhere inside the child.

To miss this stage is to risk a life without “juice,” vibrancy, joy, or passion. Sometimes those so deprived accept this as their lot, and other times the need is so strong they attempt to recreate this Garden of Eden as adolescents or adults, when the stakes are considerably higher, and the protections much less.

liz-mcThere comes an age when being enveloped in such protection is no longer helpful. We must leave (or be kicked out of) our garden. We back off from protecting our young. We allow, or cannot prevent, the skinned knee, the failed exam, the betrayal, the broken heart, the loss of a home, or even the death of treasured souls. We try to judge the ability of our children to handle these challenges. We play the role of Titan, of the hero, when we fear the risk is too great, but more importantly, we allow them to face their own fights, feel the spark of their own divinity, and become the heroes of their own stories when they can.

Adolescents (extending through young adulthood) must take and accept from their parents and community the burden of cynicism, the duty to sustain and protect, if they are to become adults. Those who have never moved past the unconscious expectation that others will protect and serve them are pathological optimists. The term may seem odd, because of the positive associations, but if they reject further development, they are immature, reckless, entitled, and self-centered. To them, life is about, “What can you do for me?” (Tell you to “Grow the —- up!” you might hear from the voice in your head.)

The achievements required to become an adult are significant – physical, intellectual, and social skills, knowledge of one’s culture and the world, and an ego capable of self-regulation, culminating in the ability protect and sustain oneself as a peer among adults. These skills, this ego, and this self can be so impressive, that one may not notice the mistake of believing this is the pinnacle of development.

aw-Alan-20Cumming_20120118111628316010-420x0The pathological cynic (who ultimately seems somewhat adolescent) takes pride in his or her defensive and sustaining skills – physical, intellectual, or social. He or she can point out limitless examples of dangers or risks, and dazzle you with his or her prowess in attack, defense, or sustenance – and yes, the world is filled with dangers, and such skills can be really quite useful, but they are also a dead end because the world moves forward only through optimism, through openness, wonder, and trust.

It is through finding a passion, something greater than oneself, often through love, or even more powerfully through becoming a parent, that one begins to remember the mystical golden orb inside. One gains the courage to let it back out, but with full awareness that the beauty and fragility of life coexist, maybe as different names for the same thing. One dares to treasure a fading flower, to try to make a dream real, to love a fallible and fickle human, to bring a fragile child into this dangerous but beautiful world, to hold a smile on one’s face and tears in one’s eyes without demanding that either prevail. To be a full adult is not to be a better version of a worldly young adult, capable of more impressive cynicism, but to contain both the child and the young adult, to contain both optimism and cynicism, wariness and hope.

—Aaron Elliott

Why I’m Voting NDP

“Thomas Mulcair is a smart man. When Stephen Harper decided to descend into the gutter by playing the niqab card (and when Gilles Duceppe decided to make himself into Harper’s objective ally by joining in), Mulcair had to know that taking a stand on principle would not be an electoral winner. He had to know that given the state of near-hysteria over the issue in his electoral stronghold in Quebec, he may be giving away the election by reminding us that Charter protections should be defended most strenuously when they apply to rights-protected acts that the majority dislikes. But stand on principle is what he has done (and let’s hope he continues to do so till the end). Whoever has ever accused him of being a political opportunist should now think long and hard about that accusation. True leadership is not about pandering. It is not about appealing to prejudices and bigotry. It is not about telling the majority that it is okay to hate. It is about holding us as a society to our higher values. Mulcair is a leader. He had the most to lose in this completely manufactured debate. It is good to know that there is at least one leader among the big parties who is not willing to go to any lengths to curry favour with voters.”
—Daniel Weinstock


I want a Prime Minister who takes their job seriously. It seems like Thomas Mulcair takes his job seriously as leader of the opposition, so I am willing to give him a chance as leader of this country. I am mostly in line with the NDP party platform so I can get behind the party that he happens to be the leader of. Mulcair is a beast in question period. That’s what I like best about him. He asks straight questions and calls out people when they circle into double speak. He’s not sexy or appealing or charming or particularly personable. But I don’t need politicians to be those things, I have friends for that. Anyway, charismatic leaders are usually sociopaths.

“He’s not sexy or appealing or charming or particularly personable. But I don’t need politicians to be those things, I have friends for that.”—Helen Simard

Thomas Mulcair is better than the Kitten Eater we have in power right now. I don’t like Elizabeth May and her judgmental views on abortion and her weird 1970s-style comments on essential femininity. Justin Trudeau and Gilles Duceppe are the leaders of parties that do not offer platforms I can get behind. I am also not voting for Mulcair, but for the NDP candidate in my riding who has represented our riding well for the past 4 years. And I am lucky to live in a place where most people vote NDP so I don’t have to worry about strategic voting.

I like Mulcair because to me he’s the best of the shit options we are being offered, a real lesser of evils. And that may seem cynical, but when evil is nice enough to give me a choice, I will always choose the lesser of evils.

—Helen Simard

Making and Interpreting Art

Bevan Ramsay,
Bevan Ramsay, “POW,” Harmonia Hindi (2012): digital print on silk satin scarf with pique hem

The importance of perception, when it comes to ‘getting’ art (painting, music, even writing), is often neglected, it seems to me. People want explanations. To explain a perception is possible, but it is not the same as perceiving (let alone learning to shift one’s perspective in the moment to see as one did not see before).

To me it seems that great artists are intuitively playing with perception (their own and that of others) all the time, adjusting and shifting and looking for new ways of perceiving the same thing or sort of thing. Explanations can be offered, of course–from the historical (“he was a member of the Surrealist school …”) to the biological (“he was a male naturally fascinated with visual erotica …”), but they are always hollow at some point. To really ‘get’ some painting or piece of music, you have to weave it into a series of experiences. You can try (as the best teachers do) to see what kind of tapestry the artist was weaving of his own life as he produced whatever work you are studying, but if you don’t experience it for yourself, you will never really ‘know’ what you are talking about when you mention it. The art is part of your life, too. It tells you things. You must notice these things. You must look at your own tapestry.

So many students come to me ‘broken’ in the sense that they have learned to hide from me their voice, their perception of things we study. It is not that they don’t have perceptions or perspective, but that they have learned to avoid sharing too much (casting pearls before swine is the biblical metaphor, not inept). It is sometimes wise to avoid sharing, of course, but at some point we all need to share. If we are really unfortunate, a bad experience growing up can lead to a lifetime of squelching one’s own perceptions–covering them over with dead explanations. The saddest people here, in my experience, are not students per se, but professors–critics who have crushed and tormented and denied their own creative genius to become ‘expert’ judges of everyone else’s. Often they appear completely unaware, on a rational or conscious level, that their explanation of art is denigrating (and angry, and painful, not to mention often wrong). They will usually claim to love whatever it is that they are destroying, but theirs is the love of the vindictive little boy who collects pretty butterflies to pin upon small cards–with neat little labels, in Latin. A beautiful, terrible picture of death.

—Joseph Gresham Miller

Building Community

Today I came across a very interesting article about the town of Marinaleda in Andalusia, Spain.  Reading and reflecting on this article inspired me to write down some thoughts that I have been carrying around for a little while.  –JGM

Small groups of committed, responsible folk can build working communities. It seems to me, as I contemplate the last century, that what is going on in “the world” broadly speaking is not the creation of some vast, stable regime. People are used to speaking of communism and capitalism as “empires” expanding to engulf the entire world, with capitalism (i.e. the global market and its biggest actors, multinationals and governments and their syndicates) winning.

But to me the real story seems to be that we tried to build empires too big in the last century, and that they are all falling apart now. The big communist collapse came first, but the big capitalist collapse is coming. For some people, it is already here (as their business becomes impossible, requiring debt and other obligations that nobody is capable of pretending to service).

Looking forward to something that is not decay and death (i.e. to something more optimistic than what I regard as the inevitable collapse of national and global markets in their current form), I think the future belongs to communities like Marinaleda. Ideology is not important the way older generations used to think. Communism, capitalism, socialism, democracy, the ‘free’ market, etc., are all bad when they exist in states too large (with too many players, too little responsibility, too little human dignity, too much corporate power and not enough individual power). A smaller state will be better. (One example of this is Singapore, which is a small authoritarian regime that performs much better than large authoritarian counterparts.) Its evils will be more manageable, and its goods more accessible to more people (as opposed to the goods of large states, which inevitably wind up largely in the hands of oligarchs).

If the -ism serves a large country, it inevitably serves an oligarchy, who use it to exert immoral control over their fellow citizens. Capitalism is no more inherently good for your average peon at the bottom of the pile than communism (or any other -ism we might invent). There is nothing particularly ennobling (or salvific in any sense) about spending your entire life in bondage (debt bondage or political bondage) to powers that owe you nothing, that care nothing for your individual integrity, that exist primarily to facilitate and empower agencies to which you possess no direct access.

Too often, I think, we spend time wondering how to fix the system: in the US, how to clean up Wall Street, so that we can all set up shop there and make a nice little bundle that won’t blow away when we need it to buy something like retirement. The painful truth I see is that there is no such thing as fixing the Street, if by that we mean creating an individual space for each American (let alone each global citizen) there. The Street is not my street. It does not love me. It does not need me, except as raw material to make other people, people with power I lack, rich. I am a sheep on the Street, a sheep among wolves. If I become a wolf there, to avoid being eaten, then the price is eating others (sheep such as I used to be). I don’t like being either the sheep or the wolf. I would prefer to join something like Marinaleda, a community in which we all shoulder a certain responsibility with certain rewards (and demerits for those who renege on their duty–demerits that don’t include golden parachutes for professional pirates who pretend to be pillars of polite society). I don’t particularly care if my community identifies itself as capitalist, socialist, Marxist, Buddhist, Christian, pagan, humanist, Confucian, etc. ad nauseam. What I care about is that it be small enough to admit me as a responsible agent.

I am sick of being cannon fodder in communities like Wall Street. I want to belong to a tribe where individual people matter.

The Opiate of the Hipster

“I stand between two worlds, I am at home in neither, and this makes things a little difficult for me. You artists call me a bourgeois, and the bourgeois feel they ought to arrest me . . . I don’t know which of the two hurts me more bitterly. The bourgeois are fools; but you . . . who say . . . I have no longing in my soul . . . should remember that there is a kind of artist so profoundly, so primordially fated to be an artist that no longing seems sweeter and more precious to him than his longing for the bliss of the commonplace. . . . I admire those proud, cold spirits who venture out along paths of grandiose, demonic beauty and despise ‘humanity’—but I do not envy them. For if there is anything that can turn a literary man into a truly great writer, then it is this bourgeois love of mine for the human and the living and the ordinary. It is the source of all warmth, of all kindheartedness and of all humor, and I am almost persuaded it is that very love without which, as we are told, one may speak with the tongues of men and of angels and yet be a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.”—Thomas Mann, Tonio Kröger (1903)

The B-Side Fetish is a key component of the elitist ethos shared by taggers and hipsters.
The B-Side Fetish is a key component of the elitist ethos shared by taggers and hipsters.

Trying to argue with a die-hard cynic is much like trying to argue with a die-hard conspiracy theorist or a religious fundamentalist: they’ve got an answer for everything, regardless of how much evidence you muster. This leads me to suspect that radical cynicism is, in fact, a species of faith. The irony of this is that cynics usually like to see themselves as hard-nosed realists: e.g., I’m just telling it like it is, son; everybody’s selfish; everybody’s out to get theirs; altruism is a myth, it’s the way of the world. In fact, the cynic’s metaphysical stance towards the world pretty much ensures that they will willfully ignore or explain away any evidence that contradicts their interpretation of the world. Though they’d surely hate the comparison, the cynic’s bulletproof worldview is, at bottom, strikingly similar to that of the devoutly religious.

In The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (1994), the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul defines cynicism thus: “An effective social mechanism for preventing communication. Cynicism is found in people who see themselves principally as members of a class or ideological group and not as individuals. It indicates a lack of self-confidence. Through an appearance of world weariness it attempts to suggest the possession of inside knowledge. The cynic knows and can’t be bothered to tell those who are ignorant. Since no real distinction is possible, the cynic’s group-attitudes cannot be questioned. Cynicism is thus an aggressively superior attitude which abhors debate in order to disguise inferiority. As a result, the eighteenth-century idea that wrongdoing was caused by ignorance has been reversed. Instead, the possession of expert knowledge is regularly used to argue that only the naïve don’t understand why it is necessary and even good to do wrong.”

The golden nuggets of insight produced by the cynical perspective are dazzling in the dark—they sparkle and shine before dawn, in dimly-lit cafés and smoky symposiums. But look at your newfound treasures by the warm light of day—under a cloudless blue sky, sobering sunshine in your face—and you’ll see them for what they really are: fool’s gold.

If religion is the opiate of the masses, a certain kind of mean-spirited cynicism is the opiate of the hipster.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)