Links: Fiction and plot, false rape accusations, group sex and politics, and more!

* “Nothing Happens, Deliberately: Why Necessary Errors feels like a new model for contemporary fiction.” I would draw the opposite conclusion: Necessary Errors is how not to do fiction, or at least fiction a writer wants anyone else to read.

* “The ‘Shadow Resume’: A Career Tip for Grad Students,” which is yet another version of “Don’t go to grad school.”

* Woman hilariously posts a rape threat to herself, reports it, is shocked to find her IP traced.

* “Sexy spring: How group sex will liberate Iran, China;” I am dubious of the political slant but liked Plays Well In Groups, from which this was excerpted.

* Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea To Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, And Tenure-Less Historians.

* Possibly related to the above: “Technopessimism Is Bunk” by Joel Mokyr of The Enlightened Economy fame. I would note that his claims and Cowen’s claims in The Great Stagnation are not incompatible, and Cowen is not a long-term pessimist (the last part of his book’s title is “Will (Eventually) Feel Better”). In addition, I’m struck by how backwards many practices in my own small corner of the academic universe, English lit, feel, from a relentless focus on printed and overpriced books to printed (and unread) journals to the need to include the city of publication in bibliographic citations. I’ve heard older professors talk about their adventures in tracking down materials in libraries and am puzzled: it’s never been hard for me to find a book, and the age of Amazon and Google books is making it easier, not harder. The real challenges are legal (indefinite copyright) and cultural (disdain for blogs, etc.) .

* “In Vancouver, Traffic Decreases as Population Rises.”

Summary Judgment: Confessions of a Sociopath — M. E. Thomas

Confessions of a Sociopath came from Tyler Cowen’s recommendation, and it’s the perfect book to get from a library: I learned from it but am unlikely to want to re-read it. There isn’t enough depth to justify purchase but there is more than enough to justify reading. Like Cowen I would read this as closer to a novel or memoir—which is usually a way of saying “I make shit up but don’t want to admit it”—than a work of strict nonfiction.

Confessions of a sociopathI kept hoping for more lascivious content but the author appeared at first to have led a sedate life in that respect, perhaps due to her affiliation with the Mormon church, although there is a late chapter on this subject. Her sex life is dealt with in a way that seems decorous by modern standards, despite her affairs with women.

This passage in particular stood our as characteristic of the way people can attack the modern tendency towards explicit rules:

While she [a somewhat unattractive, insecure supervisor] regularly billed as many hours as humanly possible, I exploited our [law] firm’s non-existent vacation policy by taking three-day weekends and weeks-long vacations abroad. People were implicitly expected not to take vacations, but I had my own lifelong policy of following only explicit rules, and then only because they’re easiest to prove against me. She could sense that I flouted this and other unspoken rules with little consequence by a quick look at my time sheets and my less-than-formal office attire.

Explicit rules can often be turned against the people who aren’t following them. Working around governments and universities has given me special aptitude for figuring out what the explicit rules are and how people break them, because explicit rules are often impossible to follow completely, or following them completely is stupid in the real world, or both. Nonetheless our present bureaucratic world is rife with rules created by well-meaning bureaucrats, and those rules are ripe for exploitation by anyone who takes the time to read them.

Confessions of a Sociopath demonstrates how people acting in bad faith can activate biases and bureaucratic institutions for destructive ends; Thomas tells stories about repeatedly manipulating people and institutions through sexuality and sexual harassment claims and innuendoes, and in this she is in some ways recapitulating ideas from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, although that novel is about a straightforward though misunderstood quid pro quo gone bad.

Thomas has an unusually direct understanding of her own apparent condition in a way that many professionals don’t; this section shows something important about professors—Thomas is a law professor—and why people (like me!) want to be them, and something important about Thomas:

People are often surprised to learn that I teach less than six hours a week, less than eight months out of the year. In many way it’s a dream job for someone inherently lazy and unable to do grunt work like me, but eventually I’m sure I’ll get bored of it too. After I do, I don’t know what, but I’m sure things will work out. They always do.

Being a law professor doesn’t appear to be a particularly challenging job from a teaching perspective, since the professor is continually repeating information mastered long ago to students with no familiarity, in an environment in which the professor has absolute power over the student but not vice-versa (sample moment from the book: “They can try to fight me, but in that classroom I am God. I write the test. I give them the grade”). The professor is part of a legal regime that prevents lawyers from existing save through credentialing from other lawyers. People who want an honest test of their skills sell to markets; people who can’t handle an honest test of their skills go to school.

To be sure school does sometimes offer honest tests of skill and imparts important skills but that appears to be the exception, not the rule, based on my experiences on both sides of the desk. It’s not clear how to make utility and intellectual interest the norm instead of the exception.

The distinction between social and personal power may be relevant here; as the authors of the linked paper say, “social power [is] power over other people and personal power [is] freedom from other people.” Sociopaths appear particularly good at the latter, since they don’t appear to care what other people think except to the extent it affects them.

I am not convinced that we aren’t seeing huge selection bias problems with sociopaths, which limits broadly applicable ideas. Note that I wrote this sentence before re-reading Cowen’s linked post above, in which he said essentially the same thing.

The editing is good and the book moves; few sentences or ideas are essential in and of themselves.There could have been more and/or better research citations, but the stories were consistently entertaining, and challenging; she describes seeing a struggling baby opossum in a pool and then, instead of helping it as most of us would have, drowning it. That’s towards the beginning of the book and the opossum story dares us to keep reading. Its placements in this blog post is not an accident, given that my overall impression of the book is positive.

Exploring the limits in art, writing, and science

In the poorly-titled but otherwise interesting essay “The Disquiet of Ziggy Zeitgeist: Unsettled by the sense that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper,” Henry Allen says that “For the first time in my 72 years, I have no idea what’s going on,” because a lot of culture has splintered, for lack of a better term, and as a result “I don’t know what’s going on. I doubt that anyone does.”

That sense is a result of reaching boundaries or borders in many if not most artistic fields. In music, for example, John Cage famously “recorded” a track that is entirely silent. Composers have created songs or symphonies or whatever that seem indistinguishable from noise. Popular music’s last major style shift was the early 90s, with rap and grunge; since then, we’ve mostly heard dance-disco-hip-hop variations.

In the fine arts, the avant-garde is probably dead, as Camille Paglia has argued in various places for, what is perhaps not surprisingly, twenty years. What people call concept art or non-art or art from life appears indistinguishable from noise or pranks. Or, as Allen says, “Now I go to New York and look at a work of art in Chelsea and say: ‘Oh, that’s one of those.’ (Dripping, elephant dung, monochrome, squalor, scribbling.)”

Literature in some ways “got there” first, with Joyce (Finnegans Wake) and Beckett (whose novels are the whole of boredom) about which I wrote more in “Martin Amis, the essay, the novel, and how to have fun in fiction.” If you’re trying to write a novel that truly pushes the boundaries of the novel, you’re going to have a very hard time doing so while being comprehensible to readers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASex mores have fallen too: this weekend I’ve been reading Katherine Frank’s book Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, she describes gang bangs involving hundreds of participants, along with BDSM and assorted other sex adventures. Most people in developed countries have nothing between them and that, provided they want it. As a side note, she describes swingers who were featured on a TV show called Swing, and the swingers talked to the show’s crew, who said in this rendition that “We don’t know how you’ve done it but most people would kill to have this life.” But you don’t have to kill for that life: you only have to love for it, and most people probably could have it, or a version of it, if they want it. No murder necessary!

Porn has also reached limits or gotten asymptotically. The market has devolved from the monolithic Playboy to innumerable small, online outlets, some commercial and some not, and porn faces the same availability issues that any information does: perpetual availability. Although I’m not an expert, porn videos or pictures from, say, 2005 are still being passed around and viewed in 2013 and may continue to be in 2023. There is already more out there than a single person can digest and the amount is growing over time. Curating, searching, and sorting become the problem amid what is effectively infinite. If you want it, you can probably already find it, and if you don’t like what you find, you can probably make it for a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars.

Video games are an intriguing exception to the trends described above. They’re a young medium, since they’ve only been popular in the last 30 to 40 years and have consequently seen a tremendous explosion in sophistication: compare Pong to a modern game versus a novel published in 1980 to a novel published in 2012. Video games also piggyback on growing computational capabilities. Video games, like the Internet, are still in relative infancy, and they appear to be very far from technical or comprehensibility limits.

I’m not saying that art or artists or culture is dead, but I am saying that the boundaries of comprehensibility have been reached in many fields. If I were more of a blowhard I would also pontificate about the role of the Internet in this—Allen picks 1993 by coincidence, perhaps, but 1993 was also just before the Internet reached the masses in the developed world. Within the next decade or two more than half of the people on the planet will probably get access, and that may further splinter culture. Already it’s possible for people with weird, niche interests to easily explore those interests, like Borgen, in the absence of social feedback.

Some fields, like math, appear inexhaustible. Others, like delivering things people want (which goes by the otherwise dull name “business”) appear if not inexhaustible then nearly so, since material desires keep expanding with GDP. I also doubt that art per se will ever be exhausted; the limits of comprehensibility don’t mean people will stop making art, only that we have to find ways to make it meaningful without being able to push constantly against a conservative establishment, which has been the animating force since Romanticism and now makes little sense.

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