Zoom Call #1

And I said, I said, ‘a simple point that people forget to explain to outsiders about the consumption of random/plain/goofy/noisy artifacts is that it’s not the random/plain/goofy/noisy artifact that is doing the work but the 3000 years long acummulation of techniques for attentively scrutizing objects (which developed as a corollary of 3000 years of creating objects that intuitively solicit* new forms of attentive scrutiny) that’s doing the work. A randomly generated text is interesting in as much as the pattern-spotting and analogy-spotting behaviours that 3000 years of literature imprinted us with are interesting.’

Peli Grietzer, Amerikkkkka

Here’s how a Rorschach test works: the patient is provided with an ambiguous stimulus. His interpretation or resolution of its indeterminacy tells the evaluator about the contents or predilections of the patient’s mind. The test is a selection game: it is an evaluation by a selector (the administering psychiatrist, who writes up his findings and perhaps typifies them as a diagnosis) of a selected party (the patient, who has an active stake in how he is diagnosed). The diagnosis will in many cases function as a decision-rule: if X category, then Y treatment. If sane, then greater responsibility in a criminal trial. If insane, then greater chance of involuntary commitment. To grossly simplify.

As in all selection games, the aim of the selector is, roughly, the truth; the aim of the selected is whatever evaluation or selection outcome furthers his goals. I say “roughly, the truth” because the psychiatrist is nested within his own selection games as selected party. He may be found liable in later court cases. He may be called upon again by further attorneys, or not. He may see financial compensation. He is more free than many selectors to seek out the truth—society gives him a fair amount of independence precisely in order to minimize such pressures as would bias his assessment. But no one is truly free.

The superset of these gappy, indeterminate tests is called “projectives,” A. tells me over a Zoom chat. The temperatures here in Wisconsin have been dropping rapidly; snow covers the yard outside my window. An interesting fact about projectives is that you have to stop using them, once subjects know what the normative responses are. Once something like the Rorschach gains a degree of cultural notoriety, patients start answering “sex” to every Rorschach card, strategically and deliberately. Once something like the Rorschach tests develops a reputation, once patients know what and how it evaluates, they can begin gaming it: can avoid interpretations that feel violent or angry, gravitate towards pro-social readings of the ink blots.

One interesting thing about obsessive-compulsives, A. says, is that they get stuck up on the wrong level of zoom. Forest/trees stuff. So they’ll spend fifteen minutes hedging-ambivalent over a minor detail, but never get around to the blot-in-totality. They’ll pick areas of cathexis and go all in, cf. handwashing.

A.’s in a psych program, he says all his peers and profs are bullish on IQ. No one’s denying there’s predictive power, and indeed, functionally they believe in it, insofar as IQ tests are still part of the standard diagnostic regimen, are still used in the selection games that gate admission to higher ed. But the historical baggage is there. It’s a mood affiliation thing—the vibes are bad, more or less. The other interesting frame in psych is that people aren’t viewed in terms of villainy, in terms of evil. It’s just hurt people, who from their hurt, hurt others. An endless cycle of weaponized pain, pain palliated through anger and sadism.

ii.

We’re talking about how everyone gets brainworms when they get famous. We’ve just watched the JBP docu—important to keep up with the culture, y’kno—and JBP—long obsessed with the dangers of authoritarianism, tyranny, and cults of personalities—is seen, in the docu, clearly using tyrannical techniques to build a cult of personality. Brainworms: Suddenly you become the exact force your younger self railed against. Yudkowsky, lambaster of academia’s gatekeeping & inadequate equilibria, builds a cult following and well-funded think-tank, begins dismissing anyone without a PhD in the field. All of the IDW seems to have come down with brainworms lately, or shown their hand—Eric Weinstein’s grand unified theory, Bret Weinstein’s ivermectin advocacy. And Kanye… well:

take this story I heard about Kanye West that I often told people in certain media circles, about someone who worked for Kanye on a video shoot. Before Kanye arrives on set, one of his representatives comes out to meet with the agency. She tells them, “There’s something really important about Kanye that I need you to know. This might sound crazy to some of you, but Kanye does believe he’s a prophet. Don’t question it, and don’t bring it up in front of him. This is very important. Don’t tell him what to do. Do not look at him in the eye when talking. Do not ask him any direct questions. Try to treat him the way you would any other prophet.” So when Kanye actually arrives, nobody looks him in the eye and nobody asks any questions. Here, the personality disorders of the prophet merge with those of a dictator: moral indignation, claims of direct access to the divine, consolidation of an “inner circle,” positive perception of self paired with negative perception of the future. Everything Kanye touches here, every comment, every idea he expresses out loud turns to gold. Whenever he says something, or so much as stares at the mood board for longer than seconds, the team quarantines it off as “interesting.” Valuable. This goes on for a while, because everything Kanye finds interesting, they produce. Should Kanye not like what they produce, the team starts over. Should one of Kanye’s trusted advisors comment that what they produce “looks weird,” the team starts over.

Geoff Mak, “Edgelords

iii.

We talk White Lotus, and its picture of power as something soft, something about desire. That power, in a more or less lawful modern West, isn’t about force so much as this desire, the power asymmetries that result when someone wants what you have. Whether it’s your money, your body, your connections, all are forms of capital. Capital gives you power insofar as it lets you enter asymmetric bargains: a sliver of what you have can mean everything to someone. Which lets you swap that small sliver for everything: their time, their dignity, their adoration. And this makes the other person feel degraded; it makes them feel smol and powerless, which they are. “Abuses” of power are often more a lack of sensitivity about this desire asymmetry.

Alexandra Daddario has a kind of power; let’s watch it in action:

The first three minutes, the wealthy, cultured, Orchestral Maneuvers-listening, Gender Trouble-reading college sophomores have the power. (Bourdieu nods his assent.) The fourth minute, Daddario quits being friendly, flexes in her own way. Of course, the series arc is one of Daddario’s constant humiliation and powerlessness: her sexual capital is all she’s got. She doesn’t have professional capital, and she definitely doesn’t have money. Which puts her at the mercy of people who do have it. Primarily because she wants it too. It’s the desire which enslaves her.

Or we can deconstruct the trailer:

Let’s piece together the vibes, rather than looking for plot (which in White Lotus, is mostly just an engine for all the cultural anthropology). Here’s what the trailer shows us: wealthy white families, hypochondria (psychosomatic issues), status maneuvering, power relations between the black masseuse/spa therapist and her wealthy client, inappropriate boundary violations (the Dad telling his kids about the swollen testicles; the lady asking her masseuse to dinner). Wealthy white people being assholes. Politics of the service industry. Possessiveness, ownership, the way the rich and powerful are quite literally selected for possessiveness and ownership and taking things, using their power to control those around them.

iv.

We talk the coming Kanye doc, we talk Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles and Williams’s Stoner; we talk the Gossip Girl reboot and Lynch’s Inland Empire. We’d talk Dune but A. hasn’t seen it yet, and I don’t wanna spoil.

A. recommends I look into Roth’s The Human Stain, into Voyant text analysis, into Michael Apted’s Seven Up!, a 60s film series which begins by interviewing British schoolchildren. I pitch him on Gregory Bateson, Sarah Perry’s collected writing, the films of Terrence Malick—particularly New World, and Thin Red Line. It’s the way his camera moves; it’s the way his eye carries up into crown shyness. I ask A. to come visit us, at the cranberry bog in Wisconsin that we’ve made our domicile. There’s a guest bed and bathroom downstairs, unused except for my office.

And he invites me to New York, but I’m torn. It’s a nice place to visit, but move back? Work extra hours to cover rent? Besides, if Berlin’s a Wild West, NYC is all credentials—symbolic capital, surrogates to win selection games. Not who you are or what you do, in any holistic sense, but what titles and awards have been bestowed upon you, by others. In other words, a breeding group for the Matthew Effect. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. “To get this entry-level position, you must have first have experience at other entry-level positions, which require experience at other…”

This is fixed-sum mentality (I gesticulate). if there’s only so much pie—if the city has peaked, if there’s nowhere to grow, if the future is only darkness—then it becomes a matter of fighting over scraps, of taking others’ slices. Enter a hatred of capitalists, a suspicion of money: whereof wealth cannot be created, thereof it can only be extracted. Whereas Berlin, for all its faults, there’s some palpable sense, at least in the scenes I’ve traveled through, of building a future together. Of a positive-sum economic game and the cooperation this engenders—literally, Web3 has manufactured value out of thin air, created billionaires from pennies, a trick of hyperstition.

Soft power that pretends it isn’t power. Power that denies itself to its possessors, freeing them to shirk the responsibilities of possession. The autist’s nightmare; the schizophrenic’s breeding ground. Games of symbolic capital and Bourdieusean distinction—far more zero-sum than the literal economy. The devil’s greatest ruse, A. says: convincing the world he doesn’t exist.

Bateson:

Given a situation with these characteristics we hypothesize that the mother of a schizophrenic will be simultaneously expressing at least two orders of message… These orders of message can be roughly characterized as (a) hostile or withdrawing behavior which is aroused whenever the child approaches her, and (b) simulated loving or approaching behavior which is aroused when the child responds to her hostile and withdrawing behavior, as a way of denying that she is withdrawing… [I]f the mother begins to feel affectionate and close to her child she begins to feel endangered and must withdraw from him; but she cannot accept this hostile act and to deny it must simulate affection and closeness with her child. The important point is that her loving behavior is then a comment on (since it is compensatory for) her hostile behavior and consequently it is of a different order of message than the hostile behavior—it is a message about a sequence of messages. Yet by its nature it denies the existence of those messages which it is about, i.e. the hostile withdrawal. The mother uses the child’s responses to affirm that her behavior is loving, and since the loving behavior is simulated, the child is placed in a position where he must not accurately interpret her communication if he is to maintain his relationship with her… As a result the child must systematically distort his perception of metacommunicative signals. For example, if mother begins to feel hostile (or affectionate) toward her child and also feels compelled to withdraw from him, she might say, “Go to bed, you’re very tired and I want you to get your sleep.” This overtly loving statement is intended to deny a feeling which could be verbalized as “Get out of my sight because I’m sick of you.” If the child correctly discriminates her metacommunicative signals, he would have to face the fact that she both doesn’t want him and is deceiving him by her loving behavior. He would be “punished” for learning to discriminate orders of messages accurately. He therefore would tend to accept the idea that he is tired rather than recognize his mother’s deception. This means that he must deceive himself about his own internal state in order to support mother in her deception.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

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