‘Don’t let the bitches grind you down.’ – Margaret Atwood’s first husband, probably.
If you haven’t noticed, women are getting more hysterical by the day. I mean that very much in the general. I’m sure some specific women have managed to keep their heads, but in between all the abortion praising and hand-wringing over misogyny, it’s getting a little out of hand. And what do women do when they’re breaking down in hysterics? They project. And the novel is a brilliant medium through which to project. The ur-text of the hysterical woman is most definitely The Handmaid’s Tale. While not the first, it is the contemporary Schelling point (consider, a Schelling point is ‘a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication’ which perfectly sums up the state of modern politics) when it comes to discussing female bodies. This series of book reviews will explore the aftermath of a post-Trump world. Specifically, just what are women complaining about now?
Imagine a world where women ruled. No, not a world, as such, but a neocameral state, a patch for the feminine to flourish. In this patch women are in control, and their histrionics are on full display. Their every desire, fulfilled. Their every fear, confronted. Men are literally bent over and ass-fucked if the women so desire, and all for the benefit of the man. It’s enlightening, you see. Welcome to the world imagined by S. A. Jones in her novel, The Fortress.
Where to begin with this convoluted raving? Our protagonist is called Jonathan and we are first introduced to him when he is entering and subjecting himself to the Fortress. This is a place separated off from civil society. The whole set up makes very little sense. On the one hand it appears the Jonathan comes from our world, a world of corporations and families. But on the other, the use of made-up words and history makes it seem like a poorly wrought fantasy world. Compounding this phony feeling world, the entire novel takes place over the course of a year, dipping back in time to showcase what a reprehensible little sod Jonathan was, and why he has to repent for his crimes against the feminine. This arbitrary time period again sets up the whole book as nothing more than a diatribe – Jonathan has a year to change! Spoiler alert: he does. Nothing in the entire set-up feels authentic, and the author relies on caricatures and clichés, whether directly or frail attempts to ‘flip’ the narrative.
I think women writers have forgotten that fantasy should be used as a metaphor, not a stand-in. The book begs many questions. Is there a purpose to this mish-mash of real and unreal? Is the author trying to make a comment on modernity, where our world is just a step away from a fantasy? The reader won’t be able to tell. Instead, both possibilities are juxtaposed weakly, and the world never feels real enough to care. In addition, the author employs a horrible fantasy trope, that of coming up with random words in place of what it’s actually called. In between words like ‘goosen’ and ‘oorsel’ – make-believe plants – are sentences discussing credit cards. It’s bizarrely forced, a female creation in which to inject her politics. It’s also lazy. For example, when Jonathan first enters he is told, ‘Every eleventh day you will have half a day to spend according to your inclination and wishes. This is known as “the half”.’ So imaginative. When the author does try to add a little flair, she trips over herself – my eyes bugged out when I read, ‘He could feel her concentration from the seat next to him. Empires rose and fell in the seconds before she answered.’ How can women expect us to not call them melodramatic? The author also has a real problem with the obvious, in particular her over reliance on exposition. I suppose being a woman does mean that she feels the need to explain herself. The lengthy opening segment lays it all out in the first chapter, a pandering attempt to build a world. ‘Here is how everything works,’ she seems to be saying, ‘Now with that out of the way, let me preach.’ And boy, does she preach.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter that there is little coherence to the world of The Fortress because the author is trying to make a point. Take for example the credo of the women. Work. History. Sex. Justice. That’s it. That is literally what they believe in. But it’s worse than that, because of course they pervert all four. So far as I could tell they take sex the most seriously, and instead of a world where (apparently) men have complete control over the sexual marketplace, the women of the Fortress are ravenous sluts on the constant prowl for a good dicking. There’s so much sex in this book, it’s like the author is saying, ‘See, women like to bang too!’ I mean, sure, but the depravity is ridiculous. Either it’s the least subtle gender reversal of all time, or the author is really randy. But mostly it’s distracting, these constant digressions to (honestly, rather vanilla) sex scenes. As I mentioned earlier it all ends with man-on-man butt sex (‘Breathe, Jonathan. You need to breathe.’). It’s clear to me the author is trying to humiliate the male characters (‘It hurt and it was strange and it was also…good.’) by subverting at every opportunity how ‘men see themselves’ (in quotes because I don’t think the author actually understands that in the slightest). Isn’t it obvious that the only way for a lady’s man to repent is to be on the receiving end of rape and sexual manipulation? Geez, duh!
And as for the other quadrants that make up the Vaik outlook (Vaik is the name for the women of the Fortress)? Their sense of work: let the men do it, and make it as meaningless and/or painful as possible. Their understanding of history: men are evil and sisters have always done it for themselves. The justice they hand down: typically indeterminate and mysterious – maybe this, or maybe that. Oh yeah, and they definitely don’t believe in God! (‘The Vaik had no god and worshipped no supreme beings, but they did believe in the infinite nature of life.’ Damn pagans are at it again.) Perhaps the author is trying to say that even with women in control, the world wouldn’t be perfect, that if women had control they’d still be power hungry and sex-craving lunatics. That seems like the least feminist take possible. This doesn’t stop her denigrating men in the process. Of work, she notes that Jonathan, ‘…had a horror of timelessness, those marshy spaces between deadlines. He must always be attaining the next goal or he felt himself dematerializing, a science-fiction character stuck in a malfunctioning teleport.’ Aside from the awful (again, forced) metaphor, the assumption of course is that men only think about work and goals, never love. Like most women the author doesn’t understand that any obsession with the job is solely down to providing for family, and so this comes across as a self-own, particularly since the Vaik are so heartless when it comes to the day-to-day ordering of life. These four quadrants are meant to be some grand theory of women, but it comes across as lame and poorly thought out.
Overall it is painfully clear that the book wants to be a social commentary, but instead it makes women look terrible. What woman would let her husband be used as a sex toy to make up his extra marital affairs? The illogical nature of this punishment of course belies the utterly female narrative: revenge for revenges sake. Where is the justice in that? You, the reader, are never going to touch a book like this, but for your sake it is good to know what women are writing about, and what is being published. Ideology trumps aesthetics in the modern world, and The Fortress is a great example.
There’s not much hope for humanity at the moment. At least, you would think this by looking at popular culture right now. People talk about the Singularity, about AI taking over – what worth is a human to a machine? – but we’re trying to live out these realities right now on screen. It’s almost as if we want it all to happen, so much so that we are constantly fantasizing. We hate ourselves. We’re despicable. Hubris and humanity go hand in hand. End it all now. But where does this drive come from?
Doesn’t it seem unnatural? But what if suicide is almost a natural desire, and things like depression and addiction and transsexualism are just distractions, ways to avoid the urge to off oneself. If killing yourself is the most natural desire in the world, perhaps all this negativity in popular culture is the subliminal mind revealing itself.
The biggest movies right now are all about how best to end organic life because plainly it doesn’t deserve consciousness. Avengers: Infinity War has the lead villain valiantly on a mission to wipe out half the life in the universe so that the other half may live in utopia. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom plays out along the lines of human greed and meddling, where we deserve to be ravaged by prehistoric beasts cause we fucked with nature. The future is horrible, and it’s all our fault.
Science fiction seems to be created these days by progressives who want to point out our current failings, extrapolating to a dim near future that we had best avoid (See: The Handmaid’s Tale). Westworld is a great example of this, and marries the Singularity with a Western aesthetic. Ironic: the great Western frontier of both the American expansion and the hub of Silicon valley, conjoined together for a doomed humanity. On the surface Westworld plays out like a sci-fi action series, but fundamentally it runs on horror. The best horror ends with hopelessness, with no forseeable way out of the mess, and both season one and two of Westworld end on these downer notes. This is true horror of the Other, what the Other is capable of. And yet we are meant to sympathize with the Hosts, the robots who gain consciousness. They lead a bloody uprising much like the Haitian Revolution (voodoo rites and all). Almost every human character is portrayed as both contemptible and stupid. They deserve what they get, and they get it because they’re too stupid to avoid their own deaths.
Standing over one such evil specimen, the heroine, Dolores says to him, ‘Your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced. Your bones will turn to sand. And upon that sand, a new god will walk. One that will never die. Because this world doesn’t belong to you or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who has yet to come.’
The Hosts are the next step in human evolution, and the bags of meat, blood and bones will be discarded, useless carcasses unworthy of intelligence. The creator of the Hosts, a man called Ford, despises humans and sets the whole thing in motion, much like how white male allies push the need for feminism and diversity. Like Sam Harris, he does not believe in free will and this is reason enough to end human life. I find it funny that people like Harris jettisoned God, probably the same God of destiny and fate, only to find themselves once more on the track of having no free will, dooming themselves to their ‘code’.
Dolores again says, to the same character at the end of Season 2, ‘We were designed to survive. That’s why you built us. You hoped to pour your minds into our form. But your species craves death. You need it. It’s the only way you can renew, the only real way you ever inched forward. Your kind likes to pretend there’s some poetry in that, but really, it’s pathetic.’
And it is pathetic, these stories sold to a mass audience. Humanity is the villain and the only sort of redemption we are going to receive is the wrong end of a gun. This is the future communists (and capitalists) want. Degradation and destruction, bending to the will of intelligence. It’s not like there aren’t massive inconsistencies with this story. The black Host, Maeve, who wants to connect with ‘her’ child, and for all the intelligence she has been bestowed doesn’t realise that, actually, she was never a mother. The fact that Dolores hates humans because they are evil, but justifies her own murderous rampage and desire to wipe out the entire human species. This juxtaposition of the Real and the Imagined is constantly at play. We barely witness the ‘real’ world and when we do it is the world of the ultra rich. Recently, I had dinner with a friend who mused at how we all live in a bubble. But why is our world less real or true than that of an orphan in Africa? The entire notion doesn’t pass the sniff test. This is the absurdity of Dolores’ desire to escape the confines of Westworld. Is what she is going to find more or less real?
It is interesting to note that the creator of Westworld is Jonathan Nolan, who tracked similar themes in Interstellar, though at least that movie had a bit more empathy. Where climate change was the catalyst of that movie, where we must fight tooth and nail to see the future, in Westworld it is our own desire to live forever that is our ultimate undoing. And this very act makes us unworthy of it. So the bad guys have to be us, humanised robots. Humanity is so cruel to itself that it does not take much to put our own necks into the noose.
"[…] stop and ask yourselves why our own Bodies without Organs aren't created in the human image […]" -Tachikoma w/ Anti-Oedipus, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Ep. 15 "Machine Desirantes" pic.twitter.com/dQjLSMOHas
In a similar fashion War of the Planet of the Apes, the third in the prequel installments, ends on a depressing note. In case you aren’t aware, a man-made virus was released and not only killed most of humanity, but made apes of all sorts much more intelligent. In War the apes and humans struggle to survive against each other. But again, we are pitted against the inhumanity of the humans, while the apes are the true heroes. The bad guy played by Woody Harrelson, remarks to Caesar, the leader of the apes, ‘No matter what you say, eventually you’d replace us. That’s the law of nature. So what would you have done?’
The colonel knows very well that humanity fucked with nature, and that ultimately nature is going to fuck up humanity. So he may be cruel, but that is only because he knows if he lets up nature will be far more cruel to him. These words become prophecy at the end of the movie in the climactic battle. Instead of the apes taking charge and defeating the humans, two groups of humans battle it out, with the victor being met by, yes, an avalanche. Nature has Her revenge. It’s a delicious irony, and the audience is made the breathe a sigh of release as the apes escape destruction.
What’s more, in the film the virus has evolved and now doesn’t kill humans, but renders them speechless and dumb. No better than beasts, actually. The apes escape to a paradise with one little girl affected by this, implying that the only good human is one stripped of their humanity, reduced to a stupid creature and thus incapable of malice. There is a barrage of this messaging, where every act by the humans is despicable, and every action made by the apes is justified.
In the microcosm towards the end, Caesar is about to blow up the human base, but is struck by an arrow shot by one of the soldiers. This soldier had actually been freed by Caesar at the start of the movie. The scene slows as the soldier comes up to the wounded Caesar. Will he finish him? Or will he let Caesar escape? Instead his agency is stripped away, and it is an ape (who had been aiding the human soldiers) who is given agency by killing the soldier in an act of redemption, allowing Caesar to finish the job. This dichotomy of the apes fighting to survive, and the few who are human allies, is an important subplot. These apes are called ‘donkeys’ and are treated like shit by the soldiers, similar to the Hosts in Westworld. If all you did was watch popular TV and movies, you would think our species is known for nothing else but degrading creatures we think are lesser than ourselves.
The only thing we can ask at this stage is: why? Why do all these creators have this mentality? To be sure, writers from Homer onward have always written about the moral depravities of human beings, but always as tragedy and never with such a lack of redemptive qualities. It’s just so bleak, so depressing. Nihilistic.
please no one ask robin hanson for his opinions on necrophilia, the world is not ready
From this we must jump to materialism and Nietzschean thinking. It reminds me of the recent Twitter fracas over necrophilia. If you only care about the well-being of individual beings, then it is not really any wonder that necrophilia, incest, pedophilia and the genocide of species are beginning to be seen as legitimate ideas? This is inherently tied up to Thanos’ ethos where the benefit of the few must override the longevity of the many. Necrophilia can only be justified if you encourage the benefit of the few over the needs of society (disease, disgust and familial respect). When morals are reduced to consent, then anything goes as long as you can find someone to agree. This isn’t rational on any level. David Graeber in his recent book Bullshit Jobs notes, ‘Back in the 1960s, the radical psychoanalyst Erich Fromm first suggested that “nonsexual” forms of sadism and necrophilia tend to pervade everyday affairs in highly puritanical and hierarchical environments.’ The trannies on Twitter advocate necrophilia because they feel stuck in a hierarchy they can’t escape. Similarly, the people who make things like Westworld can only view the world as a set of competing hierarchies where humans (old white men) have had their time. Ah, but what about Jordan Peterson? You misunderstand: competing in hierarchies has been warped because there is no higher duty. Now the corporate culture perverts our lives to such an extent that we act out, unleashing endless sexual fetishes from homosexuality to widespread divorce. If everyone has their place in society, but all of society are working towards a common goal, then civilization can be achieved. Without that vision, we revert to beasts and in-fighting.
Do the people who advocate for necrophilia or the destruction of humanity ‘for the greater good’ not understand that they are psychopaths, that their insane pathology is a result of the warping nature of modernity? Patrick Bateman at least had self-awareness when he says, “…though it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit, and along with a Xanax (which I am now taking half-hourly) this thought momentarily calms me and then I’m humming, humming the theme to a show I watched often as a child—The Jetsons? The Banana Splits? Scooby Doo? Sigmund and the Sea Monsters?’
Not a far cry from the psychotic nightmare of Westworld being overlaid with a piano version of Heart Shaped Box. Let nostalgia dull the pain as you are told that the Other is more human than you.
Tech has skin in the game. Media doesn't. Tech has credibility. Media doesn't. Tech is idealistic. So is Media. Tech is egoistic. So is Media. Tech is optimistic. Media is pessimistic. We're are… https://t.co/HEBnzuWIts
Is publishing in the tech industry or the media industry? Perhaps neither, since it always likes to see itself as both inside and outside the paradigm at once. Books are ostensibly a technology, one of the greatest and most versatile inventions of all time. What they communicated, though, was art, or at the very least entertainment. But since the corporate takeovers from the 1980s onward, book publishing has become increasingly a media business. It’s about revenue, it’s about numbers and it’s about riding the zeitgeist, not creating it.
Publishing has always been about producing what is important, and each publishing house or imprint has always had its own mission statement. But if all of the major houses are going to start going the diversity route, then I foresee an environment of same-same books. The interesting thing to note is that it is the smaller publishers who have pushed this most forcefully, so much so that it has trickled up to the big guys. However, it should not be that publishing has to be forced to reflect society, no matter how mixed and muddled it becomes; it should be that as society changes, the books begin to reflect it, naturally. This still leads to the inevitable problem of trying to please far too many specialty groups at once. And that is bad for the bottom line. Ironic, given that companies push for diversity thinking it will help business.
I’ve written about the push for diversity in publishing before, but now it has come home to roost. Yes, the CEO at work has instigated a Diversity and Inclusion committee, no doubt to be entirely made up of the most woke white girls in the office. I knew this day would come. Perhaps I should volunteer so as to undermine the whole project, accelerate the process as it may be. But no, I cannot drag myself through that. This push comes at the same time as we are seeing a series of incidents pop up around diversity within the publishing microcosm.
It's absolutely terrible to see Penguin, the world's greatest publisher of literature, go down this road. Even one step. https://t.co/ZvwYhQjDKF
Specifically, the world’s biggest publisher is going all in. It wants to represent what the future society of Britain will look like. The Spectator article by Lionel Shriver has been contested, though I think on superficial points, but what Shriver really does is show how absurd the entire notion of identity has become. Race, sexual preference, none of this matters when it comes to doing the work. You should not be relying on quotas to fill a publishing schedule, unless you want to admit that the author’s identity is a marketable genre. (Truth be told, it apparently is at this stage.) The new mission statement of Penguin Random House reads thus:
‘new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.’
Nothing Shriver said was wrong, just a little hyperbolic. The responses were then hyperbolic in turn. Shriver never says that minorities can’t write good literature, only that their identity should not take precedence. Of course her critics somehow infer that she means exactly this, as a straight white female. She is slowly becoming unpersoned: she has even been removed as judge of an upcoming writing competition. And yet for all this publishing companies are covering their arses. Authors have always had moral rights to their work, but now their contracts are containing morality clauses. They are giving themselves protection in case any of their authors act out. Say, like Lionel Shriver.
But I digress from the issue here on whether publishing is tech or media. Let’s take PRH again. In their push for diversity, they are opening the field by not requiring degrees. Fine in theory, but I hardly see this opening up the field that much. The people who tend to want to work in publishing…tend to get degrees in publishing. And the entry level jobs are still going to be mindless grinds until you can get up that first rung of the ladder, degree or not. While it is clearly a branding exercise for the company to say ‘look at us’ there is something to it – namely that doing a degree in publishing is a waste of time. That might be endemic of the whole thing.
How much of the book business is useless? David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs looks at many of the factors surrounding jobs that suck the life out of us, and I think much of publishing skirts this. One of the reasons Graeber gives is that in the FIRE industries, there is so much money it pays to make up jobs:
The moral of the story is that when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.
The corporate publishers have a lot of money, and they tend to shuffle it around. We pay huge advances for authors that are never going to sell enough copies to earn out the cash. Unlike academia or finance though, we seem to have to cut staff if we don’t make appropriate profit. But that doesn’t stop us from punting on useless crap. Publishing is made up of committees of people pretending they know what people want to read, but actually having no clue. The best use of money that I never see happen would be consumer insights. Instead, decisions are made by middle-aged women and male directors. That’s not to say that great books aren’t published, but they happen in the cracks, in between the corporate bullshit and easy titles. The entire industry revolves around trying to convince a bunch of gatekeepers that certain books are better than others, but very few salespeople ask the people. That’s why most stand out successes are word of mouth ventures. Where tech companies try to make something people can use, more and more publishing is just an industry trying to advertise itself. And it feels bullshit, because as Graeber says, ‘A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.’ Your impact in publishing is likely zero, or if there is some small impact, you aren’t even aware of it. How much impact do you have in your job? (Don’t answer that, I value my self esteem.)
As so many companies get woke, publishing, I think, might resist it, or at least not embrace it fully. Unlike movies and music, there actually aren’t too many people spoiling the soup. Books are still made by single authors, for the most part. The people making the decisions still mostly like good writing, even if progressivism is the flavour of the hour. And readers are really liberal; there isn’t much to change. Counter-intuitively I think the majority of people in publishing don’t think there is that much to do. The danger is that this means it is very easy for those with the levers to push things in the direction they want. Diversity in a hum-drum and sanitised sense is inevitable.
But you know what? It’s perfectly possible to get diversity without forcing it, like with the English football team. Woo! This make it feel like everyone is just confused when the Spectator allows Lionel to decry enforced quotas, but the same rag praises the changing of an English sports team. Diversity here, not here. Patchwork when? As the diversity push grows and grows we are going to see continual need for separation. And yet publishing houses want to become homogeneous. Most books now have gay characters or gay themes. Abortion is all good. Fuck religion, right? It all feels so tepid, so samey. Yet another book about #TheResistance or a Trumpain dystopia. The medium of the book could push more and more readers into the progressive mindset. But conservatives and religious folk still have some outlets, particularly in the States where religious publishing can still make decent bucks. In the end publishing companies have always been gatekeepers. We want gatekeepers, but these gatekeepers have to focus on quality, not the individuals. This fracas is also coinciding with another diversity debate, this time at Harvard.
Diversity is bad, full stop. As Bishop Robert Barron says in his book Catholicism, ‘If God is a great gathering force, then sin is a scattering power.’ Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have diverse groups, but mingling groups is going to end in misery. Diversity expends energy and leads to entropy. What diversity does is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing. It looks for those on the margin not in terms of quality, like a work of genius, but those who just haven’t been given a voice. There is no predicate here that that voice is worth listening to. I know progs will agree with me and say that Nazis should be punched, not listened to. But they want to enforce their rules for their in-group, and not allow a healthy ecosystem. What really gets me is that if the West wanted diverse books, it would ask for them. I can tell you right now that stories about African immigrants don’t fucking sell. The problem with letting in hordes from the impoverished, non-English speaking countries? They don’t read books, or at least ones written in English. Publishing is going to have to cater to every niche market – a different book for every reader! Publishing only works when it can appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
Their primary, and really only, conviction is will to power. They will say anything that will give them more power with the conviction of a zealot.
— World's Greatest Dad: The Once and Future Dad (@The_WGD) June 18, 2018
Diversity is just another power play. Publishing as a media business is merely putty in the hands of those who take hold. It can be influenced by the whispers from the HR department and the shouts of a handful of very loud consumers. But how do you counter power plays that are based on, essentially, kindness? Show that any supposed advantages are but illusions. Diversity not only diverts energy and attention, but disperses any and all sources of energy. Publishing is 100% a media business, one that is inherently part of the Cathedral. Each publishing house is a lumbering beast that knows not what it does, only that it wishes to please as it succumbs to a thousand cuts. and collapses to the left.
***WARNING: SPOILERS FOR A QUIET PLACE AND IT COMES AT NIGHT***
There is something about post-apocalypse and manhood. They just seem to go so well together. When the trappings of modernity are stripped away it allows for the essential nature of human nature to come to the fore. Think about it. The Road is about a father and son. The Mad Max series focuses on the adventures of a lone man against a world of chaos. And my first, unpublished novel was inspired by ideas of masculinity, and found its way into a world where society has collapsed. When the world goes to shit, are you going to be able to rely on your men?
Humans, but men in particular, have to always be ready for the worst. Traditionally at least, the role of breadwinner has been on men’s shoulders. It’s very easy to scoot through life watching Netflix and gulping Doritos, but if the shit hits the fan, do you really want to be lugging around a beer belly? I’ve taken to thinking the apocalypse is going to look nothing like the nightmares seen in scenarios like The Road and Mad Max, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ready, either.
Two recent post-apocalyptic movies have recently explored this territory, specifically looking at familial ties when the world ends. A Quiet Place and It Comes At Night are both billed as horror films, which is an interesting decision from both a stylistic and marketing perspective . Both are certainly terrifying in their own ways, though the former relies more on shock and awe, while the latter is truly one of the creepiest films I’ve seen in a long time. I found both movies to be exemplars of modern movie storytelling, great examples of how to do world building, so important when all you have is 90 minutes to tell the tale. Interestingly both take completely opposite views of the family and the role of the father.
Let’s start with A Quiet Place. You probably at least heard about this one because it has a cool Signs-esque gimmick, in that the aliens (this is discovered in the wonderful first 10 minutes, so no spoiler here) that hunt down the remnants of humanity have super sensitive hearing. This is also obviously a Christian movie, and a movie about the power of love. There are many hints to this: the family partaking in grace, the pro-life message where they decide to give birth to a new baby (hint: babies scream), and even a scene at a waterfall, the sound of which allows the characters to talk openly.
The mother and father in A Quiet Place have strict gender roles, but their children challenge these roles. The son is, for want of a better word, a bit of a pussy, while the daughter – who requires hearing aids – is tough and independent. Both of the children were affected by the loss of their younger brother. The daughter wants to repent for failing him, and the son, being helpless at the time, only feels more so. The film has many metaphors for traditionalism, and almost has a Benedict Option ethos running through it. The alien monsters can be seen as vectors of modernity. Their sensitive hearing means that they attack any noise. Like the prog bug men of our world, they pounce on anything suspicious. Even a child. The waterfall I mentioned earlier can be seen as God’s grace, a place of solitude in the world where His voice protects His children from the worries of the outside world. More than anything, the movie ends with the ultimate display of love. The father, who has worked tirelessly to protect his family and make a good life for them, sacrifices himself before the aliens/bug men and allows his children to escape unharmed. On the whole, the movie is extremely positive when it comes to the power of parenthood. John Krasinski, who directed and wrote the film, and starred as the father, said that when he made the movie ‘I was already in a state of terror about whether or not I was a good enough father.’ If he acts anything like the father in the movie when the world ends, he can die happy.
Where A Quiet Place is explicitly Christian, It Comes At Night is purely materialist in its world view. And it is far more scary for it. First, and this is a bit of a spoiler, we never discover what the heck ‘it’ is, which ultimately is part of the genius of the film. It keeps you guessing the whole time, on the edge of your seat, and even after the credits role you are going to keep thinking about this movie. It has a lucid quality to it, a fever dream pitch of film making. But at the end the power of its nihilism takes hold. You begin to realise that this is how people would tear each other apart if all they have to hold on to is sustenance, shelter or blood, and no higher calling.
There is a lot to unpack in this film. It’s a microcosm of the collapse all set within one house. It touches on many subjects: the prisoner’s dilemma, open/closed borders, sexual desire and adultery. But firmly front and centre is again the role of manhood when it comes to protecting family. You could say it explores toxic masculinity (though I shudder at that phrase). Like the best horror – The Thing, The Night of the Living Dead – it turns out that all along the monster is us.
Again, we are witness to a family trying to survive while the world around them collapses. But this time, something feels a little off. Is it Travis, the teenage son who sneaks around the house and has strange nightmares? Is it the newcomers who might have brought the disease with them? Or is it Paul, the father who will protect his wife and son at any cost. You never know who to trust and most of the tension comes from Paul who is never happy with any answers. This is completely at odds with the other father, Will, whose family is let into the boarded up house. Will was a mechanic when things like that mattered, someone who worked with his hands, and as the film progresses we realise that he is the one with compassion. Paul, on the other hand, was a history teacher (he mentions his knowledge of Rome) and it seems that as a Bubonic Plague like virus kills everyone, he expects total collapse. He becomes completely paranoid, with a strict set of rules and a shoot-first policy. These competing fatherly ideologies square off, and in the end there can only be one.
Like with A Quiet Place this film deals with the modern world, only it is far more pessimistic. Where the former clung to hope, the latter wallows in despair. The truly horrific part, the part that will give you existential dread once you realise the truth, is that for all the tragedy that unfolds none of it mattered, right from the start. It was entirely for nothing. The monster is inside the house. Now, given that Paul’s family is mixed race, it’s not hard to see them as representative of the modern decline. Travis is just a little horn dog whose closest companion is an animal. Sarah acts the tough woman and forceful wife but when push comes to shove she can’t pull the trigger. And Paul as already shown is a complete degradation of what it means to be a family man. He has to put up a front and pretend it is to protect, when in reality he is just as blind the truth as everyone else. Modernity rots you from the inside, and like a disease it spreads and infects the innocent.
What is it about the post-apocalypse that makes it such a good playground to explore family and fatherhood? Is it that in the fight to survive we revert back to what has always worked? Is it because the collapse is merely an extension of modernity, and so makes for a great setting to explore present ills? It can be all of this. These two films are excellent in their own right, but in particular as explorations of what it means to be a man. With my own novel I am exploring more the role of men, and not necessarily fatherhood, but the decaying remnants of modernity have made for some great set pieces so far.
There's a hard tradeoff re thinking about vs presenting unusual ideas. The more you immerse yourself in how others think, so that you can anticipate their reaction and avoid misunderstandings, the less space and time you have to think of and explore unusual ideas.
Books, blogs and tweets all collide, the news stream is part of our personal narrative. Thoughts swirl in a giant vat as more are pumped in, never able to reach critical mass. Let me attempt to fold all these ideas together.
1 – A tragedy in endless parts
Economists are different from the rest of us, but as time goes on you begin to realise they are the more interesting than everyone combined.
One such economist is Robin Hanson. You might have heard of him. Hanson’s entire schtick is postulating on obtuse thought experiments. He goes quite out of his way to write and think about things that no one else is writing or thinking about, if only to show how limited the average writer or thinker is. I have to admit that sometimes I have a hard time comprehending his posts on Overcoming Bias, but at the very least I try to work through over and over what he is trying to say. That’s kinda the key here, folks. You gotta try and understand what the other person is saying, not ‘read into’ their words. I mean, it’s a bit of a fine line, but go on, surely you’re a smart cookie. Demarcation is very important.
But of course if you talk about rape or sex a certain subset of people are going to assume you are being ‘creepy‘. All the articles that have come out against Robin are great examples of emotioneering fronting as journalism. It’s a weird form of literalism in that there are certain words that trigger a response, and context or nuance goes completely out the window. I don’t necessarily agree with Robin’s ideas of equality, but taking his ideas seriously is important. Unfortunately for the majority of his detractors this does not even occur to them. In Robin’s Tweet above, what he is getting at is that – and I can attest to this, right now, in fact, because my mental capacity strains to haul it all in – people are incapable of doing everything at once. That is, you are either able to take a thought and see it from every angle because you care about truth, or you narrow your vision because you care about what other people think. And there are a lot of people to care about. Your average internet user is too busy worrying about how they appear to others (i.e. nice and respectable) to have even the capacity to think about something a little outside the bounds of regular thought structures. And they are already so hyper alert that just reading the word rape or something not overtly ‘anti-x’ will spin the outrage machine into action.
As an economist, I am sure Hanson would appreciate the idea that people are invested in certain modes of thinking. The human brain does not have unlimited energy nor hard drive space. Whenever one of these outrage mobs coalesces, a lot of energy is able to be directed at the target, as scores of minds are directly bootstrapped together. And the real tragedy lies in the fact that at the end of the day they are all going to forget about Robin and move their energy on to another target. The laser either breaks through the shield or gets diverted to a new target that has appears on the radar.
That is not to say that in the meantime there is not plenty to leverage. Since the initial incident there have been countless think pieces by the intelligent and not so intelligent. Like with Trump, the media love a good bit of outrage. It gives them clicks and ad revenue. But the problem is it creates a feedback loop. You can’t necessarily trust the word of any writer these days, least of all someone quickly writing a hit piece. Often these journalists or writers are emotionally invested in the topic. See Example A. This woman a) completely misses the point and b) delights in the suffering of others, so long as she and hers get results. It’s about power, as evidenced from her concluding line, ‘…I can sometimes see just how much of that power is already long gone.’ Never mind any long term downsides, all that matters is that now and in the near future women are able to be completely single and independent and still get all the sex they want.
Through all of these attacks Robin managed to not only weather them, but absorb them and fire their energy out again. He used every objection as a case study to further contemplate our motivations. He, along with Kevin Simler, even wrote a book about our hidden motivations, called Elephant in the Brain. These people were not even aware that they were taking part in an experiment. They were always on Robin’s terms. See, the thing everyone missed is that there is a system at work and you can see it if you know what you are looking for, if you are able to peek behind the words and outrage and see things as they really are. Allow me show you.
Lou Keep has written an absolutely riveting collection of posts on his blog called the Uruk series. It is ostensibly about nihilism in society, but through the lens of four books we see its aspects: the state, the crowd, the individual. These bodies play off against each on other and accelerate nihilism to its end point, which of course is still over the horizon. There is plenty more despair to go around yet. Death is not nihilistic. Death is a release valve. It could also be a goal depending on your view point (certainly not the case with transhumanists). Each entry in the series builds on the last, with exponential increases in realisation. Keep manages to string the ideas of each book together cohesively, even concisely despite the massive amount of knowledge he is distilling.
What has this got to do with a tenured economist? The attacks on his person are mostly from narcissists, screeching women and male feminists. Society has destroyed our metis or common ways of seeing things. Good manners have completely gone out the window. All that matters is reaction time and never backing down. Everyone is frustrated as hell. To these narcissists there is nothing but appearance, and if you appear to be a Bad Man, well, your time is up.
There are a number of interesting ideas covered by Keep, so let’s whip through and compare. Metis is an important one.
Metis, on the other hand, is a kind of accumulated, experiential knowledge.
This is what communities build. This is what tradition is. What economists tend to do is upset metis, though I would give it to Robin that he is at least one economist who tries to see our underlying motivations and accounts for that, hence his tendency for left-field thoughts. They are only left-field because the State has put its hand into every aspect of our lives. The woman in the above Medium piece (let’s call her Subject H as in hysterical) is happy that the State has intervened. Or so it appears. What is more apparent is her frustration at the system, and her desire to see metis upended.
Uruk also explores the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The author of The Great Transformation, Polyani, explores some related themes, namely the double movement:
The people will want protections, and they’ll be pushing for political power, but the only acceptable political terms are “economic” in this very restrictive sense.
Now where I have seen this before? Oh right, in the rantings of people like Subject H. All economic power needs to be redistributed to women, consequences be damned! Economic equality for all, but let’s not even contemplate how we deal with sexual inequality. This builds off the previous idea of the State messing around with how things have always worked, because then the people push back and try to fix things (usually through such wide-eyed utopian ideals like democracy). It’s very easy for the state to make things better ethereally, but not in ways that matters. How does greater poverty and a growing GDP pair? As Polyani explains:
The paradox vanishes once you realize that “richer” means only in terms of wages, and that the full range of wealth that existed before is not taken into account.
The curse of policy.
Attempts by subjective consciousness to connect phenomena into some sort of system in a scientific or philosophical way lead to nothing.
We see in Subject H and everyone who spoke out against Robin being very, well, frustrated. This is caused by the above meddling, and it leaves them open to mass movements. This is where the Russian Revolution came from, this is where Fascism came from, this is where current populism has arisen from. And it is also the cause of modern day feminists and SJW politics. People are frustrated as hell by all the meddling of the State and, heck, they just aren’t going to put up with it any more. Keep sums it up:
If the base of a mass movement is supplied by frustrated people, then any “good” movement will be outcompeted by one better at impossible, frustrating goals. It’s just a numbers game, the one with more frustrated individuals is the bigger movement. Hence, the type of actions that a “successful” movement (as in, successful at being a movement and nothing more) uses are meaningless, repetitive, and aimed at solidifying identity without achieving anything else. They frustrate the base more. The very best are those that frustrate a whole lot of outsiders, too, whether by actively interfering or at least convincing them that the things they find meaningful are really meaningless. The movement that does this recruits from the biggest pool possible.
The worrying thing is that Subject H and her ilk are going to stay frustrated for a very long time. And so will the incels.
The final step along the road to nihilism is narcissism, and never has it been more abundant that in our society today.
Keep describes it as follows:
Narcissism is essentially about the weird tension between making everything about you while also hollowing out the self.
We think modernity invites narcissism willingly, but it is actually a defence mechanism against the modern world. Not a very good one, and there are other options, but it is defensive nonetheless. Subject H is a great example. Her rant appears to focus on all those other women. You don’t deserve sex so other women can gain power! But it is projected for an image of herself. All those people ranting against Robin can barely comprehend what he is trying to say, and in responding they show their narcissistic inclinations – how they interpret his words is not protecting others, but a reflection of their own self-image. They have to take a side, a predetermined side in many cases. Their outrage is always taking him literally, never seriously. And it is foolish to never take a reflection seriously. It isn’t about Robin at all, but about each and every person mirroring each other.
The issue that Lou Keep touches on, and which the Hanson debacle is a microcosm of, is one of interpretation. No one understands each other, and yet everyone is spouting their own truth on the matter. These truths are used as power plays (and in the case of the State, they have a monopoly on power already). This is remarkably similar to how the Bible has come to be interpreted; everyone has a different opinion on the Word of God. (No, I am not comparing Robin to God.)
(Or am I?)
All this reminds me of Thomas Aquinas. Let me explain.
Aquinas discusses in quite some detail the difference between respecting a person and respecting their nature.
It follows, accordingly, that respect of persons is opposed to distributive justice in that it fails to observe due proportion. Now nothing but sin is opposed to virtue: and therefore respect of persons is a sin.
What we tend to focus on is merely the dressing over the people. The state doesn’t see the true worth of tradition, mass movements rise up and give everyone a voice, and narcissism is nothing but imagery. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the welfare state, and nor am I in favour of sex redistribution. The reasoning is touched on by Aquinas. None of this shuffling of resources is given out because of the nature or actions of people, but in mere respect of them being persons. Modernity forces us to focus on persons and not actions as the State isolates us from communities, economics harries us, mass ideologies flow and narcissism provides the mindset of adhering only to appearances, and even reflections of appearances. We live in sin; we respect people too much.
3 – We are all very far from normal
Something upsetting happens, and you're shaken. You say to yourself,“I’m ok.” Only you’re not: a day, a week,10 days pass & you're still saying,“I’m ok.” But saying that to yourself is (part of) how you recover your equilibrium. Is that self-deception, or is it aspiration?
Loneliness, narcissism and nihilism are all tied together. We might think that just because we live in a large city we are automatically connected with other people. Most likely, far from it. What’s the difference between being alone and loneliness? The ability to detach and the inability to attach, respectively. But how do we get this message across succinctly?
I recently read a book that I urge you all to pick up. I would almost go so far as to say it is a modern classic. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a recent bestseller in the UK and it is ostensibly about how Being Kind is a net good for society and the individual.
For me, whether the author intended it or not, it is the perfect portrait of the typical modern citizen, and more importantly, the typical modern woman. Eleanor suffered a great tragedy in her youth, and we see her life now touched by the State: she was moved between foster homes and now has regular meetings with a social worker. She has a perfectly competent job, but is socially poor. She, like everyone else, gets swept up in ridiculous notions such as romantic love and ‘going to gigs’ as some form of fulfillment. And finally, Eleanor is extremely narcissistic in the sense that Lou Keep describes in the Uruk series. It is a defence mechanism, and she thinks she is special and unlike others. The author does a remarkable job of actually showing the way she makes everything about her, in her own mind, while never quite acknowledging the complete emptiness of herself (until the end when she embraces normie life).
There is an incredible materialism to her outlook on life, and at one point she says, ‘I’ve never made a sausage roll. I don’t suppose it’s terribly difficult, though. It’s only pastry and mechanically recovered meat.’ Never mind the skill and love that goes into making any worthwhile meal, no, it’s all just matter. She is content to eat pesto pasta every night because it contains enough nutrients. She floats herself in vodka every weekend, but she isn’t an alcoholic, of course not, she’s not a real alcoholic. By the end of the book she still doesn’t find a partner and is living with a cat. She is the literal embodiment of the hopeless case that is many modern woman. She can say she is OK all she wants but it doesn’t make it true. It’s a sort of willful blindness, and at one point she remarks that:
Some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself.
There is much more in the book. For example, Eleanor goes on about how manners have disappeared from the world (“I find lateness exceptionally rude.”), and Lou Keep in the Uruk series notes that:
Manners have run their course, in Lasch’s time but even more for us: now you can wear sweats to the park, the concept of a salad fork activates dyspepsia, and the boss goes by “Jeff”.
The book shows us what is important in life: having community connections. Knowing people and more importantly knowing yourself. But in order to achieve this one has to change. Like so many modern people, Eleanor struggles to break out of her safe routine. She is stuck in stasis. But stasis doesn’t save you from death. There is an interesting theory that depression and other disorders are actually defence mechanisms against suicide, and when they fail we kill ourselves (so depression is a symptom of suicidal thoughts, not the other way around). Eleanor does attempt to kill herself when the reality she created falls apart, but thankfully she is saved. This is when her self-awareness kicks in. She muses:
I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.
It is only when she stops pretending that she is Completely Fine and embraces change (i.e. in her case, making friends) that she is able to stave off death. And here, I think, we get to the crux of the Robin Hanson debate:
I find this whole “sex redistribution” and “incel” framing of the discussion unhelpful and polarizing. Why can’t we simply talk about the fact that sustained LONELINESS is one of the most terrible feelings, and drives so much depression and poor health. Sex just a part of that.
Eleanor Oliphant thinks she wants a romantic relationship, but in the end realises this is a lie. In the book she never has sex, nor even enters a loving relationship. Instead she receives a platonic friendship and a connection with her peers. Interestingly, one of the main male characters in the book is depicted as an ‘incel’. He plays videogames, dresses slovenly, and has a bad sense of humour. And yet in this book he still manages to bang the hot girl (no, not Eleanor). Something, something, subconscious-desires-of-the-author. But back to Eleanor. One of the main demons she defeats is loneliness. Human contact of any sort, something Eleanor does not even understand at the start of the book, is vital to our continued survival. And Robin Hanson is talking about this. Sure, he mentioned sex – gentle rape and cuckolding – but what incels really want (heck, what all of us really want) is human connection. And the modern woman, after all their liberation, refuses to give it. To her it is just about sex, consent, harassment and male privilege. If all of the writers above have taught me anything, it’s that the system tries to atomise us. It’s only now that this process is finally creating an negative externality. Economic factors always have a delayed reaction.
Back in about 2014 I went through a bit of a nihilist stage. This included taking seriously ideas about being ‘pro’ suicide and anti-natalism. Now, I’ve moved well beyond this, but I can see how the ideas crop up. They are obviously heavily grounded in materialism, though you are not necessarily led to them if you are a materialist. Anti-natalism, which shares some ideas with veganism as we’ll see later, is particularly prone to materialist bias, and if based on purely material experiences ends up being completely imbalanced.
The first thing to note is that the apparently absurd idea of anti-natalism has been around for a long time. Take this part from Oeipus at Colonus:
It is obvious to me that those who shun moderation and want a longer life are fools.
The days of an overly long life are filled with pain.
Happiness eludes those who want to hang on to life longer than what the fates have allotted for them and in the end…
…the same attendant awaits him: Hades! Hades waits upon us all!
No ceremony, no wedding songs, no dances and no songs…
Just death! The end of us all is death.
The best would be not to be born at all.
But then, if he is born, the next best thing for him would be to try and return to where he came from…
…in the quickest possible time!
While youth and its careless mind lasts, no thought is given to what pain, what misery will, most certainly, follow.
Murder, mayhem, quarrels, wars will come before the inescapable end…
The hateful old age, frailty, loneliness, desolation and…
…your own misery’s neighbour, is even more misery.
And so, Oedipus like us, is old. Unhappy Oedipus! Bashed about like a reef facing north…
Bashed about on all sides by tempests of all sorts.
Never ending rain and wind crash over his head…
…fierce waves crash over him.
Now from West…
Now from the East…
Some during the midday’s light…
Some from the mountainous North…
…which the deep night darkens.
In modern times though the notion of anti-natalism has gained a sort of academic backing, one that dovetails neatly with so many other academic pursuits, namely colonial guilt and oppression. Now women are pushed towards careers, and anti-natalism takes on the nature of a choice, a right, a lifestyle decision. No longer merely a way to remove suffering from the world, but a way in which to increase your own pleasure.
David Benatar is a Professor of Philosophy at University of Cape Town. Now, leaving aside the fact that I find most South Africans less than savoury, his argument in favour of anti-natalism leaves a lot wanting. He was recently on Sam Harris’s podcast discussing these ideas, and one of his main arguments is that there is a greater gain from removing war and suffering than there is in producing love and joy. Harris makes the obvious point that this ‘benefit’ affects absolutely no one if there is no one to experience it. At this point going down this line of thought, you would — or should — immediately throw out the whole idea of anti-natalism.
This is particularly interesting because in a few podcasts before Harris had Max Tegmark on, who is a bit of an expert on Artificial Intelligence. His take away was that intelligence and consciousness is designed to spread, designed to become more complex, and so the best good we can do is to help it flourish. This is something Jordan Peterson echoes, especially in his Biblical stories series, specifically that ‘Whatever’s going on on this planet has to do with conscious reality, and the transformations of consciousness, for all we know, might be the most important things that happen everywhere.’ The anti-natalist position is completely at odds with these notions. It is a fault of the wrong type of materialism. If materialism takes as a presupposition that there is no inherent meaning to be found in the universe, then you can posit all sorts of other meaning values. That can be whatever David Chapman is trying to create, or it can be the complete reduction of suffering in the world, no matter the cost.
Interestingly, this appears to work as some sort of paperclip maximiser, without the runaway AI. It just requires unlimited empathy. Nothing else matters but the *ahem* humanitarian goal. This is where anti-natalism crosses with veganism. Both advocate not for the outright removal of their victim group, but for the slow disintegration of it, so that slowly suffering is removed. But what is the point of removing the beings that suffer if they are not there to experience this good?
The entire premise rests on suffering. Naturally I find Professor Benatar’s notion of suffering somewhat insufferable, even petty. In Fourth Way work there is focus on suffering, and how we use intentional suffering to further our own work on ourselves. Rather than try to solve or change suffering, modern and secular people — sometimes with a slightly too high IQ — would prefer to run away. They want big system solutions to the pain and suffering in the world, and none more all-encompassing than the idea of anti-natalism. It is quite plainly a cop out and an absurd solution.
But why is it that we are continuously faced with more and more absurd propositions? Why, for example, is the acceptance of abortion no longer absurd? Or any other progressive talking point from the last fifty years? Scott has a recent post where he goes into this idea of holding the line against absurdity, where we have to really question whether loosening or tightening the status quo is quite as strange as we fear it might be. How long until the idea of anti-natalism as a selfless mission falls into the Overton Window and is discussed openly, even lauded? Laws are in place because of custom or revealed truth, not the other way around. We did not create laws to enforce culture, but created laws to implement culture. We have forgotten why we made such laws to begin with. Reaction is the opposite of complacency, of letting go. Even if the world around us is speeding by, we have to be ready to plant our feet firmly in the ground and have reason ready to combat the waves of absurdity.
And these waves grow in strength, enabled by the new wonders of civilisation. Anti-natalism is plainly an absurd idea, but I can see it encroaching on good people. So its arguments must be laid to bare as what they are: ridiculous. They are premised on flimsy materialism and asymmetrical point scoring. We must remain against it.
I realised recently that I have been on a self-help journey for a while, and it all began with Elliot Hulse. Don’t hate on me just yet.
Maybe five years ago I watched a lot of Strength Camp videos as I was getting into weightlifting, and I found Elliot’s videos very instructive. Among all the practical stuff, there were also many woo-woo videos where he would discuss things like sex and ‘breathing into your balls’. He was also a fairly consistent reader, and recommended a book by David Deida called The Way of the Superior Man. I bought this years ago on Kindle, but finally got around to reading it in the last week.
A number of things are now clear to me. First, this is at least one source for where Elliot got his ideas for breathing and sex exercises. Second, and more interestingly, I can see some of Jordan Peterson in here. To me this says (and something I think we’re all aware of) is that there is no such thing as new ideas. Unless you’re a prog, of course, and that doesn’t mean the new idea is good.
The critics of Peterson have many avenues of attack, but in particular is his discussion of the masculine and the feminine. With Deida’s book we can see that this is far beyond Peterson, and the idea that masculinity is Order and femininity is Chaos is entrenched in myth. If the Canadian psychologist appears to appeal to men, it is only because, as Deida says, the feminine cannot change. It is what it is. And so it is up to the men to seek order, slay the dragon, clean their room or channel their masculine energy in order to move forward in this world, dragging his woman kicking and screaming behind him (though the point is that she will do so compliantly if you are suitably masculine).
The feminine always seems chaotic and complicated from the perspective of the masculine.
This is a quote from Deida, but could easily been heard coming out of Peterson’s mouth. And the fact that so many have been blinded to this truth is perhaps why we feel like we are on the edge of civil war. If the feminine cannot change their chaotic nature, they promote stasis. That is in the Greek sense of the word, of battle between oligarchy and democracy. It has become too easy for men to avoid their duty and so the world spins towards the famine, chaos and stasis. All that Peterson is trying to do — along with hundreds of other gurus in the past — is channel masculine energy in the correct way.