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fatal miscellany

Somebody has written an ad campaign based, apparently, on famous destructive holes in human reason. Of course it makes perfect sense for gambling companies to glorify bad reasoning, but that fact made it no less surprising to see on the street. What have we here?:

Fine, it's unintentional - certainly it's no more immoral than its parent industry - sure, cognitive bias is already so ubiquitous that mere positive PR is hard-pressed to make us worse at reasoning. But then they go and the perfunctory line at the bottom about 'responsible gambling'. A step beyond.


Chuck Klosterman points out that, just in writing the above, I have fallen for modern advertising's core mechanism: get us talking even in the face of its meaninglessness. Our contempt for advertising is used against us; springing into moral action, we paint complex pictures and draw social implications where there were none, a minute ago.

"What used to be advertising's preposterous scheme - selling an emotion or a worldview through a seemingly disparate product - is now the actual, accepted motive behind why people buy things... The question now is not "What do we tell people this product is supposed to mean?" The question is "When we tell people what this product is supposed to mean, how much will they accept our transparently bullshit message?" In other words, Pepsi is not trying to market soda pop to optimistic people. That's impossible and nonsensical. What they're hoping is that when consumers recognise that Pepsi is trying to amorphously tie soda to optimism, a segment of that audience will decide "That's ridiculous, but I see what they're doing. I'm willing to associate myself with this gimmick"... There's nobody left for advertisers to fool. We're all magicians...

When Americans watch Super Bowl commercials, they analyze them as pieces of art; they think about the message the images imply and they blog about what those implications are supposed to prove about the nation as a whole. We assume that commercials are not just informing us about purchasable products, because that would be crude and ineffective. We’re smarter than that. But that understanding makes us more vulnerable. We’ve become the ideal audience for advertising—consumers who intellectually magnify commercials in order to make them more trenchant and clever than they actually ever are."


So, obviously in 1933 one book entitled Ulysses defeated the US state and made art forever safe for queers, reprobates, and English students

Anyway that's what Random House had us think when they manufactured themselves a succès de scandale. (Really: they demanded to be taken to court over importing the book: "...In 1932, Cerf arranged to have the book seized by U.S. Customs agents from a traveler arriving from overseas. As it turned out, though, Cerf’s accomplice had to practically beg them to impound it. When the traveler insisted that an agent open his luggage, the agent replied, “It’s too hot.” When the agent finally opened a bag and saw the copy of Ulysses, he was unimpressed. “Oh, for God’s sake, everybody brings that in,” he said. “We don’t pay any attention to it.”")

The ruling overturned the Hicklin test's after 70 years of its nasty paternal moralism. But it wasn't the end of obscenity; the case was one downgrade in a series of erosions. The legal establishment's philosophy of lewdness over time:

  • 1857: Smut is so powerful we have to break into your house and burn it. (If a piece is intended to corrupt, it is obscene.)

  • 1868: Smut is even more powerful than that. As Henry Cockburn put it: "all material tending to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences" is obscene. (i.e. Intention isn't magic; anything* erotic is obscene; one drop of obscenity makes a work obscene.)

  • 1933: Americans decide literature cannot be smut. "The question is whether a publication taken as a whole has a libidinous effect. The book before us has such portentous length... and is so little erotic in its result..." The real novelty of this is their up and deciding that evaluated literary merit overwhelms, transmutes its subject matter: "It's not porn if it means something." (Painting long had its own escape clauses: e.g. "if it has urns in it can't be smut".)

  • the same sentiment in 1957: Some dirty pamphlets occasion a new test based on Joe Public's average boner/outrage throughout reading it ("The standard for judging obscenity ... is whether, to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest.") So the goalposts are moved from the nominal effect on the most sensitive/impressionable to the moral judgment of some fictional average citizen. But, in the same year, even Howl was said to have "redeeming social importance", so, y'know. Sure, we were letting whimsical old white dudes decide these things - but it's still remarkable that we did.

  • again in 1960: "The one thing which this Act has made plain is that in future, in fairness to the author, the book must be judged as a whole."

  • 1966: Amusingly, in 1966 Massachusetts banned, conditionally, the two hundred year-old Mills & Boon romp Fanny Hill (that reliance on the sentiments of grumpy old men again, AKA 'local community standards'). But even this ended up weakening the statute, since prudes were forced to say that only things "utterly lacking in social value" were obscene.

  • 1973: I had assumed this was about Henry Miller, but in fact it was even cheaper smut. Barring concerns about internet matter, this is more or less where the US is now: I was surprised to see that the test is still fairly open to regressive attitudes (because community standards don't have to keep becoming more tolerant).

  • So: the law's been pushed back to handle evil porn, and art that feeds off the symbolism of evil porn. Fair enough. I wanted to end by picking out the final (or anyway most recent) time an Artwork's publisher was publically prosecuted, but that search leads into the kind of "is it porn or erotica?" research that would probably be more work (and more grim) than the one-liner's worth.

    * Except the Classics obv, what are you, some sort of savage?



    "Anyone who's proud of their country hasn't read enough history."
    - Richard Morgan's Carl Marsalis


    We now all talk to computers a lot - beings who just do not respond if we don't do things their way.

    ---- This could be improving us! From the simplest ATM transaction to the grandest multicore parallel-process kernel or irreducible mental finger-trap, we are being made to think clearly, on pain of not getting what we want.

    ---- This could be vitiating! People's macho overidentification with the Machine has produced a philosophy and a politics, but neither will do us much good in the end.


    "And when they were up they were up,
    And when they were down they were down,
    And when they were only halfway up
    they were neither up nor down."

    - Yorkist propaganda for philosophical supervaluationism


    Tabloid journalists between the wars noted that a few small towns across Europe had become fierce majority-socialist strongholds. They called them "Little Moscows". In England there was Chopwell; Scotland had Vale of Leven and Lumphinnans, in Germany, Penzburg and Selb, etc. Speaking as a recent visitor, Vale of Leven no longer instils much fire or communal rigour. There are still an Engels Street and a Hardie street. (Both very short.)

    Socialism of that time strikes me as warmer, nobler, more credible. This is possibly because their targets were more obviously life-destroying - or because the Soviets hadn't dragged its name through all that much blood yet - or just because it's so far away, and the ascribed Otherness of it bounces off our thick, approximately rich skins. Most likely, it's by comparison with what passes for socialism now that it glows with so much life and promise.*

    * Do I mean parliamentary socialism?


    'Empirically' is a strange word. (e.g. "Empirically, there are no third-generation workless families in Britain.") It'd be totally redundant (in the way Tarski thought 'is true' is redundant) - if we weren't so awful at paying attention to evidence.


    "I asked my neurologist at the time, and he answered carefully, "Well, after a few years you may lose your edge." Lose my edge? Lose my edge? Oh, shit! I need my edge. My edge is how I make a living. More than that: My edge is my claim on the world. It's why people are my friends, why they invite me over for dinner, perhaps why they marry me. What am I worth to the world if I've lost my edge?"
    - Michael Kinsley


    I'm a moral egalitarian; that's all. A moral egalitarian says "on the face of it, all people* deserve equal helpings of justice" (or anyway each deserves a pretty high minimum of respect).

    This gets confused, even by egalitarians, as being the same as or entailing normative egalitarianism, moral equipollence - that is, the sort of view that gets dismissed as relativism. These views say things like: "All human things are worth the same; value only exists relative to a cultural backdrop; judgments are always (only) subjective; swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts, now shut up." This sounds like it would serve morally egalitarian ends - for instance, if adopted alongside epistemic relativism, it might stop Westerners from stomping all over other peoples' self-images.

    But it wouldn't: it's not just the oppressed who can use relative conceptions of fact and value to get leverage over 'lived reality'; the powerful have to date been much, much better at it.

    * Or rather subjects.


    Can you oppress someone without knowing it?
    - Of course!

    Can you oppress someone without them knowing it?
    - Yes?

    Can you oppress someone without knowing them?
    - There are far more relations than knowledge.

    If you oppress a tree in a forest, but there is no sociologist around, is it oppression?
    - Metaphorically!

    Can you oppress a dead person?
    - Nah?

    Can you oppress people after you're dead?
    - By legal proxy.

    Can you oppress someone without actually doing anything?
    - If you chose doing nothing.


    (c) Jan Toorop (1893), 'O Death, Where is thy Victory?'