A Conversation With Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor at Ribbonfarm, and published Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide through Nine-Banded Books in 2014. Perry occupies a Gertrude Stein-esque role in the intellectual community of post-rationalism, bringing people together into a salon-like digital space while also producing vitally important work of her own. Perry’s writing has dealt with issues ranging from existentialist ethics and ritual practice to aesthetics, and has appeared (in addition to Ribbonfarm) in Carcinisation, The View From Helland Front Porch Republic. 

Essential readings: The Systems of the World; FrontierlandThe Theory of Narrative Selection.


Suspended Reason: I want to bracket, if that’s OK, your View From Hell writings on the ethics of childbearing, suicide, etc., because this blog focuses primarily on music, aesthetics, and literature. But I’m curious what caused you to transition circa 2013 or ’14 from writing about big-picture existential topics to things like architecture, aesthetic patterns, and ritual?

Sarah Perry: I think I just got it out of my system. Venkat [Rao] has this theory which he traces to Hannah Arendt, that “finding your voice” as a writer means developing and transcending a political consciousness. I think that was true for me. Seeing that everybody is wrong in a particular way, coming up with the best case I could for why they’re wrong, publishing it, and realizing it didn’t change anything and never will, because people don’t update based on arguments.

SR: By political consciousness, do you mean a specific frame of intellectual interest?

Perry: Hmm. I mean specifically political, though I’m not sure how to define [it]. The only other political thing I feel that strongly about is the drug war probably.

SR: Ah, that makes sense now. Political in a stricter sense of the term than is sometimes thrown around. Now Borges has a great quote, written near the end of his life, which reads:

“A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.”

This idea that… the creative process is one of primarily self-discovery, an inner discovery, even when on the surface it’s dealing with external subjects… seems fundamentally correct, and specifically true of your writing.

Perry: It definitely started out as an exploration for my personal use — whether there was a philosophical answer to existence. I spent a long time specifically studying the “self” (Philippe Rochat’s Others In Mind, plus a lot of Baumeister’s work on the self).

Part of the peculiarity of modernity is the idea that one’s self is the source of moral judgment, and that “looking within yourself” is the key to enlightenment. I think that’s a little… silly. But recently it seems like that view is passing, and something else will replace it, though I’m not sure what. It seems as if the idea is starting to become passé (the idea, that is, of finding yourself, looking inside yourself, the true self, self as source of ultimate moral truth).

Baumeister has this thing about Work Ethic as a recent (19th century) innovation that was vaguely helpful for a while and is now dead. The Self is maybe something like that. [Baumeister’s] a good phenomenologist in the sense of seeing the unthematized, the underlying theories and beliefs that we can’t see because they’re part of our reality.

SR: Does he interact with Weber’s theories at all, as far as you’re aware? I’m not familiar with Baumeister’s writings.

Perry: Yes, he references Weber. Anyways, I think, if there’s a personal change in this aspect of culture today, maybe it’s that the Big Questions are too big to find satisfying explanations, and only little questions are going to be interesting or entertaining.

SR: Yes, this idea of passing is very interesting. Does one monitor the TEDx talks to keep a pulse on mainstream opinion?

Perry: Haha, I have no idea, I’m sure what filters in to me is not representative.

SR: What’s interesting about this observed shift away from the “big questions,” or at least, this crisis in confidence as to whether they have answers — it coincides with tremendous advances in neural insight and technology. So that for the first time, in a sense, we actually will soon be able to answer some these questions. Though, of course, in a different way and framing than the continentals or the classical philosophers might have approached them. And yet still! Perhaps this is overly vague…?

Perry: No, yes, it does seem a bit similar to suddenly understanding the determinants of fertility just as CRISPR changes everything and makes it obsolete.

SR: Pivoting in the direction of aesthetics now. One of your major early concepts, as you began yourself transitioning away from existentialist subject matter, is this idea of fitness, starting — as far as I can tell — with Christopher Alexander and your contributions in Carcinisation, Front Porch Republic, etc in 2014 and 15. What attracted to you to this concept? And how’d you stumble across A Pattern Language coming off of View From Hell?

Perry: My undergrad was in city planning, but I didn’t get into Christopher Alexander until after college — it was just something that my friends read. One gave me a copy of Notes on the Synthesis of Form ([ze is a] Google programmer); another friend had a copy of A Pattern Language. I gradually got obsessed.

It does, in a way, relate to politics and backing away from politics as a mode of engagement. Alexander believes there can’t be meaningful democracy in a group larger than about 7,000. And of course at that time (2011-2015ish) I was talking to a lot of neoreactionaries who rejected democracy.

Alexander is almost a Sapir-Whorfist but for “pattern languages” dictating our abilities, not regular language. Dictating, that is, what we can do together, and not alone.

SR:  I’m curious your thoughts on Jane Jacobs given your undergraduate background, but don’t let me derail that train of thought.

Perry: I have tried to read her stuff on many occasions, somehow could never get into it. An odd hole in my erudition.

SR: Entirely fair — Death and Life is often incredibly dry, and involves a lot of anecdotes extrapolated into grand theories.

I want to talk now about this idea of Alexander’s 7,000-person ideal; I was caught by that section as well in reading A Pattern Language. The idea of dissolving or dividing cities and nations into many small communities, city-states, etc. is coming up in the neoreactionary writings, in the seasteading ambitions of Silicon Valley. In some ways, it feels like we still would need a metasystem to organize geopolitical coordination on big issues (e.g. climate change) but that this concept of a smaller community’s benefits — self-chosen in a subculture instead of the product of a birth lottery, and therefore better “fitting” to the individual — is something to keep in mind moving forward. I’m thinking as well here of your writings on Maslow’s Hierarchy, and on social belonging.

Perry: I think there are [already] a lot of meta-systems; one problem is trying to collapse them into one. There’s a Chris Alexander essay called “A City Is Not A Tree,” which talks about how things like cities are many overlapping lattices, not top-down tree organizations. So you’re in one lattice for kids’ school, another overlapping lattice for church, another for work, but it’s not like there’s one set of top-down control with nested entities at every level.

This is similar to how Facebook fails by trying to make humans into things that have only one identity. There is no single self of course; you have a work self, a family self, a game-group self, etc.

SR: Yes, Pinker has talked a bit about how overlapping social hierarchies is shown to decrease aggression in primate communities; I believe Gwern picks it up in his piece on subcultural societies. Your observation on social media, meanwhile, strikes me as astute and very possibly true.

Perry: This is elaborated in Others in Mind. [Rochat] talks about how collapsing all identities into one is social death.

SR: There is a way as well in which this strikes me as an example of social fitness, though perhaps I’m using the term here so loosely it approaches uselessness. Regardless, the idea would be that different selves demand different contexts, better fitnesses.

Perry: Yes!

SR: Now, from this idea of pattern languages, you move on to investigations of ritual. Where is the connective tissue, in your mind? Or else am I missing a step along the way?

Perry: Hmm. For the past fifteen years or so I have not had a strong narrativizing component to my brain, so it’s hard for me to remember big-picture changes. But I feel like there was a particular source for the ritual stuff, hmm…

SR: Alexander does talk about sanctity, and holy spaces, but your interests seem less architectural and more behavioral, practice over design.

Perry: Yes, definitely.

When my husband and I first got together five or six years ago we talked a lot about ritual. He was on the paleo diet (we still are, vaguely) and we thought there was a behavioral paleo component. Like ritual vitamins.

SR: Ah, I’m glad to hear the ritual vitamins analogy has a backstory.

Perry: Yes. And right before that, I had discovered distance running while high on cannabis. Finding out that these mental states which almost nobody ever experiences were right there, accessible just by combining tools everyone already has access to… Wondering what other mental states were achievable by ritual, some kind of behavioral and chemical combination…

Also, my high school district […] every semester would do a big conference-slash-ceremony for us, just a few hundred people parents included. One year they got a hypnotist as our entertainment, and he had us do some exercise through which he determined I was the most hypnotizable. I got brought onstage and I remember it quite vividly, my body parts moving without my control. I quite liked it. I didn’t even do any drugs until college, but it was another kind of, “wow there are these mental states specifically accessible  through crowds.”

That was when I first read [Julian] Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind, and from there I got Felicitas Goodman’s book [Speaking in Tongues] on glossolalia… Which only works in a crowd, you can’t do it by yourself.[1]

SR: You expressed excitement at, “Finding out that mental states that almost nobody experiences were right there, accessible just by combining tools everyone has access to.” I can’t agree more. With new technologies like Oculus, and then of course the grey markets, the pursuit of new and relatively exclusive modes of consciousness is becoming increasingly possible (and thus enticing) I think.

Did you or do you feel any anxieties about the loss of control involved in a hypnotism? That seems to be a primary concern to a fair amount of people.

Perry: Not at all. I have more anxiety about having a self. My brain spends almost all its time torturing me.

SR: I… hm… It seems—and this is delicate—I’ll attempt to misstep as little as possible—

Perry: Hahaha, oh dear.

SR: But it seems to me that what makes this rationalist and, in its own way, the post-rationalist communities, so… predisposed to insight (if, in fact, they are) is firstly, an outsider or atypical perspective, and two, a need or deep desire to shed that positioning for an insider one. This is difficult; I’m being imprecise, but let me attempt to clarify.

In the post-rationalist community, with its unique relationship to mental health and depression, I think as a result there is a heightened awareness of the self, and of what makes one… happy or content or satisfied and also existentially unhappy and unsatisfied. When this is coupled with intelligence, it yields insight into the behavioral practices which lend themselves to a sustainable, productive, satisfying life. Which, at its core, is what I perceive your writing to be about. The idea of a sustainable ritual practice, of meaningfulness systems, of eternal beauty.

In a similar way, and perhaps this is a better and also more dangerous example, the stereotypically “Aspy” side of the rationalist community… There is this idea that one must step or exist outside the “invisible system” or culture for it to manifest itself as visible. In a way, for those who are born with brains which don’t easily adapt, or aren’t built to be neurotypically social, they must reverse-engineer these bizarre interpersonal conventions our society operates on. Break it apart, reverse-engineer it, reconstruct it artificially. And in this way, the concepts of status… of signaling… which are natural and unconscious behaviors to quote-unquote neurotypicals… this is a very prominent part of the discourse in certain corners of the Internet.

Perry: Yes, some of my Aspiest friends have essentially synthesized ways of interacting with neurotypicals from the ground up. Indeed, an insight-generation machine!

SR: Anxiety about the self is very interesting. I think this is what drives the work of a lot of the queer thinkers, and of feminist thinkers — those whose selves are marginalized or otherwise othered in the social eye, or who must invent new identities because their desired selves do not have existing templates. Specifically I’m thinking of Maggie Nelson’s wonderful The Argonauts.

Perry: Some of the best ethnomethodology is about trans people (in the way early days, decades ago, 60s-70s I think).

SR: Well, I have two questions based on this subject of self and selves, and of self- or selves-writing and dissolution, either of which you can choose not to answer depending on comfort level. One is whether you’ve experienced ego death on psychedelics, and whether this is the sort of ultimate escape from the self which you see in hypnotism and crowds. Moreover, whether there are other deeply pleasurable activities which — for you personally — cause this loss of self, beyond the sort of collective transcendence, the dissolution of the self into the crowd, which ritual brings with it.

Perry: I have never experienced ego death exactly. The closest is probably something like feeling like a computer with no monkey emotion.

I get a lot of anxiety in crowds, but distance running is probably the closest, where there’s nothing but pleasurable feeling and it lasts for hours, however long you can manage to continue running. Running and sex are probably the best it gets.

SR: Would these be a sort of “flow” state? I only know this through Victor Turner’s “Liminal to Liminoid,” which he himself adapts from Csikszentmihalyi and McAloon. This being the idea of disappearing into your work as an ideal state, where the brain literally shuts down conscious sensory perception and tunes out the world.

Perry: I’ve had the “flow state” once, in a fencing tournament when I was eighteen or nineteen. Suddenly I had tunnel vision, time slowed down, I could sense exactly where my opponent’s blade was going to be before it was there. I found it more effective than pleasurable as a state. When running it’s the opposite — you can see the world more clearly, feel each body part more, feel the pleasure of the texture of the road or trail on the bottoms of your feet.

SR: Now my second question, then, is whether there are elements of your Self (or we should say, “selves”) which still or at some point required resolution. That is, what might come to mind immediately would be things like alternative sexual orientations, orientations towards the world, difficult-to-reconcile multiple selves (poor fitness between selves) or else poor fitness between selves and society. I’m sure there are more sophisticated examples.

Perry: [As for inter-self fitness,] I spend almost all my time alone or with my husband so I don’t have much competition between selves. Maybe online selves?

There is definitely a poor fit between me and modern clock time in general. One example would be that I run on a non-24-hour sleep cycle.

SR: Have you ever explored that rabbithole? The invention of modern time. I know it gets traced back by many leftist-leaning scholar to corresponding with the invention of capitalism. Others I believe look at mechanical clocks as a major shift from seasonal or circular to linear time. Is that an area of interest?

Perry: Definitely, this is one of my favorite things by my hero Nick Szabo. I feel like he did a good job of it and there’s not much to explore. “A Measure of Sacrifice” is the essay, though he’s written elsewhere about it.

SR: It all seems to come down to sacrifices, yes? In your mental model. I mean this partly tongue-in-cheek, but also somewhat seriously.

Perry: I would say costly signaling, at least.[2] It’s rare to find a subject where that [framing] doesn’t yield insight, because it’s such a unified theory of everything.

SR: You mentioned earlier that after reading Szabo’s treatment of time, you felt there was little left to explore on the subject, which reminded me of a beautiful T.S. Eliot poem from his Four Quartets, “East Coker.” I’m not sure if you’re an Eliot fan.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again

I want to focus on those last few lines: that what “there is to conquer… has already been discovered… There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again.” This in regard to, I think, ideas. Writing and ideas.

Perry: Yes, I think that’s true.

SR: To what degree do you see yourself as an idea innovator, an idea synthesizer, an explorer-discoverer, or else a translator? Do you collect exotic goods in the New World and bring them back to Europe? Do you study the wheel meticulously or set out to create something entirely other?

Perry: I see myself as a connector, showing how other people’s pieces fit together. Sometimes that’s synthesis.

My brain works by apophenia mostly. I will translate somebody else’s ideas with a huge sigh if nobody will bother to read them and I need their piece in order to explain how it connects to something.

SR: Is the apophenia ever a challenge? I personally suffer — and I use this word primarily tongue-in-cheek here — from a sort of moderate synesthesia of letters (by extension, words) and colors. When I write, there is the additional difficulty of making my words visually fit within a consistent color palette, which is… a struggle at times. Apophenia has a denotation of specifically over-doing pattern-matching; perhaps, though, you meant it less literally and I’m misinterpreting?

Perry: Interesting. Personally it feels like I see how things fit together, but I know sometimes I’m probably wrong and making it up. It’s just so easy to do. This is why I’m fascinated-slash-horrified by zones of rogue epistemology — conspiracy theories, fan theories, politics etc.

At first, when delving into these zones, I could only see the superficial tricks. Then after reading or watching hundreds of them, I could start to see what made them lazy versus considerable intellectual work. Room 237 [a set of fan theories about Kubrick’s The Shining] is one of my favorite movies.

There’s some epistemic humility in that the same things that make wacky conspiracy or fan theories good are also what make insight-writing good. Surprising evidence, wide-ranging sources, spending lots of time looking very deeply at the subject matter with eyes that remain fresh. Much of my [writing] is lazy; the small amount that’s good tends to be good in the same way that a great fan or conspiracy theory is good. So I have very little hope that I’m actually right about any of it.

SR: Your piece on that film is one of your best, I think. “Puzzle Theory” does a good job of approaching the thorny subject of interpretation in an interesting way.

Speaking of correctness, and of being “right” about these things (whatever that might look like, and bracketing whether correctness is even a philosophically coherent concept in your areas of inquiry). You write —and I don’t mean to grill you, or put you on the spot — that acceleration causes clearcutting of sustainable rituals. With cultural change accelerating, do you still think it’s possible for rituals as we know them to exist, and exist sustainably?

Perry: I think the only sense in which they can be sustainable under change is if they keep adapting. There’s no One True Ritual Order that’s going to survive forever. The best hope is maybe there are micronutrients or vitamins that we can discover, and then figure out how to supply them under different technological regimes. Humans themselves don’t change and evolve as rapidly as the things around us.

SR: I’d ask whether this system would look more like a farming setup, or else a genetically engineered super-forest, but I think metaphors sometimes can get dangerous and lead us more astray than on-track.

(As a side note, I do appreciate your  broad approach to ritual’s benefits. They include, in my reading of you, not just the standard community-strengthening, identity dissolution effects which have become standard in the literature, but this idea that ritual is a tool which can be used for virtually anything, including keeping us physically healthy.)

Last question, and thanks again for chatting: I’m very curious about your upcoming mess project. I’ve followed it loosely here on Slack, but always in fragments, tidbits. Are you at the point you could give an abstract, or a synopsis of how you conceptualize mess, and what about it interests you?

Perry: I have always been unusually messy since I was little. Most people grow out of it; I never did. And yet it makes me very uncomfortable; I hate a mess. Once in college I was on LSD and realized that almost all of “cleaning” or “tidying” has nothing to do with pathogens, but is all about separating “self” from “non-self” in a ritualized manner.

SR: Yes, yes.

Perry: So tidying is “silly” in the sense of pathogens but important psychologically. Anyway, it’s shaping up into a kind of “ordinary language philosophy” project of what is a mess, what is the concept, how universal is it, what characterizes it, what makes something more or less messy. There’s a natural/artificial (artifact) aspect too, which may be related. Natural things all mixed together (leaves, stones) aren’t mess, but artificial things mixed together are mess, and the artificial mixed with the natural is mess.

It’s also kind of a lens for seeing order by analyzing instances of its apparent absence. One of the earliest universal human technologies is fiber organization. Tying, spinning, weaving, knitting, etc. Also our hair: braiding and hairstyles are a target of social signaling and something that can be “a mess” or tidy. So there’s this conspicuous trait we carry with us that serves mainly to display intentionality or lack thereof.

I don’t know, hopefully this all comes together somehow. If I wrote it now it would be… a mess. I’m tempted to write a mess version and a tidy version.

SR: This is all very interesting… I similarly think it would be fascinating to have a messy and tidy version of the finished piece. Form mirroring content, illustration of concept, etc.

Do you think LSD, and by extension other consciousness-distorting drugs, can or often do lead to genuine insight?[3] Beyond, that is, the meta-level insight that types of perception and consciousness vary enormously, and are, if not exactly arbitrary, far from correlated with the physical world in which we inhabit.

The idea that psychedelics can lead to serious insight strikes me, similar to the concept we’ve discussed regarding The Self in the 19th and 20th centuries, as an idea which is rapidly becoming dated. There’s no disputing the contributions of writers like Ginsberg or Hunter S. Thompson, for instance, but the belief in extractable (vs. “felt,” or “intuited,” and therefore non-communicable) discoveries through substance usage seems to be disappearing.

Perry: I really didn’t see how Notes on the Synthesis of Form mapped onto A Pattern Language until I thought about it on LSD. Most of my insights are from the way marijuana affects my brain. It helps with seeing patterns, or seeing connections by noticing the same pattern in different places. […] Again, the hard and useful part is translating that back into the consensus reality. Have you read [Stephenson’s] Cryptonomicon? It’s like the inaccessible piles of gold bars in the jungle that nobody can move.

 


 

Papillae:

I. Perry’s fiction recommendations:

  • B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  • Nabokov, Pale Fire
  • Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

II. Perry’s music recommendations:

III. Related: Joseph Henrich and Tyler Cowen, A Conversation on Cultural Evolution, WEIRD Societies, and More

IV. Conversation with Haley Thurston and Gabriel Duquette of Lipoblog, May 2015

Endnotes:

[1] From Perry’s “Ritual Epistemology”: ”

An acquaintance of mine, as a graduate student in religious studies, attended the services of several Central American Penteecostal churches in the Los Angeles area. Pentecostal churches are known for the ritual of speaking in tongues (glossolalia), with members often being possessed by the Holy Spirit during ritual services. My friend’s theory was that the members of these churches had, through behavior and ritual rather than dialectic, worked out a satisfying solution the Problem of Evil (the question as to why a benevolent, all-powerful God would allow evil to exist): good things were attributed to God, whereas bad things were attributed to possession by Satan and his demons. The subjective experience of being visited and inhabited by God provided plausibility to the possibility of evil spirits doing the same.

I have previously written that belief is not necessary for glossolalia to occur, citing the example of the anthropologist Felicitas Goodman subjectively experiencing this kind of “possession” during her research, despite her appropriate scientific detachment. In fact, practice generally precedes belief. Ritual is more powerful than arguments and facts. The Pentecostal church members are a prime example of ritual epistemology: working out truth and meaning not through argument, papers, and conferences, as in analytic philosophy, but through ritual, practice, and experience. (Of course, one might argue that arguments, papers, and conferences are, in fact, analytic philosophy’s rituals.)

[2] From Perry’s introductory “What is Ritual?”: “A peacock’s tail is the classic example: only a very healthy and fit bird could get away with growing such a ridiculously impractical tail. Similarly, sacrificing a great deal for one’s group is a costly signal of loyalty, and therefore more likely honest than mere ‘lip service.'”

[3] Cf. “Text, Telos, Ritual,” fn. 4, on how psychedelics can also generate ritual-like benefits of meaningness:

…chemical hacking can be performed more directly than repeated ritual or behavior modification; man has been using substances for millennia to discover (read: generate) meaning. Here’s Ann Shulgin discussing a 2C-T-4 trip in the infamous PiHKal:

I stopped in the road and looked at Sam and looked past him, and around and up at the grey sky and I knew that everything in the world was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing; that the universe was on course, and that there was a Mind somewhere that knew everything that happened because it was everything that happened, and that, whether I understood it with my intellect or not, all was well.