Liturgy & Pastoral

I wrote this in Mexico City, after an experience with the image above. It came while wandering around the city square over the course of a day, and was first put down on the pages of a small Liturgy & Pastoral book bought for 11 pesos from a church gift shop.

The mask stares out, eyes appalled, black and glassy. He is anonymous and intensely personal; he sees the opiate addicts and the basement dwellers, the alienated-enfranchised; all the darkness of the developed world, so that it dominates his view and is reflected in his eyes and slowly suffuses his corneas. From here it overtakes him; the pressure causes pockmarks in his face like lunar craters; dead skin sloughs off at an accelerating rate; and soon it will destroy him entirely, infiltrating the calcite of his skeletal system.

Often we imagine such figures as mouthless, blank-faced, eyelids fused shut (Dali’s Mother of Time) but this mask and his anguish are all too inextricably human. His eyes the mask’s themselves are caverns; no; or craters and pupils lakes. Their shores recede; if ships were were parked in docks they would have long been beached and scuttled. The lips are childlike, downturned, and this youth makes image all less heartened. What will tomorrow be, and will it ever be enough? A nation’s psyche is malformed. It does not know what it wants. It raises perpetually its water level of expectation. If this is not utopia it is our own doing. To expect any other such thing was an element of our very malformation.

If there was ever expectation of an end to suffering, then the expectant were maliciously informed.

*   *   *

And yet. Off in the distance, the machine waits, and it casts its shadow back through time. Already we can see it glinting when we squint our eyes. Some fear this machine is more Moloch than man. Some fear this machine is less loom more Moloch. I for one fear the loom.

There are two categories of existential threat: those which threaten our existence, and those which make us existentialists. In other words, there is sickness of the body and cancer of the mind. Odum.

We are shuttling toward singularity faster than our mortal trudge. If it saves our bodies will it save our minds? When we can no longer work, can any amount of money buy prosperity? Already religion is vanquished — what when Protestant preoccupation itself is obsolete? When we are made extraneous? Dreams are all I have, I don’t know how it got so bad, / I do nothing. Just existing. [1]

*   *   *

There is a special scare for the category of human we call artists, and for the category of human activity we call art.

Already we are being replaced. They are writing our pop songs and our poetry. [2] They are rendering sublime images of invisible worlds. The pattern is the same: first, we identify illegible symbols for them; then, our information is used to train machina into comprehension of their own; soon they are better at this task than any of us, individual or combined.

On one hand, the central essence of art, its humanity — a false premise but one which is self-fulfilling (hyperstition) — is already under siege. Can we separate an essence from its container? Will we care for essence when we have perfect forgeries? If ever there was a belief in art as ontologically sacred or categorically autonomous, that too will vanish as soon as symphonies are revealed to work like streetlights.

What of intention? What can a computer care? What can it hope to say, try to say, imperfectly? Can it ever mean? Can we?

There is no doubt it will have our sense of beauty — it will share our eye, our ear. It will work commercial and artistic wonders from any objective point of view. It will educate its viewers’ vantage — improve them, correct a retina’s intuition when it can. (Commercially it will not be enough to simply cater. Eventually, the sameness of the static desirable will itself become undesirable. It will grow, and we will grow with it, and such computers will likely need to work into its product quantities of mediocrity, irritation, boredom for interest. Yet will this either be enough? Perhaps for many, perhaps it will seem enough, but I am asking a question of essence, not appearance.)

Two we are looking at the end of art’s maker. Who is, after all, the artist in an era when machines make art? Not only execute the plans of makers, as is already possible, but make the plans themselves, as is not much further off. Are our next makers trainers of intelligence, feeding ever better data? Are they designers of computers? If so, what of when these designers are themselves computers, sexually self-propagating? Even granted this is good for audience, art does not exist solely for consumption. The creation of art has essential psychological and cultural benefits, benefits so self-evident they need not be named. Moreover these benefits are tied inextricably to the created’s consumption. In computerspeak, sever the connection and all nodes are diminished to the point of impotence.

“Yes,” they say, “machina have always threatened the arts. Photography conquered the portrait. Cinema challenged the theater.” Yet both traditions still survive.

All the soft imperfections of old media we today hold dear. Film cameras are fetishized. The limitations inherent in set- pieces of a play are seen today as charming. Bugs became features. This will not be the case in twenty-five, thirty-five, or fifty-some years. If we love imperfection — human imperfection — computers will simulate it better than a human ever could.

Once, the Turkish hunchback sat beneath a mirrored chessboard, feigning as automaton. Now, the automaton begins to feign as Turkish hunchback. We are not looking toward the end of a medium. We are considering an extinction event.

*   *   *

Along the way, it is the small losses that I fear. What is more intangible than essence or soul? Will it diminish our lives without us ever realizing? Without being able to tell the difference? Without us ever feeling spiritually impoverished at all, and yet being impoverished still the same?

For so long we have prioritized a small set of values in technology and design, and always we have underestimated the intangible cost of improvement along these axes. All optimization is a trade-off, even if small; perhaps especially if small, since there will be no compensatory attempt. There is cost even if a trade-off is “worth” it. The process does not restart; sacrifices stack and build. This is a truism, and yet easily or accordingly forgotten. In exchange for realism, we surrender our hope for the future. In exchange for rationality, we lose our sense of magic.

What of anticipating the crackle as needle drops onto dust- covered vinyl? The act of cleaning itself is trade-off. The CD-ROM is permanent and enduring in comparison with the cassette, yet this fact is its very trade-off: it is not ephemeral. It will not walk with its listener to their end time. But a cassette can, magnetic tape stripping and corroding with every press of the Play. We gain technology; we lose a class of mortal companion. Again, it is our psyche which puts us where we are, which not just cost us garden but prevents us from return.

*   *   *

A small handful of disciplines work expressly to ward off such entropy. Bryan Caplan, economist at George Mason University, is not part of this handful. Earlier this year he wrote:

Confirmation bias, herding, and social desirability bias account for over half the post-1900 art in museums. Subtle aesthetic merit? Bah.

Subtle aesthetic merit is exactly what I am championing, yes, but Caplan and his disciples continue, praising bland, high-definition craft, digital drawings requiring strong technical ability and yet utterly lacking life or spark. It is Caplan who is blind to subtlety, who can only prioritize capitalist value hierarchies against a discipline — art history — which for all its flaws and shortcomings is to be lauded for struggling against such priorities; for preserving exactly the sort of intangible, unquantifiable qualities which a world public would exchange wholesale and in a second for more graspable traits. Proof is in the expression of Caplan and cronies’ metrics. In the same digital breath he writes of his previous assertion, “Verifiable in principle. Imagine experiments that claim scribbles are ‘great art’ and see how many agree.” Arguments were at hand that the most uninspired image of a showering woman, photorealistic and in greyscale, would be, in such an experiment, correctly hailed as superior to Rembrandt.

(It is not, it need be reiterated, “indoctrination” which exposure to canonical art brings — it is a way of seeing, and seeing the soul, the intangible and indispensable essence, even if it not exist, and seeing it in a word, a clip, a canvas.)

Intuitive interface, portability, access, efficiency, economy, capacity — the list of prioritized optimizations continues seemingly endlessly and yet it is almost certainly too small; they are all, at the end of the day, close synonyms for ease. I will not — cannot — argue against the justice-based applications of ease and access, but will always within a first world society, and do so clearly: it is this very set of priorities to which the mask holds silent witness, and which makes him suffer, and which makes us suffer in turn.

*   *   *

I am watching a concert with Foxygen in Midtown. The openers are undergrads playing dress-up. An Oklahoma t-shirt, black tie, and pin-striped pants on him; for her, a skin-tight sequined dressed and platinum hair, dark shock coming up from the roots. I cannot imagine what an act in 2017 that looks like 2017 looks like, instead of like 1982. Costumerock: Rock which plays dress-up. Perhaps this is the only way rock can be played in 2017.

Foxygen is similar except more bored; the singer meanders, adventures with his voice to kill time; wanders off pitch (perhaps the ultimate sign of too long performing on the road, too long performing the same things the same way). This singer is one of the luckiest men in history and yet he is supremely and ultimately bored. When one is bored, one dresses up in costumes. Pretend to be somewhere else for one night. When one is bored with oneself, one also dresses up in costumes. Pretend to be someone else for one night. The contemporary backslide is always temporal. What does 2017 even look like? Is anyone aware?

But costumes are not so bad. Civilization is born from the act of costuming.

*   *   *

On opiates there is relief. Opiates cure at least one of the existential threats, along with loneliness and boredom — these terrors being things which pull two people together.

In the basement too there is relief. Ignore an outcast status long enough and one forgets of being an outcast at all, after enough denial. It is effort and optimism which prove draining, even murderous.

Can an essay change lives, change minds, change habits? Or can it merely record things thought now passed?

At the very least, it is crucial we do not put an end to impermanence — putting an end to impermanence being one of our most consuming cultural aspirations. The inherent impermanence of all things scares us, and yet it also keeps us company, continues the process of sacrament. It would be an exceptionally lonely world alongside electronic monoliths lasting millennia at a time. Yet creating such a world is our goal.

*   *   *

Yes: on opiates there is relief. I remember winter: it is the coldest I’ve ever known. The kind of cold that, with frost, mattes bricks, freezes them dusty, shifts their tone from summer’s dark, fleshy red to healthy soft pink (like gums, like gums, I’d said). I fled withdrawals in sleep; except when I saw it, with blankets and no pillows, withdrawals strafing the body like wildfire, it was more the equivalent of curling into silica shelters and praying for swiftish passage.

I remember the opiate’s antihistaminic qualities wearing off as the drugs began to gradually purge from my system, forming tears around the eyes and causing sniffling nostrils, uncontrolled and unconscious, animal-like. The constraint of a corpus, the inherent, inescapable condition of pain, and the excruciating sickness of the mind. I could see the mask, just above me. Dimension-hoppers get very patriotic about their timelines, she said. I’ll get drunk and have to shout one of them down from time to time, sick of hearing about their boring, utopic 21st centuries. [3]

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