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: What do you mean by political consciousness?

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: Borges has a quote from 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, even when seemingly focused externally, is steered by a kind of self-discovery or self-representation, maybe as primary navigator maybe secondary it’s unclear.

Perry: Writing 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” (see Philippe Rochat’s Others In Mind, plus a lot of Baumeister’s work).

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 Baumeister interact with Weber’s work at all, as far as you’re aware?

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: The possibility of passing is very interesting. Does one monitor 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 may, soon, be able to answer some these questions, though in very a different way than pre-modern philosophers might have approached them.

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 early touchstones, as you began transitioning away from antinatalism, is the idea of fitness. What attracted to you to this concept? How’d you stumble across A Pattern Language?

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, a programmer, gave me a copy of Notes on the Synthesis of Form; another 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 that undergraduate background, but don’t let me derail your 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: I want to talk about Alexander’s 7,000-person ideal; I was caught by that section as well in A Pattern Language. The idea of dissolving or dividing cities and nations into many small communities, city-states, etc. is coming up in neoreactionary writings, in the seasteading ambitions of Thiel and Patri [Friedman]. 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 — could be valuable 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.This is elaborated in Others in Mind. [Rochat] talks about how collapsing all identities into one is social death.

SR: Pinker has talked about how multiple overlapping social hierarchies (i.e., per lattice) are shown to decrease aggression in primate communities; I believe Gwern picks the idea up in his piece on subcultural societies. The “multiple selves” phenomenon strikes me as an example of social fitness, that different selves demand different contexts within which they have better fit.

Perry: Yes!

SR: Now, from this idea of pattern languages, you move on to investigations of ritual. What’s the connective tissue, in your mind?

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 spatial 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: 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: I feel a similar excitement related to virtual realities and the grey market for research chemicals; the pursuit of new and relatively exclusive modes of consciousness is becoming increasingly possible. Did you or do you feel any anxieties about the loss of control involved in a hypnotism? That seems to be a fear for a lot 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: Oh dear.

SR: But it seems to me that what makes the rationalist and, in its own way, the post-rationalist communities, so… predisposed to insight (if 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…

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 can yield 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 relationship between systems and qualitative outcomes.

In a similar way, and perhaps this is a better if more dangerous example, the “Aspie” 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. For those who are born with brains which don’t easily adapt, or aren’t built to be neurotypically social, or who are brought up in certain less-than-flourishy environment, they have to reverse-engineer these bizarre interpersonal conventions our society runs 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 really 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.

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. 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 [I’ve gotten] 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 [to transcendence], 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 flow states? 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 shuts down conscious sensory perception.

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

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: 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?

Perry: 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.

You write 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’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. It’s “silly” in the sense of pathogens but important psychologically. Anyway, [the essay’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: Do you think LSD, and by extension other consciousness-distorting drugs, can or frequently does lead to genuine insight?

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.


Giction recommendations:

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

Music recommendations:

Notes

[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.'”