Victory Not Vengeance

On post-apocalyptic fantasies…

In college, I lived in Pittsburgh. You may know Pittsburgh from being the setting (or at least location) for such films as The Mothman PropheciesDogmaWonder BoysSmart PeopleDawn of the Dead, and The Road.  In the early 2000’s, the “zombie” fad was in full strength. Well before The Walking Dead captivated people’s TV screens and sometimes even their imaginations, my friends and I would always talk about what it would be like to survive in the “post-apocalypse.”  That theme remains immensely popular today, but the idea of it, to me, is very old indeed.

In tonight’s blog entry, I want to explore both the personal ways in which my friends and I would fantasize about that whole milieu, and about why such imagery is perennial in Western, especially American, culture.

Well before I actually arrived at college, it was always a motif in playing pretend while I was kid. My little sister and our friends would imagine that we were children taken from our families, forced to work as test subjects and researchers for big corporations, or a vaguely realized ‘government.’ It was a life and death situation, rife with melodramatic deaths and sneaking through pillow-forts and bed-sheet mazes in the basement to find freedom at the back door to the basement. But outside was not a return to home and family, so much as another game in which we had to survive on our own with no place particularly welcoming to hide.

Out in the woods, we would play as though we had to rebuild our own tiny society, scavenging for food, constructing shelters in trees, building retaining ponds for fish in creeks that barely even supported minnows.  From a mash-up of The Boxcar Children, the flashback scenes in The Pretender, Joan Aiken’s Is Underground, and a whole host of British literature about children in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. What all of our games had in common was either a lost family, a dead family, or a kind of childhood ex nihilo. You may make whatever judgments you wish as a reader, but I had a truly benign childhood compared to most, even in the United States. These were all the dark products of young imagination, not a manifestation of some greater trauma we were all trying to escape.

So moving forward through high school, where the games we played varied much more widely, until I got to college in a city that had declined from a roaring furnace of one million people to a sprawling masonry-and-metal maze hosting 250,000 remaining souls.  It is easy to imagine the world ending in a city like Pittsburgh in 2004.  The crowd of friends I found myself aggregated into was a raucous bunch. We deemed ourselves a tribe, and even self-consciously created rituals to welcome new people like wearing face paints to lunches and exploring the Cathedral of Learning from its cyclopean column bases to its openwork stone balconies and rooftops, attained by ducking under cracked-open windows.

One thing that we would talk about, a theme revisited like a tongue to a loose tooth, was the idea of our band of students surviving in a Pittsburgh truly devastated and without the niceties of free bus fare, electricity, or hot food. Sometimes it was a zombie apocalypse, sometimes it was aliens, sometimes the world just up and had ended leaving us behind as a remnant, having to do battle with other survivors and, again, found our own society out of the re-pounded rubble.  In every case, we imagined that not everyone we knew would have made it, and we would future-tense mourn our losses before moving on to deciding how to get clean water and which pocket valleys offered the best place to set up a bivouac that could eventually become a settlement.

I think what was most striking about all of these worlds after civilisational collapse was that we were not hoping to become barbarians, able to live like Lost Boys or Amazons, but rather an intense desire to develop order after a fashion – as much playing house as playing savages.  We talked about what knowledge we would have to preserve, and what music we would want to find some way of playing as the ‘soundtrack’ to our survival.

I think that is one of the conceits that underlies any fantasy of the world-after-the-end. It is not, in point of fact, the end of the world.  But rather than go into a long semantic digression about the finer points of the term “post-apocalypse” or “end of the world” I wil leave it as a general term that I think we can agree means nearly all of humanity have been wiped out, possibly even a great deal of our infrastructure as well.

Another critical factor is the idea that, despite statistics, our general nerdiness, and overall historical examples of the fall of civilizations, we would, naturally, have survived in a more or less intact group.  The fantasy was to essentially escape the larger constrictive world of post-industrial civilization by surviving its sudden and extensive demise. One of the things I find noteworthy about the whole idea is that in every single one of these games, imaginary discussions, or fantasies, we were all acutely aware of just how terrible things could very well become. There was not an idea that we would be plucky survivors who just happen across whatever we would need like characters in a scripted television show – the plans always included sometimes agonizingly detailed accounts of how we would have to hunt and preserve meat, purify water, and take up much of our days more or less functioning as highly-educated hunter-gatherers. The Fight Club idea that “when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

In scenarios where some of civilization survived, that was always the goal – to get back to the comfort zone, even if that “comfort zone” was more Book of Eli or Mad Max than the megacities of Judge Dredd or the glittering Shanghai of Code 46.  There was still, at least, an attempt at creating meaning for our lives that felt impenetrably purposeless in their ease.

You can see wider echoes of these specific examples in the United States. It makes sense for a society that was founded on the idea of a constant frontier to have sociocultural fantasies of having to yet again re-conquer “wilderness.” I am not writing here to hash out arguments about the ethics of Manifest Destiny or weep tears for the injustices of European colonialism, but rather want to explore the imagined and idealized concept of taming wilderness with few or no people to oppose.  European stories are ones of ancient nations pitted against each other with roots that can be measured back before there was a solid idea of just how far into the ground roots could extend, conceptually.  American stories, speaking generally, are about reaching for the unknown and mastering frontiers. I am not writing here for nuance, so humor this discussion.

Joseph Tainter, in his work The Collapse of Complex Societies, analyses how many cultures change rapidly in the face of existential challenges, some becoming more and more complex and others by atomizing into smaller, less intricate societal subgroupings.  It is not an all-encompassing theory of history, but it does provide a useful framing for considering “post-apocalyptic” fantasies.  In short, the fantasy is that being the members of the society to survive an external event that destroys the “system” beyond the control of your band of friends or family, you now are not mere puppets to a vast iterated chain of beings well beyond your Dunbar’s number, but instead can stop feeling outcast and uncertain how to fit in when you do not exactly conform to societal norms or expectations.  It is a more merciful fantasy than the murderous drive of a revolutionary or an activist who demands conformity to their ideal world, in that as a fantasy, you yourself are not the agent of mass deaths and destruction.

I will return to this idea at some later point in this blog, as it is a recurring theme in both my personal writing and in popular culture of the past fifty years, but I will close this entry with a word-picture.  We imagined ourselves striding along Fifth Avenue armed to the teeth, carrying what we needed to go take over and hold the potential fortresses of European-style churches and their walled yards around the city of Pittsburgh.  The tame trees of Forbes bolted, the Phipps Conservatory a riot of desperate hothouse flowers straining to make it through one more summer, and the architecture school at Carnegie Mellon a museum of lost technological construction engineering and futuristic imagination. But we were free.

Bookworm Weekend

On finishing several books…

Over the past few days I have had some work, and also been allowed some time off for the US celebration of Labor Day.  While I did plenty of other things, I was most successful at finishing a number of books I have been either devouring or slogging through piecemeal over the past few months.

The first book, which read extremely fast for being a doorstopper in physical hardcover volume, was The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I enjoyed it immensely, and it is full of details that you only catch if you are an inveterate history, scifi, and language geek such as myself.  Neal Stephenson and co-author Nicole Galland. The overall tone is upbeat and almost cheery throughout, even when you know that something dire is about to happen. The book is written in a very self-aware multi-threaded style, and the authors use everything from jotted memos to skaldic verse to convey a surprisingly coherent narrative.  I would enjoy reading a follow-up volume if they do choose to continue the collaborative project. Stephenson and Galland, I did not know until reading a review of the book, had previously worked together on the Mongoliad hypertextual multimedia project.

The next book that I finished was Markman Ellis’ The Coffee-house, a History, which I first began to read last year as part of the research for my MA capstone project. The book was engaging, and covered an extensive range of primarily English history, seen through the lens of the social and economic roles of coffee and coffeehouses in both practical and more esoteric cultural terms.  Ellis’ coverage of the twentieth century veers into a very different sort of tone, but still conveys a great deal of interesting information.  Apparently before Starbucks, the British experienced a sort of non-centralized “franchise” coffeehouse phenomenon that ran alongside and interacted with the Mod period of the Avengers and the Swinging Sixties. But the majority of the book covers the era of the Enlightenment and Early Modern period, with figures any historian or even popular history reader will readily recognize.

Additionally I finished Addiction by Design, as I mentioned earlier.  I still think that in many ways that has been one of the more informative works I have read in a while, as it gives insight into the industrial scale of emotional manipulation. The gambling industry more or less seems to have heard secondhand accounts of the worst science folklore of Skinner boxes and said “hold my beer…”  But in other ways it touches quite strongly on the larger underlying social and psychological roots of addiction, habituation, and how risk-taking and seemingly wasting time and losing control can somehow satisfy the needs of restless people in broken communities for control over other areas of their life.

Not on the list of completed books, but I began reading Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, which is a very well-written overview of the Taiping Revolution/Revolt/Rebellion that ran almost concurrent with the US Civil War. It is an absolutely fascinating look into Chinese civilization at a crossroads, well before the true dissolution of the Qing dynasty, but very much a vast, seething mass of humans with a few noteworthy figures suddenly slamming into the pressure cooking confines of expanding Western imperialism (in a very literal sense, not the modern intellectual catch-all the term has become.)  The Taiping as a cultural movement are themselves a fascinating group – part cult that would have almost fit in with the Second Great Awakening in the US, part very practical sociopolitical revolutionary party bent on taking China back from Manchu domination. I look forward to reading further into the book, which complements books on the Opium Wars and on general Chinese history that I have previously read.

 

Parchment Paper

On writing implements and writing impediments…

I bought a sheaf of parchment paper online, so I could write letters to my gramma on something more aesthetically pleasing and larger than postcards of the Corniche. This week has been a mix of blessings and curses, and beyond either class of events, largely uneventful in total. I am struck often by the way that I have notebooks of every size and description, the exact sort of rolling ball pens I most favor, and not one but four computers available even in my living space. One cheap, blue plastic-cover spiral notebook lies down beside my bed to catch slippery ideas about technologies, story plots, or odd thoughts – some nights I even end up jotting down the occasional poem.

But with all of those implements, I nonetheless find myself not writing when I feel I ought to be writing with alarming frequency. It is fairly common wisdom that if you are passionate about something, when you are doing it, making it, performing it, whatever verb you employ, you can lose track of time and have little effort needed to work hard and diligently at whatever task your passion requires. So the reluctance that I have towards writing on developing stories seems, in my low-rent self-psychoanalysis, to suggest that I do not possess sufficient passion towards writing.

What I do enjoy, however, is creating complex and detailed images, experiences, and even playing out whole scenes of characters – yet screenplays, too, hold little appeal to me as an output for creative expression. Where I have always felt happiest and most passionate is creating “things” in front of a video camera, composing scenes, imagining long and elaborate sequences of images that are not always furthering a conventional narrative. I have found that I write more or less out of frustration that the medium I find most comfortable is so impenetrably expensive and high-input, but the ideas will not leave me alone.

One attempt I made, briefly, to rectify my lack of skills with animation of any sort (to get around the immense capital costs of even amateur filmmaking) was to learn 3D modelling with blender. It is a powerful open-source tool for 3D modelling, but it also even less friendly to a non-obsessive than crafting film-like scenes with prose or poetry.

I realize that this entry sounds very much like whining, “oh, woe is me, I don’t have a film studio at my beck and call.” I am acutely aware of the incredible phenomenon that is Primer and several other films that reached an incredible level of technical and storytelling quality on budgets accessible even to a petit bourgeois such as myself. Perhaps, when I have “made my fortune” here in the Gulf, I can go out on a financial and personal limb and devote a couple of years to attempting to manifest my imaginings in video form. In the meantime, I am still trying to capture some ideas and imagery using my limited means of language and fiction-writing experience.

Il Giornale

On branding and globalization..

Tonight I want to write about the power of branding. One of the greatest complaints about modern commerce is about the international monopolies that have formed controlling many consumer industries. I am not writing tonight to judge them, morally or aesthetically. Rather, what I find most interesting is about how they are able to meet their markets and then, subtly and slowly, change them towards a more homogenized cultural norm.

I have been reading The Coffee-House: A History by Markman Ellis, and also being present in Qatar, I can see firsthand how both during the Enlightenment era and the present day, branding can be the critical factor in getting people to consume commodities that are at first glance exotic or imposing.

For my final project towards my MA in World History, I looked at how coffee went from being an oddity of Yemen, adopted into the Islamic world in a brief window of moderation during the Ottoman Empire, and spread like wildfire between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become a global commodity traded in one of the most frenetic and demanding markets of the contemporary era. I will not rehash that paper here, but it suffices to say that the story is far more complex than any modern narrative of “appropriation” or post-modern angst over the subaltern, etc.

What Ellis examined was the English phenomenon of the coffee-house, from its origins in the Middle East up to the spread of Starbucks across Europe and the globe. What I think it says about the larger world is that franchising and establishing a comfort zone for people from incredibly varied backgrounds is a powerful force in modern commerce. To give a local example from Qatar, most fast-food franchises from the United States here in Qatar are administered by a chain called “Sterling Enterprises.” Not to be confused with the Starling corporation from the Tom and Jerry movie, this company uses the Pillsbury Dough Boy as its mascot, since it originated in a chain of bakeries, and controls properties from coffee shops to pizza joints, Burger King franchises to its own namesake sandwich shops.

The common thread is in the way that consumers want a “normalized” experience along the lines of what they “know” from air travel, studying abroad in the West, and spending their riches from petroleum and natural gas production in their home countries. It has, in effect, led to a situation in which the original Arabic/Turkish idea of the coffeehouse as a place to procure underage boys for entertainment and a place to discuss controversial topics of religion and politics has transformed into a locale familiar to anyone who has been in a Starbucks coffee from Tampa to Tokyo. Much like how firms successfully present American Chinese food in China to a receptive audience, coffeehouse culture takes a convoluted series of forms in Middle Eastern commerce based upon a long-disappeared historical model. Herein lies the seed of a much greater study of consumption, the psychology of modernity, and the logistical supply chains that allow nearly any substance to be commodified.

For the purposes of finishing this blog entry, I will leave off with a personal anecdote that branding, nowadays, is as much a badge of comprehensible qualities of food, drink, and atmosphere, as it is some greater conspiracy to adapt well-off nations to some sinister or corrosive ideological viewpoint. What used to be regional phenomena, even harkening back to wine-shops in the Roman Empire, now allows people to know what they will get for their money across thousands of miles and in places that, outside of the mediated franchise environment, may not even possess indoor plumbing or regular waste disposal. The title of this piece is tied to the fact that I was studying up on my Italian using a phone app version of Duolingo and realized that I wanted to make a journal entry about the erosion of barriers to communication and commerce that have enriched many lives, while bowdlerizing others.

The Zone of Control

Or how I apparently do not have a true addiction to flow states…

Today I finished reading Addiction by Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll. As a work of anthropology, it was larded with a lot of references to French post-structuralists and various other academic conceits that seemed extraneous to the meat of the research, but overall it was a phenomenal work of what amounts to extremely long form journalism. What I found very interesting about it, applicable to my own life, was the concept of “the zone” that machine gambling addicts seek. Schüll did a very good job of capturing these people’s pursuit of a state of losing control over larger things and thus pursuing micro-control situations of repetitive, costly gambling sessions.

What applied to me, albeit not at the level of a pathological addiction, was that I can find myself in that same sort of flow state while playing a video game like Civilization V, or reading a particularly captivating book. I find that lately, being here in Qatar, I have been all too happy to more or less black out the rest of the world, including work and other people. I find myself wanting to become absorbed in something that makes me feel as though I have some control over my time and thoughts as a compensation for the sense of lack of control that pervades most of my waking hours.

Writing a full reaction to the book would take more time than I have tonight, but that flow state, and the concept of “the zone” really do accurately capture the sense of trying to nullify existence in a world that feels increasingly without meaning or the ability to alter ones circumstances in any meaningful way without breaking strictures imposed both internally an externally by the expectations and power of others around you. This concept, as Schüll attributes it, developed as a formal construct in the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is very popular in the worlds of high technology, gaming, sports, and the arts. What is particularly useful about this concept is that it gives a simple description for a very complex psychological/neurological state that is morally neutral – one can be in a flow state of abject self-destruction or brilliant creativity but the overall principle remains the same.

Another concept that sprang to mind almost immediately after reading Schüll’s description of gambling addicts and their “zone” was the prescient description of soma, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It has become something of a cliché to refer to that work when discussing the contemporary world, but I do find it a very useful referent, since we read it in ninth grade and I find that even people with a solid basic education are familiar enough with the high points to use it as a shorthand for many otherwise complex sociological and political concepts. But in a world where the World State controls all life, much as seemingly impersonal, interlocking institutions increasingly control our own, the need for escape from all responsibilities and cares, and an illusion of having the choice to do so, were critical both in Schüll’s Las Vegas and in the world of Lenina Crowne.

 

 

Formic Acid and Forgetting

On time dilation and old age…

So I am thirty-one years old, closer to the thirty-two, now. A lot of books, culture, even just folk wisdom seems to imply that as you get older, time seems to move quicker and quicker. I think that perspective comes out of the set of assumptions that most people have for life, namely family formation, settling in a community, and generally nearing “normalcy” in the manner to which they have been raised.

For me, roaming around the world for work and pleasure, time lately seems to be moving slower and slower with every passing month. It is entirely relative, of course – from the standpoint of physics nothing has changed, but in my experience of life, things are becoming so devoid of meaning and interest that to get through each day feels like powering through a younger Author’s week.


The other day I went out with officemates for dinner and took a few photographs of the Four Seasons hotel downtown.

Clockwise we have Nobu, the famous Japanese fusion restaurant, then the hotel itself with the ubiquitous and extremely stylized portrait of the Emir of Qatar projected on it as part of the patriotic surge in response to the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis. Below that, a shot of the grassy patio. It was particularly striking to me to see real grass, and be able to walk on it barefoot, feeling the cool greenery beneath my feet for the first time in months.

Specifically speaking about last night, I was bitten by an African/Yemeni variant of fire ant that crawled artlessly up my pant leg and stung three times while I was having a drink outside. I felt very foolish in front of several people, and generally angry at, well, just about anything that crossed my mind at the moment of juggling drinks, sweat, cigarette, a bottle of water, and getting to a bathroom to purge my pants of any further myrmidons.

Soaring

On drinking good whisky and discussing the self-awareness of future non-player characters…

Before I came here, to the Matrix construct program in beige that is Qatar, I was torn in a hundred directions trying to figure out what I meant, and what my life meant. I have not found some magical answer, as may seem obvious from my previous posts, but what I have found is a sense of purpose – I can build stories.

Ultimately, in eras of reason or eras of supreme emotion and irrationality like our current age in the US, the most effective ways to change the world around you is to draw people into stories. The story I am currently working on is about a priest in a small temple in Alp-like mountains who deciphers some ancient books and is drawn to run off after a feature on a map. Only later does he discover that he is not, in fact, “real” but rather a non-player character in a future massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

The idea is probably not new – there have even been more than one anime that approaches the idea of being trapped in a virtual world where existence is tied to playing a “game” and having to survive within a constructed environment. But the focus in those works has been on the real humans enmeshed in constructed realities, rather than considering what could happen if simulations approach a certain high level of detail. What is the difference between a human, in “meatspace” attempting to find meaning in their life while following deterministic decision points based on their position in society by birth and upbringing and a software entity that has a backstory, and yet has a quest path that can be fulfilled, ignored, or sent off in a different at particular interaction points? If such an entity were self-aware, how would he feel?

Tonight may not have been an unqualified success overall, but I’ve definitely found a happy medium of talking with friends, writing, thinking, and generally making the most of my time. Even just going to the gym, doing laundry, and having intelligent conversations can be a victory.