Second Balcony

Popular Culture & High Art’s Long Freaky Friday

I think that we’re in a weird era where popular culture, or its margins, is the place for many-layers-to-the-onion, world-of-thought-unto-itself, slow-burner artworks, and high art’s the place for all-there-on-the-surface, meaning-is-the-dent-it-makes, you-hit-them-in-the-face-with-everything-you’ve-got works. I know that not everybody feels this way, but if you do then maybe you’ll agree that it’s cause nowadays it’s super hard to gage how deep the wick of a slow-burner runs, or how much its new world of thought is going to enrich your galaxy, so it is down to fannish lust for a communion with a TV show that gave you laughs and thrills and chills with dear imaginary friends and enemies, or fannish lust for a communion with a song that got you crying or hopped up, to put the fire into a slow-burner.

In the humanities and social sciences there is this risk of making something really fancy and mysterious out of phenomena that have perfectly good boring descriptions or deflationary explanations. I don’t think that you can get rid of this risk without incurring equal risk of terminal myopia and oversimplification: The ‘if you are interested in thinking about a phenomenon, start with the most flat, minimalist, deflationary and un-fancy model or description possible, and then start gradually adding more complexity once you see where it fails’ method of thinking about things, which someone I know recommends, is optimal if you assume your present model doesn’t bias what you see the next time you consult reality to check your model, but we know you can’t assume that.

This nasty ‘Portrait of the Alt-Bro’ article is the first hot shot fired in a decade of cold war between the Lit-Bros and the Alt-Bros, I say: 

Lit-Bros — like, the people that go into Ivy colleges and maybe into PhDs or media jobs and write soft new historicist analyses of HBO shows for a magazine, and grew on Nabokov and Pynchon and Delillo and talk about Knausgaard and Tao Lin and analyze the politics of the Billboard 200 and one day a serious press will buy their debut novel — hate that Alt-Bros act like they’re more highbrow than them despite only going through a liberal arts college education and maybe a rando MA. Now, the Alt-Bros think that they’re more highbrow than the Lit-Bros cause they’re way more into stuff like Stein and Lautréamont and Brakhage and Jarry and Joyce and Satie and Marquis de Sade and Boredoms and Anthony Braxton and Rosalind Krauss and Sarah Kane than Lit-Bros are. And Alt-Bros think they apperceive culture and art and politics at a more abstract and a more embodied level than that of the Lit-Bros. (They are right.) 

But Lit-Bros are superior polemicist to Alt-Bros, and excel at playing someone else’s game (that’s how you get into the Ivies duh), so here’s their trick for turning all of this around against the Alt-Bros: Lit-Bros know that modern (late 00’s and on) Ivy educated activist discourse is today’s final cultural authority, and that this discourse sees critical philosophy and critical aesthetic theory as atavistic relative to modern iterations of gender-race-disability critical theory that mostly detach from its Phenomenological and Hermeneutic and post-Structuralist roots and conceive of themselves as a concrete and definite analytic apparatus, and so the Alt-Bro’s desire to break out of circumscribed analytic apparatuses  to try transcend some given discourse or to dialectically evolve a dyad or whatever  that used to be the defining virtue of a critical-theory radical is now used to paint the Alt-Bro as a daydreaming Platonist whose dumb ass is crypto-conservative. 

There’s a Batman comic by Grant Morrison where Batman’s girlfriend, who he is as far as you can tell in love with, gleefully reveals that she’s an agent of the dark cabal that’s after him and does a thing to knock him out, but then it turns out Batman had a counter-plan in motion all along. (Some kind of unimaginably high-maintenance escape contingency that needed daily coordination, I forget.) The Batman then explains that he was totally in love with her and didn’t for a minute think that she’s an agent of a dark cabal, but he did give it like an 0.5% chance, and because it would be catastrophically dangerous if true he had to plan for it.

It’s my far favorite ‘he’s the goddamn Batman’ moment anybody ever did, cause it’s a genuinely viable example of a-person-can-become-more-than-a-person-but-at-what-price: There is something like a regulative norm of human intersubjectivity* that says you’re not allowed to count scenarios where somebody you trust is actually a liar in expected-value calculations. Batman wins by committing this, like, transcendental taboo.

I’ve been thinking so hard, and in serious agitation, about why I keep rejecting this critical theory way of talking about our emotional fucked-upness that most every literary person my age who I think is cool endorses, and I think it’s this: unchecked critical theory obscures how personal and variable it is which of the oppressive social norms a person deals with go in their ‘a lot of people see the world this way, which fucks me over’ column and which ones become ‘this poisonous conceptual machinery runs through the spine of my selfhood’ things. 

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'How Do You Make Sense': Text for Zak Kitnick's '1-4'

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How do you make sense?

By ‘making sense’ I mean, specifically, the kind of work canonically done by e.g. a Kafka story when its patterns add up into higher order patterns that in turn form even higher order patterns, from which patterns you abstract a dynamic that you then find in a range of disparate experiences, a dynamic that is equally evocative of the experience of going to the bank, of the experience of being broken-up with, the experience of waking up in a daze, the experience of being lost in a foreign city, or the experience of a police interrogation, and makes it possible to group together the experiences that match this dynamic in a class, regarding them as tokens of a type, allowing ‘Kafkaesque’ to become thinkable and finally become a predicate like any other. We are punning here (‘make sense’), or being coy, but for a reason. Before language finished turning into language, any 18th century philospher will tell you, we made sense by weaving sonic patterns and projecting them into the world as unifying structures: relations between sounds suggested the relations between words, and an analogy between a word’s sound and a thing’s perceptible form related a word to its things and a word’s things to one another through the word. Even the pun itself is a revival. ‘Symbol’ used to be Greek for ‘to throw together.’ ‘Syntax’ meant, down the same road, ‘to arrange together.’ Etimology is never argument, but it’s a place to start: the gentle, systematic labour of a watchmaker arranging interlocking parts, and the wild force that pulls in the dispersed stuff of the world into a class. And on the other side of action, process: the process of a surface becoming a pattern (Syntax), the process of a cluster becoming a type. (Symbol)

One take away from this natural-history parable is that sense and its making are always apart by what feels like geological time, even when they’re not. A little like Marx’s commodity, or like Musil’s thought (‘when it is finished it no longer has the form of the thinking process as one experiences it but already that of what has been thought’), finished sense usually makes its making disappear. This holds doubly true when the sense in the making is explicitly that of a form: a De Stijl painting always keeps on being an expression of De Stijl, but the sense-making work the painting once did – ‘once’ in cultural-historical time or in a person’s cognitive biography – as a construction site for ‘De Stijl,’ for the concept that divides the world into De Stijl things and not-De Stijl things (or grades things by their degree of De Stijl) is immediately already-lost-to-time. Time-tested, time-proved claims to making sense, those that distinguished themselves as a contribution to the public life, are also those whose own success has made inscrutable as processes: we effortlessly call an institution ‘Kafkaesque,’ a conversation ‘Pinteresque,’ an idea ‘Borgesian.’ We effortlessly recognize an abstract expressionist surface, a free jazz composition, a minimalist space. We easily read the sense-makers in each case as examples of the sense, but not so easily as generative models that produce a concept where a concept wasn’t.

Sense-making is always history or speculation, never a real-time event, because its scrutability as making, as a process, fades out faster than its scrutability as sense clicks in. On one etimologically-inspired way to think about syntax and symbol, syntax and symbol mark the two visible ends of this mostly invisible spectrum of sense-in-the-making. Sense-making starts as syntax, as arrangement of materials that forms patterns upon patterns, and turns into symbol, a projection from one instance of a dynamic to its other instances. The internal building-up of structure, and a structure’s reaching out into the world as an idea (even if just the idea of a style). We never see syntax and symbol at the same time – probably a good hint that they’re the same entity in different disguises – but there are edges of cognition where one is already (or still) accessible and the other is still (or already) saliently missing, present as a black box or a trace. There’s the edge where syntax shows up as a gap between our previous vocabulary of types and the new type, and the edge where symbol shows up as the hypothetical horizon of a pattern-building process. (The edge of Stein, or Frampton, or LeWitt.) The middle part, the one where searching for the patterns in an object crosses over into reinterpreting the object as the model of a new, more abstract pattern in the world, is parts unknown. Like with most things that we use every day, we only know a little bit about how sense is made. 

Self-consciousness as like three hundred million cubic kilometers of water, so that post-punk kind of art or writing is like wreckage on an ocean floor and art world kind of art or writing is like surfers. 

[Work in progress]

Weaponized Moods, or ‘Twitter as a Nightmare We Will Never Wake From’

When I was fourteen I bought ‘Philosophical Investigations.’ It’s a book that’s famous for three things apart from its ideas about mind and language: 1) Nobody that reads it can deny that Wittgenstein was probably the smartest person that has ever lived. 2) Nobody that reads it can deny that Wittgenstein was probably the purest person that has ever lived. 3) The book says that if you disagree with anything in the book it’s because you are confused or lying to yourself.  I spent most of the year between fourteen and fifteen reading it and crying and throwing it at the wall and hiding it around the house hoping I can’t remember where I put the book. The internet is harder to hide underneath the sink, and though there may not be a Wittgenstein on it it’s full of people that perpetually make me go ‘this person isn’t stupid or corrupt, I can tell, and they’re saying you got to be stupid or corrupt to disagree with them, and only someone stupid or corrupt would say a thing like that if it’s not true, and even if I’ll tell myself that I agree with them I’ll know I don’t really agree with them, and even if I tell myself they’re stupid or corrupt I’ll know they aren’t really stupid or corrupt, so really the best thing is not to be born and the second best thing is to die soon.’  

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Mainstream literature is boring cause it’s mostly about people not being their best selves. Way more interested in how ideals are knotty than in how we don’t rise up to them.

A Letter About Art

'So this is going to be way too specific to be something that I can directly reuse, but whatever. I think the issue underlying lots of what came up in our conversation is something like this: 

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What ‘Rick and Morty’ did is figure what exact emotion cartoon cruelty is the escape from.

My favorite works of art mostly depict how every emotion is just a specific constellation of rage.

Here’s a taxonomy of social-performance theories of taste I wrote down once: 

0th degree
 social-performance theories of taste propose that taste-judgements are directly determined by the subject’s (implicit or explicit) expectation of gaining (or maintaining) social status by expressing said taste-judgements.

1st degree social-performance theories of taste propose that taste-judgements are (at least partially) determined by the subject’s experience of aesthetic pleasure or displeasure, and that the subject’s experience of aesthetic pleasure or displeasure is directly determined by the subject’s (implicit) expectation of gaining (or maintaining) social status by expressing taste-judgements determined by said experience. On such a view, one’s raw feeling of aesthetic pleasure at some x tracks one’s subpersonal (i.e. unconscious) calculations of the expected status-gains from a taste-judgement endorsing x. This may be compared to the way in which one’s raw feeling of fear tracks one’s subpersonal calculations of the likelihood of harm.

2nd degree social-performance theories of taste propose that taste-judgements are (at least partially) determined by the subject’s experience of aesthetic pleasure or displeasure, and that the subject’s experience of aesthetics pleasure or displeasure is indirectly determined by the subject’s (implicit) expectation of gaining (or maintaining) social status by expressing taste-judgements determined by said experience. On such a view, one’s raw feeling of aesthetic pleasure at some x tracks some autonomously aesthetic property p of one’s cognition of x – some unique sort of interaction between x and the rest of one’s cognitive landscape –, but relevant aspects of one’s cognitive landscape are themselves socially determined. More specifically, such a view contends that relevant aspects of one’s cognitive landscapes are determined by one’s (implicit) expectation of gaining (or maintaining) social status from the taste-judgements that follow from having said cognitive landscape. While this may sound pretty contentious, it’s actually largely common-sensical: one’s cognitive landscape depends on what one spends one’s time consuming, doing, noticing, talking-about, worrying-about, exploring, avoiding, and so forth – and an important motivation that determines what one spends one’s time on is the desire to develop or present a socially-lauded taste. (Compare: people usually don’t enjoy beer unless they already have some prior experience with beer, and this prior experience usually comes from trying to enjoy beer because enjoying beer has social-status import.)


1. ‘It’s also that those Cooper Union kids have, like, the best handle out of everyone on this style that I like and think is interesting — this iced-out-dreamy-whimsy-sleaziness, like, Bergman-on-Spring-Breakers style — and are grossed out by anything that isn’t it, and I have no resolve so anything that’s narrow minded + not maladroit + not boring yet is a black hole to me.’

2. Wait what if having a strong personality or strong aesthetic style – being cool, basically – has to mean being narrow and refusing to engage with most things not just because of Bourdieu distinction or whatever but because you only do or say things that can easily be said or done in a way that’s consistent with your personality or style, and there aren’t that many of these.