Mind War: Part Ten -- This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things
Posts have been thin on the ground. I'm in a funk. Due, no doubt, in part to Retrograde All the Things. One result is that everything I write just sounds like the most hypocritical crap. So I figure, why not leverage all this crankiness into a Mind Wars post.
I start by presenting the following for your edification. It's worth a full read.
A case study in co-option. The manipulation and appropriation of symbols for uses that aren't transparent to the audience. This is a particularly nice example because the HER fund certainly isn't evil in terms of investment opportunities. But it's a FUND, you know. One that relies on that bull to keep charging. And in all its virtue signaling, it's completely insider art and part of the system it purports to critique. The bull on the other hand celebrated that system, but from outside of it as a piece of guerrilla art -- a very expensive piece, the artist must have had a solid portfolio himself.
And the controversy and argument over these two pieces of art is equally co-opting people's legitimate concerns over a broken system. Those arguing this in the court of social media frequently don't have all the background details.
To be clear, what interests me about this isn't the debate and I don't actually have an opinion on these two chunks of metal. What I'm interested in is the symbol manipulation.
They Steal What you Love
I recently commented on a private forum that there are a couple of different initiatives going on at a subtext level within modern society. One effort is clearly geared toward re-enchanting the world while another wants to aggressively disenchant it. These aren't necessarily coordinated or controlled by a single group. In fact, as I've argued before, when an entire system evolved with certain goals in mind you don't need a conspiracy -- the system just works the way it works. Our system, with its focus on independence, science, and materialism is designed from the ground up to be disenchanting.
One of the most powerful tools leveraged for this disenchantment is symbol co-opting. And with the ubiquity of both advertising and instant media, it has reached a fever pitch. After all, what's more crushing:
- To have your heroes killed by society for their beliefs?
- To have your heroes subverted and converted by the opposition?
And you know what, I'm still offended by it. (Ick. Let's move on.)
The Long Con of Authenticity
When I was a teenager, my dad had this really annoying habit. See, he was a sometime musician and music-lover with very specific tastes. When I enjoyed some music that he also liked, he would say "see, this is my good influence on you." When I enjoyed music that he didn't like (which was most of everything from 1955 onward), he would say "you don't really like this, you are just listening because you know I don't like it."
Sigh. At this point, this is an amusing tale about my crotchety dad (who I swear was crotchety from birth and has actually mellowed in his old age). At the time it used to just drive me fucking nuts. Because it wasn't ever about me and what I liked, it was about him and his influence (good and bad). But annoying as this was, it prepared me well for what's going on right now.
See, that's what society does. It positions symbols and encourages you to love them or rebel against them. And whether you buy-in or rebel-against, it's got an identity for you (and a whole product line to go with it). And because it can't actually create anything itself, there's a whole industry of finding those that can in order to steal their creations to feed the machine. It's so bad it's become a running joke (I liked them before they were cool, this used to be good but then sold out, they stole our space and now it's not special).
And while I get that stylistically disenfranchised hipsters seem worthy of mockery, remember that what we're really doing is mocking people who have created something for themselves and then are upset to find it stolen and twisted and auctioned off. Sure, it's better if it's something really beautiful and uplifting, but even if it doesn't go beyond the surface it's still a kind of theft.
This is what I like to call the long con of authenticity. Our society encourages, above all, everyone to be individual and authentically themselves. To find their true passion (you know how I feel about that) and express their individuality through all aspects of their lives. Sounds nice, right? Except it's really just a con designed to:
- Sell you shit. Whatever individuality you subscribe to, there's a brand waiting. From news to fashion to entertainment. A whole world ready for you to step right in and be your true self. All you need to do is shop at the right stores, subscribe to the correct zines, attend the appropriate cons. Being true to yourself is hard work and requires endless effort. How could it be easy or natural? If you are just relaxing into yourself, you're probably being sold on some corporate advertising. Here, come with me to Hot Topic so that we can be really real.
- Distance you from others. Individuals can really only talk to and hang out with other individuals who are just like them. There's nothing to learn from people who are different from us (ironic that my dad's love of music expanded my own musical tastes and fostered the same love in me). Society isn't something you build across differences, it's something you curate by finding other individuals who complement your individuality and don't threaten it.
- Isolate people who really are authentic. A couple of years ago, I went to a street gallery fair in my old neighborhood. I noticed that while a lot of the crowd looked really outre', the artists for the most part looked pretty ordinary. This is when I came to the opinion that it's better to look ordinary and be interesting than the reverse (in fact, I'm going to add this to my list of personal maxims). Despite all the talk about being authentic, truly authentic people are either dismissed as uninteresting or persecuted as dangerous. It's OK to conform or to rebel -- both are part of the system -- but those who take a different route (i.e. The Forest Path) are the true eccentrics and pose the real risk.
"People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf.”
-- James M. Cain, York Times Book Review, March 1969
You can't care what they to do your heroes and symbols. They're still yours.
Second, you need to keep the things you cherish close to the vest. There's a reason for the admonition to keep silent. That means sure, share tech and talk about ideas, but the deep relationships and experiences are better closely held. If you have a few people you can confide in, that's enough. The urge to share everything with the world backfires frequently. So worship privately, give anonymously, act discretely. Not because anyone is necessarily out to get you -- or because you are doing something wrong -- but because privacy is necessary for inner health (there will be more on this particular topic forthcoming).
Finally, find the things that the system doesn't seem to want. Those things, in their incorruptibility, have intrinsic value in these times. And just as I was writing this (and feeling, as I said, out of sorts) this article crossed my path. Consider the following quotes:
...people are leading secretly kind lives all the time, but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it...
...Kindness -- not sexuality, not violence, not money -- has become our forbidden pleasure. What about our times has made kindness seem so dangerous?
-- On Kindness by Barbara Taylor and Adam Phillips
Despite the barrenness and degradation of our current cultural and social landscape, there are still nice things. Things like human connection, natural beauty, inner peace, the touch of the spirits in your life. They are more rare and precious than ever so guard them closely and defend them fearlessly. This is how we re-enchant the world so that maybe someday, one day, everyone can have nice things again.