sleep apnea…is a disease of modernity (jaw sizes have shrunk and tongue sizes have grown
– from a comment on Astral Codex Ten
People are very good at maintaining a set of beliefs that allow them to not feel guilty, and the easiest way to do this is to believe that anything you think you should do but don’t want to is impossible.
– from DRMacIver’s notebook
Almost a decade ago, Julia Serano wrote a wonderful essay on appropriation. I keep on coming back to it, because it clarifies a debate which recurs again and again in activist contexts. In particular, she captures some of the discomfort I felt in the early 2000s, as allegations of appropriation became a big deal in my social and political circles. The picture is very real, even though she is writing more narrowly about trans activism:
trans activists often encouraged forms of gender transgression in the cisgender majority, as it was generally believed that such expressions would help undermine binary gender norms throughout society.
And suddenly now in 2013, some trans people are essentially taking the exact opposite approach by discouraging cisgender people from transgressing gender norms (via accusations that such actions represent an appropriation of transgender identities and culture).
Critique of cultural appropriation, which is what I mainly encountered, was definitely in part a needed correction to some existing attitudes. But there were (and continue to be) times when that critique seemed to preclude any interaction, and send everybody back to their own parochial background.
Serano starts by identifying the most clearly bad forms of appropriation, in a satisfyingly clear-cut way. Appropriation is bad when it is used to Exclude, Exploit or Denigrate the target group.
Beyond that, opinions differ. Serano now situates the debate about appropriation in the context of wider political movements, on two axes. The first is stigma. When a group is heavily stigmatised, then it is a brave and costly signal for an outsider to adopt their markers. Therefore the insiders are more likely to appreciate this as a gesture of support and solidarity. If the stigma decreases, it becomes possible to adopt the markers of a group without much personal cost, and doing so can look like ‘tourism’. The outsider takes advantage of the culture of the group, without having risked or contributed anything.
The second axis differentiates activists aiming at separation, from those aiming at integration into mainstream society. Discouraging appropriation helps to maintain a clear boundary between you and the mainstream, which can be very appealing. But if your endgame is to be accepted within society, you would prefer to welcome others to adopt aspects of your identity.
I would add another angle, which Serano gestures to but underemphasises. That is, whether you see group membership as innate or chosen. If you believe that people can join and leave your group, then you almost need to accept those who are in a transitional stage. I’m very much of the attitude that most identities can be chosen. But even I have to accept that some are unavailable, perhaps because they are in the past, e.g. a certain kind of upbringing.
In the 1840s, a wave of intentional communities spread across America. Most of them collapsed within a year or two, as has been the story of most attempts at communal living in any context.
One of the longest-lasting was Oneida. It was based around the principles of Free Love and Mutual Criticism, and its inhabitants spend their days making knives. The founder, John Humphrey Noyes, had apparently taken some care in finding the right system.
In the process he wrote a book, a history of American socialisms. Based in part on a survey of communes, it was his attempt to figure out what system might lead a community to survive:
This country has been from the beginning, and especially for the last forty years, a laboratory in which Socialisms of all kinds have been experimenting. It may safely be assumed that Providence has presided over the operations, and has taken care to make them instructive. The disasters of Owenism and Fourierism have not been in vain ; the successes of the Shakers and Rappites have not been set before us for nothing. We may hope to learn something from every experiment.
David MacIver writes good articles about psychology and coping with life, for example “How to do hard things”. Over in the world of computers, he is also an expert in something called test case reduction
The idea of test case reduction is to find the simplest thing that will break a program. You might, for example, start with a thousand-word essay that you can’t upload to a particular website. To understand what’s going wrong you remove text until you find the shortest input that breaks things – maybe the website can’t handle accented characters or something. You can do this by hand, or if you’re smart you will use some of David’s code to do it automatically.
David has heroically resisted the temptation to phrase self-help in terms of debugging. In his position I would have given in immediately – because so many of the processes I go through to figure out my head are equivalent to debugging.
I have the benefit that my brain is pretty good at running simulations of how I would behave in different situations. So when a situation freaks me out, I can later apply my own internal test case reduction. ‘Would I have coped better if I had trusted the other person?’ I might ask myself. “What about if I felt confident in my knowledge of what we were talking about?” And if it works, I’ll eventually have a simplified scenario which showcases the bug in my brain.
Here is an exhilarating idea from Alison Gopnik: octopi have tentacles instead of children.
Any mind must navigate between exploring and exploiting. Are you flexible and ready to learn (explore), or do you optimise along a path that you have already chosen?
Humans deal with this by behaving differently at different life stages: children explore, adults exploit. We really do become set in our ways as we get older, down to the rate at which neurons connect. We fix our understanding of the world in our early years, and spend adulthood taking advantage of it.
Octopi do not have long childhoods. So they deal with the explore/exploit differently: by having different brains for each
octos actually have divided brains. So they have one brain in the center in their head, and then they have another brain or maybe eight brains in each one of the tentacles. And if you actually watch what the octos do, the tentacles are out there doing the explorer thing. They’re getting information, figuring out what the water is like. And then the central head brain is doing things like saying, OK, now it’s time to squirt. Now it’s time to get food. So, my thought is that we could imagine an alternate evolutionary path by which each of us was both a child and an adult. So imagine if your arms were like your two-year-old, right? So that you are always trying to get them to stop exploring because you had to get lunch. I suspect that may be what the consciousness of an octo is like.
Really, it is a manifesto for queer identity and queer community:
Our bodies can still feel the cold creeps of the jail bars from the jails that we’ve visited. We could have sought revenge for all this misery of ours, but, instead, we chose to use our bodies as tools to imagine an utopian future, where all of us, absolutely all of us reproduce to infinity and beyond their most deeply hidden identities.
Queer because it encompasses all our identities without imposing a predetermined norm and assigning us to predefined houses. Queer because infinity.
Germany’s rate of corona vaccinations has jumped in the past 10 days. That is great, but also frustrating.
Frustrating, because the reasons are symptomatic of how people are being killed by the slow, cautious incompetence of government bureaucracy.
The first reason is that German family doctors are now allowed to give vaccinations, a role previously reserved for centralized vaccination centers.
The second reason is even worse: We have just started a new quarter.
The discussion on manufacturers vaccine production schedules have largely been on numbers per quarter. Given that the EU is scapegoating them for delays, the manufacturers really really want to avoid missing their targets. And that leads to weirdness at the boundaries of the quarters.
At Biontech, production is going well, and they are comfortably meeting their Q1 commitment (~12m doses). But they have promised to almost quadruple that in Q2. So through March they delivered a steady 1m doses per week. Then in April, when we start counting against their Q2 target, the deliveries jump to 2.7 million per week.
AstraZeneca are the opposite. They are behind schedule. So they squeezed in a huge delivery at the end of Q1 (actually a couple of days later, but it’s being counted as Q1), like maybe 5x what they usually deliver in a week.
It’s rational behaviour from both companies. When you’re dealing with a short-tempered and annoying customer, you CYA by fulfilling the letter of your contracts, even at the cost of a worse outcome for the customer. And that’s the position the EU have put Biontech and AZ into.
Admittedly this is mainly speculation – but I do think it fits the facts and the (non-altruistic parts of the) motivations of everybody involved
Since I mentioned Coleridge, I thought I would bring up my personal headcanon about one of the little mysteries of his life: the “Person from Porlock”
The poem Kubla Khan came to Coleridge as a vision in a dream, the result of a book he had been reading on Mongol history, combined with the effects of the opium he had taken the night before.
The poet woke up and began to compose a poem based on his dream. But after he had written the lines we now have, he was interrupted by a visitor. This “Person on business from Porlock” so distracted Coleridge that he forgot the rest of his dream, and the poem remained incomplete.
The identity of this visitor is a perfect miniature mystery, intriguing and yet totally inconsequential. The mundane answer is that there quite possibly was no visitor, and Coleridge just wanted an excuse for publishing a poem with an unusual structure. Or it was Wordsworth or another friend popping in.
Wild speculation is much more entertaining, though. So there’s one theory that “a person on business” was Coleridge’s way to hint that it was his dealer, stopping by to top up his supplies of poetry-inducing opium.
And for anybody writing historical or time-travel fiction, this is the perfect opportunity to get their character some face-time with a poet. So Ada Lovelace has been the Person from Porlock. Doctor Who has been the Person from Porlock. Douglas Adams even wrote a book where his protagonist becomes the Person from Porlock – in order to save Coleridge and the world from an extraterrestrial ghost.
My personal headcanon is that Coleridge’s visitor was, in fact, a Person from Pullach. Pullach is a suburb of Munich which, until recently, housed the headquarters of the German intelligence services. In my fantasy Germany has developed time travel. Prevented by paradox from killing Hitler, the spooks are instead zipping through history tinkering around the edges. One of them is a fan of Coleridge – why not, he was a Germanophile who translated Schiller and allegedly even understood Kant. So he shows up at the poet’s door, and inadvertently robs us of the remainder of Kubla Khan.
Bonus alternate history: I’ve been idly imagining a timeline in which Israel is not created, but the Zionists do instead succeed in colonizing Mars.
In her salon on curation, Patricia challenged the participants to imagine how they might arrange a gallery. This gave me the chance to mention a fantasy exhibition which I have occasionally toyed with. It would gather together works which share a particular aesthetic, of “endless growth and self-reproduction”. I would start with some 18th-century etchings by Piranesi, and end with the cheerily nightmarish animations of Cyriak.
Piranesi lived in Rome, and made a living by selling his etchings of Roman architecture to young aristocrats on the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. Presumably he got bored of real buildings, because at some point he turned to drawing elaborate architectural fantasies
The most famous description of the Carceri is by a man who never saw them. Literary drug-fiend Thomas de Quincey was struggling to describe the “mighty visions of more than earthly splendour” which appeared to him in opium-fuelled dreams.
Fortunately, Piranesi’s etchings had been described to de Quincey by his friend and fellow addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge1. de Quincey recognized a picture which matched his dreams, with “vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machiner,… expressive of enormous power put forth and resistance overcome”. And, homing in on what to me is the key to Piranesi, he wrote of the endless growth and self-reproduction represented by the stairways repeating themselves into infinity
Had de Quincey been living in another time, he might have found his “endless growth and self-reproduction” elsewhere. He could look at Cyriak, who has become a Youtube star by making animations of just that.
It’s not quite the same. Cyriak uses cats where Piranesi uses towers, and replaces monochrome etchings with a style that is Very. Not. Monochrome. But couldn’t you imagine de Quincey dreaming a Cyriak video, if his cat jumped on him in the night?
My fantasy exhibition, then would have Piranesi and Cyriak as bookends. Between then would be any number of other artists who share the same fractal horror.
MC Escher would be hard to omit. His optical illusions form enclosed and inescapable worlds, whose human figures are prisoners of the artist’s impossible geometry2.
For me, though, something about the cleanness of Escher’s illustrations renders them less unsettling. Piranesi’s vision feels more like an anthill or an oil refinery. You feel that the outward disarray may indeed be the result of some ancient masterplan, but that it has been submerged under generations of repair and modification.
The work which most shares this aspect of Piranesi is Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake’s trilogy of novels set in an uncanny aristocratic mansion of the same name, where the inhabitants lead lives of strange ritual in service of the house and its lord.
Gormenghast forms an enclosed world of barely-understood tradition and hierarchy, with the present always buried under the physical and mental detritus of the past. Everywhere is gothic and grotesquely distorted, a dustily English mirror of magic realism.
The books’ central obsession is with the physical architecture of Gormenghast itself, the embodiment of whatever ancestral pathology has left this world endlessly collapsing in on itself. Gormenghast has spent centuries simultaneously decaying and growing new appendages, trapping its inhabitants within a tumor of stone turned cancerous. Peake’s opening lines could just as well be describing Piranesi’s prisons or de Quincey’s nightmares:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.
There are many more creations which reflect some of this aesthetic. SF artists such as Inward or Maciej Drabik explore cityscapes of immense buildings, but without Piranesi’s sense of weight and dread. HR Giger brings the dread, but his focus is more on the monstrous fusion of flesh and machine. JG Ballard’s architectural horror is somehow more human, or at least more interested in what buildings do to their inhabitants. H R Giger’s nightmares don’t just trap creatures between their walls, but make them components of the architecture.
Few of these were directly influenced by one another. They have mostly stood on the edges of their tradition, half-accepted by their peers but also seen as curiosities or exceptions. Yet somehow the same obsession keeps cropping up, giving us these depictions of endless growth and self-reproduction.
1 Coleridge also shared with de Quincey a tendency towards drug-induced architectural fantasies. His poem Kubla Khan, composed on waking from an opium dream, is a vision of the architecture of Xanadu.
2 The game Monument Valley has a very similar feeling. It was apparently made by somebody who had never heard of Escher, yet created a world which feels like navigating an Escher drawing.
Last night Patricia Hurducas ran an ii discussion about curation. Between pangs of longing for visiting a physical place, I realized that I have a semi-conscious idealized conception of the Curator.
That is a capitalized Platonic-ideal Curator, at the same remove from reality as “The Artist” is from any actually existing painter. My ideal curator also has a lot in common with my ideal critic. Both are broad-spectrum receivers in human form, resonating to an unusually wide range of artistic input.
More prosaically, they need to be able find the value in whatever piece of art is thrown at them, and guide their audience along the easiest route to access it themselves. They also need an unusual amount of empathy for that audience, being able to imagine what a creation will look like through other people’s eyes.
The difference is that the curator can also take more of a creative role, assembling art to match their own vision. An exhibition can be something like an essay, beating its own path through some domain. It tells some stories and ignores others, makes things look different by adjusting their context.
Any actually existing curator, though, is forced to do this within constraints of budge, institutional boundaries and the availability of works. That’s why I get so much joy out of playing fantasy curator: I ignore practical limits to design impossible shows with selections from all the collections in all the world.