people, pushback, society


Oscar nominations for 2020 were published recently. This year there’s a higher percentage of nominees in the white male demographic than the last few Academy Award seasons. This has been picked up by the #woke media and the #woke commentariat as a good opportunity to make noise about the sexist racist prejudice of the establishment.

I don’t follow Hollywood movies closely enough to have much opinion about the individual nominations but one doesn’t have to be a card carrying member of the #woke fraternity to believe decision-making (i.e. choosing who gets nominated for an industry’s most prestigious prize) shouldn’t be prejudiced against anyone, regardless their race, gender, sexuality, age or ethnicity.

Let’s go a step further and say while it’s not possible to ensure equality of outcome – because that would be to degrade individual excellence to a point where we structure systems to squash the best – we must have equality of opportunity – because that is to liberate individual excellence so it can excel in a system structured to elevate the disadvantaged so they can compete on merit. These two ideas – equality of outcome and equality of opportunity – sit at the heart of any fair society.

It’s in the conflation of outcome and opportunity that #woke culture steps outside its proper sphere of influence. Try the following case in point. It’s illustrative.

Stephen King (the novelist) is a member of the Academy in three categories and recently posted a quote, answering a question on his decision making process: “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong,” Nothing too foul here, but the maxim came under fire almost immediately.

Director Ava DuVernay called King’s comments “so backward and ignorant you want to go back to bed”. Writer Roxane Gay tweeted King only believed in “quality from one demographic”. King saw how perhaps he had been misunderstood, replying that he believed everyone deserved a fair shot (equality of opportunity) and added: “You can’t win awards if you’re shut out of the game”. King’s trying to point out that lack of female or ethnic diversity in Oscar nominations is a problem and one that deserves attention.

There are many ways to address the provision of equal opportunities in the arts but none of them should trample on the higher ideal of judging ars gratia artis. If none of the year’s best films were directed by women, the studios may need to cast a wider net to find the best female directors or film schools work harder on developing their female students as much as they do their male students. But when it comes to the finished creations and the question “which is the best?” the only consideration should be artistic value. Creativity can’t be an equality of outcome.

What irks me in this little exchange between Stephen King and the director and writer isn’t so much the contrarian opinions of the latter but the disingenuous twisting of King’s point to fit #woke agenda. Communication lights the path to truth and this is about all we have, in this confusing world. Deliberately perverting communication to suit one’s own agenda is one of the most insidious of social ills. It’s one of the most loathsome markers of the very worst in the political sphere, for instance, and we all know how dirty political narratives have become.

Fake news is an insult that’s viscerally abhorrent precisely because it’s wilfully degraded communication, to mislead that path to truth. On a smaller scale, the #woke responses of the director and the writer to Stephen King are committing the same crime. Roxanne Gay slams King for believing only in art from one demographic. But this isn’t what he wrote at all. If anything, King’s initial quote was trying to saying it would be wrong to believe in art from any particular demographic, because demographic isn’t relevant when it comes to the artistic merit of a creation.

This is a minor incident but there are countless more significant instances of #woke agenda being allowed to triumph over truth. The #woke bandwagon is overloaded with ambitious self-interest and it has created a backlash that’s evolving into its own bandwagon with a similarly motley crew. Self-interest is a powerful motivator and these voices come to overwhelm the authentic.

The #woke ideals are decent and progressive. Equality of opportunity is an undeniable good. Sadly these ideals have been hijacked. Communication and truth are the casualties and, with something similar happening to the frontline voices of the equally valid protest against enforced equality of outcome, the end result is a culture that’s chasing its own tail. More time goes by, deeper groove the habits of accepting truth is subjective and communication needn’t be sincere so long as it serves one’s predilections.

What a world we’ll create if the civility pendulum doesn’t start swinging back towards nuance and empathy soon.

bookclub, words


No matter how often I’m told the poem Howl is a profound Beat equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, it isn’t. I’ve heard them paired before, in the smokeless midnight air of alt-coffee urban pop-ups, listening for free as a mumbling hipster reads them aloud, back-to-back, in the same reverent cadence and double bass rhythm and nobody listening to the words. But reading a laundry list to that background would get the same polite applause of approval by the end.

The similarity in both excellent pieces isn’t in the poetry but the authors: T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg punching above their weight, inspired and goaded by recent close contact with greater art. Eliot would have been flying high on French inspiration and accidental carousing excess, drunk on the authentic thing (for once) in company of Modernist scamps and Parisian literati Jean Genet would fuck in and out of prison twenty years later. Ginsberg, young and graduated and full of lust for Catholic Jack Kerouac; mind first, body a close second, the order reversed, no doubt once Benzedrine came out to play.

Connections and circumstances count. The Anglo Saxon Eliot charmed the middle class English fame-makers and found comfort in London society. Ginsberg was a New York Wandering Jew, practical Eastern mysticism his adult beat – light on clothes, heavy on tactility, attractive to youth and boys and the kindly pretentious. Neither were the greatest or most original creative genius of their times. Ironic that their archetypes – the respectable high of average – would come to represent all that remains of the high watermark Anglophone creativity, some fifty years further down the road. Life imitates art indeed!

bookclub, pushback, words


I was just thinking about language changing over time and how, in my gut, I don’t like it when English is treated badly (or lazily) in ways that – for whatever reason – get accepted into normal everyday usage. It’s good when language grows but too often it’s a case of importing one word, at the price of losing others.

There’s a lot of splendid slang that evolves organically into words that strike to the very heart of a thing. This slang deserves to become part of everyone’s vocabulary. Too often, though, bringing slang into the vernacular displaces other words that happen to be associated – wrongly considered as ‘updating’ the living language. Colloquial words often make up for gaps in vocabulary but carry with them a luddite ring-fencing that won’t play nicely with older conventional words.

I don’t like the way the older words get sidelined. Discovering new colloqual turns of phrase should be an enriching of the lexicon but these days vocabulary has been commodified.

The norm is now for slang to displace associated older words then begin a cycle, generations of new slang replacing prior generations of slang that’s become orthodox. This displace-replace wastes time, reinventing the wheel for every new word, and linguistic precision suffers. The universality of both old and new words get degraded. Slang is a mmm cipher and when words of one side are incomprehensible to the other, communication breaks down as both sides become isolated, divided.

I hate the bloviation of people who should know better; educated writers and professional communicators whose vocabulary isn’t small but whose word-use is vague or lazy. Broadsheet newspapers are full of this type of language. It’s synonymous with established, civilised good character but to me it’s pompous and just as bad as luddite colloquialism.

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort.

Here is a well-known Bible verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

As Orwell writes “this is a parody, but not a very gross one.

Two main considerations are worth keeping in mind whenever you’re writing or reading someone else’s written content. These two considerations are how precisely the writer manages to recreate his intentions in the mind of the reader, and how far removed from the writer’s own background can the reader be, before there’s a breakdown between the intention of the writer and what’s recreated in the mind of the reader.

As a sidebar, these two considerations make up a good working criteria for judging the greatness of a piece of writing.

Whether writing is great (or not) shouldn’t be conflated with effectiveness. It’s possible to write an extremely effective piece of writing that speaks profoundly to a narrow demographic but for it to be impenetrable to anyone else. Read a scientific or esoteric political treatise and you’ll find most fall into this category.

With the caveat that greatness is a somewhat subjective conclusion – though not nearly so subjective, over time, as the popular critics of a particular generation would have us believe – the writer’s ability to precisely recreate his intentions in the mind of as diverse an audience as possible is a criteria as near to approaching objective as it’s possible to be. We may differ on how exactly we weight the importance of precision versus reader diversity but the principle is sound.

It’s accepted wisdom nowadays that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great work of literature. It’s not necessarily the most popular but anyone familiar with the play will marvel at Shakespeare’s use of language. He renders vividly Hamlet’s struggle against insanity into the mind of the reader (or audience) and, such is the play’s evocative language, many of its simile-rich soliloquy create permanent new metaphor in the English language. At the same time Hamlet is universal enough to have been translated into over a hundred languages. The precision of Shakespeare’s writing is undeniable. The diversity of readership is clear. Hamlet scores extremely high in both criteria; therefore it is great writing.

Greek mythology: Prometheus stealing the fire of knowledge from the Gods of Olympus, to give to human beings so they can be free.

Metaphor is a mainstay of good writing. This is true for authentic metaphor but it’s a dangerous game and very easy to fall into bad habits, mixing or mismatching cliche. Simile usage often stumbles into the same trap. There’s a simple rule of thumb here. “The sole aim of metaphors is to call up a visual image.” The main difference between metaphor and simile isn’t – as is commonly defined by dictionaries – that metaphor is symbolic while simile is literal. Better to think of the difference as metaphor is shared association and simile is freeform comparison.

On the surface a metaphor may seem – as it’s often misleadingly defined – to be a figure of speech referring to things that aren’t literally connected. But this definition mistakes form for substance. The point about a metaphor is it MAY associate things that appear unconnected but the connection exists more profoundly in associations shared by writer and reader. Straightforward example would be the use of Greek mythology as a rich source of metaphor.

“The athlete’s love of danger was to prove her Achilles heel.”

The reader’s understanding of this athlete’s love of danger be enriched by referring to her Achilles heel as a metaphor.

Another sidebar: the loss in the Anglophone world of a working knowledge of the richly textured mythology of the classical world is a loss of shared metaphor that degrades the possibilities for precision (and profundity) in all 21st century descriptive writing. Once the metaphor becomes so esoteric it’s known only to a few, any writing choosing to use it must pay the price in diversity of readership. Those who don’t know the metaphor can’t be reached with the precision it used to provide. Life and reality is complex and language is a tool for communicating it. Blunt the tool and communication suffers; which it has.

bookclub, people, words


No matter how often one might repeat Howl as if it’s some beat equivalent of Eliot’s The Wasteland, it isn’t, though the two might cadence simpatico when there’s a double bass rhythm and nobody listening i.e. in many a smoke-free coffee house where admission’s free and everyone wears their uniform outside of work. The main similarity lies in both excellent pieces representing Eliot and Ginsberg punching above their weight, inspired and goaded by greater art – Eliot flying high on French inspiration and accidental carousing, drunk on the real thing in company of modernist tramps Jean Genet would fuck in prison twenty years later; Ginsberg on lust for Catholic Jack, mind first, body a close second, the two reversed once he’d had a few brewskis. But connections count and the Anglo Saxon Eliot charmed the English fame makers while Ginsberg was, after all, a Jew. Ironic these archetypes would come to represent what remained of creative hope fifty years later. Life imitates art indeed!

“The essential difference, then, between the fellow Columbia University alumni was something similar.”

Ginsberg was a “beat” poet whose writing was a literature in the vacuum, elevated by combining acrobatic recycling of last night’s debauchery hearing Protean frat-house speeches, motivating the cum-drained morning type tapping aerobics and receding hangover. Ginsberg, gay with grudging but generous mimic-empathy, eager for approval like most who believe themselves one of life’s ugly people, clever enough to strike audience-accessible chords; always lyrical, trying to seduce (eyes on the cutest boy in the room) but sometimes, invariably by chance and the muse’s pity for the try hard, working out flashes of the truly poetic.

Kerouac by contrast was a sincere and tortured poet of singular brilliance, the brightest luminary of this so-called beat generation he came to symbolise in popular culture but transcended by the time he’d gazed on those big Kansas starscapes huddled sardine close with crackers heading West for the corn harvest. On The Road and Desolation Angels are works of genius and there latter possibly the apex of all American literature, though less accessible and universal than On The Road.

Kerouac is an original, a literary genius, driven by passions childlike in their hopeful ardour. He spent his life in an angst-to-alcoholic exploration at breakneck pace, leaving inspiration and bewildered academics scrambling to either catch up or deride dismiss. Catholic Jack neither knew nor cared. He was like Rimbaud a century earlier, life and art by necessity more than by choice – meeting the demands of authentic self-expression applied to the growing quicksilver mind of America’s only literary virtuoso.

Ginsberg died old and lauded. Kerouac took the other road: no middle age behind a beard, bumbling about with mates and macaroni in tow, stoned and adored and pilfering pennies from mid western culture vultures. Instead death, hypothermia or cirrhosis, fallen face down on the railroad tracks by mother’s homely house, alone, liver soaked in sweet wine and a handwritten Rilke note crumpled up in his hand.

contrarian, words


Stories have been the psychosocial crutch that’ve kept our species sane – individually – in an awful unpredictable fear-filled world. The price has been high but here we were in the 21st century, 7 billion plus human brains parsing the universe through prisms of vast collective narratives that affect every moment and define – for most – every reaction, every thought, every decision.

As more has been gathered under the aegis of science – and many of the enduring stories debunked to the point of polarizing “reality or faith” – comfort driven by consumer capitalism and stabilising power dynamics – the luxury of the echo chamber becomes a poison.

Who can be surprised billions choose simple self-aggrandizement stories pegged to authority sources that must be defended as dogma by the adherents. The choice is possible nowadays.

Polarisation is a threat but in the 21st century this may not bounce back into tribal nationalist ambition. It can remain luddite isolation. This is a dangerous time. Isolation is parochial, compounding a submission to dogma stories that’re the antithesis of vibrant cross-pollinating individualism.

Stories don’t go anywhere; or else they push the path of least resistance most ego to the flashpoint where it runs into reality and must fight to redefine other luddite narratives. Some win. Most lose. One day we may all lose and the planet will know a sixth mass extinction. Homo sapiens.

The above is the main argument but the key here is properly explaining what’s the history, what’s happening now, how all the fake news and polarised bolx and social media propaganda: it’s all stories. The dogma worshippers are always so certain, undistracted by details like nuance, truth, fact, etc.

Boredom: God of the gaps? Real life creativity comes from the boredom. Excess processing capacity has got go somewhere; and therefore there is imagination.

Why the fuck are cereal packets so patriotic? In fact, why the fuck is food all about nationalism these days? British strawberries, what the fuck!

Intuition is conviction that doesn’t show the working; to oneself.

The importance of discussing the latest media gossip about government, politics, memes or pop stars: it may seem like the importance comes from how much your life is affected by the details of whatever is being gossiped about but that’s a trap. The REAL significance should be how much impact you make (or could be making) on those details; else the quickest route to cutting it out of the daily conversation should be taken.

Then came the ceremony, the sugar-communion of the ayahuaska brew, and all the others giddy with excitement about meeting alien intelligence and travelling all across the universe. It wasn’t aliens, though. It isn’t an encounter with divine omnipotent love. The familiarity, the sense of belonging communicated by the strange shining beings who seemed to know everything about me, was real. But the personality fractals were all held within.

psychology, scribble


undefined definition of cognitive dissonance, cognitive consonance, cognitive assonance undefined

1a: COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is a psychological state, observed when a brain holds onto a belief (about reality) in the face of persistent contradictory evidence; by somehow ignoring it. COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is stressful but not anywhere near as disturbing as having to explode a belief.

1b: The brain’s natural non-stress state, however, is COGNITIVE CONSONANCE. This is where belief is evidentially and consistently in alignment with reality and there are no contradictions.

2a: The opposite of COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is COGNITIVE RESONANCE. COGNITIVE RESONANCE is an experience, in reality, that affirms COGNITIVE CONSONANCE i.e. belief and reality are in alignment.

2b: The less easily observed but nonetheless essential enabler of COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is known as COGNITIVE ASSONANCE.

3: ASSONANCE recasts DISSONANCE with most of its stresses removed, to steer belief and reality into RESONANCE that’s experienced as CONSONANCE.

observed cognitive dissonance
(courtesy of a typical luddite)

We think of cognitive dissonance as holding two contradictory opinions in mind – believing both to be true – without ever having to choose one or throw one away because it’s contradictory, and that it requires an any-means-possible mental gymnastics to evade these contradictions; the bigger the contradiction, the greater the gymnastics needed.

But that may not always be true, especially when a lot of people are invested in the continuity of a contradiction in the face of efforts to expose it.

Religious faith and common denominator party political allegiance are two significant cognitive dissonances and, despite the former being a fantasy and the latter a submission of one’s individual moral character, both hold their own in the modern world.

How do these cognitive dissonances stay in tact, despite evidence (or absence of) or a personal hypocrisy at odds with the individual’s private moral code?

What if, rather than dissonance, it’s actually a cognitive assonance i.e. contradiction is maintained by as little dissonance as possible and this minor dissonance is honed by compatible better ideas so ends up being a cognitive assonance shared by a group who’re all, for instance, holding a bunch of bullshit opinions e.g. conservative + anti-abortion + hate-gays – gunrights-racism – anti-immigration – anti-minimumwage – anti-healthcare-for-all.

psychology, pushback, society


Sometimes it seems like we’re all at the mercy of currents of circumstances and fait accompli, so the best we can do is try to be a good commentator; or else surrender to the currents and – in both cases – it’s mostly a hope to be carried along somewhere good, where your life-collected talents can be used – maybe recognised – and hopefully you’ll be swept by love close enough to grab hold.

Too much commentating leaves too little time to be absorbed by the journey, too much time risked deconstructing the beauty of the scenery into just more rocks and leaves and sky.

Too much deconstruction trains it into an unconscious habit that turns the natural living in the impressions of the moment as life sweeps us along, into an observer experiencing things personal as if through a glass, feelings become constipated – and then almost alien, disdained by ingrained vanity as the animal reacting to the mere tone of events.

That said, while it might be desirable to submerge oneself in the vicissitudes of life’s daily revelation, and undoubtedly feeling the fierce emotion of engagement can be a wonderful thing, it’s also a risk. That’s bad in life, negative circumstances, tragedy, misery, a whole anti-spectrum of life that’ll swallow the submerged participant in a world of ungood.

We don’t get to choose. Submit to the flow of the currents and feel the interesting high-points, but also risk tumbling into bleak inescapable lows. And tumble you will; we all do, because that’s the coda of senility at the end of everyone’s traversal of their human lifespan.

Maybe there’s a happy equilibrium. It’s a challenge to find it, though, not least because it’s ever-changing. What most do, it seems to me, is another submission: this time to the regulations of the surroundings. That means moulding oneself to the expectations and conventions of society; whichever society that is. For most this is a lifelong cognitive-behavioral therapy and, depending on mental processing speed and personal habituation, it trains a divergence in an individual’s personality between the real self and the roleplay self.

Almost everyone will have memories of childhood where this divergence plays out, where the real had to struggle with the role in an uncertain situation. We get better at it by adulthood; the role having become second nature. By middle age so much time has been invested in the roleplay it’s entrenched as if fundamental – to be defended – even in the face of circumstances sympathetic to the real personality, where it would’ve been fine to be real, the mental muscles built for the roleplay have become the dominant paradigm. More’s the pity.

There’re advantages to having most human beings trained to conform to society’s expectations. It’d be possible to argue our civilised behaviour depends on it; that life would become a chaos if everyone were real (within the law). Maybe that’s so.

But the preeminence of common denominator roleplay comes at a price. We surrender our innate authenticity in favour of a role that’s constructed of observed social norms – moving closer to identity groups, most conducive to our own comfortable path of least resistance – which means a sense of belonging. This paints large numbers in broad identity strokes, turning individuals into mere ciphers. At worst, it codifies prejudice and in-group out-group thinking that’s the well-spring of hate leading to violence; at scale.

Identity, that’s born and nurtured in the cognitive behavioural training of this divergent role version of oneself, is rooted not in reality – though there may be resemblance – but a collage of stories.

The stories are the detail of the role’s knowledge of what it should be: how to feel, how to react, how to perceive the world. Reality, if contradictory (or too challenging) comes off second best. This is an enormous problem. It’s perhaps the biggest practical problem with the human condition. At the bottom of almost every error, personal, social, group, national, is a story gone wrong and the ends to which people have gone pursuing it.