Riffing on the opus for the pop-culture critical everyone is beautiful and no one is horny, a phrase recently came to me which turned out to be a paraphrasing of Audre Lorde: everything is pornographic and nothing is erotic.

Eroticism differs from pornography, or even plain sexual attraction, in that it occurs in isolation. Desire within an erotic context is not fixated directly on the person who could fulfill it. Instead, it’s categorically indirect and transposed. Eroticism differs from a fetish in that the associated cue is not a direct substitute for a normative object of desire: this isn’t about kinking on pantyhose or spike heels instead of the person wearing them. Real eroticism is in the transposition: removed from the actual fulfillment of desire, not even referring to it directly, but compounding it nonetheless. Pornography is all those photographers who do goopy baker-miller pink tableaux with vaginal-looking fruit and dildos which they post to their sex-positive lifestyle instagram to shill for mail-order sex toys. Eroticism is seeing a cup someone drank from on the kitchen table after they’ve left your home, and seeing the drop of water clinging to its rim and knowing that it touched their lips, and then every time you use that cup afterward you still think about it.

For true eroticism to exist, there needs to be a lack of ambient sexuality. It can only truly arise out of privation or repression. We wonder why the literary Victorians were so horny; this is why. This is how gay semiotics developed, and why they remain so potent; the cues associated with sex needed to stay hidden, and in doing so they became all the more powerful.

Today’s media environment is maximally pornographic, even as social networks claim to repress it out of an abundance of caution. Sexual liberation was meant to be distilled this far down: instead of making sex shameless, as is correct, sex came to be worthless. It is so ubiquitous that it no market value, yet at the same time seems to be the only thing for sale. Entire industries of artists, influencers and agents exist solely to funnel clients toward sex work; as an ex-model, there is likely a broader post I need to write about this. I go on Twitter to find a meme but the poster has a pinned video of himself ejaculating; someone I follow on Instagram reposts an activists’ slogan over a video of two women aggressively twerking, as if the two have anything to do with each other; everyone you meet casually does porn. In an environment where sex exists in the open and logically draws maximum attention (we are only human, after all), everything has to be sexy in order to be seen. Humor has to be sexy, representation has to be sexy, revolution has to be sexy. It makes everyone act like an addict.

The erotic cannot be reintroduced to this environment; it would be like introducing a species of songbird to a suburban community full of outdoor cats. I’m aware of plenty of creators trying to revive eroticism with poetry and photo work. None of it lands. In a sex-saturated media environment, it’s only more sex, as blatant and flat as everything else.

The reactionary strategy that naturally follows is puritanism, as has taken hold with a strange neo-Catholic contingent of Gen Z. Obviously this is not viable; reactionary strategies have expiration dates. As individuals, if we want to feel again, what we need is to reintroduce a certain scarcity; to fight down the notion that every urge can be fulfilled and erase the easy market incentives to do so.


As you may have noticed if you check this with any frequency, I’ve taken a short break. Blogging was never something I intended to do with any regularity, but recent elective surgery plus a new writing project have left me short on time and motivation.

During said surgical recovery, I saw a meme about playing Minesweeper and thought, “I could stand to get more autistic about that.” When I was in college, I worked a part-time job that required the use of Windows 98 and I played Minesweeper constantly, almost unconsciously. It got to the point where I figured I could play competitively, but never looked into it. In the years since, using newer machines, I hadn’t thought about it, but the amount of time on my hands and my scattered post-op mental state made it distinctly appealing. So I’ve been playing again, relearning the intuition of it. I’m not as good as I was, but I can see a way back.

Before, I always thought of Minesweeper as a war game: something that teaches you which risks are safe to take. In a way that’s still true, although I see that less as a blanket statement now, and more of a self-calibration of short-term risk thresholds. I can tell when I’m in a rash mood by the moves I choose to make and the losses I choose to risk. This is not something that is usually apparent to me during self-reflection, but Minesweeper shows it to me. Knowing this lets me then calibrate that attitude toward the rest of the work I’m doing for the day: am I going to get impatient? Am I going to jump to conclusions? Where might I go wrong?

This idea of holistic games isn’t new. It’s present in mental health apps and stim toys. A friend of mine once designed a game in which the “characters” were musical notes, and the landscape you guided them through would produce harmonies. Gaming as self-directed psychological assessment, however, seems to be a slightly unexplored angle. It makes me wonder how else it could be employed to explore postures related to avenues of behavior beyond risk-taking and mood regulation. Could a game be used to measure empathy? Openness?

I had no overarching Ender’s Game-style thesis here. I just enjoy clicking blocks.


Semiotext(e)’s Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl was published in 2012. At the time, the hollowness of the Young-Girl was still a physical emptiness, a sort of distillation of advertising’s warped feminist tropes. The Young-Girl was built up through products, sex, physical exchange. The Young-Girl was the physical embodiment of capital, of artificial scarcity. There was not yet precedent for the influencer class, the Very Online segment of Young-Girl, who would come to dominate a market of intangibles instead of tangibles.

In the text, the Young-Girl is defined, as she defines herself, through a series of quick takes without elaboration. To elaborate is to lose the essence, the vibe. Who is she? The following passages are relevant:

The Young-Girl appears as the culminating point of this anthropomorphosis of capital.

The Young-Girl is the figure of the total and sovereign consumer.

The Young-Girl is the extreme point of alienated socialization, at which the most socialized person is the most asocial.

The Young-Girl sells her existence like it’s a private service.

The Young-Girl’s own body takes on the form of a commodity that belongs to her.

It is only in her suffering that the Young-Girl is lovable. There is, evidently, a subversive power in trauma.

Without realizing it, I had been working on my own Theory of the Young-Girl for a few years. It was a different Young-Girl, however, one inseparable from the architecture of social media. A Young-Girl who commoditized herself early in life and entirely through the internet, who can no longer interface with real life without it crumbling her completely. In real life, the self-concept is mediated by interaction with other people, strangers even! Real life offers little means of control. Online, the other is anonymous. Anyone not anonymous has been selected by the Young-Girl because they will reinforce and validate her self-concept. Everything else is noise.

This Young-Girl sells access to herself and her image. She makes a good living doing sex work, more than the majority of other sex workers, but it is still survival sex work; she has no other transferrable skills. She deliberately and consistently violates the TOS of her chosen platforms by selling more of her image than is allowed under their decency guidelines, and then complains that her very being is being censored. She feigns innocence, and frames these interactions as involuntary. “I was just being myself!” She cannot distinguish between the self and actively curated marketable traits, instead making a stand on ideological grounds.

This Young-Girl phones it in. Her audience is satiated by her image, even snippets of it, over and over; as such, she needs to say very little, just enough to trigger the best returns from the algorithm. The only thing the audience wants to see in her eyes is gameness, acuquiecense. They do not want to hear her thoughts, or even acknowledge that she is capable of them, they only want to see her body. This has made her deeply incapable of rhetoric. If she has talking points, they are cribbed from viral information in her ambient surroundings that has very little meaning to begin with, or else she frames herself as a lone renegade of the discourse, with views far from anything in circulation so she can exist in isolation and without critique.

This Young-Girl is deeply agoraphobic. Her social circles are confined to those who can produce content or otherwise support her in her aims. Anyone else is a problem, a hole in the dam where the inconsistencies of real life can penetrate her consistent self-image. She will fight against this at all costs. Occasionally she may get it in her head to “go straight” but she will fail at this. She cannot work in a profession that his not in service to her self; in fact, she no longer even looks like someone who can exist outside, she has curated her image so heavily. She is constantly out of place except as content. She cannot go places or live with others as equally neutral parties. In another era, she would have become a nun.

This Young-Girl curates her life for an audience. Her surroundings, even her home, are spare and impersonal, almost monastic. They are selected for sight-lines, angles, lighting. There are no spaces that an outsider gaze does not penetrate. If she is sick, if she is in crisis, this is a performance as well. An unexplained absence from the gaze is inexcusable. She must perform.

This Young-Girl seeks extremes. Her existence, as mediated through a screen, is blunted; she has no natural means of experiencing novelty. As such, she seeks to maintain a constant state of catharsis by engaging in risk-taking behavior for her audience. She is engaged in race-to-the-bottom market dynamics with herself. She is constantly burning and constantly burnt out, or else terminally bored. She does not acknowledge that the cycle can be broken by choosing not to participate, because this would mean the fatal and irredeemable corruption of her image, which is her self. To log off is death. The only alternative is to constantly seek more, more sensation, more love, more support. She is overtaxed and never satisfied.

This Young-Girl romanticizes penitence for the same reason. She favors Catholic imagery; the mortification of her body is a product in itself. It makes her real. It makes her worthy of adoration.

This Young-Girl will surround herself with a close cohort of lovers, whom she has chosen from amongst her audience. She will keep multiple at a time and will become highly dependent on them for housing and sustenance. She cannot survive without interlocutors. She knows that when her beauty is spent they will leave, and she will be helpless; so she fawns, and tries to make herself worthy. Her lovers aren’t her equals. They are aid.

There’s a trilogy of books that I revisit a lot, which accurately portray this: Richard Calder’s Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things. It is complete schlock-philosophical cyberpunk which asks: what if the performance of gender was terminal, a fatal memetic virus? If you’ve read Theory of the Young-Girl, it’s an interesting supplement, a sort of apocalypse of capital and Spectacle.

Otherwise, this theory of mine will be built out over time; this remains a working document.


I’ve been floating around in the Discord server for Praxis, trying to get a feel for what exactly it is. It began almost like an ARG, a handful of cryptic tweets with little instruction. Recently, Praxis uploaded a manifesto about what exactly it is, and it’s uh, well…

Praxis is a grassroots movement of modern pioneers building a new city. We are technologists and artists, builders and dreamers. We are building a place where we can develop to our fullest potentials, physically, culturally, and spiritually. Bitcoin was developed as a financial technology with political goals identical to those of the Founding Fathers: liberation. The ultimate end of crypto is the possibility of a future for humanity unshackled from the institutions that seek to limit our growth. Our ultimate goal is to bring about a more vital future for humanity, and we will use technology to achieve this righteous end.

If your eyes glazed over at the introduction of Bitcoin as well, let’s be friends. But onward:

Praxis is a grassroots movement of modern pioneers building the city-cryptostate. We are currently organized as a membership-based community. To help us build the city, you must join as a Member. From establishing our culture and researching ancient wonders to visiting prospective city sites and designing our urban infrastructure, every Praxis Member has a role to play in the development of our future home.

Definitely read the whole thing, it’s a ride, though it sounds a little “decentralized UBI based on crypto and gaming that I can’t explain” to me. Merits or demerits aside, what fascinates me more than the idea of a crypto-geological metaverse is, of course, the aesthetics chosen for it.

The Discord server for Praxis has an #aesthetics channel, in which pre-applicants, deemed “thresholders”, can collect ideas for what the concept looks like. The overarching theme appears to be a manner of eco-accelerationism. Urban decay reigns in images of San Francisco overtaken by ferns, Soviet war memorials, museums of Roman statuary. Scenes from fine art depict virile athletes, warfare, and, perhaps worryingly, executions. I cannot yet tell whether the blood-and-soil implications of the Rome and Western-civ worship are intentional. Overall, the theme is consistent: from the ashes of our civilization will rise a new one. Call it doomer solarpunk, or the rebirth of the West.

Already, these aesthetics feel like a setup to me. Any legitimate culture will have its own art and memes; images and aesthetics are means of sociocultural transmission. A new culture reliant on old symbology will likely inherit the cultural maladies those symbols previously accompanied. A meme is a bindrune; by invoking a charged image, you invoke a sense of place, time and importance. You graft that image’s implications onto whatever circumstance you have deployed it under. Traffic too heavily in images that already have consistent implications and underlying mythologies, and you will likely wind up with a rebranded variant of the old culture. From the ashes of a restrictive, fully enervated culture comes a decentralized, quasi-utopian version of that same culture.

There’s nothing new under the sun, and there is especially nothing new on the internet, so Praxis cannot be faulted for drawing on existing imagery. However, putting the cart before the horse by attempting to determine the aesthetics of a culture before the culture determines what it, itself, is…it can’t ever work. Those thresholders in the #welcome channel will behave differently once they’re full-fledged members participating in digital civics, and will seize on different memetic and aesthetic cues. The reality of the project may evoke aesthetic principles different from those originally imagined. After all, much of what we consider culture is a reaction to societal influences, a recontextualization of shared experience. It can’t be centrally planned. Until a society is more than conceptual, genuine culture cannot arise. Until then, it’s only branding.


I hope you all had a good Facebook/Instagram outage. I know I did, as I was on a very tight deadline and it maximally boosted my productivity. There’s something nice about knowing that people who want to contact you will have to do it through formal channels. With Messenger and Instagram direct messages gone, I was mercifully unbothered throughout the day.

I managed to catch Facebook just as things were coming back online again. The newsfeed could refresh, with minimal functionality elsewhere. The interesting thing about this was the ads. They were still displaying in the regular 3-posts-to-1-ad ratio, but for some reason the algorithm was no longer dialed into my browsing habits. It had instead reverted to a base state, and was showing me exclusively visually cluttered animated promos for slot machine games instead of the typical interior design advertising I am routinely served based on my browsing habits.

This implies something interesting about Facebook’s ad ecosystem. FarmVille was finally killed when Flash Player was no longer supported by the platform in 2020, and that kind of microtransaction-based minigame had already become passé post-Cambridge Analytica. Apps that were clearly intended to capitalize on user attention, such as quizzes and games, were no longer routinely trusted and thus went out of style. The app ecosystem, however, is still very much present, and in fact seems to be the backbone of Facebook’s advertising platform. Seeing those ads felt a little like looking at a massive fossil at a natural history museum and getting a fresh hit of the magnitude of linear time: don’t let your hubris get ahead of you, it seemed to say. The predatory microtransactions were here before you, and they’ll be here long after you’re gone.

There has been recent momentum, given damning media coverage, to divest from Facebook or at least make it less invasive. Declutter your newsfeed. Remove your questionable friends, leave all your groups, keep your epistemic circles tidy. Reject modernity, embrace tradition by being an anonymous mook with no profile photo. But even if Facebook knows nothing about you, if you have removed all information about your content preferences and friend networks, it still knows that you will be receptive to bright colors, flashing lights, and gambling.

You are still, in the end, a sucker, and Facebook is still just a digital casino with a cavernous gaming floor and no windows.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.