Lament

I’m slowly fading into my memories…

 

I’ve been taking steps back, getting worse.

I’ve been playing League of Legends a lot lately. And I mean, a lot. And I despise myself for every minute of it, I’m even ashamed to say it (and I haven’t admitted it for months)

I guess there are two ways of being “taken in” by something. One would be passion, and the motivation is precisely the thing you’re being taken in by. The other is escapism: you’re here not because you like it here, but because everywhere else is worse. Somehow I always fall short of the former, and end up in the latter.

I was watching the GDC talk #1ReasonToBe, and the final moments of the Laralyn McWilliams made me snap back to reality in a way. Nothing new, nothing I didn’t know or think already; it’s just been the trigger to make me wake up again. Every time it’s a different trigger. And every time I manage to fall asleep again. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a month.

I always fall short of passion. I’m not sure why. Everything else seems overwhelming. My dreams will never come true, and I am always tired of struggling without nothing to show for it.

The reason why I’ve been playing LoL so much is that it rewards me for doing well. Putting aside all the toxicity and the stupidity of the community as well as how enjoyable the game is in itself, if you do well you win, and if you win, the game gives you points, and you go up in ranking. In a totally empty, meaningless, illusory way, when I do well I feel praised for it, and I have something to show for my effort.

Meanwhile, time passes, and I wish I could beg it to stop, because I’m 22 and I have nothing to show for it, nothing that I have done, nothing that I’m proud of and no one that believes in me. I wouldn’t even know where to start, because everything seems to be so big and impossible, and I’d just like time to stop.

Please stop.

Disappointments Of Specialized Intelligence

After watching Interstella 555 and enjoying it, despite its many defects, I’ve decided to try and listen to Daft Punk, a band I had always been sceptical about. And I chose to start from Discovery, their most famous album, the same one that backs up the story of Interstella, to see if it would be just as enjoyable without visual accompaniment, or if it would lose its appeal like many soundtracks do.

Possibly because it wasn’t exactly a soundtrack in the first place, I’ve greatly enjoyed the album, maybe more than the film itself, even though the second half tends to be less interesting compared to the first energetic handful of songs. (Let’s be honest: without the film, Veridis Quo becomes boring after about 30 seconds of its almost 6 minutes) But overall, I was just surprised that I had let such a unique band slip past my ears (except for the viral videos of various anatomical interpretations of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger). The melodies are ok, but the sounds with which they are produced are simply unique, and the rhythms on which they are laid are great, (varied, interesting, never banal) in a way that reminded me, despite all their differences, of 65daysofstatic. How can you remain indifferent to the tapping of Aerodynamic? They managed to distract me from my reading material, rather than becoming background noise to the page in front of me: my mind was captivated and positively surprised.

For a while. That is, before I started paying closer attention to the lyrics.

My disappointment was gradual. The first song that made me turn to the lyrics was, for obvious reasons, “Something about us”. As a ballad, the sung part calls for closer attention. When I’ve heard the part starting with I need you more than anything in my life/I want you more than anything in my life/… I was still ready to give them credit. I thought it was a piece of brutal honesty, more simple and direct than many artists dare do, but poetic just because of its simplicity. Actually, it’s the kind of song it’d probably blush hearing side to side with anyone, whether I’d actually want to say those words or not (Usually it’s the latter case, and then I tend to blush harder… I’ve had the same effect serving at the till of a shop:  James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” in the background, you look at a customer, embarrassment ensues, and the only thing you can do is try to pretend it’s not there, to avoid further awkwardness) But the fact that I was prepared to give them credit didn’t mean I wasn’t going to look for confirmation, that that trust was justified.

In Discovery, only 6 out of 14 songs have something I can reasonably call lyrics. Which is totally fine for me, I enjoy lots of instrumental music that either has nothing to say lyrics-wise, or simply decides to let the music express everything, or whatever reason they have. In other words, it’s ok if you don’t do something and still deliver a work that feels complete. What is not ok, for me, is that you put something in your art work that feels superficial or uncared-for. The perfect piece of art makes me want to say “I wouldn’t change a thing”. Well, Daft Punk’s songs with lyrics, with one notable exception, make me wish either that they were instrumentals or that someone else had written the lyrics. The melody of the voice is fine, the voice itself is technically good. What I have a problem with are just the raw words that are sung, with an interpretation that is frankly appalling, an interpretation that I can only assimilate to the figure of an actor/professional singer, rather than an artist believing in her work; because I can’t possibly think Daft Punk can be proud of that bit of their work.

“Something about Us” as I’ve said, is a simple (or simple-minded?) love song. What are the other songs about? Well, let’s take “One More Time”: a song about partying and dancing. And “Digital Love”: it tells of a dream about seducing someone at a party, while dancing (very simple-minded, definitely masculine, totally not erotic, and romantic only through stereotypes: barely, barely passable). “Face to Face”: guess what? A supposedly romantic encounter on a dance-floor. And it seems that dancing is solving all the pent-up problems this couple has. But I’m not summarizing: this is all there is in these songs.

“Too Long” is a peculiar example: a song about ‘that feeling’. Can you feel it?, the song asks repeteadly. Feel what? It’s never specified, or hinted at, or talked about. It reminds me of this line by Steven Wilson The Curse of There Must Be More in “Anesthetize”. The whole first part of “Anesthetize” is about the common practice of dressing nothingness up as something deep and meaningful.

When I come back to the exception, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, I don’t even know what to think anymore. I’m still talking lyrics-wise: the song seems a masterpiece in many ways, with the sentences broken down and repeated ad infinitum like it’s some kind of compartmentalised work, the musical equivalent of the division of labour in a factory, where each man has to do the same, small piece over and over again without ever seeing the final result. It’s a post-modern interpretation of the opening of Modern Times by Chaplin, in which that way of working has contaminated even what is supposed to be art, creativity, uniqueness; it’s a parody and a critique of it… or is it? I would like to say it is, but all the other songs are telling me that Daft Punk couldn’t possibly have put so much depth into their lyrics. Maybe it really is an exception, the masterpiece of an otherwise bad or careless lyricist. At this point I’d be more inclined to say that the fact that I could read it that way is purely a coincidence, that the merit is mine for seeing those things in it, rather than in the artist for putting them there; maybe, even, that the song is that very thing that I thought it was parodying, because I find it so despicable I wanted it to be a parody rather than the real thing.

Tom Bissell said that art is “comprehensively intelligent”. These 6 songs in discovery have tried to engage me on many levels. Musically, they succeeded. Lyrically, they didn’t. And the result is that the bad half of the album has ruined my enjoyment of the other half, and of the whole, and now I feel ashamed when I listen to it again.

It’s a very common issue, one that I’m also sometimes guilty of in my own works. I guess it’s normal, when one is learning, or finding one’s way, that one focuses more on one thing rather than the other. In literature, it’s often content without style, or, even worse, style without content. (I’ve seen billions of words of fascinating style and little to no content in my days in the tumblr writing community – which is now dead as far as I’m concerned). In films, it’s the same: production value with no plot. In music, it comes about in a number of ways: music without lyrics (I mean, of course, music with lyrics that are stupid and meaningless), technical ability without passion, sounds without rhythm, outstanding mastery of one instrument and banality in the use of another. In videogames, the plague is fine-tuned, addicting gameplay without any plot or other meaningful content to give it substance.

I like to call this the problem of specialized intelligence. It is what we are more and more used to: knowing one small thing in the universe, and being totally ignorant of its place in the world, of its ramifications, of its causes and consequences. It is, again, like Modern Times, and like the Daft Punk song, knowing your small bit without ever seeing the finished product. (One of the things I love about philosophy is that it’s so inherently interdisciplinary and interconnected that it’s almost impossible for it to make this mistake.)

Specialized intelligence is being a rhythmical genius and not knowing how to use that genius, that power that your music has, in order to convey something meaningful, to do something good. Specialized intelligence is studying economy without giving any serious thought to what you think a good life is, for the world as a whole as well as for individuals, so that you end up knowing all those difficult numbers and names, but you let them take you where they taught you they should take you, rather than towards your idea of good. It’s like knowing medicine, but having no idea of your own about what state is “healthy” and what isn’t. (Luckily I haven’t seen that yet) Specialized intelligence is precisely the Orwellian “Smart enough to do the job, dumb enough to not ask questions”.

Possibly the biggest case of specialized intelligence is living without ever seriously thinking about what a good life is. In the most general sense (I really don’t think that “I just want to be happy” refrain would hold under serious questioning for many of those who profess it) as well as in more particular ways. Especially when it comes to computers, tablets, smartphones, internet, consumism as a whole, how many people actually asked themselves “is this good for my life?” before using something, before opening their Facebook account, spending hours hooked to some stupid game? I don’t even think that it makes them happier.

I will not even go into the issue of acting according to what one thinks. That’s a complicated process, and a harder thing to do than it seems at first. But I would like to see more people asking themselves more often: “Is this good? Is it at least good for me, for my life?”

Bokura Wa Minna Ikite Iru (We’re All Alive)

Japanese – Romaji

Bokura Wa Minna Ikite Iru
Ikite Iru Kara Kanashii n’da

Tenohira Wo Taiyou
Ni Sukashite Mireba
Makka Ni Nagareru Boku No Chishio

Mimizu Datte Okera Datte Amenbo Datte
Minna Minna Ikite Iru n’da
Tomodachi Nan Da

Bokura Wa Minna Ikite Iru
Ikite Iru Kara Warau n’da

Bokura Wa Minna Ikite Iru
Ikite Iru Kara Ureshii n’da

Tenohira Wo Taiyou
Ni Sukashite Mireba
Makka Ni Nagareru Boku No Chishio

Donbo Datte Kaeru Datte Mitsubachi Datte
Minna Minna Ikite Iru n’da
Tomodachi Nan Da

English

We’re all alive, every last one of us
and we can feel sad ‘cause we’re alive

When we hold our hands up to the sun
and peek through our fingers
we can see the deep red blood flowing inside!

Even earthworms, even crickets, and even water striders
We’re all alive, every last one of us
and we’re all friends

We’re all alive, every last one of us
and we can laugh ‘cause we’re alive

We’re all alive, every last one of us
and we can feel happy ‘cause we’re alive

When we hold our hands up to the sun
and peek through our fingers
we can see the deep red blood flowing inside!

Even dragonflies, even frogs, and even honey bees!
We’re all alive, every last one of us
and we’re all friends

(Source: Romaji and Translation thanks to OZC – GITS SAC 2nd GIG – EP. 26)

Steven 1: Distractions

I am going to start this study by describing the most eye-catching feature of Steven’s life: the way he spends his time. This will also allow me to mention most of the themes that I will come back to, in time.

So, how does Steven spend his time? Mainly playing videogames. And this is valid both for the summer vacation and term time (Steven is a university student): Steven spends at least about 30 hours a week (unless something prevents him from doing so) playing videogames. When he is not disturbed by many commitments and chores, or when he finds a game he is particularly interested in, that value can easily reach the 50, even 60 hours a week, with peaks of more than 20 hours of gaming in 2 days. It’s safe to say he plays videogames at least as much as he sleeps, if not more. Besides the other obvious activities, like eating, Steven’s life beside videogames consists of watching tv series and films; he reads at night, before sleeping, but almost never during the day. Sometimes he listens to music, and occasionally he plays the guitar (he has an acoustic and an electric, but doesn’t touch them more than once every 2 weeks). Every day he checks Amazon for free music and kindle books, or cheap CDs. Studying doesn’t come to more than a couple of hours a day even during exam time. In separate, appropriate sections I will focus on the kind of videogames he plays and how he relates to them; the same will be done, in brief, for films and books. An entire section will be devoted in particular to Guitar Hero, and its relationship to the real guitar. In the meantime, I would like to note the absence of any “active” or “productive” activity: no writing of any kind, no diary or journal, no form of art, no volunteer work, in short nothing brought into the world by him, or affected by his existence. He even dropped out of the gaming clan he belonged to, for lack of will to be part of something more than his little world. When this individual will die, what will remain of him will be the save files from his games.

On his desk we find his computer (with which he plays most videogames), a DVD player and a small television. There’s little place to write or read an actual book on his desk. Beside a mug full of pens and a pair of iPod speakers, there are just a lot of knick-knacks: a lava lamp, a small Newton’s cradle, a mug-holder, and other smaller things that clutter the desk, although with a vague sense of order. Sometimes, his Kindle and his Nintendo DS find their place there as well. The posters on the wall are ordinary, and sometimes generic: an optic illusion poster, a Pink Floyd one, a “suicide bunny” one, a poster with funny street signs, one with the Rolling Stone’s mouth and one with some famous rock artists’ guitars. In the kitchen, another television connected to a VHS player, an Xbox 360 (his secondary source of gaming) and a PS2.

Another important thing Steven likes to do is getting reduced stuff at supermarkets. Not only he always looks at the reduced section when he actually goes shopping, but he often goes there for the only purpose of finding items that are reduced for clearance and freezing them. He finds some kind of joy in the very act of getting things for a very low price, for, although not rich, Steven would easily be able to afford shopping normally without great concerns. Moreover, he doesn’t need them: his cupboards and freezers, both in the house we share and at his own house, are always full, but if he finds something cheap, even if he already has it, he will buy more. And, what shocked me the most, he, together with a couple of members of his family, often do the so-called “reduced runs” on Sunday; that is, they go to every supermarket and shop in the area in order of closing time to get reduced items from all of them.

Some observations that I would like to do immediately, before getting in depth in each theme: the life of this individual, it seems to me, is utterly empty. He is, of course, one of the persons that said that he may get a part-time job because he doesn’t have anything to do anyway. (Cf.: This Post) To me, that sounds like an admission that his life is empty, that he has nothing to do with the time he has been given. (Cf.: Gandalf in The Lord of The Rings: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”) He is a “bored” individual in constant, almost physiological need of entertainment, of distractions. (It will be even clearer, further on, that his fruition of books, music, films, videogames etc. is only and purely a source of entertainment, never of art or of personal enrichment) Distractions from what, I cannot be sure. To me they look like distractions from living. From thinking and realizing and feeling the huge lack of value and meaning in his actions.

Frankly, I find it a desolate life, and even, to some extent, offensive to the dignity of human beings (to borrow Kantian terms) insofar as he has a need to anesthetize all that makes him human (his rationality, as well as his emotions) for they find themselves restless, so unused and without purpose. He doesn’t keep up with the news, and doesn’t vote, and I strongly suspect he doesn’t watch television only because, in its passivity, it’s not anesthetizing enough, it’s not as effective a drug as gaming is (or rather can be) through its active engagement of a person’s attention. (Note: Actively engaging a person’s attention is no way related to a meaningful, intelligent task; surely intelligent activities require attention, but crosswords or puzzles do so as well, and they are not meaningful tasks.)

I asked him if he ever asks himself: “After being entertained for hours on end, then what?” He answered no, and by the tone I suspect he may not even have really understood the question. Distraction has developed to the point that it is not a means to forgetting something, but an end in itself. Distraction has succeeded in distracting him from why he wanted to be distracted in the first place. Frankly, hearing him deny any kind of thought about himself, his life, purpose or meaning, scared me, for I felt as if my housemate was something different than human, maybe less than human.

PS.: As for my point of view in judging (so as to answer some possible objections concerning the fact that I may be prejudiced) I myself practice, to some extent, most of those activities as well. I read, I watch films and tv series, I play the guitar, I listen to music and I play videogames. I almost never criticize the activities themselves, but rather how they are carried out, the attitude, the thought (or lack thereof) behind them.

Steven: Introduction

“If what you say doesn’t make someone angry, you’re not doing philosophy properly”

Recently, I have made a mistake in my life. I have moved. Now, that’s not the mistake. Nor the house choice is a mistake. (Well, a little bit) The person I’ve moved with was the mistake. But by the time I had realized it, I had already committed to it, and couldn’t really change my situation.

Now, this person (let’s call him Steven) is the kind of person I was when I was 10, and maybe even when I was 15; and the kind of person I could still be now, if I hadn’t “woken up”. But I’m still trying to change, and grow up, and become better, and that old me hasn’t totally abandoned me yet, despite my efforts. But seeing the materialized “old me” right in front of me does make me want to change more. He is the kind of life I despise and want to avoid at all costs, and yet the kind of life I always fear my life could be, if I give up. It’s always there, like a shadow, like the temptation of being lazy despite knowing that you will hate yourself a little bit more if you waste yet another day.

What I want to start here is a sort of philosophical investigation on that kind of life, using my housemate Steven as a case study. I want to delve deeper into that kind of life, what it is like, what it implies; to point out clearly and precisely what is so disgusting about it, and by opposition (re)defining what I want to be and not want to be. As a consequence, I hope it will push me to become a better person myself.

I realize this may make me look like a liar, a person that speaks about others behind their back, while pretending to like them. But things are not like that. I have tried to tell him some of the things I am going to talk about. Once I have even called him “Nietzsche’s Last Man”. But he will not listen. And if he does, he will forget as soon as he finds another distraction. (Distraction will become one of the key words in this study.) Most of the times he doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, and when he does, he ignores it, forgets it, or contests it by saying that “it’s just your opinion”; this sort of sceptic relativism, though, is not a proper point of view, but simply a technique behind which he tries to shelter by attempting to degrade my arguments to “just my opinion”, therefore equally valid as his or anyone else’s opinion. I realize what I say is an attack to his very own way of living, and if he took me seriously he would have to turn his life around, and he doesn’t want to. (Cf.: Plato’s cave) Since I have to live with him after all, I have decided to stop telling him these things because it’s pointless to argue with him and it will just lead us to fight, with no benefit to either of us.

Another disclaimer before starting: it may look, in fact, arrogant of me to judge people’s lives. If it is arrogant to judge in itself, then let it be so. But the fact that I judge others harshly doesn’t mean I don’t judge myself just as harshly, if not more. A little Socratically, I only claim for myself the genuine attempt at analysing and changing my own life for the better, an effort I don’t see in many people, who are often not even aware of the problem to begin with. I dare to judge, but I don’t put myself in a higher position than anyone else. In fact, I criticize myself a lot more than it is healthy, constantly over-analysing and second-guessing myself. Besides, I give reasons and arguments for my judgements, and I honestly try to recognize when I am proven wrong; if so, I take responsibility for my mistakes and apologise appropriately, but still knowing that I have been honest, and I have done my best all along.

The Working Dead

I’ve heard those words again. Those words that can only come from the mouths of the ghosts of the dead, of the empty that don’t even know they are empty.

This time it was my father. He said that “It’s summer, so a shift at work just makes your day full.” Of course he meant it in a good way, for him. Like, “It gives you something to do”. What’s saddening is that he still has no clue of the kind of person I am. Not that I care too much by this point. I didn’t even bother replying.

I have first heard the complete version of this concept when watching an introductory video for the same job my father was talking about. This random guy in a sort of motivational section of the video said something like: “Why work for —-? Well, it’s better than staying home and being bored!”

Really?

REALLY?

I had already had some clue that large masses of people in the Western World could think such a horrific thought, but it didn’t strike me quite as hard as this one time. {I need to point out, unlike something like teaching, it’s not the kind of job one could possibly enjoy, or do as a form of passion. It’s just a retail job, or bartending, or cleaning around.}

Intellectual aside
When I read Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism”, I came across this piece of information that really shocked me, for the kind of mentality it implied. This passage compared different ways to motivate the labourers to work more in different cultures. A modern entrepreneur, with a Capitalist mindset, would think people want to earn more, just like he wants to earn more (that’s presumably why he wants them to be more productive). So what does he do? He raises the wage per hour, or per piece, or whatever. More money to earn, more people would try to work more. And in today’s world, it would work. But not in a pre-capitalistic mentality, and in an economic ethic that actually made sense and took the meaningfulness of life into account. In other countries, where the entrepreneurs were Capitalists, but the working class was not, raising the wage produced less work. People would aim to earn enough to provide for themselves, and a bit more, just to be on the safe side, but in general they would stop after earning a certain amount of money, say, what they earned in a normal day of work before the pay-raise. Therefore, they would finish early, and they would spend the extra time with their families and friends, enjoying each other’s company. Which behaviour is the weird one out?
——————-

I just can’t get my head around the fact that people can take this kind of job not because they need the money, nor because they like it, but just because they are bored. And as a poor person who has to work (cf.: Slavery), I almost feel it like an offence to my own dignity as a human being. For one, I cannot understand boredom, unless it’s the kind of boredom coming from having to do something you don’t like. But not boredom as such. I can’t conceive it. And even if I could, what do you do? To fight boredom you get an easy, repetitive job.

Well, here’s what I think. That this kind of job is alienating, I don’t think is up for discussion. Despite the fact that there a slight chance of knowing new people, the main characteristic about doing the same thing over and over again with a fake smile on your lips is alienation. And there’s not much one can do about it. It is necessary that someone shuts their brain down and fills the shelves of a supermarket when they’re empty. (It’d actually be easy to make a machine that would do it more efficiently, but let’s leave this aside.) But if you’re alive and self-aware enough, you can save yourself from alienation.

So, someone like that person (or someone like my father), average western citizens with internet access and the ordinary commodities of (low, in my case) middle class, what do they do? They want a job. They would want it even if they had enough money to live until they die of old age. And they don’t want it so they may have more money. Ambition/Greed is not the problem here. Some people who work with me can afford pretty much whatever they want, and they still work.

The only thing I can conclude is that they want something to do. For two strictly-related reasons: 1) They don’t know what to do with themselves when alone and 2) they don’t know how to deal with themselves in the event they should come to think about themselves. So they alienate themselves in a meaningless job. And may they never have a moment to think and peer at the emptiness in their lives. These people want nothing. They have no dreams, they have no wishes for the future, they don’t strive to improve themselves or to reach something. They are self-content in a very unsatisfied – and unsatisfying – way. (Cf.: Nietzsche’s Last Man)

For months now I have been dying to meet someone like that guy, look at him in his eyes and ask him if he’s so disgusted with himself, and why. What brought a person to have no dreams, no interests, no curiosity, nothing at all, so that even regular entertainment is just not enough and they need a job as the ultimate form of mass distraction.

I’m not like them. Even when I “have nothing to do”, 24 hours are never enough for me to do half of what I’d like to do. But I’m not saying everyone should have artistic aspirations (although, as a human being with a brain and a heart, you must have at least something to say, a story to tell, a point to make…?) But, even without active, endless pursuits, like writing, is there really nothing else? Watch films, read books, read newspapers and get involved in local politics to change your area for the better. Do volunteering to help people who are in need. There’s enough to do and to think about for several lifetimes, just in these few things.

What I don’t understand is how could these people lose what made them human beings. A heart, a brain and some curiosity would be enough. What do these people live for? I don’t understand, how do they go through each day?

I have grown up without an inspiring model that would make me wish for greatness. That model came several years later, way too late perhaps. But I was relatively proud to see how much my father had read and how many films he had seen. When I grew up though, I realized there was a lot of consumption lit and cinema in the lot. But there were some gems. He made me read “The Old Man and The Sea”. What saddened me the most, though, was to realize my father couldn’t go any deeper than the simple plot, in the understanding of this kind of thing. More than 40 years reading books and watching films, and never really understanding one. It makes me sad just to think about it. And it scares me that that could have been me.

How can a human being living in this world stop wanting to improve either themselves or the world, lose the will to both tell and listen to stories and sell the time of their life away for lack of a better way to use it? To me these people are just walking, working dead.