infused also with insistence, perdurance, determination

To some, the very notion of a virtue of pessimism may seem absurd. For instance, we may subscribe to Hume’s notion that the mark of any virtue is that it is useful and agreeable, either to the person who possesses it or to others. But surely pessimism is neither useful nor agreeable. It is not useful, the argument goes, because it renders us passive, depresses not only ourselves but ‘our sense of the possible’, as Marilynne Robinson has said of cultural pessimism in particular. And it is not agreeable, since it intensifies our suffering, making us focus on the bad side of life rather than the good (or so arch-optimists such as Leibniz and Rousseau would have it). It is not surprising, then, that certain studies of supposed ‘moral exemplars’ identified positivity, hopefulness and optimism among the characteristics that such exemplars had in common.

But then, think of Greta Thunberg. If there is such a thing as a ‘climate virtue’, she would seem to exemplify it – considering the hard personal choices that she has made, the steadfastness of her vision, and the courage with which she holds world leaders to account and takes them to task for their half-heartedness, their unwillingness to commit fully to the cause. If this is not an exercise of virtues, then I don’t know what is – and yet there is nothing positive or optimistic about Thunberg. If there is hope, it’s a dark, bleak hope, full of rage and grief and pain for what is being lost – but infused also with insistence, perdurance, determination. It is clear that this activist, at least, will continue to strive even if her efforts are doomed to fail. This is not optimism: if anything, it is a hopeful pessimism, and I believe it has every right to be called a virtue in our age.

Food for thought, or confirmation for my pre-existing biases? Probably depends where you’re sat.

drink up, bar’s closed

Well, that happened quickly, didn’t it? Twitter’s board demonstrating that (to use a lovely British turn of phrase) they have the breaking strain of a KitKat

Now seeing lots of second-hand reports of exodus from the birdsite, and I ain’t gonna judge, because I went and stopped using it (again) back at the turn of the year—albeit not because of Teflon Mask, but rather for what I decided (for the second time) were a combination of media affordances which made the whole set-up toxic to me. But hell knows anything Mask considers to be an improvement is unlikely to endear it to me further.

On reflection, though, I’m not going to delete my account, because if you give up your account you run the possibility of some other clown setting up a new account with your old username—a situation which, combined with the sort of absolutist take on free speech that you might expect to encounter in a public-school junior debate team training session, could be both professionally damaging and impossible to do much about. I may turn off autoposting from this site to there, but I’m of two minds about that, too. Mostly it seems pointless, in both respects: a well-trafficked post here on VCTB these days means one that got maybe three or four referrals from the birdsite, but if I’m going to keep the account, I might as well keep it alive. I dunno.

My money’s on storm in a teacup, TBH; nowhere else permits quite the same sort of public discourse, the quality of which—for all the complaining about it—is so rooted in complaint that the people angriest about it all have little choice but to return to the scene of the crime for their dopamine fix. I expect most folk will stay, and many of those now leaving will find a reason to go back. And again, I ain’t judgin’; when I quit the first time, it was a horrendous blow to my social life that has in many respects never been recovered from. It’s hard to leave a network with sunk social costs; it hurts, even when the network itself is a source of pain. Ask any reformed junkie or alcoholic, they’ll tell you the same: it’s not just the substance you have to quit, it’s the life within which that substance is entirely entangled. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, and no one will ever do it until they really want to—which, to be clear, is a very different thing to thinking they should.

I’ve also seen a few follow notifications from a mastodon account which I totally forgot I had, and which I think I spent all of two days on before I abandoned it. I could log back in there, fire it up, see what’s happening and who’s about… but I could also just not bother. Perhaps because I’ve already done the hard yards of quitting the birdsite, I find I’m not looking for a replacement. What it was in the early days is simply not retrievable, and probably never could have lasted anyway: the phenomenon of early Twitter was less about it’s being Twitter than it’s accidentally being there at the right moment, and getting those tasty, tasty network effects as a result… and that’s exactly what has doomed it, too.

Selah. I’m too old and anxious for this shit. This blog existed before the birdsite was a thing, and it’ll be here after it’s gone, too.

“So pour one out for the old days, sure /
but we don’t live in that world no more.”

In other news, I have too many deadlines and too much travel coming up and too many suspended uncertainties and it’s starting to look a lot like burnout, but I can’t stop now because the post-postdoctoral bottleneck in academia is very real, but you only get the one serious shot at shoving yourself through it.

(Which is, naturally, why I’ve just spent the best part of an hour writing this post as a displacement activity from the work I actually need to be doing.)

tooled up

Went out-of-country on Saturday, for the first time in about a year—day-trip to Copenhagen, on the occasion of TOOL playing the Royal Arena over there, and me having bought tickets way back in October last year or thenabouts.

I swore off arena shows after a disastrous and deeply disagreeable trip to see Deftones play what was then still called the Docklands Arena (now the O2, because branding eats everything in the end) in, I think, 2002? The trip was doomed at the outset, for reasons unrelated to the venue which I shall not discuss here, but the experience of the gig itself was memorably terrible, tantamount to having paid a three-figure sum to stand around in an echoing aircraft hangar with however many thousand other massive-trouser’d angst-nurturers, while at the far end a TV screen, so far distant it looked smaller than your phone screen would seem to you now if held at arms length, showed footage of what might possibly have been the band whose name graced the posters, but could equally have been anyone, given the tinny racket you could hear over the audience noise bore little resemblance to music, let alone their music specifically.

Yeah, didn’t enjoy it much.

But I’ve always wanted to see TOOL, and they’re never gonna play venues smaller than arenas, and this was the first time that I’ve lived in easy and affordable public-transport reach of a stadium at which a band I like that much were playing… so I figured fuck it, why not.

And y’know, it wasn’t bad at all?

I mean, I’ll always be a small-venue music fan, perhaps because I worked (and occasionally played) in such places for years: for me, a gig means being in a room where you and around four or five hundred other people can see the band with your own eyes from pretty much any point of vantage, hear at least some of the sound from the stage itself as well as through the PA…you know, the sort of place where you can smell the sweat of the performers (sometimes literally). And this was not that, not at all.

But it was a magnificent spectacle, sonically and visually. And the Royal Arena—perhaps because [insert cliches about Scandinavian design and architecture], but perhaps also or alternatively because [Roskilde]—is well laid-out, spacious, clean, modern, not at all a disagreeable or oppressive building to be in. It also helps hugely that the sense of being policed at every moment of the event, so familiar from even the smallest of UK venues in recent years, was almost completely absent: security searches on the way in were friendly to the point of being almost perfunctory, which helped get the queues through fast, and once you were through the turnstiles, that was pretty much it: you just wander off to your assigned section, see yourself to your seat, etc etc. Security did periodically ask people not to stand in the little entranceways to the seating tiers (and yeah, I was that guy, because after a day on foot in Copenhagen, it was actually better for my still bad-tempered foot for me to stand rather than to sit—counterintuitive, I know), but otherwise it was perhaps the most hands-off treatment I’ve had as the punter at a rock gig since, well, I don’t even know when. Possibly ever.

So, yeah—a good day out. Wouldn’t say I’m now a convert on arena shows, mind you: the prices are eyewatering, it’s not really “a gig” as I think of the term, and I wonder how much of the agreeableness is specific to that venue (and perhaps even to that particular date). But I would say that I’d be more likely to consider arena shows than I was before.

I would also say that TOOL are a fucking great band, but if you like them you already know that, and if you don’t, experience dictates that there’s no point in trying to convince you.

No photos from the show, because I didn’t want to be That That Guy—and I was quite pleased to note that hardly anyone in the crowd had their phones out at all. Instead, you have a picture from my wanderings in Christiania earlier in the day: a place which deserves to be written about in greater detail, while also a place that has been written about—brilliantly, badly, and every way in between—by (too) many writers before me, academic or otherwise. So I’ll save it for some other time, some other visit.

on those who cry wolf

Apropos of everything at once and nothing in particular, I found myself thinking this morning—not for the first time—on the interpretations we have of fables and mythical archetypes, and how they don’t always stand up when you think a bit harder about them. One might argue that this is just a limits-of-metaphor issue, and yeah, that’s a valid point—but it also suggests that the limits of metaphor are perhaps tighter than is commonly assumed, and/or that the interpretation of metaphor tends toward confirmation of what the interpreter already assumes, or what they would prefer to be true.

Case in point: we all know The Boy Who Cried Wolf, right? The story about how you should be careful not to lie about a dangerous problem when given responsibility for warning of its arrival?

That’s the interpretation I was given of that story, at any rate, and it is apparently very much the standard gloss. But thinking more carefully about the story to which it is attached suggests a rather different interpretation, which might go something along the lines of:

If your community is aware of the possibility of [wolf], to the extent that it thinks someone should be posted on lookout to warn of the approach of [wolf], then it would be better by far not to assign the look-out shift which is both the period of greatest vulnerability to [village] AND the historically-verified most likely period for the manifestation of [wolf] to an excitable child who is likely too young to have actually encountered [wolf] in any setting other than the collective oral history of [village].

Or, more simply: assigning a nervy and inexperienced kid to do an adult’s job and assuming you can sleep safely, and then blaming the kid’s false alarms for your sleeping through the eventual and destructive appearance of the thing you set the kid to watch out for, is surely less a story about how kids can’t be trusted to raise the alarm about wolves descending on the fold, and more a story about how fobbing off the hard work of protecting a community on its most vulnerable and inexperienced member is really fucking stupid.

Now, the standard moral attached to this story—that serial liars will not be believed at the crucial moment—depends on the assumption that the kid fabricates the wolf sightings he warns of. But this doesn’t hold water, for a number of reasons. For starters, why would anyone tell the same lie a second time, having gained nothing from it the first time but the acute displeasure of the rest of the village? Kids may not be wise, but they’re not stupid.

Furthermore, as recent events have demonstrated all too clearly, serial liars are all too likely to believed at the most crucial of moments, but only when they tell people what they want to hear. This sort of serial lying is not punished, but rewarded, and thus encouraged.

Now, I’m no philologist—though I can think of worse things to spend my time doing, were the opportunity available—so I have no idea at what point in its being-passed-down the fable had that pat interpretation attached. Wikipedia tells me that the story can be traced to Classical Greece, but did it come with that particular 1980s-animation “always remember, kids” moral coda attached to it right from the outset? Maybe it did, I don’t know. But the translation and spread of Classical fables from the C15th onwards suggests to me that it was at least as likely to have been a rather more subtle tale which fell victim to the moralising tendency of Early Modern Xtianity, which was not known for letting narrative plausibility get in the way of making a heavy-handed point about virtue.

But I’m not sure it makes a difference, particularly to interpretations made in our current context: when you deploy an archetype, you rely upon the subconscious apprehensions associated with that archetype. For me at least, the story of the kid who lied wolf is nowhere near as believable an example as the story of a kid who cried wolf in genuine fear in the dark of the night, from beneath the terrible weight of responsibility for the whole community, for the carrying of which he had been woefully underprepared and unsupported… and the moral of the latter story, which admittedly has to be worked a little harder for (and who has the time amirite lololol) also seems better reflected by reality.

On the other hand, the kid who lied wolf is a pretty neat way to scapegoat a destructive disaster on the under-resourced person you burdened with preventing it, eh?

A simpler example of the same dynamic would be the way that critical voices are frequently branded “Cassandra”, because somehow we’ve retained the cultural emblem of the woman (and of course it was a woman!) warning against follies, but jettisoned the rather crucial element of the story wherein Cassandra was actually right.

science fiction / social theory / infrastructural change / utopian narratology