A New 17th-Century World Power?

Just suppose that in Japanese history there had been no “closed country”; that is to say, suppose that the Tokugawa shogunate had reunified the nation but continued the policy of “the southern-barbarian trade”.

In our world, a few years after seeing their first firearms the Japanese had copied the Portuguese model and fought a major gun-battle. In no time at all, Hideyoshi Toyotomi was trying to conquer Korea with a musketeer army bigger than anything yet seen in the West. They had built a state-of-the-art oceanic vessel, the San Juan Bautista, and sent an envoy to the Pope via Mexico. It is no more improbable than other outcomes that writers play with to imagine the amazing catch-up of the Meiji era happening in the early Tokugawa period instead.

An allohistorian could then ask himself, what would that have done to European colonialism in Asia? If Japan had played exactly the same games as the Europeans, which it surely would have done, we might have seen the Aztec and Inca gold flowing west instead of east. No Spanish Golden Age, then, and thereby a totally different European history. Above all, what would Japanese dominance of the Pacific have done to the European sense of ethnic superiority?

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 14, 2010)

May The Force Be With You

I take my title from the modern pop-culture greeting, so common as to be known even to me, who am far from being a fan of Star Wars. When people start putting “Jedi” on their census forms, perhaps we should consider what people actually mean by it. What exactly is The Force supposed to be?

More urgently, perhaps, we might as ourselves why we have chosen precisely that word as a shorthand for something-or-other. The thing that Jedi Knights are supposed to employ for good, the heart of the universe, is given a name that in other contexts means either a body of soldiers, the police, or thumping somebody to make him do what we want – but was this really a good idea? I doubt people truly want to go round saying, “May the Military Formation be with you” or “May Violence be with you”. But that is what they risk suggesting.

As a term of physics, on the other hand, “Force” is part of a very unfortunate metaphorical conglomeration chosen several centuries ago. The operations of a “clockwork universe” were described in terminology taken from human concepts of rules and coercion. (Biology had to wait its turn, the model 17th-century sciences were mechanics and chemistry.)

Calling an observed correlation or regularity a “Law” of Nature was by no means logically inevitable. It was driven by a belief in a creating deity that could hardly, in those days, be publicly repudiated. The nearest that age could get to a godless universe was Deism, according to which the Sky Man wound up the clockwork and set it ticking, but then refrained from day-to-day interference. In theory observed regularities might instead be called just “patterns”, but since the concept of god was modelled both conceptually and emotionally on human kingship, taking the terminology from human legislation was probably unavoidable. The term “Laws” thus implies someone standing behind Nature and giving her orders. Or at least, it implies a something that compels the phenomena to happen in “obedience” to these “laws”.

But that compulsion is just precisely the thing that we cannot observe. As far as I know, David Hume was the first to point out that we do not see this thing called “causation” happening. What we do see is regularity, or correlation. If X occurs, then Y occurs. It always occurs, and occurs close in time and space to X. That is what we observe, end of story. We must go beyond the empirical evidence to speculate that in some way Y had to happen. Our minds, conditioned by millennia of reward and punishment under monarchs and warlords, attribute to the phenomena of the natural world the coercion that we know in our own flesh. Even consciously regarding phenomena of mechanical or planetary motions as entirely inanimate, does not stop us projecting onto them the familiar patterns of human power.

Motivation for our own action we understand so to speak from inside, which means understanding what is nowadays called social engineering. The king threatens to flog us, behead us or torture our families if we do not do as he says; or at best he bribes us to do his will; we then imagine a similar coercion happening to inanimate objects, and denote this by the impersonal-seeming word “force”. But the term “force” is not actually impersonal, it is a metaphor. A third party can observe the king giving us a motivation to do something, but we cannot observe an equivalent “compulsion” acting on a billiard ball, or on a planet.

Ultimately, therefore, the term “force” is just hand-waving – it says that stuff always happens, with the question of why it happens remaining beyond our reach. Names such as “gravity” are merely ignotum-per-ignotius dodges for transferring the problem to a higher level of generality. When Sartre said that Nature had no laws, only habits, he was using another anthropomorphism; but at least he reminded us that we could have used a language other than that of obedience to law and coercion by superior force.

The attraction of the ideas of law and force must surely lie in the illusion of someone – rather like the warlord we already know – operating the gears and levers of an inanimate universe in much the same way that the warlord dispatches his soldiers and police. If there really were such a personage, we might then influence him, both to benefit ourselves and to punish everyone who annoys us. We project our own intra-group violence and its later elaboration in “law” onto the whole universe, because it has to be all about us. And yet the universe is under no obligation to conform to our monkey-hierarchy metaphors.

In the last analysis, asking “why?” of any inanimate phenomenon is therefore a category mistake, a projection onto the universe of what we know about ourselves – namely that we have “reasons” for doing things. Unless the universe as a whole is actually sentient and has reasons not unlike our own, asking why things happen is sheer anthropomorphism. The Thusness of things may not require a Why.

The Gascon And The Pickled Herring

I was recently reading a biography of Napoleon written by a Swede. With customary Nordic self-absorption, it paid almost as much attention to his rival Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who ended up on the throne of Sweden.

Much was made of the Gascon general’s “Southern temperament”; the author appeared to feel no need to analyse or even unpack this concept, probably because the contrast between temperamental southerners and themselves is the small change of Nordic self-consciousness. They sometimes mean it in critical contrast to their own admitted lack of warmth and bonhomie, but far more often in boastful contrast to their own imagined rationality and balance. In Norway, at any rate, being “temperamental” means being to any degree indignant at one’s maltreatment by Norwegians; in this it greatly resembles the way in which psychiatrists define any objection to their coercive interventions as being in itself a symptom of insanity. That is, the Nordics are so superior that any trouble you might have with them becomes unspoken proof of your own dysfunctional “temperament”.

Not that the Nordics are alone in commenting on the alleged Gascon temperament. Even the other French do this. We have the Three (or Four) Musketeers, for example, plus Cyrano de Bergerac. In all cases this “Southern temperament” functions as a plot point. So what do they mean by it? In Old Goriot, Balzac identifies those coming from south of the Loire as possessing “impetuous courage”, “dash and boldness” and “impatience of delay and suspense”. Well, is impatience of delay and suspense actually Trans-Loirean or simply human? “Dash” is difficult to define, although we know it when we see it; while “boldness” too often means my own stupidity rather than yours.

The Southern quality most often cited by Northern people is surely hot-headedness; but this is merely a metaphor that pushes back the question. That some people have emotions that are “hotter” than those of others is usually special pleading and always unprovable. If we go only by what we can actually observe, then we may observe that allegedly “emotional” types do not seem to calculate costs and benefits before acting, are oversensitive to offence and make a great deal more noise about everything.

Histrionic types are convinced that it is normal to take up as much space in the world as possible and consider a small footprint to be a form of “death”. A sceptic might counter that making more noise does not in fact mean there is more “in there” to make a noise about – the loud ones have learned this particular kind of meaningless display from their parents, that’s all.

As for rushing about without thinking, I know of no definitive formula for precisely how much thought in which to engage in before action. Perhaps our only guide is not to do again that which blew up in our faces last time. If being “hot-blooded” means courting the same disaster every time, then my vote is for the other side. Or else it just means being willing to act at all, as opposed to eternal dithering, which would be the equal but opposite error.

As regards the prickliness of one’s amour-propre, there is an Aristotelian golden mean; on the one hand it is unwise to hang a sign on the seat of your pants advising the world where to kick, and on the other hand the man who is easily insulted is easily manipulated. Characters such as Sergius Saranoff in Arms and the Man may come to resemble not chocolate but rather clockwork soldiers, comically easy (in the felicitous British idiom) to “wind up” and set a-strutting. If the cold fishes of the North are advising an interval of thought between stimulus and response, then perhaps they have the right of it.

As well as retribution to all offenders, the Southern temperament is supposed to deal out generosity to the defeated and the innocent. Bernadotte himself was certainly noted for this. The magnanimous ideal, of course, goes back at least to Virgil’s command to spare the conquered and war down the proud. The quality that the Nordics sometimes seem to be promoting in contrast with the hot blood of the South is being langsint or never letting go of a grudge. Funnily enough, this is closer to the Corsican or Sicilian vendetta than to magnanimity. So perhaps the whole business of the “hot Latin blood” is merely a nonsensical stereotype; or perhaps the vendetta-nurser is actually “colder” even than the pickled herrings of the North, who despite all their grim unsociability are rarely as destructive.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 18, 2011)

The Battle Of Gettyburqa

While I was living in an African country, with a culture wildly promiscuous yet strangely bashful about nudity, the former colonial power was having conniptions about allowing the burqa on beaches. At one time and place it was actually banned, with an explicit rider that went far beyond the idea that a woman could go nude or topless if she wanted to. No, women going to the beach were now informed that they were obliged to show skin, or else. Not to do so was un-French. Apparently “Society” was still in the business of saying what clothing a woman could don, except that now she had to wear the opposite of what it had mandated a hundred years ago.

This struck me as a highly peculiar thing to enact, since in all other contexts having one’s body looked at was supposed to be such a dreadful fate. Two questions occurred to me: were all the people insisting that Frenchwomen should be legally compelled to show their skin on beaches male lechers? And if the showing of a bare midriff was now the admission ticket to society itself, at what age should it start and finish? That is, was it now the case that a 15-year-old Muslim girl ought not to show skin but that her mother should be obliged to do so?

A few years later the Alternativ für Deutschland ran a poster campaign showing two frolicking young ladies underneath the text, Burkas? Wir steh’n Bikini. Whether the pun of my title comes from the party itself or from some Web proliferator, I do not actually know.

One need not be a SJW to wonder, “Who is this ‘we’, kemosabe?” The AfD’s first person plural makes me almost uncomfortable as did the French burqa ban. Perhaps my unwillingness to leap from personal tastes to state coercion makes me the last of the liberals.

Obviously nobody on either side has been legislating for males anyway. Which in my case is just as well, as I have fair skin and use the textile method of sunblock in rather the Victorian manner. Like Prufrock, then, let me “wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach”.

Noses So Visibly To The Grindstone

If you are an employee of a firm that defines overtime as something above and beyond normal working, then goofing off in business hours and then catching up with your undone tasks on overtime is perfectly rational. For the firm it is not at all rational, and based on the academic paradigm this practice ought not to be tolerated. And yet it generally is.

One reason is, of course, that it is so very difficult to stop the game when played by senior managers themselves. This in turn is because it is so hard to say how much of what senior managers do all day is actually “work”, as opposed to ostentation. Tolerance is, however, usually extended all the way down to the bottom, as is the corp-o-babble that allows the goofers-off to produce plausible excuses. In the world of HR ring-binders, every wildly dysfunctional practice finds its pompous and impressive name.

Work on the factory floor must mean production of objects, but in corporate headquarters, work means face time. There is, after all, no other way to measure what if anything a cube-rat is doing. He is probably not conducing measurably to production, but his role in making the big boss feel important is entirely confirmable. The boss who expects his staff to come in before him and stay after he has left has effectively served us notice that animal submission displays are all he really cares about. And so that is what he will get. In Japan, it is all about having a visible entourage at the karaoke lounge – whether real workers or “window people” hardly matters.

After the company has collapsed under the weight of overtime-gamers and sycophancy, the boss will blame it on something else and get an even more important job with a different company. Whatever they might pretend to the contrary, the rich actually reward failure, simply because one day it will be their turn.

Doing all the work on overtime after having goofed off all day is clearly something that cannot be enjoyed by farmers or independent craftsmen, indeed by the self-employed more generally. In a past age of peasants, artisans and peddlers, who did that leave? Servile behaviour surely began as an imitation of the court. Unfriendly outsiders used to call the people employed to bow and scrape by the name of “lackeys”, and who among the modern jockeyers for the keys to the executive washroom is going to tell us that the lever-du-roi culture is not alive and well in corporate headquarters?

What needs to be explained is how one can be a member of the human species without knowing this. We seem to have created academic economics in order to un-know such things; specifically, you need to be a theoretician of the firm to un-know that its “work” is not about getting things done, not even about making a profit, but primarily about monkey rituals of inferiority.

(Fiddle date-stamp to May 8, 2012)

Posted on April 2, 2018 at 12:03 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE ENSLAVING MAMMAL, The Lackey Society

Zero-Sum – The Root Of All Evil

Some individuals are zero-sum thinkers. That is, they insist on assuming that the universe knows only a fixed quantity of happiness. From this starting-point it follows remorselessly that whatever they see anyone else enjoying, that much less is left over for them. The welfare and enjoyment of others has therefore to be eliminated, so as to free up the finite resource for the zero-sum thinkers to consume.

Anyone in the grip of this cognitive delusion is a danger to his or her surroundings, as practically everything he does will be designed to screw others over. He might not be able to tell you exactly how depriving and frustrating them benefits himself, because he does not know. He does not bother to work it out, and does not need to. The behaviour is a simple reflex: it follows strictly from the zero-sum assumption that everyone else is your rival and enemy.

The Norwegian proverb, “One’s own happiness is best, but the misery of others comes a good second” serves both to illustrate zero-sum thinking and to raise the possibility of a whole culture being devoted to this principle. Indeed, in game theory this is called the “intuitive-defector” strategy, and is said to be now spreading everywhere from its original heartlands in Africa and the former Soviet Bloc.

A friend perhaps even more misogynistic than Hugo has wondered aloud whether there might not be a similar imperative buried within specifically female culture. Now, zero-sum thinking, being a cognitive assumption, is eminently transmissible from parent to child. It is not inherently impossible that standard mother-to-daughter transmission should include the teaching that all goods accruing to someone else mean so much the less for you. Whether it includes or does not include this teaching then becomes an empirical question. If, on the other hand, it is not in fact standard and universal mother-daughter teaching, but something transmitted merely by certain mothers – just as it is obviously transmitted by certain fathers – the question then becomes how to recognise its adult products.

Hugo’s blasphemous suggestion would then be that zero-sum thinking is highly correlated with that subspecies of feminism we call variously victim feminism or female chauvinism. Such ideologies feed upon zero-sum thinking and purport to justify it. Like its predecessor Puritanism – which according to Mencken deplored the possibility that someone, somewhere, was having fun – victim-feminism seems to be deeply upset by any male human’s enjoying the possession of some good. It is upset because it simply cannot imagine how that good could have been obtained other than by depriving some woman of it. The male in question may, of course, be enjoying it at her expense; but equally well he may not. No matter.

The zero-sum thinker is often unable to identify the poor woman who has thus been deprived of her happiness, but she does not need to – under this cognitive assumption, whatever good the man is enjoying must have been taken away from someone else. This is an axiom. That it has been taken away by another male need not be considered, any more than deprivation of one woman by another woman need be considered. Likewise, the concept that the suffering woman might be unhappy for internal reasons. Least of all need the possibility be entertained that she is unhappy precisely because she is herself a zero-sum-thinker – and is thus oppressed, affronted and outraged by every crumb of happiness accruing to anyone unlike herself. Of which there are always going to be some in the world, so that her misery is guaranteed.

What to do about these people? Well, to start with we need to realise how utterly incurable they are, because the cognitive assumption is transmitted early in life and indelibly permeates the whole person. Our only course of action is early detection and complete avoidance. If zero-sum thinking comes in a package together with some other idea, then what we need to avoid is that idea in all its permutations.

Were it really to be the case that all mother-to-daughter socialisation defaults to the zero-sum assumption, then our only solution would be male separatism. We poor boo-hisses would therefore need to create a “safe space” for ourselves, a space in which it is not assumed that each and any benefit to ourselves must necessarily have been paid for by some atrocity against some woman.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 1, 2017)

Under The Shadow Of The Lance

The Chinese used to have a word for the civilised world as opposed to the warlike steppes: huaxia. We might put this in terms of sustainable as opposed to predatory economies. In the one, at least the theory was to grow your wealth; in the other, the idea was to go and take it from someone else. Or that is how the sedentary peoples felt about it anyway.

Writing about his local nomads, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “It is their nature to plunder whatever other people possess.” If this reminds us of George R R. Martin’s “iron price”, so it should; while the rugged islands and fast ships of his Ironmen might evoke the Vikings. Whose addiction to the instant gain long outlasted them; long after they were done with raiding, the men of the Norwegian west coast lived high on the unpredictable herring, which came and went beyond anyone’s knowledge or control. And then although you had to make investments, the subsequent oil age smacked equally of the basic “bonanza” mentality or maximum extraction in the shortest possible time.

That is, of course, a Spanish word; and the conquistadors would probably have struck Ibn Khaldun as akin to his desert warrior, the enemies of settled civilisation. Some would claim that the Spaniards never were able to change their mental gears out of the idea that the “gold of the Indies” was something you went and took from abroad rather than something you earned or made at home, which is why they fell into dire poverty after it had run out.

The steppe neighbours of the Chinese would probably have retorted that they believed in free trade, and it is perfectly true that the Son of Heaven generally did not. Our question might then become, is going a long way to plunder people’s goods a special case of going a long way to exchange for them, or is it the other way round? Ayn Rand made mooching into one of her three alternatives, but it was never enough of a historical ideology to deserve such a fundamental status. She might have done better to define them as growing, trading and looting, and the difference between the latter two may not be as clear as she thought. Just ask the customers of the East India Company.

Now, were we to classify all economic systems under the ancient Chinese dualism of sedentary value-creation versus violent nomad seizure, how would the dominant structures of our own time appear? Of whom might we say, with Ibn Khaldun, “Their sustenance lies wherever the shadow of their lances falls”?

(Fiddle date-stamp to December 31, 2011)

The Insortables

Elsewhere I have made the point that politics is not, as they told us in class, primarily about the distribution of economic satisfactions, but rather about the provision of emotional satisfactions. Especially those that might otherwise be considered shameful. The successful demagogue, therefore, gives the people permissions for their hatreds – and for worse things.

In search of a new label for the American Right one day back in the Bush years, I played with “the Troll Demographic”, “the Fuck-Yeahs” and “West Waziristan”. The second only made sense if you knew a particular movie made by certain libertarians, while the third was far too rooted in the American war with the Taliban.

Trolls, however, are global. During the Macron-Le Pen election battle, I took note of the French word Insortables. Based ultimately on the verb sortir, this suggests the English idiom about uncouthness, “You can’t take him anywhere!” In dim and distant days Norwegian took the same attitude to its Poujadist xenophobes: the word stueren, for what these were not, meant fit to enter the living room. Think German salonfähig, about whose use in debates about AfD I cannot say anything because I don’t live there.

Barack Obama was fiercely criticised for suggesting that his most determined opponents were in their social frustrations “clinging to guns and religion”, even though of course everyone knew that it was true. This indiscretion was reprised by intra-Democratic arguments about whether to brand Trump supporters as “mouth-breathers” and so forth. Well, there are no doubt Republicans who are not mouth-breathers, and it may not always be wise of us to talk that way, even when they talk like that about us.

But strictly between ourselves, we do need to look at personality types. Having these incarnated in a figure from popular culture has been a smart move since Dickens. In the days of Harold Wilson, the UK had its TV series character “Alf Garnett”. His creator, Johnny Speight, said that where he grew up, everyone talked that way, and he was astonished when he met his first educated people who could deploy facts and arguments instead of yelling the same things, louder and louder, in your face. Alf Garnett was later exported to the USA as “Archie Bunker”. Similarly, the UK’s Tony Hancock created a persona that was decades later borrowed by the Norwegians as “Marvin Fleksnes”. The latter’s TV scripts were often taken verbatim from Hancock’s radio shows, made before TV was even invented, and yet they worked perfectly well. That should tell us something.

Unlike Garnett and Bunker, Hancock and Fleksnes were not explicitly political, and yet if a public figure reminded you of them, you noticed, and that gave you a universally-known shorthand. In the age of Trump, Farage, Le Pen and the rest of them, we badly need such a common property. On the other hand, we should not forget that when the stereotypes Beavis and Butthead were launched as a satire of the MTV audience, they were embraced by the object of the satire. So there is a danger in trying to create a literary or screen character that will incarnate how we see the Red States; he will become their hero.

In the suburb of Bergen where I lived between 1996 and 2014, there was a plentiful personality type I used to call the Gargoyle. Their faces of the Gargoyles were usually contorted with rage against interlopers coming among the Master Race, and there poured, so to speak, a constant stream of dirty water from their mouths. Having no access to the media, I have not been able to popularise my private term, but I would beg leave to suggest that I am not alone in noticing the disagreeable nature of a fair proportion of any population.

The psychologists have confirmed in the laboratory that ordinary people can in fact instantly determine truths about others. Thomas Mann wrote of a minor character in The Magic Mountain, “her face expressed nothing but ill-nature and ignorance”, and it is entirely possible for a human face to do this in a way that will have all civilised beholders concurring about what she or he is so to speak “saying” with the face. When ill-nature and ignorance power political earthquakes, it ought to be possible to say so.

Fiddle date-stamp to March 8, 2017)

Posted on March 3, 2018 at 14:50 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, Some Modest Proposals

Taking Up Space – The Real Basic Instinct

I vaguely remember Sartre writing that man’s most basic drive was “to fill holes – even the most obscene”. The rider has to be an insincerely contemptuous reference to sex, and don’t ask me what his Simone thought about this or about what woman’s basic drive might be. My takeaway is, however, that Sartre was trying to stand the conventional view on its head and suggest that it was by no means the case that all man’s penetrative and investigatory activities were a sublimation of the desire to fuck. Rather, sex itself was not actually primary but merely one example among many of an underlying hunger that one might as well term metaphysical. Perhaps we might call it a thirst for completion.

Whether or not you think this particular unifying principle works, trying to identify basic human imperatives can still be a rewarding game or perhaps more than that. I should like to add another candidate to the usual collection of the will-to-life, the will-to-power, integration, transcendence, Eros/Thanatos, and so forth.

What is it, then, that may furnish us with an unified explanation of such diversely annoying human behaviours such as: barging and shoving, standing in everyone’s way, taking as much time as possible to use public facilities, littering, overconsumption, stomping on heels, sending the whole group to ask the same question at the tourist information, ghetto-blasters, roaring, squealing and yelling and yappy dogs? Do these not seem different? No, underlying all these and many other behaviours is the desire to take up space in the world, in fact to take up too much space in it. You do not need to seize political power in order to have a disturbingly large footprint on the planet, the thing is available to everybody – at the micro level and generally with no resources. Never mind Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, a car with a powerful woofer – and/or without a muffler – can with far less effort give you 15 seconds of everybody noticing your existence.

Some of this list needs further explication. The “category of barging and shoving, standing in everyone’s way and hogging of public facilities” varies widely between cultures. Englishmen used to be brought up to be what our mothers called “considerate” about these things, while it seems that Japanese still are. Italians may shove in line in order to get something, but the worst offenders in Europe are probably the people of Bergen. These shove and barge not only when they want to be served first, but simply because, like Everest, you are there. They love, for example, to stand in shop doorways so as to prevent ingress or egress, and on a ten-foot-wide empty pavement they will walk right into you. It is surely impossible to explain this in any other way than the desire to occupy the space that ought rightly be shared with others, even indeed the space on which others are currently standing. That must make them feel good; if not, why do they not walk a separate line like everyone else? It is in the same spirit that they linger in front of ATMs, counters, and anything else after their business is done. “I am in your way, ergo sum!”

A particular technique I have observed among Mid-Westerners visiting Europe is that one person asks the tourist information office or railway ticket counter a long series of questions. Will the information then be shared? No, the next member of the partywill advance and ask exactly the same ten complicated questions. And then the third, fourth and down to the least and last member of the tour group. There can be no purpose to this other than the impact on locals and other travellers: “You all have missed your trains, ergo sum!”

Freud wrote about untidiness in terms of “anal aggression”, but the psychodynamics of potty-training and the fascination of childish poo might well be subjected to Occam’s Razor; it is ingenious, all very ingenious, but it would be conceptually simpler to attribute the messing of both one’s own nest and the public space to the drive to take up more space in the world. “My sink is full, ergo sum” and “My rubbish is on your street, ergo sum”.

The whole concept of our “footprint” was invented by the environmental movement, and an excellent one it is too. As I am endeavouring to show, it is applicable beyond one’s emission of CO2 via fossil fuels. But suppose the fundamental assumption is wrong? Suppose that the greenies were unduly generous to consider our footprint, our consumption, our waste, to be merely an unintended side-effect of our enjoyment of material goods? Suppose that it is nothing of the kind, but a fulfilment of man’s basic instinct, namely to exist, which means taking up space, which in turn means making a mess?

Any person, whether light or heavy, can walk either on the balls of her feet or on her heels. The latter creates about double the thump for the benefit of anyone nearby, let alone living beneath. So difficult is it to see any other benefit that this behaviour may well serve as shorthand for the whole syndrome of taking up more space in the world. What easier redress can be imagined for the low-status individual who might otherwise feel overlooked? “I stomp, ergo sum”.

The same goes for the voice. Some people simply have no indoor voices, they yell at one another across the kitchen as if at opposite ends of a football pitch. This costs energy, of course, but seems a price they are willing to pay. In the old days one could keep people awake all night only with the expenditure of resources, whether one’s own biological energy or the money to hire musicians. The very fact that the charivari or “rough music” was meant as a social punishment shows that people have always been well aware how distressing is nocturnal din. And yet in modern times, when you can keep the neighbours awake with the minimal expenditure of a trickle of electricity – and perhaps for that very reason – a culture has developed that considers continuous listening, or rather, consumption of sound, as an absolute and inalienable right. “You are kept awake, ergo sum”.

If people no longer understand, even theoretically, the desire of others for quiet, as surely even past roisterers did, this need be no great mystery. All we need to do is consider unbroken noise as their existential necessity, without which they do not feel that they take up any space in the world. That is to say, they fear that they do not exist. Thanks to the invention of the earbud, the existentially uncertain can now supply themselves with external validation every minute of the day without even coming into conflict with such dinosaurs as do not wish to be their auditory vassals. But external peace is no real objection, as, within their own subjectivity, their noise fills the world utterly, and accordingly so do they.

When considering roisterers and the extra space they take up in the world, we should ask ourselves whether the noise they make is the effect or the cause of what they call “having fun”. We assume that fun would be fun even if no one could hear them. It might be better to assimilate this thing called fun to the sound of the tree falling in a deserted forest. “Fun” is apparently something that cannot be had quietly, because then one would be missing out on the taking up of space in the world. And that would be no fun. Failing to identify this motivation leads us to miscategorise great swathes of human behaviour under the rubric of “humour”, whereas it is nothing of the kind. True amusement does not need to deafen the house, so something else must be going on here, meeting no definition of humour, wit, irony or anything similar.

People “having fun” do not roar, boom, squeal and giggle because anything really funny is being said. The phenomenon is akin to the way alcohol gives permission for the childish or unpleasant behaviour in which people want to indulge. The quite fictional presence of something claimed to be humour functions as a permission for roaring, booming, squealing and giggling, which is what people want to do, because it means that they take up more space in the world than someone contemplating nature or reading a book. And there is a Stadium Effect in operation: each actually quite humourless person needs to roar, boom, squeal and giggle louder than the previous player in order to be considered to have this thing called “humour” that authorises the noise. “I make a racket as if amused, ergo sum – and ergo, too, I am a better person than you sobersides.”

Finally, my universal theory might explain why some people keep horrendously yappy little dogs as opposed to a calmer kind. Instead of treating the noise as an accidental side-effect of a breed chosen for some other reason, let us assume that the hysterical aggression whenever they see another dog on a lead, or sometimes whenever they see anything at all, is the whole object of the exercise. “My dog yaps to wake the neighbourhood, ergo sum”.

Posted on February 24, 2018 at 14:07 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

On Rereading The Heike Monogatari

The people of this medieval Japanese epic are all Buddhists of a sort, just as the protagonists of the conemporary Western European epics are all Christians of a sort. Their Buddhism is, it is true, syncretised with the Shintō deities, but State Shintō is still seven centuries in the future. The two dominant Buddhist schools are Tendai, with the players performing pious exercises or more likely commissioning them from others, in precisely the same way as monastic observance in Christendom; and Pure Land, a characteristic Japanese approach that seems to resemble Luther’s salvation by faith alone.

What I did not find in the Heike Monogatari was what we have associated with the Japanese from the first Jesuit missionaries to James Clavell: a complete lack of the fear of death. There is, to be sure, a lot of suicide. Samurai men kill themselves by the sword, though the ritual of seppuku lies in the future; noble women drown themselves. But willing death is not at all the same thing as willing cessation of being. On the contrary, everybody in the epic reckons on coming back, quite possibly to be reunited with their loved ones in future existences. Some warriors even make death sound like a canny career move, such as the one who says, “If, as seems likely, I am named as a ringleader and imprisoned, banished or beheaded, I will consider it an honour in this life and something to remember in the next.” He makes his execution sound like a stop on the tourist trail.

Coexisting with reincarnation in the Heike Monogatari is a belief in Hell, the realm of the dead under Enma its royal employer of torturers. No character in the epic ever explains how these two concepts fit together and who gets which afterlife. In the same way, nobody is explicit about how return in another life goes with the paradise to which you will be conducted by the Amida Buddha if you sincerely recite the nembutsu. Perhaps the audience understood all this perfectly well, or perhaps the audience was itself muddled on the subject. At any rate, those in the epic who talk about the Pure Land are clearly yearning for it in precisely the same manner and degree as medieval Christians yearn for Heaven. However else we might describe the mentality of the death-defying samurai and their womenfolk in the Heike Monogatari, it is by no means a readiness for extinction. A conquest of the animal will-to-live it is not.

Posted on February 17, 2018 at 16:35 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Design Fault