Stone Buildings - photo by Juliet Clark
. . .

A for Anything; or, Future Shuck

- in memory of Damon Knight, most prescient of Futurians

Yuval Noah Harari's speculations might be forgiven if they'd been extracted from a circa-1952 time capsule in some Detroit ruin. Within the postwar consensus of the 1950s and 1960s it was demonstrably possible for those less thoughtful than Knight, Pohl, and Kornbluth to believe increased productivity would result in less work for higher wages. But in the future we have, gains bubble directly up-uppity-up to the thinnest layer of surface scum, less-than-full-time jobs exist sheerly to shirk minimum wage and health benefits, and those who've won such mini-jobs escape ennui by commuting from one paltry income to another, waiting for cheap dentists, hiding from murderous spouses, and suchlike.

Even Harari's cheerfully shabby Talmudic scholars, with their enviable nonemployed rate of 64%, are supported not only by an increasingly annoyed government but by the 71% of their wives who earn while hubbie studiously ignores the household chores and eight kids in other words, the familiar male bohemian lifestyle. Nice work if you can avoid it. (On the other hand I haven't found happiness scores for Palestine's unemployed 27% or the West Bank's unemployed 42%.)

In short but too long, "the meaning of life in a world" (which could be) "without work" is to crush as many other people as possible into a world of maximized work for minimized reward.

As for the greeny foamy microorganisms Harari seems to be addressing, they're rarely bored by the puzzle of how to gobble ever larger shares for ever extended lifetimes; the few left cold by pure greed can, I think, do without our concern given how many resources are already dedicated to keeping them entertained and enlightened.

. . .

Character building

That was the last wallop of the sculptor's hammer. Later damage remained mere damage, weathering, regression to the mean.

. . .

The Glib & the Glutinous

Roger Ascham can read me like a book. (And vice versa, obvs.)

Quick wits commonly be apt to take, unapt to keep: soon hot and desirous of this and that: as cold and soon weary of the same again: more quick to enter speedily than able to pierce far: even like our sharp tools, whose edges be very soon turned. Such wits delight themselves in easy and pleasant studies, and never pass far forward in high and hard sciences.

Moreover, commonly men very quick of wit be also very light of conditions: and thereby very ready of disposition to be carried over quickly by any light company to any riot and unthriftiness when they be young: and therefore seldom either honest of life or rich in living when they be old.

In youth, also they be ready scoffers, privie mockers, and ever over light and merry. In age, soon testy, very waspish, and always over miserable: and yet few of them come to any great age, by reason of their misordered life when they were young: but a great deal fewer of them come to show any great countenance, or bear any great authority abroad in the world, but either live obscurely, men know not how, or die obscurely, men mark not when.

. . .

"pretend you have a mind"

From Everybody's Letters, Collected and Arranged by Laura Riding (1933):

Myrtle Cottage,

Dear Lilith Outcome,

Now, now, don’t take offence where no offence was ever meant! The invitation to “your lady” was only by way of courtesy to a person I’d never met but hoped to meet not at all, as you read it, a sexual label. It’s a common form you know, so common indeed that I use it even to people I do know, saying for instance to Alan Thompson or Michael Henderson “I hope you’ll come for a week-end and bring your lady with you.” Up to date they have usually come nor have they requested me to avoid the term. However if amendment will assure you that I am still the same old Johnny Archer whom Hubey was not disinclined to call friend in the old days, here goes Dear Miss Outcome and dear Godfrey, won’t you please come and see us some time? Is that all right? I hope so.

And now Lilith Outcome a word or two of the gentlest with you. About that Boy. I am quite innocent there. He is a fine thinker for his age and wanted advice on what books to read. I said “I’ve just dipped into a book called Modern Literary Conventions, and it seems to me an interesting and stimulating affair. My friend Hubey Pitt had a hand in it. I know Hubey but I don’t know the girl he wrote it with nor have I read her other work for the good and simple reason that I hardly have a moment to read anything nor always the money to buy books. I should read Modern Literary Conventions, for it gogs one up!” Such more or less I imagine were my words. So Lilith Outcome don’t get waxy with a harmless and harried soldier of the pen who doesn’t know a thing about you except that you and Hubey Pitt are hand-in-fist and eye-to-eye pals towards whom I feel a friendly feeling (a) because I know Hubey’s even more particular than I am in the matter of pals (b) because I know Hubey’s ditto ditto over writers. Now Lilith Outcome is that all right? If it isn’t write another waxy one, and having boxed one ear, box the other : I can stand a lot from friends of friends of mine and from writers. And listen to me, Lilith Outcome, our lives are very short and mine is likely to be no longer than most people’s. You say “H. P. and I are not above being annoyed by this kind of thing,” and I reply isn’t it rather a waste of time, not to speak of an absence of magnanimity? We are not here so long that the sun should have cause to smile at us and not on us. Listen, Lilith Outcome, you and I are fallible human beings but as writers we have something that is rare in common and by Jeronimo I have no intention of allowing my soreness in the human affecting (if I can help it) the communion of the rare thing we have in common. There does not breathe a friend of mine who has had power to leave a lasting hurt, though I have had my shins bruised in my time, because I won’t let ’em : friendship comes first. So Lilith Outcome, pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and having, if you wish, caused my other ear to ring and sting, smile, smile, smile upon

Yours happily,
Johnny Archer.


Dear John Archer,

I am going to make a few statements to you about myself because you have made a few generalisations about me on my behalf. And there is no use in your saying, What a pity, in the name of literature can’t she let anything pass, and so on. It is just one of the laws of the universe that you will have to accept : that when you make a generalisation on my behalf you get a particularisation back. It just happens. For convenience please think of me, as I am sometimes described, as an automaton.

You make the generalisation on my behalf that, if I realised what a very common form of expression “your lady” was in your world, I would not mind its application to me. The particularisation you get back is that I resist its application to me the more common a form it is in your world. In my world in rendering an invitation to a woman it is not customary to add “and bring your gentleman” any more than it is to say “and bring your nightgown.” In my world it is a matter of indifference whether one wears a nightgown or not. In my world, in fact, there are only this person and that person, not people and nightgowns. Then you make the generalisation that I am a “girl.” The particular statement you get back is that since you are uncertain of the exact term to apply to me, it is not in your power to offer me an acceptable term. It is clear from your letter that you would not mind my calling you “boy.” But I submit that you have no basis for the implied generalisation in your letter that the term “girl” is more acceptable to me than the term “lady.” There are certain occasions when it might conceivably be, but I submit further that they do not come within the area of our correspondence. You will perhaps understand all this better if you remember that I am an automaton, with only precise responses. If the stimulus is careless, the response is nevertheless precise precisely unfriendly. An old Negro in Africa once called me a portent. As an automaton with merely immediate effectiveness, I had no response whatever to that. Portent may be the right word for Africa, and a continent, moreover, is not quite capable of producing a stimulus. But I defy you to name the right continent for “lady” etc., so far as I am concerned. End of second statement.

You make the observation on my behalf that I ought at least to do you physical injury, by way of friendly response, if the automaton me fails to yield a charming forgive-all and forget-all. The answer to that is that my response to a stimulus is always just so strong, and no stronger, according to the strength of the stimulus. I cannot hate you as a compensation for not loving you, even by special request. You make the observation that my life is short. The answer is that my life is, in respect to the fatigability of my responsive mechanism, everlasting. You make the observation that I am wasting time. The statement you get back is that I don’t know what you mean by time, unless you mean my time, and by that that there is a limit to my resources. My resources are the energy from which my responses derive, and that is only limited by the number of stimuli that evoke it; and my supply of paper, pen, and ink, and that is equally illimitable. So don’t worry about me. You make the observation on my behalf that I should have magnanimity. The statement you get back is that I wouldn’t accept that even from Africa. If magnanimity is an occupational deformity that writers are supposed to suffer from, namely, word-tiredness, then I am not a writer. You make the observation that the sun might possibly have cause to smile at me instead of on me. The statement you get back is that me and the sun we smile at each other in the game that any two can play at. You make the observation that I am fallible. That is untrue. It is a pity that, being fallible, you should have chosen a profession demanding infallibility and bound to bring you into contact with infallible people who cannot but hurt your feelings. My own infallibility, for example, makes me rather rude to the fallible when it gets pally.

You make the observation that we have something rare in common. The statement you get back is that what I have is not rare but, on the contrary, the only thing there is to have, all the rest being but flesh and friendship; and that the people I have it in common with are all the people there are to the degree that they don’t think it rare even though they have precious little of it. As to soreness, which seems a favourite topic of yours, I myself do not feel it : I am always too busy making responses to feel anything. My response to a stimulus that is merely somebody’s rough stuff accidentally bruising my shins is merely to remind myself that my shins are a part of my mind not my body that I have not, in fact, a body, that I have not, in fact, been bruised at all. Since you are so fated to shin-bruises, that might be a useful doctrine for you to adopt as an attitude, if not as a fact of your constitution : pretend that you have a mind. That will at least enable you to keep your sufferings to yourself and make people treat you as a superior heartless being whose shins it is really no fun to bruise, since it doesn’t hurt you.

You have written me a hit-the-heart-in-the-bull’s-eye letter, but you see I haven’t a heart.

Lilith Outcome.

. . .

Rebirth of the Earth-Pig Born

It only takes a slight twist of carrier or population for the common cold of aesthetics to feed a Real-Life global plague. Live long enough, you live through more than one epidemic.

When I was a teenager I watched the baroque cynicism of Henry Beard and Michael O'Donoghue downsized to the thudding LCD opportunism of P. J. O'Rourke, and then watched O'Rourke become, well, a real bad hangover.

When I worked with the divorced libertarians of DEC, I met the first generation of networked resentful misogynist pampered dweebs. I'm still a little amazed at how effectively they breed.

I'd often wondered how WCW and Zuk and such felt when trying to stay friends with Ezra Pound, and last year, as my Twitbook feeds filled with Protocols of the Elders of Clinton, I learned.

And while reading yet another two 4chan-to-Gamergate-to-Trump think pieces, a nagging peripheral memory finally pulled into focus: Cerebus.

Not so much Cerebus-the-character, who Jeet Heer picked as Trumpalike a year ago. More Cerebus-the-comic-book: a Shoah-slow train ride from geeky lulz to lunatic-fringe antifeminism through a series of cosmological mother-in-law jokes. Beginning with MAD parodies of teenage-boy-aimed comics, Sim took his hard-earned technique into realms in which it's a less, let's say, established bearer of light: the Flaming Carrot and Druckerized Lou Jacobi dropped wisdom on the moon; Druckerized Maggie Thatcher led execution-torture for the matriarchal dystopia; Druckerized Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway rotated with Druckerized Marty Feldman and Mick Jagger and Batman/Wolverine/Punisher.

If the timing was different, if the comic hadn't peaked thirty years ago, Pepe the Frog would probably have made an appearance there. On the web, Cerebus the Aardvark might've been photoshopped into The Deplorables. My alternate-forecasting skills aren't sharp enough to guess the reaction of the generous working-class Jewish-Muslim syncretist who created Cerebus.

. . .

The shouting crowd, loud band, and ringing acoustics transform me into an Irish Setter: look attentive, react to my name, and otherwise rely on scent.

. . .

Giddy Alienation Comment : King of Jazz (1930; restored 2016)

One thing you can say for Junior Laemmle (there aren't many more): he was a man of his time. The pleasures on offer here (including a definitive answer to the old question, "Are Jews white?") are less like a movie than like a visit to the Musée Mécanique.

Not recommended to those who can't see why they'd waste time at a magic lantern show when YouTube's right there on their phone.

. . .

It's Yesterday Morning and Counting Back Again in America

(all from The Search for Order, 1877-1920 by Robert H. Wiebe)

p. 296-297:

As if countless Americans had anticipated their roles, the pieces fell into place with a neatness almost no one could have predicted. The extensive readjustment of the surface the proliferation of laws and agencies and committees created a perpetual noise of bustle and complaint; endless details meant endless quibbling. Nevertheless, the apportionment of tasks and responsibilities seemed to be following a prearranged schedule.

Much of the secret behind this silent plan lay in the assumption running throughout the reforms of the twentieth century that no system could work without the voluntary cooperation of its leading participants. In particular, national progressivism had been predicated upon the existence of the modern corporation and its myriad relationships with the rest of American society. Chronologically, psychologically, this network had come first. It had set the terms of debate. Even as the reformers attacked trusts, slums, and the like, they had built upon them. In a way only a few of them fathomed, their alterations strengthened a scheme they disliked by weaving its basic elements into an ever-tighter and more sophisticated national system. A public bureaucracy sheltered as it regulated.

Progressives in office had not known what to do with their own revolutionary rhetoric. A La Follette, for example, could talk earnestly about a sweeping anti-monopoly crusade yet premise his tax program on the growth of big business in Wisconsin. As Governor, he pruned but never attempted to uproot. A Wilson could describe the glories of old-time competition with complete honesty yet help to construct law after law that reflected an existing distribution of power. The nation required a modern financial system? Then the men on Wall Street, and to a lesser degree those on La Salle Street and Chestnut Street and even Main Street, would simply have to cooperate. Every important Democratic official agreed.

Somewhat more slowly, private leaders had come to believe that they also could not function without the assistance of the government, increasingly the national government. Only the government could ensure the stability and continuity essential to their welfare. Its expert services, its legal authority, and its scope had become indispensable components of any intelligent plan for order. And what they sought could no longer be accomplished by seizing and bribing. The nineteenth-century formula of direct control taking an office for yourself or your agent, buying a favor or an official now had very little relevance to the primary goals of society’s most influential men, whether in business, agriculture, labor, or the professions. They required long-range, predictable cooperation through administrative devices that would bend with a changing world. Nor were they thinking about a mere neutralization of the government, the automatic reaction many had given to the first flurries of reform. They wanted a powerful government, but one whose authority stood at their disposal; a strong, responsive government through which they could manage their own affairs in their own way.

p. 128-131:

Yet not only did the older cities lead in most respects medicine and public health, modern bar associations and educational legislation, assertive new business and women’s groups but they continued to attract more and more outsiders in the process. Isolated academics, hopeful young journalists, professional architects, experts in administration, and many others gravitated here where opportunities beckoned and where they could find enough of their own kind.

This clustering meant considerably more than an arithmetic difference. It drew together groups undergoing similar experiences and sharing similar values and interests. As the professional secretaries who moved among their organizations discovered, members of the new middle class spoke a common language and naturally, easily, they began to encourage each other’s efforts toward self-determination. In Chicago, for instance, the architect Allen B. Pond designed uniquely functional settlements for Jane Addams, who aided Margaret Haley in achieving professional status for teachers, who joined with John Fitzpatrick, progressive president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, in championing the rights of wage earners. Every major city produced comparable patterns. Moreover, they increasingly met each other in broad areas of mutual concern. Joining doctors in the public-health campaigns, for example, were social workers, women’s clubs, and teachers who specialized in the problems of youth; lawyers who drafted the highly technical bills; chambers of commerce that publicized and financed pilot projects; and new economists such as John B. Andrews, whose exposure of “phossy jaw” among the workers in phosphorus-match factories remains a classic in the history of industrial health. Greatly enriching the movements, such pools of talent also returned inestimable benefits of morale and insight to the participants.

These men and women communicated so well in part because they were the ones building a new structure of loyalties to replace the decaying system of the nineteenth-century communities. As members of the new middle class found their rewards more and more in the uniqueness of an occupation and in its importance to a rising scientific-industrial society, the primary differentiators of the nineteenth century weakened proportionately. They lost that appreciation for fine gradations in wealth and its display, that close emotional involvement in differences between English and Irish, Swedish and Bohemian. The compulsive identification with a political party also waned. Although they usually retained the party label of their fathers and some traces of the old feeling, they tended to subordinate that loyalty to new ones drawn from their occupation, its values, and its policies. Joining an occupational organization was a defining as well as an identifying act. Just as a political party had once done, now the occupational association supplied many answers, hopes, and enemies far beyond the range of their immediate experience. Where a shift in party allegiance had once been treason, it became not only possible but in some circles popular, opening the way to various forms of nonpartisan and interest-group politics.

If partisanship declined, therefore, political involvement certainly did not. During the earliest stages of self-consciousness, the strongest political ambitions concerned occupational autonomy. For such groups as doctors, lawyers, and teachers, that entailed legal sanction for their own standards of entry and proficiency. Accredited members of the group a board of doctors or lawyers or teachers would administer the laws, passing upon the qualifications of applicants and adjudging any violations within the profession. The academic professions, by controlling degrees and jobs, enjoyed similar privileges without the need for legislation. Business and farming groups, however, discovered that effective self-regulation required more than an empowering statute. With increasingly elaborate plans for stable prices, coordinated marketing, and reliable, expensive data, they looked as well to a variety of government bureaus and agencies that would provide the technical services their specialized needs demanded. In almost every case, these groups depended upon the government for the means of independence from all intruders, including the government itself.

The forces of occupational cohesion were at the same time forces of general social divisiop. Most obviously, they widened the gap between the major cities and rural-small town America. In part, the new middle class only helped to formalize differences that had been developing for years. Professional teachers, for example, were improving a modern educational system that had scarcely touched the rural areas, especially in the South. Even more important was the matter of communication. Proud of their specialties and comfortable only with others who shared their life, the new class lectured to but seldom talked with country folk. To rural Americans the strange language, the iconoclasm, the threatening values of these articulate urbanites, came to represent much of that conglomerate danger, the sinful city.

As usual, the men in the countryside overlooked the many ways in which this new class was also sharpening differences within the cities. In the poorer wards where a keen sense of nationality continued to determine antipathies and alliances, neither the bosses nor their constituents could understand the ways of the new class. They seemed like so many mugwumpish ingrates lacking even an elementary morality in political matters. The very rich on their part found little to their liking in the behavior of the new class. Attacks from far below, however irritating, merely verified their low opinion of the ignorant, weak, and envious. It was quite another matter for otherwise respectable lawyers and businessmen to add their cries. The wealthy could seldom distinguish between traditional assaults upon them as monopolists, manipulators, and oppressors, and new ones accusing them of backwardness, waste, and crudity. As Thorstein Weblen’s biting comments on barbarism and conspicuous consumption suggested, the new professional challenged their rights to prestige as much as their place in the economy. Fortunately for the new middle class, the basis for a league of their opponents, wealthy and poor, urban and rural, did not exist.

p. 95-97:

Fighting for their stake in society, they set about the task of counting the challengers out of every election, protected by majorities in the state legislatures and a friendly judiciary. Republicans to a lesser degree used the same techniques in the West. Although voting frauds permeated politics in the late nineteenth century, making a crude joke of those who debated why a party had won this or that hairbreadth victory, the grim, methodical work of the nineties belonged in another category. Exemplars of community virtue joined hands with hacks to prostitute the democratic process in the name of a higher civilization, claiming as so many did during those years that however sordid the means the end would glorify them. Above all else, the crisis mentality demanded results.

Tightening rings of control expressed in terms of power the generally pathological state of a nation. In an increasingly mixed society what men did and saw and thought and dreamed had been diverging farther year by year. Yet until the eighties mutual ignorance, even mutual intolerance, had tended to separate people whose paths seemed not to be crossing anyway. Despite the undertones of suspicion, in other words, American society had contained more diffusion than conflict. The members' of the New York Supreme Court who praised the sweated laborer’s tenement home for “its hallowed associations and beneficent influences” were inexcusably blind but not systematically inhumane. The eminent economist who explained strikes on the “one-sided reading” of the workers was fatuous but not sinister. The balance began to tip during the mid-eighties as larger and larger numbers came to believe that people they could neither trust nor understand were pressing upon them. Feeling crowded, persecuted, hated, they turned to face that enemy. Ignorance and intolerance now mattered a great deal. When Theodore Roosevelt advocated “taking ten or a dozen of [the Populist] leaders out, standing ... them against a wall and shooting them dead,” he was both benighted and vicious. By the mid-nineties fears had deepened to the extent that other men’s guilt came embedded in each new event, and once incidents carried their own meaning, communication between opponents effectively ceased.

In place of communication, antagonists confronted each other behind sets of stereotypes, frozen images that were specifically intended to exclude discussion. Reinforcing the faithful’s feeling of separateness, the rhetoric of antithetical absolutes denied even the desirability of any interchange. If as so many substantial citizens maintained the issue was civilization versus anarchy, who would negotiate with chaos? If as so many dissenters claimed the alternatives were the people and the plutocrats, who would compromise with Mammon? In such a simplified world like always attracted like; good and evil flowed irresistibly to opposite poles. By the same token, virtue and vice reproduced themselves. In one camp men miraculously shed their sins, while in the other they invariably spawned new, often covert ones immoral recreations, private bestialities, and the like that suited a diabolic ideology. The established leaders in urban-industrial America properly believed that their opponents would destroy them, or at least their functions, if they could, just as the protectors of the community accurately sensed the existence of a league of unrestrained power such as the one that operated during the Chicago boycott. Both then assigned the enemy a monolithic consistency and machinelike organization, invested it with a conspiratorial design, and imputed to it an almost supernatural potency. Honors for distortion divided about equally.

The mediator simply could not function. A well-intentioned citizen like Frederick Jackson Turner, who tried from the middle ground of Wisconsin to explain the radical West to the respectable East, had to await a saner day. Such men as Arthur Pue Gorman, who had premised his career upon compromise, could find almost no one who cared to negotiate. As the Democratic party fell apart, Gorman and a few others hurried helplessly to and fro, frustrated, angry, and now obsolete in a time that could no longer use their skills. It was a world of strange choices that finally placed Gorman, the urbane manager of Cleveland’s first campaign, in William Jennings Bryan’s agrarian camp, an awkward and lonesome observer. Words that had once had a common, albeit vague meaning had acquired the blacks and whites of mutual recrimination. When Cleveland and Altgeld debated the events surrounding the Pullman strike, they spoke in private vocabularies. To the Democratic President “Federal government” represented the natural, responsive agent of law and order, and “business” the corporate protectors of social stability. To the Democratic Governor “Federal government” referred to an alliance of monopolists and bosses bent upon wholesale oppression, and “business” the legitimate pursuits of average men thwarted by that alliance. “Republic” meant restraint of the masses to Cleveland and a local bulwark against national aggression to Altgeld.

At the center of each rhetorical cluster lay the symbols of finance. Over the last decades of the century banking and currency had come to hold a mysterious meaning apart from the rest of the economy. They comprised the inscrutable science. Unlike the bulky power of manufacturing and commerce, finance functioned invisibly. With fugitive slips of paper, men in hidden offices seemed capable of moving the universe. At the same time, finance appeared the most fundamental of all the nation’s business. It dealt with money the core of the matter and in the end everything else must revolve about it. This was simple logic in a society that relied so heavily upon wealth, raw wealth at that, as its differentiator.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .