Tragedy vs. Comedy Modes

As Brown notes, Meeker argues that Western Civilization is mostly founded on the “tragic mode,” inspired by the great tragedies in which a “larger-than-life character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image.” The character’s success “is also his undoing,” and tragedies end in bloodshed, death, and a funeral of some kind. Our civilization has been built on the tragic idea that we can bend nature to our will, the result of which has been complete ecological catastrophe.

Meeker proposes an alternative for surviving our disastrous times: the “comic mode,” inspired by comedy:

Comedy is not a philosophy of despair or pessimism, but one which permits people to respond with health and clear vision despite the miseries the world has to offer. Its mode is immediacy of attention, adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances, joy in small things, the avoidance of pain wherever possible, the love of life and kinship with all its parts, the sharpening of intelligence, complexity of thought and action, and strategic responsiveness to novel situations. It permits people to accept themselves and the world as they are, and it helps us make the best of the messes around us and within us.

Upon reading this, I was immediately struck by how well the tragic and comic modes map to Brian Eno’s concept of genius vs. scenius, with one being a egosystem and the other being an ecosystem. Our world is an ecosystem inwhich our only real chance at survival as a species is cooperation, community, and care, but it’s being lead by people who believe in an egosystem, run on competition, power, and self-interest.

Comedy and scenius show us a way forward. A chance at survival that, in Meeker’s words, “depends upon our ability to change ourselves rather than our environment, and upon our ability to accept limitations rather than to curse fate for limiting us.” Comedy, like scenius, gives all the characters in the story a surviving role and a chance to live to see another day.

-Austin Kleon, “The comedy of survival.” austinkleon.com November 19, 2020

Make the best of the messes around us and within us is great advice. Recommend the whole bit.

The Corruption of Apology

True apologies are precious. They’re a secular process of remediation, drawing on moral intuitions shared by many religious traditions. They encourage membership in one’s moral community because they are fundamentally relational: They heal the bond between wrongdoer and wronged. By temporarily humbling the perpetrator and vindicating the victim, they pave the way for both sides to make up. 

Apologies presuppose that there is some sort of moral community that shares a sense of right and wrong to which both the wronged and the wrongdoer belong. By apologizing, the wrongdoer embraces the norm that he violated. By doing that personally, ideally face to face, he works to heal his wounded relationships. And so he invites his victims to forgive, release their resentment, and move on. 

We all depend on apologies and forgiveness to go on living with one another. Husbands and wives admit their faults and patch up their differences. Kids on playgrounds say they’re sorry and then get back to recess. Coworkers talk through misunderstandings. As Hannah Arendt argued in The Human Condition, we wrong one another every day, and we learn to forgive constantly so that we can start afresh. The alternative is trapping ourselves in endless cycles of vengeance. 

Stephanos Bibas, “The Corruption of Apology.” persuasion.community. July 27, 2022

What I found interesting about this commentary was how it explicitly lays out what is necessary for an apology to have meaning, i.e.:

  1. A shared norm that was violated.
  2. A person who violated the norm and a person effected by the violation.
  3. Discussion and acknowledgment to observe the norm in the future.

A shared norm implies membership in a community, or at least a relationship between two people. Of course, some norms are universal, or nearly so. Murder, stealing, lying and so forth are generally disapproved of. However, the norms may be different between members of a community and The Other, or outsiders. However, a morality that has double-standards, one for the in-group and one for the out-group, is a dubious morality. Yet, they exist and are common.

The enumeration is interesting. It really cuts to the heart of a common class of problems in our modern world. The article focuses on the fact that norms are in dispute in different communities, but I think there are more interesting aspects of this problem.

Some people are toxic. They have no regard for norms. They will not acknowledge that they have harmed anyone. They will not discuss it beyond making excuses, like those you see in A Narcissist’s Prayer. You will never get a real apology from such a person.

The other side of it, that the article does discuss, is that our online environments pretend to community, but they aren’t actual communities. We have “friends” that aren’t really our friends. There are people trying to enforce norms without community and often on behalf of others. It turns it more into blood sport, where we are allies promoting the agenda of different teams.

For example, I believe in equal rights for women. I would like to see structures of institutional racism broken down. I think we should broaden our acceptance of the various sexualities between consenting adults. I think there are serious problems of class than need to be addressed, and we need greater opportunities for success for people living in poverty. But, as a white, male, heteronormative person that is not living in poverty, what are my responsibilities to forward those various agendas?

Is a country a community? A state? A city? Or even a neighborhood? And when I think about the communities and norms I subscribe to, does believing in a norm make a community? It can. You can forge a community based on a shared norm or values. But, you need both. If you want to promote values – or norms, it needs to be done in the context of a community. You cannot impose them from outside. And, even a community is not enough, you need to promote them in relationship with other people that you know. Values that abstract out real people, with real flaws, aren’t much of a value, just as getting people to apologize, not to some person, but to the world, isn’t a real apology.

The Purpose of Dialogue

Open Question: What is the purpose of dialogue?

  • People generally only change their minds when in conversation with someone that loves them. How many conversations are we having with people we love?
  • Maybe the point of conversation is to change our own minds. If we aren’t coming from that place, are we in dialogue at all?
  • Trying to change other people’s mind is often a futile exercise. If true, then why bother having any dialogue at all?

Related: Agree to Disagree or Fight, Really Reading Means Being Open To Change, Arguing for a Different Reality, Celebrating Our Differences, and others.

Communities vs. Transactions

My wife and I have different ways of looking at the world. It occurs to me today that the ambiguity of these two ways of looking at relationships is often exploited.

I think my wife’s understanding is typical. In her view, people do things for one another because they care about one another. Unless it is some extraordinary request, you don’t count the cost. If someone doesn’t care about you, or you them, then you are not obligated to do anything for them. In fact, it’s likely you won’t help them because you don’t have the feeling of reciprocity from them.

However, one problem with looking at the world in this way is that beyond a certain threshold, the community model moves into a transactional model. Someone asks for something beyond the normal level of reciprocity of the commons, and then you owe them something extraordinary in return. But, it’s tacit. This is never actually said because the transactional model is a different model of interaction, and it undermines the community model.

There are also some cases where there will never be anything in return. But, sometimes the obligation is created across generations, such as taking care of elderly parents with the hope that, one day, your children might take care of you in a similiar manner. These kinds of commitments gives community longevity, so they last beyond the current participants. But, again, there’s quite a bit of ambiguity, and in many cases, expectations won’t get met.

I start from a different place. I assume every interaction is transactional, and I try, to the degree possible, to be autonomous and self-sufficient. The last part is key.

In the transactional model, you’re in the world of commodities and commerce. While there are relationships built on commerce, they are not relationships of regard or community, they are relationships of convenience. The advantage of being autonomous and self-sufficent is you can live in a world of commerce and not have to count the cost, the same way that you live when you live in the community model, except it doesn’t matter whether people care about you or not.

Except, obviously, it does matter whether people care about you. The difference is that I don’t need that to be the basis for my day-to-day interactions with everyone. There is a small group of people that I interact with the expectations of community. But, outside of that small group, it’s the transactional model.

And, here’s why that’s important. When you go to a subreddit, like antiwork, and you see that a boss asks someone to come in on short notice and be a “team” player. That’s a community argument. But, does the boss care about you? Not at all. The relationship is transactional. Working this kind of ambiguity, given how many people subscribe to the community model, is a path for exploitation. It’s really that simple.

Third Place

“The third place is a concept which identifies places which are not home (first place) or work (second place).

As ‘informal public gathering places’, they are places of refuge, where people can eat, drink, relax, and commune in order to develop a sense of belonging to a place. They are gathering places where community is most alive and people are most themselves.

Third places are important because they act as ‘meditation between individuals and the larger society’ and increase a sense of belonging and community.

-Patricia Mou, “what is the third place (pt.1)” patriciamou.com.

She then talks about characteristics of a third place.

  • Neutral ground or common meeting place
  • Levelers or places that encourage, and are inclusive of, social and cultural diversity
  • Regular patrons
  • Low profile and informal places
  • Places that foster a playful atmosphere
  • A home away from home
  • A place where conversation is the primary activity
  • Places that are easy to access and accommodate various sedentary and active activities

Oddkin

“Here’s Donna Haraway, talking about kin, in Staying with the Trouble (2):

“Kin is a wild category that all sorts of people do their best to domesticate. Making kin as oddkin, rather than, or at least in addition to, godkin…troubles important matters, like to whom one is actually responsible….What shape is this kinship, where and whom do its lines connect and disconnect, and so what?”

Haraway is reclaiming kin to mean not merely blood relatives (“godkin”) but also those whose company [1] we choose to be in (“oddkin”). “Odd” works here to mean unexpected or unusual but also suggests the odd ones out. “Oddkin” brings the odd ones together into kinship.

But what does it mean to be oddkin? To whom are we actually responsible? The nuclear family restricts the answer to that question to the smallest possible unit: only immediate [2] relatives, not other more distant ones, and certainly not friends or neighbors. This isn’t just a philosophical restriction—it’s built in to our streets and buildings and laws with parking lots and bricks and surveillance cameras. But oddkin rewrites those boundaries, opens them wide up. Oddkin stakes the claim that the shape of kinship isn’t a birthright but a choice, that the people we choose to gather with are connected to us in ways at least equivalent to those we were born alongside.”

-Mandy Brown, “Oddkin: A working letter.A Working Library. August 29, 2021.

A Community is Defined By Its Center and Not Its Periphery

“My sense is that you need to build up a nucleus of people who know each other and who can network and support each other [in developing a proficiency in a technology with the complexity of R.]”

—Hadley Wickham in an interview with Dan Kopf, “What’s next for the popular programming language R?Quartz. August 17, 2019.

Made me think of a Larry Wall Slashdot interview, question 7, from back in the day.

Run Your Own Social Network

“I suppose I’ll repeat what I said multiple times in this document, which is that running a small social network site for your friends is hard work, but it’s worth it. It is first and foremost the work of community building, and only secondarily is it a technical endeavor. And it’s completely possible to do, today, though depending on who you are and what your resources are it’s going to be difficult in different ways.”

-Darius Kazemi, “Run Your Own Social Network.” runyourown.social. July 8, 2019

The net: Get five friends together. Open a lightweight account at a hosting provider like Masto.host for $100/year and see how it develops.

It is possible to meet the needs of a 5 person group in something like group chat in Signal or another messaging application. However, it is difficult to grow these groups without compromising the dynamic.

The advantage of hosting it on a Mastodon server is that is provides a scalable platform to grow up to 50 users. If you have a hosting provider, it cuts down on the technical skill necessary to run the server, but you will have to give up the ability to customize the software to your community’s needs. For most circumstances, this is a reasonable trade off.

Of course, you can roll your own on a virtual server or an old PC you have laying around. However, old PCs fail, as do old PC administrators. Do yourself a favor and outsource the work for $100.

Alienation at Home

“Who is going to be brave enough to ask where home is, and seek out something else if they don’t like the answer?”

-Hanif Abdurraqib, “Under Half-Lit Fluorescents: The Wonder Years and the Great Suburban Narrative,” in “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.” Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, 2017.

I remember the moment I decided to leave home. In my seventeenth summer, stocking groceries in a supermarket. I was in the store putting wine bottles on the shelf before the sun had risen. Slowly, working my way to the last item on my last cart, I finished the work, at the mid-point between noon and dusk. Entering the backroom, there were my colleagues, weary men with fortune-telling faces telling of possible futures. Like me, many started stocking in their teens. They were the men who remained, who stayed after the culling of years.

In a twinkling moment, I had a realization. I hadn’t done well in school, and if I didn’t make a radical change that this would be my life. I could see the years roll past and my greatest aspiration would be to become a manager of a grocery department and then of a store.

Looking at it today, a manager of a grocery store seems like honest work. Perhaps not a bad life. I think I may have judged the possibility too harshly. A life revolving around a grocery store didn’t seem big enough to me then.

Within the week, I had sought out a military recruiter. I had completed the military aptitude test as a high school sophomore, partly because it struck me as a more enjoyable alternative than going to my classes that morning. I had scored well.

The next Saturday afternoon, the recruiter took me to the major recruiting station, and I had completed all the paperwork. But, I hadn’t realized that I was not old enough to sign the papers on my own. I understood very little about the process of signing up. Everyone signs for eight years, and the choice is how many of those are active and the number of years you pick — two, four, or six — determines what jobs are available to you. Four is a normal tour. You do six if you want to get extensive training, such as nuclear power, advanced electronics, special operations, and so forth. Two was for reservists. You do two years active and six on reserve and you can get help paying for college. I chose six. But like much in life, you have no idea of what you are signing up for when you sign up for it.

They called my mother and had her come in to give her permission. She came with her boyfriend, not her husband. I hadn’t said anything to her. After some discussion, my mother signed for me. I stayed at home for another year to finish high school. Then, I left ten days after graduating.

A handful of times since, I have returned to the place I grew up. Once after completing my initial military training. Another time on leave. But, each time the visits were separated by more time. The first time I came back, it was after a few months. Then, it took a year, then four. Now, it takes a decade or more.

With more time, “home” has become more alien. But, it was alien from the start. Home was always a place where I never felt like I belonged. It was a place I was always escaping. Either I would disappear into books or later, I would avoid going home, leaving for school on a Friday morning and not returning until Sunday night. Spending the night at the houses of friends that were gracious enough to let me stay. During the week, I did a sport for every season, so I had somewhere else to be in the afternoons. Working at the grocery store, it was easy to fill up week nights and weekends and the dead space of summer. I enjoyed working more than staying up late watching Wimbledon.

No one asked where I was. I had few friends. Anyone interested knew where to find me. But mostly, people weren’t interested in where I was or what I was doing.

As a child, I was frequently thinking of running out the clock, of getting to the part of life where I could make my own decisions without interference. Children are a permanent underclass serving the whims of parents and guardians. No one told me that life is mostly serving other people’s whims. Sometimes those other people are our past selves. Sometimes it’s our family. Sometimes it’s our boss. But, it is rare to be able to make decisions free of social suasion or interference of any sort.

It’s a funny thing about freedom. When you adopt autonomy as a principle value, where your independence is more important than fitting in, and even if you have, comparatively, a great deal of freedom, you’ll always want more. In this life, you can be free or you can fit in.

When you are free not to care about the opinions of your family or peers, free to think your own thoughts, free to violate the expectations of your social environment and go your own way — you’ll never fit in. It starts a cycle as you become more free, you are pushed to the edges, as if there is a threshold to the amount of variation a social milieu can tolerate, and then it ostracizes behavior beyond it, which pushes it further in the direction of variation.

That’s how people become the “crazy one” or “The Other” because they aren’t on the same page as everyone else in a particular social set. It must be how Satan felt in the Garden of Eden, if Genesis was rewritten from his point of view. It’s how Adam and Eve felt after pushed out of the garden. Once you start deciding for yourself, you’re on your own.

It’s one of the advantages of “mental illness” however defined. When you come into contact with it, either because it is a voice inside your own head or it speaks in the voice of a friend or family member, it becomes clear that reality is shaped or created whole-cloth from belief. Belief, more often than not, is socially constructed and serves someone else’s interests.

Illustration: What is the speed of light? In a vacuum, it has the exact value is 299,792,458 meters per second. But, do we know, experimentally, that is true in all areas of the universe today? Do we know that this is true throughout time? We don’t. There are variable speed of light theories. It is entirely possible based on what we know that light varies given different conditions than those where we have tested it in the last two hundred years. But, how do you test for something that may have existed in the past and doesn’t now? And, how would it change our current understanding of the world?

At base, this is the problem of induction. The problem of induction asks, “[O]n what grounds we come to our beliefs about the unobserved on the basis of inductive inferences?” If we did not observe and measure the speed of light 10,000 years ago, how do we know it was traveling at the same speed then as it is traveling now? When you go far enough down this particular rabbit hole, you come to the conclusion of Bertrand Russell that: if the problem of induction cannot be resolved, then “there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity.”

Assigning a value to the speed of light and saying it is permanent is more than convenient in terms of physics experiments. It suggests that some truths are timeless and not a function of an environment. We want truths we can count on, and the temptation is to call beliefs that can be useful true, even when there is reason to doubt.

Pick a conspiracy theory, cult belief system or alternative viewpoint of choice. You’re free to believe whatever you like. What do you choose? The criterion that matters to most people is whether the beliefs they adopt allows them to fit into a social group where they want to be accepted, often the nearest at hand. In most cases, this is what makes a belief useful. Like a diet, it doesn’t matter which one you pick (whether belief system or community since each is tied with the other), just so long as you pick one and stick with it.

Reading Hanif Abdurraqib, he talks about family. He talks about the black community, punk rock scenes, his romantic relationships, his family and his friends. He also talks about living in a society that treats him and the people he cares about as “The Other,” where the intersectionality of growing up as a black person in a poor neighborhood in a small city in the Rust Belt, has impressed upon him a sense of impending doom.

From his perspective, I am privileged. I am white, male, cis, “middle-class” broadly-defined, etc. I am much older than his 22 year old friend, and I have never attended a funeral of someone I loved.

But, from my perspective, there is privilege in having people that care about you at home, belonging to various communities, even if the larger culture in which you are living is designed to oppress those communities and the people you love. In some sense, it seems like a smaller community defined by skin-color might also allow for greater variation of behavior and belief, which may also have the effect of making the black community a source of so much of what eventually becomes mainstream culture. What I wonder are whether spirituals, jazz, rock and roll and other facets of black culture could have existed without white supremacy? Is there black culture without a distinct black community formed by racism? And without it, would humans desire to subjugate others just manifest differently, some kind of other arbitrary distinction like that of between Tutsi and Hutu in the Rwandan genocide?

What of the people that have aren’t part of any community? The elderly living out their lives alone in a nursing home after all their friends and family have died? Or, those with mental illness or a physical disfigurement acute enough that it is impossible for them to pass as normal. Perhaps there is a pass privilege, the ability to be accepted as belonging at a glance, until proven otherwise.

It works the other way too. You can pass and still know you don’t belong. On some level, we all have qualities that don’t belong, vary from some imagined norm. But, some of us feel that difference more acutely than others. Perhaps, this feeling is a form of variance itself.

I left home behind to seek out something else because I didn’t like the answers home had for me. One thing I found was that in a society like the United States, one that supposedly prizes individualism, is that everyone is trying to be different in the same way. Be different. Express your individuality through an acrylic sticker placed upon your chosen Apple product.

If you are going to choose something outside the mainstream, make sure there is a scene around it. It is hard to become a butcher, tailor, or candlestick maker, if you live in a post-apocalyptic vegan, nudist community living in a shelter underground. Different environments require different skill sets and different beliefs. Something singular will have to be made from scratch. Noah was a madman until the rains came. Then, his view was the only game in town.

Ultimately, the central question is: what story do we tell about ourselves? We all want a consistent narrative, to bind our best selves to the present and the future in an uncertain and changing world. Stories are the glue that does the binding. Whether the story is true or a fiction, it shapes us as people and our view of the world. This is always shaped to someone’s benefit. Who chooses? And who benefits?

When you start choosing only for yourself, it is the doorway to madness. God, love, and home can only exist in places where there is a multiplicity, where the “I” gives way to the “We”.

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Matthew 18:20

Even the Christian God is imagined as a person, in three aspects. A singular God would be a mad God. One that would offer no redemption beyond changing her mind. And thoughts of home or a heaven would change with the changes of her mercurial mind. First this, then that. Hanging ten until the solidity of the surfboard is pulled from underneath, spilling you into the dark depths, possibly to be pulled down forever, never to rise again.

No board can ride a wave without a fin of belief giving us some measure of control. Diving the depths, we have to keep an eye on the time, a concept socially constructed. We are free to emerge, catch a wave, dive and try again. But, without community and without “The Other”, there can be nothing but chaos. Without chaos, it’s an ordered monotony, one that is serving interests other than most people living their lives in it.

A walled garden or the wilderness. Either/Or/Both. A palm tree can grow in the black iron prison. But do you want shade, dates or coconuts? And who can guarantee the fruit?