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Tactical Retreat: Lonely Man

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

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The First Sexual Revolution

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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Epictetus was the sort of figure that only the Roman Empire could have produced. He was born in the Phrygian hills of Anatolia in the middle of the first century. Enslaved and brought to the capital, he served in the household of the freedman Epaphroditos. Epaphroditos, in turn, was in the direct employ of the emperors. Epictetus has told us nothing about his circumstances in these years, but he must have had a close-up view of the swarm of peoples and ideas that passed through the corridors of power. We do not know whether Epictetus noticed, or cared, when in a.d. 64 the emperor Nero fastened blame for the Great Fire on a tiny band of religious eccentrics known as “the people of the anointed one.” We do know that he met the Roman aristocrat and Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus and fell under the master’s spell. Epictetus earned his freedom and lived out his days, many of them in exile, as a Stoic sage. The former slave from Phrygia was a sensational teacher, sought out by the sons of the gentry from across the empire; he shaped the best minds of a generation.

Epictetus sought to attain the Stoic ideal of “apathy,” a majestic indifference to all things without moral value, including pain and death. For the Stoic, the lover of virtue does his duty—to family, to city—without concern for wealth or status. True freedom, taught the ex-slave, is not a legal condition, but a kind of moral Zen achieved by emancipation from the passions, including the pangs of sexual desire. Musonius Rufus seems to have gone so far as to advise against all sex for the purpose of pleasure, even within marriage. Epictetus, too, reckoned the conquest of physical desire an integral part of the philosopher’s task. But sexual desire claimed no special place of distinction in the wide array of the world’s enticements. “Learn to use wine with refinement,” Epictetus said, “and to hold back from some little lass or a little flatcake.” The precise tone of Stoic advice in sexual matters is nowhere clearer than in his Stoic Handbook. “Remain as pure as you can before marriage with regard to sexual pleasures, and insofar as they are engaged in, let them be lawful. Yet do not become oppressive or reproachful toward those who do indulge, and do not hold forth all the time on your own restraint.”

Of course, when it comes to sex in the ancient world, the moral decency of the imperial Stoics is not what immediately leaps to mind. We are more apt to imagine modern scenes of Roman debauchery (“I’d like a sit-down orgy for forty”) and the naughty pictures on lamps and living room walls dug up in places like Pompeii. But the tame austerity of the philosophers and the ebullient eroticism of the streets coexisted in easy proximity. In fact, they shared a hidden premise. Both presumed that sex was just sex, one instinctual need among others, to be channeled in certain fundamental ways.

For sages and sensualists alike, there were consensus “no-go” zones, where the rules were hard and fast. Expectations of chastity for respectable women, whether maidens or wives, were clear and inflexible. Female purity was heavily guarded. Men were governed by entirely different rules. The code of masculinity abhorred any hint of feminine passivity, in the public square and in the bedchamber alike. The stern threats of public law hovered in the background of these norms. But male sexual restraint was not a prerequisite of dynastic purity, and men were not restrained by the protocols that regulated female chastity. For instance, there is not even a word for “male virgin” in Latin or Greek. It is a little misleading to say that Roman sexual culture had a double standard. There were, very frankly, two entirely different sets of standards of erotic behavior, precisely because sexual morality was determined by the imperatives of reproducing the family and the city, and the bodies of men and women had different roles in that endeavor. The perpetuation of socially honorable households, generation after generation, was the enduring mental frame of public sexual morality. Stoic morality, hard-edged as it might at times be, ran along the grain of this world.

The Roman Empire that nurtured Stoic moralists such as Musonius and Epictetus was really an agglomeration of societies connected by bustling roads and busy sea-lanes. It was a sprawling, polyglot, and agrarian empire. The empire was home to a galaxy of cities—some one thousand of them, most of them smaller than their proud marble ruins might suggest. A grievously poor and unlettered peasantry constituted the silent majority, and some 10 or 15 percent of the empire’s inhabitants had the misfortune of finding themselves in bondage, as chattel slaves whose bodies could as well have been inert matter in the moral imagination of ancient philosophers. Life expectancy at birth was in the mid-twenties. The evanescence of all life turned eros into a divine blessing to be enjoyed in proper season. But the grim realities of Roman life expectancy also made reproduction urgent. Epictetus’s short list of human duties encompassed “citizenship, marriage, child production, piety to God, care of one’s parents.” Sex was a civic duty.

This was the scene onto which the Christians came loudly striding. The Christian movement’s sexual demands were not just austere or unusual. They were jolting, and deliberately so. The apostolic generation did not pour out of the Levant onto the open roads of the empire with anything like a detailed packet of sexual rules. Paul’s letters show us that Christian sexual morality was settled on the go, adapting the gospel’s searing ethic of radical love and interior purity to the realities of life in the towns of the empire. Paul’s letter to the fledgling Christian community in Corinth provides the clearest example. It is the most direct entrée we have to the confrontation between the nascent Christian Church and the habits and half-articulate expectations that governed sexual life in a Greek or Roman city.

First Corinthians shows that Paul’s message was heard in the most contradictory ways, even by sympathetic ears. Some of the new adherents to the faith had drawn startlingly libertine conclusions from Paul’s language of Christian freedom: “All things are lawful for me.” This was not altogether surprising. In the society from which they came, sexual ethics were not invested with much more significance than dietary guidelines. The desire for some “little lass” and the desire for a “little flatcake” were treated with the same moral gravity. So it stood to reason that just as the Gentile Christians were freed from the magnificently intricate regulations of the Jewish dietary code, so too they might expect a certain laxness in erotic matters.

Paul stops this line of thinking in its tracks. His letter unleashes a barrage of ideas and metaphors that came to define the boundaries of Christian sexual orthodoxy. He could have ruled narrowly—along the lines that sex is a moral category like violence or greed, not a merely ethnic cultic norm like rules about shellfish and the Sabbath. He could have enjoined Gentile Christians to obey the old Jewish codes, which regulated sex in detailed ways. Instead, he offered a conceptual framework that, while drawing some of its language and logic from familiar sources, offered an entirely fresh way of grounding sexual morality. His model of human sexuality flowed from a much grander vision than any we find in pagan antiquity. Sexual morality was part of the proclamation of a half-hidden story of God’s restoration of the created cosmos.

The keystone of Paul’s reaction to the Corinthians was his steadfast opposition to “fornication,” porneia in Greek. The word’s underlying associations are rich and esoteric, and we must approach the term with due caution. Consider that the Latin word for it, fornicatio, seems to have been invented for no other purpose than to capture all the fugitive associations of the original. Fornication in English is a churchy word, with little place in the vernacular. (As I tell my students, it is impossible to imagine “fornication” in a text message or tweet.) The root of the word in Greek is “prostitute,” pornê. In ordinary Greek from the classical period onward, the meaning of porneia was prostitution. Before Jews and Christians took hold of the term, the exclusive meaning of porneia was prostitution in the active sense, from the pimp’s or prostitute’s perspective. Porneia was the business of trading sex for money, not the act of patronizing a brothel—and certainly not premarital or extramarital sex tout court.

Yet Paul has something much broader in mind than running a cathouse when he uses the term in his letters. The generic translation in English, “sexual immorality,” won’t do. The locution is too anodyne and reflects a failure of nerve in the face of the intimidating range of meanings that porneia takes in Paul’s usage. It fails to shed light on what the word meant for Paul and leaves a fog around the origins of a distinctive Christian sexual ethics.

Paul’s use of porneia fuses two very different frames of reference, one biblical and the other drawn from the experience of life in the Greco-Roman towns where the apostle preached. In the Old Testament, prostitution (zenuth in the Hebrew, which became porneia in the Septuagint) became a metaphor for idolatry. It is the visceral image of Israel’s betrayal of her exclusive covenantal relationship with Yahweh, and it appears frequently in the Old Testament. The English “harlotry” may still capture some of the abrasive sound of this evocation of covenant infidelity. Closer still: Idolaters are spiritual sluts. The metaphor is easily reversed, so sexual sin can be considered a form of religious betrayal. The prostitute, especially the non-Israelite harlot, who had many lovers, threatens to lure men into idolatry, the worship of many gods. In the Old Testament, sexual and covenantal infidelity are blurred, and thus the imperative of fidelity also has fused meaning. Religious matters of supreme significance merge with and elevate what the surrounding cultures considered matters of worldly propriety.

Paul not only summoned the high-stakes history of porneia in Israel’s Scripture but also deployed it in a way that made the word’s resonance unmistakable. In his usage, prostitution was a synecdoche for the many forms of erotic permissiveness in the culture around him. Moving in a society where it was totally unexceptional—and casually expected—for men to indulge their sexual desires with prostitutes, slaves, and others who lacked social honor, Paul forbade it. Not only that, he proclaimed sexual congress to be a mysterious union of the flesh, something of transcendent significance. The body is a temple, a site of sacred communication. Sexual sin, therefore, is a kind of pollution, as scandalous and disruptive as the desecration of a holy sanctum. We are a long way from the rigorous but pragmatic counsels of Epictetus. The Stoic urged self-control, on the grounds that physical pleasure was a dangerous distraction from the virtuous life. Paul does so because sex implicates us in something with sacred significance.

Paul concedes in his Letter to the Corinthians that marriage is a legitimate safeguard. Because of the lures of the city, the followers of Christ would be allowed to marry. But Paul’s words are hesitant and qualified. Ideally, he writes, followers of Christ would be as he is—in a state of sexual abstinence (possibly but not certainly lifelong celibacy). Marriage is permissible, but only by way of concession, not command. It seems an implicit rejection, or at least a fundamental qualification, of the original imperative “Be fruitful and multiply.” Yet, for Paul, marriage does look back to the original acts of creation. It requires a level of mutual fidelity between partners that mirrors the original congress of God and the human creature. This emphasis on fidelity was alien to the patriarchal culture in which he proclaimed the gospel. With these few words, Paul charted the future course of Christian sexual discipline: Virginity as the highest mode of life and marriage as second best, yet also infused with a divine significance that jealously reserves sexual union for itself.

It is easy enough, and not entirely misleading, to say that Paul’s thought was compressed by the heavy weight of the apocalyptic atmosphere. He wanted his churches to live devotedly toward the coming age, during the small slice of time remaining. But that never led ancient Christians to doubt the larger significance of Paul’s austere counsels. After all, as the time between Christ’s ascension and return lengthened, the entire orthodox tradition in early Christianity chose not to write off Paul’s rigorism as a distortion of his apocalyptic lens; quite the opposite, it tended to accentuate the more extreme and anti-erotic possibilities latent in his thought. The possibility of full-blown Encratism stalked much of early Christian history. (Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues” is about right: “Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish; / There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.”) In the second century, Clement of Alexandria held fast to the view that within marriage, only sex solely for the purpose of procreation was permissible. Not until the Jovinianist controversy was extinguished in the late fourth century, and Augustine’s tour de force “Of the Good of Marriage” was written, did it become completely clear within Christianity that marriage could be a genuine good and not merely some kind of lesser evil.

Over this same span of centuries, the Church gradually worked out another revolutionary implication of Paul’s message: Sexual morality would require moral agency for all persons, even those whose bodies were beyond the field of vision for ancient thinkers. In today’s terms, Christian sexual morality was inclusive. To be sure, Paul hardly announced the legal emancipation of the unfree. But already (so I have argued, though not all agree) Paul’s ban on porneia restricted one of the slave-owner’s most ordinary prerogatives: sexual access to his slaves. We can trace a dawning awareness in the early Church, unlike anything in pagan antiquity, of the sexual integrity of all persons. By the fifth century, Christian emperors were actually taking proactive (if still, by our standards, limited) measures to protect the bodily integrity of vulnerable women. The heightened place of sexuality in the overarching structure of morality, the respect for the human dignity of all persons, and the insistence on the value of the transcendent and sacred over the secular and the civic—these all went hand in hand in the growth of Christian culture.

Paul’s prohibition on fornication, his highly qualified acceptance of the practical necessity of marriage, and the liberatory movement of Christian individualism form a coherent ethic: For the early Christians, sexual morality was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God. Once launched, the revolution was not easily contained, and when the early Christians tore sexual morality away from the familiar outlines provided by the civic background, the repercussions were not confined to one discrete section of the moral code. Sex came to occupy a place in the foreground of moral instruction in a way that it simply never had in Judaism, or even the most stringent pagan philosophies. The conspicuous austerity of the early Christians caught the eye of early observers, including the Greek doctor Galen. In the competitive marketplace of Roman imperial religion, the way in which Paul loaded questions of sexual morality with dramatic salvific significance gave the moral teaching of this small but vocal movement a particular flavor. The proclamation of the gospel and this strange, spiritualized rigorism were inseparable.

The Christian movement did not come, in the first place, to overthrow the Stoic sages, but rather the folk and civic polytheism that ruled in the hearths and streets of the ancient Mediterranean. Despite the importance of the philosophical schools in shaping literate morality, traditional paganism prevailed. The Roman Empire was not an age of spiritual decadence, as once believed. Christianity did not triumph over a tired or limping polytheism. The old gods confidently ruled. The cities thrummed with their sounds, and the streets were fogged with altar smoke. Later Roman Alexandria, we happen to know, had some 2,500 temples. So it is no accident that the Roman Empire gave birth to the genre of deeply religious literature we call the Greek romance. The romances may be as close as we can get to the warm, earthy spirit of mature paganism in the centuries when Christianity rose to prominence. These long, prose stories of love—of eros, erotic love—start to appear in the first century. They celebrate the idea that two young people, a boy and a girl of high station and uncommon beauty, can fall in love with each other and overcome the obstacles thrown in their way. In the end, all tensions are resolved, as reliably as the stars move across the heavens. The lovers wed and are physically united. Sex is a blessing, the source of all generation and renewal.

These romances proclaim that we belong to the world; we are ordered toward its endless pattern of sexual consummation and new life. The presiding god is Eros, the son of Aphrodite, a god of this world if ever there was one. In Daphnis and Chloe, a second-century pastoral romance that Goethe advised rereading every year, the innocent, natural desire of the two protagonists is likened to the same lush power of nature that impelled the herds of rams and ewes in their season of love. The springs of desire well up from deep inside us and sweep us through life on their raging currents. Sex is an immanent, divine force running through the cycles of time. In these narratives, the whole course of vegetable life—desire, love, marriage, sex, childbirth—constitute who we truly are. We belong here, to the earth, to the benevolent gods, and to the dancing cosmos.

Despite its charms, the romance told Christians exactly what they were not. They did not belong in this world. It is telling that early Christians shaped their imaginations with the diffuse body of legends known as the apocryphal acts of the apostles (whence come such integral stories as the quo vadis and upside-down crucifixion of Peter). These stories are, despite their low literary register, clever anti-romances. In these stories, the Christian apostle often rends a convert away from sex and marriage. Usually, the apostle convinces the beautiful wife of a powerful Roman to believe in Christ, and even to renounce conjugal relations. The Christians in these narratives are ruthlessly hunted by a ruling order that is not benevolent. The assault on physical eros throws ice water in the face of those who walk through life oblivious to the false promises of this world. The stories end not in marriage and the renewal of life but in abstinence and spectacular, sanguinary acts of dying. The renunciation of sex is integral to the apocryphal acts, not as a discrete moral commandment, but as a way of orienting the self in the world. In the early Christian imagination, sexual renunciation turns humanity away from the transient cosmos and toward the eternal reality of divine truth. For the early Christians, a rigorous sexual morality was integral to its spiritual project, which was to move through a world that was always ebbing away and toward the immaterial and transcendent God.

It was not the austere sexual morality itself that set Christians apart from the world so much as its central place within an effort to redefine how humanity ought to live in a created but fallen order. This transforming vision was something new and altogether estranging—in antiquity and ever since. Michel Foucault was neither the first nor the last to look at the rigors of Stoic virtue and see antecedents for Christian austerity. But appearances of continuity are deceptive. However close they were in time, place, and occasionally idiom, what seem like subtle differences between Epictetus and Paul in fact point toward an impassable chasm. The Christian revolution in sexual morality was a departure from, not an acceleration of, Stoic asceticism. And it was a radical break from the warm and earthy pagan eroticism of the kind we find in romance. Christianity put forward a new cosmology, a new ethics, and a new vision of human solidarity, in short, a new view of human destiny that makes sex far more important. Sexual morality is integral to the Christian vision of redemption.

The experience of the early Church might suggest that there have always been, and will always be, uneasy fault lines between the Church and the culture around it. These fault lines have become more visible and dramatic in recent decades. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the 1960s as the “hinge moment” in the longer arc of modern secularization. The triumph of the secular, by Taylor’s account, does not mean the simple abolition or erasure of the divine from the modern world. Instead, it is a change in the background conditions of all beliefs. The self is no longer imagined as journeying toward final redemption. Human existence is pictured within an indifferent and infinite universe made up of what T. S. Eliot called the “vacant interstellar spaces.”

In this model, sex was, and is, the crux of secularization. According to Taylor, the 1960s saw the sensibility of romanticism broadened into a mass phenomenon. By romanticism he does not mean the dynamic of the ancient Greek romances, a fusion of erotic desire with a fecund, living cosmos. Modern romanticism is more anthropocentric. Romanticism in this sense means an ethic of individual expressivism in accord with codes of authenticity and freedom. Unable to recover eros as worldly god—and unmoored from a shared, public culture whose picture of the universe has a measure of enchantment and meaning—we are left with eros as a private prerogative.

Secularization is not just the scraping away of a religious crust and the return to a pristine condition. (Indeed, it is worth observing that the social assumptions of pre-Christian sexual morality, such as the casual exploitation of the bodies of non-persons, seem incomprehensible precisely because the Christian revolution so completely swept away that old order.) The dethroning of a broadly Christian public morality in the last generations has seen the revival of eros, but not a return to a pre-Christian framework. Eros is no longer a god that weaves us mysteriously into the fabric of an enchanted cosmos. The Christians killed that god dead. Nor does modern sexuality bear any trace of the Stoic sensibility, in which the needs of the city provide moral order to the desires of the individual subject. The power of eros simply is.

Thus, the modern Church finds itself in an odd position. It is surrounded by a culture that bears some of its own values, but they are shorn of their enchanted origins and presented as neutral axioms of the universe. Ironically, some of the most unabashedly secular models of human sexuality also share with Christianity a belief in the central place of the erotic within the architecture of morality. This is utterly alien to Epictetus, and for that matter to most religions outside the Christian (and to some extent the Jewish) tradition. An avowed secularist is as likely as a Christian activist to proclaim the universal dignity of all individuals and insist upon the individual’s freedom. And yet, however moralized the domain of sex might be, the vast, vacant universe seems to have left only authenticity and consent as the shared, public principles of sexual morality. These axioms derive from a picture of the universe different from the one imagined by Paul, who always envisioned the individual—including the sexual self—within the larger story of the gospel and its picture of a created cosmos in the throes of restoration.

And so we live in a fractured culture, with a shared background of meaning that is as thin as gossamer and yet whose values bear the ghostly presence of ancient religious revolutions. The friction between old codes and new ones is not about restraint versus liberty, repression versus authenticity, any more than the difference between Stoic sexual morality and the Pauline view can be described in terms of strict versus lax. In our secular age, just as in the early years of Christianity, differences in sexual morality are really about the clash between different pictures of the universe and the place of the individual within it.

The modern sexual revolution, Taylor writes, has “a tremendous impact on churches whose stance in recent centuries has laid so much stress on these issues [sexual ethics], and where piety has often been identified with a very stringent sexual code.” That is putting it delicately. For stance, read core. For recent centuries, all the way back. For piety, orthodoxy. In the early Church, sexual morality was not baggage, afterthought, or accident. It was the plane on which Christians tried to live in the world, but not of it. Which is why adapting this sexual morality to the modern age has proven as simple as extricating a taut thread from a spider’s web

By Kyle Harper and originally published in First Things in January 2018 and can be seen here.

Liberalism and the Wrath of the Privileged Whites

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in First Things which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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Each of our parties is acting crazy, thanks to its own elites. The Republicans are acting crazy thanks to the narcissism and entitlement of the right-leaning business and professional classes. The Democrats are acting crazy thanks to racial politics—specifically, the angry racial politics of upper-middle-class white liberals.

One irony of recent American politics is that the exodus of wage-earning whites from the Democratic party has tended to make the rump of white Democratic voters more affluent, better educated, and more doctrinaire leftist. According to Pew, about 35 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners are white “solid liberals.”

Solid liberals are left-of-center on both economic and social issues, and they are pessimistic about American society. One presumes that they are pessimistic about other people in American society. The solid liberals are also the best educated and most affluent segment of the Democratic party’s factions.

The weakness of solid liberals is that they are electorally nothing, absent alliances with less affluent, less ideologically rigid, and less secular groups. This creates all kinds of complications. The largely white and affluent solid liberals are notionally egalitarian and opposed to white privilege, but they include many of the most privileged whites in America. How can they participate in a coalition that is largely poorer, less educated, and darker-skinned than they are, while maintaining their comfortable position (both economically and socially)?

One solution would be for them not to maintain their privileged position, but instead to prioritize the interests of the poorer, less secular, and more moderate parts of their coalition. But that hasn’t happened so far. An overwhelming majority of Hispanics opposes increasing immigration, but their position is entirely unrepresented in the Democratic party. It seems possible that the Democrats will throw away a winnable Senate seat in Alabama because they have nominated a pro-abortion extremist against a Republican who has been credibly accused of sexual assault and ephebophilia (probably better that you don’t look that up).

Even ten years ago, Democrats were willing to nominate candidates who were culturally conservative (or at least willing to pretend to be culturally conservative) in order to replace conservative Republicans with somewhat-more-liberal Democrats. What changed?

The first thing was the alleged coming of the “emerging Democratic majority,” which was supposed to be brought about by demographic change and a larger nonwhite share of the electorate. This Democratic majority has been a little late in arriving, but that isn’t the only important part of the story.

Many liberal whites wanted to be rid of the culturally conservative, economically liberal, working-class white voters whom Democrats had courted in the previous decade. Upper-middle-class whites were embarrassed by these people. After all these centuries of white privilege, they never managed to get into a good school—or even a state college—and now they were making demands about trade and immigration.

One of the themes that emerges from Shattered (a chronicle of the Clinton campaign) is that the Clinton operation didn’t want to make a strong play for working-class white voters in swing states. The Clintonites thought these voters were disposable. It was left to Barack Obama to point out that he had done better than Clinton in many heavily working-class white areas, because he had done those voters the courtesy of treating them as though they were as important as any other American.

In one sense, it was easy for Obama. He didn’t risk being called a racist by playing to working-class whites. This is the dilemma facing affluent white liberals: They want to lead a coalition in favor of equality, but their identity places them under suspicion.

And they do want to lead. Hilary Clinton’s slogan was “I’m with Her.” That is why the loudest yelps about white privilege come from pale-skinned students at the most expensive liberal arts colleges. The strategy is to make the bad whites a justification for the privilege and power of the good, solidly liberal whites. See? We are using our position to make America a better place (and living rather well in the meantime).

This helps explain the biggest rhetorical difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama’s rhetorical vision included all but the most right-wing of Americans. Millions of working-class whites felt that Obama was talking about them, too, when he said, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

And many of those same Americans knew that Hillary Clinton was talking about them when she ranted about the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it” deplorables.

The Trump administration, for all of its obnoxiousness, seems most to have irritated affluent white liberals, rather than the nonwhite and relatively poor who are supposedly Trump’s great targets. Part of this is ideology, of course, since affluent white liberals are the most extreme segment of the Democratic coalition. But part of it is the rage of a privileged class.

By Pete Spiliakos and originally published in First Things on December 7, 2017 and can be seen here.

 

 

Futures Markets and the Absurdity of Capitalism

This article is part of my posts on the economic system of distributism.  This is from practicaldistributism.blogspot.com which you can find here:

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Capitalism is often celebrated by its supporters as the only economic system that can really deliver the goods, the only way of arranging our economic activity that has or that can lift mankind out of its supposedly otherwise inevitable poverty. And it is the case, one must admit, that capitalism does act as a remarkable spur to the manufacture of stuff, all kinds of stuff, sometimes useful, but just as equally useless or even harmful – anything, in fact, that the producer thinks can be marketed. But production of goods, even useless goods, is not the hallmark of capitalism. Rather capitalism, understood as the separation of ownership and work, has as its unique attribute not production, but selling, even, as we are about to see, selling of things that really do not exist.

The human race has always grown or otherwise gathered food, and there has probably always existed some kinds of exchange. But the growing or obtaining of food and the exchange of one desired object for another was always seen as a subordinate part of the life of the human race. Obtaining food was for the sake of living, exchange was for the sake of living better. But with capitalism this common-sense relationship of means and ends is very often perverted. Now all production is for the sake of exchange, social life becomes subordinated to the processes of production and exchange, and they in turn become subordinated to more exotic economic practices. This is because the capitalist imperative is always more sales, more profit, more speculative ways of making money, without any inherent limit or even a notion of what all this activity is for, except for the enrichment of those who own or control the economic processes. Capitalism as the separation of ownership from work creates a class of individuals who are removed from the production of useful objects and who regard the objects produced as primarily commodities to be sold, rather than useful goods to be consumed. Hence the imperative for more sales, ever increasing profits and market share, regardless of demand, because there is no natural limit, no end for which one is striving and with which, when obtained, one is satisfied. Let us look at the interesting example of the futures market in grain and see what we can learn from it as to the nature of the capitalist approach to organizing an economy.

In his book, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, William Cronon discusses among other topics how the grain trade gave rise to the futures’ market in agricultural products. This account shows the absurdity of economic activity divorced from any rational end, and eventually even from a real product, the purposeless kind of economics fostered by capitalism. As long as something makes money for those who own or control it, capitalism cares nothing for whether the activity actually contributes anything toward meeting mankind’s real needs for goods and services.

Originally, as has generally been the case with mankind, grain grown on the prairies of Illinois and neighboring states was a means of feeding the farmer, his family and his near neighbors. But as it became an item to be shipped and sold, and eventually turned into a commodity future at the Chicago Board of Trade, we can see the transformation of a human and natural object into the abstraction of a commodity, something regarded as merely a means of profit.

A certain amount of grain trading and shipping existed from the early 19th century using water transportation. But this was slow and awkward and did not reach every place. Before there could be a transformation in the understanding of grain, there had to be a more efficient means of transportation. This was provided by the railroads, which were built mostly to facilitate the capitalist imperative to totally commercialize every aspect of life. If people had thought of grain as primarily a food to be consumed pretty much where it was grown, then the huge railroad network of the Mid-West would probably never have come into existence, since the existing modest means of transportation would have sufficed. Thus to extend and fully implement the capitalist transformation of wheat from a food into a commodity, the railway system first had to exist. The building of the railroad network transformed not only food exchange, but the environment, both natural and cultural of the region and the nation. Capitalism, then, both building upon and transforming the human vice of greed, powerfully shaped the entire culture and violently captured such pre-capitalist aspects of society as food production and local exchange and bent them to its purposes.

The existence of the railroad network enabled farmers to conceive of themselves not as growers of food for consumption but as producers of a commodity. Grain was shipped via the railroads to Chicago where it was held in large grain elevators for eventual shipment to the East coast. Originally the ownership of any particular sack of grain was retained by the farmer who harvested it. But naturally sacks of grain differed from each other significantly in quality. The storage of these sacks in grain elevators created a problem: “elevator operators began objecting to keeping small quantities of different owners’ grain in separate bins that were only partially filled…. To avoid that…, they sought to mix grain in common bins.” To do this required some system of grain standardization or grading. After such a system was created it became possible for the elevator owners to contract for sale of a certain quantity of a certain grade of wheat, with no reference to any particular sack of wheat actually existing anywhere. But because of the ever-changing price of grain, sellers and buyers soon realized that they could essentially bet against the future price by contracting in the present for sale or purchase of a definite quantity of grain at some future date, hoping that the price would increase or decrease to their benefit by the time of the actual sale. Ultimately this created the final absurdity:

…futures contracts [which] were essentially interchangeable and could be bought and sold quite independently of the physical grain… Moreover, the seller…did not necessarily even have to deliver grain on the day it fell due. As long as the buyer was willing, the two could settle their transaction by simply exchanging the difference between the grain’s contracted price and its market price when the contract expired. [They] could complete their transaction without any grain ever changing hands…. The futures market was a market not in grain but in the price of grain…one bought and sold not wheat or corn or oats but the prices of those goods as they would exist at a future time. Speculators made and lost money by selling each other legally binding forecasts of how much grain prices would rise or fall.

Grain went from being a means for feeding the population of farmers and others who lived nearby, to being centrally stored in bins in Chicago and shipped throughout the Northeast United States and into Canada, into being merely a symbol, but nevertheless a symbol that enabled speculators to engage in exchange. The contracts themselves have become a commodity to be bought and sold, but the contracts now have no necessary connection with any object of real economic value.

Despite its claim to be the only economic system that can produce sufficient goods to satisfy mankind’s needs, capitalism is really not interested in production at all, except as that can serve sales. It is interested in moneymaking, to be sure, but moneymaking by nearly any means that one can concoct. It might seem obvious, for example, that the financial sector would be a modest adjunct of the more primary economic activities of production or even exchange, sometimes necessary, often helpful, but always subordinate. But frequently someone can make more money by a merger or buyout, which often results in a decrease in real economic activity, than by actual production.

It should be obvious that mankind’s economic activity exists to serve our need for external goods and services. Thus economic activity must always be subordinate to the genuine needs and interests of humanity. But when economic activity is seen as basically a means of getting rich by almost any method, it is apt to become entirely divorced from meeting our real economic needs. The economy becomes essentially a private playground for those with enough skill or money to manipulate it in their favor. Pope Pius XI wrote with regard to such types of economic manipulation, “A stern insistence on the moral law, enforced with vigor by civil authority, could have dispelled or perhaps averted these enormous evils” (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 133). But this is too rarely the case in a capitalist, commercial society, where indeed as Karl Polanyi noted, “society itself becomes an `adjunct’ of the market.”

You can learn more about this issue here.

May 2018, “The Evangelist” Newsletter from St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, Abington, PA

The Evangelist is the monthly newsletter of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Abington, Pennsylvania.  The May 2018 issue of The Evangelist is now out which you can read here.

Something is wrong on the internet

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in Medium which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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I’m James Bridle. I’m a writer and artist concerned with technology and culture. I usually write on my own blog, but frankly I don’t want what I’m talking about here anywhere near my own site. Please be advised: this essay describes disturbing things and links to disturbing graphic and video content. You don’t have to read it, and are advised to take caution exploring further.

As someone who grew up on the internet, I credit it as one of the most important influences on who I am today. I had a computer with internet access in my bedroom from the age of 13. It gave me access to a lot of things which were totally inappropriate for a young teenager, but it was OK. The culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships which I consider to be central to my identity were shaped by the internet, in ways that I have always considered to be beneficial to me personally. I have always been a critical proponent of the internet and everything it has brought, and broadly considered it to be emancipatory and beneficial. I state this at the outset because thinking through the implications of the problem I am going to describe troubles my own assumptions and prejudices in significant ways.

One of the thus-far hypothetical questions I ask myself frequently is how I would feel about my own children having the same kind of access to the internet today. And I find the question increasingly difficult to answer. I understand that this is a natural evolution of attitudes which happens with age, and at some point this question might be a lot less hypothetical. I don’t want to be a hypocrite about it. I would want my kids to have the same opportunities to explore and grow and express themselves as I did. I would like them to have that choice. And this belief broadens into attitudes about the role of the internet in public life as whole.

I’ve also been aware for some time of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between younger children and YouTube. I see kids engrossed in screens all the time, in pushchairs and in restaurants, and there’s always a bit of a Luddite twinge there, but I am not a parent, and I’m not making parental judgments for or on anyone else. I’ve seen family members and friend’s children plugged into Peppa Pig and nursery rhyme videos, and it makes them happy and gives everyone a break, so OK.

But I don’t even have kids and right now I just want to burn the whole thing down.

Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level. Much of what I am going to describe next has been covered elsewhere, although none of the mainstream coverage I’ve seen has really grasped the implications of what seems to be occurring.

To begin: Kid’s YouTube is definitely and markedly weird. I’ve been aware of its weirdness for some time. Last year, there were a number of articles posted about the Surprise Egg craze. Surprise Eggs videos depict, often at excruciating length, the process of unwrapping Kinder and other egg toys. That’s it, but kids are captivated by them. There are thousands and thousands of these videos and thousands and thousands, if not millions, of children watching them.

From the article linked above:

The maker of my particular favorite videos is “Blu Toys Surprise Brinquedos & Juegos,” and since 2010 he seems to have accrued 3.7 million subscribers and just under 6 billion views for a kid-friendly channel entirely devoted to opening surprise eggs and unboxing toys. The video titles are a continuous pattern of obscure branded lines and tie-ins: “Surprise Play Doh Eggs Peppa Pig Stamper Cars Pocoyo Minecraft Smurfs Kinder Play Doh Sparkle Brilho,” “Cars Screamin’ Banshee Eats Lightning McQueen Disney Pixar,” “Disney Baby Pop Up Pals Easter Eggs SURPRISE.”

As I write this he has done a total of 4,426 videos and counting. With so many views — for comparison, Justin Bieber’s official channel has more than 10 billion views, while full-time YouTube celebrity PewDiePie has nearly 12 billion — it’s likely this man makes a living as a pair of gently murmuring hands that unwrap Kinder eggs. (Surprise-egg videos are all accompanied by pre-roll, and sometimes mid-video and ads.)

That should give you some idea of just how odd the world of kids online video is, and that list of video titles hints at the extraordinary range and complexity of this situation. We’ll get into the latter in a minute; for the moment know that it’s already very strange, if apparently pretty harmless, out there.

Another huge trope, especially the youngest children, is nursery rhyme videos.

Little Baby Bum, which made the above video, is the 7th most popular channel on YouTube. With just 515 videos, they have accrued 11.5 million subscribers and 13 billion views. Again, there are questions as to the accuracy of these numbers, which I’ll get into shortly, but the key point is that this is a huge, huge network and industry.

On-demand video is catnip to both parents and to children, and thus to content creators and advertisers. Small children are mesmerised by these videos, whether it’s familiar characters and songs, or simply bright colours and soothing sounds. The length of many of these videos — one common video tactic is to assemble many nursery rhyme or cartoon episodes into hour+ compilations —and the way that length is marketed as part of the video’s appeal, points to the amount of time some kids are spending with them.

YouTube broadcasters have thus developed a huge number of tactics to draw parents’ and childrens’ attention to their videos, and the advertising revenues that accompany them. The first of these tactics is simply to copy and pirate other content. A simple search for “Peppa Pig” on YouTube in my case yielded “About 10,400,000 results” and the front page is almost entirely from the verified “Peppa Pig Official Channel”, while one is from an unverified channel called Play Go Toys, which you really wouldn’t notice unless you were looking out for it:

Play Go Toys’ channel consists of (I guess?) pirated Peppa Pig and other cartoons, videos of toy unboxings (another kid magnet), and videos of, one supposes, the channel owner’s own children. I am not alleging anything bad about Play Go Toys; I am simply illustrating how the structure of YouTube facilitates the delamination of content and author, and how this impacts on our awareness and trust of its source.

As another blogger notes, one of the traditional roles of branded content is that it is a trusted source. Whether it’s Peppa Pig on children’s TV or a Disney movie, whatever one’s feelings about the industrial model of entertainment production, they are carefully produced and monitored so that kids are essentially safe watching them, and can be trusted as such. This no longer applies when brand and content are disassociated by the platform, and so known and trusted content provides a seamless gateway to unverified and potentially harmful content.

(Yes, this is the exact same process as the delamination of trusted news media on Facebook feeds and in Google results that is currently wreaking such havoc on our cognitive and political systems and I am not going to explicitly explore that relationship further here, but it is obviously deeply significant.)

A second way of increasing hits on videos is through keyword/hashtag association, which is a whole dark art unto itself. When some trend, such as Surprise Egg videos, reaches critical mass, content producers pile onto it, creating thousands and thousands more of these videos in every possible iteration. This is the origin of all the weird names in the list above: branded content and nursery rhyme titles and “surprise egg” all stuffed into the same word salad to capture search results, sidebar placement, and “up next” autoplay rankings.

A striking example of the weirdness is the Finger Family videos (harmless example embedded above). I have no idea where they came from or the origin of the children’s rhyme at the core of the trope, but there are at least 17 million versions of this currently on YouTube, and again they cover every possible genre, with billions and billions of aggregated views.

Once again, the view numbers of these videos must be taken under serious advisement. A huge number of these videos are essentially created by bots and viewed by bots, and even commented on by bots. That is a whole strange world in and of itself. But it shouldn’t obscure that there are also many actual children, plugged into iphones and tablets, watching these over and over again — in part accounting for the inflated view numbers — learning to type basic search terms into the browser, or simply mashing the sidebar to bring up another video.

What I find somewhat disturbing about the proliferation of even (relatively) normal kids videos is the impossibility of determining the degree of automation which is at work here; how to parse out the gap between human and machine. The example above, from a channel called Bounce Patrol Kids, with almost two million subscribers, show this effect in action. It posts professionally produced videos, with dedicated human actors, at the rate of about one per week. Once again, I am not alleging anything untoward about Bounce Patrol, which clearly follows in the footsteps of pre-digital kid sensations like their fellow Australians The Wiggles.

And yet, there is something weird about a group of people endlessly acting out the implications of a combination of algorithmically generated keywords: “Halloween Finger Family & more Halloween Songs for Children | Kids Halloween Songs Collection”, “Australian Animals Finger Family Song | Finger Family Nursery Rhymes”, “Farm Animals Finger Family and more Animals Songs | Finger Family Collection – Learn Animals Sounds”, “Safari Animals Finger Family Song | Elephant, Lion, Giraffe, Zebra & Hippo! Wild Animals for kids”, “Superheroes Finger Family and more Finger Family Songs! Superhero Finger Family Collection”, “Batman Finger Family Song — Superheroes and Villains! Batman, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman” and on and on and on. This is content production in the age of algorithmic discovery — even if you’re a human, you have to end up impersonating the machine.

Other channels do away with the human actors to create infinite reconfigurable versions of the same videos over and over again. What is occurring here is clearly automated. Stock animations, audio tracks, and lists of keywords being assembled in their thousands to produce an endless stream of videos. The above channel, Videogyan 3D Rhymes — Nursery Rhymes & Baby Songs, posts several videos a week, in increasingly byzantine combinations of keywords. They have almost five million subscribers — more than double Bounce Patrol — although once again it’s impossible to know who or what is actually racking up these millions and millions of views.

I’m trying not to turn this essay into an endless list of examples, but it’s important to grasp how vast this system is, and how indeterminate its actions, process, and audience. It’s also international: there are variations of Finger Family and Learn Colours videos for Tamil epics and Malaysian cartoonswhich are unlikely to pop up in any Anglophone search results. This very indeterminacy and reach is key to its existence, and its implications. Its dimensionality makes it difficult to grasp, or even to really think about.

We’ve encountered pretty clear examples of the disturbing outcomes of full automation before — some of which have been thankfully leavened with a dark kind of humour, others not so much. Much has been made of the algorithmic interbreeding of stock photo libraries and on-demand production of everything from tshirts to coffee mugs to infant onesies and cell phone covers. The above example, available until recently on Amazon, is one such case, and the story of how it came to occur is fascinating and weird but essentially comprehensible. Nobody set out to create phone cases with drugs and medical equipment on them, it was just a deeply weird mathematical/probabilistic outcome. The fact that it took a while to notice might ring some alarm bells however.

Likewise, the case of the “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot” tshirts (along with the “Keep Calm and Knife Her” and “Keep Calm and Hit Her” ones) is depressing and distressing but comprehensible. Nobody set out to create these shirts: they just paired an unchecked list of verbs and pronouns with an online image generator. It’s quite possible that none of these shirts ever physically existed, were ever purchased or worn, and thus that no harm was done. Once again though, the people creating this content failed to notice, and neither did the distributor. They literally had no idea what they were doing.

What I will argue, on the basis of these cases and of those I’m going to describe further, is that the scale and logic of the system is complicit in these outputs, and requires us to think through their implications.

(Also again: I’m not going to dig into the wider social implications of such processes outside the scope of what I am writing about here, but it’s clear that one can draw a clear line from examples such as these to pressing contemporary issues such as racial and gender bias in big data and machine intelligence-driven systems, which require urgent attention but in the same manner do not have anything resembling easy or even preferable solutions.)

Let’s look at just one video among the piles of kid videos, and try to parse out where it comes from. It’s important to stress that I didn’t set out to find this particular video: it appeared organically and highly ranked in a search for ‘finger family’ in an incognito browser window (i.e. it should not have been influenced by previous searches). This automation takes us to very, very strange places, and at this point the rabbithole is so deep that it’s impossible to know how such a thing came into being.

Once again, a content warning: this video is not inappropriate in any way, but it is decidedly off, and contains elements which might trouble anyone. It’s very mild on the scale of such things, but. I describe it below if you don’t want to watch it and head down that road. This warning will recur.

The above video is entitled Wrong Heads Disney Wrong Ears Wrong Legs Kids Learn Colors Finger Family 2017 Nursery Rhymes. The title alone confirms its automated provenance. I have no idea where the “Wrong Heads” trope originates, but I can imagine, as with the Finger Family Song, that somewhere there is a totally original and harmless version that made enough kids laugh that it started to climb the algorithmic rankings until it made it onto the word salad lists, combining with Learn Colors, Finger Family, and Nursery Rhymes, and all of these tropes — not merely as words but as images, processes, and actions — to be mixed into what we see here.

The video consists of a regular version of the Finger Family song played over an animation of character heads and bodies from Disney’s Aladdin swapping and intersecting. Again, this is weird but frankly no more than the Surprise Egg videos or anything else kids watch. I get how innocent it is. The offness creeps in with the appearance of a non-Aladdin character —Agnes, the little girl from Despicable Me. Agnes is the arbiter of the scene: when the heads don’t match up, she cries, when they do, she cheers.

The video’s creator, BABYFUN TV (screenshot above), has produced many similar videos. As many of the Wrong Heads videos as I could bear to watch all work in exactly the same way. The character Hope from Inside Out weeps through a Smurfs and Trolls head swap. It goes on and on. I get the game, but the constant overlaying and intermixing of different tropes starts to get inside you. BABYFUN TV only has 170 subscribers and very low view rates, but then there are thousands and thousands of channels like this. Numbers in the long tail aren’t significant in the abstract, but in their accumulation.

The question becomes: how did this come to be? The “Bad Baby” trope also present on BABYFUN TV features the same crying. While I find it disturbing, I can understand how it might provide some of the rhythm or cadence or relation to their own experience that actual babies are attracted to in this content, although it has been warped and stretched through algorithmic repetition and recombination in ways that I don’t think anyone actually wants to happen.

Screenshot from Toy Freaks channel

[Edit, 21/11/2017: Following the publication of this article, the Toy Freaks channel was removed by YouTube as part of a widespread removal of contentious content.]

Toy Freaks is a hugely popular channel (68th on the platform) which features a father and his two daughters playing out — or in some cases perhaps originating — many of the tropes we’ve identified so far, including “Bad Baby”, (previously embedded above). As well as nursery rhymes and learning colours, Toy Freaks specialises in gross-out situations, as well as activities which many, many viewers feel border on abuse and exploitation, if not cross the line entirely, including videos of the children vomiting and in pain. Toy Freaks is a YouTube verified channel, whatever that means. (I think we know by now it means nothing useful.)

As with Bounce Patrol Kids, however you feel about the content of these videos, it feels impossible to know where the automation starts and ends, who is coming up with the ideas and who is roleplaying them. In turn, the amplification of tropes in popular, human-led channels such as Toy Freaks leads to them being endlessly repeated across the network in increasingly outlandish and distorted recombinations.

There’s a second level of what I’m characterising as human-led videos which are much more disturbing than the mostly distasteful activities of Toy Freaks and their kin. Here is a relatively mild, but still upsetting example:

A step beyond the simply pirated Peppa Pig videos mentioned previously are the knock-offs. These too seem to teem with violence. In the official Peppa Pig videos, Peppa does indeed go to the dentist, and the episode in which she does so seems to be popular — although, confusingly, what appears to be the real episode is only available on an unofficial channel. In the official timeline, Peppa is appropriately reassured by a kindly dentist. In the version above, she is basically tortured, before turning into a series of Iron Man robots and performing the Learn Colours dance. A search for “peppa pig dentist” returns the above video on the front page, and it only gets worse from here.

[Edit, 21/11/2017: the original video cited here has now been removed as part of YouTube’s recent purge, although many similar videos remain on the platform.]

Disturbing Peppa Pig videos, which tend towards extreme violence and fear, with Peppa eating her father or drinking bleach, are, it turns out very widespread. They make up an entire YouTube subculture. Many are obviously parodies, or even satires of themselves, in the pretty common style of the internet’s outrageous, deliberately offensive kind. All the 4chan tropes are there, the trolls are out, we know this.

In the example above, the agency is less clear: the video starts with a trollish Peppa parody, but later syncs into the kind of automated repetition of tropes we’ve seen already. I don’t know which camp it belongs to. Maybe it’s just trolls. I kind of hope it is. But I don’t think so. Trolls don’t cover the intersection of human actors and more automated examples further down the line. They’re at play here, but they’re not the whole story.

I suppose it’s naive not to see the deliberate versions of this coming, but many are so close to the original, and so unsignposted — like the dentist example — that many, many kids are watching them. I understand that most of them are not trying to mess kids up, not really, even though they are.

I’m trying to understand why, as plainly and simply troubling as it is, this is not a simple matter of “won’t somebody think of the children” hand-wringing. Obviously this content is inappropriate, obviously there are bad actors out there, obviously some of these videos should be removed. Obviously too this raises questions of fair use, appropriation, free speech and so on. But reports which simply understand the problem through this lens fail to fully grasp the mechanisms being deployed, and thus are incapable of thinking its implications in totality, and responding accordingly.

The New York Times, headlining their article on a subset of this issue “On YouTube Kids, Startling Videos Slip Past Filters”, highlights the use of knock-off characters and nursery rhymes in disturbing content, and frames it as a problem of moderation and legislation. YouTube Kids, an official app which claims to be kid-safe but is quite obviously not, is the problem identified, because it wrongly engenders trust in users. An article in the British tabloid The Sun, “Kids left traumatised after sick YouTube clips showing Peppa Pig characters with knives and guns appear on app for children” takes the same line, with an added dose of right-wing technophobia and self-righteousness. But both stories take at face value YouTube’s assertions that these results are incredibly rare and quickly removed: assertions utterly refuted by the proliferation of the stories themselves, and the growing number of social media posts, largely by concerned parents, from which they arise.

But as with Toy Freaks, what is concerning to me about the Peppa videos is how the obvious parodies and even the shadier knock-offs interact with the legions of algorithmic content producers until it is completely impossible to know what is going on. (“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”)

Here’s what is basically a version of Toy Freaks produced in Asia (screenshot above). Here’s one from Russia. I don’t really want to use the term “human-led” any more about these videos, although they contain all the same tropes and actual people acting them out. I no longer have any idea what’s going on here and I really don’t want to and I’m starting to think that that is kind of the point. That’s part of why I’m starting to think about the deliberateness of this all. There is a lot of effort going into making these. More than spam revenue can generate — can it? Who’s writing these scripts, editing these videos? Once again, I want to stress: this is still really mild, even funny stuff compared to a lot of what is out there.

Here are a few things which are disturbing me:

The first is the level of horror and violence on display. Some of the times it’s troll-y gross-out stuff; most of the time it seems deeper, and more unconscious than that. The internet has a way of amplifying and enabling many of our latent desires; in fact, it’s what it seems to do best. I spend a lot of time arguing for this tendency, with regards to human sexual freedom, individual identity, and other issues. Here, and overwhelmingly it sometimes feels, that tendency is itself a violent and destructive one.

The second is the levels of exploitation, not of children because they are children but of children because they are powerless. Automated reward systems like YouTube algorithms necessitate exploitation in the same way that capitalism necessitates exploitation, and if you’re someone who bristles at the second half of that equation then maybe this should be what convinces you of its truth. Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against. Not in a future of AI overlords and robots in the factories, but right here, now, on your screen, in your living room and in your pocket.

Many of these latest examples confound any attempt to argue that nobody is actually watching these videos, that these are all bots. There are humans in the loop here, even if only on the production side, and I’m pretty worried about them too.

I’ve written enough, too much, but I feel like I actually need to justify all this raving about violence and abuse and automated systems with an example that sums it up. Maybe after everything I’ve said you won’t think it’s so bad. I don’t know what to think any more.

[Edit, 21/11/2017: the original video cited here has now been removed as part of YouTube’s recent purge, although many similar videos remain on the platform. The video used animations from the Grand Theft Auto game series overlaid with cartoon characters assaulting, killing, and burying one another.]

This video, BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video, contains all of the elements we’ve covered above, and takes them to another level. Familiar characters, nursery tropes, keyword salad, full automation, violence, and the very stuff of kids’ worst dreams. And of course there are vast, vast numbers of these videos. Channel after channel after channel of similar content, churned out at the rate of hundreds of new videos every week. Industrialised nightmare production.

For the final time: There is more violent and more sexual content like this available. I’m not going to link to it. I don’t believe in traumatising other people, but it’s necessary to keep stressing it, and not dismiss the psychological effect on children of things which aren’t overtly disturbing to adults, just incredibly dark and weird.

A friend who works in digital video described to me what it would take to make something like this: a small studio of people (half a dozen, maybe more) making high volumes of low quality content to reap ad revenue by tripping certain requirements of the system (length in particular seems to be a factor). According to my friend, online kids’ content is one of the few alternative ways of making money from 3D animation because the aesthetic standards are lower and independent production can profit through scale. It uses existing and easily available content (such as character models and motion-capture libraries) and it can be repeated and revised endlessly and mostly meaninglessly because the algorithms don’t discriminate — and neither do the kids.

These videos, wherever they are made, however they come to be made, and whatever their conscious intention (i.e. to accumulate ad revenue) are feeding upon a system which was consciously intended to show videos to children for profit. The unconsciously-generated, emergent outcomes of that are all over the place.

To expose children to this content is abuse. We’re not talking about the debatable but undoubtedly real effects of film or videogame violence on teenagers, or the effects of pornography or extreme images on young minds, which were alluded to in my opening description of my own teenage internet use. Those are important debates, but they’re not what is being discussed here. What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal.

This, I think, is my point: The system is complicit in the abuse.

And right now, right here, YouTube and Google are complicit in that system. The architecture they have built to extract the maximum revenue from online video is being hacked by persons unknown to abuse children, perhaps not even deliberately, but at a massive scale. I believe they have an absolute responsibility to deal with this, just as they have a responsibility to deal with the radicalisation of (mostly) young (mostly) men via extremist videos — of any political persuasion. They have so far showed absolutely no inclination to do this, which is in itself despicable. However, a huge part of my troubled response to this issue is that I have no idea how they can respond without shutting down the service itself, and most systems which resemble it. We have built a world which operates at scale, where human oversight is simply impossible, and no manner of inhuman oversight will counter most of the examples I’ve used in this essay. The asides I’ve kept in parentheses throughout, if expanded upon, would allow one with minimal effort to rewrite everything I’ve said, with very little effort, to be not about child abuse, but about white nationalism, about violent religious ideologies, about fake news, about climate denialism, about 9/11 conspiracies.

This is a deeply dark time, in which the structures we have built to sustain ourselves are being used against us — all of us — in systematic and automated ways. It is hard to keep faith with the network when it produces horrors such as these. While it is tempting to dismiss the wilder examples as trolling, of which a significant number certainly are, that fails to account for the sheer volume of content weighted in a particularly grotesque direction. It presents many and complexly entangled dangers, including that, just as with the increasing focus on alleged Russian interference in social media, such events will be used as justification for increased control over the internet, increasing censorship, and so on. This is not what many of us want.

I’m going to stop here, saying only this:

What concerns me is not just the violence being done to children here, although that concerns me deeply. What concerns me is that this is just one aspect of a kind of infrastructural violence being done to all of us, all of the time, and we’re still struggling to find a way to even talk about it, to describe its mechanisms and its actions and its effects. As I said at the beginning of this essay: this is being done by people and by things and by a combination of things and people. Responsibility for its outcomes is impossible to assign but the damage is very, very real indeed.

By James Bridle and published in Medium on November 6, 2017 and can be found here.

Tactical Retreat: Erectile Dysfunction Commercial

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

Inside America’s Largest Religious Revival You Know Nothing About [the religion of Athletica]

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Federalist which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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For decades, demographic studies have indicated the steady decline of religion in America, but new measures suggest that, on the contrary, at least one religion in America is alive and well, thriving in every community, and claiming devoted adherents in nearly every household.

This new religious revival has remained under the radar in large part because its adherents do not claim any religious attachment to this social institution, but by every measure of behaviors typically associated with religion, it is deceitful to label it as anything less. Although it shies away from adopting an overarching organization or name for itself, for the purposes of this study, it will be considered under the name Athletica.

Forget One Service For Week. We Have Daily Meetings

Whereas in traditional American Christianity followers would regularly meet together once or twice a week (a timetable most now find unduly onerous), members of Athletica gather four, five, six, or even seven days a week. Despite the significant time demands, the families of adherents dutifully and unflinchingly keep these meeting commitments and accept as normal the stringent penalties imparted to those who miss a gathering—penalties usually enacted by limiting the devotee’s rights of participation in important group ceremonies.

Nor are the youngest members of Athletica uninitiated in their family’s devotion. Athletica parents regularly begin teaching their children its basic skills as soon as they are able to toddle, and some begin their benevolent indoctrination well before that by dressing their infants in tiny versions of the liturgical vestments. By age four or five, their parents have already catechized most of these youngsters in the basic tenets of Athletica, though this pious education will continue to deepen through daily family conversations, oral and written retellings of important historical moments in Athletica, and inclusion in the essential Athletica ceremonies.

Eager young zealots of elementary age and upward often relish memorizing not only the many Athletica rules, but also masses of historical information about specific persons and events. Although it is hard to believe such memorization would be undertaken voluntarily, there is no trace of a “drill and kill” mentality about this phenomenon. These youngsters apparently love this imparted faith enough that they simply cannot help trying to absorb everything about it that they can, and they especially find pleasure in learning of the great heroes of Athletica’s past, whom they inevitably long to emulate.

Start ‘Em Young for Optimal Results

It will, for instance, provide child-sized items when physical stature would otherwise prevent participation, but in most ways teaches children through full involvement. The astonishing result of interacting with its children through the sometimes daunting vocabulary and directives of the adult adherents is that these youngest disciples prove all the more eager to learn the tenets of Athletica and to mature into full membership.

Around the time of elementary or middle school age, children deemed physically and mentally ready begin to adopt the ascetic lifestyle of Athletica. Depending upon the particular denominational strain, parents will insist either that children rise well before sunup to practice for several hours in Athletica training or that such practice be dutifully performed immediately after school. Some adherents do both.

Late evening hours and weekends are reserved for the equivalent of local and regional worship services, at which Athletica adherents gather corporately, following intricate and time-honored liturgies that can often appear as a tangle of somewhat arbitrary rules to the uninitiate, but which perceptibly rouse Athletica followers into heights of emotional experience.

So Dedicated, This Religion Affects Food and Sleep

Those most dedicated to this life will carefully regulate their sleep to ensure supreme attunement and awareness in the practice of Athletica. Attaining sufficient sleep in the midst of such a demanding schedule can be difficult, but most adherents find that short nights due to Athletica events can be compensated for by using times formerly set aside for other religious activities (e.g. Sunday mornings) to gain extra hours of sleep.

Of course, not every child demonstrates the natural ability to progress to the highest levels of Athletica. However, as in churches of yore, there is room in this religion not only for those who will carry out the priestly duties but also for devoted laity. While tens of thousands participate actively in the life of Athletica at the local level, hundreds of thousands participate in less all-consuming fashion at the national level, transferring hope for their own advancement into hope for vicarious vindication through the advancement of others.

Long before more traditional religious groups thought of using media as a means for finding and retaining converts, Athletica had a well-established presence in radio, television, and internet. Its devotees are therefore long-accustomed to setting aside Sabbath times when Athletica events will be broadcast and to treating these devotional times as sacred. Despite the physical disconnectedness of these media-based believers, such Athletica followers display an astonishing level of knowledge, fervor, and devotion. The younger members of such “observer” Athletica families sometimes even surpass their “participant” peers in sheer memorization of knowledge.

This is clearly reflected in the eagerness of the laity to clothe themselves fittingly for their observance of Athletica rituals. Far from the prevailing Christian drift toward an “anything goes” mentality of dress for religious occasions, Athletica followers put surprising amounts of care and expense into the clothes they wear, even when participating in their own homes via televised events.

The Dark Side of This Popular Religion

This popular religion does have a dark side. Alarmingly, it is not uncommon for those striving to advance through the ranks of Athletica to suffer chronic pain or serious injury from their devout exertions. However, it is a tribute to the depth of conviction Athletica elicits in most of its followers that this does not deter them from persisting in their daily routines. Almost universally, the response to such suffering is that it is simply part of the affliction that must be borne in the Athletica life, and that they endure such pain because of the glory for which they hope.

Underlying all these devoted practices is the recurring theme that for its faithful, Athletica is more than a religion to attend to for a couple hours per week.

For, like every religion, Athletica does offer its devotees a form of hope. In comparison to more traditional religions that typically offer extravagant rewards (e.g., life after death, forgiveness of terrible sins) to virtually any willing convert, Athletica is a more stringent and elitist sect. Its promise is of financial gain and personal glory, but only for the most elect.

Of the tens of thousands who hope for financial reward through Athletica, only 2 percent will be granted their desire. Of those who work to earn a spot in the highest ranks of the Athletica hierarchy, hardly more than one out of a thousand will find their hope fulfilled. Interestingly, though, Athletica adherents commonly convince themselves that they (or more often, their children) will be among the favored few, despite statistical data to the contrary, and many who hope for the financial gain accompanying such advancement fail to recognize the more significant financial outlays they have unquestioningly offered up on its proverbial altars.

Underlying all these devoted practices is the recurring theme that for its faithful, Athletica is more than a religion to attend to for a couple hours per week. It is a complete lifestyle and way of thinking. A rudimentary calculation reveals that Athletica devotees typically spend anywhere from five to ten times as many hours dedicating themselves to religious learning and activity as the typical weekly church-goer. Whereas Christians now tend to compartmentalize their religious and non-religious activity, Athletica adherents purposefully infuse their beliefs into every aspect of their lives, from finances to scheduling to family entertainment.

Unquestionably, the ongoing success of Athletica is rooted in its centrality to the lives of its devotees. As Christianity fades in the West, dying from a desire to be like everything else except itself, Athletica has risen to the ascendance as the self-assured, pervasive cultural influence. Where the Judeo-Christian world has laid down its mantle, Athletica has picked it up, unwittingly following the directives of the Hebrew Bible to teach tenets of the faith to their children, “Talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

This depth of enculturation is most certainly the key to the trenchant, growing success of Athletica, which—by all reasonable evidence—has already replaced its rival religions in most American homes.

By Heather Smith and published on November 10, 2017  in The Federalist and can be found here.

Tactical Retreat: Vacation

My friend and co-worker Brian M. Lambert has founded an online sketch comedy project called Tactical Retreat which you can find here on Facebook and here on Youtube.

As Tactical Retreat releases new videos, I will post them here.  So far, I have found them rather funny and clever and they seem to get better with each release.

Here are the links to Tactical Retreat‘s previously released sketches:

The Illusionist

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The New Atlantis which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

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Daniel Dennett’s latest book marks five decades of majestic failure to explain consciousness.

David Bentley Hart

It seems to me that we have come this way before. Some of the signposts are new, perhaps — “Bacteria,” “Bach,” and so on — but the scenery looks very familiar, if now somewhat overgrown, and it is hard not to feel that the path is the same one that Daniel Dennett has been treading for five decades. I suppose it would be foolish to expect anything else. As often as not, it is the questions we fail to ask — and so the presuppositions we leave intact — that determine the courses our arguments take; and Dennett has been studiously avoiding the same set of questions for most of his career.

In a sense, the entire logic of From Bacteria to Bach and Back (though not, of course, all the repetitious details) could be predicted simply from Dennett’s implicit admission on page 364 that no philosopher of mind before Descartes is of any consequence to his thinking. The whole pre-modern tradition of speculation on the matter — Aristotle, Plotinus, the Schoolmen, Ficino, and so on — scarcely qualifies as prologue. And this means that, no matter how many times he sets out, all his journeys can traverse only the same small stretch of intellectual territory. After all, Descartes was remarkable not because, as Dennett claims, his vision was especially “vivid and compelling” — in comparison to the subtleties of earlier theories, it was crude, bizarre, and banal — but simply because no one before him had attempted systematically to situate mental phenomena within a universe otherwise understood as a mindless machine. It was only thus that the “problem” of the mental was born.

The modern scientific novum organum — as Francis Bacon dubbed the new rationality that he hoped would replace classical and medieval sophistries — achieved its first systematic expression in the seventeenth century. With its ambition to perfect a method of pure induction, it proposed to the imagination the idea of a “real” physical world hidden behind the apparent one, an occult realm of pure material causation, utterly devoid of all the properties of mind, most especially intentional purposes. From at least the time of Galileo, a division was introduced between what Wilfrid Sellars called the “manifest image” and the “scientific image” — between, that is, the phenomenal world we experience and that imperceptible order of purely material forces that composes its physical substrate. And, at least at first, the divorce was amicable, inasmuch as phenomenal qualities were still granted a certain legitimacy; they were simply surrendered to the custody of the immaterial soul. But mind was now conceived as an exception within the frame of nature.

In the pre-modern vision of things, the cosmos had been seen as an inherently purposive structure of diverse but integrally inseparable rational relations — for instance, the Aristotelian aitia, which are conventionally translated as “causes,” but which are nothing like the uniform material “causes” of the mechanistic philosophy. And so the natural order was seen as a reality already akin to intellect. Hence the mind, rather than an anomalous tenant of an alien universe, was instead the most concentrated and luminous expression of nature’s deepest essence. This is why it could pass with such wanton liberty through the “veil of Isis” and ever deeper into nature’s inner mysteries.

The Cartesian picture, by contrast, was a chimera, an ungainly and extrinsic alliance of antinomies. And reason abhors a dualism. Moreover, the sciences in their modern form aspire to universal explanation, ideally by way of the most comprehensive and parsimonious principles possible. So it was inevitable that what began as an imperfect method for studying concrete particulars would soon metastasize into a metaphysics of the whole of reality. The manifest image was soon demoted to sheer illusion, and the mind that perceived it to an emergent product of the real (which is to say, mindless) causal order.

Here, in this phantom space between the phenomenal and physical worlds, is just where the most interesting questions should probably be raised. But Dennett has no use for those. He is content with the stark choice with which the modern picture confronts us: to adopt either a Cartesian dualism or a thoroughgoing mechanistic monism. And this is rather a pity, since in fact both options are equally absurd.

Not that this is very surprising. After five decades, it would be astonishing if Dennett were to change direction now. But, by the same token, his project should over that time have acquired not only more complexity, but greater sophistication. And yet it has not. For instance, he still thinks it a solvent critique of Cartesianism to say that interactions between bodies and minds would violate the laws of physics. Apart from involving a particularly doctrinaire view of the causal closure of the physical (the positively Laplacian fantasy that all physical events constitute an inviolable continuum of purely physical causes), this argument clumsily assumes that such an interaction would constitute simply another mechanical exchange of energy in addition to material forces.

In the end, Dennett’s approach has remained largely fixed. Rather than a sequence of careful logical arguments, his method remains, as ever, essentially fabulous: That is, he constructs a grand speculative narrative, comprising a disturbing number of sheer assertions, and an even more disturbing number of missing transitions between episodes. It is often quite a beguiling tale, but its power of persuasion lies in its sprawling relentlessness rather than its cogency. Then again, to be fair, it is at least consistent in its aims. No less than the ancient Aristotelian model of reality, Dennett’s picture is meant to be one in which nature and mind are perfectly congruent with one another, and in which, therefore, the post-Cartesian dilemma need never rear its misshapen head.

Rather, however, than attempt to explain nature in terms of a “mind-like” order of rational relations, as Aristotelian tradition did, Dennett seeks to do very nearly the opposite: to reduce mind and nature alike to a computational system, which emerges from “uncomprehending competences,” as he calls them — small, particulate functions wholly unaware of the larger functions they accomplish in the aggregate — of the sort first fully understood by Alan Turing. And those functions, as retained, combined, and developed by the slow, diffident, mindless designing hand of natural selection, are — like the hugely intricate ensemble of discrete lines of code hiding behind the illusory simplicity of the icons on a computer’s screen — the real engines of everything that happens, hiding behind the phenomenal simplicity of perceptible nature.

In Dennett’s telling, it is all very obvious: Under certain chemical and environmental conditions, life will emerge in time and develop organisms with large brains, and these organisms will of necessity be social organisms. And social organisms require mental activity to survive and flourish. For Dennett, all evolutionary developments occur because they incorporate useful adaptations. He has no patience for talk of “spandrels” — phenotypic traits that are supposedly not adaptations but byproducts of the evolution of other traits — or of large, inexplicable, fortuitous hypertrophies (such as, say, the sudden acquisition of language) that have no specific evolutionary rationale at all.

So sanguine, in fact, is Dennett in his certainty that adaptive usefulness is sufficient explanation for why things happen that he often fails to consider whether the things that he claims have happened are, strictly speaking, possible. For him it seems evident that in the right circumstances, in time, natural selection will generate and preserve ever more competences without comprehension until, at some point of cumulative complexity, certain ensembles of those competences will become comprehension. Slowly, what we think of as self-awareness and reflective consciousness emerged from, and in fact remains wholly dependent upon, innumerable small, unconscious, discrete forces.

Exactly how all of this happens, of course — how physical causality is wondrously inverted into phenomenal awareness — is never quite clear. But for Dennett, once again, the distinction between the useful and the possible is a hazy one at best. And in a sense it hardly matters, since even the appearance of rational conscious agency, as something in addition to or formally distinguishable from those tiny competences underlying it, is for Dennett only a useful illusion; and, again, since usefulness explains all things — well, I shall return to this below.

In any event, something happened, and then there was language, which (once more) was very, very useful, and therefore naturally emerged, under the pressure of the social need to communicate, out of originally quite meaningless sounds and gestures. And once there were minds using language, culture evolved, and brains began shaping the reality they inhabited far more rapidly than the previous dynamisms of natural selection ever had. Even so, however, the process was more or less the same: an algorithmic distillation and recombination of “uncomprehending competences.”

Even the mental and cultural worlds were, it turns out, emergent results of such competences rather than consciously designing or designed realities. They were the product of “memes,” fragments of cultural usage that colonized and slowly reconfigured anthropoid brains and societies, and perished or survived according to the mindless logic of natural selection.

And that — though agonizingly protracted over several hundred pages — is the tale Dennett tells. Were it not for a half-dozen or so explanatory gaps, some of which are positively abyssal in size, it would no doubt amount to something more than just a ripping yarn. But, as it stands, it is nonsense.

Admittedly, part of the problem bedeviling Dennett’s narrative is the difficulty of making a case that seems so hard to reconcile with quotidian experience. But that difficulty is only exacerbated by his fierce adherence to an early modern style of materialism, according to whose tenets there can be no aspect of nature not reducible to blind physical forces. For him, the mechanistic picture, or its late modern equivalent, is absolute; it is convertible with truth as such, and whatever appears to escape its logic can never be more than a monstrosity of the imagination. But then the conscious mind constitutes a special dilemma, since this modern picture was produced precisely by excluding all mental properties from physical nature. And so, in this case, physicalist reduction means trying to explain one particular phenomenon — uniquely among all the phenomena of nature — by realities that are, in qualitative terms, quite literally its opposite.

Really, in this regard, we have progressed very little since Descartes’s day. The classical problems that mental events pose for physicalism remain as numerous and seemingly insoluble as ever. Before all else, there is the enigma of consciousness itself, and of the qualia (direct subjective impressions, such as color or tone) that inhabit it. There is simply no causal narrative — and probably never can be one — capable of uniting the phenomenologically discontinuous regions of “third-person” electrochemical brain events and “first-person” experiences, nor any imaginable science logically capable of crossing that absolute qualitative chasm.

Then there is the irreducible unity of apprehension, without which there could be no coherent perception of anything at all, not even disjunctions within experience. As Kant among others realized, this probably poses an insuperable difficulty for materialism. It is a unity that certainly cannot be reduced to some executive material faculty of the brain, as this would itself be a composite reality in need of unification by some still-more-original faculty, and so on forever, and whatever lay at the “end” of that infinite regress would already have to possess an inexplicable prior understanding of the diversity of experience that it organizes. For, even if we accept that the mind merely represents the world to itself under an assortment of convenient fictions, this would involve a translation of sense data into specific perceptions and meanings; and translation requires a competence transcending the difference between the original “text” and its rendition.

This problem, moreover, points toward the far more capacious and crucial one of mental intentionality as such — the mind’s pure directedness (such that its thoughts are about things), its interpretation of sense experience under determinate aspects and meanings, its movement toward particular ends, its power to act according to rationales that would appear nowhere within any inventory of antecedent physical causes. All of these indicate an irreducibly teleological structure to thought incongruous with a closed physical order supposedly devoid of purposive causality.

Similarly, there is the problem of the semantic and syntactic structure of rational thought, whose logically determined sequences seem impossible to reconcile with any supposed sufficiency of the continuous stream of physical causes occurring in the brain. And then there is the issue of abstraction, and its necessary priority over sense experience — the way, for instance, that primordial and irreducible concepts of causality and of discrete forms are required for any understanding of the world of events around us, or the way some concept of resemblance must already be in place before one is able to note likenesses and unlikenesses between things, or even the way in which the bare concepts of Euclidean geometry permit us to recognize their imperfect analogues in nature. And then, also, there are those more than abstract — in fact, transcendental — orientations of the mind, such as goodness or truth or beauty in the abstract, which appear to underlie every employment of thought and will, and yet which correspond to no concrete objects within nature. And so on and so forth.

Traditionally, most philosophical approaches to these issues have merely restated the problems without any real advance in clarity (theories of supervenience, for example), or tried awkwardly to evade them altogether (neutral monismmysterianism). Sometimes a certain fatigue with the inconclusiveness of simple reductionism has prompted vogues in more exotic naturalisms (say, materialist panpsychism or quantum theories of consciousness), but these simply defer the question to an atomic or subatomic level without in any way diminishing the enigma. In a sense, perhaps, Dennett should be commended for his fidelity to the purer reductionisms of early modernity. In its austere emergentism, his position is very near to eliminativism: Whatever cannot be reduced to the most basic physical explanations cannot really exist.

But, alas, his story does not hold together. Some of the problems posed by mental phenomena Dennett simply dismisses without adequate reason; others he ignores. Most, however, he attempts to prove are mere “user-illusions” generated by evolutionary history, even though this sometimes involves claims so preposterous as to verge on the deranged.

In every case, most of his argument consists in a small set of simple logical errors. The most conspicuous is one I think of as the “pleonastic fallacy”: the attempt to explain away an absolute qualitative difference — such as that between third-person physical events and first-person consciousness — by positing an indefinite number of minute quantitative steps, genetic or structural, supposedly sufficient to span the interval. Somewhere in the depths of phylogenic history something happened, and somewhere in the depths of our neurological machinery something happens, and both those somethings have accomplished within us an inversion of brute, mindless, physical causality into, at the very least, the appearance of unified intentional consciousness.

Then also there is Dennett’s tendency to confuse questions about natural capacities for questions about their contents, as when he repeatedly mistakes the issue of intrinsic, subjective, qualitative consciousness for the issue of the extrinsic, objective verifiability of the objects of consciousness; or as when he fails to distinguish between the mystery of rational thought as such and the simple etiological question of how sophisticated practices of reasoning might have evolved. And then there is what one might call his “Narcissan fallacy”: to wit, the tendency to mistake the reflection of human intentional agency in mindless objects, such as computers, for something analogous to a separate instance of mental agency. And then, also, there is his frequent failure to discern the difference between the literal and the metaphorical…. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Dennett is an orthodox neo-Darwinian, in the most gradualist of the sects. Everything in nature must for him be the result of a vast sequence of tiny steps. This is a fair enough position, but the burden of any narrative of emergence framed in those terms is that the stochastic logic of the tale must be guarded with untiring vigilance against any intrusion by “higher causes.” But, where consciousness is concerned, this may very well be an impossible task.

The heart of Dennett’s project, as I have said, is the idea of “uncomprehending competences,” molded by natural selection into the intricate machinery of mental existence. As a model of the mind, however, the largest difficulty this poses is that of producing a credible catalogue of competences that are not dependent for their existence upon the very mental functions they supposedly compose.

Certainly Dennett fails spectacularly in his treatment of the evolution of human language. As a confirmed gradualist in all things, he takes violent exception to any notion of an irreducible, innate, universal grammar, like that proposed by Noam Chomsky, Robert Berwick, Richard Lewontin, and others. He objects even when those theories reduce the vital evolutionary saltation between pre-linguistic and linguistic abilities to a single mutation, like the sudden appearance in evolutionary history of the elementary computational function called “Merge,” which supposedly all at once allowed for the syntactic combination of two distinct elements, such as a noun and a verb.

Fair enough. From Dennett’s perspective, after all, it would be hard to reconcile this universal grammar — an ability that necessarily began as an internal faculty of thought, dependent upon fully formed and discrete mental concepts, and only thereafter expressed itself in vocal signs — with a truly naturalist picture of reality. So, for Dennett, language must have arisen out of social practices of communication, rooted in basic animal gestures and sounds in an initially accidental association with features of the environment. Only afterward could these elements have become words, spreading and combining and developing into complex structures of reference. There must then, he assumes, have been “proto-languages” that have since died away, liminal systems of communication filling up the interval between animal vocalizations and human semiotic and syntactic capacities.

Unfortunately, this simply cannot be. There is no trace in nature even of primitive languages, let alone proto-languages; all languages possess a full hierarchy of grammatical constraints and powers. And this is not merely an argument from absence, like the missing fossils of all those dragons or unicorns that must have once existed. It is logically impossible even to reverse-engineer anything that would qualify as a proto-language. Every attempt to do so will turn out secretly to rely on the syntactic and semiotic functions of fully developed human language. But Dennett is quite right about how immense an evolutionary saltation the sudden emergence of language would really be. Even the simple algorithm of Merge involves, for instance, a crucial disjunction between what linguists call “structural proximity” and “linear proximity” — between, that is, a hypotactic or grammatical connection between parts of a sentence, regardless of their spatial and temporal proximity to one another, and the simple sequential ordering of signifiers in that sentence. Without such a disjunction, nothing resembling linguistic practice is possible; yet that disjunction can itself exist nowhere except in language.

Dennett, however, writes as if language were simply the cumulative product of countless physical ingredients. It begins, he suggests, in mere phonology. The repeated sound of a given word somehow embeds itself in the brain and creates an “anchor” that functions as a “collection point” for syntactic and semantic meanings to “develop around the sound.” But what could this mean? Are semiotic functions something like iron filings and phonemes something like magnets? What is the physical basis for these marvelous congelations in the brain? The only possible organizing principle for such meanings would be that very innate grammar that Dennett denies exists — and this would seem to require distinctly mental concepts. Not that Dennett appears to think the difference between phonemes and concepts an especially significant one. He does not hesitate, for instance, to describe the “synanthropic” aptitudes that certain organisms (such as bedbugs and mice) acquire in adapting themselves to human beings as “semantic information” that can be “mindlessly gleaned” from the “cycle of generations.”

But there is no such thing as mindless semantics. True, it is imaginable that the accidental development of arbitrary pre-linguistic associations between, say, certain behaviors and certain aspects of a physical environment might be preserved by natural selection, and become beneficial adaptations. But all semantic information consists in the interpretation of signs, and of conventions of meaning in which signs and references are formally separable from one another, and semiotic relations are susceptible of combination with other contexts of meaning. Signs are intentional realities, dependent upon concepts, all the way down. And between mere accidental associations and intentional signs there is a discontinuity that no gradualist — no pleonastic — narrative can span.

Similarly, when Dennett claims that words are “memes” that reproduce like a “virus,” he is speaking pure gibberish. Words reproduce, within minds and between persons, by being intentionally adopted and employed.

Here, as it happens, lurks the most incorrigibly problematic aspect of Dennett’s project. The very concept of memes — Richard Dawkins’s irredeemably vague notion of cultural units of meaning or practice that invade brains and then, rather like genetic materials, thrive or perish through natural selection — is at once so vapid and yet so fantastic that it is scarcely tolerable as a metaphor. But a depressingly substantial part of Dennett’s argument requires not only that memes be accorded the status of real objects, but that they also be regarded as concrete causal forces in the neurology of the brain, whose power of ceaseless combination creates most of the mind’s higher functions. And this is almost poignantly absurd.

Perhaps it is possible to think of intentional consciousness as having arisen from an improbable combination of purely physical ingredients — even if, as yet, the story of that seemingly miraculous metabolism of mechanism into meaning cannot be imagined. But it seems altogether bizarre to think of intentionality as the product of forces that would themselves be, if they existed at all, nothing but acts of intentionality. What could memes be other than mental conventions, meanings subsisting in semiotic practices? As such, their intricate interweaving would not be the source, but rather the product, of the mental faculties they inhabit; they could possess only such complexity as the already present intentional powers of the mind could impose upon them. And it is a fairly inflexible law of logic that no reality can be the emergent result of its own contingent effects.

This is why, also, it is difficult to make much sense of Dennett’s claim that the brain is “a kind of computer,” and mind merely a kind of “interface” between that computer and its “user.” The idea that the mind is software is a fairly popular delusion at the moment, but that hardly excuses a putatively serious philosopher for perpetuating it — though admittedly Dennett does so in a distinctive way. Usually, when confronted by the computational model of mind, it is enough to point out that what minds do is precisely everything that computers do not do, and therein lies much of a computer’s usefulness.

Really, it would be no less apt to describe the mind as a kind of abacus. In the physical functions of a computer, there is neither a semantics nor a syntax of meaning. There is nothing resembling thought at all. There is no intentionality, or anything remotely analogous to intentionality or even to the illusion of intentionality. There is a binary system of notation that subserves a considerable number of intrinsically mindless functions. And, when computers are in operation, they are guided by the mental intentions of their programmers and users, and they provide an instrumentality by which one intending mind can transcribe meanings into traces, and another can translate those traces into meaning again. But the same is true of books when they are “in operation.” And this is why I spoke above of a “Narcissan fallacy”: computers are such wonderfully complicated and versatile abacuses that our own intentional activity, when reflected in their functions, seems at times to take on the haunting appearance of another autonomous rational intellect, just there on the other side of the screen. It is a bewitching illusion, but an illusion all the same. And this would usually suffice as an objection to any given computational model of mind.

But, curiously enough, in Dennett’s case it does not, because to a very large degree he would freely grant that computers only appear to be conscious agents. The perversity of his argument, notoriously, is that he believes the same to be true of us.

For Dennett, the scientific image is the only one that corresponds to reality. The manifest image, by contrast, is a collection of useful illusions, shaped by evolution to provide the interface between our brains and the world, and thus allow us to interact with our environments. The phenomenal qualities that compose our experience, the meanings and intentions that fill our thoughts, the whole world of perception and interpretation — these are merely how the machinery of our nervous systems and brains represent reality to us, for purely practical reasons. Just as the easily manipulated icons on a computer’s screen conceal the innumerable “uncomprehending competences” by which programs run, even while enabling us to use those programs, so the virtual distillates of reality that constitute phenomenal experience permit us to master an unseen world of countless qualityless and purposeless physical forces.

Very well. In a sense, Dennett’s is simply the standard modern account of how the mind relates to the physical order. The extravagant assertion that he adds to this account, however, is that consciousness itself, understood as a real dimension of wholly first-person phenomenal experience and intentional meaning, is itself only another “user-illusion.” That vast abyss between objective physical events and subjective qualitative experience that I mentioned above does not exist. Hence, that seemingly magical transition from the one to the other — whether a genetic or a structural shift — need not be explained, because it has never actually occurred.

The entire notion of consciousness as an illusion is, of course, rather silly. Dennett has been making the argument for most of his career, and it is just abrasively counterintuitive enough to create the strong suspicion in many that it must be more philosophically cogent than it seems, because surely no one would say such a thing if there were not some subtle and penetrating truth hidden behind its apparent absurdity. But there is none. The simple truth of the matter is that Dennett is a fanatic: He believes so fiercely in the unique authority and absolutely comprehensive competency of the third-person scientific perspective that he is willing to deny not only the analytic authority, but also the actual existence, of the first-person vantage. At the very least, though, he is an intellectually consistent fanatic, inasmuch as he correctly grasps (as many other physical reductionists do not) that consciousness really is irreconcilable with a coherent metaphysical naturalism. Since, however, the position he champions is inherently ridiculous, the only way that he can argue on its behalf is by relentlessly, and in as many ways as possible, changing the subject whenever the obvious objections are raised.

For what it is worth, Dennett often exhibits considerable ingenuity in his evasions — so much ingenuity, in fact, that he sometimes seems to have succeeded in baffling even himself. For instance, at one point in this book he takes up the question of “zombies” — the possibility of apparently perfectly functioning human beings who nevertheless possess no interior affective world at all — but in doing so seems to have entirely forgotten what the whole question of consciousness actually is. He rejects the very notion that we “have ‘privileged access’ to the causes and sources of our introspective convictions,” as though knowledge of the causes of consciousness were somehow germane to the issue of knowledge of the experience of consciousness. And if you believe that you know you are not a zombie “unwittingly” imagining that you have “real consciousness with real qualia,” Dennett’s reply is a curt “No, you don’t” — because, you see, “The only support for that conviction is the vehemence of the conviction itself.”

It is hard to know how to answer this argument without mockery. It is quite amazing how thoroughly Dennett seems to have lost the thread here. For one thing, a zombie could not unwittingly imagineanything, since he would possess no consciousness at all, let alone reflective consciousness; that is the whole point of the imaginative exercise. Insofar as you are convinced of anything at all, whether vehemently or tepidly, you do in fact know with absolute certitude that you yourself are not a zombie. Nor does it matter whether you know where your convictions come from; it is the very state of having convictions as such that apprises you of your intrinsic intentionality and your irreducibly private conscious experience.

Simply enough, you cannot suffer the illusion that you are conscious because illusions are possible only for conscious minds. This is so incandescently obvious that it is almost embarrassing to have to state it. But this confusion is entirely typical of Dennett’s position. In this book, as he has done repeatedly in previous texts, he mistakes the question of the existence of subjective experience for the entirely irrelevant question of the objective accuracy of subjective perceptions, and whether we need to appeal to third-person observers to confirm our impressions. But, of course, all that matters for this discussion is that we have impressions at all.

Moreover, and perhaps most bizarrely, Dennett thinks that consciousness can be dismissed as an illusion — the fiction of an inner theater, residing in ourselves and in those around us — on the grounds that behind the appearance of conscious states there are an incalculable number of “uncomprehending competences” at work in both the unseen machinery of our brains and the larger social contexts of others’ brains. In other words, because there are many unknown physical concomitants to conscious states, those states do not exist. But, of course, this is the very problem at issue: that the limpid immediacy and incommunicable privacy of consciousness is utterly unlike the composite, objective, material sequences of physical causality in the brain, and seems impossible to explain in terms of that causality — and yet exists nonetheless, and exists more surely than any presumed world “out there.”

That, as it happens, may be the chief question Dennett neglects to ask: Why presume that the scientific image is true while the manifest image is an illusion when, after all, the scientific image is a supposition of reason dependent upon decisions regarding methods of inquiry, whereas the manifest image — the world as it exists in the conscious mind — presents itself directly to us as an indubitable, inescapable, and eminently coherent reality in every single moment of our lives? How could one possibly determine here what should qualify as reality as such? Dennett certainly provides small reason why anyone else should adopt the prejudices he cherishes. The point of From Bacteria to Bach and Back is to show that minds are only emergent properties of our brains, and brains only aggregates of mindless elements and forces. But it shows nothing of the sort.

The journey the book promises to describe turns out to be the real illusion: Rather than a continuous causal narrative, seamlessly and cumulatively progressing from the most primitive material causes up to the most complex mental results, it turns out to be a hopelessly recursive narrative, a long, languid lemniscate of a tale, twisting back and forth between low and high — between the supposed basic ingredients underlying the mind’s evolution and the fully realized mental phenomena upon which those ingredients turn out to be wholly dependent. It is nearly enough to make one suspect that Dennett must have the whole thing backward.

Perhaps the scientific and manifest images are both accurate. Then again, perhaps only the manifest image is. Perhaps the mind inhabits a real Platonic order of being, where ideal forms express themselves in phenomenal reflections, while the scientific image — a mechanistic regime devoid of purpose and composed of purely particulate causes, stirred only by blind, random impulses — is a fantasy, a pale abstraction decocted from the material residues of an immeasurably richer reality. Certainly, if Dennett’s book encourages one to adopt any position at all, reason dictates that it be something like the exact reverse of the one he defends. The attempt to reduce the phenomena of mental existence to a purely physical history has been attempted before, and has so far always failed. But, after so many years of unremitting labor, and so many enormous books making wildly implausible claims, Dennett can at least be praised for having failed on an altogether majestic scale.

By David Bentley Hart and published in The New Atlantic in Fall 2017 and can be seen here.

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