On Geopolitical Domination As A Service by Bryce Hidysmith

 America makes the best Muppet State. 

America makes the best Muppet State. 

< Soundtrack: Nils Frahm - #2 / All Melody

[Epistemic status: borderline conspiracy theory, some slight additions May 1st, 2018, with thanks to J. O. & S. B.]

I just work up to the Korean War hopefully ending with the Panmunjom Declaration. This new era begins with a formerly unthinkable gesture: the two leaders of two states in a single country stepping across the border and back with wonderful hesitation. If the summit looked like it was all on script, I wouldn’t have trusted it. If the two leaders had automated away all of the unpredictable intimacy, there’s now way their hearts would be committed to peace. While there is an entirely different narrative that take the perspective of South Korean leaders attempting to reorganize the country in the wake of the impeachment of President Park in 2017, it seems more important to focus on analyzing the North Korean strategy at the moment. However, I will begin with some discussion of Moon and his his positioning for requisite context, such that I can begin the process of speculating on the contents of the Black Box that is the DPRK. 

The main important factor in the South’s behavior is the fact that Moon is willing and able to reconcile with the North, whereas neither Park nor her father ever had such an intention. A good place to start looking into Moon‘s deeds is this article from last year, which reported Moon’s pledge that there would be no unilateral military actions on the Korean Peninsula committed by Southern forces. Moon was playing an endurance game after assuming office. He needed to maintain open arms ready for reunification, while also simultaneously maintaining military superiority in the South Korea-United States alliance. One can think of Moon’s strategy as similar to maintaining an uncomfortable yoga position for a long time: at once at peace, ready for reconciliation, and superior in military might. Under Moon, South Korea was able to rest in a pose of martial vigilance. Given the fact that the antecedent president to Moon was Park Gyun-hye the daughter of a notorious autocrat Park Chung-hee, Moon was the first president of South Korea that was able to plausible communicate this stance to the DPRK leadership, as until now the militarist elements of the Park autocracy were too strong for the south to plausibly commit to peace.

This is impressive and not terribly obfuscated, in utter contrast to the North’s behavior. To begin looking at Kim Jong-un’s strategy, I want to look at two quotes. First, from The Straits Times, itself quoting Kim Jong-un’s announcement that he was ready to halt nuclear tests and ICBM launches. It’s worth making sure that you have the exact (translated) words that Kim Jong-un said before we go into commentary. Specifically, I want to make sure that the phrase “The struggle of the Korean people who worked hard with their belt tightened to acquire a powerful treasured sword for defending peace was successfully concluded,” is fresh in your memory. Think about the wording outside the context of history, as though it were just extremely literal remarks about the structure of the world.

And, the second quote: Mohammad Javad Zarif recently said that, for President Macron and Chancellor Merkel “to try to appease the president (Donald Trump) would be an exercise in futility.” Try the same literal reading, as you did with the Kim quote. Try to picture a world of political communication that isn’t primarily dominated by a sense of ironic detachment from the state of the world. Imagine that one is not avoidant of consequence, or anxious about outcomes, but rather that one is attached to a concrete set of goals and objectives. America, especially Coastal America where I live, tends to forget that politics is not simply a game people play for fun. The last year of Korean history makes a great deal more if one thinks that Kim Jong-un is a man who has in fact channeled his will towards an objective of finally ending the conflict of 1953 and moving towards a unified Korea. Bizarrely, it seems as though he has done this through the normally unforgivable strategy of nuclear blackmail, likely developing a coherent strategy between 2013 and 2016.  

I must conjecture that, at least from the perspective of Kim Jong-un, impossibility of Trump’s appeasement may be a feature, rather than a bug. Like any wild conjecture about current events, this is entirely speculative, but this is my best narrative about the state of play at the date of this article’s publication. I am by no means an expert on North Korea or Korean-American relations. I don’t speak or read Korean, and I haven’t studied the topic anywhere near as much as I would like to be confident in my views. This is a purely amateur exercise in analysis, and while it represents my best bets as to how this system of the world operates, I was meaningfully surprised enough times doing research on this in the last week that it would be unwise to endorse my perspective. I read about the Pyonyang University of Science and Technology today. The university an explicitly Christian organization with American ties sanctioned for operation in North Korea, a country which at least officially has implemented the Songbun class system, wherein one can easily be marked as a traitor for simply having Christian ministers as relatives. This is enough of a departure from the maximally limited view of the DPRK dominant in the American discourse to imply that such a view is as incomplete as the propagandistic, poverty concealing official narrative given to tour groups. My unknown unknowns must be assumed to be greater in relevance than any knowns. I haven’t fact-checked this as rigorously as I would like to, but give the timely nature of the topic it seems worth getting my basic model across. 

Still, I am writing this because I have seen no coherent model of Kim and Trump’s behavior on the English-language internet. The only discourse that I have seen is happening in private Neither the Blue or Red American factions — as described well in the Greenhall-notjafo Model — seem to be willing to consider the possibility. The Bluestate Ideology doesn’t want to think that Trump might not only be a Cold Warrior virulent in hatred the un-American, and thus cannot consider the prospect that Trump might actually be willing to resolve the North Korean conflict without maximal bloodshed. The Redstate Ideology is averse to the idea that Kim Jong-un might be anything other than an anti-American despot, and thus cannot model his interests outside of wishing to destroy the US. Both sides deny at least one relevant party the ability to speak in subtext. Minority Western political factions simply don’t have coherent narratives around international politics :  do the Identitarians think that North Korea has the right to determine its own destiny as an ethnostate? Does Social Justice imply that one should oppose imperialism at the expense of emboldening dictatorship? I have no idea, and the fact that I can’t think of a clear narrative for the stance of the alt-right or the alt-left points to their blessed irrelevance on the issue. 

Let’s ignore popular American political narratives for the moment; they prioritize agreement, and thus fail to depict a world as complex as reality must be. However, I need to speak to something that the popular narratives cover that I will largely not for the purposes of this essay. Most political commentary that is not directed solely to unelected policy professionals on some level attempts to describe first a political or ethical norm, asserts that the commentary is itself part of that norm, and uses this frame control to condemn behavior that is outside of the norm while speaking from a maximally defensible position. Such practices prohibit the revelation of surprising information exterior to individual narratives. Furthermore, despite the fact that there are certainly major unforgivable crimes committed by DPRK personal that require due process, I will largely avoid spending time trying to convince you that I believe that such crimes deserve condemnation. We know that violence is bad, and that the DPRK regime is founded on unthinkable acts of violence. I am choosing to focus on the command structure of the DPRK regime; this does not imply that I am somehow endorsing the regime or its effects. Trial in the court of public opinion is subverted, not bolstered, by telling the public who and what  to condemn rather than letting them see objective fact of right and wrong by their own eyes. This text—and ideally any others that I may be brave enough to write—will simply prioritize communicating a heterodox model without trying to assert the status of said model.  

I believe that both Trump and Kim are basing their strategies on illegibility to external interests. They are able to play into expected narratives, but don’t believe in the script anywhere as near as much as the other actors. This gives them ample room to deviate. Indeed, flagrant disregard for customary norms and social contracts has been the only method by which Trump has been able to effectively navigate the domestic American political environment. But let’s not focus on Trump too much. We know he believes in an ontologically basic deal, and focuses intently on the deal in front of him, attempting to pour all of his compute into winning individual zero sum dominance contests. Trump is the prioritization of the working memory over all other types of awareness, driven by aggression and an intense pride. There is no need for a better model of Trump; we can explain Kim’s strategy for Trump with only this cartoonish simplification. Whether or not Trump is engaging in it with ironic detachment, he’s successfully implemented the Madman Strategy that Nixon initially formulated. Kim understands that Trump will bet everything he has on his ability to win such a dominance contest. This seems to allow Kim to control Trump’s behavior to an oddly granular degree. It’s not without risks; Trump’s desire for ego-syntonic validation could flare up at any time and lead to a new war. 

Still, if Kim actually wanted a war, he would have started one by now. A critical mass of the North Korean military must be itching for a fight. As he is likely going against the military, it seems unlikely that Kim wanted a war in the first place. Beyond the evidence of his inaction, North Korea’s industrial capacity is declining. Their munitions are rusting. Their agricultural base is overtaxed. They have been weakened through sanctions for years, including recently from the PRC. There’s no way they would be able to survive a conflict with the United States without assistance from China or, to a lesser extent, Russia, and it’s implausible that either China or Russia would be able to benefit from such a conflict. If conflict was to escalate to a scale that could potentially lead to the debilitation of the United States, it would likely result in a bilateral nuclear exchange that would kill millions of people for no reason, likely containing almost the entire urban North Korean population. The only potential scenario I can imagine is if somehow North Korea and China both have a strong Marxist Internationalist hardline, but it’s highly unlikely that such internationalists would lack perception and pragmatism sufficient to reject a losing fight, and even more unlikely that they exist in the relevant decisive generations. It’s much more likely that China players are going to behave in a reasonable, self-interested way, noticing—rather obviously—that they have much to gain from avoiding a second Korean-American war. I would be much more worried about Russian or other nuclear interests attempting to use the DPRK as a pawn to provoke a war between the PRC and the USA, hoping that the two will exhaust their nuclear arsenals, leaving Moscow or another capital a singleton ICBM power. This plan is so high risk as to be almost deterministically suicidal, however. At the same time, North Korea has never acknowledged the end of the 1950-53 Korean-American war, and as such is positioned culturally, ideologically, economically, and strategically such that an eventual reignition of that conflict should be and is everyone’s null hypothesis, despite the fact that renewed hostilities is in no one’s interest. 

But, rather than attempting to win an impossible fight, what if Kim Jong-un simply wants to circumvent the entire war by simply folding instead of doubling down? Provided that one wants to fold to American power without having to fight directly, Trump’s tendency to be emotionally triggered and pursue geopolitical domination is potentially a very reliable service. Provided that Kim is not suicidal or implausibly ideologically hardline, this crisis might be solved without the use of machines for burning cities simply because its futile to appease Trump, and Kim has intentionally given himself this impossible task to be able to open negotiation with South Korea. Kim is not lying when he says that the nation no longer needs nuclear weapons; in fact they have already served their purpose by goading the Unites States and the international community into pressuring Kim to begin to fold at least part of his regime. Given the fact that Kim is not demanding the removal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula as a precondition for denuclearization, this seems like a reasonable null hypothesis. The assumption, generally is that Kim will never give up his nukes as they’re vital to the survival of his regime, citing the precedent of Muammar Gaddafi’s denuclearization of Libya. What if the survival of his regime is inessential—even detrimental—to his own survival? 

It is far easier to lose face in capitulation when the choice is between sudden death and prosperous life, rather than autonomy and subordination. The army of North Korea does not march overland much, but it certainly does stand guard on its stomach. In order for the North Korean economy to stabilize, it must demilitarize or integrate with the outside world, and likely both. Regardless of whether or not the claim that Kim’s recent commitment to shutter his main nuclear testing site was a move to ease tensions with the outside world, or driven by the mountain that contained the test site collapsing in on itself, as Wen Lianxing’s team at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei has conjectured, Kim’s contextualization of the shuttering of the test site seems best explained by this attempt to lose a negotiation with grace. Effective politics is almost always done through contextualization rather than action. Kim must be modeled as attempting to appeal to a probability space of possible relevant parties, engaging in strategic ambiguity so as to avoid being pinned down by one faction in his country as a member of another, hostile, faction. Unless the North Korean monarchy is implausibly absolute, we must model Kim as always at risk of looking like good prey for adventurist factions with much to gain and little to lose but their likely rather unpleasant lives. It's likely that Kim is far more personally threatened by elements in the North Korean civil service and military than South Koreans or Americans. 

My estimate is that Kim’s basic strategy was/is to continue the nuclear provocation until eventually the United States would be forced to send a senior diplomat—in this case Mike Pompeo completing a strategy likely set in motion by Rex Tillerson—to begin the process of brokering a deal between the two countries as sovereign powers. Kim needs North Korea to be able to operate as an autonomous state until he can guarantee his own safety, and potentially the safety of other individuals in his circle of concern—the exact side of which I am somewhat agnostic about given the lack of personal displays from Kim. Somatically, he seems to have a great deal more empathy in his eyes than his father or other high-ranking DPRK military or party personal, but this is of course a highly subjective intuitive judgement on my part. Potentially, the details of the eventual deal between Kim and the Americans are all worked out in advance, and the Trump-Kim summit next month is just a quick reality show.  Trump likely does not know this, but as Trump himself has said, “he’s not going to get played,” which is effectively code for Trump precommitting to not being surprised during the meeting. Provided that Kim has a clear picture of what Trump’s desires are, this means that the deal is as good as precommitted, even though it is likely not explicitly so.  Given the remarkably good outcome of the Kim-Moon summit, I am putting high likelihood on this outcome. Trump’s potential military aggression provided plausible deniability inside of the DPRK regime for Kim to begin the reintegration process by unifying Kim with the rest of the DPRK as they were all under the same American existential threat. 

Additionally, Kim has already successfully developed the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal to the point that it can legitimately threaten the United States, leading to a situation where the potential pre-commitments made by Pompeo cannot constrain Kim’s optionality to launch a first strike, giving Kim a decisive advantage that may be necessary when dealing with the US, a power that lacks the cultural unity and self-interest of South Korea. This potential for a first strike effectively ties Trump’s hands, provided that Trump is a sufficiently rational actor to abide by at least a minimax strategy—something that is remarkably debatable in light of recent threats to scrap Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal. By ensuring that the summit with Trump is to occur in person across the DMZ, Kim has the potential ability to save his own skin by defecting to the American side if somehow he is betrayed by ideological hardline interests inside his own country. This is likely unnecessary, and the logistics of this would be extremely difficult, but not inconceivable, and this additional strategy would simply be an additional security policy. There is also, of course, a profit motive on top of existential threats. Jyong Se-hyun, speaking to the South China Morning Post, noted that Kim Jong-un could potentially make a play to open the country up to foreign investment and copy the same strategy as Deng Xiaoping, while being able to take all of the credit for the accompanying prosperity with his already mature personality cult. Under this model, reunification is unlikely, but denuclearization and a formal termination of the 1950-53 war leading to closer relations and potentially eventual freedom of movement between the two Korean territories while Kim is able to successfully trade on maintaining the DPRK’s sovereignty while also simultaneously integrating the allegedly Marxist state into a global capitalist economy. I find the Deng possibility significantly more likely than a model that assumes Kim is running a strategy more similar to Gorbachov’s. 

All of this comes down to Kim and Trump’s psychology, and Kim is far more of a cipher than Trump. I must build a case to explain why Kim Jong-un wouldn’t want a war. I need to build a clear model of Kim’s environment, position, as well as his reactions to both. In order for my theory to make sense, Kim must have had a way to see that the DPRK as he inherited it was locked into a suicidal strategy. He must also have had a way to not personally identify with this suicidal strategy, leading to an attempt to leverage the regime’s own suicidality into the preservation of his life and the lives of others. Most tragically, a member of the Kim Dynasty or a major military leader giving enough of a damn to fold the regime is likely the world's best hope for a resolution to the ongoing conflict without a major attack on Seoul or another civic center outside of North Korea, in addition to large numbers of North Koreans dying in the accompanying invasion. Given the fact that the DPRK seems to effectively be a massive gulag, I see it as unlikely that strategies such as Kang Chol-hwan's media drops will be able to produce sufficient coordination within the territorial confines of the state. The center of power is not likely to shift from Kim or other members of the DPRK elite, leading to a situation where it is almost always better for individual citizens to defer gratification and gather resources, or attempt to escape the country, rather than building coordinated opposition interior to the country. Media drops are an extremely valuable method for easing the pain of future re-integration, but I see it as highly unlikely that they themselves are sufficient for developing a coordinated opposition inside of the state if dissidence is punished as severely as reports suggest. If there isn't a way to build an insurgency inside of the DPRK, then an attack would have to be spearheaded by an outside power, leading to a situation where the retaliatory capacity of the DPRK arsenal comes into play to terrible effect, at minimum killing millions in a localized war and potentially breaking out into a regional or global conflict. This creates a situation where the most effective plan is attempting to directly influence the present and future leaders of the country, thus potentially the best strategy is figuring out how to have Dennis Rodman bring his friends along with smuggling in information from the outside as in the Kang strategy, as other other options seem to reliably lead to at least one megacity being destroyed and the war environment selecting for further brutality, as in the case of the circumstances that led to Kim Il-sung rising to power in the first place. 

The rest of this document will be a historical analysis of Kim Jong-un’s position with ample digressions for context. However, if you already have a sufficient grasp of the topic that the above description makes sense intuitively, it might make more sense to just keep yourself glued to the news. I want to start this section with a story from “Kenji Fujimoto,” the pseudonymous Japanese personal chef of Kim Jong-il. “Fujimoto” stated in his account of his time as a servant of the Kims that Kim Jong-un remarked once: "We are here, playing basketball, riding horses, riding jet skis, having fun together. But what of the lives of the average people?” According to the article linked above, the quote has become a favorite of analysts, suggesting Kim’s isolation and potential leadership abilities, but I think it is perhaps a better example of the sort of naive rationality that might have not been beaten out of the boy by a fully militaristic education. Given the fact that Fujimoto apparently stopped working for Kim Jong-il in 2001, Jong-un would have been rather young at the time. The key question is whether or not he came to accept the hierarchy of the DPRK state as an ontological primitive, or if he managed to hold onto the basic naive rational assumption that the world can and should obey a basic ethical logic. 

So let's look at how that hierarchy works and how Kim fits into it. Firstly, need to establish that North Korea isn’t a fascist or a communist state, rather it is a semi-theocratic monarchy with the Kim family as divinely ordained by the revolution. The document Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System is perhaps the most direct evidence, with the ideological system in question being Juche, which I will cover in more detail below. It was originally proposed in the 1950s under Kim Il-Sung, but was later made official by Kim Jong-il in 1974 before being updated a number of subsequent times. In the version I’ve taken from the notes to Atsuhito Isozaki’s Understanding the North Korean Regime, Principle Ten states that: “We must pass down the great achievements of the Juche revolution and Songun revolution pioneered by Great Leader comrade Kim Il-sung and led by comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, inheriting and completing it to the end.” The term “pass down” is a method of legitimizing hereditary succession—fairly obvious when paired with the now normalized succession of Kims I-III. Furthermore, Principle Nine states “We must establish strong organizational regulations so that the entire Party, nation, and military move as one under the sole leadership of the Party.” Given that Principle Three is “We must make absolute the authority of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il-sung and comrade Kim Jong-il and the authority of the Party and defend it to death,” it’s fairly obvious that Principle Nine is establishing a clear chain of command for the tripartite state. The civilian Party and the military are directly subordinate to the Supreme Leader, who has been normalized to a hereditary member of the Kim family, appointed by the previous supreme leader, themselves definitionally born of the revolutionary bloodline.  

Given that North Korean philosophy dictionaries state that the Ten Principles are “The ideological system by which the whole party and people is firmly armed with the revolutionary ideology of the Suryeong (supreme leader) and united solidly around him, carrying out the revolutionary battle and construction battle under the sole leadership of the Suryeong,” and several sources I’ve found cite it as effectively supreme law in the country, it’s clear that the formal structure of the state as a monarchy is legible to the population. Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong was the delegate sent to South Korea for the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics where the Koreas sent a united team. This implies that the Kim Dynasty appears to be reasonably unified in activism to attempt to unify Korea. This is a radical departure from previous policies instanced by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and the fact that the policy change was possible without also delegitimizing the authority of the monarchy is notable. We must attempt to understand how Kim Jong-un came to power as hereditary supreme leader by understanding something of how the system that empowers himself came to be. The following descriptions of DPRK ideological concepts are attempts at discerning the literal content of documentation. Like any state religion, the interpretation of the literal content by living persons is obviously more strategically relevant than the letter of the law. However, Kim, by playing into the explicit narratives of his sovereignty, is likely able to exploit the fact that the North Korean state cannot verbally and directly oppose its foundational ideological principles. 

The role of the supreme leader is legitimized by Juche, the North Korean state ideology, which can be understood of as a radical idealist metaphysics. It can be loosely can be loosely translated as “Self-Reliance,” and is derived from the Japanese “Shutai,” a transliteration of Marx’s use of the German “Subjekt.” The word Subjekt is equivalent to its English cognate, as in subject-object relations. Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the North Korean state, outlined three principles of Juche in a 1965 speech: political independence, economic self-sustenance, and self-reliance in defense. However, the method for attaining this is mediated through the will of the Kim family, rather than through the acquisition of the means of production, allowing collective betterment as in orthodox Marxism. It’s a rather abstract book supporting an abstract ideology. 

To quote from the official English translation of On the Juche Idea: “As the leader said, the Juche idea is based on the philosophical principle that man is the master of everything and decides everything.” Juche philosophy, thus, is idealist rather than materialist, and the overall state ideology asserts that the only way that the mass democratic movement is able to successfully gain sufficient power to attain the ideal sponsored by Juche is by the masses mediating their behavior through the idealized persons of the Kim dynasty. Quoting again from On the Juche Idea: “The leader [Kim Il-sung] gave a new philosophical conception of man by defining independence, creativity and consciousness as the essential features of man, the social being.” These traits are given by fiat, through the leader. This relationship is stated explicitly multiple times throughout the book, for instance here: “How the masses are awakened to consciousness and organized in a revolutionary way, and how they perform their revolutionary duties and historical mission, depend on whether or not they are given correct leadership by the party and the leader.” The masses may be able to reshape the world, for they are men, but they must be led in order to be effective at this objective. Self-reliance depends on a sovereign who is at once the general correlate of the regime’s success, and who is additionally separate from the regime. The Juche idea resembles Neoreaction far more than it does a reasonably functional socialist state trending towards full or even partial communism. Socialism or even potentially full communism is to be willed into existence by the supreme leader, but even while socialist or communist outcomes are potentially superior to other organizational systems in this model that values centralized coordination and the construction of an ordered anthropocentric world above all other things, the state of the world is seen as non-deterministically computed through the will of the sovereign. As with any monarchial system, the output is equal to the personality and skill of the individual implementing it, and as we can see from the reports of refugees from the prison camps, the first two Kims were certainly willing to use pure sadism as a tactic to reshape their society. 

It’s worth looking at the process that led to the end of a unified Korea to explain how this is an intuitive metaphysics to emerge in the North Korean context. When Kim Il-sung was born in 1912, Korea was a Japanese colony undergoing assimilation, but the Japanese occupation was hardly the beginning of Korea’s loss of autonomy as the native Korean monarchy was being intentionally subverted by virtually every great and regional imperial power active at the end of the nineteenth century. While the Korean Monarchy was already in the Qing sphere of influence as a tributary state, at least from my inexpert vantage, the point at which the Korean Monarchy became terminal was the assassination of Empress Myeongseong, orchestrated by the Japanese minister to Korea Miura Gorō. The assassination is the first point at which the Japanese Empire no longer had any plausible deniability as to its intentions in destroying Korean sovereignty. The assassination of Empress Myeongseong led to King Gojong and the crown prince governing from the Russian legation in Jeong-dong, as attempting to target them inside of the legation would be a direct act of war against Russia for the Japanese. This implies that from the perspective of the sovereign Gojong, the Korean state required protection from a superior military power to successfully maintain its existence. King Gojang’s decision as to which regionally interested power to collaborate with was forced, given the need for an expedient reaction to the Japanese threat, and given the fact that Korea was supposed to be officially independent because of a treaty that Qing Chinese representatives had signed guaranteeing Korea’s independence following the first Sino-Japanese War. The war, despite its name, had in fact broken out in Korea a mere year earlier and concluded just months before the assassination of the Empress, and which was prompted by Korea’s request for aid from the Qing in suppressing a Neo-Confucian peasant rebellion. Korea, by the end of the nineteenth century, was simply too small to assert its independence when surrounded by massive and aggressive neighbors. Japan, after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, was the unquestioned military power in the East Asian region, formally made Korea a protectorate, and had taken over police functions inside of Korea—an obvious symptom of total loss of independence. In 1910, Korea was officially annexed by Japan. Korea was forcibly mobilized as a Japanese colony through the World Wars. The Soviet Union officially declared war on the Japanese two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, leading to a rapid opportunistic advance by Soviet troops across the Korean peninsula while Soviet forces also attacked the Japanese regime in Manchuria. The Soviet-Japanese war lasted a grand total of three weeks and three days, and at its conclusion the Soviets accepted the American suggestion to divide Korea into separate American and Soviet sectors at the 38th parallel. The Moscow Conference of 1945 established that a joint commission of Britain, the U.S, the Soviets, and the PRC. were to attempt to establish a single free government in Korea. The British and the Chinese were unsurprisingly marginalized, and American and Soviet military occupations were established. Notably, they were given a budget of five years to hold a trusteeship over the country before independence could be established. Unsurprisingly, the War of 1950-53 started right on schedule.

If we focus back on the emergence of the Kim dynasty, we need to get a clear picture of the life and times of their founder and how his biography served as a legitimation of their claim to Juche. Enter Kim Il-Sung, born 15 April, 1912 Anno Domini, or Juche Year 1, depending on your messiah of choice. The story’s murky, but I’ll go through it best I can. He’s born in North Jeolla, in what would eventually become South Korea. He claimed to be raised Presbyterian, and his family ran to Manchuria in 1920, either to escape famine or persecution for resisting the Japanese occupation. By ’26 the kid is 14, and apparently founds something called the Down-With-Imperialism-Union that’s considered the predecessor to the Workers’ Party of Korea. Given the lack of information, I like to think that this is sort of like George Washington’s high school debate club being considered the direct successor organization to the US Congress, but Kim definitely joined the Chinese Communist Party (the Korean Communist Party had gotten kicked out of the Comintern for being too nationalist and thus wasn’t cool enough) and got to work as a member of various guerrilla warfare organizations attempting to damage the Japanese Regime. In 1931, this all got more difficult when the Japanese planted some dynamite on their own railroad tracks in what came to be known as the Mukden Incident and claimed it was Chinese dissidents, giving themselves an excuse to set up a puppet state in Manchuria. Some League of Nations investigators called the Lytton Commission figured out it was a false flag the next year, which led to them kicking Japan out of their club. It was during this period that Kim managed to have his first major early success: the raid on Pochonbo, where his gang attacked a small Japanese colonial village, making off with four thousand yen (apparently about 16,000 2015 USD according to a conversion at historicalstatistics.org) and burning down various municipal buildings, among them the police station, post office, foresters' office, local elementary school, and fire department. Reading accounts like this makes me realize just how much The Good, The Bad, & The Weird wasn’t exaggerating how much Japanese occupied Manchuria was effectively a Western, while also being narrated as being similarly heroic by the North Korean regime when, in actuality, it seems nasty, brutish, and depressingly small-time. 

The Japanese eventually chased him and his unit out of Korea, whereupon he apparently joined the Red Army and served until the end of World War Two, ending up back in Korea when the Soviets pushed south. Kim was now an experienced fighter living inside of Soviet Korea, one of the twentieth centuries greatest paradoxes: an almost honestly anti-imperialist colonial occupation. Kim was going to exploit this situation for all it was worth. Terentii Shtykov, the Soviet ambassador to Korea and the general in de facto command of the Soviet occupation due to his connections to Josef Stalin, appears to have supported Kim in his rise. While the party has now largely edited Shtykov out of history, he was in effect the DPRK’s first supreme leader. However, Kim Il-sung managed to successfully inherit the position of Sovereign from Shtykov and reassert the DPRK as an independent state rathe than simply a Soviet protectorate. Kim Il-sung used Shtykov’s connections to travel to Moscow in March of 1949 an attempt to persuade Stalin to allow him to begin military actions against the South. However, from an official (read: highly idealized) transcript of their conversation, Stalin ad Kim both agreed that the war was inevitable. Border clashes were already breaking out on the 38th Parallel, and guerrillas were already maintaining operations behind enemy lines. America often likes to pretend that there was not a direct line of conflict from the Second World War to the Cold War, but the conflict is one continuous mass of strategic actions, rather than two discrete periods of hostility. The Korean War is the only time that the great powers of the Cold War ever went head to head in any meaningful sense, with the United States engaging in combat with a pre-nuclear PRC. 

Stalin was not initially willing to authorize military action against the south, but the situation changed by the next year. A likely major persuasive force in this negotiation was the recent victory of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, which certainly must have increased the strategic authority of East Asian guerrillas by a great deal. Stalin, for his part, was likely quite concerned that the Americans would attempt to remilitarize the Japanese, and use them to limit the Soviet Union’s Asian sphere of influence. Additionally, the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb in August, 1949, breaking the American nuclear monopoly. The codes used to communicate with the American embassy in Moscow had also been cracked, leading to Stalin correctly assuming that Korea did not have the importance necessary to warrant a nuclear conflict. Kim Il-sung also seems to have directly lied to Stalin, as evidenced by an official Russian summary quoted on page ten of this linked document. Kim suggested that the war might be won by supporting already active elements behind enemy lines in about three days, and that the Americans wouldn’t be interested in intervening as the South Koreans would welcome their communist “liberators.” Given his wartime experiences, Kim cannot honestly have thought that Korea was ideologically unified enough to want to embrace a new communist government immediately, and I might have to conjecture that Kim was able to play Stalin by letting him oversimplify the Korean perspective. If Syngman Rhee was willing to massacre over 100,000 suspected political in his own country in one of many incidents to come, and still hold onto the South Korean presidency until 1960, Kim was either lying or implausibly fundamentalist in his Marxism. 

The critical thing to take away from all of these details is that Kim Il-sung correctly assessed the strategic landscape, noticing that his position in the world was to be canon fodder for the major powers of China and Russia against the major power of the United States and potentially relevant Japanese allies. By giving lip service to these power plays, he was able to deny the material reality of the war in order to make a direct claim to lead the necessary—potentially suicidal—resistance to the South’s expansion by leading a disposable buffer state. Kim's first steps at asserting Korea as an independent state came, again, under cover Stalin’s sphere of influence, allowing supposed loyalty to the overall Communist cause serve as a cover for Korean nationalism. Indeed, if Kim had not been able to begin the war on terms that clearly made him a client of the Soviets but reasonably independent, he would never have been able to get the assistance from the CCP or Moscow necessary to successfully maintain North Korea as an independent state. When Shtykov was dismissed following a poor military performance during earlier phases of the war, Kim Il-sung was able to exploit the chaos and take command of the government during the decisive phases of the war, most importantly the phases after the PRC directly sent some of its forces into the fight—the People’s Volunteer Army—following their conditional that if South Korean/American/United Nations troops crossed the 38th Parallel, they would entire the fray, tilting the odds in favor of the Communists and providing an environment within which Kim Il-Sung would be able to reliably gather moral authority. The 1950-53 Korean War Wikipedia page gives a pretty good picture of how absurd it is that North Korea survived the chaos of the war as a society at all:

Almost every substantial building in North Korea was destroyed as a result.[326][327] The war's highest-ranking U.S. POW, U.S. Major General William F. Dean,[328] reported that the majority of North Korean cities and villages he saw were either rubble or snow-covered wasteland.[329][330] North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground, and air defenses were "non-existent."[325] In November 1950, the North Korean leadership instructed their population to build dugouts and mud huts and to dig underground tunnels, in order to solve the acute housing problem.[331] U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMaycommented, "we went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too."[332] Pyongyang, which saw 75 percent of its area destroyed, was so devastated that bombing was halted as there were no longer any worthy targets.[333][334] On 28 November, Bomber Command reported on the campaign's progress: 95 percent of Manpojin was destroyed, along with 90 percent of Hoeryong, Namsi and Koindong, 85 percent of Chosan, 75 percent of both Sakchu and Huichon, and 20 percent of Uiju. According to USAF damage assessments, "eighteen of twenty-two major cities in North Korea had been at least half obliterated."[321] By the end of the campaign, US bombers had difficulty in finding targets and were reduced to bombing footbridges or jettisoning their bombs into the sea.[335]

Kim Il-sung’s draw against the Americans was an existence proof of Juche in practice. It’s hard to think of survival under these terms as anything other than a remarkable victory against every other country involved in the conflict. Kim managed to reassert North Koreas independence to the same degree as the Joseon, something unseen in living memory. The Juche idea is that survival might have been caused by his will, rather than in spite of it. Juche is dialectical idealism, rather than dialectical materialism, suggesting that as the Soviet and American materialist policy was defeated by the independence of Juche, ideals are stronger than matter. By embracing the Juche system and cutting the DPRK off from the world as the proverbial hermit kingdom, there were little or no attack vectors by which large countries could subvert Kim Il-sung’s sovereignty, leading to him focusing for the rest of his life on the consolidation of power within DPRK borders. 

Of course, Kim Jong-il wasn’t in the picture until comparatively recently, and because of the intricacy of these ideological systems I’ve had to address this entire set of topics more nonlinearly than may be comfortable for some readers. The vast majority of this ideological system was in play by the time that he reached adulthood, and it was not he who was the heir apparent to the chair of the party, but rather his half-brother, the now-assassinated Kim Jong-nam. Little is known about Kim Jong-un’s early life, but by far the likeliest story is that he was educated in Switzerland at English language schools under pseudonyms during the span of the 1990s. He was apparently a quiet child, interested in basketball and under the watch of a bodyguard masquerading as another student. In 2000, he abruptly returned to North Korea and likely attending Kim Il-sung University for a degree in physics, as well as Kim Il-sung military university for officer training. This was shortly before Kim Jong-nam was arrested for attempting to go to Tokyo Disneyland under a false passport in 2001, so potentially his acting out was symptomatic of already having been delegitimized by his father and other stakeholders in the regime, leading to the likely reality that Kim’s recall in 2000 was timed so as to prepare him as a backup heir. Kim Jong-nam himself claimed in 2012 that his father had reacted poorly to his changes from his time overseas, and thus terminated his siblings time outside the country. One might imagine that Kim Jong-nam simply stopped attempting to be a good heir around that time, leading to increasingly self-defeating behavior as his removal from dynastic power was already determined. Also, out of a minor need for levity, I feel a need to note the degree to which Kim Jong-il’s naming tendencies remind me of the many George Foremans the Nth

The medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun, in the Muqaddimah, made the point that states founded by formerly nomadic conquerers tend to follow a three-generation pattern. The first generation are conquerers who begin the dynasty, who were hard enough men to conquer settled peoples. Their children are raised by the conquering (or in North Korean terms revolutionary) dynasty, who train their direct descendants to imitate themselves properly. Then, the third generation, raised in the state’s prime, is frequently raised in the luxury of a golden age and fails to maintain the harsh standards of their nomadic ancestors. From the perspective of maintaining an independent state, Kim’s likely lavish upbringing is a strategic disaster. However, from the perspective of folding the state with an ethical mind, it potentially produced a sensitive individual with intense personal preference that he assumes is not inherently evil, as well as perceptive abilities that are able to react to the kinds of threats inherent in a life of palace intrigue. A former classmate of his remarked that he spent a great deal of time in school in Switzerland drawing detailed pencil drawings of Michael Jordan for hours. This kind of self-directed, contemplative behavior was likely upset when he was sent to the military university and rejoined palace society. This breach of social contract may have provided a healthy degree of paranoia while leaving his perspective primary in his own ontology, as opposed to filtering his assumptions of right and wrong through an authority figure. In short, I think that Kim Jong-un may in fact retain a conception of justice, even if it is an alien justice to my norms. We can either interpret Kim Jong-un’s reactions to the circumstances of power that were thrust on him as opportunistic hedonism, but this is an entirely implausible idea given the fact that he has begun the process of giving up his asymmetric leverage by meeting with Moon. Instead, it seems like the only real option is to think that Kim, after being brought back into the palatial fold, maintained a strategic will and a desire to reconcile the contradictions in his life, simply waiting for an opportunity to run a strategy such as the one that is currently playing out. I am not suggesting that somehow this was a masterplan designed to the letter in advance, rather that it seems more likely that Kim Jong-un has been observing a set of heuristics that led him to take opportunities that could lead to this de-escalation of tensions, if only because this would grant him more autonomy and less psychological pain from causing the suffering of others in the long run. His father, Jong-il, certainly did not take such opportunities, and instead simply engaged in private cruelties. Kim Jong-il played the role that was expected of him, whereas Kim Jong-un seems to have held onto an independent mentality, separate from the will of the crowd. 

I have been somewhat intentionally leaving out the other major narrative of North Korean ideology as it does not seem to have come into play anywhere near as strongly until the reign of Kim Jong-il There is a second narrative other than Juche in play in the interpretation of the 1950 War: Songun, or “military first" which you might have noticed as an untranslated term in the above quotes from the Ten Principles. Songun means that after the revolution is completed—something that the North Korean state seems to waffle about a great deal—the process of constructing a new society begins with the military, asserting that the military is the primary source of power in the country. Far more than Prussia ever was, North Korea is a military with a country, where the military is given first priority in everything from information to food. It’s a much simpler idea than the metaphysics of Juche, but in effect its equally as important to the country’s positioning even though I don’t find it terribly compelling. However, it's important to note that Songun didn’t appear as official government doctrine until after the death of Kim Il-Sung. The country was certainly militarized due to situational need, but the military was not given official status to the same degree as party ideology and the Kim Il-sung cult of personality. I conjecture that Songun as an ideological system is an attempt to claim that the Korean People’s Army is the source of ideological legitimacy, rather than the Kim bloodline, as an effort to create a military junta external to the monarchy. In such a position, an individual or set of generals would be able to depose or puppet the monarch and govern from a position of relative security. Songun, as a narrative, has been an attempt to describe the origins of the North Korean State in terms of the anti-Japanese Occupation forces that Kim fought with, rather than Kim specifically, positioning the military as an elite force, able to compete as a separate sovereign to the Revolutionary Bloodline. Ironically, I must note that Kim Il-sung may have attempted the same strategy as his son, attempting to pursue nuclear development in the 1990s, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction potentially providing the plausible deniability to talk with Jimmy Carter in 1994. Kim Il-sung’s death on July 8th of that year is potentially suspicious, but as was 82 at the time this is not terribly suspicious, additionally as nuclear weapons were not pursued following Kim's death until 2006. 

The more I look into this, the more that it seems that Kim Jong-un was intentionally eliminating all threats to his personal rule from the first days of his administration. He inaugurated a “Day of Songun” in 2013, while also keeping his birthday off of the Revolutionary Calendar, seemingly managing to create a holiday associated with him while also giving lip service to the Songun ideology. However, a more interesting element of Kim Jong-un’s purging of his uncle-in-law, Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as a counter-revolutionary. Jang appears to have taken a great deal of de facto control over the country during the decline of Kim Jong-il’s health, while also maintaining a strong relationship with the military. Jang had been communicating directly with the highest levels of the Chinese state, seeming to hopefully create a stronger relationship there. Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam himself stated that he was living under Chinese protection, strengthening the idea that this was an attempt to remove Jong-un from power and reposition the country as a junta-led client state for Beijing. Given the fact that he had a relatively legitimate claim to the title of supreme leader, and was clearly inside of the PRC’s sphere of influence, it is not surprising that the DPRK eventually managed to have him assassinated in 2017 using the bizarre method of two women, one wearing a “LOL” shirt, delivered a VX nerve agent, both of whom claimed to think they were filming a prank video for the Chinese market, the flagrant subtext of which may just be my apopheia acting up. Under the internal logic of the feudalist state, Kim Jong-nam was a pawn that could easily be transformed into a claimant the throne, and by primogeniture could easily be used to unseat Kim if elements internal to the DPRK coordinated with outside support. It is difficult to think about the unkindness of feudal politics from a secular, republican vantage, but it is necessary to note that from the vantage of most systems of succession, it is Jong-un who is the pretender, not Jong-nam. 

Quoting again from Isozaki: 

At the Third Congress of the WPK in September 2010, at which Kim Jong-un appeared in public as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the WPK Charter was revised for the first time in 30 years. At the time, North Korea only released the Preamble to the Charter, and it showed the terms “Songun politics” and “Songun revolution” as being newly incorporated into the Charter whereas the term “communist ideology” had been deleted. It was inferred The Structure of the North Korean Regime 21 that the Charter had been revised in preparation for the transition of power from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. This method of making necessary revisions to the Charter varied from the way in which the regime handled the succession of power by Kim Jong-il after the death of Kim Il-sung. This process-oriented style of legitimization is one of the characteristics of the regime in the Kim Jong-un era.” 

The military was setting itself up as an intermediary between the official ideology and the monarchy. One could easily interpret this as the military attempting to strengthen their position to oppose the Kim Dynasty. A more charitable interpretation is a desire to use the military to assert independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, either by attempting to directly enter the Chinese sphere of influence or by maintaining a domestic military buildup. Nuclear weaponry, bizarrely, seems to have served the purpose of actually being the sword by which Kim defended peace by avoiding giving the military control of the country. Such military control would have likely ceded Korean autonomy to the Chinese or potentially provoking a war with the Americans, whereas maintaining the monarchy would have let Korea retain its independence by being incompatible with ether the PRC or USA operating system. This would be the obvious strategy that would preserve the position of the military by ceding control to the Chinese sphere of influence, and given that broadcasts such as this one were being aired in 2013, it seems rather likely that the military was pressing for a war independent of the monarchy. Such a war would provide a plausible excuse for a coup, as the military itself had a stronger tie to the revolution’s practical skills than the as-yet-untested Kim Jong-un. While it doesn’t exactly mean anything concrete, the DPRK did indeed declare a “state of war” in March of 2013, along with threatening a nuclear first strike ambiguously against US/SK targets. Pursuing autonomous nuclear development at the expense of relations with great power states managed to produce a scenario where Kim was still clearly the sovereign, and North Korea was still clearly an independent state. Kim Jong-un did not start the North Korean nuclear program, he simply appropriated it at an opportune time as it was the only policy that wold maintain his autonomy, and also be able to be communicated internally to the Party and Military as a pursuit of both Juche and Songun. Beyond this example, I am sure that there are other threats that Kim Jong-un neutralized to his personal rule, this one just seems more obvious than most, and bizarrely the official narrative that Jang was in fact a traitor makes sense on the grounds that Jang was in a position where treachery to the DPRK regime would have let him personally profit. It's also worth noting that Jang’s apparent strategy of using Kim Jong-nam as a pawn while also selling out to the Chinese is not a remotely insane plan for trying to either survive as an individual, nor an insane plan for maximizing the number of Korean citizens who survive and prosper. It’s also worth noting that I don’t actually believe that Kim Jong-un had the foresight to really think through the implications of neutralizing the threat of Jang and focusing on nuclear development. Its far more likely that he was just trying to preserve his own freedom of action, and managed to notice a specific strategy to optimize for that in relation to Trump. In a way, it doesn’t matter if it was intentional or not, just whether or not Kim was able to execute the strategy.  

If we want to try to analyze this chronologically, North Korea in 2013 was ready to go to war March. Tensions increased at least until the end of May, as the DPRK continued engaging in missile tests, until by June the pattern abruptly halted and they reached out to begin conversation with South Korea concerning the Kaesong Industrial Region. By the summer, the Pyongyang-Seoul hotline was restored, and the two Koreas were able to talk to one another again, instead of the North intentionally avoiding communication to increase the likelihood of a conflict. I would conjecture that this shows that the Jang rebellion had failed by the summer. Jang himself was executed in December as a denouement to the likely attempted coup. Kim Jong-un seemed to go through a long period of dormancy after that, including a three week period of absence from public life in September of 2014. The next year, Kim made the bold and unsubstantiated claim that he had a thermonuclear bomb, along with pictures that clearly did not show a hydrogen bomb in 2016. The nuclear testing resumed in earnest in 2017, perhaps in anticipation of the termination of the Pax Obama. The election of Donald Trump was sufficiently unexpected that the opportunity could likely have not been predicted, but the need for more military buildup in light of a likely more aggressive American government under the American Republicans or Clinton would be sufficient cause for Kim to think that it was necessary. Trump’s election was a godsend, then. One imagines Kim experiencing a sudden breather, where the palace intrigue has finally calmed down, and there are no obvious threats besides a bellicose American “dotard” who can provide a much needed narrative to keep internal DPRK coordination up, while pursuing diplomatic efforts to align with the south simultaneously, most obviously through Kim Yo-Jong’s attendance of the 2018 Seoul Winter Olympics. Thus, I think Kim pursued the Geopolitical Domination as a Service plan once it was clear that Trump was predictable. 

I feel a strong need to not obfuscate the level of brutality that was present in the neutralization of this plot. One of Jang’s cronies, the deputy security minister O Sang-hon, was burned alive by Kim's regime. I am stuck trying to analyze these chapters in world history like a good utilitarian, trying to discern whether it was right to burn one man to set an example in order to avoid burning Seoul. The weighing of homicides against urbicides simply illustrates the ethical quandary at hand. If one inherits the throne of a sadistic prison state, thus also possessing the opportunity of dismantling it only if one plays along for a great deal of time, is the ethical thing to do to engage in a deferred gratification strategy and become the local power through any means necessary, before implementing something in line with your values? How can Kim have accomplished this without becoming the character he's played so well? If Kim is acting out of an ethical imperative, how does he remember it when there is no way that he could hold himself to such a standard reliably? Kim Jong-un may be the greatest Wallfacer that the twenty-first century has seen thus far, complete with the curse that he will never be truly trusted as he must always hide something. He must always maintain plausible deniability that he is acting in all relevant narratives until the decisive moment when he can limit his optionality to the one thing he always seemed to have wanted: survival, at least for himself, and I hope for others. The troublesome thing is that until the process of peace and reconciliation continues further, everyone must take Kim’s actions almost entirely on faith. His behavior is necessary, but not remotely sufficient to prove the hypothesis I’ve presented here. However, if one day Moon and Kim can speak freely, perhaps the whole exhausting story can come to light. Then I can see how right or wrong I was to hope for these men to pursue peace for its own merits. 

Five Statuses Under Rule Of Law by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Anika - I Go To Sleep >

While wandering around MAAM with one I. Z. last month, I think I managed to formulate a pretty clear idea of the kinds of statuses that any individual could have in relation to a code of law. We have to begin with the assumption that individuals choose to follow codes of law because they believe in the validity of the code to produce beneficial outcomes, and have thus chosen to have the law code run some of their behavior. This is true even in cases where individuals are compelled to follow the law by force, as the other outcome in their mind is oblivion, and they have not chosen to embrace the potentially suicidal radical freedom of their situation. Of course, there are several other political systems that are not codes of law (although, of course, they could masquerade as codes of law.) Among them are the meritocracy of violence, common law, fascism and other centralized police models, Girardian mimesis, stigmergic blockchainified anarchy, and so on, appearing usually in blended formats.

A law, in the sense that I'm attempting to use it here, is the notion that an action must follow a condition. The water will certainly wet us, the fire will certainly burn, and thus it is most critical to institute policies that build on such natural laws to produce anthropically beneficial outcomes. Such a human generated law should be understood to be a response demanded by a condition, where any other action that that demanded by the condition is to be understood to be illegal, with varying specific punishments defined internally to the code of law as specified recourse against illegal actions. While I will make no claim as to the content of such code of law for the moment, the following statuses only make sense with this invariant and procedural notion of what law is. To accept a law such as this, one accepts the understanding that certain, specific action is demanded of them by specific conditions, and that to not take such action risks dishonor and incoherence of action and thought. One would lose one's community identity if one did not follow this code of law, which is what is usually phrased as dishonor. This sense of honor is, in effect, the knowledge of other parties that one is living up to the standard of the law, and that the identity generated by living up to that standard has subjective value by the community that would otherwise be absent. Law, in this sense, is no so different from a religion or a culture, provided that such a religion or culture actually demands specific actions by its members. The vast majority of these systems are implicit, rather than explicit, for instance I don't think anyone's written down an orthodox text on exactly how to "be macho." However, that illiterate storage mechanism doesn't change the mechanics in play, as the law is still executed with an assumption of common knowledge as to its content. Additionally, it doesn't matter if the entire code of law is stored in any individual who is attempting to act by it—rather obviously laws  could demand a consultation by a judge, shaman, sage, or other superior for a ruling. The five statuses, which I believe to be conditionally exhaustive given this idea of common knowledge of the content of the law, are the following: 

The Enemy: Toxic to the identity that accepts the code as valid behavior. This is to say, this type of organism is either fundamentally parasitic, predatory, or sadistic against the identity that accepts the code of law. This means that those individuals who have chosen the identity of following the law have to understand that these organisms are not only outlaws, but enemies of the law itself by targeting those who have chosen to embrace it for expropration. Because these organisms constitute an existential threat, they would have to be neutralized directly by whatever strategy would render them irrelevant. 

The Silent Majority of the Irrelevant: Relatively self-explanatory. There may be a great mass of organisms that simply do not interact with the citizenry directly enough to demand any specific policy. One of the hard things about defining this population is that if they produce negative externalities to a sufficient degree, they effectively become The Enemy. Provided their aggregate output is sufficiently non-toxic, its safe and indeed ethically mandated to simply ignore them. An interesting note is that the ethical mandate is likely both a self-interested one, and one that recognizes the Irrelevant as moral patients, as it is likely that the Irrelevant are somehow globally relevant, while being locally irrelevant, insofar as they constitute a part of the overall ecosystem that generates the individuals who have chosen to embrace the law-code, and thus disturbing the inputs of that ecosystem is disadvantageous.  

The Trade Partners: There are likely a great many organisms that follow other codes of law (or, in fact, no code of law besides perhaps naked self interest) that members of the law code could easily exchange material with in a mutually beneficial, positive-sum manner. These count as trade partners. The individual under the code of law does not identify with them, but wants good things to happen with them in an abstract way and wants to develop whatever symbioses can be developed as long as they don't undermine the individual's identity or livelihood. The lawful accept a fundamentally alien character of the trade partners, but there is no reason to think that their alien character is offensive or dangerous, just different. 

Children, Invalids, Aspirants: There are of course a great many individuals inside a given community who are not sufficiently responsible for their actions to be considered full citizens under the law, and instead must be considered defendants to the body of Active Citizens. The exact way that they are organized is up for sufficient debate, but it seems likely that there needs to be a distinction between those who are temporarily irresponsible (such as a child or a immigrating convert who has not been sufficiently educated to be able to act within the protocol of laws and understand the implications of all of their actions), and permanently irresponsible (such as those with extreme developmental disabilities). Critically, these are populations that must be given the utmost compassion, as by interfacing with them at all the body of Active Citizens would at least implicitly recognize that they are no longer independent. 

The Active Citizens: Those that share the same code of law and honor as the individual whose perspective we are taking. This is to say, a population who has chosen to take a set of bonds to make themselves more free as a community. Again, the exact nature of these bonds does not need to be specified, but consensus on a given currency, a given health code, collective sponsorship of institutions such as schools or transit networks, the agreement that there should be a method of recourse for those who have been assaulted is an obvious set of starting points for the basic functionality of a liberal community. 

Newcomb's Paradox, The Cynics, & The Hungry Crowd by Bryce Hidysmith

 Photo by T.&nbsp;Sullivan, San Francisco, March, 2018

Photo by T. Sullivan, San Francisco, March, 2018

< Soundtrack: Just keep reading, but also Albinoni - Adagio in G Minor and Zola Jesus/JG Thirlwell/Mivos Quartet - Hikikomori >

1. 

I'm on an overnight ferry crossing the Baltic, trying to grapple with Robert Nozick's Newcomb's Problem and Two Principles of Choice. I highly suggest reading Nozick’s original article, and there are plenty of available summaries of Newcomb’s Problem and commentaries on its implications—a recent favorite of mine is Scott Aaronson’s remarks in Quantum Computing Since Democritus, especially his remarks on the student with a 50% rating on the Aaronson Oracle—so I will not bother summarizing it again here. I will focus on only the version of the problem where the predictor is omniscient unless otherwise noted. Newcomb's problem doesn't seem paradoxical, or even particularly difficult to interpret from my vantage. Of course, Nozick makes the point that everyone seems to feel this way, and that the interesting thing would be trying to figure out how to get the differing perspectives to collide. These remarks are an attempt to reconcile some of the differing intuitions about Newcomb-type problems, as well as the introduction of a new Newcomb-like problem.

Nozick suggests that you should take both boxes, but does not believe that he has answered the question conclusively in the article. He seems to have just found himself assuming that because it would be possible to defect against your past self who intended to not take the second box, you would take the second box at least some of the time. This conflates the possibility of defection with its actualization. From what little I know of Nozick, this seems to be his political philosophy at its core—an assumption of opportunistic defection and yet still trying to construct palatial systems of life. This position is entirely honest, but confused. From a cursory reading of some of his works, Nozick seems to assume correctly that intentions don't determine outcomes, but implicitly fails to notice that intentions prune the space of possible outcomes that a given intelligent agent would seek. I feel like there's probably some more explicit statements on this in the sections of Invariances and Anarchy, State, & Utopia that I didn't get to read while I was in Seattle in December, but I'll have to check later. I also feel like I do need to give credit to Nozick’s assumptions here, as he was living in a corner of the Twentieth Century Anglosphere where most people conflated defection and self-interest. Even in the vise grip of that cultural assumption he and many others were able to at least hold onto the will to reason if not always overcome immense odds and construct reasonable realities for themselves and others. To quote the poet Anderson, when love is gone, there’s always justice, and when justice is gone, there’s always force. Provided that force is at least informed by decent compassion and aesthetics, not all is lost. I have often been the sort of man who, like Nozick, believes I live in that most cynical reality. It is only by the loving care of my friends that I have been able to embrace the discipline required to transcend that assumption. 

The two examples that Nozick chooses in his article—the Vaccine choice and choice of the Brothers—are both cases of an agent's need to choose a correct strategy while knowing the range of possible realities, yet not which one they inhabit. Both are well satisfied by the dominance principle. Yet, in the case of the Newcomb Problem, the consequential reality is socially constructed by the individual who chooses or does not choose to take the second box. Thus, it seems that if one is able to interpret the principle of expected utility, one should be able to be the kind of agent that possesses the self-control to take only the million dollar box. The Predictor is of course able to predict a lack of faith or an impossible greed in the agent. The problem does not specify as to which, but such specification is unnecessary as the problem is agnostic as to the identities and relationships of the box-taker and the Predictor. Following its abstract formulation, the Newcomb Problem is framed not as a moral judgement, but a rational judgement. Such is the case of all problems concerning the acquisition of currency or other transactable types of utility. There is no reason to believe that such defects would be present in an agent who had adequately interpreted the problem. Only a fool would choose anything other than simply taking only box B. The agent's mind is transparent, and the only thing to do in that circumstance is to rise to it, becoming the kind of agent that the situation demands. All other options are inferior. If one can submit to the limits of control, one is able to earn the greatest reward available.

The narrative that somehow one should intend to take only the thousand dollar box at the moment of prediction and then, through force of free will, take both boxes is either incoherent, or simply demands further specification from the problem. One must assume that the predictor could detect the intent to defect in the chooser, even if it is latent. The predictor knows how the chooser will respond to the environment of the problem even if the chooser does not know their own response at the time of the prediction. Depending on our beliefs about the informational structure of the world, we could imagine that an agent innocent of the potential success of defection could be introduced to the idea of taking two boxes by an outside power after the moment of prediction and successfully defeat the predictor's abilities, but this relies on the predictor somehow not being able to notice that the chooser would choose to defect and take both boxes if the idea was introduced, or that the predictor would be unable to predict that the chooser would come into contact with such an outside power. Of course, if the chooser's mind is not transparent to the predictor, then one can imagine all sorts of Mamet-esque method acted cons, but while that genre of problem brings great personal joy to me, it is hardly as interesting as the philosophical implications of the omniscient variant. 

Newcomb’s problem role in scholarship is mostly a shibboleth to test decision theories and decision theorists, the former because of the limited computational blindnesses of models like Causal Decision Theory, and the latter largely because of bias or confusion. For instance, it seems like frequently the two-box solution appeals to materialist types who are extremely concerned that bringing discussions of how parts of reality might be socially constructed opens the floodgates of theoretically infinite woo. The justification for the one-box solution—namely that the reality is socially constructed by the chooser’s actions—feels insufficiently rigorous even to me as it cannot prove why the one-boxer chooses only one box, except that they are the type of person who can interpret the reality of the situation and choose the highest expected utility outcome. This is certainly not the same level of certainty that the two-boxer feels. If one attempts to evaluate the problem from the perspective of the chooser, rather than from some kind of simulated third-person perspective, one sits uneasily with individuality's inherent uncertainty. 

My attention strays easily from potential solutions to wider implication. Newcomb’s Problem is beloved by analytical philosophy for the same reasons that it is altogether unheard of and likely entirely uninterpretable by mainstream societies that coordinate either through technical or emotional protocols. The problem describes a kind of coordination that can only be accomplished if you accept that sense of self is accepted to be unstable, which is anathema to the kind of assured consistent perspective necessary for doing most technological development that doesn’t involve selection effects. Taking the broadest definition of engineering—perhaps most easily specified as bounded optimization—one assumes that one's sense of self is stable. For, if it were not stable, then one would not be able to work towards the hoped optimization criteria, and instead would spend all their resource fearful that their future self will undo their labors for arbitrary reasons. It is remarkably well specified, and thus those with a well-cultivated engineering mindset are often able to interpret and speculate on its content and implications, whereas if it was written in a less explicit manner it would likely go the way of most other attempts at non-dualistic psychology, so often invoking a holistic worldview as a justification for abandoning systemization and rigor. In studying the problem, I only became more convinced that the many insights it generates are anathema to the sorts of decision theories that actually dominate the public sphere. While I believe that the investigation of rational decision theories is of critical importance to both human psychology and artificial intelligence research—both pure and applied—I am confused by the general failure of both analytical philosophy and artificial intelligence to engage with the variance of decision theories that have evolved in history. Certainly, all presently specified decision theories are flawed or at least incomplete, but clearly so is modern decision theory. It has always seemed to me that the necessary strategy for the application of decision theory to the real world was incomplete if it was simply a priori analysis, frequently committed only by those who were able to engage with it as a recreational practice. The empirical comparison of existent decision-making behaviors has always felt like the missing piece of any of the gains from the purely theoretical domain were to have any practical use. Indeed, as we have seen with the evolution of almost every branch of cognitive science, the historical constraints of theorists often lead them with a deep myopia, perhaps best demonstrated by the rise of behaviorism at the same time as the rise of control theory. We are dominated by the metaphors we live by more than I would like to admit. Rationalism as a tradition is less dominated by metaphor than virtually any other, perhaps only because it has chosen the least corruptible and most generalizable metaphor: mathematics and computation by way of Descartes and Spinoza, which is so universally applicable that it is likely incorrect to even refer to it as a metaphor even though a potentially descriptive way of thinking of the corpus of mathematics is the total of meaningfully descriptive metaphors. However, this does not mean that rationalism is not without its limits. In order to relate two objects, one must be able to specify the process by which one relates those two objects, leading one to need to specify which objects one is relating before the process of relation can take place. In short, rationalism can look at anything, but it can't look at everything at once. It can know that holism is a true principle—a totality must be by definition total—but a totality cannot be analyzed without abstracting away some of its content. This, I think, provides a pretty good way to think about the epistemic basis for trying to implement something like Functional Decision Theory or extensions or modifications thereof, as FDT serves as a method of circumventing immanent reactivity. Of course, a central problem of implementing specific policies in an FDT strategy remains how one generates policies, which must still contend with the black swan risk inherent in attention prioritization.  

2. 

Rationalism as a demographic and tradition is largely in denial of the fact that the vast majority of the population considers it to be only a naive affectation. The common conception is that rationalism is fit only for those who have failed to find a place in more sponsored communication protocols, and instead eke out an uneasy existence at the margins, powered by autistic focus but somehow failing to truly understand the reindeer games of social life. At the same time, it is also the only tradition that is able to reliably describe the world, and thus some version of it must—even under ersatz attribution—be considered the source of all knowledge that is not accidental. If one were to notice a fire burning in the forest and know instinctively not to burn oneself, rational thought would be required to predict the spread of the flames, to say nothing of the type of rationality required to discover cooking, or the fact that the evolutionary process that generated those instincts was able to encode rational behavior, even only through blind selection or mimesis. It is rather pathetic that I have to write this, but knowing the reason for a phenomenon's behavior is the only method by which one could modify that phenomenon. Deal only with cause and effect. Fortune is blind to all influence: If luck is law, one could never become lucky intentionally. 

Yet, there is something of an uncomfortable class war that has never truly concluded in Western Civilization. Rational materialists have a tendency to be negged into submission by pseudorational idealists as a method of extracting their labor. This stance is taken by Chapman in Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths, serving as a good countermodel to Rao's Gervais Principlewhich fails to properly identify the Geek and the Clueless as the same type of worker. This leaves me with a responsibility to consider populist alternatives to reason even if, by negation, we have to understand that there is no logic more powerful than reason and thus supposedly "transrational" modes of thought are patently absurd and exist only to exploit the intellectual charity of rational intelligences. We must consider strategies that choose to take purposefully irrational action as a method to gain short term advantage. This can be explained as either simple ignorance, or a Hamiltonian Spite strategy where the instigator can more easily survive the chaos of confusion and benefit from a position of comparative advantage. I am of course asserting that all irrational action is costly, which might look like I'm ignoring situations such as the victory of King Carl at the Battle of Narva, but this is simply a case of accidental rationality through abject stupidity on the part of Carl, as conceivably with advanced enough meteorology he could have known he was making the correct choice, but with the sensors of 1700 there's no way in hell he did. Thus, one has to assume that Carl was simply ignorant, but there are doctrines—mostly theistic in nature—that might claim Carl possessed great wisdom. However, we have return to the proposition earlier in the paragraph, and note that those perspectives are either suicidal or only attempting at an instinctual standard of life in their willful inability to analyze the world, or are being exploited by cynical Hamiltonian Spite strategies that exploit their unscientific perspective. 

Unfortunately (and for obvious reasons) both pre-and-postmodernism tend to avoid systematic decision theory problems and models. Yet, recently in Rome, M. Vassar Arc introduced me to a song from the singer-songwriter Jewel Kircher’s 1995 album Pieces of You, which, with a bit of paranoid extrapolation, provides basically all the raw material necessary to formulate an alternative test to the Newcomb Problem that better depicts the supposed "transrational" reasoning popular in postmodern society. I will call this test the Sensitive Problem for reasons of clarity. For the moment, we will focus on a single clause of the song, but the rest of the lyrics simply reinforce this distillation. Let us read this according to Barthes’ principle of the death of the author and be agnostic as to whether it is Kircher speaking or an imagined character who I will call The Sensitive One, as I am going to read far more into these lyrics than was likely ever intended by their author. 

I was thinking, that it might do some good
If we robbed the cynics and took all their food
That way what they believe will have taken place
And we'd give it to everybody who'll have some faith
So please be careful with me, I'm sensitive
And I'd like to stay that way


Let's further specify this “Sensitive Problem" and make it as similar to the original Newcomb as possible. I know this is a case of somewhat manic apophenia, but bear with me.  

The Predictor analyzes an agent and tries to see if the agent would be willing to attempt to win a fight to the death tomorrow night, against a random opponent.  If the agent is willing to try to defend its own life, it is invariably killed by the Predictor. If it would go entirely limp and not fight for itself, it survives.

The Newcomb problem tests rational self-interest in a scenario where local rational self interest isn't enough, and one has to collaborate with one's past and future selves to gain an optimal outcome. The Sensitive Problem is the opposite. One must intentionally avoid collaborating with one's past and future selves to remain alive—note that The Sensitive Problem states that it might do some good to take all of their food, not some. One must assume an intense negative valuation on future coordination, negative to a degree that it is not worth preserving any agency at all. Specifically, The Sensitive Problem claims that one should not attempt to rationally appreciate the situation, as rationally appreciating risk produces a cynical loss of innocence, equating innocence with sensitivity. This is to say, a finite circumstance with at least local zero-sum characteristics—which is to say any circumstance with meaningful choice or consequence—is a possibility-limiting environment because it fundamentally demands a response. Finite circumstances respond to one's will and action. The only alternative possible environment is a hypothetical infinite space where, probabilistically, everything happens at least once and there is no way to pressure that environment into a limited set of behaviors. I'm Sensitive asserts that any will and action fundamentally limits the potential for one’s immanent awareness of life to make the correct choice without considering the possibility of failure.

The Sensitive One asserts, in another part of the song, that she has this theory that if we’re told we’re bad it’s the only idea we’d ever have. It’s a far more extreme version of Nozick’s position, a concept called alternately Theucides’ Trap, the Hobbesian Trap, Schelling’s Dilemma, or Liu’s Dark Forrest where the recognition of the potential of defection by one party leads to the assumption of its necessity by the other. The Sensitive One implicitly asserts that the recognition of the possibility of defection is the source of defection (or abstract evil) itself, which makes the problem a test of morality, rather than a test of rationality. Intriguingly, by being a test of morality, it implicitly takes a specific perspective, with specific values, and tests whether or not the test-taker fits in with those values. Opposed to Nozick, The Sensitive One implicitly takes the stance that its not worth grappling with the problem of coordination with past and future selves, and indeed suggests that the entire problem comes from the sort of thinking that invariably arises when one attempts to act strategically across time. Quoting further from I'm Sensitive: Anyone can start a conflict, its harder yet to disregard it. In reality, there is of course room for the strategy of at least temporarily circumventing conflicts, but this is not synonymous with resolving them. If one’s will is in conflict with another’s, the only ways to resolve this are either to disregard one of the two wills by prosecuting the conflict, merging the two wills in compromise, or by capitulating and retreating out of the bounds of the conflict. The Sensitive One's theory is that somehow by retreating from the bounds of that conflict, a benevolent outcome will happen somehow by default. In practice, this translates to a moral obligation to eat the seed corn by conflating environmental constraint and social constraint, as well as entirely ignoring the possibility of low-communication environments demanding strong border defenses. There are all sorts of environments where correct action can only be informed by a clear theory of tradeoffs. Sometimes those tradeoffs effect agents other than oneself, though any sensible utilitarian would recognize the validity of other persons as moral patients and attempt to avoid externalizing harm.  

The perspective of the Sensitive Problem is the sort of thinking that I see in the type of liberal or leftist who somehow wants to infantilize men like King and Gandhi as unable or unwilling to sympathize or empathize with the logic of their adversaries. Amakusa Shirō, the leader of the Shimabara Rebellion, seems to me a much better example of the misinterpretation of King and Gandhi, for they—and especially King—were dispassionate strategists, possessed by indomitable wills that demanded the analysis of their opposition. There is certainly much to be said about their careers, but one cannot count for their ability to respond to threat an opportunity by good intentions alone. It is equivalent to assuming that the whole Christ as a strategist is included in the notion that one should turn the other cheek, ignoring all of his less passive sayings and deeds and assuming that such an aphorism held eternally outside of context. So, what does it mean to see the world from another angle and be an everyday angel, if not to embrace a sense of hope at the expense of rigorous tactics? Amacusa certainly seemed to be possessed by this hope, leading to a needless civil war committed by faithful men and women who must have been genuinely confused about the suicidal nature of their cause.  

Even as I condemn The Sensitive One for doubting the promise of rationality, I must remind myself to sympathize with its fear. Reason implies that one could isolate clear cause and effect. One promises to one’s self or others that action may follow observation, either by the senses or the intellect, and that one may observe one’s own actions to confront and perfect them. The trouble is that this covenant is so often broken when individuals fail to summon the courage to confront the ever-multiplying province of implication. Convenient myths often justify action far more interpretably than causes that are either obscure or incommunicable. Perhaps if one was alone and engaged in an abstract activity, composing music say, and keeping it secret or releasing it with the cold comfort of total anonymity, one could justify every deed. Yet, in the social context, gaslighting sets in. The reconciliation of multiple perspectives is imperfect at best, and it is far easier to abandon the often disappointing sanity of probabilistic knowledge in favor of the mutability of definite mysticism. One must grapple with one’s uncertainty in order to know anything at all, and seldom is anyone up to the task every time it is demanded. I see no other alternative to this simple humility in light of the fundamentally finite character of our understanding. Yet, while I find it absurd and frankly perverse, I can understand the desire for a logic more powerful than reason. Philosophy is indeed incoherent when it fails to confront the fact that it is always limited by its own perspective, something that everyone from Kant, to al-Ghazali and Chomsky reliably remind us of. 

The Sensitive Problem focuses on the political, so we will remain focused on that scale of relationship for the moment. Even when a society is meaningfully divided, the divisions are rarely appreciated as constraints and are instead assumed to be immutable realities, demanding factional war. Such factions are rarely so mutually incompatible as to demand a violent response, and yet as history tells us such violence has arisen time and again. Though somewhat incomplete with a number of geopolitical considerations, The Nazis’ manufacture of both internal and external threats is the canonical example of pseudorationalist crimes in the modern consciousness, but there are countless other examples that need not be listed again here. The fear of such pointless brutality that animates blind hope in the everyday angels is also the emotional drive that forces me to try and confront the reasoning of the brutalizers. The trouble is that the everyday angel perspective assumes that distinctions between persons itself animates the will to violence, rather than asserting that the will to violence is independent of differences between persons.

Yet, from history to date, it is rather unclear if a state of war is the rule or the exception in human society at large, though one could of course make far better claims regarding individual regions. However, in the case of the Sensitive Problem, a historical analysis is hardly persuasive to the perspectives that themselves find the Sensitive Problem persuasive. The sensitive problem asserts that it would do some good to eliminate the entire discipline of precedential analysis, as the cynics have to have made a judgement that it is correct to be cynical, and precedential analysis would be entirely meaningless if only positive judgements were considered admissible. We are left with an ahistorical mode of analysis. Whether out of weak thought or potent thoughtlessness, humanity often does decide that cruelty is a solution to conflict. Such depravity is not eliminated by ignoring it, but only by correcting the errors in reasoning that justified it. Such cruelty only emerges when we lack the imagination or bravery to introspect and develop better plans. In the case of the Nazis or any other criminals who were able to organize mob violence, a justification that is good enough to produce a sense of group-unity against a scapegoating target is enough to mobilize coordinated aggressive action simply by making it difficult to consider another option. Visibly questioning the party line simply makes you easy prey. It doesn’t matter if the justification makes sense, it matters only if it makes enough sense to make it difficult to question yourself.

Troublingly, this type of offensive violent action is powered far more often by moral judgements similar to the Sensitive Problem than the Cynics judged by that problem. The Sensitive Problem’s Predictor creates an in-group by testing for a similar violent intent while pretending its intent is pacifistic. While the pretense of enforcing a prohibition on cynical accumulation of resources makes the lyrics a modicum more tolerable, the violence is still there. Again, note that it says all not a surplus of the cynics' food. This is not to say that the paranoid stockpiling of resources at the expense of collective economic or ecological utility is always justified, but the position of the Sensitive Problem is unjustifiably extreme. The Sensitive One asserts that somehow lacking faith that one’s needs would simply be provided for without intentional preparation is defection against the human spirit, and that concern for one’s future autonomy is the origin of conflict rather than simply an attempt to endure it. The mind, in the account of the song, is not the sort of instrument that is supposed to be used to make tradeoffs. Indeed, the capacity to do evil is confused with the capacity to accomplish anything at all besides the construction of a unifying state of hope. There is much to be said for unifying states of hope, but the murder of all populations that harshed the vibe by tracking the potential for disaster is irrefutably insane. Passing the sensitive problem is equivalent to culling the entire demographic that keeps records, knows history, and is willing to act with strategic independence.  

In short, I have been analyzing the lyrics of a pop song that demands a pogrom. What is a pogrom if not a scapegoating raid on an outgroup that has kept records of the world when the dominant culture has not? In famine, a hungry crowd invariably emerges, and the potential solutions are either charity, a jubilee, a pogrom, or a bacchanal that takes the whole of the society back to a state of nature. It matters not what causes the famine—it could just as easily be a famine of validation as a famine of calories—it matters only that the crowd has failed to care for itself, and looks towards easy prey. Often, the easiest prey is those persons that spent their time tracking the behavior of world instead of aspiring to high rank in the ugly meritocracy of violence. It is far easier for a ruling class to direct the rage of the hungry crowd at a scapegoat than to attempt to remedy the situation. The ruling class blames the hunger of the crowd on the act of keeping account of the process that led to the hunger in the first place. This act of bad faith ignores the possibility of learning from the past and avoiding further devastation in the future. Instead, it attempts to obliterate history, and see the world from another angle: that of spite and of hope, of good and evil, but never the inviolate knowledge of cause and effect. Those who have focused on the object-level mechanisms that determine the behavior of the world are so often blind to the metagame of threat and opportunity that distributes power and leverage.

It seems like the central question for political philosophy in the twenty-first century is simply how to make the conflict between game and metagame, between text and subtext, visible to those nerds and materialists who have thus far successfully avoided being scapegoated through strategies of either trade or invisibility. I'm not sure how to accomplish that, but it seems highly unlikely that it involves amputating the ability to successfully complete the million dollar solution to Newcomb's Problem in order to avoid death in the Sensitive Problem. It strikes me that the attachment to try and look for a logic more powerful than reason comes from a misinterpretation of the structure of risk and reward in the world. As we near the close of the second decade of the twenty first century, we exist in a period of normalized Lovecraftianism, with various specters of doom available for any given political persuasion. Many of those who have seen the promise of rationality broken see present progress as debt financed, with repossession just around the corner, or as accidental where no individual has anything approximating better than random agency over the physical world. The potential for total extinction leads the mind into a confusion that all progress might be inherently risky unless, somehow, it could make disaster entirely impossible. One undervalues the future, assuming that the potential of black swan events implies that we live in a world of finite reward and infinite risk, and that in that environment the correct thing to do is to stop playing.

The question is, why? This is madness, certainly, but it must come out of something. I believe that it comes out of invalidating one's own perspective and assuming that another perspective is somehow able to validate behavior by its fiat, rather than one's own experience. The anxiety of individuals who interpret the world through a social lens of praise and blame rather than cause and effect is understandable, if not itself worth experiencing. If words crush things that are unseen, this implies that the Sensitive One and others like it are affected by other individuals perceptions far more than would be adaptive as an individual. If one does not identify with one's own perspective, and instead with private or public opinion of another individual or collective, then indeed the correct thing to do is to avoid all potential blame and ignore the promise of rational action. It is always in the interests of the validator to praise and blame according to their own interests if the individual who they affect, for that individual is no longer an individual and is instead an extension of their will—a Pavlovian thrall.

I will terminate this essay at the moment, but will leave off with one final question that I do not currently have an answer to: What is the legal status of Pavlovian thralls? At what place does agency start and end? When one is animated by the will of another, who is responsible for the action? I am inclined to think that the question is incoherent. Agents, as individual processes, are almost as absurd to think about as inviolate taxonomies of the world as fully discrete species as described often by pop ecologists. Yet, if one is to attempt to think of correct action in the world, isolating the local cause of incorrect action and shifting it seems the only potential method for restorative justice. All justice systems are limited by their ontology, and it seems highly unlikely that the West will be able to reform its laws in the coming centuries if it still takes as immutable a concept of individuality derived not from the ability to reason, but from Roman property rights. 

Tear Down This (Money)Wall? by Bryce Hidysmith

( Soundtrack: Samy Deluxe - Weck Micht Auf, which I discovered by googling graffiti from a third story wall in Kreuzberg. ) 

In Berlin tonight, Z. A, a neurologist and great kubernetes of community housing, mentioned that she once made large pinboards of money—a few hundred dollars on each—and hung them from a wall in one of the community houses that she worked on back when I knew her in California. I think this might be a kind of excellent design for a rather specific piece of sensory infrastructure. It seems as though any given cohabitant community could use this kind of a structure for the distribution of some amount of petty cash if people are in need of expedient monetary resources. Whatever the amount that would be irrelevant to be consumed by the community could be put out in this fashion, used to pay the parking meters, tip the deliverypersons, purchase additional coffee or better quality spices, or—much more importantly—to buy necessities for those that need them instead of the irrelevant sundries that the more moneyed members would dispose their income on.  

At smaller scales of behavior, this quantity of resources is referred to "spare change," but when one lives not as an individual but in a conurbation, such as a monastery, art collective, or community house, this quantity of resources is likely an order of magnitude or two larger—a hundred dollars instead of ten, enough to potentially make a great deal of difference in an individual's daily life if substantial fractions of it could be taken freely. This serves the initial purpose of simply making the residents of the community's life easier, but also serves a couple of sousveilant purposes as well. The rate that it is consumed can be interpreted, with fast types showing a general case of financial insecurity or greed. Perhaps one could mitigate it by simply asking individuals to write their usage of the currency and sign their name beside, to be judged by the jury of their cohabitants. 

Yet, this increase in dimensionality of data would decrease the fact that the main use of the currency would be monitoring the way that individuals behave when there is free currency that can be taken from a commons under without anyone knowing, insofar as such a thing *can* be documented at all.  Thus, the main purpose that a Moneywall would in fact serve is to see if the whole of it ends up being stolen in a short timespan—likely a single day but one could envision arrangements where there is a different unit of time would be used. One might create a general punishment to the community if this happens, perhaps by the decimation of the community by eviction. This might also be done by percentage. One could specify that, if more than a certain percentage is taken within a day, then that percentage of the population is randomly evicted. I would suggest perhaps 40% for maximum effectiveness, but this is conjecture without a clear analysis as to why. To take the entire Moneywall (or the specified percentage of that model is used) would signify a will to directly defect on the commons, and if indeed the strength of the monastery is the monk and the strength of the monk is the monastery, such an action even by a single individual would cast doubt on the entire community. If one is to fight in phalanxes to regularly defeat barbarism, then one must remember that the phalanx is only as strong as its weakest point, and that every man must shield his neighbor and forgo individualistic defense to build a proper shield wall. If I am to totally belabor the metaphor, then the free flow of capital must have no discontinuous obstructions to gain maximum benefit. 

Etiquette in Battle Royale Scenarios by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Tommy Genesis - Execute > 

Recently, battle royale gametypes have become significantly more common in video games. Frequently, there is an etiquette assumption that forming teams is inappropriate. Teams currently unbalance the battle royale mode, but likely would not unbalance them if players were more strategically rational than they currently are in any of these games. This limited strategic rationality has introduced a semi-functional equilibrium state. 

If there are no teams, then there is no strategy better than playing Fabian. (Note: it might not quite technically be pure Fabian as they do not take costs from simply moving. However, rather obviously, avoiding conflicts means that other, more aggressive players take out more of each other before you are ever put into battle, and unless there is some benefit to battle, it makes a great deal more sense to just stay avoidant and peripheral.) However, if there are teams, then Fabian is no longer the dominant strategy as playing aggressively is incentivized to disrupt premeditated alliances. In such a scenario, the objective becomes attempting to link to a benevolent alliance as fast as possible, avoiding being taken out by the random placements on the map. It seems as though the normalized equilibrium assumes that the majority of players will be emotionally volatile enough to not actually have the will to play Fabian and gain enjoyment from avoidance, letting the few Fabian-enjoying players gain an advantage in thoughtfulness, whereas the more volatile players are likely more addicted and have a comparable advantage from built-up reflex. The fact that these games are simple entertainment means that there is no reason for them to gain the "escape velocity" to start producing metagame strategies from their reasonably strategically symmetrical equilibrium state. 

This seems to have a direct extension into other fields that might be viscerally enjoyable, but the visceral enjoyment might remove the possibility for second to nth order strategies being built in the metagame on the primary gameplay. This also probably explains most of the reason why it seems that only simulations that do not provide much visceral experience (MMOs, Minecraft) ever produce the kind of discipline one would actually need to produce strategic—rather than simply tactical—behavior in a virtual environment. There is something a bit disconcerting to the fact that the dominance of video games has not actually trained strategic foresight into the majority of its participants. Instead, it seems to have produced purely tactical reaction, contributing to the atomization of individuals and producing coordination models similar to the swarm-behavior found in the current Tumblr/4Chan design consensus when similar designs have been applied to other UX problems. This seems to be the entrainment of the (post-)millennial generation, and I am sorry for our lots. 

Codes of Silence & Codes of Law by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Bauhaus -  The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

There are two standard narratives as to the nature of the police in society. One of them is that police are by their nature men of honor, men straight out of the silver nitrate-tinged frontier, attempting to exert order on a chaotic world. This is true in the ideal, and perhaps sometimes we live up to our ideals, but in practice the enforcers of the law are as susceptible to corruption as anyone else—even more so due to their privileged position. The other theory, then, is that such corruption is unavoidable, and that the role of the police is to simplify the strategic environment by becoming a singleton. This is this model where the feudalists and the gangsters provide similar services. One may live an entire generation at least in the same protection racket, and so the logic goes that living within the same protection racket makes the rules more explicit and thus more livable, even if those rules are simply the necessity of appeasing a capricious lord.

Both of these narratives seem to be incomplete to me, as they avoid the possibility that the existence of professional law enforcement groups is potentially just a way of providing cover for law-breakers by scapegoating less advantaged law-breakers. If one is able to provide the appearance of common knowledge that all crimes are prosecuted with remarkable effectiveness to enough of the population, then it is possible for a class to arbitrage the knowledge of holes in said enforcement. It is possible, likely even, that entire classes of lawbreakers could coordinate in such a way if their desires for how to break the law were normalized enough that they could predict one another's objectives reasonably effortlessly. Provided that the desires are sufficiently similar, one needs only install a code of omertà. It seems likely that an entirely class might be able to coordinate in an entirely decentralized fashion, potentially developing a clear symbiosis with the law enforcement bodies of its localities. It is also probably worth noting that such codes of silence have a tendency to naturally emerge when one is dealing with individuals of sufficient similarity to oneself, as one would be a fool to provide information that could just as easily apply to oneself. It would need no central coordination, only a sense of identity. 

Where The Echo Is Louder Than The Sound Itself by Bryce Hidysmith

 Photo by A. Gourley, Feb. 2018&nbsp;

Photo by A. Gourley, Feb. 2018 

< Soundtrack: Sun City Girls - The Shining Path, Kim Jung Mi - 햇님/The Sun  >

On Halloween of 2017, a friend and I posted thirty-nine theses on a message board in Sproul Plaza on the grounds of UC Berkeley. We would have aimed for ninety-five, but we got close to done in thirty-nine. We left an email to contact us if anyone were so inclined, and we figured that maybe we would find someone interesting who we could communicate with. Amusingly, it turned out that all of the theses were taken down the next day with the routine cleaning that happens at the end of every month. Nobody emailed us. We rationalized the frustration of leaving a clue and not having anyone follow it by assuming that the primary value of the deed was being able to say that we posted the theses in the first place. It was the right sort of thing to do to commemorate the five-hundredth Anniversary. There is much to be said for costly signals directed to oneself. Sometimes you have to remind yourself who you are, in the likely case that you forget. 

Rome is a city of costly signals. Very few (perhaps none) that remain are signals directed at individuals for themselves, and instead the vast majority of them are telling you to know your place. There stand monuments. There's the Alter of the Fatherland, which is basically a meta-monument made out of smaller monuments. There stand basilicas. There are partially reconstructed pieces of civic infrastructure that have taken on a divine quality simply by being dug up out of the ground. All of them are ways of asserting an order on the world by forcing an individual to aspire to an ideal that is claimed to have existed, but is now unattainable. The divine is painted on the ceilings of the chapels and basilicas to humble us, to make us crane our necks so that as we study the content of the murals we also must remember that the content lords over us, surrounded by overwhelming and frankly psychedelic adornment. I can't spend more than a few minutes among the baroque without feeling a bit seasick. I didn't go inside of St. Peter's, as I was feeling more than a bit exhausted just from touring the Vatican Museums. I feel like if one had been raised within this system either at mater or magister, then one might have a different experience, but the refinement of the confusing capacity of art was so adept that I must admit that I felt comfortable only in the Sistine Chapel and the room of Raphael's School of Athens. Both of those rooms were cases where the structure of the artwork was so impeccable that it demanded attention and understanding. All symbols are related so impeccably that the will of the artists were not obfuscated, and the messages were clear as day, with further levels of interpretation available with conceivably infinite pattern recognition. I didn't go inside St. Peter's for the same reasons I was happy I'd entered the Sistine. There is something oddly telling about the fact that Molgbug and the Neoreactionaries often use "the Cathedral" as a metaphor for those that install Maya, while also being pro-Catholic, but at the same time it's probably worth noting that the Old Masters who helped manufacture the informational content of cathedrals are perhaps the greatest example of individuals using the Kolmagorov Option in the history of the West. On that note, its probably worth noting Raphael's prominent placement of Sappho on The Parnassus. 

There is a sense in so many parts of Rome that interpretation is against the will of the territory. The city demands that I know my place before I know myself. I cannot attempt learn the character of the city and remember the character of myself independently. I am a foreigner. I have a history of my own. And while my history is haunted by the ghosts of Rome even on the other side of the world, it is not Roman history.  Yet, Rome speaks a command language. It has a place for you, but you have no choice in the matter. I can't help but think of the gang of minor scam artists that congregate around Trajan's Column, trying to flag down tourists to talk to them, giving them identical cheap bracelets and claiming that those bracelets are gifts from Africa before asking for money. They're clearly indentured, caught up in a debt scheme where they can't ever make their quota of sales for the day. They operate in small packs, and have developed a strategy of preying on the hope of Americans who don't want to seem racist by ignoring a migrant in the ruins of the imperial city. Probably the only places that I've found in this city that are actually comfortable are the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, which might be my favorite proper market that I've been to outside of Bangkok, and an extremely friendly goth club in San Lorenzo where some of our crew played chess one night. Neither of those places are haunted by obfuscated preferences. The play of haggling or dark-path aesthetics is interpretable by all, and there isn't a need to attempt to join any theatrics that wouldn't happen by default.  

There are older, more comfortable versions of the city beneath the earth, back at the levels of topology from before the seven hills were de facto flattened as debris piled up. There's the old villa stories underground of San Clemente, where I drank from a spring of water flows that quenched the thirst of the citizens of the city during the days of the war. I was comfortable there, and then a tour group of French teenagers came in sulking, and I overheard a British woman gasp with horror that there were coins offered to the heathen Mithraeum. I stumbled back above ground, and into a cafe, the Colosseum looming outside. I couldn't help but wonder if I was just filling in detail with ample apophenia. Maybe it's the white of the marble that throws me off, and if the whole system was rendered in polychrome I would be much less pleased. Color would distract from structure, and without its distraction one can almost believe in a rational world. My mind does not attempt to fill them with ornament, rather it hopes that the symbols may have meaning, or that things that are pure aesthetic pleasure may be symbols. The mosaic floors rarely have data beyond decoration. The symbol—the cross, the fasces, the keys, the SPQR, the wolf and her children—even in the days of Trajan it is almost secondary to the wonder of sheer adornment. This is a country where the echo is louder than the sound itself. 

One gets a sense that the overall aesthetic that the Romans had when designing buildings and art was derived from a sense of strategic insecurity. They must build an obelisk or an arch because they must demonstrate that they could build such a thing. This is the fundamental nature of monuments that are not optimized for durability or the inclusion of great quantities of information. The overall order of their state depended largely on the ability of the highly-ranked to demonstrate imperium without fail, leading to an increasingly performative society as Julius and Augustus faded into memory. Both Julius and Augustus knew about the performative nature of power, as of course did Cato, and were both able to harness it without losing control of the show. This is, perhaps, one of the best explanations for what could be meant by finding Rome a city of brick, and leaving it a city of marble. One must remember that the marble was typically only a facade. One of the most central moral questions that one has to contend with is whether or not one sides with Cato or Caesar—must you use a strategic advantage simply because you can, even if that strategic advantage is built on the normalization of a level of corruption? 2016 to the present seems to have begun a dialectic on this subject in earnest, with almost everyone taking mixed and largely situational positions driven by fear or opportunism, but I will have to let my own opinions solidify more fully before I address these questions.

I read through Graeber's Debt on the train back from Florence yesterday, and the Roman conception of property and its free-use is so alien to the way that I think, which is deeply influenced by the Christian (and especially Protestant) tendency to need to give everything a justification outside of itself. It seems almost as though the Christian revolution in Rome was an attempt to check the ego of the pater familias, especially when one notes that a major reason for the rise of Christ and not of Mithra was that Mithraeums did not accept female members, whereas property owning widows were a major factor in funding the initial church. Christ is a far superior figure than Zeus or bastard fanfics like composite Osirapis. Such gods only served to create a fractal patriarchy that is able to incorporate and slowly process foreign bodies, either by way of vassalization or slavery. Graeber's comments on the Axial age strategy of military-currency-slavery are highly enlightening on this matter, and should not be underestimated. To briefly summarize, a conquering army melts the metal accoutrements of a conquered people into bullion, stamps it in coinage, distributes the coinage to the military, and demands that the official coinage is used to pay taxes. As slavery is normalized in this time period, a large slave economy of former captives emerges, mining further metals from conquered mines or working in agriculture. Chartalism, with an expansionist element. An element of this that Graeber does not necessarily overlook, but rather does not directly comment on, is the fact that to launch this system its necessary to have clear common knowledge about who the primary authority is, something that a fractal patriarchy religious system would be remarkably effective at producing. Though the circumstantial details of exactly how the Roman church began to require celibacy of its priests are a bit fuzzy—there is not a clear justification as to why the decisions of the Council of Elvira were made that I could find—I might imagine that it is an attempt to produce both a precedent of divinely ordained power over the body and its functions, as well as an attempt to avoid the clerical hierarchy being used to amass dynastic continuities of power and wealth. Both of those would be highly advantageous, but there are of course a great number of practical problems with this specific implementation that need no further discussion here. Centrally, a thing to remember is that design was a rarity in Rome. Reaction to circumstance was the order of the day. Locations imbued with such power as this rarely have space for non-reactive mental processes. As reactive processes are faster, frequently the contemplative processes of design are simply selected against strongly enough by the stressful pace of the environment that they no longer take place at all. One must assume that Rome, after the fall of the Republic, was a place where Marcus Aurelius was entirely remarkable for writing his Meditations, themselves representative of a stoic tendency to attempt to interface with and profit from the world without attempting to produce anything like justice within it—a tendency matched by the political wings of Taoism on the other side of Eurasia. There is more to be said. While this city is not infinite, it seems as though it might be eternal, and as such I would find myself dwelling on intractabilities for far longer than I might otherwise like. It is far easier to simply take one of the ample roads that leave this place and find somewhere easier to think. 

As far as I'm concerned, I think that to try and understand the writings of Acquinas as well as Chesteron's Orthodoxy before I solidify much more belief on any matters of spirit. I have an exceptional curiosity regarding the ways in which the Scholastics were able to preserve a wide range of thought in an environment that is at least stereotyped as massively dogmatic, and I have been keeping a copy of Augustine in my bag that I am sure I will get to shortly. Yet, my prejudices when it comes to religion are for a kind of self-sacrificial protestantism that is not taken very seriously by a pluralist and largely atheistic and esoteric ex-frontier city like the one of my birth. My familial traditions tell me that religion should an understated thing, an attempt to interpret the world knowing that you cannot be the one who is able to understand the whole of it, but nonetheless it is your responsibility to try like any good Christian to interpret the signs given, and make a rightly justified decision. If a hierarchy of divine authority demonstrated its ability to interpret signs better than myself, I would certainly follow its lead. Yet, such authority must come from the clear demonstration of the ability to interpret symbols and signs. The authority of a given perspective must be equal to its ability to transmit useful information to other perspectives, for if it holds secrets it must be assumed to be paid in the profit it gains from such asymmetric information. I cannot see any other arrangement that would permit me to see what was right by my own eyes. 

Regarding A System of Strategic Standards by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Ленингра́д - ВОЯЖ , Fever Ray - To The Moon & Back >

The following is move towards a formalization of a system of strategic standards, as discussed on top of a small mountain in Big Sur, California, in mid November and over email with one M. Vassar Arc. This is my assessment and extension of his model, which he notes was inspired partially by remarks made by Ayn Rand in various of her writings, and Machiavelli in Discourses on Livy. Additionally, if I was not in Rome with C. McKenzie and A. Gourley, I don't think I'd be able to think clearly on this subject at all. 

A strategic standard is a requirement for the "success" of a given evolutionary strategy. This is measured in the level of intergenerational stability that the strategy is able to couple to the type of agency that the strategy is able to reap from the practice of the strategy. To build on the ideas I noticed in Butler's Parable of the Sower and combining them with a rather heterodox interpretation of Ricardo's Iron Law of Wages, it is necessary to understand that the practice of a long-term evolutionary strategy requires that one integrates the means and ends of a given strategy, so that the achievable of a desired end bolsters the means for achieving that end again. Further remarks on the way that strategic standards must be integrated are here

Substandard: Firstly, we must understand that there is a failure to meet any of the standards at all. There are many behaviors that cease the life of the individual who undertake them, leaving them infertile in one way or another. While there are of course many reasons to remove the fertile capacities of individual organisms for the sake of a collective whole, it is also clear that the capacities of the collective must be enhanced in such a way as to pay for the sacrifice of those individuals fertility, otherwise the collective will run an overall population deficit and decline unto extinction. 

Standard of Life: Secondly, we have the Standard of Life, wherein the organism is able to reproduce but not dictate and of the circumstances of life of itself or its descendants. It is adaptable enough to be brought into the world without fear for its safety. It may live a debased existence. It may move entirely through the immanence of reflex, and thus be easily conditioned to serve. Yet, if the organism comes from a line that has met the standard of life it does not need to be afraid that it, itself, will fail to adapt to circumstance. Life finds a way, after all. The transformation may be the most brutish trial and error, but it will be accomplished in sufficient time to reproduce and allow their young to try their hand at meeting the standard of life as well. 

Standard of History: Building on the Standard of Life, we have the Standard of History, where the organism in question is able to dictate some of the circumstances of life by being able to control its environment, rather than simply react to its environment in an effective fashion. This is to say, meeting the standard of history is the capacity of making precedent with one's life. One is not able to necessarily define what precedent is made, but individuals who investigated the life of the person that met the standard of history could direct their life according to the precedent set. The Standard of Mythology seems to be a hazy and poorly remembered version of the Standard of History, where no convenient Herodotus is available to begin the process of interpretation, contextualization, and argument derived from biography. By meeting the Standard of History, by doing it their way and saying the things they truly feel, and not the words of one who kneelsthey become a life in the record of lives, such that other lives can define themselves in rebellion or immitation. 

(As an aside, it seems as though there's a general level of confusion regarding the nature of the Standard of History in the post-Napoleonic period, as Napoleon was only shooting for the Standard of History, and individuals shooting for higher standards are compared as though inferior to Napoleon, when in fact very many of them have done better. The Emperor knew that the only reason to have an emperor was to serve as a vanishing point, something that his few betters knew well. Napoleon was an expression of the fashions of the age, rather than attempting to exceed or direct them. His great genius was to know that the best he himself could do was to live within his means, something that, for instance, Meiji decided to disregard to glorious effect.)

Standard of If: Taken from the Rudyard Kipling poem cited in the title-link. The Standard of History constitutes participation, but not production, of a Hegelian Dialectic. The form of the dialectic itself seems to have to be produced by something other than this standard, something greater than and external to history. The will to name is distinct from the will to embody, for the will to name can name a great many identities that it might be sensible to play, given the circumstance. The Standard of If, then, is the ability to rise to meet circumstance, and to choose which circumstances one might choose to meet, as similar to the wisdom of Cyrus cited at the end of this post. The Standard of If is a sort of extensible, unbounded adaptive capacity. Wheres meeting the Standard of History requires one to fit into circumstance, the Standard of If requires one to shift circumstance by what is demanded by universals. 

Standards of Asymptotically Limitless Agency: This is the realm of science fiction, including periods of fairly recent history in which humanity has indeed lived up to its potential by being able to execute on the Standard of If in collectives, rather than simply as individuals. The Manhattan Project, the Moonshot, and the Internet all effectively are remnant artifacts of methods of social organization stronger than If. The keen utopianism of any idealist kid trends towards this, as when one is a child one presumes that one's level of good faith collaboration and labor is likely normative for the whole of an individual's life, rather than normative only for the mind before it is broken by violations of trust. A positive singularity driven by friendly artificial intelligence are the limit as the standard approaches infinity. 

Notes From the Shelley-Keats House by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: The Mountain Goats - Harlem Roulette >

I went to the former home of the poet Keats yesterday. At the base of the Spanish Steps, it remains a small outpost of a dreaming spirit of Anglophone and Protestant character. It is the spirit of a wandering mind in territories of bad weather, of being captive physically but not mentally. Perhaps it is only in this state that man begins to attempt to divorce himself from nature, and accepts a quest towards discontinuous acts of change where one has framed the world in a low-fidelity abstraction so one can run computation on it. Of course, Borges' manuscript of a commentary "Keats' Nightengale" is there, for Borges was also always possessed by that same spirit, which he perhaps most obviously vocalizes in the lecture notes from his course on English Literature, to my knowledge the only example of his work as a professor that survives. A larger discussion of the exact nature of that enframing is for another time, but it is of remarkable interest that the Romantics clearly attempted to practice it, and the relationship of the enframing tendency and the Catholic world is of significant interest to me at this moment in time. 

In testament, Keats' old house is quiet. There are no photo ops, and so it is not terribly popular with the crowd captivated by the Spanish steps outside. But, it is the sort of place that offers copies of the poets' books in the reading room. Their library was buffeted by the Baroque and by the increasing relevance of the East. The Romantics were seduced by both, but still oddly provincial in tastes, utilitarian in behavior. If one is to think of the necessary conditions for thought in a world where splendor is used to dazzle the mind, then the mind must have a refuge where it is not fully dazzled to refine the little effects of language in the smallest turns of phrase. The artistic impulse can be characterized as both a metis and a techne, but it matters little which one contextualizes it as, for in the modern context they are used usually to denote a false political disagreement echoing the false political disagreements of the Romantics themselves. Both require concentration, dissociation, and sense of simultaneous safety and necessity. The refinement of language into sequences built for inspiration is just one example of this craft. The Romantics knew what they were doing in a political context, for while the modern assumptions of men like Shelley are that they were doomed soothsayers, attempting to conjure an alternative world in their scripts, they themselves knew that the invocations of such alternate worlds held real currency—he was married to Wollstonecraft after all, the implications of such a fact being looked over by perhaps all of those same people who would dismiss Shelley the Elder's strategies as flights of fantasy, following his death, and Shelley the Younger's writings as idle speculation rather than attempts at depicting the not only possible, but actual. Those same fools would likely assume that Gerome was to triumph, inevitably, over the Impressionists, while at the same time failing to notice that Gerome was, indeed, outputting work with much larger quantities of bits than the Impressionists ever would. While Keats wounds from printed verbiage are another story, one must remember that it was conjectured for some time that Byron might have become King of Greece, though this is of course cast in a most debatable light by modern scholars.

Their engagement with the world was uncompromising. The role of the poet has changed over the years. The post-Beat poets in the 1970s on were as far from engaged with the world as possible, unless they were rappers or other musicians—perhaps the first person I think of here is Leonard Cohen—and those were rising in an era of mass media that Byron and the like had begun creating back in the 19th century with industrially produced portraits and books, but certainly not the moving image on a telescreen half-way around the world. The question, I think, is what they were running away from, and what they were running towards. Industrialism was on the rise in England, and maybe the right thing to do was to follow the lead of Morris, but there seemed to be another distinct potential at hand: that of going back and trying to contend with the past and regain whatever noble spirit was at least hallucinated by men like Plutarch. Remember, Mary marks the humanity of the monster with Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Plutarch's Parallel Lives. Given that Goethe was himself a stop on the Grand Tour for quite some time, and Rome was the clear epicenter of the emergent Western project, it made sense that they were here. Keats himself noted that beauty was truthand truth beauty, but it is unclear if that sentiment was known to the other members of their set.

The Romantic rebellion was canonized in the heart of Rousseau, rather than the hand of Morris. Hope was valued over productive skill and enjoyable experience. The world was cultivated in the image of the ineffable fairy-tale of the intention of the mob. Insofar it was valued for its hope, it was valued for the addictive potential that hope produces. One might aspire to be Cato against Ceasar, but deny the trials of circumstance that limited both the Republican and Imperial strategies, and in that confusion built monuments like Wedding Cakes and simply hope that the general will of the people to maintain and survive would simply prevail. Perhaps this past is only valuable as a counterfactual, only usable as something to be rejected, kept in line of sight while one sails as far away from it as you can with a spyglass trained both at the fore and aft, until eventually that foreign country disappears under the curvature of the earth and it's possible to do something differently, somewhere and when else. Perhaps the best you can do is find a past that isn't yours, and repossess a bit of its marble to build a better foundation. 

You Don't Have To Choose To Ignore Him, Because We've Already Done It For You by Bryce Hidysmith

 Myself &amp;  Blucifer , a horse that cursed all these United States, Denver, CO.

Myself & Blucifer, a horse that cursed all these United States, Denver, CO.

< Soundtrack: Pixies - Holiday Song, Decemberists - Ben Franklin's Song, Moondog - Invocation >

Rare Earth's most recent video, The People Who Hate Us, is one of my favorite pieces of media that I've seen recently. It's made me think a bit about James Mill's History of British India. In the preface, Mill attempts to justify the writing of the book without knowing any Indian languages, nor ever having visited the subcontinent by suggesting that the British information gathering system was so good that it would be unecessary, even detrimental to try and get first hand information. James Mill's son, the tyke bomb John Stewart Mill's ideas are oddly related to the ideas stated by Evan Hadfield in the video concerning the comparative hedonic yield of different kinds of narrative and experiential exploitation in the depiction of peoples with variable power differentials. The interesting thing to note concerning those ideas is that J. S. Mill's Utilitarian moral philosophy requires the ability to accurately produce a shared unit of account between alien populations. Such divisions, be they geographic, ethnic, racial, gendered, class/caste, or even temporal/generational, provide such opportunities for arbitrage that obfuscation is the order of the day, and the measure is unevenly applied, sometimes to a three-fifths measure, sometimes not at all. In such a utilitarian schema, it matters not what the motivation for the obfuscation is. The assumption that the unit of account could symmetrically account for the lives of perspectives of alien parties is absurd on its head, ignoring the realm of the unknown unknown. This arbitrage can easily be concealed, and an untrue but public narrative is then proliferated, not accounting for the fraud that makes utilitarian accounting possible. 

The elder, James Mill's book is correspondent pretty directly to the ideas in Edward Said's Orientalism, though I can't remember if Said ever directly mentioned it. Said's basic idea is that there is a paradox of depiction: one is both able to have accurate information concerning a subject, as well as use the claim to having accurate information regarding that subject to state falsehoods. Thereby, one may change the way that the subject is treated, changing the subject itself. The whole system is a set of nonlinear feedback relationships between depictor and depicted, with the power held in the hand and eye of that which controls the feedback relationship of depiction, rather than either the image or the original. It seems like there's an overall theme, between Hadfield and Said against the Mills, of attempting to question the assumption that its possible to have complete information, and thus that all attempts at representation are misrepresentation. Both of the Mills assume that the information gathering infrastructure around them—especially the monetary credit allocation processes—are accurate, thereby assuming that its possible to engage in just action by acting within an already debased credit allocation system. Again, this is a willful act of bad faith. It is debatable as to whether or not the Utilitarian intention is viable within an accurate credit allocation system, but the model advocated by Mill the Younger and picked up by modern Utilitarians—especially the present Negative Utilitarian death cult—is limited again by this failure to produce and objective unit of account. This failure of the project of Objectivity has led to men like Said's work being taken up—both inside and outside of the ivory towers of the academy—as a potential justification for theoretically infinite violence for simply making incorrect good-faith assumptions. The Utilitarian perspective does not appeal to liars, it appeals to those privileged souls who have themselves been deceived. Yet, the proliferation of untruth out of incompetence is considered as awful as willful deception in much of the modern world. This lack of compassion is absurd. Ignorance changes the conditions of production so drastically that the young nerd who comes to Mill is not to be blamed for hoping that the world had attained an objective standard. Indeed, all the dominant propaganda has spoken to him, suggesting this to be the case. The question is how to develop viable error correction and model-extension protocols that can justify connection between peoples in good faith by all parties, rather than an accelerating decay into xenophobic depravity. There's no sense in trying to reform the failures of accounting of the past, that will simply perpetuate a cyclic violence, where ones efforts at reform are simply an over or under-compensated derivative effect on the original fraud.

The following paragraph from Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography has been quite dear to me since I read it for the first time around its publication in 2012:

"And yet within this sad acceptance there is hope: for by becoming more expert at reading the map, we can, helped by technology as the Arab Spring has attested, stretch some of the limits the map inflicts. That is the aim of my study—to have an appreciation of the map so that, counterintuitively, we need not always be bounded by it. For it is not only narrow-mindedness that leads to isolationism, but the overstretching of resources that causes an isolationist backlash."

This contains the proper emotional tone for the beginner's mind that can analyze the world in a proper fashion. In addition to the geographic map that Kaplan speaks of, there is also a map of the process of epistemology that is as invariant as the instantaneous state of any given territory. Technology—for example media technologies such as Twitter as in the Arab Spring, or printed copies of History of British India, or anything that might modify the physical or human landscape such as bulldozers or CRISPR—can contort geographic and indeed biological and cultural elements into more logistically (and by extension morally) advantageous topologies. However, it cannot change the basic relationship between depiction and depicted, map and territory, and thus the protocol for aspiring to truth in description will not be transcended by technological advancement, only made less physically or socially costly.

Of course, a cursory look at Said and others like him (Baudrillard, Taleb, etc.) makes it clear that while that the relationship of truth and depiction is clearly invariant in theory, it's certainly not invariant in practice, as any given perspective attempting to implement a process of accurate depiction is operating with limited information of the subject, the substrate, and the means of depiction. This leads to the only solution to this problem being an aspirational, rather than deterministic protocol, as any protocol stated to be deterministic would be fraudulent if developed by any actor with incomplete information, which is to say any actor that is not a literal god. This produces all sorts of opportunities for corruption, where cruel defection rears its head under the excuse of imperfection, needing to be policed by detecting laziness, malice and bad faith, rather than only incompetence, as an assumption that incompetence is the only problem would also assume that the protocol could be deterministic and formulated from a perspective of complete information.

These questions are increasingly dominant in my mind, and seem to be central to the questions of civilizational development. An increasing consensus that I'm seeing among those I respect is that one must attempt to embrace the Achaemenid strategy of strategic centralization without loss of diversity, which is something that has been completely lost in the modern world at least partially because the selection pressures that used to generate an aristocracy competent enough to speak honestly no longer exists. Without an administrative class that is competent at speaking the truth, it is impossible to even begin answering the questions that Said, Hadfield, and others have brought up, and without answering those questions, Utilitarians like Mill are silly children, failing to notice what they don't know. The last paragraph of Herodotus is perhaps the earliest complete written example of the thought that Kaplan expressed earlier. (This is from the Godley translation, and though I prefer the Greene I don't have it on hand at the moment.)

This Artaÿctes who was crucified was grandson to that Artembares who instructed the Persians in a design which they took from him and laid before Cyrus; this was its purport: “Seeing that Zeus grants lordship to the Persian people, and to you, Cyrus, among them, by bringing Astyages low, let us now remove out of the little and rugged land that we possess and take to ourselves one that is better. There be many such on our borders, and many further distant; if we take one of these we shall have more reasons for renown. It is but reasonable that a ruling people should act thus; for when shall we have a fairer occasion than now, when we are lords of so many men and of all Asia?” Cyrus heard them, and found nought to marvel at in their design; “Do so,” said he; “but if you do, make ready to be no longer rulers, but subjects. Soft lands breed soft men; wondrous fruits of the earth and valiant warriors grow not from the same soil.” Thereat the Persians saw that Cyrus reasoned better than they, and they departed from before him, choosing rather to be rulers on a barren mountain side than slaves dwelling in tilled valleys.

I share this as an expression of the basic behavior that would grant one the credibility to depict the world, as in a way it is a way of being able to have the competence to decide how the world depicts you. I am not speaking of the action taken by Cyrus to relocate his people to the steppe, to naturally select them as warriors, but rather the wisdom of Cyrus to be willing to self-modify, to notice that he is his self and his circumstances, but in fact primarily his circumstances and that a significant quantity (if not a majority) of the ways that he is able to influence his self come from changing his circumstances. This, of course, is a directly analogous to the system of depiction from Said. Without this cynical, literal expression of self-control through environmental selection, it is unlikely that anyone is competent to rule even a rag-heap, much less something as influential as a broadsheet newspaper. Of course, a just ruler would also lend the potential mastery of circumstance to the ruled once they were ready, and the denial of that gift during those few moments when it might have been possible has been one of the greatest tragedies of the ancient and modern worlds.

 Passargade, by Eugène Flandin, 1840

Passargade, by Eugène Flandin, 1840

The Arrogance of a Private Theology by Bryce Hidysmith

 Dancing Maenad from the Capitoline Museums

Dancing Maenad from the Capitoline Museums

I just read Anne Carson's new version of Euripides' The Bakkhai from a sickbed, and a sequence in the middle struck me more than perhaps anything else in the play:

It moves
so slowly,
—the force of the gods—
yet it is absolutely guaranteed
to arrive.
To punish
human folly
and the arrogance
of a private theology.
Ingenious
how a god can hide
and then leap out
on the unholy man.
To think or act outside the law is never right.
But this is valid—
The thing we call Daimonic
ancient,
elemental,
fixed in law and custom
grown out of nature itself,

(The formatting is unfortunately my own, as digital publishing does not allow for a replication of Carson's.)

It was an oddly abstract and relational sequence for a play whose poetics are almost entirely anchored in either the naturalistic dialog or keenly specified poetics, such as listing all the different kinds of green Thebes is to garland itself with in worship of the coming of Dionysos from the east.

Still, it does capture the core of the play's moral message, should there be one at all. What are the gods but impersonal manifestations of personal but common truths? Those structures that construct us cannot be suppressed without a disintegration of the human identity. Such suppression is an illusion, they will rise again after coming out of hiding. Such structures must be integrated, rather than amputated. Should they be local to circumstance, their removal is equivalent to the removal of the circumstance, but the potential for re-emergence is not removed unless the character of the organism is such that it lacks the traits that allowed for their situational expression in the first place. Their extinction is ours, even if our alien descendants were to continue to be fruitful and multiply. Perhaps those critics of the Christian Era looked on the text as an expression of an atavistic era where such deeds were required, and in the year of our lord such wills might be removed through castigation as sin. Yet, such talk sounds of self-congradulation and the amputation of the minds-eye. If one is to reject those things that make you up, the rejection must come from a place of truly understanding—even loving—that which is to be rejected. Else, the allure of the unknown should remain one's tireless guide.

I Recall You Saying You Believe We Will All Be Born Again by Bryce Hidysmith

 Face of    "The Judge"  a slot machine in a small museum in Old Town of San Diego.

Face of "The Judge" a slot machine in a small museum in Old Town of San Diego.

< Soundtrack: Molly Nilsson - Ugly Girl / World Order - Permanent Revolution >

In an informal conversation in early October, D. S. and F. L. pointed out an incoherence in my framing questions of ethics in terms of the maximization of consent, rather than the maximization of choice. I had a rather strong emotional reaction, defending the idea of consent maximization in such a way that I think I was subconsciously attempting to avoid listening to their counterpoint. To criticize anything even tangentially related to the notion of consent in this day and age is one of the greatest of taboos, but it is important to note that this criticism of terminology was in service of the maximization of individual consent, not its minimization. This conversation did not change the objectives of my conception of an ethical life, rather that it changed the way that one must practice the art of living in order to aspire to those same objectives, drawing light on the critical role of exacting language in philosophical inquiry and jurisprudence. This is perhaps the most critical rectification of names in the postmodern environment, as the two terms—choice and consent—are read in a largely emotional way by most demographics. Such an emotional reading tracks tribal affiliation rather than structural argument, creating an impossibility of common ethical principles even interior to specific political aesthetics. This occurs simultaneously to a degree of extreme societal pillarization, wherein given political aesthetics are contrary enough to each other—in fact frequently leading to a disgust response—that cross-pollination is almost impossible. I don't think I would even be able to notice this problem if I had not been lived for the majority of my youth in the marches between Silicon Valley and San Francisco, a crosshatched borderland between the Social Justice Pillar and the TechnoLibertarian Pillar, each of whom has radically different and wholly incomplete insights concerning ethical subjects. I also don't think that I would be finding myself thinking in terms of specified language if I hadn't just gotten up and left, finding myself in the New Age Pillar, which seems to have an allergy to clarity of thought. As Vassar's put it recently, one wants to be on the side of truth and beauty, allied against unity.

To begin, it is clear that the principles of any ethical system that is not simply willful solipsism must be based on the recognition of the experiences of others, else the greatest good would be individualistic hedonism. Under willful solipsism, ethics would simply be a process of knowing one's own preferences and exerting them. While solipsism is a consistent proposition for resolving all contradiction, we can reject it out of hand as it is a selective interpretation of data, debased in epistemic hygiene. While it is unreasonable to apply the principle of charity to all reports in a given environment, it is equally unreasonable to apply it to the qualia of one's own experience. One must note at least a morphological similarity between the self and others; if one is to deny the potential for direct recognition of psychological similarity, one must at least note anatomical similarity and assume, as per Occam's Razor, that the other's morphological self similarity implies some degree of experiential self-similarity, and that it is likely an exceptional case if it does not. For instance, in the case of mannequins, statues, and other effigies, the lack of interior self-similarity should be obviously enough to dismiss the notion that the dead or never-alive could be deserving of the same care as the living, and indeed the construction of effigies is an exceptional event in the history of life on earth. The recognition of the experiences of others causes one to envision them as other moral patients as one would evaluate oneself. They are not simply spooks. At least limited action according to their needs and desires is a moral necessity if the consequence of action to them might be as experientially extreme as the consequence of action to yourself. Otherwise, the correct action is resource extraction or the development of an individually beneficial environment of reciprocal altruism.

This base principle is then applied in the balancing act of integrating the needs and desires of the self with others. It matters not what those needs and desires are, for the purposes of this essay they can be left entirely abstract as it is the process of resolving contradictions between them that interests us, not the specific content.  One must attempt to understand the process by which one evaluates the validity of one's own experience while also remembering that such process must be abstracted to the general category that might contain any agent evaluating their own experiential validity. This basic tenet of moral skepticism leaves one with the potentially frustratingly vague understanding that the only possible ethics is a meta-ethics of balancing individuals' ethical systems. Anything else would be inherently tyrannical, though potentially a benevolent tyranny if the tyrant in question was able to know all individuals better than they knew themselves. This, however, would have its own wicked problem of attempting to verify the asymmetric information of the tyrant, which I would conjecture would likely be framed in metaethical terms or be something akin to a cosmic con job. Provided that one is not a chauvinist taking the self's ignorance as a clue and presuming that one's personally derived ethics is somehow universalizable without any modicum of evidence of this being the case for anyone else, one comes to the swift conclusion that ethical systems local to a given agent must be checked for validity by a metaethical system to allow more than one agent to interact without disaster.

This leads us cleanly into the recognition that (meta)ethical problems always bottom out on communication dynamics. The derivation of that metaethical system must be based on a protocol ensuring mutual intelligibility. There are of course such individuals who are fully amoral, but the ethical problem would never be framed from their perspective, and the only necessary ethical question concerning them is how their malice can be contained or eliminated without cruelty. The problem of ethics is not the existence of evil, but confusion among those who aspire to good. The most common (if insufficient) formulation of such a confusion-reducing communication protocol is Hillel's Golden Rule, commonly incorrectly attributed (by Christians) to Jesus of Nazareth, wherein one attempts to simulate the other as the self and count wounds against the other as wounds against the self.

The Golden Rule is a framing of trust as self-similarity, rather than trust as symmetric communication, and fails in light of any non-obvious diversity of moral patients, even if that diversity is simply the existence of multiple individuals of a similar demographic, all possessing opaque minds. Assumption of self-similarity fails with any level of diversity that cannot be immediately simulated. One cannot discern proper conduct to an alien from proper conduct to the self. Such conduct must be discerned either from accurate simulation or empirical observation. Without an ethical system that is able to respond and indeed love the alien, one reduces society to an illiberal hive of atomized individuals, bereft of all potentially meaningful—that is to say surprising—interactions.

There is, of course, some set of similar desires between moral patients. Obvious similarities are easily intuited, such as the fact that one should not damage the bodies of others as one would hope that one's body was left intact, but something ambiguous like informational violence is a far thornier issue. If one says a word that inspires violence by the listener against themself, who is the cause to blame? From a purely causal point of view, the speaker is. One could respond to this ethical problem through the prohibition of speech, for the transit of information can always lead to unforeseen consequences, and the infinite pileup of unknown unknowns results in a blanket prohibition against all action that might have an externalizing effect, leading either to obligate solipsism or suicide. This is madness. Yet, this is madness that exists in less extreme forms in the discourse concerning violence both physical and informational, which trends towards absurdity as it does not seem to question its central assumptions. The Golden Rule position perhaps most clearly stated as a potentially viable relational structure by Rawls in his statements about the Veil of Ignorance, simply by taking away anything that might make the individuals in the system distinctive. While I disagree with some of his conclusions about the optimal structure of a society in the modern context—for instance he and I have very different opinions about representative democracy—his formulation of the problem in abstract is coherent and provides a good example of what a context-free metaethics looks like. It seems necessary then to focus on a specific section of the hypothetical and ahistorical problem of the design of social contracts. But, first it is necessary to debunk the supposed potential of Rawls' hypothetical design to produce a wholly symmetric power dynamic inside of a population.

Rawls, being a political philosopher, does not focus on the psychologies of the individuals he is describing so much as the constraints that a theoretically infinitely malicious individual might be tempered by. Political philosophy is often blinded by its inability to see individuals, except as expressions of ideologies even when the ideology and the individual are impossible to disentangle. The psychology of M. K. Ghandi is far less amenable to the assumption that he was an averge example of his contingent than the psychology of Napoleon Bonaparte, man of the world. Rawls, like almost all political philosophy since the Second World War, frames the task of political philosophy as an attempt to have good ideologies win out over bad ones, without ever really questioning whether or not the ideology is the proper medium for installing a virtuous society.

The central blindspot of this ideological model of the world is the variance of individuals. I have believed (similarly to Robert Michels) for quite some time in a fundamental character of positional strategic asymmetry in any diverse multi-agent system that cannot be diffused by even the best-designed social contract. A brief summary of the reason for this is worth transmitting, even without confidence that it will be clear except in an (as yet forthcoming) longform piece: Take the notion that evolutionary strategic capacity is the ability to adapt under potentially adversarial uncertainty. If a system of agents that contains agents that are sufficiently different to be only probabilistically simulated in the minds of other agents rather than deterministically simulated, then it is possible to artificially create an asymmetry of predictive capacity and thus adaptive capacity between two agents by acting contrary to a correct estimate of a collectively calculated Schelling Point. While the Schelling Point may itself be a Nash Equilibrium, the lack of organic transparency between agents leaves a situation where it is still possible to gain a strategic advantage by defecting and being unpredictable as one's own unpredictability allows the individual to exploit the predictability of the other. While it may not be advantageous for the powerful to use power differentials, that does not mean that the power differentials in question simply cease to exist even if they are this most basic instantiation of a Prisoner's Dilemma.

Rawls presumes that the right way to gain a properly functional community is to position them behind the veil of ignorance and get them to agree on a set of constraints that they would be comfortable conforming to from any given position within the territory governed by the constraint set. There is a flaw, however. The veil of ignorance thought experiment is—intentionally or not—propagandistically malformed by stating itself as a thought experiment, and in doing so deflecting some of the responsibility that would be contained in it if it was written by a culture that believed in randomly assigned (rather than dharmically dispositional) reincarnation, where the self does indeed live behind a veil of ignorance in the next generation. By circumventing real circumstances, it allows one to assume that the social contract and the population are not an interdependent whole, and in Rawls' case largely proliferated uninspired temporally and geographically local norms rather than attempting a serious discussion of utopian potential. The position of the veil of ignorance—a council of spirits in a waiting room before reincarnation—is useful only as a way to draw attention to the traits of identities and social contracts that would be advantageous to instantiate in any environment whatsoever, for the objective of general betterment is the same in all environments as the inconceivably vast majority of general betterment is locked behind the transcendence of local constraints. Even if one does not prescribe to a Singulatarian perspective, the recognition of technological potential shows this to be the case, provided one does not believe in a fundamental toxicity of technology, wherein the primitive communism of a hunter-gatherer society seems to be the optimal state of affairs. Even within the hunter-gatherer context, technology of social relation rather than material reconfiguration is still a method of improving the psychological and physical condition of the tribe without long-term cost. Furthermore, if fundamental strategic asymmetry in the form of defection by Schelling Point reversal, as described above, is immutably a part of social organizations that are not hive minds, it is then required for us to figure out how it is possible to avoid the asymmetric power being used in such a way as to result in a total breakdown of trust. This is akin to ensuring that nobody is placed in a position so intolerable that defection in prisoners dilemmas and the subsequent proliferation of zero-sum strategies is the only viable lifestyle. If power cannot be removed from play, the system of social relations must simply position asymmetric power in such a location in its hierarchy that said asymmetric power is always coupled with equally metaethical decision-making. The key is simply figuring out how this can be accomplished.

The practical considerations of engineering environments of justice—distributive or otherwise—must be assumed to instead be questions of continuous artificial population selection and organization, rather than purely constitutional design. While a constitution can be agreed upon by a set of agents as more valuable to collaborate with than to defect against, one must still be maintaining the necessary selection pressures that cause one to accurately interpret and good-faith accept such a constitution in the first place. Thus, the practical variant of Rawls' theoretical problem is more related to searching for or cultivating a culture that can then be used to instantiate the behavioral program of a given constitution, treating the text of the social contract itself as only one method of attempting to produce the desired environment. However, the existence of a symmetrically interpretable text is the only way that one can produce homogenous norms of deontological or consequentialist ethics, both of which are necessary adaptations to do good in a wide variety of circumstances that cannot be accounted for under other circumstances. Yet, such literate paradigms are downstream from the virtue of literacy, and thus downstream from virtue ethics itself. All behaviors are deterministically bounded as to the vices and virtuous traits of the agent in question. At the most basic level, this determinism is caused by the ontology of the individuals before any judgments are made, as such judgments must be specified using the vocabulary admissible to the ontology. This is where we return to the point where F. and D. corrected my model from consent optimization to choice maximization, as there is a meaningful difference in effect when one implements a metaethical system based on consent, versus when one implements one based on choice.

Consent is a concept that must be assessed by comparison to a counterfactual of the potential event not having occurred. Dependant on the temporal perspective of the assessment, consent is one of two concepts: a proactive and a retroactive form. One may desire or not desire for something to happen, and one may consider it desirable that something did or did not happen after the fact. This produces a contradiction: one might proactively consent to the description of an event, but not retroactively consent to the same event. Or, the inverse: one might experience something good but unpredictable, and have hoped that one's past self had consented to an action that could not have been described accurately. Additionally, the communication process around describing either proactive or retroactive models falls to the same problem—should an event be dependent on the actions of another, they are themselves prey to the same paradox, and additionally prey to all sorts of faults in communication increasing error. Consent—the sense of individuals determining in hindsight that the various components of lives were worth experiencing or, from foresight, could be worth experiencing—is obviously a good thing. Yet, the design of a formal ethical system cannot be based on optimizing for consent alone as it is a second order effect to the decision-making of the individuals involved in any given event that could or could not be consented to, regardless of temporal perspective on the event itself. The question is whether or not the individuals whose behaviors locally effect the event in question constrain the ability of others local to the event to make choices, either through direct, forceful prohibition or subtle obfuscation. The decision itself determines the circumstance that the individual then experiences and assesses. Thus, an argument of efficiency has already been formed as it makes sense to invest all effort in the effectiveness of such decisions to promote proactively or retroactively benevolent states in individuals as justified by the individuals themselves.

Yet, it is not efficiency alone that justifies the reformulation of ethics around choice-optimization rather than consent-optimization. There is also a negative justification: the direct optimization for either proactive or retroactive consent by an outside actor leads to an attempt to predict and constrain the action of that individual, which constitutes a potential consent violation all its own as it denies them access to the potential breadth of consensual states that they might traverse of their own volition. It is impossible to know the other as well as the other knows themself. Even if the outside actor is the past-self of the future-individual who could assess consent retroactively, state-traversal is similarly constrained as if it was a different individual altogether. The only viable solution to take us out of this problem of contradiction is to simply focus all efforts on improving the decisionmaking of individuals in a Pareto Optimal fashion, so that the free choice of individuals does not externalize violence or deception that constrains the potential set of choices of the individual, either by artificially limiting their options or interfering with their mental process of evaluation so as to reflexively control them. The amputation of individual choice kills the potential for either future joy, or potentially informative mistakes, themselves a road for future joy. From this abstract of a perspective, it is the only crime in existence. From this abstract perspective, the only political virtue is the use of power to increase the number of meaningful choices that the given individuals in a political order can make during their lifespan, a perspective that one might consider to be relatively similar to the infinite Game position taken by James P. Carse in Finite and Infinite Games.

So, one must optimize for consent indirectly, by attempting to track the consequences of personal action, and enable others to track the consequences of their actions as well. One primary clue presents itself for how to do this: a hygiene of communication, the same basic norm that formed the initial correction from F. and D that spawned this essay. Such communication hygiene can be understood to comprise three components: an intention of precision and accuracy, a rejection of silencing, and an insistence on symmetrically intelligible communication. (These principles may, potentially, be upended in cases where it is necessary to contain malicious actors.) Those three principles constitute the ethical obligation of individuals to increase the amount of useful information that others can use to navigate the process of making choices. Provided that these principles are embraced, I would conjecture that given sufficient time, the disembodied spirits behind Rawls' veil would by definition design the full variance of potential lives worth living that their minds could envision. Potentially, it is also necessary to allow for the potential of precommitment, as one might want to develop bounded adversarial environments such as GANs or kink, for various reasons, but that is open for debate.

Note On Recreational Labor by Bryce Hidysmith

< The Isley Bros. - Shout & Pharmakon - Bestial Burden, the last of which I saw much of performed at Elbo Room back in June or July when a raw version of this was written. It is going to be one of those shows I remember for the rest of my life. > 

I attended Ephemerisle for the first time in four years this summer. This year was a bit different than the last few. The usual hutong of sail and houseboats was replaced by a massive surplus barge and several other hand-made platforms—among them the fabulously engineered Flatland, and the Wonderland Teahouse, which had, among other things, a patch of living grass to lay about on while staring at the stars, floating in the delta. The last time I went to Ephemerisle, 2014, I stayed for about 24 hours in total. I'd sailed up with a couple of old friends from SFØ in an old fiberglass Pearson and, once I was actually at the event, realized that there just wasn't really anything happening or anything that I felt a strong need to do, so I left, somehow in the process meeting Richard from Numerai for the first time while waiting for my ferry back to the mainland. Still, the clear thing that I felt while I was there that last time was that it wasn't for me, and I couldn't figure out why. It seemed like it was a place where people who had responsibilities they didn't care about off came to let off steam by engaging in recreational labor. It made more sense to solve complex anchoring puzzles than to start a Fight Club. The whole affair is a curious coping mechanism. The experience of the festival circuit is often not actually that extreme, it's often the prosaic and frankly unpleasant tasks of making sure the portable toilets don't fall into the water and there's a proper bumper on the dock, and that while you're doing that, you don't drop a borrowed impact driver into the water. It's recreational work on the water: a hostile environment that wants to consume all of your stuff and possibly drown you. Simultaneously to the work, there's the need to make sure that a bunch of lost party kids (of which I was one not too long ago) or insecure undergrads don't do anything stupid and instead can be integrated in a way that's symbiotically beneficial to everyone involved. 

The creation of a system like Ephemerisle creates a clear understanding just how much you're externalizing, whether its environmental or informational. The feedback loops are short enough that you can actually see if you made things better or fucked them up more. The thing that is critically important, however, is that while Ephemerisle participants are very conscious of their consumption of physical resources and can, generally speaking, let themselves off the hook for consuming a rather high amount of gas and foodstuffs—though likely less than they would in an urban environment—they can much less easily let themselves off the hook for informational pollution and overconsumption. If you borrow a tool and don't give it back, you might completely fuck someone over who need it to literally fix the land you're standing on. Hell, you don't even want to be macho about how tough or good at things you are. Myself, while only overextending slightly, dropped a wrench in the water at some point by mistake and felt quite bad about it, both because I'd destroyed someone's gear and also made everything genuinely more difficult to accomplish. Recreational labor is constrained by its need for enjoyment to take on the character of local socialism, typically either filtered through a military or a hippie aesthetic of coordination. It is a method for retraining that lost art of producing superorganisms, which seems to have been largely lost in American populations by the end of the 1970s except in the case of media-controlled subculture. 

Goffman Corruption In America, Or Regarding BTC@10K by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Hatari - X >

The modern strategic environment is perhaps the first occasion where the performative aspects of intra-class competition in ruling parties extends to their investment strategies. When Nero attempted to use his position to start an acting career in spite of the social horror, the effects of this conflict of expression and culture were just a sideshow in the overall defection of the Julio-Claudians from the business of administration. Furthermore, these attempts at performance as a method of gaining validation were limited to the ruling classes. When the Heian got so addicted to art the government began to collapse, they never demanded that the peasants stop being peasants. The signaling apparatuses of ruling classes have typically been limited to the landed. Indeed, being landed demands de facto owning a number of souls to till that land in the traditional way. To be landed is also to have access to a population that is symbiotic to the land, where the tenant lord of the land extracts the surplus. While the game of Russian Czarist politics played out, one was never so far from the means of agricultural production that one could totally dissociate as to the standard behavior of the serfs that produce a surplus for capture. The robota necessary for automating those princes' lives were the same species as them, but still had to be treated as mere automata. No matter how sophisticated or theatrical the power struggles of the ruling class became, the decadence of the rulers never infected the ruled to the extent that it corrupted their ability to generate a surplus.

Decadence can infect the workers. Such decadence was just a death sentence before globalism. It seems as though this type of decadence might be termed "Goffman Corruption" in reference to the sociologist of draumaturgical analysis. We should define Goffman Corruption as the notion that coordination systems waste energy when the abstract components of their signaling apparatus fail to depict anything outside of themselves, and are not coupled to representative components. The energy spent on this signaling process is simply lost. The coordination costs too much, embedded in costly rituals. Metonymically, the trouble is now that, at least in America, the ruling class also wears Jeans; the whole culture's engaged in some sort of bizarre performative workingman cosplay. This is not to say that the exploitation of the working class is a good thing—far from it—but rather that there is something far worse than simply exploiting the working class: eliminating it. The assumption of a unified economic body in a generalized middle class has created a situation where attempts at performing status have created an environment where there is a fractal worship of financial leverage, influencing the way that the whole economy is structured. It is not as though the whole population is one class, it is as though the whole population has to narratize themselves as wearing the same brand of bootstraps to pull themselves up with. America exports control. It's common to suggest that the Chinese economy is overbuilt on exports, but America is overbuilt on being a city on a hill that is able to maintain an exceptionalist position. Don't be the first person to stop clapping for Stalin, translates to don't be the sucker who ever did any work in modern American capitalism. It's not as though doing work is taboo, exactly, its that doing work now, rather on must have already done the work to self-make in order to have relevant power. Money is still assumed to be the viable metric of worth, and thus it becomes a convergent instrumental goal to look like one has enough money to get enough money to be relevant. Its a perfectly fractal mentality where one produces growth out of growth, rather than growth out of the work of muscles on material. 

This fractal attempt at exceptionalism has resulted in a situation where there is increasingly little reward for doing actual work. The only populations that engage in physical labor are those who don't have any options. This is a massive problem, as it seems as though Ricardo's law of rent only operates when there is the possibility of going out to a frontier and living off the land, using the comparative advantages that are built into your own body and mind. The Schumpeterian notion of rent suggests that the same dynamics suggested by Ricardo and Smith are also possible from an innovation perspective during the phase when the innovation in question has not been diffused additionally assumes that innovations are to be reliably diffused into the commons. If one is to assume that the Ricardian rent dynamics have been transposed to a virtual environment, one has not sufficiently reified Schumpeterian Rent to Ricardian Rent, as Schumpeterian Rent would assume somehow that the dynamics of trade include diffusion, rather than scarcity and comparative advantage. In fact, the Bitcoin example suggests that the Schumpeterian version of the system incentivizes individuals to simply develop new and inventive methods of enforcing scarcity, so as to rent seek from innovations in rent seeking. Bitcoin seems like an almost perfect example of this at this stage, though it could have been so much more if it was reliably grounded through a coordination system interfacing with physical reality. It's more profitable to find inventive ways to permanently control a zero-sum system than actually build anything positive-sum, and it seems like we're watching an escalation dominance strategy take over Bitcoin in this manner before likely throwing away their market dominance so they can start again, buying the dip. 

...With Apologies to the Potential Varelse by Bryce Hidysmith

 Definitely an example of Alienism, but not in the way you're thinking.

Definitely an example of Alienism, but not in the way you're thinking.

< Soundtrack: Theme From PSB - Public Service Broadcasting, Pop Music - Poppy> 

The archaic term Alienist, seems to be a much more honest description of the profession of studying psychopathology than Clinical Psychiatrist or anything else currently in vogue. This is perhaps the Platonist in me speaking too loudly over modern voices that attempt to temperance but simply confuse it with agreeableness, but Plato/Socrates' claim that one does not intentionally do evil, and instead only does evil through ignorance begins to make one wonder if the earlier models of psychology had something far more viable than current ones.

While Freud and his analogues were and are certainly showmen fond of retroactive addenda and unable to meet the Popperian standard, there is something that has been lost with the introduction of the Popperian standard as an engineering specification masquerading as a scientific method. That is not to say anything bad about Popper's falsification, rather that it is massively good in the specific context of the analysis of bounded phenomena. In a discipline such as psychology that handles the analysis of subjects that are as complex as the observers themselves, it seems as though there is a need for tempered inductive reasoning and pure rationalism outside of empiricism to generate a sufficiently complex model that might then be testable, though likely not falsifiable as the replicability of experiments will be dubious at best. This seems to point to the notion that sciences that are either anthrocomplex or at the same scale as anthrocomplex systems will never be able to be sufficiently bounded, and that the analysis of anthrocomplex domains will be limited to inductive reasoning from what are effectively historical events, which by their nature can only happen once. This matters not if we're talking about the Milgram Experiment or the Crimean War, both have the same limits to analysis unless one is somehow able to clone the set of individual humans that engaged in these events and place them in an identical physical environment with identical memories at to how they got there. This has a further implication that the analysis of biological causality as, for example, in the heritability of schizophrenia that cannot be pinned down to a set of concretely documented processes of physical mechanisms is capable of generating only the same type of limited inductive conclusions as historic examples. This is not to say that the information gained from these kinds of analyses is not valuable—far from it. Rather, it is simply not the same thing as documenting a clear, falsifiable mechanism.

Regardless, before psychology attempted and failed to meet the Popperian standard, the word Alienist was still sometimes used. It seems to be a far more accurate assessment of what the role of clinical psychology and psychiatry has always been when it has been effective. Philosophical Psychology and Experimental Psychology should be understood to be distinct disciplines. (I believe it was Taylor who first made this argument, though I can't remember the volume.) All three of them are obviously interrelated, but form different practices of coming to psychological truth. The role of Clinical Psychology is the application of information gained in all three disciplines to have a desired effect. One might better term it "field" psychology to encompass the many territories that are similar to, but distinct to clinical psychology such as public relations/propaganda, user experience design, military strategy, and all other disciplines that include the intentional modification of minds for a given purpose. One must presume that the tools of clinical psychology do not require one to swear a Hippocratic Oath, else what would the point of swearing the oath be in the first place? One must also not presume that there is a great functional difference between those that minted the banner of Psychology in the nineteenth century, and the various scholars, clerics, and others who practiced similar crafts in previous eras. For instance, the notion that Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo are not somehow part of the tradition of psychological analysis as they are marked as solely theological is patently absurd. Stage magic, for instance, has a clear element in common with clinical psychology, but has enough other elements in it that it must be understood to be a hybrid discipline like many of the others above. For example, the psychological aspects of public relations do not include the logistical aspects.

It seems as though there's a clear, coherent convergence inside of the domain of clinical psychology that unifies all of the examples above and more. Clinical psychology is about the use of asymmetric—or in other words alien—information for a purpose. It doesn't matter if the usage of asymmetric information is an attempt to integrate the internal model of a patient to grant them further autonomy in getting over fears that they can know to be irrational, or the exploitation of dark patterns in user experience design. Both of them are based on the usage of alien information, either to preserve the asymmetry of information or integrate it. This seems a coherent reunification of the early psychoanalytic predilection with the unconscious and later, more structured analysis of the nature of the mind as a whole. Thus, it seems as though the term Alienist, shouldn't have become remotely archaic if we were taxonomizing things as literally as possible, rather than engaging in the standard scholarly pursuit of conflating the organizational movement with the field of study or practice. Alienism should be understood to be the superset of skills that involve the manipulation of asymmetric information, which of course includes things like clinical psychology.

Autopoiesis, Ethics, and Strategy in Parable of the Sower by Bryce Hidysmith

 "Iansã" Sculpture at the Catacumba Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

"Iansã" Sculpture at the Catacumba Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

< Soundtrack: The Be Good Tanyas - Waiting Around To Die, originally by Townes van Zandt, Sophisticated Side Ponytail - Brite Futures (Formally Natalie Portman's Shaved Head), Fui a Buscar a Sol - Maria Rodés >

Reading Octavia Butler makes me want to have children. Given that Parable of the Sower is possibly the most grimdark piece of fiction that I've ever encountered, this is kind of a strange feeling to have, but the book describes a mental perspective that is capable of producing organizational strategies that can carve out islands of care in oceans of violence. The cynical assumptions that it is fundamentally unethical to bring children into a dying world are subverted by the notion that it is possible to make dying worlds live through observation and communication informing action. 

Parable is a brutal depiction of a slow collapse to human society, where the only enemy is a coordination failure leading to the proliferation of zero-sum strategies, eventually culminating in the re-emergence of slavery with various contrived justifications, drugs that give one an effectively sexual high from watching fires leading to bands of arsonist raiders, and massive droughts rendering increasingly large swaths of the southeastern united states uninhabitable while state lines are redrawn as national boundaries. In the story as in reality, Humanity is a frog that is being boiled alive by its refusal to accept the complexity of the system that it lives within. Its telling that the hero of the book, Lauren Olamina, is a "sharer:" a hyperempath whose sensory capacities force her to experience the physical sensations she notices in others, good or bad. These overactive mirror neurons are described as a complication from her mother's addiction to another narcotic. This correlates Olamina state's to the state of others around her. The good of group is the good of her as an individual: a gardener-queen as a contrast to a fisher-king.

It's important to note that while Olamina is a hyperempath, she can still engage in violence. She can even kill. This isn't a story about nonviolence triumphing over violence in the short term; the book is nowhere near that naive. While Olamina is able to engage in violence, she experiences the pain she inflicts, and thus is incapable of developing the sadism that is adaptive for the vast majority of other characters in the world. These include her brother Keith who becomes some kind of pure zero-sum strategy early in the story, though the exact behaviors are left unclear. Effectively because of this inability to embrace zero-sum strategies, her response to the decline of her family's fortified cul-de-sac is to begin to stockpile books, weapons, monetary and concrete resources such as food and clothing. Furthermore, she begins to write the Earthseed Verses, a religious/philosophical text with the main tenet that god is change, and that the will of earth is evolutionary adaptation. The response of a great number of other individuals inside of her community is to either engage in cut-and-run strategy like her brother, or to dissociate and try and embrace what shot term benefit without pain that she can like the numerous addicts, religious fanatics, and denialists trying to act out twentieth century America family life in spite of the fact that the world is literally burning down around them. This is simply never presented as a coherent or possible option for Olamina.

Olamina understands that the fall of the cul-de-sac is inevitable, but that the end of this small village world is not the end of all possible worlds. She starts to embrace the notion that it might be possible to inherit the stars if she's able to fix the philosophical confusions and psychological coordination failures of her community. Because of her hyperempathy, Olamina is forced to embrace a collaborative, positive-sum strategy because the zero-sum strategies are against her very experiential nature. Her choice is made for her. She has skin in the game of protecting other people's skin. Olamina becomes over the course of the book an exceptionally competent empirical, self-taught, evolutionary psychological systems strategist, able to witness the complexity of the adversarial dynamics at play and counter them with avoidance, xenophilic collectivization, and, if necessary, bullets. Once the cul-de-sac is destroyed in a final raid, Olamina is able to notice the kinds of groups that will have natural allegiances with one another—initially by allying with a second ethnically mixed married couple to go with her initial band of a romantically attached white man and black woman, and herself a black woman dressed as a man to reduce the possibility of sexually motivated attacks. Once the initial reciprocal altruism of the band is established, their numbers swell as they move along the refugee trail north out of Los Angeles in search of increased water security.

By being the kind of strategist who has chosen (or, depending on the interpretation of the hyperempathy, been forced) to be the kind of person who takes care of orphans, Olamina becomes the kind of strategist who realizes that having young children with them increases the chances of peaceful settlements to trade with them and give them safe passage. She is both the kind of moralist who wants to take in escaped slaves, and the kind of strategist who understands that escaped slaves will make loyal and tenacious allies in their fight for both their freedom and the freedom of those who continuously help secure their freedom. Butler is also the kind of writer who is able to describe the kind of emotional damage that an escaped slave would go through—the two examples in the book are either broken and paranoid, or kind of an egoistic asshole for unnecessary reasons. Yet, this is presented by Olamina's narration as, effectively, an unpleasant but necessary puzzle to solve. A tone of intense pragmatism that would be called pessimism by fools pervades the novel. Yet, both pessimism and optimism are incoherent positions in light either of rationalism or empiricism, and Olamina's strategy employs both rational a priori analysis and empirical data collection in service of effective action. She has her band keep watch in pairs that would cause the least sexual infidelity anxiety among partners. She knows to not go after big scavenging opportunities. She deduces that integrating a new band member by making interdependent purchases of a rifle and its cleaning kit and ammunition by two parties is a good method for creating a collaborative spirit of survival. Along with resilience and adaptation, these seem to be sufficient virtues for any hero.

If the term was new and not loaded with Spencer's absurd Hobbesian fantasy of barbarians at each and every gate, I would call Butler's novel the perhaps greatest novel of Social Darwinist thought that I have ever heard of. Butler's model of strategy and morality is based on the notion that the two concepts must be interdependent and able to interface with an evolutionary game theoretic environment in order to have anything more than counterfactual relevance. One must make the discernment of the moral choice, and then make sure that the moral choice serves the agent who made that choice to make further moral choices. The best moral choices are ones that grant one further strategic capacity that can be used to maintain the effects of past moral choices, and able to take further moral actions. There must be an advantage to being a good person in order for one's devotion to the good to not be cheap martyrdom. The only moral strategies that can win are ones that are able to contend with amoral strategies—the laws of nature are fair, which means that they can be used to implement evil. One must embrace the process of implementation, "pray to ourselves, what else is there?" in the words of the book. Effective strategies must not degenerate; they must at least maintain initial capacity or generatively increase their capacity over time. They must contend with a process of continual, relentless change through continual adaptation and refinement—all while not losing the aim of a life fighting and laboring for. I believe that these traits are necessary and sufficient for a long-term positive-sum strategy to be able to triumph against short-term zero-sum strategies.

Morality and strategy, when combined as in the literary example of Butler/Olamina's Earthseed or as described above, constitute an autopoietic or "self-making" system of fractal collaboration, akin to those described by Maturana. An initial act of collaboration in a prisoner's dilemma environment serves as the initial insinuating incident. Once one has established a multi-agent (and thus self-reinforcing) reciprocal altruistic commitment to not defecting on trusted members of the network, then the network is able to grow to the size to whatever the maximum number of agents that a given agent is able to have a personal relationship with. At this point, the Earthseed community must undergo mitosis, as the individuals can no longer personally analyze trustworthiness. Provided that one is able to transmit a set of cultural norms that are able to then communicate the epistemology that generated the insinuating collaboration action to begin with, and those norms are able to be communicated through a set of sufficiently verifiable signals, then the initially personal community is able to authenticate agents or communities that have a sufficiently similar set of norms to blend the communities, however nothing is going to supplant the necessary personal reciprocal altruism networks at the core of the system, as those take the role of someone like a Hyperempath who is psysio-psychologically unable to engage in short-term zero sum strategies. I'm extremely curious what the next book in the planned but incomplete trilogy, Parable of the Talents will bring, but it seemed worthy to take down my initial assessments upon completing the book. My mind is alive, and I am confident in the ability to continue living and in the process of living create environments fit for further life.

To Rent The Land, You Must Create A Forest by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Human Fly - The Cramps, which I heard covered by the current Swans lineup recently at The Independent, which was one of my favorite musical experiences ever. >

To Rent The Land, You Must Create A Forest
- the Dongshi Forest District Department (src)

True freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.
- Winstanley

Note: I wrote a first draft of this in approx. January of 2017, and have since simply edited and clarified some of the ideas. It seems important to not upset the implicit chronology of the posts on this blog too badly. Additionally, the majority of the thoughts expressed in this essay originally came up in conversation with Skinner Layne, who it is necessary to credit here.

I keep getting into inconvenient conversations with people about why I'm against the idea of a basic income. I bluntly said to someone while exiting a party a couple of nights ago that "implementing it would increase the likelihood of a genocide occurring between the cultures benefitted initially by its implementation." From what I can tell, my conclusion is the exact opposite to the one that I'm generally seeing believed by other people in my life. In the short term they're right. There's going to be a lot less people who are starving on the streets. They obviously shouldn't be there, starving on the street—the whole point is to reduce suffering overall. 

Yet, I think they're missing something. It seems like around me, most people's model of long-term is roughly the same as my model of medium-term. There's a general bias against long-termism as a strategy for effectively doing good, if only because the channel of direct experience is by necessity more influential to individuals than the capacity of said individual to simulate hypotheticals. Thus, individuals generally want to satisfy that direct experience, rather than necessarily satisfy that direct experience while simultaneously satisfying the base-complexity necessary for achieving their long term goals. There's also a whole other school of thought—overworking oneself—that assumes one should only satisfy the base complexity for the largest of long term future goals, but that inevitably bankrupts the individual in short term. This leads to a situation where the process of overworking oneself must become performative to requisition enough resources to continue with hope of taking medium term goals as otherwise the loss of agentic capacity from self injury is just too high to continue. 

Anyways, the central assumption regarding basic income is that it would provide an adequate social safety net for allowing individuals to avoid being starved to death after being outmoded by automated labor. There is, of course, the inherently antiprotestant other school of thought that suggests that one should not have to work to live, but that is not being taken terribly seriously by the mainstream even if it is clearly more ethical by many compelling metrics. The core notion is that we must subsidize humanity, as we are going to be able to fundamentally outmode each and every of the individual functionalities of humanity with mechanistic replacements. This context-free disintegration of the components of human-build automation is supposedly going to outcompete humans on the terms that humans have attempted to set in the current market economy, leading to absurd scenarios like Bill Gates talking about intensively taxing machine labor to fund such a subsidization scheme. Admittedly, I'm a game designer, and thus the kind of person who finds income taxes absurd as the notion of disincentivizing technological capacity increases because they might be used badly seems massively more difficult than just telling people the old Parkerian adage that with great power comes great responsibility. It seems that it's going to be easier to get at least a segment of humans to wield automation in a largely pro-social way than to ban the construction of tools. Should a segment of humans be willing to wield automation in a pro-social way, they will leave the rest of humanity behind. They will hold the freedom to decide what to do with those who did not choose to embrace the new order ordained by the new automation technology. Additionally, it's not as though anyone besides the most aggressive primitivists are suggesting that automation technology is by definition a net-negative; its technology, like any other. The narrative that we should create a basic income is certainly better than the assumption that we have to create jobs, as the latter is simply a way of marking costs as gains and ignoring the benefits of from any gains we've taken. 

With all that out of the way, to the point of why I'm pretty sure basic income isn't the right strategy for dealing with all of this. Beyond the impossibility of the ban automation narrative, the prohibition of dominant economic strategies results in a segmentation of the political body. This leads to a scenario where, from the perspective of the body as a whole, some segment of the population is interpreted as a cancer on society and thus deserving of removal. This casus belli may emerge regardless of whether or not the larger societal body is able to have compassion for the circumstances that led to that population being in a position of parasitism. It does not matter why the parasitism emerged, but rather that the parasitism itself provides the narrative for the casus belli. It also does not matter if there is actual parasitism going on; provided one can use sufficiently socially proven information the social system will grant the authority to do violence against the allegedly parasitic population.

Has this not already transpired in recent centuries? Denied the provision of forty acres and a mule, the African Americans of these United States have been demonized as abusers of welfare systems. This is clearly fraudulent. The African American community was simply denied enough investment to guarantee physical autonomy from the whims of a market defined by the ability of their former masters to continuously offer predatory terms of trade, and a sociocultural environment defined by legitimized lynchings and other terror campaigns. Similarly, can we not triangulate the scenario of the African Americans with the lost cause Southerners who traveled the Oregon Trail, leading them to homesteads and by extension autonomy, securing middle-class status? From this, can we not assume that the key to autonomy is simply autonomy, defined by one's relationship to one's environment? While it is possible that a welfare system can provide necessary stop-gap assistance to people in need, the case of the American welfare queen narrative seems to show that individuals who use charitable infrastructure designed for exactly the kind of unpleasant scenario they have found themselves in will find themselves spuriously accused of abuse by using the very infrastructure put in place to offer them needed relief.

Unless a given population owns or is meaningfully integrated with a means of production, grants of cash rather than capital is effectively a kind of trap. The spending of said money will simply result in an exacerbation of the trends that have placed them in such a position of disadvantage in the first place, akin to the company store that is never incentivized to grant its employees proper autonomy when it pays with company scrip. This, coupled with the creation of political divides that will likely lead to violence, seems like clear enough justification for an opposition to basic income as it is currently presented. As basic income does not grant any degree of real, meaningful control to the populations that are granted resources, it is never in the interests of the governing body giving out such resources to give more than the level of substance necessary to avoid a loss of status from letting the recipients of the basic income starve. Support for a basic land grant program, perhaps based on a trial period of stewardship where one demonstrates the ability to gain a degree of economic autonomy from the use of said land. Provided that one gains such autonomy, one is increasingly immune from abuse by the powers that be. 

This is not to say that monetary investment in the disadvantaged sectors of the population is not a worthy thing situationally, nor that there is something worthy in systems like unemployment insurance that are able to provide a safety net through the mitigation of risk. The key is developing a system that is able to integrate humanity into their own systems of production, rather than lining up an eventual conflict. It's worth noting that the Luddites had the gall and panache to actively destroy predatory machines, and that the Diggers had a fundamental connection to the soil. Both of those movements took their own subjective perspective of their value and their values, in the sense of their map of the world, and compared it to their economic status, determining that it wasn't worth playing by the rules of the dominant culture. They would not be tricked by bread and circuses, nor by basic income. While I am sure that both of those movements lacked the imagination to bind technology to humanist purposes, and in that process would produce suboptimal or even possibly unpleasant worlds worlds, their understanding of a rejection of abstract capital in favor of the creation of a concrete environment is a consistent and reasonable position. The Diggers had the intelligence to try to design a program of life that might be able to last intergenerationally rather than trying to freeze history through violence like the Luddites—always a losing proposition. One must sympathize but not emulate those who are left behind by time and just want everything to stay like it is, but of course no man steps in the same river twice. 

This is the core question that I want to shed light on in this debate: do we want to create a world where humans are able to exist in a world that isn't toxic to their existence, or do we want to give up, assume that our technology is fundamentally anti-human, and try get on with our lives while we are still able to have them while dooming ourselves to violent confrontation a few generations down the road? To rent the land, you must create a forest. In order to hold territory, you must make that territory tolerable for you. One must select for an environment whose various interdependent component parts select for a more-ideal version of one's self. The feedback process therein makes the kind of progress that doesn't leave you behind. I'm sure that if we'd consciously and competently implemented this strategy earlier we wouldn't be in this mess now, as we are currently dealing with the after effects of all of other previous economic automation crises, with perhaps the habits of Keynesian overclocking to national finance as the last major element that really became integral to our structure without ever being used according to a robustly safe doctrine. The creation of a world where technology is not toxic to its creators is a monumentally difficult task, far more difficult than simply taxing robots, yet it is a task that we are likely capable of completing if we are able to not make the same mistakes that we did previously at lower levels of technology. The exact strategy of this is a subject for another time. 

Ceterum Censeo by Bryce Hidysmith

 Myself, exhausted in front of one of the murals at Center Camp that I desperately hoped was a joke. Note the Ram Dass quote on the arm, and the fact that it wasn't actually an Aztec reference. Photo by Becca Levy.

Myself, exhausted in front of one of the murals at Center Camp that I desperately hoped was a joke. Note the Ram Dass quote on the arm, and the fact that it wasn't actually an Aztec reference. Photo by Becca Levy.

< Soundtrack: All of No Man's Land is Ours - Einsturzende Neubaten, New York City in the Future - Angels of Light >

“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” 
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
(Note: I saw this in a nice digital blackletter font on a flyer posted on the side of a portable toilet in BRC.)

Note: I am less well-versed in the specific organizational structure of Burning Man than I would like to be, and so this post is more of a collection of notes and initial thoughts than anything like a coherently fact-checked analysis of BRC. I have likely conflated the jurisdictions of various organizations, but I am also rather certain that it was worth thinking through these thoughts and publishing them here as part of my journal rather than attempting to do a perfect, academic level organizational analysis. This post is the beginning of my process of study, rather than the end, and I value the capacity of an intellectual community to engage in public thought at varying levels of epistemic validity, something that Sarah Constantin and Benjamin Hoffmann for instance have been extremely good at in writing. The companionship of them and others like them has proven to be a bolstering element that has allowed me to recently maintain a level of epistemic bravery that I would not otherwise have, but an analysis of the ways in which minds falter in disciplinary societies that use shame as the negative feedback method of choice is a distinct and much longer subject deserving of its own post, and in fact likely a book length work at one point in the future.

1. 

September 4th, 2017: 

I made it back early from Burning Man yesterday with a hell of a lot of dust in my lungs, retching every time I tried to speak. And now, about thirty minutes ago, I found out that someone walked into one of the burns. I don't want to speculate as to why; it's not my place. Still, Black Rock City is the kind of place, after all, where the ouroboros is not seen as an inherent symbol of the evil of self-consumption. It's the sort of place where the gnostic tendencies of taking the feeling of enlightenment and figuring it out as you go along have taken the majority of the population, rather than the just internal consistency of logos. I could see someone thinking that it was alright if things just made local sense, rather than consistency throughout all scales of behavior. The term Default World itself, implies that there is a ruleset that exists at Black Rock City that does not in the real world, rather than the traditional Metropolis and BRC being expressions of the same ruleset with different optimizations. Thinking on this burned man's death and the fact that I can empathize with the train of reason that led him to his fate, I have no clear notion of whether or not its right to post the rest of this. I wrote it before learning, edited it after. The photo of me in front of the mural of the human sacrifice was taken on Wednesday, before watching a friend's hook suspension. It seems more fitting to follow a path of consistent publication than obfuscation and self-censorship in times of trouble and pain. Without one's mental ability to triangulate perception with thought and word there is little hope for error correction in signal processing, and thus little hope that will we be capable of coordinating action to endure until tomorrow. It doesn't make it less difficult or less spooky, though it does likely make the process of conscious deliberative thought even more necessary in these trying times. 

It is necessary, then, to put this deliberative process to the topic of less diligent methods of finding or manufacturing truth. The gnostic, synthetic, personally localized enlightenment of Burning Man is of course, the realm of the participants—or, perhaps, more pejoratively the observers as I heard a number of staff call them. It seems as though the two demographics that are drawn to the dirt rave are those that end up with DPW or one of the art crew that just want to demand that the world makes sense, or those that come for some sort of vaguely religious experience in Oceania's pagan capital. I'm not sure if that latter category counts among it the Russians wandering around with no context for the whole thing, just playing around to the crowd best as they can, but I liked them if only because I could plausibly narratize them as just exploring, similar to myself.

The participants seem to mostly using the whole affair as a way of using the city as a method of conspicuous consumption to display a quaternary set of sexual characteristics to facilitate mating in a time when skill is less clearly a marker of intragenerational success than control of capital. This is not unreasonable, this era is a strange time when sexuality and capital have been so thoroughly conflated through fetishistic strategies that one requires a giant light-up brain-car to get laid rather than just a bitchin' camero. Yet, there is a great deal of spiritual plausible deniability outside of the more STEM oriented or cynically trollish camps. The Man this year was built into some sort of shrine like housing with a glowing plastic egg that looked rather like a buttplug beneath it. Feather-clad festival goers kept moving in to touch reverently. I spent a long time standing atop the upper balcony, watching women try to use forced laugher as therapy while men from the upper balcony shouted at them about how much they loved them for unclear reasons. The friend of mine that I was walking with that night later sharpied ANTHROPOLOGIST on our field jackets so that we could explain why we weren't partying. Quite frankly I was tired of feeling like I'd offended people who wanted to flirt with a sense of unity or use such a claim of a sense of unity to flirt. I was there to try and study the systems in play—nothing more, nothing less. I was happy to do work that came my way; I was not looking to be entertained. Still, I was reasonably detached, and happy for it. 

I remember one of the projects on the Playa, a tower of perhaps thirty-five feet with five or so chairs connected to heart rate variability sensors that supposedly measured the "coherence" of the audience, leading to the song that the pillar played being played faster and more clearly. I spoke to a woman who was standing around to claimed to work on the project. She said a bunch of vague things about how being in a state of coherence was good, and that our collective coherence was powerful. "WE are POWERFUL" was the quote I remembered, said in the same vague tones usually employed to show how getting people to realize how "empowered" they are is a good thing, without concrete descriptions of the type, use, and abuse of said power. One must think of the troubling characteristics of psychosomatic unity and identity non-specific compassion without provisions for modulation by truth, communication, or beauty. I looked at the computers that the sensors were hooked up to, and the predominantly drug driven variability of the participants was such that there was little to no regularity between the heartbeats, leading to the causality of the sensors being spurious at best. The total lack of correlation between heartbeats should have slowed down the song far more than the relatively speedy rate that it was playing at. The whole sense of unity was fraudulent, and if I'd opposed it in conversation it would have likely started an argument. Regardless of whether or not this specific, lite-cybernetic fradulant instantiatiation of this in-group phenomena was resonant with the discernment of the whole population, this same desire to belong and not rock the boat is the clear thing that the vast majority of the camps appear to be unified around. A desire for an extended family—a tribe, if you will, if that does not invoke periods of anthropology long out of fashion. 

Perhaps group identity is inherently adaptive in all contexts, or we are simply in a period where the memory of group coherence is still strong enough that we who come from the bleached, content-free, landless populations that a man like Steve Bannon would call Globalist Cucks are willing to entertain the possibility of cutting one out of whole cloth. When taken seriously, the cult of the Man has the armature of a religion without the content of one. It's a sort of hajj for whiteness; a celebration of detachment from context. The Playa Provides is a completely farcical saying, and exists only to obfuscate the relative abundance of the participant population's social graphs. Only in an environment where commerce is banned, the ground is largely worthless, and there is genuine risk from dehydration or a lack of shelter is it possible to create such a space of scarcity without poverty. Even then, there's still a great deal of zero-sum trading going on, only its mostly about sexual or leveraged investment capital rather than momentary money. This is fine by me; I'm not the sort of Puritan who seeks to impose my trade norms on the whole world, only suggest that they might work a bit better on the whole. The trouble is that there's always this odd cover-up when you talk to the observers, where they attempt to speak of connection to universal humanity or art, both concepts that are only ever invoked when someone seeks to cheat by relying on ineffable, uncommunicable, subjective experience. The legend of such ineffable experience is still frequently potent enough to trick the mind into a physically non-instantiated sense of connection, as in the case of the Heart Monitor piece mentioned above. 

On the other hand, one looks to the participants who do a different method of cheating, invoking irony for much of their participation, perhaps as a method for justifying lack of imagination, sunk-cost fallacy, or envy to those who can take the silliness seriously. The city is still shaped like itself, and if one chooses to go incognito it should be for a reason, even if that reason is simply enjoyment of something that one must narratize as ironic for the purposes of keeping one's honor. As with most-all forms of strategy, the trouble with being a troll is that one can quickly become a perfected second-order version of the thing that you sought to troll through imitation. There's a point when you meet a certain kind of hipster, and you go to a monster truck rally and drink cheap beer, and its very, very unclear if it was all a joke, but you had fun anyway even if you don't feel a need to do it again. There's also a remarkably good side to all of this, namely the fact that much of this ironic detachment powers the desire to join the various municipal service worker cosplays that actually power the majority of the project. The jobs that actually do things that build the world are not terribly high status in this day and age, and being able to narratize them as art or just a joke is a remarkably good way to get people who would actually be good at them to join up instead of attempting a sort of cool detachment and ignoring the opportunity and need to do good work. This seems intimately related to the fact that the population that doesn't take things ironically can only actually engage in behaviors that are advantageous on a group scale by forcing themselves to, by, for instance, going to burning man and dropping a lot of cash, time, and effort. Irony, when benevolent, provides the necessary plausible deniability for people to shrug off the psychological damage of being shamed. 

These three invocations—irony, art, and humanity—are methods within Anglosphere and much of Western culture by which one can reject the need for consistency at multiple scales and instead embrace a willfully myopic perspective in a locally socially rewarded but in fact largely globally detrimental fashion. They are a particularly kind of diffuse lie that breaks the adaptive capacity of a group slowly, leading to their consistent toleration even though they don't make a lick of sense. They are methods by which we exploit our tendencies to tolerate short-termism by suggesting that the short-termist strategies are similar to previous long-term strategies of ironic detachment, aesthetic communication, and intercultural extensibility, even though the modern invocations of such strategies have little or nothing to do with the previous versions on the whole. It seems as though the presence of these behaviors suggests that we—the detached, global class—live in a time where our cognitive processes are on the whole much less our own than previous largely landless classes. I cannot speak for other classes position psychologically in this regard remotely as well, but the emergence of these phenomena is highly concerning. It's the kind of scenario that makes it make sense to build the bones of a city every year only to tear it down and start again next time because that's genuinely the best option, given the constraints. 

It is understandable that we seek to cheat our way out of the problems we have found ourselves mired in. This is especially true when those methods of cheating are validated by others suggesting that they worked for them, and public opinion suggests perhaps you just didn't try hard enough or that such methods not working for you would suggest a deep deficiency in one's character. There is a deep emptiness in the Postmodern West. We can feel the lack of content in messages every day and seem to only get by through fanatically suggesting that there is indeed content through a capacity of overdeveloped apophenia, or constantly commenting on how weird everything is, fetishizing it, and not thinking too hard about the implications. The death of Christianity as we knew it historically and its resurrection as an effeectively neopagan phenomenon centered around the cult of the macho-generic god of vague goodness Jesus! appears to have created a scenario where there next to no internally consistent narratives to latch onto. If you don't feel like buying into Jesusism and you're under 40, it is increasingly difficult to find an ideology that isn't a death cult in one way or another. Deep ecology environmentalism is good cover for omnicidal maniacal hopes of the unthinking laws of nature to take over instead of the grace of intelligent life, rather than assuming that the rejection of intelligent stewardship of nature by intelligent life is the problem. In parallel, most privilege politics assume that its impossible to wield power in a way that isn't evil. Almost everything else besides those two that isn't an ethnoreligion is just an attempt to market some sort of product, even if that product is the Mao Tse-Tung Hour. Rarely is the self interest of those ideologies rationally integrated so that one's self-interest can be the same as the group. The dreams of Smith or Rand have been abandoned as impossible, not just a little bit tricky to engineer right, leading to a situation where the world is assumed to be a zero-sum game, and the moral thing to be done is to lose. Even those who intend to win the zero-sum game have a propensity to pretend to be trying to lose it, for the cameras at least. 

Religiously, on playa, this emptyness is compensated by ironic Catholicism—one cannot underestimate the number of fake confessionals on the playa still able to give out the dopamine hits without the piety—unironic but poorly implemented Buddhism, and the sort of Old Testament Hindu-Pagan consensus that thinks that burnt oblations and public sexuality are the way to go. It is, in a way, an absence of worldview. Having a worldview hasn't been incentivized for a long time. Instead, people have a propensity to implement a strategy of membership in the right in-group, much of the time using the strategies of false universals described above.  Synchronized intelligences attempt reward those agents similar to themselves, effectively granting their clones resources even if their clones are only partial. Pure nepotism is, in short, a post-labor evolutionary strategy, where looking high-status in the world is the thing that grants one the resources for life rather than having one earn them through action. I would think that the vision of a city constructed in a few months by people entirely outside of the usual business of building cities would get people to realize that labor is the means by which one makes the world, rather than fitting in with a given union of privilege. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case for most of those that I saw wandering around who weren't directly involved in Gate, DPW, the Power Crew, Media Mecca, Census, Artery, BMIR, and so on. The world of the event is simply something rather like court or mob politics, where the sense of group-feeling is enough to justify any expenditure of resources or level of illegibility. The other sharpied Anthropologist remarked, at some point, of the work of Robert Trivers on the behavior of birds to cheat and not sound alarm calls, allowing themselves to outcompete their brethren until their social units are eaten by predators. One must think of this attempt to exploit group-feeling instead of labor as a similar phenomenon akin to a Ponzi Scheme, or, perhaps, the more keen and obfuscated version of such a strategy that Bernie Madoff managed to pull off. The flocking behavior of hordes is a kind of fraud, its just unclear as to if the chief, the hungry crowd, or a self-reinforcing process containing both is to blame.  

The good works of art that I saw out in the middle of the outer rim of the playa were not the ones that attempted to play at sharing some ineffable enlightenment or moralization. They were things like the Temple of Gravity, a sequence of small Tesla Coils at the Institute Village that were used as amplifiers for an electric violin, or even the indulgent forgery of the Tree of Ténéré, which I liked in spite of myself if only because it was so convincing at distance in the morning sunlight. They simply showed the possibilities of material, of artisanship, and of visceral sensory experience. Perhaps the best piece of art is still the wise-crowd of flocking vehicles and stages, each of which individually I am usually disgusted by but in totality is one of the sights to be seen: a wonder of the modern world. Even the barest coordination of a bicycle traffic jam is beautiful, even if the individual agents are on the whole very badly coordinated with themselves. The beauty that I saw were objective, physical phenomena which individuals could witness and share an authentically similar experience, noting differences in the things they noticed rather than being gaslit into an assumption of similarity. The in-groups then emerge through the process of interfacing with reality—a process which can be verified by each member of the group on their own terms. Volunteerism is only possible when the total group-verification process is containable within the perceptive capacities of each individual within the group. 

2.

The world of Burning Man the urban production project, rather than the event, is a competent technocracy that is able to exist in a scenario with little or no margin of error due to the keen perceptive capacities and grit of its population. That is not to say that mistakes do not happen, rather that mistakes seem to happen frequently but have a tendency to be fixed. Shame does not appear to be the primary tactic used in error correction. Guilt, another way of saying that one has a desire for things to be better than they have been, seems generally used as the method of discipline. 

One must think about how the archaeological record of this will look, where the traces of this strange city that gets build every year are scattered all over the world and yet there is likely nothing remaining on the playa itself, only some stashed equipment in the outpost of Gerlach. The population that builds the city every year are damn good at asking the world to make sense at the maximal human scale. A single subsystem of a city is too large for an individual human to understand, but the semi-lattice structure of individual agents collaborating can maintain the library of knowledge sufficient to make such a subsystem function. The coordination of such subsystems becomes the total system of the city. The complexes of the New York Subway, the Beijing Police, or the Valparaiso Port are all organisms unto themselves, but exist in a crosshatched fashion just as HEAT and DPW have distinct but related responsibilities.

The production of a city is an inherently biomorphic process, a second order effect on the biological needs of humanity as tempered by the search-function of human language. The key is making sure that the individuals who produce the simple systems that grow into complex, nonlinear, living structures still have the will, support, and authority to manage the production of the city. Provided that locally to the size of a system trackable to an individual skill is rewarded with status and command, and that the systems that are trackable to individuals are coordinated in such a way that they are able to exchange information about their capacities and needs while maintaining trust and good faith, the city survives and grows and perhaps even finds itself capable of entering into trade relations with politeia further afield. It is this process why BRC doesn't get a cholera outbreak or a wildfire spreading through tents every year. 

Security is the art of making nothing happen, and the fact that BRC is secure enough against disasters that would likely wreck it is testament to the strength of its culture to both prevent and create. Perhaps one builds a pyramid because one loves the geometry, but really one builds a pyramid to show off the fact that you had the sort of civilization that could build a mountain from scratch. The same is true of the kind of culture that can build a city from scratch and then tear it down. Certainly, BRC is hacked together quite a bit slapdash, but it still functions. Even London started out as a military trade camp, with the walls of the City Of remaining as reminders of that early era as an outpost of the empire on the edge of the world. The same could be said of my home of San Francisco, where the hulls of ships used as construction kludges are still found beneath skyscrapers to this day.

Though some elements on the scale of buildings must be centrally planned, living cities are not designed. Rather, they are grown. While BRC is certainly built upon a tree, its street-grid serves more as a method of hanging chaos upon a degree of consistency that can accommodate rapid adaptation than the lifeless regimentations of those High Modernists cited in Alexander's paper. There is a great distinction between the navigability of Hausmann's Paris and the sterility of the Plan Voisin. One needs only some decent landmarks and the will and tenacity of a few thousand to build a city. It seems that we should do it more often, perhaps in such a place where it won't have to be torn down. I have to admit that the greatest draw for my return was navigating the city's radial layout on bicycle, using visual recognition to navigate a changing environment adapted to the needs of individuals by leaving creative energies uninhibited. It seems as though the clear strategy for the construction of new cities is the creation of enough elements of consistent navigation that the generative chaos of human life can build to specifications. The argument advanced by James Scott and others that organizational planning must by necessity be similar in tactic at every scale from the local to the operational, strategic, or even transhistorical seems farcical in light of the human tendency to gain a profit of action by adaption to collectively accepted parameters at least temporarily until more locally specified solutions can be found, as well as the existence of communication limitations from base physical law and anatomical constraint. The alternative strategy, then, is the deployment of simple systems that can provide profits of economy and systems of collective navigation that can then develop the incomprehensibly complex semi-lattice structures championed by C. Alexander, Jane Jacobs, and so on that are the source of the strength and beauty of our cities. 

So, ceterum censeo, at least a second Black Rock City must be grown, perhaps in some territory that could generate some proverbial milk and honey from the organisms that might dwell on its soil. Black Rock has been good for wandering in the desert with one's people, testing the difficulties of coordination and honor among friends, strangers, and enemies. It is necessary for it to become replicable—perhaps even autopoetic. A decent city should not be a special occasion, justified only by the symbolic value of telling everyone that you'd been there on your grand tour. The central questions then are where to put it, who to seed it with, and what it will produce to trade with the world. Perhaps one can produce an Alexandria after Christopher. Perhaps its export might even just be coordination, the ability to take the proper action giving a set of constraints. That seems a bit akin to the sort of City on a Hill that a version of Reagan who lionized computer science or mathematics instead of Christianity family values would claim America could be. While it might be melodramatic, embracing the discipline of substrate independence might actually be the method by which one could build such a light for the world. 

On Earning The Grass Crown In Industrial Society by Bryce Hidysmith

< Soundtrack: Windswept - Johnny Jewel >

There's a kind of story—I'm thinking specifically of Kubrick's Spartacus, the recent Bong Joon-ho film Okja, and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go—that delivers its eventual emotional blow because of the way that humans are incapable of ontologizing scale. 

In Spartacus, the eponymous character fails basically because he's incapable of properly telling the difference between cops and soldiers. The cops—slaver guards in this case to be specific—have a personal relationship to the slaves, whereas the legions are industrial. They've made a business out of the military art. That was always the central component of Roman-ness, the existence of the Legion as the actuating arm of the whole enterprise. The use of force by military, rather than police, is totally impersonal. It does not listen, it simply follows orders. Its regular. Predictable. Not listening. 

Okja does not have a pyrrhic victory at its end, where a win has been achieved at great cost. Instead, when it comes time to face down Tilda Swinton's portrayal of the corrupt corporate executive to save the titular Okja, the protagonist, Mija, simply buys Okja for a Chekov's solid gold pig. Swinton's character bites the pig to ensure its validity and makes the trade. The whole attack on Okja was never anything personal—just business. She never cared about anything in the movie that didn't directly influence the bottom line of her business. The entire plot was a sideshow, permitted to occur for sentimental purposes while the industry would continue unaffected. Mija and Okja walk out of the slaughterhouse through the feed lots, showing just how small they are. They get on with their lives as best they can. 

Never Let Me Go is similar. The dark secret that the characters are clones being raised to have their organs harvested is revealed candidly a quarter way through the book. The style resembled the young adult novels of my youth where there's a resistance and a glorious revolution just around the corner, but the narrator and her closest friends were raised to be consumed and were never given the opportunity or resources to even develop the necessary cognitive faculties to discern an opportunity for escape. They simply spend the book living their allotted time, engaging in some simple speculation. They then complete their donations, and their bodies and minds are gone from the earth. 

These stories play us against ourselves by being stories, by forcing us to relate to a narrative rather than a non-narrative description of things. There is a scale that builds around the individual mind as the atomic unit of a narrative, and these are stories that subvert that expectation by putting individual minds against those forces that are structurally distinct from minds in a way that means they cannot be anthropomorphized. All three of these stories of course concern domesticated organisms—a gladiator, livestock for calories, livestock for organ donation—that contain the lived experience to synthesize a narrative, but not the lived experience of meaningful choices. It is possible to create organisms as tools, living in standing reserve. By harnessing the force of industry—in other words the ability to replicate a process on a scale incoherent to human experience—we are able to industrially farm predictably enough so as to create organisms entirely lacking in agency. It is entirely clear that industry outcompetes alternative methods of production, if possibly only by feeding armies well in the short term that can conquer and extract resources from non-industrial natural systems. How can we harness that which is controllable, but not relatable, in a way that it creates lives that are worth living? 

Something on my mind has been the old Roman military honor of the Grass Crown, which was the highest military decoration in the empire. While the legions might be impersonal, they were not disposable. While there was a norm of heroic sacrifice, there was not a norm of heroic martyrdom—Christianity's lionizing of wholly symbolic death appears to have been less terrifying to the romans than it was to the Japanese over a millenia later during the Shimabara rebellion, but the notion was certainly unattractive. Regardless of the willingness of temporally local individual monarchies and oligarchies there was that Rome that might endure for the population to live within its walls and its extended domains, through Italy to Iberia and back through Syria. Even the auxilia were not kept in standing reserve in the eyes of the empire itself, no matter how any individual commander might use them—they were simply at a point along the process of incorporation. 

I wrote the first notes on this subject on the fourth of July. America has always marketed itself as the one country that might be able to live up to Emmanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative by providing the constraint-set that allows for maximal freedom of its population so that said population can specify the life that it hopes to lead, according to its own self-determination. It has never lived up to that goal, but it could. To be the meta-national melting pot that America seems to usually hope to be it seems as though if you could somehow harness industrial force to increase rather than decrease the total accessible state-space of the world, you would have preserved the ineffable internal experience that justifies industry, that produces moral patients and treats them well. There's a part of me that thinks that the recent American Gods television series got the protagonist and the antagonist wrong. The difference is mostly in the aesthetics of affability or vague, creepy malevolence, and the narrative feels strangely distinct in text, rather than in the emoting of actors. Mr. World might be the future, as long as he's providing choices for things other than Salsa. Still, though, ultimately everything is all systems, interlaced, a single product manufactured by a single company, for a single global market...

For Frank Abagnale by Bryce Hidysmith

Impostor syndrome seems to me a historically bounded phenomenon. A majority of people seem to be faking their skill and are still being rewarded. One population normalizes it as somehow the method by which things have always been done, assuming divine intervention or an inexplicable spontaneous generation of functionality from non-functionality. Another population assumes that this claim discontinuous spontaneous generation must be spurious. We—for I am rather obviously in this latter category of belief—begin to assume that we are living on an accumulation of technical credit from the past. In the contract between the dead, the living, and the not-yet-born, someone has defected. When righteousness is lost there are rituals. Rituals are the end of fidelity and honesty, and the beginning of confusion. I remember reading my grandfather's copy of Dag Hammarskjöld's Markings, and noting that he wrote of a mentality and time when it seemed righteousness might be enough. In such a world it might be sufficient to stand tall, not trying to make oneself invisible or prepare posture for boxing—simply a man to behold, a message to send.