Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan

Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

The insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu preferred using “pythons and cobras…fungi and [his] tiny allies, the bacilli…[his] black spiders” and other peculiar animals or natural chemical weapons to kill his enemies:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan,… Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present… Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man.

Sax Rohmer, the novelist who created the character, died after succumbing to Asian flu in 1959.

Liking it is not a matter of bad taste but of some sort of failure of political and moral sophistication

Sunday, May 29th, 2022

The crowd, Freddie deBoer reports, has turned from performatively hating David Foster Wallace to performatively hating The Catcher in the Rye:

For the record, I think The Catcher in the Rye is… OK? It’s fine. It’s definitely a book of an earlier era and it felt as such when I read it as a teenager. I was hoping to connect with it on a deep level (uh, not a Mark David Chapman level) the way some adults in my life had, and I didn’t and was kind of bummed out. But it was fine. As is so often the case with these things, there’s a really dumbass reading of the book lurking in the discussion about it, which is that you’re somehow commanded to identify with Holden Caufield and to want to act like him. This is… not a good interpretation. You certainly can identify with him, but I don’t think that’s suggested very strongly, let alone mandated. As with Fight Club, another boy story for boys about boys being boys, you are invited to empathize with the alienation and loneliness of the main character while recognizing the juvenility and pointlessness of his reaction to it. But, well, now I’m actually engaging with the book, which is more than social media critics of books ever do. They never seem to want to go deeper than saying “TOXIC MASCULINITY” or whatever, which is particularly bizarre here. (Is the idea that Holden Caufield is supposed to be some sort of symbol of an idealized man? What?) It’s all uselessly Manichean — I know this headline is partially a joke but it makes me wince anyway. The important work is always to say a) this book/author is bad and b) liking it is not a matter of bad taste but of some sort of failure of political and moral sophistication.

[...]

Have you never imagined reading a book without wanting it to be a signifier of your entire personality? Do you know how many books I’ve read specifically because I hate the author and their outlook? Or, quelle horreur, you could consider reading a book without knowing what you think about it until you’ve read it! You know, the generative state of being open to forming a summative position based on the gradual aggregation of myriad minor judgments formed along the way? That would seem to be a major part of the point of reading.

[...]

It’s a sickness, the assumption that we must always tightly control every last aspect of our self-presentation, no matter how distinct from our true self, because someone on the subway with a $300k education and zero opinions they didn’t steal from podcasts might silently judge us. And as (this philosophy presumes) no one has a durable sense of self worth, being judged by strangers must be terrifying instead of meaningless.

Many have lamented the fact that professional criticism these days is often just a recitation of ways that a work of art does or does not conform to the childish moral calculus of “social justice.” And mountains of worthless reviews and recaps have been produced under these terms. But it’s important to say that this tendency is not solely or even mainly the product of ideological discipline and the desire to evangelize. Rather it stems from insecurity about one’s own subjective opinions. People who don’t trust that they are sophisticated readers or cinephiles or whatever gravitate towards tedious political checklisting because those political claims seem more transcendent and defensible and real than their own claims of taste. But this fundamentally mistakes the purpose of a review, and it’s very hard to understand why someone who is so afraid of standing by their own opinion would think to write one.

[...]

And it must always be remembered that, not that long ago, most media elites were not woke, but rather sneering neoliberals who mocked leftists as losers; the fact that media culture turned on a dime to embrace social justice fads makes it a certainty that, when that politics goes out of fashion in the coming decade, the media will flip flop right over again. No, the problem with media culture is not the politics but rather where those politics come from — not just from elite colleges or privileged childhoods lived in affluence, but from insecurity.

For the record, I found The Cather in the Rye phony and lousy.

I haven’t read any of David Foster Wallace’s novels, but I do keep going back to The String Theory.

In The Sum of Small Things, David Brooks points out, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

She is one of the handful of books that Tolkien explicitly acknowledges as an influence

Sunday, May 22nd, 2022

It is worth remembering that Tolkien was not simply channelling Beowulf, the Eddas, and the Kalevala in his creative work, a Phuulish fellow notes, but that he was also interacting with more recent material, like H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novels:

By good fortune, She is one of the handful of books that Tolkien explicitly acknowledges as an influence. In a 1966 interview with Henry Resnick, Tolkien remarked:

I suppose as a boy She interested me as much as anything — like the Greek shard of Amyntas [Amenartas], which was the kind of machine by which everything got moving.

The shard of Amenartas is a purported ancient text, included by Rider Haggard as a means of providing some exposition to the story. Well and good. It is the incident that incites the start of the adventure. But the shard is no ordinary ancient text, at least in terms of presentation. Rider Haggard gives facsimiles of the fragment, in actual Greek.

[…]

Don’t worry. Rider Haggard helpfully transcribes and translates the text. But the sheer effort the author went to, in terms of making the artefact look real and believable is noteworthy. It rather recalls the One Ring inscription, and the inscription on Balin’s Tomb, not to mention in-universe Tolkienian texts like The Book of Mazarbul and Thror’s Map. In terms of actual historical exposition, there is also a decent comparison between Rider Haggard’s protagonists puzzling out the Shard, and Gandalf learning about the Ring via the forgotten Scroll of Isildur in the archives of Minas Tirith.

(Yes, I am aware that Rider Haggard did not invent this trope. Jules Verne provides a runic manuscript in A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1871). But Tolkien cites Rider Haggard, not Verne).

Perhaps the single cheekiest Tolkienian shout-out to Rider Haggard is the city of Kôr. In She, the city of Kôr is an ancient ruined city, so ancient that it was already long abandoned when Ayesha turned up, thousands of years before the narrative begins. Kôr predates the Egyptians, in terms of antiquity, and it adds some glorious atmosphere to the setting.

It may therefore interest you to know that Kôr was the original name of the great Noldorin city, Tirion upon Túna. The home of Finwë, Fëanor, et al. Moreover, in Tolkien’s initial conception – found in The Book of Lost Tales – the city ends up abandoned. An early Tolkienian poem, titled Kôr: In a City Lost and Dead, describes the scene, after the Elves have left it.

Spengler was not so humble

Thursday, May 19th, 2022

It is easy to pick out the most significant figures of ancient history — say, Socrates or the Buddha — and pronounce that these were comparable figures of similar historical weight, T. Greer suggests, but how do you pick out which of your contemporaries deserve that honor?

One day a few men of your generation may be vindicated by history. But that history has not happened yet. Humility demands that we decline to declare what only time can prove.

Spengler was not so humble. He repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.

Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition—which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St. John’s curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series—and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin.[2]

Now Erskine’s list is not perfect; it has not perfectly weathered the centuries. The fame of William James has sunk with time; today we usually think of Joseph Conrad, not Thomas Hardy, as the supreme English novelist of that era. But the broader point holds: only a decade or two after these men’s deaths intellectuals confidently spoke of them in the same breath as Shakespeare and Plato. And not just subjectively, in the sense we might today (“I think Urusala LeGuin is as good as Shakespeare” or “I think Hayek is better than Plato”) but with full knowledge that the broader public already knew that these people and their works belonged on the list. It was obvious to even those who disliked Nietzche that he was a seminal figure in Western thought; it was obvious even to those who disagreed with Ibsen that he claimed a similar place in Western literature, and so forth. Their ideas might be argued against, but their genius and their influence was undeniable.

Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for?

How about for the last two decades?

The last three?

Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?

In the realm of science, perhaps. But in the world of social, historical, ethical, and political thought, no one comes to mind. Most “great books” curricula stop right around World War II and its immediate aftermath. St. John’s recently added Wittgenstein and de Beauvoir to their curricula, but their works are almost 70 years old. Michel Foucault is the next obvious candidate, and he died 37 years ago.

They took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

Pop-punk was created in the late 1980s and early 1990s at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, an all-ages venue normally referred to as “Gilman”:

This is where Bay Area bands like Rancid, Operation Ivy, the Mr. T Experience, and, especially, Green Day all started to get attention. Bay Area pop-punk is a kinder, gentler variety than either the nihilist Londoners or the hardcore California bands like the Circle Jerks and the Dead Kennedys that preceded them. The Gilman bands obviously worshipped the Clash, whose songs showed more craft, hooky melodies, and subtlety than, say, the Sex Pistols. Some of the bands, like Rancid, were responsible for amping up the Clash’s combination of punk and reggae into what’s now called the Third Wave of ska music.

The Bay Area community was goofier, sillier, more suburban, and more inclined to make happy, poppy music than any punk community that came before it. As an ode to the Clash, a lot of their singers adopted a sort of faux-British accent. “I’m an American guy faking an English accent faking an American accent,” Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong told Rolling Stone in 1994. Tim Armstrong, the (unrelated) lead singer of fellow Bay Area band Rancid, sings with an accent that varies song by song; sometimes it’s nearly featureless, other times it’s a Strummer-esque Brit inflection, other times it sounds nearly New York.

The pop-punk accent really became smooth and polished a little bit later, in the mid-1990s, with bands like Blink-182 and the Offspring, both hailing from Southern California. Their singers (Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge from Blink-182, Dexter Holland from the Offspring) totally abandoned any pretenses of Britishness. Instead they took their own accent, the California accent, and ramped it up, pushed it to new extremes. It was almost exactly what happened in London. Pop-punk singers became more Californian than the Californians.

Penelope Eckert, a linguistics professor at Stanford, is one of the foremost scholars examining what’s known as the “California Shift.” The California Shift is a linguistic theory covering the particular changes in dialect that affect the Pacific coast of the United States. Eckert was nice enough to humor me and listen several times to a song I chose based on its particularly egregious “pop-punk voice,” Blink-182’s “First Date.” I love the song, but am aware others may find it horribly annoying. “It really does sound like someone’s messing around,” she told me.

A key change in the California Shift is what’s called the cot/caught merger. Northeasterners and Midwesterners pronounce those words differently, giving the former an “ah” sound and the latter an “aw” sound. “Californians do not,” says Eckert, who is originally from New York. “They have no idea. That vowel is almost completely merged. Think ‘mawwm’ instead of ‘mom.’”

Vowel sounds work like those sliding puzzle games where you have to unscramble a picture by sliding one piece of it at a time. As soon as you move one piece, you’re left with an empty space behind you, which has to be filled by something else. Californians dropped the “cot” vowel sound, pronouncing it like “caught” instead. So something had to fill that space. “The California Shift is this kind of combined change in the pronunciation of short vowels,” says Kennedy. The easiest way to think about it? Look at the words kit, dress, and trap. In the California Shift, “kit” becomes “ket”, “dress” becomes “drass”, and “trap” becomes “trop”.

Linguists talk about this shift in terms of directions; to talk with a California accent is sometimes called “trap-backing,” or “trop-bocking.” Your mouth functions like a resonating chamber. You can alter the frequencies of the sounds you make by changing the size of the chamber and by moving your tongue around. Your tongue’s placement is a major factor in dialects; it can be raised, lowered, moved to the front, or moved to the back. Californians move their tongues back, hence “trop-bocking.”

But there are some more complex things going on in the pop-punk voice. Eckert walked me through the Blink-182 song word by word, pointing out places where DeLonge was playing around with accent. “When they say ‘to pick you up on our very first date,’ the interesting thing about ‘date’ is that he renders it as a monophthong ‘dehhht’ instead of ‘date,’ says Eckert. “In most American English it’s a diphthong.” A diphthong is a vowel sound with two simpler sounds in it; for most Americans, “date” is a kind of compound vowel made up of the “eh” sound and the “ee” sound. Not so much for Tom DeLonge, who eliminates all but the “eh,” making it a single sound, or a monophthong.

The monophthong “date” surprised Eckert, as she says it’s not part of the California Shift. Except! “I’ve heard that some in Chicano English, but not so much in Anglo English,” she says. Chicano English is spoken by native English speakers of Mexican descent—it’s not a Mexican accent, because Chicano English speakers are native English speakers, but sort of their own English dialect. And that goes along with one of DeLonge’s most obvious vocal tics: changing short “ih” sounds as in the work “think” to a long “ee” sound, turning it into something like “theenk.” “Chicano English raises the vowel I to ‘ee’ before nasal consonants,” says Eckert. “So ‘theenk’ is very Chicano. And you have a lot of Anglo wannabes saying that too.”

Another very distinctive element of the California accent that’s extremely present in DeLonge’s vocals is the long “oo” sound in words like “room,” which DeLonge pronounces as something more like “rehm.” That’s almost an efficiency move; the particular combination of shapes your lips have to make to move from the first consonant, R, to the last consonant, M, plus the moves your tongue has to make to form the “oo” sound, are pretty difficult. If you move your tongue closer to your front teeth, it’s a lot less work, but you’ll change the pronunciation of “room” to “rehm.” It’s called “oo-fronting.”

There are plenty more things Eckert taught me about DeLonge’s delicious accent, but one last example would be the way Californians pronounce the letter R in certain words. In a word where the stress falls on a vowel one syllable before a word ending in R, like “whatever” or “over,” most of the country, but most noticeably those in the New York/New Jersey area, stress the consonant in the second-to-last syllable extra hard. But Californians lengthen the R. So a New Yorker will say “whatevah,” but a Californian will say “whateverrrr.” “We talk about New York/New Jersey accents as being ‘R-less’ and California accents as being ‘R-ful,’” laughed Eckert. (Linguistics jokes are pretty good.)

DeLonge does some weird, non-Californian stuff, though. His pronunciation of words like “light” and “spider” come out somewhere between the vowel sound from “rye” and “roy.” “His pronunciation of it is striking, and different from Californians generally,” says Kennedy. “It may be another attempt at projecting British punk vocals, but if I recall correctly he does this in speech as well, and so it might actually be a skate/surf/punk subculture linguistic feature.”

Many modern productions try to make Lysistrata a drama

Saturday, May 14th, 2022

Ben Espen recently cited a Twitter thread by Aristophanes’ Skinner Box on Lysistrata as a Comedy, and Aristophanes’ Skinner Box has since been banned:

One of the commenters down thread pointed out that many modern productions try to make Lysistrata a drama, when it is in fact a comedy. You are supposed to laugh, but a comedy is about more than that.

The art he included in his post reminded me of Willy Pogany’s work, but it was made by Norman Lindsay — who sounds like quite a character:

Norman Alfred William Lindsay (22 February 1879 – 21 November 1969) was an Australian artist, etcher, sculptor, writer, art critic, novelist, cartoonist and amateur boxer.[1] One of the most prolific and popular Australian artists of his generation, Lindsay attracted both acclaim and controversy for his works, many of which infused the Australian landscape with erotic pagan elements and were deemed by his critics to be “anti-Christian, anti-social and degenerate”.[2] A vocal nationalist, he became a regular artist for The Bulletin at the height of its cultural influence, and advanced staunchly anti-modernist views as a leading writer on Australian art. When friend and literary critic Bertram Stevens argued that children like to read about fairies rather than food, Lindsay wrote and illustrated The Magic Pudding (1918), now considered a classic work of Australian children’s literature.

Apart from his creative output, Lindsay was known for his larrikin attitudes and personal libertine philosophy, as well as his battles with what he termed “wowserism“. One such battle is portrayed in the 1994 film Sirens, starring Sam Neill and filmed on location at Lindsay’s home in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. It is now known as the Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum and is maintained by the National Trust of Australia.

[…]

In 1895, Lindsay moved to Melbourne to work on a local magazine with his older brother Lionel. His Melbourne experiences are described in Rooms and Houses.

In 1901, he and Lionel joined the staff of the Sydney Bulletin, a weekly newspaper, magazine and review. His association there would last fifty years.

Lindsay travelled to Europe in 1909, Rose followed later. In Naples he began 100 pen-and-ink illustrations for Petronius’ Satyricon. Visits to the then South Kensington Museum where he made sketches of model ships in the Museum’s collection stimulated a lifelong interest in ship models. The Lindsays returned to Australia in 1911.

Lindsay wrote the children’s classic The Magic Pudding which was published in 1918.

Many of his novels have a frankness and vitality that matches his art. In 1930 he created a scandal when his novel Redheap (supposedly based on his hometown, Creswick) was banned due to censorship laws.

In 1938, Lindsay published Age of Consent, which described the experience of a middle-aged painter on a trip to a rural area, who meets an adolescent girl who serves as his model, and then lover. The book, published in Britain, was banned in Australia until 1962.

Lindsay also worked as an editorial cartoonist, notable for often illustrating the racist and right-wing political leanings that dominated The Bulletin at that time; the “Red Menace” and “Yellow Peril” were popular themes in his cartoons. These attitudes occasionally spilled over into his other work, and modern editions of The Magic Pudding often omit one couplet in which “you unmitigated Jew” is used as an insult.

Lindsay was associated with a number of poets, such as Kenneth Slessor, Francis Webb and Hugh McCrae, influencing them in part through a philosophical system outlined in his book Creative Effort. He also illustrated the cover for the seminal Henry Lawson book, While the Billy Boils. Lindsay’s son, Jack Lindsay, emigrated to England, where he set up Fanfrolico Press, which issued works illustrated by Lindsay.

Lindsay influenced numerous artists, notably the illustrators Roy Krenkel and Frank Frazetta; he was also good friends with Ernest Moffitt.

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The mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility

Sunday, May 8th, 2022

Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers includes an attack on Momism:

During World War II, Wylie went to work for the Office of Facts and Figures (later known as The Office of War Information) in Washington, DC, but resigned when his superiors rejected his plan to tell Americans about the Bataan Death March and other atrocities committed by the Japanese, in an effort to stir their patriotic commitment to the war effort. Dispirited by this experience, Wylie returned home to Miami Beach, where, from May 12 to July 4, 1942, he hammered out a series of splenetic essays that comprised “a catalogue of what I felt to be wrong morally, spiritually and intellectually with my fellow citizens.” These essays would eventually be gathered into Generation of Vipers, whose 18 chapters skewered a range of supposedly sacrosanct American beliefs, groups, and institutions, such as organized religion, business, Congress, doctors, and the supposed goodness of the common man. But the chapter that ignited a firestorm of controversy and rocketed the book to bestsellerdom was “Common Women,” Wylie’s caustic attack on Americans’ sanctification of motherhood, a cultural syndrome Wylie dubbed “Momism.” This was tantamount to spitting on the flag.

Generation of Vipers (whose full title is Generation of Vipers: A Survey of Moral Want • A Philosophical Discourse suitable only for the Strong • A Study of American Types and Archetypes • And A Signpost on the two Thoroughfares of Man: the Dolorosa and the Descensus Averno • Together with sundry Preachments, Epithets, Modal Adventures, Political Impertinences, Allegories, Aspirations, Visions and Jokes as well as certain Homely Hints for the care of the Human Soul) sold terrifically when it hit bookstores in January 1943, thanks to the endorsement given it the week before publication by popular columnist Walter Winchell. The first printing of 4,000 copies sold out in a week, and the book just kept selling. Vipers went through 11 printings in 1943 alone and went on to sell 180,000 copies in hardcover by 1954. In 1950, the American Library Association named Generation of Vipers one of the 50 most influential and important books of the last 50 years.

“Mom,” Wylie begins the chapter “Common Women,” “is an American creation. Her elaboration was necessary because she was launched as Cinderella.” Here Wylie refers to an earlier chapter in which he explained how American women were inculcated in a distorted version of the fairy tale that conditioned them to expect material wealth, not because of virtuous activities but merely because they were female. “The idea women have that life is marshmallows which will come as a gift — an idea promulgated by every medium and many an advertisement — has defeated half the husbands in America,” Wylie wrote. “It has made at least half our homes into centers of disillusionment. […] It long ago became associated with the notion that the bearing of children was such an unnatural and hideous ordeal that the mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility.”

I haven’t read Generation of Vipers, but I have read Wylie’s 1930 novel, Gladiator, which many argue is the original inspiration for Superman, The Savage Gentleman, which likely inspired Doc Savage, and When Worlds Collide, which he co-wrote with Edwin Balmer, which (along with Armageddon 2419 AD) inspired Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon.

The hypothesis was proposed as an explanation for the presence of lemur fossils in Madagascar and India but not in Africa or the Middle East

Friday, May 6th, 2022

I was recently reminded of the Theosophists and their belief in the lost continent of Lemuria, which I had only ever seen mentioned in old science fiction and fantasy:

Lemuria was a continent proposed in 1864 by zoologist Philip Sclater to have sunk beneath the Indian Ocean, later appropriated by occultists in supposed accounts of human origins.

The hypothesis was proposed as an explanation for the presence of lemur fossils in Madagascar and India but not in Africa or the Middle East. Biologist Ernst Haeckel’s suggestion in 1870 that Lemuria could be the ancestral home of mankind caused the hypothesis to move beyond the scope of geology and zoogeography, ensuring its popularity outside of the framework of the scientific community.

Occultist and founder of Theosophy Helena Blavatsky, during the latter part of the 19th century, placed Lemuria in the system of her mystical-religious doctrine, claiming that this continent was the homeland of the human ancestors, whom she called Lemurians. The writings of Blavatsky had a significant impact on Western esotericism, popularizing the myth of Lemuria and its mystical inhabitants.

Theories about Lemuria became untenable when, in the 1960s, the scientific community accepted Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, presented in 1912, but the idea lived on in the popular imagination, especially in relation to the Theosophist tradition.

Science-fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp wrote a book, Lost Continents, about Atlantis and other sunken lands — which had to be revised when the theory of continental drift gained acceptance.

The Party-state had added the artificial constraints of an information ecosystem sealed off from the rest of humankind

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well,” T. Greer explains, but outside of its own borders, post-Deng China has a poor record selling the intangible:

Most observers place fault exactly where Dan does: the claustrophobic cultural environment of enforced political orthodoxy. A common ancillary argument is that party-state calls for innovative cultural production are themselves the problem. Cultural innovation happens at the level of the individual artist, this argument goes. Steven Speilbergs cannot be produced on demand.

I do not find this logic totally convincing. After all, China’s neighbors have done the exact thing Western critics and artists claim cannot be done.

Consider the “Korean wave.” What Ford was to the automobile, the Korean companies SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment are to pop. The stars and starlets of Korean popdom are selected, trained, choreographed, and publicized with a Tayloresque efficiency that would make the manager of any Amazon warehouse proud. The founder of the first of these companies famously declared that “S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology.” In the ‘90s he reversed engineered this technology with methods that mirror Korea’s famous chaebol: he began by consciously breaking down the constituent parts of successful American and Japanese pop hits, simplified these parts into scripts that could be easily replicated, hired foreign expertise to shepherd the design process, and then secured government funding to jump start his new export industry. From the beginning, South Korea’s pop record labels positioned themselves as “national champions” of the same mold and make as Samsung and Hyundai.

The success of K-pop hinged on two connecting tissues that bound together the South Korean music industry with Japan and the West.

[…]

To replicate the success of Michael Jackson, SM Entertainment hired a producer of a Michael Jackson’s albums to work with their stars! This was standard during the genre’s rise: throughout the aughts and early 2010s, the most famous K-pop performances were arranged, composed, choreographed, and produced by Western composers, mixers, choreographers, producers, and videographers.

K-pop was not entirely the work of foreigners: after delivering a new composition or developing a new choreographic routine, the Western expert would retreat to the background. Record executives would then review songs beat by beat, dance move by dance moves, making adjustments and reworking material until they were satisfied they had created something the masses would clamor for. K-pop was thus not just a self conscious appropriation of foreign music styles, but an attempt to create the next iteration of those very styles. If art can be thought of as a conversation, K-pop succeeded in part because its creators presented their music as the next turn in an existing dialogue.

[…]

My two younger sisters became K-pop fanatics in their middle school years. Day after day I would walk in the front door and see the two of them flopping about in front a computer screen, mimicking the choreography of their favorite bands. As with “Gagnam Style’s” viral rise, YouTube was the main mechanism of transmission.

These are not anomalous anecdotes. K-pop was the first musical genre to intentionally embrace streaming. From the beginning, K-pop labels sought to save on costs and circle around foreign gate keepers by bringing their product straight to Youtube. The website was popular in Korea early; as users of Youtube themselves, the executives at the big three record labels quickly realized that it was the shortest route to the foreign mass consumer. The Korean Wave would not have been possible without American social media. Silicon Valley built the highway that connects Korean producers and fans with audiences abroad.

This gets to heart of China’s problems—and these are not problems of cultural sterility. In my experience, Chinese intellectual life is often more vital and vibrant than what I see in the West.

[…]

My sisters became K-pop fanatics under the swayof Youtube channels and Facebook groups. Where are the center points of Chinese fandoms? Websites like Bilibili, Tieba, and WeChat. There are few bridges to link these Chinese sites with their counterparts in the West.

To the natural obstacle facing any logographic language in a latinate world, the Party-state had added the artificial constraints of an information ecosystem sealed off from the rest of humankind. The seal is permeable. In fact, it is breached every day — but these breaches are not free. The transaction costs of jumping the firewall and moving between platforms put Chinese producers at a disadvantage. The cyber infrastructure of the global commons is simply not as intuitive to Chinese executives and artists as it was to the Koreans who engineered the Korean Wave. Even most of the Chinese who live abroad interact with it surprisingly little; they bring the homegrown ecosystem with them in their pockets, and have no reason to leave it.

This is the first, and probably most important, challenge to building sustainable cultural hegemony. The Party-state’s decision to strengthen its hold on the discourse inside China came at the direct expense of its own discourse power abroad.

It inevitably ends with subversion

Monday, May 2nd, 2022

The rule-abiding nature of genre means that there is an internal logic to its artistic progression:

It inevitably ends with subversion. When a genre’s possibilities have been depleted, the last trick left is to invert the tropes. This is a sign that the genre is out of new things to say. Since the professional class is rewarded for telling genre fiction, those who rise to the political class can only communicate in tropes. Increasingly, all political stories are told as inverted genre.

Author one tells a story about a good knight who slays an evil dragon. A trope is born. Author two is influenced by this story, but can’t write the same one, so writes about a knight struggling to be good who slays a sympathetic dragon. The genre is made complex, and the trope is expanded. Author three has to contend with both of his antecedents, and so he has less space to write a dragon story. The obvious remaining choice is to write about an evil knight who slays a good dragon. Perhaps this is done with a wink that pokes fun at the fantasy genre as a whole. Inverting a trope may seem like “subver­sion,” yet this process strengthens the genre and allows it to continue after it has exhausted itself. Author three’s story only works if the audience is familiar with stories one and two.

This process explains many of the popular political narratives of our time. “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.” Political stories have to change with changing circumstances, but our leaders only know how to tell genre. In order to tell a new story, they would have to abandon false certainty and set off into the unknown. Instead, old genre stories get inverted, and forms of authority which no longer hold value are kept alive through faux subversion.

The entire phenomenon of the nonconformist bureaucrat can be seen as genre inversion. Everyone today grew up with pop culture stories about evil corporations and corporate America’s soul-sucking culture, and so the “creatives” have fashioned a self-image defined against this genre. These stories have been internalized and inverted by corporate America itself, so now corporate America has mandatory fun events and mandatory displays of creativity.

In other words, past countercultures have been absorbed into corporate America’s conception of itself. David Solomon isn’t your father’s stuffy investment banker. He’s a DJ! And Goldman Sachs isn’t like the stuffy corporations you heard about growing up. They fly a transgender flag outside their headquarters, list sex-change tran­sitions as a benefit on their career site, and refuse to underwrite an IPO if the company is run by white men. This isn’t just posturing. Wokeness is a cult of power that maintains its authority by pretending it’s perpetually marching against authority. As long it does so, its sectaries can avoid acknowledging how they strengthen managerial America’s stranglehold on life by empowering administrators to en­force ever-expanding bureaucratic technicalities.

Inverted tropes also define the relationship between the Left and the Right. Rather than tell a new story, the Left and Right tell genre fiction that depends upon their mutual opposition for meaning. Pope Benedict XVI once argued that modernity brought the believer and the atheist closer together because the believer is tempted by doubt while the nonbeliever is tempted by “perhaps it’s true,” and both stories are linked by fundamental uncertainty. A similar dynamic ex­plains why our politics is simultaneously divisive and homogeneous. The Bass Pro shopper tells a story in which patriotism is expressed through the consumer choice to wear an American flag T-shirt. The Bushwick woman tells a story in which getting an ugly haircut makes her “nonbinary.” These stories don’t make sense unless they are told in opposition to the story of the libtard, or the patriarchy, respectively. Polarization makes political actors dependent on their political opponents, which increases divisions because any area of agreement threatens to erode entire political identities. These lazy stories find their apotheosis in our politicians.

Our politicians, their staff, and their political consultant remoras are the worst storytellers in society. Mass democracy has become a selection process that rewards politicians for being as shameless as possible. Indeed there is nothing more embarrassing and pathetic than the way politicians try to be cool or relatable. From wearing flannel to the Iowa State Fair to live streams in which they make a big deal out of drinking beer, politicians are constantly relying on the dumbest tropes.

The professional class tells a variety of genre stories about their jobs

Sunday, May 1st, 2022

Genre fiction is any story created to explicitly appeal to fans of existing stories, John McElroy notes, and it often refers to sci-fi, fantasy, noir, and westerns, but also includes novels about novelists struggling to write novels:

Genre is the storytelling technique of the managerial class because its rule-abiding nature resembles a bureaucracy, and part of the reason members of this professional class seem increasingly out of touch is because they tell genre stories which expect the audience to accept recycled tropes.

The professional class tells a variety of genre stories about their jobs: TED Talker, “entrepreneur,” “innovator,” “doing well by doing good.” One of the most popular today is corporate feminism. This familiar story is about a young woman who lands a prestigious job in Manhattan, where she guns for the corner office while also fulfilling her trendy Sex and the City dreams. Her day-in, day-out life is blessed by the mothers and grandmothers who fought for equality — with the ghost of Susan B. Anthony lingering Mufasa-like over America’s cubicles. Yet, like other corporate genre stories, girl-boss feminism is a celebration of bureaucratic life, including its hierarchy. Isn’t that weird?

[...]

Forty years ago, Christopher Lasch wrote that “modern industry condemns people to jobs that insult their intelligence,” and today employers rub this insult in workers’ faces with a hideously infantilizing work culture that turns the office into a permanent kindergarten classroom. Blue-chip companies reward their employees with balloons, stuffed animals, and gold stars, and an exposé detailing the stringent communication rules of the luxury brand Away Luggage revealed how many start-ups are just “live, laugh, love” sweatshops. This humiliating culture dominates America’s companies because few engage in truly productive or necessary work. Professional genre fiction, such as corporate feminism, is thus often told as a way to cope with the underwhelming reality of working a job that doesn’t con­tribute anything to the world.

[...]

This is, of course, a little dramatic, yet it’s interesting to note how genre is constructed primarily from prior stories, and so is always plodding away from realism. In entertainment, this creates clichés. But in the bureaucratic world, this creates stories that everyone repeats, yet no one truly believes. The stories serve a purpose, and so to criticize them as being phony, or not accurate, is always to miss why they are told. The professional class is susceptible to these stories because this is how communication functions within a bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies have established paths to power, and genre fiction is used to signal status along those routes. The key format is the résumé: a document designed to get as close to a lie as possible, while main­taining enough plausibility for the applicant to avoid laughing during job interviews.

Bureaucrats always feel that they are “in on the game,” and so develop a false sense of certainty about the world, which sorts them into two groups: the cynics and the neurotics. Cynics recognize the nonsense, but think it’s necessary for power. The neurotics, by con­trast, are earnest go-getters who confuse the nonsense with actual work. They begin to feel like they’re the only ones faking it and become so insecure they have to binge-watch TED Talks on “im­poster syndrome.”

These two dispositions help explain why journalists focus on things like impeachment rather than medical supply chains. One group cynically condescends to American intelligence, while neurotics shriek about the “norms of our democracy.” Both are undergirded by a false certainty about what’s possible. Professional elites vastly overestimate their own intelligence in comparison with the average American, and today there is nothing so common as being an elitist. Meanwhile, public discourse gets dumber and dumber as elitists spend all their time explaining hastily memorized Wikipedia entries to those they deem rubes.

When was the Golden Age of Science Fiction?

Sunday, April 24th, 2022

When was the Golden Age of Science Fiction?

Adherents of the genre debate whether a Golden Age of creativity and exploration occurred during the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s, or 1960’s.

Terry Carr, who edited the anthology Universe 3, shared the canonical answer in his introduction, dated June 9, 1972:

Years ago a friend of mine, Pete Graham, tersely answered the question “When was the golden age of science fiction?” by saying, “Twelve.” He didn’t have to explain further; we knew what he meant.

(Hat tip to Winchell Chung.)

Mencius Moldbug might have hijacked a few more brains

Friday, April 22nd, 2022

When Curtis Yarvin (Mencius Moldbug) appeared on Tucker Carlson back in September, I was surprised, but I didn’t get around to watching it until recently:

It’s hard to judge these things, but I think he might have managed to hijack a few more brains.

In the interview, Carlson asks him about the origin of modern Progressive thought, and Yarvin brings up Reds, the 1981 film based on John Reed’s 1919 book Ten Days That Shook the World, which depicts a subculture with the same values as modern Hollywood, but 100 years ago:

In 1915, married journalist and suffragist Louise Bryant encounters the radical journalist John Reed for the first time at a lecture in Portland, Oregon, and is intrigued with his idealism. After meeting him for an interview on international politics that lasts an entire night, she realizes that writing has been her only escape from her frustrated existence. Inspired to leave her husband, Bryant joins Reed in Greenwich Village, New York City, and becomes acquainted with the local community of activists and artists, including anarchist and author Emma Goldman and the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Later, they move to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to concentrate on their writing, becoming involved in the local theater scene. Through her writing, Bryant becomes a feminist and radical in her own right. Reed becomes involved in labor strikes with the “Reds” of the Communist Labor Party of America. Obsessed with changing the world, he grows restless and heads for St. Louis to cover the 1916 Democratic National Convention.

During Reed’s absence, Bryant falls into a complicated affair with O’Neill. Upon his return, Reed discovers the affair and realizes he still loves Bryant. The two marry secretly and make a home together in Croton-on-Hudson, north of New York City, but still have conflicting desires. When Reed admits his own infidelities, Bryant takes a ship to Europe to work as a war correspondent. After a flare-up of a kidney disorder, Reed is warned to avoid excessive travel or stress, but he decides to take the same path. Reunited as professionals, the two find their passion rekindled as they are swept up in the fall of Russia’s Czarist regime and the events of the 1917 Revolution.

The film portrays Emma Goldman as a passionate defender of women’s rights, willing to get arrested to hand out pamphlets on contraception:

She and anarchist writer Alexander Berkman, her lover and lifelong friend, planned to assassinate industrialist and financier Henry Clay Frick as an act of propaganda of the deed. Frick survived the attempt on his life in 1892, and Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Goldman was imprisoned several times in the years that followed, for “inciting to riot” and illegally distributing information about birth control. In 1906, Goldman founded the anarchist journal Mother Earth.

Quite a firecracker, that Emma Goldman!

How Harpoon V would model the Ukrainian attack on the Moskva

Sunday, April 17th, 2022

Ian B. of the Rocky Mountain Navy looks at how the latest version of the table-top Harpoon war game, Harpoon V, would model the Ukrainian attack on the Moskva:

Given that Moskva is a major combatant with a wide assortment of radars and defensive systems, the result of the attack/accident seems almost implausible. On paper this is a Ukrainian David vs. a Russian Goliath. Alternatively, how could the Russian Navy lose a ship to a fire? A closer examination of a plausible “engagement” using the Harpoon V rules reveals it’s not as lopsided as one might think.

If reports are to be believed, Moskva was struck by by two RK-360MC Neptun (Neptune) anti-ship cruise missiles. Neptune is generally reported to be a Ukrainian version of the Russian Kh-35U but with a longer body, more fuel, and a larger booster. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use the Kh-35U which is listed as the Uran (3M24) [SS-N-25 Switchblade] in Annex D1 of Russia’s Navy: Soviet & Russian Naval Vessels, 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021). The most important data element is perhaps the damage caused by the 150kg warhead which Harpoon V rates as “35+D6/2” or 36-38 damage points. Admittedly, this number may be a bit low given the Neptune has more fuel and is larger, factors which lead to more damage in Admiralty Trilogy models.

Moskva is (was?) the lead ship of the Project 1164 Atlant class. To Cold War Grognards like me it’s perhaps better known as a Slava-class guided missile cruiser. The lead ship, Slava, entered service in 1983 and eventually was renamed Moskva in 1995. This particular ship was overhauled between 1991-2000 and was to be overhauled again in 2016. Reports indicate the overhaul stalled for lack of funds and the ship reentered service in 2019 with few—or none—of the planned upgrades completed. Full details for Moskva are found in Annex A of Russia’s Navy. Of particular concern to this analysis, Moskva is rated at 341 damage points.

There are many unanswered questions about how the Ukrainians may have hit Moskva with two ASCMs. In Harpoon V one can play out the detection, engagement, and damage results. While many pundits are saying that Moskva “should” have seen—and defeated—the inbound missiles, Harpoon V helps us understand why this may have not been an “automatic” thing.

[...]

The defensive model in Harpoon V assumes ships are at General Quarters with all sensors and weapons at the ready. General Quarters is also very hard to maintain with watertight doors secured and people constantly on edge. It is more likely that Moskva was operating in some lesser readiness condition. This of course means sensors and weapons may not have been ready (extending the Reaction Time) and watertight integrity/damage control teams may not have been set to immediately deal with damage.

[...]

The late Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.) in his book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) shared a study showing the number of Exocet equivalents (approximately equal to one 3M24) it would take to cripple or sink a warship (see Fig. 6-1, Exocet Missile Equivalents versus Full-Load Displacement for Ships Out of Action and Sunk, p. 160). The table goes up to 7,000 tons but extrapolating the data to ~10,000 tons (Moskva is 9,380 tons standard displacement) indicates that two hits are very likely enough to put Moskva out of action and four or five hits would be sufficient to sink the ship. Assuming two missiles and maybe one sympathetic detonation of ordnance that’s already three hits…with maybe a fourth from fire and flood damage. In many ways the surprise should not be Moskva sinking but if the ship somehow survives.

It’s bad enough losing a ship, but worse not losing it in combat:

At this point the Russian need to claim the ship was saturated with dozens of missiles and they heroically downed all but the last two. The story will be the Captain stood on the bridge with his middle finger raised and said, “F*ck you, Ukrainian missile!”

Tom Clancy used an earlier edition of Harpoon to game out The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising — which he did with Larry Bond, the US Navy officer who developed the game. A Forbes piece from a couple years ago describes the origin of the game:

In July 1976 a young naval officer made the short walk from his warship to a destroyer tender docked nearby. Lieutenant (JG) Larry Bond returned to the USS McKean with a precious copy of the NAVTAG wargame. And because it was a Secret document, he promptly signed it in to his ship’s classified material locker. NAVTAG (Naval Tactical Game) was an official war game used to train U.S. Navy officers how to fight with their ships. It was a great training aid, but its classified status created a bureaucratic barrier to playing it, so it rarely came out of the safe. What Bond thought was needed was a non-classified version which could be played more easily. It was the beginning of the now famous Harpoon wargame lineage.

[...]

When Bond released the first version in April 1980 it was an instant success, even winning the H.G. Wells award in 1981. Bond knew all about wargames, being an associate of Dave Arneson of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Arneson’s company even publish the first two editions. While it was popular with the civilian audience, it was also a hit with professional war fighters. It was easier to play than NAVTAG, and free from classified material, but retained the realism needed in a navy setting.

Arneson was not the only famous person associated with the game. Upcoming author Tom Clancy bought a copy of Harpoon and began corresponding with Larry Bond. Clancy used the game during his research for his first novel, The Hunt for Red October. His second book, Red Storm Rising, was based on scenarios tested out playing Harpoon. The bona fide wargaming gave the book a level of realism and credibility which sets it apart from many other Techno Thrillers. Bond was also Clancy’s co-author on the book.

Red Storm Rising was essentially a Soviet Invasion of Europe war game written as a story. It was a scenario familiar to naval planners. So if you have ever wondered why Russia’s Tu-22 Backfire bombers featured so prominently, it was a real-world concern of NATO navies. Armed with powerful supersonic missiles, these could overwhelm all but the latest warships. It was the threat that AEGIS and the F-14 Tomcat were primarily intended to counter.

In Red Storm Rising — spoiler alert — the Soviet Navy achieves a decisive early victory against a US Navy carrier group by using air-launched decoy drones to draw the carrier’s air patrol far away, while Tu-16 Badger bombers attack from another direction, causing considerable damage. Apparently the Ukrainians pulled off this trick against the Russian Moskva, with their Turkish drone.

Another tactical lesson from the book seems to be playing out, too. Three men and a jeep can race along the road, set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before the enemy can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away.

(The Harpoon V Jumpstart rules are free to download.)

Egg trees are a dismal failure when compared to Christmas trees

Sunday, April 17th, 2022

In the era before plastic eggs, many Americans carefully emptied whole eggs of their contents and colored them brightly for Easter, occasionally hanging them on tree branches with scraps of ribbon or thread:

In 1890s New York, it was even something of a craze. But despite brief bursts of popularity, Kaufman writes, today “egg trees are a dismal failure when compared to Christmas trees, found only in a few public fora and very scattered homes.”

Much like the Christmas tree, the custom likely came to the United States with German immigrants, entrenching itself among the Pennsylvania Dutch. (Although the Easter egg tree is typically a bare-branched tree hung with eggs, rather than an evergreen.) Across parts of Pennsylvania and Appalachia, Kaufman writes, women considered egg trees a type of good-luck charm, especially when it came to fertility.

Easter Egg Tree in Saalfeld, Germany

The Easter tree achieved more widespread popularity in 1950, after Katherine Milhous, an American author, published the Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book The Egg Tree. Pennsylvania Dutch scholar Alfred Lewis Shoemaker credited The Egg Tree with a “nationwide acceptance, overnight, of the custom of decorating a tree with colored eggs at Easter.” Milhous herself prepped and painted 600 eggs for the New York Public Library’s Easter tree that same year. But Shoemaker spoke too soon. The tradition slowly faded in New York, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art only discontinuing its yearly Easter egg tree in the 1980s. Hollowing out fragile eggs and hanging them on trees, Kaufman writes, seemed unable to compete with the relative ease of simply placing eggs in a basket.