Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Sorrows of Work

I have had many jobs throughout the course my life but the one job that was without question absolute bullshit, was what time I spent working for a large American trucking company, which Iegally I can’t name, due to a non-disclosure agreement I was forced to sign in order to remain eligible to receive my severance package upon being subsequently laid off, due to ‘restructuring.’
My official title was Driver Development Coordinator. People would often ask me what that title actually meant, but I never had any idea what to tell them. If you can’t easily summarize what you do, by definition your job is pointless. I suspect my job was originally just an empty space filler, created so that someone could boast about the number of employees they had working under them.
My job, I shit you not, literally took me two hours a day to accomplish and an hour or more of that time was spent compiling unnecessary reports. Essentially, I was paid to be bored. Especially towards the end. I actually ended up spending the majority of my time pretending to work. However, I soon discovered that being forced to pretend to work was the most absolute indignity, because it was impossible to pretend that it was anything but what it was: pure degradation, a sheer exercise of the boss’s power for it’s own sake. Being forced to pretend to work is one of the worst indignities a person can suffer. Because it makes clear the degree you are entirely under another person’s power.
I was also purposely mis-trained and disorganized by design in my position, so that my job was repeatedly and consistently done wrong. My unofficial capacity was to serve as a buffer. In other words I existed merely as an entity that other departments could then use to blame as to why things never worked out the way they were supposed to, despite my near constant feedback and recommendations for solutions and improvements, none of which of course were ever implemented.
Once I realized my role in the company was basically pointless, I lost all motivation and with it the ability to concentrate on the job itself. So I devoted most of my working hours to more productive and meaningful activities; such as reading and writing. I was essentially trying to reclaim a little of my time from those who were stealing it. It wasn’t a very effective protest, granted, since I still had to sit in that depressing room and fill out enough spreadsheets to keep from getting fired.
Working at the Illinois Terminal, was also one of the most abusive environments I have ever worked in. I was in an environment where nobody spoke to each other. An environment where you had to be constantly on the defensive as someone was always trying to throw you under the bus. It didn’t matter if you were responsible for anything or not. Everyone consistently tried to make themselves seem more important to the company than they in fact were. This is also why our Terminal Manager, I suspect, spent so much time running his own bullshit reports. He wanted to appear more useful than he was. It was obvious to everyone there that if he were gone nothing would fundamentally change, but even if it had changed, it would actually have been for the better.
I didn’t recognize the effect all of this had on my body while it was happening, but in retrospect I see what a huge impact it had on my physical and mental health. A terrible job erases our sense of self and I ended up becoming an entirely different person. Easy to anger. Depressed. Hopeless. And I have very little doubt that the stress and anxiety I was forced to endure played a significant part of why I had to be hospitalized.
But the absolute worst part about working a job you hate is really the humiliation. It’s soul crushing. Couple that with the fact that most people in upper management positions completely and totally identify with their own misplaced authority, making our lives even more unbearable. They themselves are often to stupid to realize that they were only given a little authority so as to make themselves more compliant, more readily willing to accept orders. Most managers, especially middle managers, are pointless and those hired to work under them invariably know it and resent it.
I actually think the fact that more people aren’t deeply offended by the existence of “supervisors” and “managers” in our modern workplaces, is a testament to how far capitalist culture has removed us from our self-respect. Our workplaces have become virtual plantations. What adult needs another adult to watch over them? And notice how the people who argue in favor of supervision will never admit that they need it themselves. It's always the rest of us that need it. All of those "stupid" and "lazy" workers who need to be controlled.
In some of his writings, social psychologist Devon Price has written that “laziness,” at least in the way most of us generally conceive of it, simply does not exist. “If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you,” he writes, “it is because you are missing a part of their context. It’s that simple.”
Some of the first factories in London actually went bankrupt because laborers refused to work all day, every day. To the factory owners, this proved that the workers were indolent loafers, so they reduced wages to the point that workers were forced to put in even more hours to survive. But this was really doing the workers a favor, the owners insisted, because otherwise they’d just get drunk and lie about. Now we’ve all merely internalized this view of work. Which is also a view that is extraordinarily convenient for the ruling classes.
We like to think that we have an open society because we can criticize our government, but the company we work for has far more of an impact on our daily lives, and if you criticize them publicly they can, and often times will, fire you. The private sphere is still run like a dictatorship, by thousands of petty little tyrants.
Kim Stanley Robinson once said, “If democracy and self-rule are the fundamentals, then why should people give up these rights when they enter their workplace? In politics we fight like tigers for freedom, for the right to elect our leaders, for freedom of movement, choice of residence, choice of what work to pursue - control of our lives, in short. And then we wake up in the morning and go to work, and all those rights disappear. We no longer insist on them. And so for most of the day we return to feudalism. That is what capitalism is - a version of feudalism in which capital replaces land, and business leaders replace kings. But the hierarchy remains. And so we still hand over our lives, our labor, under duress, to feed rulers who do no real work.”
Bosses, executives, investors: these people do not "create jobs.” They use wealth they already possess to create more for themselves. Workers are always in need of money since a series of laws has made money necessary to survive over the past few hundred years. They beg for some of that money by helping someone with more money make even more. The people with more money offer as little as they can get away with, which leaves the employee with less. So yes, money is a zero-sum game. You have less because your boss, and everyone else who has taken from you, has more. If you don't want to see it that way, then fine, but an employee should never be an open supporter of capitalism.
However, the real degradation doesn’t even begin until you get home from work. Because it’s then that you have just enough mental energy left over to realize what you could be doing with your life. And as you’re sitting there, trying to stay awake long enough to eat your dinner, you realize a couple of very important things. Hard work is not a virtue. Taking your job seriously is not a virtue. Stressing out to please your boss is not a virtue. And more importantly, that the start of work means an end to freedom.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Book Review: Interview with the Vampire

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vampire narratives, far from being about the desire to cheat death, are really stories that help us to understand that even living forever won’t save us, and in this story Rice dares us to ponder whether we ourselves could even genuinely endure the endless sorrow that, without exception, so often accompanies an everlasting life.
Interview with the Vampire is a gothic horror novel by the American author Anne Rice, first published in 1976. The novel centers around vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac, who tells the story of his life to a young reporter. But from the outset Louis struggles with his vampire nature, frequently worrying that being a vampire automatically marks him as a "child of the Devil," however, it’s his darker side, or rather his human side, that is now revealed instead of hidden behind a bourgeois morality that really troubles him.
Despite Louis's attempt to cast his life as a cautionary tale, the young interviewer cannot accept the inevitability of a vampire's despairing end and his ultimate message about the dreariness of immortality has no effect on the interviewer. In the arrogance of youth and humanity, the interviewer believes he could use immortality far more wisely than any vampire who came before him and asks Louis to turn him. The lesson for us is clear. Youth will never learn from the wisdom of age and will always seek to experience things for itself.
This was Rice’s debut novel and is based on a short story she wrote back in 1968 and was composed shortly after the death of her young daughter Michelle, who served as an inspiration for the character of Claudia. “Writers write about what obsesses them,” Rice said in an interview. “You draw those cards. I lost my mother when I was 14. My daughter died at the age of 6. Lost my faith as a Catholic. When I’m writing, the darkness is always there. I go where the pain is.”
Rice’s compulsively readable novel is also arguably one of the most celebrated works of vampire fiction since Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897. As the Washington Post said on its first publication, it is a “thrilling, strikingly original work of the imagination ...sometimes horrible, sometimes beautiful, always unforgettable.”
Some modern critics, however, have proposed that the reason readers became so enthralled with this book, or with vampire narratives in general, is because, in so doing, they overcame, or at least temporarily were able to escape from, their fear of death. The origins of most vampire myths being rooted in the fears concerning the dread of premature burial. But in Freud's view it is not actually death that people fear, because nobody really believes in their own death. Instead mourners project the idea that the recently deceased must yearn to be reunited as they do. Emotions such as love, guilt, and hate fueling that desire. Furthermore, that which one does fear cannot be death itself, because one has never died. People who express death-related fears, veritably are trying to deal with unresolved childhood conflicts or traumas that they cannot come to terms with or express emotion towards.
Which is what makes Interview with the Vampire such a human story. It’s a story in deep connection with mortality, human frailty, hunger, sex, and death, and how all these things come together to define us. But if I were pressed to sum up the theme of the book in one sentence, I would suggest that it revolves around whether or not we can authentically achieve true love in a such a hostile world, one in which God is dead and there is no Hell, just this baleful life on earth and a series of corpses.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

My Reading Life: with Scott Santens

What are five books you loved? For one of them, why did you love it?

Five books I love are: The Dispossessed, The Sparrow, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The New Economics, and The Demon-Haunted World… apparently anything that starts with “the.” The Demon-Haunted World will always hold a special place for me, because it was the first book I ever read by Carl Sagan, and it’s like a war-chest of critical-thinking skills to arm someone for an entire lifetime. Fortunately, one of those people was me.

What is a book you didn’t like, and why?

Back in high school, one of the books I had to read in AP English was Pride and Prejudice. I couldn’t stand it. Out of all the books I was forced to read and wasn’t interested in, that was the hardest for me to get through because I kept falling asleep. It was like the book gave me narcolepsy. I loathed it and begged my teacher repeatedly to never subject any future class to it ever again.

What is a funny/interesting/unique anecdote about you as a reader?

I think I may be a bit odd in how I earmark pages. If a page has a quote I like, I’ll fold the upper corner. If the page has a really good quote. I’d double-fold the upper corner. If the page has what I think may be one of the best quotes in the book, I’ll also fold the bottom corner, and it will be a larger fold than the upper corner folds.

How did you first fall in love with books?

I was raised with books. We had a lot of books. As a kid, I had shelves of books. It’s hard to say when I first fell in love with them, because it’s like asking when I first fell in love with my family. They were just always there, and I always enjoyed them. I think I started reading a lot more though when I discovered the Choose Your Own Adventure books, and also Encyclopedia Brown. I consumed all of those voraciously.

What book or books are you planning to read soon?

I’ve got a very large stack building which is really hard to make any dent in when I spend my time focused on writing instead of reading. People send me books that haven’t been released yet, and right now one of those is a book by Hugh Segal that I really look forward to reading called “Bootstraps Need Boots.” There’s also an older book that came highly recommended and I just got called “The Tyranny of Kindness” that I’m excited to read too.

What book do you always recommend?

A book I always recommend is one I already mentioned, Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. One I haven’t mentioned that I would also include is Aesop’s Fables. Seriously, that’s something everyone can and should read. It’s centuries of accumulated wisdom in bite-size stories that can help us throughout our entire lives.

What book/books changed the way you see the world and your place in it?

Two books that changed the way I see the world are Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In one year I read every book Ayn Rand ever wrote. I loved how as an atheist she put mankind above religion. The way it changed the world for me though is not what people probably think. It’s what happened after which was when I noticed that people practically worshipped her and also denied climate change. This was back in the late 90s. It was just something that really impacted me how an entire group of people could just decide to spread anti-scientific beliefs because to acknowledge reality would mean making some changes. It helped me see that whereas I could read something and find both stuff I liked and disliked, other people took it all or nothing, and could form a religion around an atheist

What was your favorite childhood book?

I had a huge book of Brothers Grimm-style stories that was illustrated and I just loved reading that book in bed as a kid.

Do you have any favorite literary journals?

I don’t read any literary journals. I just read the occasional report or paper in them.

Have you ever read anything that made you think differently about fiction/nonfiction?

The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a book that made me feel differently about fiction, because it describes the Monomyth formula which so many stories follow. Joseph Campbell was amazing in how he saw what was in so many of our stories as humans. So much of that book can be applied to nonfiction too, because once you see why humans keep telling the same stories over and over, our world starts to make a lot more sense.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

The first really long book I ever read was A Mirror of Her Dreams, which along with A Man Rides Through It is a two-part series called Mordant’s Need by Stephen R. Donaldson, a fantasy writer. I chose those books at like age 11 because they were so big and the concept of mirror-based magic seemed really cool. I loved those books. I’d love to see them made into a series someday like Game of Thrones.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

I can’t think of any author I didn’t like and came to like. I like them or I don’t. Sorry, Jane Austen fans. I’m not giving her another chance.

What book have you read that has most influenced your life?

I suppose the book that has most influenced my life is Manna by Marshall Brain, because it got me thinking about the idea of unconditional basic income as a way of getting us off the dystopian track we’re on, and onto a utopian one that looks more like Star Trek.

Who are your favorite writers?

My favorite writers are: Carl Sagan, Noam Chomsky, Stephen King, and Greg Egan. I don’t tend to focus on authors and instead tend to focus on individual books, but I focused on them.

What do you read on holiday?

My holiday reads aren’t any different than my everyday reads. I just read whatever I’m reading or want to start reading.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?

Most underrated author is Greg Egan. He writes some of the best sci-fi out there, and I have yet to see a movie or TV series based off a single one.

Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?


What is your favorite book published in the past twelve months?

My most favorite recently-published book is Crisis 2038: A Novel by Gerald Huff. He was my friend and he died the day after he completed it. It was his final goal in life, and he achieved it. And it’s a great book with a message about the need for basic income before technology starts breaking all of society around us.

Did your parents read to you when you were young?

Yes, both my parents read to me as a kid. I loved it. My sister read to me too, and I also read to her. I also enjoyed writing as a kid too.

Which book have you given most frequently as a gift to others?

I think the book I’ve gifted most to others is actually a series of books. It’s called “The Value” series, and each of them are about some value that’s good to learn, like the value of sharing for example, and they are illustrated, and each one involves some famous person growing up with some kind of imaginary friend that helps them learn the value. I loved them as a kid, and I think they’re great for parents to read to their kids.

What impact can a book have on the reader?

A single book can change everything. Books have a special power. Because of their length, they draw us in, and we can start to see as the author sees or wants for us to see. A book can change our beliefs. It can make an atheist out of a believer, or a believer out of an atheist. It can make a Democrat out of a Republican or a Republican out of a Democrat. It can change things deep within us that we fundamentally identify with. It can open our minds and our hearts to each other. Books are empathy machines and logic machines. They are the torches of humanity that we keep lit and pass around to each other to light the darkness and show us what we’d never have experienced otherwise.

End of Interview 

Described by historian Rutger Bregman as "by far, the most effective basic income activist out there" Scott Santens has lived with a crowdfunded monthly basic income since 2016 and has been moderator of the Basic Income community on Reddit since 2013. He is the Editor of Basic Income Today, and serves on the board of directors of both the Gerald Huff Fund for Humanity and also USBIG, Inc. He holds a Bachelor of Science in psychology and his home is in New Orleans, Louisiana where he's lived since 2009.

Follow Scott on Twitter: @scottsantens

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Criticism would be better if there were less of it. Today anyone with an internet connection can post any nonsense opinion they want, with little regard for taste or even basic grammar. So with this review what I want to do, more than anything else, is to explore a little of my own methods, techniques and feelings on the nature of criticism, how I approach it, and what I think it’s limitations are, and perhaps, most importantly, why you should even be listening to me in the first place.
I suppose I wanted to be a critic from an early age, mostly because they got to do the things that I always wanted to do but was denied. They lived the kind of life that I wanted. I could never get to the theatre to see a play for example, so I read all the theatre reviews I could get my hands on. Likewise, the few novels that I could get my hands on were great, and always welcome, but it was always the book reviews that really stood out to me. More often the criticism was perfectly satisfying in its own right, complete and fulfilling enough to make anything more seem superfluous. However, the great majority of book reviews published today often give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is being dealt with.
And so, for me, when it comes to criticism and reviewing, two points are always paramount: (a) make your criticisms as honestly and forcefully as is appropriate, and (b) try to find any redeeming features in even the worst performance. Point (b) is perhaps the most egalitarian: hardly any book is completely void of some good qualities. It’s also important in a book review to convey accurately and succinctly what the author has to say before offering any evaluation whatsoever. Few books are perfect and many are defective in one way or another.
Whenever you read a review by someone that contains nothing positive at all, but only criticism, you should be especially suspicious, the reviewer obviously has an agenda or a vendetta or simply wants to look tough. A good reviewer must above all be fair, even when highly critical; so he or she should try to be as equally positive as well as negative. This is not to say that this will always be possible, or compatible, especially if the reviewer is at all honest. Tone and style are also both crucial tools in the critic’s belt. Although, the greatest difficulty, as Elizabeth Hardwick has said, “ making a point, making a difference, with words.”
My ostensible goal when crafting a review, is to celebrate the good and condemn the bad, but I am at every turn thwarted by the sheer mass of mediocrity with which I must contend with. Until one has had some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover just how bad the majority of them actually are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’ But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.
In essence then, criticism is highly subjective. But it is a sort of subjectivity which strives towards a universal objectivity. We all agree that things such as beauty, truth, pleasure and pain exist. But we don’t always agree on which forms in which they manifest. And really, what meaning is there in the word ‘good’ anyway?
Better Living Through Criticism attempts to answer this question, and is composed of six chapters and four dialogues, which opens with an imaginary, or perhaps not so imaginary, interviewer asking the critic: “What’s the point of criticism? What are critics good for?” And it says, just before it closes, that where criticism is concerned, “nobody has ever figured out where to begin, or what to conclude.” But does this mean we have gotten nowhere?
Well, no. Critics perform a vital service in the creative continuum, deconstructing movies/albums/books/plays down to their requisite pieces and casting the bones in an effort to call forth larger cultural themes and ideas. Henry James wrote that criticism showed the mind engaged in “a reaching out for the reasons of its interest,” and Scott, says something similar toward the end of his buoyant and argumentative book: “Let’s say that a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.”
In other words, the nature of the critic, is to try to unpack the underpinnings of artistic endeavor. But most people simply do not care enough to read about criticism, and so aren’t likely to read a defense of it, and people who are already committed to criticism don’t need it defended. Who, then, is Scott attempting to persuade?
This uncertainty about audience is one of the most important and symptomatic facts about the book. It appears most clearly as a problem of reference, which is always an issue in criticism. A critic must assume a certain community of knowledge with the reader, or else the argument can never get started. But Scott is hesitant to take for granted any prior literary or historical knowledge on the part of the reader. No matter who or what is mentioned, Kant, H.L. Mencken, Henry James, Louis XIV, he introduces it with a journalistic tag: e.g., “Moby-Dick, (Melville’s) grand, tragic, philosophically ambitious narrative of an ill-fated whaling voyage.” This says both too much, who is the potential reader of Scott’s book that doesn’t know Moby Dick is a whale?, and too little, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, three adjectives aren’t going to give you any real sense of it. Which makes the book extremely unfocussed in a way and I struggled to understand just exactly what the author wanted to accomplish. His measure of good criticism is almost too relative, too hard to nail down. Which is a function, primarily, of his laudable unwillingness to try to characterize what is good art or good literature given the variability of all forms of both and the tendency for many arbiters to see "quality" through a Western lens. But I would have preferred that he was a little more prescriptive about the principals behind what makes for good criticism which you would think is distinct from what is being critiqued. As a result, Better Living Through Criticism, ended up being a different book than what I was expecting. It was more personal and more abstract, really almost philosophical in it's approach to criticism. However, Scott does make a strong case for the inevitability of criticism as a feature of any society that values thinking of any kind and in the process, ends up providing an interesting history of criticism itself. Still yet, I do feel that the subject matter would have been better treated in essay form, rather than a full length manuscript.
Elaborating on what is perhaps the boldest argument Scott puts forth in the book, “All art is successful criticism.” Sukhdev Sandhu writes, “All artists find themselves reckoning with the past, judging its achievements, assessing its relevance for the present, revolting against or carrying the baton for it. Huge swaths of contemporary culture – from hip-hop, to the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers – are constructed from borrowing, quotation, and meta-commentary, much of it bracingly original. Seen in this way, they are not just poster children for postmodernism, but direct descendants of Shakespeare who ransacked the cupboards of high and low literature, history and folklore in search of viable scenarios, cobbling together scraps of Ovid, Holinshed, Latin comedy, and commedia dell’arte sketches.”
But criticism, even when it is not literary criticism, is still, nevertheless, a literary activity, it is a kind of writing. And a culture indifferent to writing will be indifferent to criticism. And criticism is always addressed not to fans, but to independent minds, people who express their enthusiasms through debate and analysis rather than dogged collecting and esoteric one-upmanship. And regardless of what may be believed, I do think it still matters what an unusual mind, capable of presenting fresh ideas in a vivid and original and interesting manner, thinks of books as they appear. I’ve written about a hundred book reviews since starting this blog and I believe the book review is one of the most valuable literary forms and not at all easy to do well. And I would encourage everyone to write them and to take them seriously.
Whatever its occasional pandering, Better Living Through Criticism, does exemplify the rhetorical virtues it so enthusiastically celebrates as being peculiar to the critic: attentiveness to detail, alertness to context, and a hunger for larger meanings. Reminding us that in the end, it is the job of the artist to free our minds, but it is the job of the critic to help us figure out what to do with that freedom once we have it.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Ode to a Bluebird

There's a scared little boy that lives inside of me.
But I pretend he's not there, pretend he grew up.
Yet, I can hear him crying now as I write this.
But I’m too tough for him. So I beat him down and flick his ears and tell him to be quiet before someone hears him. 
And the strangers I meet never know he's there.
But late at night, when it's just the two of us, I let him out and tell him that I know he's scared, but not to cry.
And when morning comes I put him back.
And we subsist like this, with our
shrouded understandings, and it’s enough to make a man weep.
But I don’t weep.
Will you?