Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

She’s sitting across from me in a pub. It’s well after dark and the shadows are closing in around her. It’s cool outside, so she has elegantly wrapped a thick, black, impeccably embroidered Kashmiri shaal around her shoulders. Her hair is pulled back, as she used to wear it back then, and she’s leaning into the back of her seat. The smile on her face is perfect: it’s the final second of a closed-mouth smile, before her mouth comes open and she gives me that big, bright, loving smile that I’ve seen so many times since then. Her lips are pursed, her head angled to the side, and her eyes are absolutely gleaming at me.

It is a vision of pure beauty.

Not quite eight years ago, through dumb luck, I managed to capture a photograph of the exact moment – the precise second – I realized that my wife is the most beautiful woman I had, and have, ever seen in my whole life. I don’t mean that the photograph is a favorite photograph I have of her. No, I mean that even had I not snapped that photograph, that moment would still be the moment I came to that appraisal of her. It was just my dumb luck that I happened to be taking her photograph when I realized it. Lucky me.

There are two reasons why I’m not including that photograph in this blog post. First, I’m not going to plaster my personal life all over a public forum. Take that, Kim Kardashian! Second, even if I did, nobody else would see in that photo the same image I just described. They’d see only a pretty young woman smiling for the camera. It’s not that you had to be there, it’s that you couldn’t have been there – you weren’t me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

You have to take your own photograph.

Continue reading “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder”

Fantasy, Myth, Ritual

The Roman world, when the early Christians exploded onto the scene, was a world awash in myth and ritual. When Christians came proclaiming that they had one additional god to which they prayed, it was natural for the Romans at the time to ask exactly which one they had in mind. Jupiter perhaps, or Apollo, or one of the mystery cults like Dionysus, or some other God, like the God of the Persians or of the Egyptians. The Romans were entirely used to new myths coming along, or new sub-cults seeking to elevate one of the deities above the rest. The pagans dealt with this tension, these competing cosmologies, by separating truth from religion, from rituals. The philosophers, lovers of truth, wanted to encounter the divine through reason, and therefore rejected the myths, even as they demanded duty to the God their reason identified.

The paradox of ancient philosophy is that intellectually it destroyed myth, but also tried to legitimize it as religion, as ritual. If you could pay homage to the cult of the emperor it didn’t really matter whether you actually believed that the emperor was divine, and fulfilling your duty to Neptune demanded sacrifices, not anything so prosaic as intellectual assent to his creation myth. This uneasy balance was destroyed by the early Church, who insisted that the God they worshiped was not a God of myth, but Being itself, the God that the philosophers had begun to apprehend. That their God demanded, not sacrifice but belief. That true religion was not empty ritual, not merely a useful custom that must be performed for the sake of edification, but was actually true. As Tertuallian formulated it, “Christ called himself Truth, not Custom”.

This reconciliation between truth and myth was always fraught, as a faith that professed itself as Truth needed to carefully ensure that reason was never entirely unbounded by myth, and once myth could no longer constrain truth, to change the myth to fit the new truth. But there is only so many times that the myth can change, and only so quickly, only so many parts that can be hived off before the whole myth is called into question, and the ritual stands empty once more. A culture that was not prepared to entirely sacrifice the idea that myth and Truth should be at cross purposes created a new myth, which subsumed the old and imbued the traditional rituals with new meaning. The old God of the philosophers was replaced with a new telos, Reason, Liberty, Equality, Progress. But the new gods were as austere, only slightly more atheistic than the pagans found the Christian god. One can provide their assent to mystical Equality, but that mystical union that accompanies the dissolution of self and submersion into a larger whole must come from rituals that involve other personalities, and the God of Equality is not personified. Ritual union, if it is to occur, must be union with a community, not union with an ideal.

The new gods require new myths, but as the new gods are social gods, the new myths no longer need to be true. The new myths are created rather self-consciously to serve as myth, intially by Christians seeking to preserve what wisdom they could by implanting some of the old myths into the new, what JRR Tolkien called Mythopoeia, but the myths that survive are ones that serve the appropriate social function of bringing together a community to engage the ritual and propagate the myth. This can be political, like the myth of class solidarity or natural rights, or the apotheosis of founding fathers into paragons of virtue, like George Washington and the cherry tree, but just as often is not explicitly so. The most popular myths and rituals are cribbed from Germanic pagans, Christmas trees, Easter Eggs, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus. Liberated from the need to be true, and from the need to appear true, the new myths are instead selected for their role in ritual, until the ritual and myth become entirely severed from any tether to any teleological end, a self-sustaining ritual cosmology, protected from collapse by the complete lack of any expectation of coherence.

One of the functions of ritual is to bridge the gap between the fact of continued inequality in an egalitarian age, and the yearning for unity, of the kind which can only be found amoung equals. It is in this context that the new myths thrive, by creating a world so alien to our experience, that they can be encountered without our baggage. The triumph of the new myths is to make the characters so archetypal, the story so uncomplicated, that a vast swath of people with widely varying backgrounds and experience can immediately identify and lose themselves inside the story unreflectively, providing a common experience that can be shared across lines of gender, class, occupation, generation or race otherwise unavailable. A world where lawyers, doctors and engineers cosplay cheek by jowl with installers and plumbers, retail workers and draughtswomen, lost together in a fantasy of power and triumph which transcends them.

Pleasurable, Exalted Terror

Edmund Burke wrote that “whatever is qualified to cause terror is a foundation capable of the sublime.” But instead of a category of aesthetics, in contemporary English the word is mainly used by the pretentious to flatter one another. It has thus lost much of the nuance that originated in Burke’s treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful, in favor of yet another superlative for “good”.

Strictly speaking, something is sublime if it uses the infinite or incalculable to create an experience of beauty incorporating fear or overwhelming. For example, I reserve sublime to describe my first visit to the Niagara Falls, whose dramatic horseshoe of roaring waters transfixed me in a torrent of terror and tranquility.

Yet sublime does not have to refer to natural wonders or artistry. Indeed, many social phenomena can be sublime. Slavoj Žižek once argued that ideology related to the sublime, due to an influence over social reality that defied perception. Specifically, he claims ideologies require a “sublime object” that carries an irreproachable greatness, be it God, the King or the proletariat.

The general idea comes from Kant, who wrote that the sublime is a “formless object” representing our intrinsic inability to perceive vastness or complexity, thus elevating “nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.” In confronting such objects, we at once feel displeasure “arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude” and a “simultaneous awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense…”.

In ideological space, this inadequacy of imagination parallels the subject’s inability to articulate the nature of their deepest political commitments, which in turn creates a similar “awakened pleasure” in the knowledge that their cause defies a complete description.

In this sense, there is something strangely sublime surrounding the recent brutal interfaces between state and citizen in New York,  Mexico, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. To appreciate the scope and complexity behind these patterns of violence and protest is literally impossible. So out of necessity, our inadequate media elevates that which is beyond our reach to a coherent presentation of ideas. Indeed, it seems as if the news and social media act as a magnifying glass, concentrating public attention onto stochastically occurring tragedies until a spark creates ignition, giving producers the cue for the “national conversation” graphic along the lower third.

There are those that decry the news for being guilty of exploiting “sensationalism,” but this is a mistake. What is being constantly exploited is precisely our craving for the sublime. Indeed, the grotesque scenes of protest that play across our screens, straining eyes that alternate from face to crowd to face, are genuine objects of beauty. And this in turn explains why as a society we have never been more at peace, but also never more in terror. Pleasurable, exalted terror.

hong kong

The Virtue of Pickup Artists

In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:

Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.

I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.

That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.

Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.

Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.

You may not like his aims, but in the abstract Strauss is simply an expert in human persuasion. He picks up women by using euvoluntary techniques that make the women in question want to pick up him:

If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.

Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.

As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.


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Bill Watterson and Newspaper Entrepreneurship

Reading David’s post and talking it over with him before and afterwards, I am reminded of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s speech “The Cheapening of Comics.”

Why am I talking about comics in a thread about print news? There are a few important overlaps between David’s points and Watterson’s. First, they’re both about print media—Watterson is talking specifically about newspaper comics. Second, they both are about a time of relatively few options in the media landscape.

Third, they both have a sense of mass media being maintained by a social contract which long ago was breached. See David:

For a while there, before the sudden demise of print media, we all agreed to play the fixed game because it was fun and there was still a chance to come away with something of value. We small government types tacitly acknowledged that print media was in the tank for Big Government types, and we bought the paper just so long as there were boundaries of decorum.

Now see Watterson:

The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.

And most crucially, in both of them is a clear belief that things did not need to be this way. Watterson was writing about his present, and David about his past, but both of them are making a claim that a stable equilibrium was not made inevitable by economic and technological realities.

The economist’s argument to both is that if printed news and newspaper comics appear in some way deficient to David and Watterson, the audiences are to blame, not the people in the industry. The market supplies what people want. Even when it was subsidized by classified and had far fewer close substitutes, print was a trial and error information processing bloodbath. Very, very low margins, and a lot of churn. It seems as though if there was another stable equilibrium, this information processing machine would have found it.

On the other hand, it is the very drive to find a better way that brought us to where we are today. Elsewhere I have remarked on how Watterson, despite his anti-commercial rhetoric, displays some remarkable bourgeois virtues.

The cause of death for the still-warm body of print news may have ultimately been the bomb planted by tinkering technologists, but who is to say that, if the digital and Internet revolutions had not come, things would have stayed the same? The niche magazine market was already expanding rather drastically at the time, who knows how that would have played out in itself. And perhaps some gutsy entrepreneurs would have found a way to make mass media work without treating their audiences like a single bland mass. Who knows?