Sunday, October 30, 2011

Art: A New Way to Justify Harmful Bullsh*t

Human beings often seek power over each other. Often this has taken the form of direct violence. But as history has moved on and violence become unacceptable or impractical, power-seekers have turned to bullsh*tting. Sometimes the bullsh*t takes the form of base appeals to emotion with no pretense to being an elaborated system of thinking; these are usually expressed in single sentences (or even less), i.e. my opponent in the election is unpatriotic, hey why aren't you buying this used car off my lot I thought we had a relationship here. You've heard a dozen of these already today.

But there are other schemes that do claim to be fully elaborated worldviews, and since people aren't stupid, the schemers have to at least pretend the schemes are substantive. You can spot those bigger schemes by looking for the tricks they use to hide the emperor's lack of clothing. (If we invent a bullsh*t story taxonomy, then the used car salesman lines up there were bacteria, and now we're moving into metazoans with specialized tissues.) And of course, regardless of how they're justified, these schemes often end up producing amazing similar patterns of suffering-creation - oppression of sexuality, especially women and gays, punishment of dissent, and formation of an economic and sexual kleptocracy that concentrates all the wealth and sex (usually hypocritically) to the benefit of the bullsh*t thought leaders.

To rationalists, this is probably the most interesting things about these bullsh*t schemes - the particular tricks devised to protect each one from scrutiny while the overall outcomes still track the larger patterns of the more elaborate B.S. stories. These defenses all boil down to 1) asking questions undermines the cause or hurts you (or maybe I'll hurt you), so don't do it and 2) you couldn't understand anyway, although I (the purveyor of B.S.) and some small class of people can understand it for you. Plugging in concretes for #2, you'll hear things like of course you don't understand, you're the wrong race, or maybe you're bourgeois and a counterrevolutionary, or you're stuck in the post-modern reantidetextualizationist paradigm.

But even better for #2 ("you can't understand"), why not invent a whole new class of concepts - the supernatural - that are in principle unknowable, and claim that this is an actual virtue? Brilliant! Easily the single best innovation in bullsh*t history. "You can't understand, because it's not understandable." If the category of fully elaborated bullsh*t systems corresponds to metazoans, then religion is vertebrates. (While we're at it, I further submit that Christianity is the reptiles, the Enlightenment was Chicxulub, and Islam is the mammals. Sam Harris and Eddie Griffin, help us out with that. Last link not work safe.)

Rationalists tend to be connoisseurs of all forms of bullsh*t, and reluctant admirers of its insidiousness in human affairs, much like bacteria amaze us with their nasty cleverness. All this is to say that in the age of infotainment, we may be witnessing an as-yet obscure brand of metazoan power-seeking bullsh*t stories emerging: performance art-based meta-bullsh*t. The justification is not that you can't understand it, it's that it's okay because it's art, so treatment of performers is somehow inside a moral vacuum chamber separate from the rest of the world. The best example so far: there's a film project shooting in the Ukraine right now, Dau, directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky. It's almost an Orwellian Truman Show, seeking to re-create the Stalin era at a level of historical detail that makes Mad Men look like a middle school production - except the actors and staff live on set, under those conditions, and it's gone beyond Mad Men into Stanford prison experiment territory. (The interviewer admits "By my third day on the set, the dress-up no longer feels like dress-up.") The thing has been "shooting" for five years - scare quotes because apparently there are months where the cameras aren't rolling at all. GQ has a great piece about it.

What can possibly be the motivation for Khrzhanovsky running this? When you notice the director's insistence on control of contact with the outside world, and the insistence on micromanaging the behavior of the cast even when the cameras are off, and in particular see how the director behaves toward female cast members, a very familiar pattern has emerged. But it's okay, because it's for a film, right? It seems at first like a new story - but again we've found the justification that claims the behavior is beyond criticism, and we've found the effects that appear time and time again.

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