Old boot, re-boot
December 25, 2021 Comments Off on Old boot, re-boot
Today I turned 58. It was cold when I awoke, and the mountaintops were dipped in a frosting of fog. I breathed in the sharp air, feeling alive and alert and old. Very old. I thought about all the things that were, which now are not.
On this birthday, our birthday, I’m going to take my old life back to Target and return it for one that’s a cuter color in the right size. I’ve been working up the courage to approach the returns counter since July 9, 2020, when I pedaled my bike out of LA in search of the life that we all have inside if only we can suppress the fear long enough to take the first terrifying step.
Because you can’t start anything until you quit.
When I was a kid I quit smoking dope and started trying to look at what really was instead of Dr. Seuss.
I quit being a slave to alcohol when I was fifty, and started unraveling, started seeing that booze was just another fake Instagram filter to pretty up the gray skin and erase the coffee stains.
I quit guitar, piano, flute, harmonica, chorus, baseball, basketball, academic excellence, following orders, reading the instructions, believing in a higher power, shaving, bathing (mostly), haircuts, shopping, and marriage. I quit trying to pass algebra with Mrs. Morcom. I quit Amazon, hustling for blog subscriptions, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Strava, and reading the news. I started to understand that there is no news, nothing new under the sun, cf. Ecclesiastes 1:9, all is vanity. This means me. This means you.
I quit believing in my dad. And when he died I started seeing my own end and my own beginning plainly, without drama or sadness or regret.
I quit Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, the Violet Crown Sports Association, Peloton Racing, Cynergy, Big Orange, Ironfly, and would have quit SPY if they hadn’t quit me first. I quit road racing, cyclocross racing, track racing, group rides, bib shorts, cycling shoes, helmets, Garmins, turbo-trainers, tubulars, e-Tap, racing frames, cycling “nutrition,” mass start events, and following the Tour. I quit embro and would have quit chamois cream if I’d ever used it. I quit people whose lives are their social media accounts. I quit Belgian waffles. I quit buying clown suits. I quit cycling and started riding a bicycle.
I quit every job I ever had except my current one. I quit naughty underwear sales at Sharpstown Mall, door-to-door greeting card sales, Grit, Christmas candles, selling newspapers with Michael Dell at the Houston Post, lawn mowing, phone interviewing, sacking, oyster shucking, driving a bread delivery truck, dishwashing, working at a ski resort, moving pianos, Internet marketing, English teaching, business consulting, web designing, nature trail developing, designing sustainable tourism projects in small communities, interning in Germany and Japan, clerking, flipping burgers, simultaneous interpreting, publishing a journal on Japanese law, managing a losing political campaign, and writing stories for a mesothelioma web site. I started seeing that capitalism is the problem, and that I’m a capitalist.
I quit driving and owning cars, I quit asking forgiveness, trying to make things right, stirring the pot, throwing parties, abusing other people, being a bully, trying to make the world a better place, putting my money towards social justice, giving a voice to the silenced, fighting for justice, working for free, calling bullshit, ridiculing the ridiculous, and shining a light up the rear end of bad behavior. I quit publicly praising the crappy work of people I know and started privately praising what nature has already written in trees, rivers, animal tracks, boulders, and birdsong.
I quit grandstanding. Championing causes. Owning more than three pairs of underwear and four pairs of socks. I quit wearing sunscreen and bug repellent. I quit trying to be cool, quit hitting on women, quit misogyny, quit lying to others, quit lying to myself. Okay, maybe I didn’t quit lying to others. No one does. But I started believing what I have always known: The universe is random and uncaring, period.
I quit believing in karma and the innate goodness of people, quit hoping that love would win out, quit trying to talk to people about how each of us has a carbon footprint and unless we make it tiny our posterity will be left with nothing. I quit trying to not only make a difference, but to be the difference. I quit trying to be part of lives that don’t want anything to do with mine. I started walking by myself in all things and enjoying the company, and I started to cry from the heart.
I quit fake friendships and real ones. Quit giving to receive and then being sad when all I got was a bad case of raw ass. Quit inviting people to come visit a place they don’t want to see. I quit reaching out and started reaching in.
I quit Russian, Slovak, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Indonesian, Greek, Korean, and Italian. I quit trying to talk to strange people in strange tongues and started talking to myself in my own vernacular, like every other crazy guy living under a bridge.
I quit angering. I quit birdwatching, college chemistry, high school chemistry, college zoology, logic, symbolic logic, and hard work. I quit conforming to them and started conforming to me.
I quit gossiping and listening to it, and started listening to sunrises, sunsets, and starry, starry nights.
I quit surfing, snow skiing, water skiing, snowshoeing, car enthusiasm-ing, debating, caring about politics, believing that you could be rich and somehow pass through the eye of a needle, photography, baking, vague acquaintanceships, unhappy relationships and as importantly, being the toxin in the relationships of others. And in a profound sense with regard to most people and things, though not all, I quit loving. When I relinquished that, I started to grasp the significance of all the things I’d given up or that had given up on me.
And that meant grasping the importance of the one thing I’ve never quit, one-and-a-half things if you include memorizing Chaucer. I never quit writing, which brings this pretty verse to mind:
They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will.“Vincent” by Don McLean
The fakery of the tortured artist trope
It has always seemed to me that artistic greatness is tied to great personal struggle at a minimum, and madness at its zenith. Zigzagging along as a writer I’ve always found my idiosyncrasies, mental struggles, penchant for drink, and my rich palette of other problems as a validation of artistic self-worth: You may not be great yet, Seth, but you are crazy as a shithouse rat, so there’s hope! And speaking of crazy …
I don’t know very much about Vincent Van Gogh, but I do know the song about him by Don McLean. My parents used to play it when I was a kid; I thought the title was “Starry, Starry Night” and had no idea that it was about a tortured artist and a singer’s homage to him.
Painting was not a big thing in my childhood for which the art world owes my parents thanks. My grandmother had a portrait of some family relative on the wall, one of those bad paintings that your cousin did of Auntie Melba and gave it to you, so you hung it in the living room. I looked at that painting a lot, a haggard old woman with a fur cap and a goofy earflap, reminding me that ancestors are rarely pretty. But her odd face and the odd background always made me gaze at it. Granny never said who the woman was and I was too embarrassed to ask. What if it was her mom or grandmom?
After listening to “American Pie” the other day I did a search for “Starry, Starry Night” and came up with “Vincent,” the actual name of the song. It was far more beautiful and sad and melodic than I’d ever remembered it, and 15M YouTube viewers seemed to agree; Mclean performed it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, even. If you don’t know the song you should give it a listen. It speaks to the tortured artist trying to be heard, to be understood, and the dark hopelessness of being crazy. I actually cried when I listened to it. Poor Vincent. Poor world. Poor me.
Then I buried myself in a couple of hours’ worth of Internet reading about Van Gogh. Wow. Talk about rough sledding. Talk about being inspired by mental illness. Talk about being misunderstood, or better yet, not being understood at all. Talk about dying young and in obscurity. Talk about … talk.
A few days later I came across an extremely famous pop music critic I’d never heard of, Robert Christgau. He has been writing nastily about pop music since the 70’s, first for the Village Voice, then mostly for himself. He’s considered the Dean of Rock and has reviewed virtually every record that ever came out. “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash” by the Pogues? Yep. And countless others.
For the most part his reviews are withering. Like all good critics, he loathes his subject matter first, and the artists second. Even in praise he manages to revile. But as he points out, he knows what he likes, he listens to music 16-18 hours a day, and many people use him as a guide for what to buy as all critics should be used, not because they agree with him but because his ghastly taste teaches through opposition. I checked out his reviews of Hendrix and Peter Frampton and was shocked that anyone could detest such obviously bad music. Christgau really does hate pretty much everything that the rest of the world likes, but inconsistently. A rock connoisseur who hates “Frampton Comes Alive” and loves “Rumours” has issues.
Then I checked his review for “American Pie.” It was scathing. And at the end it made a snide remark about that most beautiful of songs, “Vincent.” Per Christgau, buy the album if “you’re in the market for a song about how nobody understood Van Gogh.” That was it. Dismissive and dismissed.
At first I got mad, like someone whose dog has been called ugly. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered. Was this anthem to the tortured artist simply junk? Did this nasty critic have some insight that I and the rest of the Internet had missed?
So I began reading about the tortured artist, the person possessed by the muse to the point of madness. I thought about my brother, a fine poet, who was not only tortured by mental illness but who was also dead due to a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart.
Turns out that the whole “inspired by madness” thing is a trope. Lots of artists have mental illness, and poster children like Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Jimi, Janis, Jerry, Kurt, and lesser known stars like Gerry Rafferty have all died young as a result of suicide or terrible drug and alcohol addictions. The list is long and frightening and almost encouraging, especially when you consider that suicides like Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf, and Yukio Mishima are only a tiny number compared to artists like Beethoven, Nietzsche, and Kafka, who were “simply” racked by mental illness.
Still, the idea that you have to be mad to be great is, sadly, preposterous because the vast majority of creative geniuses aren’t mentally ill, or at least they are no crazier than the general public. Kenzaburo Oe, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Plato, Freud, Marx, Thoreau, Jefferson, Bach, Picasso, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Jack Nicholson, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Marie Curie, George Washington Carver, Thomas Edison, and of course Don McLean either created up until their natural deaths or, in the case of McLean, Oe, and Nicholson, are creating still. And then there are the millions of people who have composed music, painted, sculpted, written poetry or fiction, played music, or, in the age of the Internet, designed in Photoshop, Illustrator, and countless other creative apps. Those people are creative and many are genius, but hardly tortured, at least in the way that popular culture says you have to be in order to be a “true artist.”
Most artists do their thing, brush their teeth, turn out the lights, go to bed, and miraculously wake up the next day without having put their head in a gas oven or invited a gun barrel into the roof of their mouth.
In my readings about Van Gogh and the tortured artist, I did manage to solve a little personal mystery, though. That painting of the relative hanging on Granny’s wall? It was a cheap print of Van Gogh’s self-portrait with his bandaged ear. No wonder I thought old Aunt Melba was ugly.
So what is art, really?
For ten-and-a-half years I plugged away at this web log project and never once did I ask, “What is art? Am I really an artist? And if so, why?” I suppose I never really had to ask. When you’re on a daily publication schedule the time to ponder is always later.
But after taking a six-month break, I’ve spent the time trying to figure out why I write and whether it’s worth picking back up, which ultimately leads to the question, “What is art?” In sum, Wikipedia. And to summarize the summary, art is either what a few people say it is, what everyone says it is, or what no one says it is. It’s easy to understand how such a simple question is so flummoxing. Basically, like asking “What’s the meaning of life?” it’s a fake question.
“What is art?” presumes there is such a thing, just like “What’s the meaning of life?” presumes there’s a meaning. When you try to follow the reasoning behind the various philosophies of art, you see how confused everyone is. Art, even as an oddly incoherent concept, didn’t even exist until the 16th Century. Before that, art meant “what you do,” and it’s the root word for “artisan.” For a cooper, making barrels was his art. For a lute player, it was playing music. It took the confluence of empire, nascent capitalism, and rigid class structure to create the idea of “fine” arts. Whatever they were, they didn’t include barrel making.
So I concluded that it’s folly to define art or even to talk about it unless you are going to be specific. In my case, I’m no artist. I’m a writer. And same as for a painter, composer, dancer, computer programmer, or writer of HR manuals, it’s a lot easier to talk about the specifics of writing than the generalities of The Great Blob of Art. And it was pointed out to me that I write because I am exceedingly vain.
At first glance it’s a blow to recognize that your Precious is simply an expression of your vanity, until, at least, you reflect on that most atheistic section of the Bible, a/k/a Ecclesiastes, which unambiguously states, “all is vanity.” Not “some is vanity.” Not even “some is more vain than others.” Just the pointed statement that all is vanity. This means me. This means you.
If we admit that writing is vanity (cf. self-published books a/k/a “vanity publishing”), it’s helpful to ask what the vanity satisfies. Because regardless of the artistic endeavor, all are based on a desire for recognition. From writers of great novels to writers of pithy Tweets to nervous virgin bloggers posting “Hello, world,” the act of publishing your work is an act of braggadocio, an unbridled ploy for attention. What better example than “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce? You can read it from cover to cover but there’s no portrait anywhere, not even a sketch. Did he have jowls? Was he thin? Chubby? Balding? Stoop-shouldered? Broad-chested? Bow-legged?
You’ll never know because the main point of the book, like every book, is to stroke the vanity of the author. Joyce, an unpublished, unknown Irish expatriate titled his book not simply “an artist” but monstrously, “the artist.” All really is vanity, and vanity, when done right, sells. What if the title had been honest? “A Story of an Unknown Writer as a Young Man Who Still Happens to be Young and Unknown”? Still vain–who wants to read about an unknown writer–but perhaps not monstrously so. Ecclesiastes would shrug at the distinction between being vain and extremely vain. All is vanity.
Fortunately, Facebook has done lots of research and has mined the science of addiction to help us understand what we hope to obtain with our vanity publishing. It is called dopamine. When you write something and it is liked, either facebookishly, instagrammatically, by fan mail, on Strava, or by selling ten million copies and having it made into a Major (or minor) Motion Picture, your brain releases dopamine. Back in the Paleolithic day, dopamine came in drips and you had to work hard for it. The killing of a mastodon didn’t come easily.
Nor, for that matter, did becoming a high priest of the modern novel. Joyce suffered from syphilis and a host of other mental issues, not least of which was the battering that his, and any author’s ego, takes when it is continually rejected for publication. But social media figured out that the old joke “Every journalist has a novel inside, which is a good place for it,” is partially true. Every person has the kernel of delusional greatness inside, but the best place for it is on the Internet, in a captive digital ecosystem, where Chaucer = Joyce = Some Yahoo Still Pissed About Obama. In fact, the Yahoo Still Pissed About Obama is a greater writer for Facebook’s purposes than Chaucer, Joyce, and Shakespeare put together because Facebook gives not a shit about the art, and cares instead about the personal data of the artist.
Social media closes the loop that began with Homo erectus, when what you did, whatever it was, was your art. Every person who writes, no matter how well or crippled, is an artist, from “Hello, world!” to those beautiful harangues with 10,000 likes whose subtitles should be, “Keep the fuggin’ gummint outta my Social Scurrity and Medicare!” I’m an artist. You’re an artist. He’s an artist. And as long as you’re playing in the social media sandbox, where your data can be scraped and resold, what you say and how you say it is meaningless to the Lords. Give us your data and we will let you troll for your dopamine fix, a/k/a “likes,” by writing whatever you want.
Of course you don’t have to publish on #socmed. You can get your own domain and plug away at your pet project for decades, just be ready to get the tiniest drizzle of dopamine instead of the hormone shower you’d get with 5,000 friends on Facebook. And what addict wants less heroin when he can get more?
For the first time since people began wondering, then arguing about art, we have an answer, at least as far as it concerns writing: A “writer” is any person who writes anything, at any time, in any language, that is read by another person … or machine. For the first time since writing was invented, content and quality mean nothing. The only salient feature that separates one writer from another is the number of likes, from zero to Don McLean’s 15M. In other words, your writing is no more or less than your algorithm. And what’s key here is that unlike times past, today’s writers are tortured not by schizophrenia or manic depression, but by how many likes their post generated. It’s that anxiety that causes them to log back in, toss up another blob, and hope for more approval.
In other words, the 4.5 billion artists on social media are working and creating compulsively, without rest, for free, donating their creations to the Lords in exchange for more work and the relinquishment of their most private, defining, and meaningful personal data. No wonder everybody wants to be the next Zuckerberg: Money for nothin’ / Chicks for free.
The clerks of nostalgia
Aristotle said artists were touched by madness, but he should have added that they were regulated by the Lords. In times past, the folks who assessed what was good and what wasn’t were the clerks of nostalgia, appointed wiser-than-thou owners of advanced art degrees, experts in the provenance of some moldy old Dutch painting that was ugly then and is ugly now, or in the literary field the publishers, editors, and critics who manned the bridge with mile-high stacks of pre-printed rejection letters that said, “Thou shalt not pass!”
The clerks were themselves men and women, mostly men, who had in their time been denied passage across the bridge and so in revenge had trudged, toiled, cursed, and struggled their way through the labyrinth of accreditation to become guardians of the bridge. It was crucial that the clerks be numerous, withering, and merciless because capitalism and its antecedents had discovered that art had value, but because all art is trash and since any fool with a pen or a brush is an artist, that value could only be created and inflated if “good art” and “great art,” and by extension the people who produced it, were rare.
So the concept of genius was invented. Instead of every person being born capable of great art, only the luckiest and rarest of genetic-environmental circumstances could produce it, and those geniuses and their works were exalted, coveted, and traded for great sums of money. The only thing that made you more valuable than genius was genius+suicide or genius+batshit crazy. But once Leonardo da Vinci was crowned a genius and his work enshrined behind bulletproof glass, someone had to come up with a rationale as to why a portrait mill in China that produced exact and better copies was inferior to the original, otherwise the market for Leonardo’s art, and all similarly situated genius works, would collapse. The clerks developed philosophies and explanations about how a copy was inferior to an original, how a print was inferior to a painting, how pixels were inferior to colored goop that gave you lead poisoning on cracked canvas. Otherwise, all beautiful things would be equal and prices would collapse.
More disastrously for the Lords, ugly things would be no worse than beautiful things, and the clerks, who slaved for the Lords to uphold the market value of their art, would no longer be the arbiters of beauty.
Worst of all, aesthetics would implode completely and the individual man or woman would be the measure of all things. An original Van Gogh would be as valueless as a cheap print bought on the Internet or the fingerpainted smears of a three-year-old.
The Internet in general and social media in particular have massacred the clerks. Failed writers who at least made a living judging the writing of others have been mowed down by the scythe of Facebook and Amazon, Facebook by admitting everyone’s silliness to the hallowed hall of “publication,” and Amazon by creating a platform where the only thing standing between you and publishing a hundred books is absolutely nothing. WordPress, Blogger, Twitter, and html have made the extinction of the clerks complete. None shall pass? All shall pass.
You would think that opening the passage to the proletariat is a good and democratizing thing, especially when you consider how cruel and nasty the clerks have been over the centuries to those trying to turn a buck as artists. You’d be wrong because the new clerk isn’t a person at all. It’s something much more cruel, merciless, vindictive, remorseless, and invincible than any clerk ever was. The new boss looks a lot like the old boss, only bigger, meaner, nastier, and way more efficient. His name is algorithm.
The siren song, so silly
Why have 15M people listened to a mournful, campy song about Vincent Van Gogh that isn’t even true? Well, why do people listen to songs at all? On the surface, we listen to them, especially favorite songs, because the singer’s lyrics “speak to us.” The singer “gets us.” We can “relate” to the words. It’s “exactly” how we feel. When you’re feeling down, chances are great that you’ll turn to an old favorite because it really “captures your mood.” On the surface, that explains it.
But underneath, chemistry is at work in the form of dopamine. The common misperception is that dopamine has an opioid effect which makes you feel good and want more. That not exactly how it works. Dopamine is a chemical that triggers the desire to seek, and it is this sensation, otherwise known as anticipation, that is one of the most sharply honed evolutionary adaptations in the animal kingdom. Seeking with the anticipation of reward drives life. At one time or another every piece of human knowledge has been summed up in a Texas whorehouse, and dopamine’s effect is no exception, to wit: “It ain’t the flop on the bed, it’s the walk up the stairs.”
Before we ever hit “play,” we’re anticipating the feeling of “relating to,” “being spoken to,” “having our mood captured,” and the minute the song starts, its first note triggers a release of dopamine, which in turn triggers other, opioid-like hormones, which result in the flow of good feelings. But the dopamine immediately fades and is replaced by its ugly cousin cortisol, the chemical that tells you no anticipatory goodies are on the horizon. So in order to get the little dopamine reward that comes from the anticipation of knowing something good might happen, better get crackin’, I mean check your feed.
On YouTube this is known as hitting the replay button. Problem is, there is a diminishing return until eventually the song generates nothing at all. Time to move on down the playlist.
But the song “Vincent” gives its fans a lot more than dopamine. Its message actually gives them validation of something completely untrue: That Van Gogh was “too beautiful for this world,” that no one was paying attention to him, and that they still aren’t. The outrageousness of these falsehoods doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant that there is so such thing as being “too beautiful for this world.” It’s nonsense, English twisted into the moron-taffy of a Grateful Dead drug mumble. And the idea that Van Gogh was ignored is belied by the outpouring of condolences from the greatest artists of his day, some of whom are regarded as among the greatest of all time. When your work earns a tribute from Paul Gaugin, you may be unhappy, but ignored you are not.
Most laughable is the suggestion that people weren’t listening to Van Gogh and “perhaps they never will.” Hey, folks. Van Gogh is the most studied artist in history, and his paintings are consistently the most expensive ones on earth. Perhaps they never will? McLean must be laughing all the way to the bank.
Online, though, facts matter not so much. What matters is that this song speaks to people who think their true value is unrecognized, in other words, every human being everywhere. Even people who have reached the pinnacle, like Van Gogh, think that the world has only scratched the surface of their amazingness. And every hacker on every weekend group ride will tell you about how extraordinary they almost were that time they came close to doing that thing with those people. Humanity, all of it, believes its own bullshit. Cf., again, Ecclesiastes 1:9: “All is vanity.”
To state that everyone thinks they are worth more (money/recognition/emoluments/titles/historical accolades/etc.) than they in fact have is so obvious as to barely need stating, yet an instance here and there to prove the point won’t hurt.
I went to high school with a guy named David Biespiel. He was very short and very muscular. He was a diver. We weren’t friends but we knew each other; he was a friendly guy who seemed very caught up in the Jewish social life of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which was a big deal at my high school. I knew little about Judaism and nothing about BBYO, only that the people who gravitated towards it seemed pretty vacuous. David never took any hard classes as far as I knew and was certainly not part of the brainy group, a motley collection of Jewish, Indian, Chinese, Black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Anglo, and other nerds whose parents had taught them at an early age that “Your paycheck will be signed by a nerd.”
Several years ago I saw David’s name on a high school reunion notification, and I looked him up. He’s a poet and an editor at a poetry magazine. His work is easy to find and I’ll let you be the judge of whether it’s anything better than white bread. What’s interesting about him isn’t his poetry, it is his Wikipedia page, because it’s his avatar, and appears to be self-authored. Talk about delusions of amazingness. Here is a guy who has made a career out of writing middling poetry, penning his autobiography to make it sound like a star really was born, and that star is he. It is embarrassing to read, so full as it seems to be of authorial praise passed off as the penetrating analysis of some third person.
And you know, maybe he is that star. But the point is that his magnitude in the firmament of poets is something much fainter than “visible to the naked eye” and more akin to “better seen with a deep space probe.” And you can tell from his Wikipedia page that he feels unrecognized, undervalued, overlooked, else why be the anonymous person singing such superlative praises to himself, if that’s in fact what’s happening? This average poet with a Wikipedia page that rivals e.e. cummings’s is like everyone else–he’s way more amazing than the world knows. They did not listen, they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now. And if not, there’s posterity. And if posterity rates his work with a shrug, well, maybe it’s just because he drew the line at chopping off his ear.
The bothersome fact is not that we now have multiple ways to channel our vanity, it’s that the limitless thirst for recognition or at least acknowledgement in every person’s heart is now cynically exploited by the Lords for profits earned through voluntary, 24/7 online unpaid labor, and it’s done by manipulation of human instinct-and-response to a very basic hormone. The algorithm shows exactly what evokes the anticipation, and constantly adjusts to make sure you can’t detox from the dopamine tit. Capitalism has squared the circle: The definition of art is now money. All art everywhere has been monetized, but not for you. For the Lords.
Why would people be so insatiable for the “rewards” that come from some dumb update to a fake life of a person you’ve never met and never will meet? Why is fake so much tastier than real?
The voracious devouring of fake
Van Gogh is nothing but an image. We don’t even know what he painted, and therein lies part of the explanation of his allure. As one German art critic remarked when yet another magnificent posthumous Van Gogh was discovered, “The dead Vincent paints and paints.” An even better quote came from the neighbor of a man who counterfeited Van Gogh and sold his work as originals: “Van Gogh’s been doing his best work thirty years after his death.”
While it’s funny to think that Yasuda Fire Insurance & Marine paid $30M for something that was worked up in a counterfeiter’s shop, Van Gogh’s work is inextricably tied to the fact that hundreds of his works are fakes and no one is sure which is which. The fight to prove that Vincent painted it has become its own industry, and the conclusions of those particular clerks of nostalgia swing the bidding from $30M to $0 overnight. Funnier still, the clerks declare a painting authentic one day and fake the next, then reverse course ten years later. No one cares except in this way: When declared fake the value plummets. When declared authentic the price heads for the moon. Did the painting ever change? Um, no.
Of course the best way to understand bias is to look at what’s not said. When museum chieftains declaim on the certainty that Van Gogh painted this landscape of space shuttles and semiconductors, it’s crucial to ask why anyone would care about provenance if the painting were ugly? Why are paintings judged on provenance and not on beauty? Well, the answer is that if you make beauty the criterion, then anyone’s as good a judge as anybody else, and we sure can’t have that. At least in the past we couldn’t, because once a Van Gogh equals the doodling on the pad next to the phone, or once “Hello, world!” equals Hemingway, the Lords are going to lose many pretty, warm, snuggly dollars. And the Lords generally don’t like to lose any dollars at all, as you’ll see from the late rent fee in your apartment lease.
When a thing is a fake, or might be a fake, it becomes news and the object of financial speculation. That piece of junk you bought at a yard sale is really worth $20M? Shit. Better start hitting more yard sales. Paintings, or rather the market for them, obtains a lot of its value because of the speculative nature of provenance and the relative frequency with which great works are authenticated, challenged, or shown to be fake. It’s much harder to fabricate the blockchain, apparently.
Humans and animals are genetically programmed to prefer the fake over the real if it’s more noteworthy, larger, or more colorful. “All that glitters is not gold,” is an admonition against our instinct to choose the fake over the real, but unfortunately the riposte is that “Yeah, but it looks great with this outfit.” Engineering us away from fake is to engineer us away from being alive, and with good reason.
We are designed by evolution and culture to seek stimuli that are exaggerated. Whether it’s a boob job, a hair plug, or even a colorful XXXL t-shirt to cover that 85 lbs. of bulging visceral fat, these supernormal stimuli alert us that what we are seeing is preferable to smaller, drabber, more subtle versions of the same thing. In terms of the experiences programmed into our genes, brighter colors, super sizes, and less-blemished surfaces indicate “better” or even “best.” We share this with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of animal and insect species.
So the fascination with the fake is somehow tied up in our life force, the drive to stay alive. Literature, however impossible and unbelievable and patently false, is swallowed whole if only it promises things so fantastic, ridiculous, colorful, huge, and perfect as to blot out humble reality. Bible? Koran? Lord of the Rings? Voodoo? The bigger and faker the whopper, the more delicious. As Oscar Wilde said, people will believe the impossible but never the improbable.
Art was, is, and always will be a cachement of the absurd. You really think Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein looks like Gertrude Stein? She said it did; it was revolting and bizarre enough to leap the gulf of improbability and land squarely in the Land of Cannot Be. This drive to seize, then swallow the lie whole, underlies Trumpism and every other -ism, including pacifism, Nazism, nihilism, and prism. And this ceaseless search for the fake goads us on to ever sillier and less believable realities: That global warming isn’t real, that capitalism is working for you, that your fake posts are real, and of course that next year you’re gonna be FAF–fit as fuck.
[Seek – anticipate – dopamine reward] once propelled us along a lifespan that was infamously termed nasty, brutish, and short. There was a lot of seeking, most of which ended in disappointment a/k/a cortisol. But hunger being hunger and the need to couple being the need to couple, humans would seek again until after a while they got close to the goal, were flooded with anticipation, and then doused with a drizzle of dopamine, a/k/a SEEK SOME MORE! The cycle repeated, and the only constant was that the period of seeking was long and arduous, and the period of [anticipation – dopamine reward] was real, real brief.
A great way to compare old school dopamine with Internet dopamine is to go buy yourself a 12-lb. sledgehammer and a dozen 5-lb. wedges. Then get a 6-ft. foot green, knotty pine log about 2-ft. in diameter and try to break it up into firewood. If you are strong and smart and dogged, you’ll eventually bust off a small piece, and the moment it flies off you’ll get a little dopamine buzz for your two hours of backbreaking work. Then whip out your phone and check your new messages. See? With the log it’s two hours, a herniated disc, one piece of firewood, and a tiny dopamine burp. With the phone it’s one second, press a button, and ten or twenty big dopamine burps. That’s how it works, and that’s why people gravitate to Facebook more than they do to log splitting.
Of course the Internet was built on the foundation of fake, and its evil twin brother Algorithm is the unstoppable engine of growth that keeps us consuming the fake at exorbitant prices, and keeps us producing the fake for free so that the Lords can monetize the data of those who peruse our art, fake, junky, silly, worthless crap that it is. You will have noted that you cannot break free as both a producer of fake crap and an insatiable consumer of it. Caught between dopamine and the algorithms that drive it, you now know why.
The cheapening of vanity
All is vanity. But vanity used to be costly and risky and tricky to dangle. Especially the most pleasing form of vanity, admiring one’s reflection, depended on finding a still pool or an exceptionally smooth, wet stone. After millennia, mirrors came about but few had them. The jump from mirrors to portraits took more thousands of years, and even then more centuries passed before photography. At each step it got cheaper and easier to become “Ne yet Narcissus of ful yore agon.“
Less satisfying forms of vanity such as bragging were formerly risky. Even in my childhood, a mere fifty years ago, bragging about one’s ANYTHING risked an ass-beating. I still remember the first day in 7th Grade Major Works English with Mrs. Wakefield. “Do you all know why you’re in this class?” she asked.
My hand shot up.
“Because we’re geniuses!”
There was an awkward silence, some snickering, and then a withering reproof by Mrs. Wakefield. “Geniuses you aren’t. You’re here to learn how to read good books and write about them intelligently.” So far, so bad. The real reckoning came after class, when Don Somer, the biggest guy in 7th Grade, passed me in the hall.
“Hey, it’s the fairy genius,” he said. Much derision followed, but everybody forgot about it never.
Farther back, braggadocio was often mortal, leading to fisticuffs, duels, wars. Even earlier in time, spoken vanity was dangerous because it signaled the tribe that you were more concerned with yourself than with the community. Native Americans were famously tight-lipped. If anything good was to be said about you, it had to be said by someone else. Some cultures even made the word “I” close to a taboo. One of the first things you learn about Japanese is that sentences tend to omit the word “I” altogether. Historically, the nail that stuck up didn’t merely get pounded down, it got ripped out and tossed back into the forge.
Less satisfying forms of vanity such as having others praise you, used to be complex, and it required a track record, humility, lots of politicking, and often death. Chaucer was adamant that “Then is it best as for a worthy fame / To die when that he is best of name.” Politicians went to great lengths to hide their connection to their flaks, and it was important to obscure relationships that might suggest praise was being ginned up by a mouthpiece, critic, or fake letter-writer to the editor.
The Internet makes full-time vanity possible and indeed modern society exhorts us all to practice it. No better example exists than the advice of a marketing maven I know: “You are your own brand.”
To understand the disease, or rather the total capitulation to full-time vanity that this mantra states, you have to ask yourself what is a brand? A brand is a commercial name that exists to facilitate the sale of a product or service. Andy Warhol made the point, brutally, that money and the products it pimps, that brands like Campbell’s soup are art when money is the driving force behind self-expression. Brands are money, money is art, you are a brand, and therefore you, my friend, are money. So pimp yourself wisely, and for dog’s sake take down those IG photos of you passed out in a ditch.
Whereas the exercise of vanity was once a perilous thing sometimes ending in death, or worse, requiring it, now it is a moral and social imperative that we exercise vanity at every turn. Put your IG handle on your rear windshield. Cross-link all #socmed accounts. Make sure that when you get your 15 milliseconds of fame everyone knows how to find you on Twitter. Keep your feed fresh, your videos crisp, your aphorisms pithy, and your face re-shaped with the most flattering filter. Would Disneyland let Mickey walk around out of head? Heck, no. So don’t wander out into the Internet looking anything less than your very best, especially when your best is wholly fake.
I have a friend who used to say, “It costs a lot for me to look this cheap.” The current state of vanity is that now it not only looks cheap, it is cheap. And it’s ubiquitous, garish, and metamorphosing into the ultimate in fake-perfect-vanity, the avatar. More about that later, but not from me.
As we all become comfortable penning our own stunning Wikipedia entries, wearing our vanity on our sleeve, and telling each other that it’s crucial to crassly advertise our so-called strong suits, something inside isn’t buying it. It’s the realization that no matter how many overpriced, “the latest” cycling kits you buy, you’re still a sagging, old-and-getting-older, wholly unremarkable fake. That badass gravel ride you did, well, the shorter version, that you proudly wear the t-shirt and bib shorts for? Yeah, that one. Inside, you cringe. I cringe. We all cringe. And the only thing that can override our gut is the post-ride alcohol binge, because Binge > Cringe.
If vanity is the answer, and we’re all our own brand, and more is better, and the only improvement on supernormal stimuli is a super size of the same, if too much is just enough and modesty is a quaint notion, why does more time spent Internet shopping and #socmedding make people depressed? Why, if you really do have thousands of followers and everything you post is liked-loved-ejaculated over, are you so sad? Why does more deliver less?
The answer is ugly. Can you say “wildfire”?
Honey badger doesn’t give a shit AT ALL
If you are really, really, really old, you may recall “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” video that took YouTube by storm ten ancient years ago, before TikTok even, and which is at 98M views and counting. There is no accounting for taste, but there is a reason for the video’s popularity. Substitute “nature” for “honey badger” in the phrase “honey badger doesn’t give a shit.”
Nature really does not give a shit. Worse, it doesn’t even not not give a shit. Nature is worse than indifferent, nature is random. If you doubt it, you need to spend more time staring into dark night skies free from ambient light pollution. The honey badger, an avatar for nature, goes about his business killing, fighting, and eating venomous snakes with zero concern. This message, that nature does not give a shit, is stark, and it resonates. The more people try to fluff and primp in 140-character witticisms, the more their gut tells them that it isn’t working. Their closed universe may “like” them to death, but open reality doesn’t give a shit, at all.
Art, through fakery and money and algorithms and dopamine, all avatars of each other, works overtime to perpetuate the myth that life and nature imitate art per Oscar Wilde, as opposed to Aristotle’s myth that art imitates nature. I learned firsthand this summer that both are true, neither is true, and sometimes one is true and the other false. Let me explain.
I have spent the last few months in a place where most people are terribly overweight, terribly addicted to drugs and alcohol, terribly poor, and when they vote, terribly Republican. One of the things people here most hate is the government even though it funds the three busiest places in town, i.e. the school, the health clinic and the post office. The local supermarket has a handwritten sign over the register, posted after the last election, that says, “The Democratic Party returns to its folly, like a dog returning to its vomit.” Most of its customers pay with EBT cards. No one, least of all the cardholders, wonders which party invented welfare. The author of the sign never wonders what will happen to his business if when those cards go away, or which party is a sworn enemy of welfare. All anyone knows is “America.”
One of my neighbors once buttonholed me at 10:00 AM as I was riding up the street to harangue me about vaccinations. “It’s mind control! A secret plan to control our minds!” I didn’t say my opinion, which was that he could really use some mind control because it would at least prove he had one.
After health care, education, Social Security, welfare, and the post office, the biggest funder of this area comes from the USDA, which is the federal department that funds the U.S. Forest Service. Here’s where it gets even crazier. Everyone loves the forest service because that’s who runs the wildland firefighting crews, and those crews are what beat back the monumental fires that sweep through the Sierra every year now. Get it? Hate the government, love the USFS. Somehow, in the minds of the people who hang “Thank you!” banners and “You are heroes!” throughout town after a fire, the government they hate and vote to de-fund is precisely the government they swoon over. I’ve spoken with a few of the firefighters and get the uneasy feeling that some of them, too, are hard core Republicans.
Vote for the party trying to fire you and burn your house down. Go figure.
All of this is simply to say that the local literati who rant and rave on NextDoor, Facebook, and the like, the ones who fly giant “Fuck Biden!” flags in their front yards, are simply replicating the art that is spoonfed to them through social media and its algorithms. Like all abrupt changes in communication media, the initial democratizing effect of #socmed was quickly overtaken by a more intense concentration of power into fewer hands, allowing the individual the perception that they have more freedom, have more autonomy and more agency, when in reality it is exactly those things, in addition to privacy, always, that have been even further reduced for the proles and arrogated to the Lords. And under the control of social media, all sources of information and entertainment are intermingled and directly marketed to the individual, who is both consumer and laborer, always online, 24/7, working for free. Slavery never felt so good.
Politics, friends, news, messaging from public agencies, disaster notifications, social events, and family are all found in one location, as opposed to having to source different media for different news, which process always forces you to encounter new people with differing viewpoints. And each feed is tailored via algorithms to the precise psychology of only that individual, so there is less exposure to the variable messaging through art that would have at one time been directed to the public and all of their differing opinions. Since the algorithm chooses topics that elicit the highest dopamine response to each consumer/laborer, people see only the narrowest sliver of the extant information, but become biologically fixated through the dopamine response on the little jaundiced crumb they receive. Social media chooses what your mind has access to; it’s a library in reverse. Instead of going into the library and being able to aimlessly browse the shelves, the library pre-selects your books and delivers them to your inbox, never telling you what else is there. The card catalogue is a patented, protected trade secret. Same for your music. And everything else, including the shoes you wear.
This force closes a loop that was begun with the printing press. It combines surgical messaging with dopamine to change the way people think in the narrowest of ways. It is far greater than anything Goebbels ever dreamed of, as it drives society to think and act on the algorithm’s behalf, using chemistry, computers, and instinct to hijack freedom of choice so that you will do what the Lords want you to do. Life is literally imitating the art of social media, which is money, which is control.
Yet nature insists on its randomness. Even as the people in my town were drinking, drugging, bingeing, and complaining about how we need a real strongman in charge and how elections are passe, a series of wildfires swept down upon us in August. The hated government executed an orderly evacuation, set up refugee centers for people, pets, and livestock, shut down all looting, then put out the massive fire even as it burned to the doorsteps of many Trumpy homes. It got to within a quarter-mile of us. Others had the fire extinguished on their doorsteps. Not a single home was lost.
What was lost, however, were hundreds of thousands of acres of timber, resulting in less oxygen-producing trees, devastation of the few remaining giant sequoia groves, more air pollution, and more global warming. Our fires complemented even larger ones farther north that are among the largest in recorded history; one such fire did what some thought impossible–it actually burned over the Sierra from California into Nevada. It is a certainty that bigger, hotter fires are on order for 2022. Many insurers view the situation as so dire that they are no longer willing to renew fire insurance policies.
Is this a good time to double down on the denial of science and to aggressively cut firefighting budgets? Your answer is predetermined by your algorithm.
From the vantage point of art, this is a key point. You can write in the closed universe administered by the Lords, you can paint, photograph, and produce videos, but you are still beholden to the forces of a wildfire when it incinerates you. Art as money that only labors in service of the Lords will never provide the vantage point to see and interpret the imperatives of the physical world. It can only exaggerate, falsify, and distract you to ever larger fake supernormal stimuli.
Of course art has always been limited in its ability to reproduce naturelife, just as naturelife has always been limited in its ability to imitate art. Systems of control, whether censorship, the clerks, or the difficulty of reproduction (no printing presses, for example), have always kept art as far from the public domain as possible until it has been properly sanitized and stripped of its heretical notions. At the very least, it has been held back until the “tortured genius” is dead and no longer able to talk or, like Picasso, bribed with millions so that “Guernica” could take its proper place as a possession rather than a call to revolution against the Lords.
But social media and the Internet have so greatly ratcheted up the control in such a short period of time that people stuck in the old ways, people like me, are at a loss.
I thought I was a writer. Apparently I am, but that status is shared by 4.5 billion others, and more painfully, since what I write is not a product of social media, it is less interesting, less meaningful, and less relevant than I could have ever imagined.
You and me, we’re the same. We both have that feeling in our gut that something is wrong. This incessant shower of dopamine and its cycle of seeking for empty things hasn’t made anyone happier, hasn’t made the world a better place, and hasn’t slowed down the superheating of the planet.
What more do you need to know about the state of things than the phrase “another school mass shooting”?
As someone who has written regularly in one place for over a decade, I have an obvious and easily accessible storehouse of my own vanity. Realizing that vanity is within everyone, that its limitless expression is an illness, and that the conversion of art into money is an intentional sleight-of-hand executed by the Lords, is enough to take the wind out of any writer’s sails. Fortunately, vanity and seeking are part of existence. Dispense with them and you die, literally. Rats whose ability to produce dopamine was surgically eliminated starved to death despite being able to eat.
But I don’t think I want to continue writing according to the Lord’s rules.
I think I want to shut down the dopamine feedback loop between me and the closed systems. That means ignoring stats, turning off comments, and absolutely abjuring the beggardom of subscriptions. It also means refusing to partake in social media and refusing to read the advernews. If all is vanity, well, perhaps some of the vanity can at least be honest, and by honest I mean things like walking barefoot.
Now don’t misunderstand me. By honest I hardly mean truth-telling. It has been shown over and over again that honesty is not only the worst policy, but that it is no policy at all. It takes neither skill nor judgment nor acumen to tell the truth, and of course it requires zero memory. To lie requires you to remember the various incantations of the story, which were hopefully changed according to the listener’s needs, and it requires you to think carefully about structure, timing, and content. Lying is the best policy, indeed, it’s mankind’s only policy, to tweak and twist the truth in just the right way so that “No, those jeans don’t make your butt look like a dump truck,” sounds credible, sincere, and straight from the heart.
Honest writing should not be an exercise in truth-telling, it should be an exercise in truth-approximating. Honest writing should strive to enter the antechamber of truth but go no farther, and dally there only long enough to come away with a faint whiff of verisimilitude about the armpits. This is what I mean by walking barefoot.
When you take off your shoes and stroll out of doors, you receive no immediate communion with the spirit of Mother Earth, your feet do not magically spring into coiled arches and into splayed, healthy toes that grip and stride from ball-to-heel with the natural gait of the Kenyan barefoot marathoner. No, when you take off your shoes and go any distance at all it hurts like fuck. Your feet are soft, spongy, ugly, weak and rotten cupcakes that scream the moment they encounter anything hard, sharp, abrasive, hot, or cold. And the more you walk on them the more they hurt until some misstep or another drives them against a stick or jagged stone and the skin rips, the blood spouts, and you howl in pain.
Here, though, is the oddity. For millions of years, hominids walked unshod. Like hippos, deer, cats, beetles, crayfish, and stinging flies, humans were born shoeless. What’s more astounding is that shortly after birth, and roughly coinciding with the age of perambulation, the soles of the human foot begin to toughen. In the briefest of periods growing children used to become accustomed to walking barefoot, and generally they only abandoned the habit when they died.
You and I, however, we are creatures of Nike. We’re as likely to go to a party barefoot as we are to show up naked. And this isn’t far from where things now stand regarding the utterly fake architecture of social media. Just as shoes were used by the Romans to signify wealth and power, and just as being unshod was a sign of slavery and submission, the Internet-social media structure and the degree to which you wallow in it signifies wealth and power as surely as being un-wired signifies poverty and powerlessness.
Of course what you find over time is that the benefits of shoes are minimal to non-existent compared with going shoeless. Your soles develop toughened skin yet become incredibly sensitive. You feel hardly any pain when you walk shoeless, yet you feel everything beneath your feet. You walk more slowly, deliberately, and with the utmost care. Your eyes rarely deviate from your course, and you develop a precision, balance, and upper body strength that you never had before. More astonishingly, you find that the thing your feet evolved to do, walk, is something they do amazingly well without expensive accoutrements.
Most incredibly, you find that the 100+ muscles and ligaments and tendons in your feet do virtually all the work in walking, meaning that you can go for miles and miles over the worst terrain and never feel tired. Instead of finishing a long walk and wanting to denude the fridge, you are barely hungry. This outward indicia of powerlessness and slavery, going barefoot, is actually your birthright and is the pathway to strength, health, and the independence that comes with it.
Like any such pathway, though, it requires desire and it hurts and you can’t do it if you’re morbidly obese. Shoes are indoor cycling are social media. Expensive shortcuts to an inferior result.
The more you walk barefoot, the more you will question footwear. The more skeptical you will become about its benefits, its cost, its utility, even its attractiveness. When your default is the bare sole, your default will be the bared soul. That’s not to say that a pair of steel-toed boots won’t come in handy when chopping wood, or that a comfy pair of sneakers won’t work like a dream when you’re riding a bike, it’s simply to say that the closer you stay to what brought you, the likelier you are to be happy.
And what brought you isn’t Facebook. What brought you is a chance encounter between sperm and egg and the resulting imperative of a genome that folds back upon itself to the beginning of time. It can probably be improved upon here and there, but in the main, the things that make us human don’t reside in external computers or algorithms. They reside in our conscious decisions to submit wholly to those things, to embrace them warily and at a distance, or to reject them entirely, to simply walk away.
The way you were born.
Happy, happy birthday, every day.
*Many of the ideas in this blog are my brilliant girlfriend’s, who is smart af.