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The liturgy of business

Sarah Constantin has been talking to a marketing advisor; the advice she’s been getting confirms pretty much every assumption I’ve accumulated about the cultish dynamics of business culture.

So, how do you keep from sounding like a jerk when you’re essentially bragging and making big requests? A lot of pleasantries. A lot of framing phrases (“as we talked about in our last conversation”, “circling back”, “moving forward”, etc). Wishing them a good weekend/holiday/etc, hoping they’re doing well, etc.

I’d previously noticed in office contexts how vital it is to just keep your mouth making words smoothly even when there’s not a lot of information density to what you’re saying.

Business “jargon” and “buzzwords” are unfairly maligned by people who aren’t used to corporate culture. First of all, a lot of them originally referred to specific important concepts, and then got overused as generic applause lights — e.g. “disruptive innovation” is actually a really useful idea in its original meaning. But, second of all, it’s honestly just handy to have stock phrases if you need to keep talking fluently without awkward pauses. People respond really well to fluency. Palantir’s first exercise for all new employees is to give a software demo, which taught me that it is really hard to speak in public for five minutes without pausing to think of what to say next. Stock phrases help you reach for something to say without appearing hesitant or afraid.

As I’m sure you’re probably aware, but it bears repeating: the “con” in “con-artist” is short for “confidence”. The “unfairly maligned” jargon Constantin refers to are the shibboleths by which predators might identify and make (cautious, contingent) alliances with one another.

Of course, as Constantin observes, all cultures have their jargons and shibboleths, not least academia. Liturgies propagate beliefs. The terrifying thing about the cult of business is that the belief it propagates is utterly empty of anything but its own self-replication. As the old riff goes, growth for growth’s own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.

On the choosing of sides

The present period of history is one of the Wall. When the Berlin one fell, the prepared plans to build walls everywhere were unrolled. Concrete, bureaucratic, surveillance, security, racist walls. Everywhere the walls separate the desperate poor from those who hope against hope to stay relatively rich. The walls cross every sphere, from crop cultivation to healthcare. They exist too in the richest metropolises of the world. The Wall is the front line of what, long ago, was called the Class War.

On the one side: every armament conceivable, the dream of no-body-bag wars, the media, plenty, hygiene, many passwords to glamour. On the other: stones, short supplies, fueds, the violence of revenge, rampant illness, an acceptance of death and an ongoing preoccupation with surviving one more night — or perhaps one more week — together.

The choice of meaning in the world today is here between the two sides of the wall. The wall is also inside each one of us. Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to. It is not a wall between good and evil. Both exist on both sides. The choice is between self-respect and self-chaos.

On the side of the powerful there is a conformism of fear — they never forget the Wall — and the mouthing of words which no longer mean anything. Such muteness is what Bacon painted.

On the other side there are multitudinous, disparate, sometimes disappearing, languages, with whose vocabularies a sense can be made of life, even if, particularly if, that sense is tragic.

John Berger, 2004. Excerpted from “A Master of Pitilessness”, collected in Hold Everything Dear (2008), Verso.

Stories are allergic to indifference

I’m not making the facile if true observation that the contents of stories are lies, of one kind or another (that there is no such person as Oliver Twist, say; or that neither Hogwart’s School nor the subjects it teaches are real—you know: the obvious stuff). Nor am I presenting the equally facile observation that the morals or implications of stories are often mendacious (reality licenses us to disbelieve, to pick a few examples: that the course of true love never runs smooth; that guns are exciting and empowering or that the universe cares what choices we make) although as a matter of fact they generally are. My point is that the form of ‘the story’ as such is ontologically deceitful. The underlying logic of stories is conflict (no conflict, no drama; no drama, nothing interesting to storify) and this, by and large, is not the underlying logic of the universe. If I had to pick one word to describe the underlying logic of the universe it would be: indifference. Stories, though, are allergic to indifference.

[…]

Of course, the fact that human beings make stories can give stories utility—for humans. We may take inspiration from Frodo’s perseverance or Mr Polly’s courage, from Odysseus’s wiliness or Hermione’s cleverness when we face challenges of our own. We can console ourselves that our broken hearts can mend, that everything happens for a reason, because our stories tell us that these things come to pass. It’s probably not true, but it may be useful. Still: how much story to mix-in to our everyday common-sense engagement with the barely-tractable matter of existence is a ticklish question. Too little and we will grow disaffected with the indifference of the universe; too much and we lose touch with reality.

Adam Roberts muses upon the role of Story in human affairs, in the context of Christopher Priest’s new joint An American Story, which sounds like it needs adding to the ever-more-Jenga-like babel of my TBR pile.

Note to self

This thing we do is not in the nature of a service industry. As a creator, please yourself first. An audience will show up or they won’t. That’s their call. It’s on you to produce the kind of work you want to see in the world.

Warren Ellis, saying exactly what I needed to hear today.

Anthropo(s)cene

“Most of us have been or will be tourists at some point in our lives. We will travel to someplace at some moment in time in which we are visitors and are not planning to settle. It might be a trip to the coast or to the mountains or to a city, but we will be touring. Disliking tourists, therefore, is really a way to express a dislike for ourselves, our culture, and who we have become. Tourists dislike tourists because people dislike people. We dislike the fact that we always appear to want to consume more.”

From Phaedra Carmen Pezzullo’s Toxic Tourism: Rhetorics of Pollution, Travel, and Environmental Justice, cited in this bleak but important article on the super-toxic timebomb that is the Berkeley Pit of Butte, MT.