Analysis brings no curative powers in its train; it merely makes
us conscious of the existence of an evil, which, oddly enough, is
The need to express oneself in writing springs from a
maladjustment to life...
It is the day after Christmas and the New Year looms ominously, the last in the present millennium. And what a millennium it has been, from the Norman Conquest to the invention of dry cleaning. However, this late-December cusp has never been a particularly good time for any but those witless scions of normalcy who would be better off dead in any case. So why is it so much worse this penultimate time around? That is the theme of today's little meditation.
We know there are certain Valued Readers who hate it when we interview ourselves in this fashion. But then, some percentage of you hates at least one of the many genres with which we have experimented over the years, so it pretty much doesn't matter which form we choose. Of course, you don't have to read this tacky suite of interrogatories, and for that you should count yourself lucky. We, in contrast, did have to write it. We had no choice in the matter. It was either write or die of ennui. We can only hope the following will provide others some solace -- that they are other, and not identical with any of our several selves.
Chris Locke: I gotta tell you, RB, I am truly bummed.
RageBoy®: Yeah? Me too. Maybe it's that SAD thing -- Seasonal Affective Disorder or whatever. Whaddya think? That's sorta tony these days...
CL: I dunno. I hate those crypto-medical explanations. Sure, maybe it's just depression, but what does that really mean? It just seems like a fancy way of saying you're bummed out. I'm bummed out.
RB: So if not S.A.D., then what? Been grappling with the Grand Narratives again, have you? The One and The Many? The Great Chain of Being? History? Death? The Afterlife? All those head crackers they put inside the bindings of the The Great Books? You know that shit'll fuck you up.
CL: No, that's not it. I stopped thinking about all that. At least I think I stopped thinking about it. Do you think that thinking you've stopped thinking about something is just another form of thinking about it?
RB: Let's not go there, OK? Every time you start talking like that you really bring me down. Maybe it's something simple, like The Holidays. That ever occur to you?
CL: Could be. It feels more cosmic than that, but maybe you're right. There are so many hidden hopes and impossible expectations that sneak in at a time like this. Maybe it's a kind of Currier & Ives hangover. Maybe I'm crashing off a Norman Rockwell high. Chestnuts roasting on a open fire and all the good times skating down at the pond with the neighbor kids in that idyllic little New England town we used to live in, remember?
CL: Oh right, I forgot. That never happened, did it? More culturally imprinted wonderfulness. No wonder we're fucked up, RB.
RB: Speak for yourself old man. You know I don't go in for all that crap. Let me guess. It's the day after Christmas and you've got that empty letdown thing after all the buildup of wondering what Santa was gonna bring you. Am I right?
CL: Well, no, I don't think so. Santa actually brought me something cool. Wanna see? It's called Duck on Bike.
RB: Oh. Does the little propeller beanie whirl around when you wind it up? Oh wow! It does! Man, how could you ever be down with something like this? Can I have it?
CL: No, RB, it's mine. This tin duck is the only thing that makes me smile anymore. Look at the happy colors it's painted, see? It's so simple, so wonderful. I think I'm going to cry.
RB: Jeez, man. Why does it make you want to cry if it's the only thing that makes you happy. You do see the logical inconsistency there, don't you?
CL: You're a fine one to talk about logical inconsistencies. But you're right of course. I guess it's because it reminds me of all the shattered dreams of childhood, of when the world looked so big and shiny and new and...
RB: And you hadn't read any Derrida?
CL: C'mon, I still haven't read any Derrida. Or Lacan or Foucault or Lyotard or Rorty or...
RB: Yeah, but you pretend you have. You have to admit that's significant, right? Maybe you're bummed because you never got that Ph.D. Never wrote that overarching synthesis of all human knowledge that you used to dream about, eh? I remember those whacked-out fantasies you used to get carried away with about book signings at Brentano's and all the chicks you'd get from NYU. Could that be it?
CL: Nah. I gave up on all that. At least I think I gave up on all that. Though the idea of being a serious scholar does still have its appeal. Did I miss something there? Could be. The academic politics, the in-fighting... [eyes glaze over in wistful reverie...]
RB: Yeah well, publish or perish the thought. I'd say stick with the duck, pal. It's a cool duck. Uncomplicated. That's what I like about it.
CL: You seem so balanced sometimes RB. And when I think that about you, that's when I really get scared. Because everyone knows you're totally insane.
RB: Well, being totally insane is hard work. People don't realize that. They think it's all fun and games and just a full-time hoot. It's not.
CL: Yeah? And this is why you're down too? Because it's hard being nuts all the time?
RB: I guess that's partly it. But it's also the choices Modern Man is constantly faced with.
CL: Modern Man? Are you yanking my chain? Are you making fun of my deep sadness?
RB: No, I'm serious. And that's interesting. You didn't say you were sad before, just bummed. Sadness implies something more... intimate. Could it be you're avoiding something you haven't mentioned here? Something so terrible and profound you just can't allow yourself to confront it?
CL: Probably. But it's so terrible and profound I just can't allow myself to confront it. And I sure as hell don't need you confronting it for me, OK? So just back off!
RB: Touchy, touchy! But all right. I can dig it that you need to keep being repressed and lying to yourself about it. Sure. Knock yourself out. It's a common neurosis.
CL: And you have uncommon neuroses I suppose. So what are these choices you speak of? Is that the big deal? That you can't decide?
RB: Actually yes. Life is generally a simple matter for me. I don't get into all that intellectual stuff you do. All that philosophy. No wonder you're feeling messed up. For me, it's different. It comes down to conflicting alternatives -- which things I can do and, because I can't do all the things I'd like to, which other things I won't be able to pursue at all.
CL: So depression basically boils down to a time management issue for you, is that it? We're talking setting priorities here? This is a side of you I don't think I've ever seen. Give me some examples.
RB: Well, OK, but before I can decide which things to do, I have to decide how each of them fits into some larger scheme of things, right?
CL: Right, that makes sense I guess.
RB: So like I wonder about Dynamic HTML. What's up with that, you know? Is it just a plot to make shit more complicated? Or is it a leading-edge technology I should jump into with both feet?
CL: Jesus, RB! You really think about stuff like that?
CL: I don't believe I'm hearing this.
RB: Are you kidding? It's a huge issue! Client-side scripting gives authors far more control of their content. Of course, I could learn Perl and CGI instead, but that's not exactly apples to apples, is it?
CL: You got me.
RB: Or Visual Basic. The new 6.0 package is supposed to have some very cool new features, plus it has an Integrated Development Environment that beats anything the Perl community ever came up with. But I ask myself: will it handle full regular expressions?
CL: What the fuck's a regular expression?
RB: Well, they're a sort of finite automata that operate over string data. That's clear enough, right? Imagine being able to specify, for instance: bring me all the redheads living in the 212 area code who like to attend dog racing events in New Jersey but who do not have serious eating disorders.
CL: Yeah, OK. I can see how that would be handy. But what would you do with that information?
RB: Good question. Because this is where things start to get complicated. As you know, we're all still waiting for web log REFERER fields to capture hair color, and that's just the beginning. Then we need a commonly accepted mechanism for correlating that data with HTML formatting preferences so that we can develop a strict mapping between pinpoint social demographics and effective page layout schemes.
CL: I'm not sure I even know what you just said. But why would you want to do that, whatever it is?
RB: Cascading Style Sheets! These are a great advance, there's no doubt about it. A whole site can be redesigned in minutes by changing a single style sheet that specifies how certain kinds of structures should be rendered by the browser. For instance, we could create an object class called block_tiny that would force all paragraphs so marked to appear as indented 2-point heliotrope Transylvanian Gothic. Or maybe one called interview_response that would make our initials show up in red to indicate who was saying what.
CL: But I just Viewed Source, and we're not doing that here.
RB: Precisely! Because the time investment in a CSS approach begs certain questions that can't be adequately answered without a substantial amount of demographic information -- and that's simply lacking without better ways to collect it than are currently available.
CL: So what are you saying exactly? I'm getting lost here I think...
RB: Well, look, should our initials be red or blue or chartreuse? We just don't know what would be most pleasing to the audience we want to target.
CL: And what audience is that?
RB: Well, I already gave you the non-bulemic redheads example.
CL: But RB, that's not our audience! Are you completely out of touch with reality?
RB: What is reality?
CL: Nuh-uh, you're not getting me started down that path! Just forget I asked. So these are the terrible choices facing Modern Man? Is that what you meant?
RB: Precisely. We know the web is here to stay, and we know it can't just keep being fun. There has to be a reason for all this. Plus, of course, 5-GL tools for manipulating huge corpora of textual and fixed-field information.
CL: By "5-GL" you mean meta-languages? Tools to manipulate tools that manipulate lower-level data structures and like that? It all gets so abstract.
RB: Abstraction is power! We live in a hall of mirrors. Get used to it.
CL: But what are we talking about? What are we actually saying? I don't think we know anymore. It's all representations of representations. That's partly what's got me feeling so down.
RB: Oh bullshit! You don't know what to represent any more than I do. What is primary? What is most fundamental?
CL: You mean does zero beat one like rock beats scissors?
RB: Well, yeah, something like that. What would you ground everything else on if you had to choose an axiom base? And you do, you know...
CL: That sounds like philosophy.
RB: No! It's utterly practical. What comes first? Is it hunger, sex, religion, science, Thursday night's TV lineup? Or is it something more fundamental, like representability.
CL: RB, "representability" is not a word.
RB: Is too. Besides, even if it wasn't already, it is now.
CL: Says who? And what for?
RB: Says your spell checker, and because I just needed it to prove something. I used it to represent the whole notion of the effectiveness of representation.
CL: What does that prove?
RB: Well, nothing really, but it does take us in the direction of finding a way to examine and weigh what is adequate and inadequate in what we posit proof of anything to consist in. Think of it as rigor.
CL: I am getting a serious headache now.
RB: Oh sure, just ignore the whole problem! That is so like you!
CL: What problem?!
RB: I thought you said you woke up feeling bummed out, right? Didn't you say that?
CL: Yeah, I said that.
RB: So there must be a problem, am I right?. Look, this is just Logic 101, nothing too mysterious about it. I'm not losing you here am I?
CL: No, I understand that part, sort of, but Jesus H. Christ, RB, how'd you get from that to Dynamic HTML and client-side web page programming?
RB: Well, follow me here, OK? Tell me when the chain breaks for you. Ready?
CL: Yeah, OK, ready. If you must.
RB: Consciousness, perception, feeling, emotion, intellect, knowledge, understanding... with me so far?
CL: Well, that's a mouthful, but yeah I guess...
RB: ...communication, frame of reference, semantics, phoneme, morpheme, token, hieroglyph, pictogram, alphabet, letter, digit...
CL: Yeah, all right. I think. But I also think you skipped something in there.
CL: I don't know.
CL: What do you mean, "AHA!"?
RB: Yes, what do I mean?
CL: I asked you first.
RB: OK, I mean you have to have some method. Some way to represent what is most fundamental about experience.
RB: Why? Why? Because how else are you going to be able to describe what's missing? What you really want? How else could you begin to identify the giant lacunae in your life?
CL: Is that anything like a Giant Squid?
RB: Decidedly not.
CL: Well, whatever it is, is it really so important to figure all this out?
RB: It is unless you intend to go around whining all the time about how bummed out you are and never have a clue as to what the problem is!
CL: But maybe there really isn't any problem. Maybe we just think there is.
RB: What do you mean by "we"?
CL: Well, you know, you and me, people in general...
CL: I wish you'd stop doing that. But I know you're gonna tell me why you keep doing it. Tell me you're gonna tell me...
RB: I am going to tell you. But that's just it. How will you know what I've said is true?
CL: RB, this is philosophy. Now you're bumming me out for real.
RB: No it's not. It's market demographics! You're a writer, right?
CL: I like to think so.
RB: Well, what's the first question a writer has to ask himself?
CL: Or herself?
RB: Sure, or herself.
CL: Is my computer turned on?
RB: No, asshole. It is: who is my audience?
CL: I do ask that. Then, after I don't get any answer, I write something. I had a dream last night that I wrote this long rambling confused screed and posted it to a bunch of mailing lists. I woke up wondering if there were any responses that would help me understand what I'd written, which I couldn't remember. In the dream, I didn't get anything back but flames. It was horrible. I totally ruined my reputation.
RB: You realize that if you publish this, your dream is going to come true. And by the way, what reputation?
CL: You're asking me?
RB: Never mind that. Look, here's your problem. You don't know what you're saying, you don't know why you're saying it, and you don't know to whom you're saying it.
CL: Saying what?
RB: That's just it. You have no idea!
RB: Let's go through this one more time, shall we? You say you're feeling bummed out. Do you examine this "feeling"? Do you inquire into its origins? Do you ask of what it is constituted? No. You talk about it as if it existed in a form that could be grasped by others who hear you whining about how bummed out you are.
CL: They understand. All God's children get bummed out sometimes.
RB: How do you know that?
CL: They tell me so.
RB: And you accept these reports at face value? You think these others are bummed for the same reasons you are?
CL: Well, I'm not sure. I'm not even sure why I am. So how could I know if they were "the same"?
RB: Uh-huh. Now we're getting somewhere. And how do you and those who "tell you" exchange these clueless cries of tortured malaise?
CL: Email usually.
RB: And now? What is the format you are typing into right this second?
RB: Very good!
CL: So what you're saying, in effect, is that I am using a representational schema which, while it transmits a recognizable set of characters in an accepted interchange format -- in the case at hand, low ASCII -- nonetheless lacks the semantic coherence necessary to construct a common basis in shared experience and is thus impotent with respect to genuine narrative conveyance. Is that it?
RB: That's it!
CL: And you think this could be established via better technical standards?! You really are insane, you know that?
RB: You have to start somewhere.
CL: So, by carefully building representations of representations of representations of... something you think it's possible to arrive at precise and unequivocal communications between human beings?
RB: What else have we got?
CL: That's it. You've put your finger on it. That's why I've been so depressed!
RB: Oh breakthrough! I'm so happy for you.
CL: There's no need to be snide about it. I actually feel much better now that I know what's been bugging me.
RB: And now what? You'll send this out to the Valued Readers and they'll all unsubscribe.
CL: No, I don't think so. Some will, of course, but those are the ones who just don't get it.
RB: Get what for christsake? What are you talking about???
CL: Well, I think some will say that I really put my finger on something here.
RB: But I thought you said I put my finger on whatever it was. Didn't you just say that?
CL: Yeah, but everybody knows we're the same person. They don't nitpick these fine distinctions the way you do.
RB: And this, to you, will pass for communication? That a handful of readers will go: "Hey, you're as fucked up and confused as we are. Way to go!"?
CL: I see it as a kind of higher, co-emergent wisdom, you could say. A mutual recognition of the human condition, don't you think?
RB: Actually, I think it's a sad commentary on the human condition.
CL: Well, we're all entitled to our little opinions.
RB: I give up!
CL: Good. You want to play with Duck on Bike now?
RB: Yeah, sure, Duck on Bike, why not...
Entropy Gradient Reversals
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"reality leaves a lot to the imagination..." John Lennon