PERMANENT RECORD

I’ve always loved the phenomenon of YouTube dads, the ecosystem of earnest older men with very specific hobbies who methodically show you how to fix and restore objects. “I want to be lovingly disassembled and reassembled by a silent German”, a friend once texted me, and don’t we all. There’s something beautiful about how guilelessly they put knowledge into the world, and the way that knowledge will persist as part of the public record. Thirty years from now, I may still be referencing a YouTube dad to restore a cane chair or unclog my sink.

There’s an issue of millennials and institutional knowledge. We do not stand to inherit much of it, as by and large we have been pushed into low-wage industries without much transferrable knowledge and with high turnover rates, such as food service and hospitality. We earn less than our predecessors and have few opportunities for career advancement despite being largely overqualified. Millennials are hungry for career growth but do not feel we have opportunities to learn everything we need to advance; at best we stagnate and switch jobs. Retirement delays amongst older generations also contribute to stagnant wages and career trajectories.

I made a post on Facebook about how I wonder what’s going to happen when the last of the boomers die, and the younger generations who have been systematically kept away from power, institutional knowledge and wealth are going to find themselves in charge. The power vacuum is going to be huge, maybe unfillable, because the majority of millennials are fundamentally incapable of accepting leadership duties. We are so accustomed to poverty and atomized social structures that we’ve hyperbolized systemic influences into abject learned helplessness (we all know someone who can’t seem to escape the indignities of temp assignments and back-breaking food industry jobs when there are other options right in front of them). At the same the same time, the job market in these circumstances may actually allow for mobility for the first time in a while, so I wonder if we’re looking at a protracted infrastructure collapse because no one can step in to fill key roles, either due to lack of knowledge or lack of confidence.

A couple of the responses I received were along the lines of: “yeah yeah, but the sheltered failsons of the Ivy League elites will always be there to rob us of opportunities!” This is the learned helplessness I’m talking about! Privileged chair-warmers are always going to be a tiny proportion of the population. I don’t care who gets grandfathered into the family investment firm; they can hand fake money back and forth all day. I don’t care. I care about who’s going to maintain roads, crops and infrastructure, and right now, I don’t see my generation being able to step in to do it. Millennials are so trapped in low-knowledge industries that serve the leisure of the upper classes that we can’t imagine a version of the world where we have any kind of economic control, as by and large we have been denied entry. It is going to happen. At a certain point there won’t be anyone else left to control it.

You can see a bit of this learned helplessness this in the widespread millennial fantasy of “start a socialist farm with my friends”: it works on the fallacy that industry should only be large enough to sustain itself, consuming what it produces. It assumes that work is a thing that happens in isolation. A farm operating at scale employs people, and feeds hundreds if not thousands of other people. It requires more than the ability to put seeds in the ground with twenty of your best friends. It requires engineers, biologists, logistics support, patent lawyers even. Of course the notion that sustainable economic enterprises involve a high degree of connectivity and hierarchy would be lost on the generation that has been systemically refused chances to participate in both. We stay at the bottom rungs of industry in transient and granular roles, and therefore we assume that starting our own industries means that everyone participates on the bottom rungs with us, instead of self-organizing into tiered skillsets. We do not know how to lead.

My only recommendation is to hoard institutional knowledge where you can get it. If you work in, or even just have access to an industry adjacent to anything important, start learning what allows it to function and keep that knowledge fresh until you’re called on to use it. Because at some point, there will be no one else who remembers how. You have to be the YouTube dad you wish to see in the world.

THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEMES: A PERSONAL REFLECTION ON TUMBLR BRAINROT

A few nights ago I woke up with a start remembering that I had posted something extremely cringe to Tumblr around 2014 and that it had to be destroyed. I’ve been a Tumblr user since 2010, and in that time Tumblr has never developed a functional advanced search, so finding the offending post meant manually scrolling through my post archive month by month. It contains some 30,000 artifacts in total, and took days. In my browsing, I found many hundreds more cringe posts that the internet never needed, but also an intact, exceedingly detailed time capsule of my aesthetics and ideals from my late teens onward.

Many odes have been written for pre-2018 Tumblr, 2018 being the year a ban on explicit content was instituted in response to FOSTA-SESTA. The site had previously been a bastion for independent auteurs in this arena: Tumblr’s walled garden was less walled than others, and the site was permissive in part due to its shitty design and low levels of interference from its staff. The thing ran itself. Users were free to do what they pleased. I don’t think it even had a report feature. In banning explicit content, Tumblr wiped its slate of creators perniciously clean. You can still see it in the landscape of the site today: many surviving accounts have their user icons blurred because Tumblr declared their content too mature in theme, slapping them with a strange sort of scarlet letter that to this day cannot be appealed. Logging on the day after the ban was like wandering through the fairgrounds after the fair has packed up; the landscape is recognizable in some implicit way, but everyone you know is gone.

I dodged this particular fate. I dabbled in NSFW content creation but did not produce enough of it to get noticed. The thing is, I dearly wanted to. Tumblr was an unfortunate place to explore gender and sexuality, especially through the lens of independent porn, yet somehow this is what I did, and I could see it in the progression of my posts. When people talk about ‘Tumblr brainrot’ today, they’re usually referring to 20 year-olds who have been too poisoned on moralizing fandom content to navigate real-world ethics. In my 2010-flavored variant, I found that as a naif embarking on a dramatic social journey to make myself marketable vis-à-vis desirability politics, Tumblr was the perfect place to induce a a prolonged mental breakdown, blog about it, and come out the other side looking something like empowered. At the time, I wasn’t aware of how much I was spiraling; I only noticed it in 2021, going through my old posts and physically recoiling each time I opened a new one.

I think I’ve always had an adversarial relationship with the concept of beauty, and a lot of that was built up as a response to my own nascent gender-nonconformity at the time. I felt, deeply, like I could never quite participate in feminine behaviors as they were expected of me, and this made me resentful. This response was reinforced by a social group I belonged to at the time which was highly misogynistic. Ultimately I gained the vocabulary to describe this sensation around 2015, divorced myself from the group and came out, yet there were indications that I was clearly in conflict about my gender as far back as 2011.

I spent most of the period between 2011 and 2014 revering and vilifying the female nude in the same breath. I deeply admired the self-portrait artists and independent porn creators of Tumblr, who had constructed a sort of pre-OnlyFans and pre-Patreon collaborative ecosystem. The aesthetics of sex work were something I seized on early as a status symbol and sought to emulate. While I was arguably creating comparable content I was convinced that my work was deficient in a noticeable way (it was not). I wanted their lack of compunction. I wanted the thinness of their bodies and the precise application of their eyeshadow. I wanted to be wanted. Yet I lashed out at anyone who praised me for my work, and also lashed out at those who castigated it. I begged for attention and then posted about how miserable I was, all the time, without a hint of irony. I literally cannot believe the frequency of my doomposting now: there were multiple entries per day, always, like they built in pressure at intervals and needed to be vented. I perceived myself as a fundamentally othered figure before I ever realized that I was, in fact, othered: I was never a woman at all, and therefore could never treat myself as one without guaranteeing my own collapse.

My poor mental health during this period was extremely well-documented, but I wasn’t posting like this in a vacuum. I had templates. I distinctly recall following a Tumblr blog in 2010 called “Fuck Yeah Sadness” helmed by someone very beautiful and very suicidal. She blogged from her bedroom, as captured via iMac Photo Booth in grainy images that were always taken at night, about how she wanted to die and about how sex made her feel nothing. I got the feeling she still lived with her parents. Her hair was long and enviably straight. She was unconscionably popular and had many imitators, and she herself was only an imitation of the Felice Fawn blueprint that was prevalent during this period. I recently read N.B., a compilation of blog posts from around this era by sex worker Charlotte Shane, and it gave me this same feeling. The nihilism is palpable. There was something in this particular slice of online strata conducive to beautiful, desired women with an almost Cotard’s-esque desensitization to their social surroundings: they desperately want to be loved but once they have it, they’re convinced they can’t feel it. It doesn’t seem connected to the 2008 recession, but I suspect it may be nonetheless. In any case, I watched them; they taught me how to feel; I felt. Sometimes I see this persist still in people who were active in these circles; they’re codependent, but agoraphobic; they put their bodies through public rituals of denials and tribulations even though they’ve moved on from overt self-harming rhetoric. In another time I think they might have been nuns. I may elaborate on this at a later date, but the theory needs work. In any case, it’s noticeable.

A lot of the Tumblr elegies I see are about the grassroots community, the beauty of the work that came out of it; all the little things I cut myself on. I’m still on Tumblr. I post mostly about architecture. My walled garden is tidy and boring. But I think this website did something interesting in teaching us to suffer beautifully for an audience. It was a manner of performance art that can’t really exist anymore, not as the internet grows more restrictive with regard to NSFW content: what worth is there in seeing you, it says, if I can’t see all of you?

A GENIZAH FOR THE MODERN AGE

Power lines crushed by the weight of four days of freezing rain in Boucherville near Montreal, Robert LaBerge, via BBC Archives, 1998.

A genizah, in Jewish tradition, is the storage area for religious texts that need to be disposed of. Any text that contains the name of god cannot simply be thrown away; it must be given a cemetery burial, and until enough texts are amassed they stay in the genizah as a sort of fermenting, holy hothouse. This is why you see the word “God” written as “G-d” in certain Jewish circles; it’s a loophole that allows the paper to be disposed of normally.

However, I recently noticed that a friend of mine, an Orthodox Jew, writes “God” with all three of its letters present in his Facebook posts. It got me wondering whether the Talmudic decree that requires genizot in real life also governs the internet. A quick review of modern rabbinic debate shows that is a general consensus is no, the rule does not apply to anything typed on a computer or read onscreen.

Yet the internet is by no means undying; it is a digital ship of Theseus in which websites, profiles and their physical infrastructure (fiber optic cables, server farms, etc.) are cyclicly decommissioned or replaced. Imagine, then, a genizah burial for the internet; a server where the name of god has been inscribed lowered into the ground, the mourners’ kaddish recited. How far would this need to extend? Are the power lines that facilitate the computer’s function also complicit in divinity? Is the noncorporeal wifi that ferries the name of god to your screen, or just the routers? Perhaps what we wind up with is a concept similar to the Kabbalistic divine shard: everything has a piece of the holy in it.

NOT AS IT SEEMS

At the start of the pandemic I signed up for a local CSA to meet some of my produce needs without going to the grocery store. Each Monday they would bring me my order in an insulated bag, and approximately four times in the first twenty weeks that bag was stolen from my doorstep. Not a great ratio. This CSA supplies lockboxes to certain customers, so I requested one. When it arrived I inspected it to see how it worked, whether there was a key or a code lock, only to find that there were no such measures at all. It was simply a metal box with a weighted lid, without so much as a latch, that anyone could open and continue to swipe my produce from. The only thing the box provided the illusion of security, no actual security involved. Yet since its arrival, none of my orders have been stolen.

This got me thinking about a job I held a number of years ago. I was a fake manager at a customer service line for a high-profile retailer. When an irate customer would utter the magic words “I want to speak to a manager”, they would be transferred to me, not a manager, and the illusion that they were being helped by someone with authority would lend the interaction a certain expedience. There was a whole team of fake managers who didn’t manage anything. We were there to sell a lie: that the customer was in control. It was patently ridiculous, but it worked. The company only had to divert approximately forty of their six hundred call center workers to take on a fake job title; that fake title convinced the customers that their “service experience” mattered, inducing them to follow through on sales they might have otherwise reneged on. This was clearly of enough value to the company that they promoted being a fake manager as a prestige position internally.

So many of our interactions are, at their core, theatrical; participation may be entirely content-devoid so long as the correct intention is communicated. A lockbox with no lock, a fib of a job title, hygiene theater, the use of tactical gibberish to allay stock market fluctuations, all contribute to the same two-faced interactional schema: each participant gets what they want, so long as neither addresses the black box between actions and results.

STATE OF PLAY

Purple Atmosphere by Judy Chicago, 1969

During my pre-surgery quarantine, I had the lysergic pleasure of reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Along the way, I became enamored with its concept of the Zone: a subcontinent of intelligence overlaid across war-broken Europe, its borders and residents determined not by allegiance to any particular government, but by possession of insider knowledge. The Zone exists outside and within the world simultaneously. If you’re in the Zone, you know what the Zone is. You’ve been inducted to its society and operate accordingly as one of its actors, playing out its dramas. Anyone outside of the Zone cannot know of its existence. The Zone is someone yelling “I lost the game” from the third-story mezzanine of a convention center in the mid-aughts: if you know, you know.

Pop culture loves a secret game because it imbues the world with the unknown. Early last year, when we all thought covid was a matter of staying indoors for a couple of weeks, I listened to the podcast Rabbits, in which an everywoman protagonist is inducted into a game played once per generation that is essentially secret-society capture the flag, played via high-stakes geocaching. The podcast left me cold because it didn’t seem to grasp the mechanics of its own game. “You play with your life” may have been Rabbits’ unspoken premise, but it never elucidated where the danger inherent to playing came from, only telegraphed it through character disappearances that would be introduced for dramatics and then never followed up on. Rabbits fails as a secret game because it can’t imply its gameplay to its own players, leaving them to wander as a series of clueless human MacGuffins. The protagonist passes through the game uncomprehendingly, and we as listeners can only bob along with her like balloons on a string. Meanwhile, Gravity’s Rainbow succeeds because Pynchon understands that even characters who don’t comprehend the entirety of the Zone’s internal workings can still act in service to it. Pynchon’s protagonist is also a bumbling everyman, but his actions determine the state of play in the Zone even if he isn’t fully aware of this. By the end of the novel he can sense the Zone’s design, though he will continue to bumble, missing cues and bypassing fated meetings that are central to the Zone’s endgame.

Rabbits failed because, in the terminology of James Carse, it thinks it’s an infinite game when in reality it’s a finite game. To pull from Carse’s text directly: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games are those instrumental activities – from sports to politics to wars – in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game – there is only one – includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants.” A game that hides in plain sight, only visible where reality decoheres, would, on the surface, look to be infinite; but if its players are only ever competing for dominance or survival it is by definition finite. Meanwhile, the Zone exists to perpetuate its own culture, which recontextualizes preconceived notions of power, nationhood and kinship. Though the Zone has a concrete goal (which I will not spoil here), its exists as an eternal present where play is not undertaken for duty or survival but is actively manifested as a living drama. The Zone wills itself into existence, with its residents acting as archetypal, almost planetary forces within it. The Zone exists in service of itself, underlying all the finite games of the “real world” such as war, money, life, death.

We live in the era of the ARG: QAnon, covid denial, even Pokemon Go all toy with the idea that there is a reality within and yet distinct from our own, in which hidden competitions play out. The gamification of information is near-perpetual. It’s up to us to determine whom the game serves, and whether our participation in these Zones is compulsory (finite) or chosen (infinite). The borders are never as clear as we think.

SITREP

Hi friends. Sorry for the slight absence. As you may have seen if you’ve come here from my other social media, I’m recovering from gender-affirming surgery, and as such my brain is swamp from learning to navigate a body that is distinctly mine but very different from what it was a few weeks ago.

While in recovery I attempted to write a longform piece about my transition, and the scientific implications of trans origin theories in general, but gave up. I think the internet has been terrorized by the inanity of thinkpieces, and I firmly believe that the invocation of personal traumas to tell “worthwhile” stories is contributing to our polarized media wasteland. That, and putting so much personal information online seemed like an infosec issue. So, I’ve decided not to publish it, at least not in its current form.

Before I attempted any sort of physical transition, I was averse to stories that framed the trans experience as a “journey”, a before-and-after snapshot for the cis to gawk at. I may have just been smarting; without a linear visual narrative to bolster my trans identity, I was afraid of being seen as less-than by transmedicalists, whose opinions carry quite a bit of weight in mainstream circles. Now that I have physically altered myself, I’m in this sticky spot of having to reassess where I stand in the public narrative as well as in my own self-concept, while also being completely removed from real-life contexts because, until I heal more, I lack the independence to go out and test it. It feels like I’m in limbo, waiting to be discharged into a world where people can react to me. Until then, I can’t quite know what I am.

Anyway, I’m fine, I’m healing, and my mind and body are recohering into something more comfortable than before. I’ll be back here shortly, and hopefully better for it.

Thanks.

LOVE WILL SAVE YOU

A.V. Harrison, from This Series, 1970-75

As a self-described Big Gay™, I occasionally seek out queer news media. I do not enjoy this. Every time I type Them.us or Autostraddle into a browser it fills me with a deep sense of shame, both in myself for feeling so separate from queer culture at large, and at queer culture for its piss-poor sense of what constitutes newsworthiness. Yet I do this every few weeks because it seems important, from an ethnographic standpoint, to keep abreast of the things the gay community deems important enough to write about.

Gay news is bad. Gay news and journalistic standards occupy nearly separate circles of the same Venn diagram. It’s an online ecosystem built on breathless praise of neoliberal politicians that sidesteps the issue of How To Have Politics entirely. It riffs endlessly on the usefulness of cancel culture while simultaneously calling out authors, actors and social media personalities for meaningless slights that have no long-term significance. It encourages parasocial relationships with public figures. It takes Trump’s offhand remarks at face value, shunting them into anxious screeds that encourage the reader to panic, but not to consider the probability of whether the man’s ravings have any likely consequences. It revels in the clapbacks, the sassy merch, the coupons for sex toys, and the most inconsequential tea you can find on the internet, all while having no sense of what constitutes actionable, helpful information.

So sure, the news is bad, and every time I see a friend link to a Pink News story in utter seriousness I cringe so hard I could implode. But what worries me more than the news itself is the state of unfettered emotional investment this style of discourse encourages. Gay news swings between two poles: hypervigilance and hypercompersion.

Hypervigilance is for the negative: threats of anti-gay legislation, upticks in hate crimes. These are justifiable fears, but there is a sense of scale involved that these stories omit. Just because a bill has been proposed, it doesn’t mean it will pass. Just because hate crimes happen, it doesn’t mean they will happen to me, a white person in an affluent liberal city. Though there is a contingent that is encouraged by these threats to the gay community, be it the Proud Boys or the Boogaloo or whatever the 4chan militants of the moment are, these groups’ actions are generally difficult to predict outside of the context of protest events, and as such are not something I would recommend the average person worry much about. Taking in enough of these stories encourages a manner of self-marginalization that I have noticed amongst people overexposed to them. They experience a generalized despair that precludes any marginally useful actions, like donating to aid funds or getting involved in ground-level politics (I do want to note that these actions don’t solve the problems of anti-gay legislation and hate crimes, but they do contribute to a sense of personal fulfillment that can keep the wolf from the door for a time, and may provide some measure of support to those in need). Poisoned on the idea that the whole world hates them, they are rendered unable to act.

In a landscape so bleak, good news must provide a hefty counterpoint for the panic-stricken. This good news is often comparatively small – a TV show featuring gay characters, a personal essay about feeling affirmed (oh my god, there are so many thousands of personal essays) – so it winds up being an oversized section of these sites’ content, provided rapturously and, again, without scale, which encourages a hyperempathetic worldview. Clearly these stories are supposed to be personally illustrative or satisfying for the reader, despite the fact that they have no personal relevance beyond a desire to queue up Netflix, or the general human ability to empathize. To describe the feeling these stories are intended to evoke, I am borrowing the word ‘compersion’ from polyamory theory. Compersion is defined as a state opposite to jealousy, a fulfillment brought about by witnessing others have experiences that you desire. Compersion is beyond empathy; it is closer to emotional entanglement. In reading these soul-baring accounts of people I don’t know in relationships I can’t mimic, on trajectories I cannot follow, it feels like the ideal gay person is supposed to experience compersion for every strangers’ positive experience, and exist in state of sustained hyperempathy. Even minute exposure to this seems tiring to me, a person with robust boundaries between my self-concept and the media I consume. But to someone with a lower threshold, I imagine this sensation could be dangerous, and could easily result in emotional burnout or unrealistic expectations for personal relationships. The messaging behind so many of stories in this vein seems to be ‘love will save you from this bleak world’. That strikes me as a dangerous thing to promise, especially amongst demographics that statistically experience heightened rates of precarity.

I am currently counting down the clock on a large gender-affirming surgery, and these stories have taken on a new shade of offensiveness as a result. I see a great deal of messaging about how the ecstatic love of my communities will ferry me through my recovery. I have no caretakers; I have no lovers willing to spend weeks doing undignified things to assist me while I’m mostly incapacitated. I am not unusual in this way. I think most people would be met with a decent amount of skepticism if they reached out to their acquaintances to arrange this manner of intensive care for themselves. Yet if I am to believe the media I see, I should infer that my surgical results will be worse than average because I do not have the boundless support network made out by gay media to be the norm. I feel systematically alienated by this, and I’m someone with a decent amount of control over their emotions. Someone else could easily be driven to despair by this same idea. That’s an infohazard. It’s irresponsible to promote.

I would love to take the reins back on gay media and create an environment where nuance is encouraged, where facts matter, where celebrities are inconsequential, and where we don’t need to be spoon-fed optimism to feel secure about our place in the world. As an extended community, we have constructed very stupid idols that are due to be burnt. We shouldn’t need to construct this desperate folklore about how love will save us. Maybe we don’t need saving. Maybe we’re fine. Maybe the only sinking ship here is our skewed perception of our own vulnerability.

SELF AGAINST OTHER

Here’s a new self-isolation low to add to the list: I recently exposed myself through an infohazard through the medium of my own dreams.

I dreamed that I had flown halfway across the world to see a friend, but once there, she only seemed interested in dragging me through whirlwind a tour of her material successes: the perfect partner, the perfect bathroom remodel, the perfect landlord, his perfect wife, the perfect plant-based dinners they all shared. I found myself to be an accessory to their worldbuilding. In the dream, standing outside some bustling Berlin thrift shop while waiting on her partner, I told her “I’m not interested in any of this. I came here to see you.” She responded: “maybe you should consider that you’re an NPC here.”

Cue waking in a cold sweat, texting friends in a panic, etc. Could it be, that despite all my self-importance, I don’t matter at all?

NPC theory is one of the few useful models that my not-shitty intellectual circles have adopted from 4chan’s especially shitty incel-adjacent corners. An NPC lives a life according to routine, with little variation. An NPC feels it goes against form to strive for positions above their station, and while they may be unsatisfied by their mediocrity, they feel they have little power to change their circumstances. An NPC is, above all, predictable.

An NPC also exists on the periphery, parallel to a narrative but not integral to it. As someone who considers themself to be a healthy opportunist, I have made a point, at various times in my life, of hitching myself to particular zeitgiests and riding them for a while. While I may contribute work with some value, I am not often crucial to the zeitgeist’s success. This is accompanied by a certain amount of handwaving and ‘this suits me fine’ rationalizations; it is in my nature to be more of a support player than a firebrand (after all, I play bass. How could I not know this?). It’s structurally safe, yet vital to an operation’s utility. Yet with it comes a desire to be the person with enough recognizable je ne sais quoi to be believable as a protagonist.

The issue of whether or not NPC-dom resonates with you comes down to how you construct meaning. Ideally, meaning is highly subjective, with each individual constructing their own internal and self-sustaining support networks. Meaning should be able to survive without external influence, and should provide solace consistently and without significant sunk costs. It would seem that in a much healthier world, we’d all have our own proprietary meaning-software; in this model, everyone would be their own protagonist. Yet the issue with meaning is that when enough people share their internal models and find commonalities between them, you wind up with societal meaning-making that often foists its demands on people incompatible with them, I.E. when everyone tells you it’s time to get married and have children, when you don’t see yourself as being fundamentally cut out for that type of life. In the societal model of meaning-making, meaning is primarily sourced from others. It relies on reciprocal networks. If I matter to my someone, having meaning assigned to me has then willed me into a personally meaningful existence. I invest my resources into cultivating these links, and in return, I exist.

I tried to live according to the second model around 2017-2018, and it was an unmitigated disaster. It turns you into a performer. You have to be constantly trafficking in your own emotional availability or else you lose the plot. You’re basically yelling ‘MAKE ME A PROTAGONIST’ at everyone around you. ‘I’VE APPORTIONED MYSELF ACCORDINGLY, SO PLEASE, MAY I HAVE A CRUMB OF MUTUALLY-CONSTRUCTED SIGNIFICANCE.’ It was draining. Someone recently uncovered a candid photo of me from this time and I look like a POW: dead eyes, slumped posture, my ribcage dangerously visible. Yet every now and then, this method of meaning-construction comes back to haunt me, because unfortunately operating as a meaning-unit with other people is highly fulfilling, and also means you won at society. It is dangerously appealing, but I don’t find that I can sustain it without neglecting my capital-S Self.

So yes, the ideal method of meaning-construction is to assume you’re responsible for your own narrative. You were the protagonist all along. In admitting this I find myself to be a bit of an antihero, poisoning the well of what we typically assume to be the correct mode of fulfillment. Yet I think I’ll sleep better with that knowledge, that it’s ultimately more sustainable to leave mire of expectation in favor of personal fulfillment.

ARMY

As one does after most of a year in insolation with serotonin is in short supply, my roommate has gotten into Korean boy band, extreme GDP producer and probable psyop BTS. While waiting for their new album to drop on a livestream last night, she noted that people were posting to the chat at such a rapid pace that it made the entire screen flicker, threatening to crash YouTube’s infrastructure under the weight of thousands of rapid-fire “come to brazils“.

BTS’ official fan club, known as BTS Army, numbers some 40 million individuals. This means there are more officially registered fans of BTS than there are people in Saudi Arabia. It is an absolutely massive conglomeration that outstrips a number of key demographics in sheer size. So yes, BTS fans could easily band together and crash YouTube; they were certainly able to crash Trump’s online infrastructure earlier this year. The more I thought about it, the more it struck me: when it comes to groups united around a common cause or fandom, I can’t think of any other groups of this scale that aren’t registered political parties. For a fan club, Army has a massive amount of power. And after their forays into political activism surrounding the US presidential election, they’re starting to relish it.

So really, who needs to launch a DDoS attack or depose a wannabe dictator when you can just send Army to deal with it?

UNDER FIRE

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, California burned and noxious smoke consumed the West Coast. Hunkered down in my weather-sealed apartment, I was assigned to write about the fires for work. After a rather prosaic analysis of the conditions that lead to such reliably huge annual blazes (surprise! It’s capitalism!), I came to think that I was really onto something with the following idea, which I would use for the paper’s conclusion: since fire reduction efforts are 20-30 years behind and are unlikely to stop on what is now an exceedingly lethal yearly occurrence, what we really need is a psychological framework for surviving, if not thriving, in the Pyrocene.

The coping mechanisms I had been seeing in my peers were not workable, amounting to suicidal environmental nihilism. The more imaginative harbored near-paraphilic fantasies about human extinction saving the earth, which presume that some cosmic, highly Catholic idea of penance will exist even once the Catholics die out, and the reward for mankind’s sacrifice would be a world that can live on in peace (unfortunately, the world after us will continue to be filled with our microplastics and our carbon dioxide, so we cannot assume it will be kind to whatever species remain optimized for the post-anthro Anthropocene). Those less inclined to fantasy resorted to social media doomsaying, declaring ‘DON’T YOU GET IT? IT WILL NEVER GET BETTER. NOTHING WILL EVER BE NORMAL AGAIN’, an act of ugly self-commiseration in the middle of the digital agora. It wasn’t mass hysteria but mass dysphoria, the inconsolability of knowing the destruction won’t end. No life, they proclaimed, is worth this.

These sentiments amount to an intellectual death: there is no desire to persist or even regain functional equilibrium in either one. Yet I could not find an alternative that seemed useful. Mere blanket optimism is unreliable against the scale of these fire events, as one can only suspend their disbelief so far. The only positive response to climate nihilism I came across posited that we should continue to practice our individual ecological stewardship efforts not because they will have payoffs in the future, but because we can convince ourselves that they provide us with an inner sense of purpose. It sounds nice, until we consider that recycling does nothing and we console ourselves with our purchases because holistic care isn’t accessible or viable, so this individual stewardship method reads like just another failed avenue for American individualism.

What, then, is left to do? Pivot to absurdism? We need new paradigms to not only live but live well in these conditions, outside of pinning worths to lives vs. lifestyles vs. products and playing ecological calculus with all of them. We need a radical means of staying whole that isn’t rooted in existing philosophies, because people have never lived like this before, and existing philosophies won’t apply.

I thought I was truly on a roll with this. I made a big Facebook post, breathless about my new idea. I sent strings of excitable texts to my coworkers. What I failed to realize was that I had been breathing the same air for a week in my sealed apartment, and the poor oxygenation was making me loopy. This line of thinking had no place in a nonpartisan paper and I wound up cutting all but a sentence or two. Yet unwittingly, this meant I had stumbled onto something more trenchant. The psychology of surviving the Pyrocene isn’t about maintaining worth and dignity, at least not at first. At its most useful it will only teach you how to maintain baseline functionality when you can’t physically breathe the air.

A philosopher’s mistake: surviving isn’t about self-respect, at least not in the immediate sense. First, it has to be about filling your lungs with the correct molecules to sustain the electric goo in your skull, and how to avoid total derangement when those molecules aren’t readily available.

I don’t know what this would look like in practice. Some kind of death-positivist zen, most likely. This might be my project for the next fire season so I don’t fully embarrass myself before I realize what’s happening.