Cringing at the Aliens that Walk Among Us

Once upon a time children collected butterflies. Now they capture embarrassment in a bottle labeled “cringe.” The internet is littered with cringe-inducing media and the people who share cringe-content. The cringe subreddit is tracked by 813,000 subscribers, while Google trends show interest in “cringe” throughout 2018 has been consistently high, and searching “cringe compilation” on Google returns 7,830,000 results. It’s become such a popular pastime that cringe has its own meme economy.

The extent of cringey media is endless, and in some forums countless images collapse over themselves like zombies to be the cringiest of them all. Just commenting “cringe” has become a common retort: at once a reaction and an analysis.

There are even second-order cringe memes. One of the most popular in an image of Shrek holding a camera with the caption, “*Snap* Yep. This one’s going in my cringe compilation.” A great self-referencing cringe. Who knows how many PCs include folders with hundreds, if not thousands, of embarrassing snapshots. It’s a stinking swamp nobody wants to end up in. Although anybody whose life story is diffused online could be in trouble.

Which is why I want to understand what makes something that’s cringey, cringey? It’s clearly a discomfort, but why this visceral reaction? Where does this come from? And how should we view it?

First we have to draw some lines. Experiences that inspire us to cringe are as flavored as an ice cream counter. What’s important to note is that cringing is not just a reaction to other people. Our memories can hold us hostage in the middle-of-the-night, forcing us to cringe at our past selves over and over again while the sound of the alarm clock creeps upon us. Those memories stand out like splinters on a banister.

For the sake of narrowing I want to focus on cringey media encountered online: the act of seeking out the embarrassment of others for amusement. That would be text posts, images, audio, and especially YouTube compilations that soak up the time you could be spending doing anything else. I’m focusing on this one sphere because I’ve been glued to the cringe abyss as you may have been as well.

Let’s dig up the garden and see what roots we find.

“Cringe” is a variant of crenge or crenche: Old English for “yield, give way, fall (in battle); become bent,” which in turn is handed down from Proto-Germanic krank, which means to “bend, curl up.” These are words for warriors. It’s appropriate. Apex cringe-worthy material is a battle. Every part of you wants to pour ink on your eyes but you can’t help but soak in the chaos. At some point in the early nineties “Cringe-worthy” enters the ring.

What’s important to note is that cringe has been a verb since its birth. A word of action: the sound that echoes off the snare after it’s been slammed; the aftershock of experience, not the drumstick. When we call some media “cringey” we’re referring to our response rather than the media in and of itself. For the sake of a coherent ramble we need to travel beyond the horizon and discover the act that set the whole cringe-universe in motion.

That blue ribbon goes to awkwardness: patient zero.

Awkwardness is an oddball phenomenon. Even drawing attention to an awkward situation is awkward in itself; I’ve tried this and it almost always creates interstellar silence. By identifying what makes something awkward we move closer to labeling cringe. Elif Batuman, writing for the New Yorker, spits up a nice starter definition: “Awkwardness is the consciousness of a false position.” But what does that mean?

Day-to-day life is an embedded experience. All the world’s a stage and so-on and so-on. Context—the stage—dictates who it’s appropriate to be. We don our masks, play our parts, and sing the songs as rehearsed. With your mother it’s Ps and Qs and with your friends it’s sailor’s rules. No one who’s been socially conditioned wears a codpiece to their job at the bank; unless they’re eager for unemployment.

But sometimes there’s an error in the program. The self that’s been adopted for a particular stage fails to read the queues and goes off-script. A screw up: you weren’t supposed to talk about that, or do that. What happens next is sinking into the quicksand of embarrassment because there are no rules for what’s happened. So you’re stuck, and the audience cringes in recognition of your lost playbook—in the violation of normative rules.

In Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness Melissa Dahl writes, “Awkwardness is the feeling we get when someone’s presentation of themselves—either our own or someone else’s—is shown to be incompatible with reality in a way that can’t be smoothed over with a little white lie.”

We have to remember that reality is dictated by the norms that come together to create context. It’s not awkward to see a Dragon Ball Z larper at an Anime convention, but it is weird to see someone miming the kamehameha at a funeral home. Social environments are imbued with tacit assumptions dictating behaviors that are learned through experience. That means shattering a norm like it’s the Berlin Wall is awkward.

Now that we have a notion of awkwardness we take another step back. To share in someone’s awkwardness we have to be capable of empathy. And lucky for all cringe-seekers, the brain is hardwired for empathy, a module wired to handle the complex social relations we can’t escape from.

But let’s not confuse empathy with “compassion.” Though it certainly can be compassionate, empathy in its essence is not linked to an emotional response.

“Yet empathy and care for others are not synonyms, not necessarily,” writes Dahl. “Empathy isn’t inherently good, Krach and Paulus tell me later on in my visit with some exasperation, and it isn’t inherently bad either… Empathy itself, my new neuroscientist friends tell me, is simply something healthy brains do automatically, in order to help us better socialize with others. On its own, it’s just a cognitive process. What matters is what you do with it.”

Whenever we cringe at someone’s awkwardness we are being empathetic. But there are two avenues (for the sake of simplification) that empathy can take. And the way in which we cringe at some material will show us which avenue we’ve taken.

In the paper “Constructing the cyber-troll,” researchers Natalie Sest and Evita March lay out two variants of empathy. “Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognise and understand another’s emotions. Affective empathy is the ability to experience, internalise, and respond to the emotions of others.” In the former, the emotional resonance needed to see the world from another’s perspective is held back, while with the latter we see through the awkward person’s eyes.

These two empathetic responses lead us to the dualistic nature of cringe itself. And I want to present my own taxonomy of cringe that neatly divvies up the universe:

  1. Relatable Cringe
  2. Alien Cringe

Let’s start with relatable cringe.

Relatable cringe is when you empathize with another, compassionately—or as we mentioned, affective empathy. Anyone who’s experienced stage fright knows what it’s like and relates. Someone is invited to give a presentation in front of thousands of eager learners, but they stutter like an old car and are trapped in the spotlight. You can see yourself in their place. In the case cringing is a mark of solidarity. The reaction says “That could be me.”

What we’re experiencing is a relatable narrative: the universal experience of awkwardness. Part of being human is the awkwardness that’s knotted around being a social creature. And that intense empathy binds us. It’s a kind of common good. A story you can relate to a newfound friend at a bar and get a laugh.

While relatable cringe tends to fall within a small framework—stage fright, an unzipped fly during a presentation, a botched handshake—there are no limits to alien cringe, because there is an infinity of behaviors which can break a norm.

Alien cringe is the guy in full Naruto cosplay running through the high-school cafeteria with his arms stretched back for maximum aerodynamic roleplaying. From my perspective he seems to be from another planet. I can’t help but feel our evolutionary paths diverged so long ago we speak different languages. Alien cringe is the preposterousness, the inconceivable, the largely unsympathetic. The people you laugh at rather than laugh with. Here is the consequence of cognitive empathy.

When we only use cognitive empathy we’re taking the perspective of another person, but not in its entirety. Instead of relating to their world, we bring our world to their perspective: we’re substituting our understanding of acceptable behaviors with their own. There’s a German word (as there almost always is) for alien cringe: fremdschämen. It’s to feel embarrassed for someone else when they don’t realize they’ve embarrassed themselves. I feel fremdschämen almost daily.

One cringe-inducing image is a message a hapless gamer sent to an apparently female player through Xbox Live’s messenger service. I can’t help but tense up with confusion and embarrassment when reading the text: “Hi! Few things to start off with =] 1. Yes I added you because you’re a female gamer, ‘tis an awesome thing to see! 2. I’m Brian. 3. Don’t be intimidated but I’m not a stereotypical guy. If anything, I’ll be the one in the kitchen =D”

“What is this person thinking? How are they so clueless, so alien?”

As Dahl rites, this kind of cringing—as a reaction of cognitive empathy—can lead to contempt. To see these people as something less than human. It’s distasteful isn’t it? It’s turning someone into an outcast, putting them at the mercy of spitballs from the back of the classroom.

But I disagree with Dahl. Rather than fully delegitimizing their humanity I believe what’s happening is our projection of shame. Alien cringing is our contorted gasp in recognition that the norms have been violated and we want the awkward person to feel as we do: to snap out of their seemingly oddball behavior. At a glance it seems to me to be a headsnap reaction to maintain social harmony—maybe something as biologically innate as empathy.

At the same time I recognize that the people comfortable enough to be awkward in a way that inspires alien cringing just don’t give a damn. And in that way they’re free. I admire that fierce individuality unconstrained by dominant social spheres—especially my high-school contrarian past self.

Dahl says she tries to always err on the side of compassion, and catch herself when she slips into the rabble-rousing of contempt. It’s a nice thought to say we should always pencil in the bubble next to “compassion.” But doesn’t a scantron look ridiculous as your grandmother at a rave when it’s “Cs” all the way down? She’s suggesting we can play a meta-rationality but I’m not sure we can consciously choose.

A cringe is an instantaneous expression with little rationality behind it; an instinct like snapping your hand back from steam whirling out of a kettle. When a norm has been violated I can’t help but recoil. And in my reaction I am, to an extent, perpetuating the norm that’s been broken: trying to save it through my horror. The 40-year old doing a clumsy Fortnite dance on Tik Tok is abnormal.

Can we imagine a world in which every behavior is met with compassionate acceptance? At a glance, there are clearly behaviors we don’t want to condone, and then there are others that are misunderstood. Maybe we should extend our compassion more, but that doesn’t mean there is no line to be drawn. Identifying between the two is an almost impossible task for any single person, and will be judged in time by the society in which those behaviors occur.

Before the web awkward incidents were fleeting. They happen; they’re embarrassing; and then they’re gone. Yes, they linger along memory’s stream but they’re not on display for the world. Unfortunately, (or fortunately for voyeurs) the internet is a memorial. That love letter video you posted to YouTube for your 7-month anniversary exists forever—more or less. And people will watch it and cringe—forever—just like I did.

People are weird: weird on an unexpected gradient as I learn every day living online. And each of us is weird in our own ways. We can try and cultivate compassion, to consciously remember just how embarrassing every single one us is, and draw on affective empathy to build a wire from one mind to another. Perhaps we can learn to cringe together, to accept the strange worlds we each inhabit. I’m just not sure we’re there yet.

Pundits, “Art,” and Politics

Do you hear that? That sound. The sound of commentators compressing the universe of art onto a 1996 USB. Once it was a whisper. Now it’s growing louder. Somebody gave it a megaphone and a million Twitter followers. And what does it say now that it has the audience’s attention? “Art is always political—by definition, you see.”

“By definition.” Is this true? The marriage of arts and politics does have its own Wikipedia page. A sure enough sign that the proclamation deserves at least the minimum of internet detective snooping. A few smacks on the keyboard, a quick click on “I’m feeling lucky,” and what do I find? A small list of names as recognizable as “Oprah” who have decided art is invariably political:

  • Toni Morrison
  • Ai Weiwei
  • Pablo Picasso

Who says intelligent people can’t say stupid things?

“Art is always political” is bullshit (in the sense of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s “bullshit.”) It’s a statement in which both parties would be happier after the divorce. Nonsense for Goodreads quotes. Nonsense that has chained the perception of art to a maze, as the minotaur. It declares that when the hurricane of politics fails to evaporate artists must have an umbrella for their mayor, congressman, president; typically in the shape of a middle finger—or a metaphor for one. Copy and paste ad nauseum.

The origin story of “art is always political” isn’t as certain as knowing Star Wars movies will be released until the day I die (of old age). But history always offers clues.

It’s no secret that 20th Century theories couldn’t stop themselves from objectifying the world. How else could they believe they had arrived at eternal Truth? That meant reifying even the qualia of my individual experience: sacrificing the ineffable for the easy. As part of that plan, theory put art under the knife to fit in a bow-tied box labeled with a crayon. “Cut off all that excess! This must conform to count!” Make it softer on the eyes.

Therein lies what “art is always political,” says: that artworks are just highway markers leading to some intellectual statement, some neatly cataloged epiphany: propaganda with an agenda.

It’s a dangerous sentiment balancing on stilts made of yarn. Best served as spittle from the mouth of a pundit on Fox & Friends than any commentary about aesthetic appreciation. “Well, you see, Rivera’s Marxist tendencies…” It proposes that appreciating a poem is nothing more than marking your book with arrows pointing to references to The Decline of the West.

Talk about decline.

“Art is always political” ignores the fundamental experience of encountering any artwork: the evolving dialogue that escapes a definition buzzing around the word “is.” In reality, nobody (who’s human, at least) studiously sorts through symbols—unconsciously or consciously—to analyze a song, a poem, a painting, a building on their first encounter. Paintings aren’t hung in a lab. Political ripples aren’t automatically plucked. That’s not art speaking. That’s tarring and feathering the Pietà.

In reference to Dante, T.S. Eliot wrote that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” A quote taken out of context so often nobody knows the context; that being Eliot’s preference for a childlike naivete. The less gravity I shove down artwork’s throat, the farther I can jump.

Hearing Debussy’s Claude de Lune or Biggie Smalls’ Everyday Struggle brings me into direct contact with my immediate experience, with the totality of my being. Now. Dasein. My cumulative reality. Something the political only shares a sliver of. Only the four windows of my sedan are privy to my pencil neck miming lyrics in traffic. Great art is the presence of Buddha: absorption in the entirety of the magic circle that is the game called life.

In Art as Experience philosopher John Dewey writes:

“In art as an experience, actuality and possibility or ideality, the new and the old, objective material and personal response, the individual and the universal, surface and depth, sense and meaning, are integrated in an experience in which they are all transfigured from the significance that belongs to them when isolated in reflection.”

A living example might help.

While imported from China sometime in the 6th Century A.D., Japanese gardening quickly nurtured its own identity. An identity infused with intent. Every stone, shrub, lantern, and pagoda is organized and imbued like a four-dimensional textbook of Eastern tradition. The inspiration isn’t necessary for appreciation. What is important is the design: the harmonizing of material that invites the visitor to dissolve in the experience, to live with presence as part of a narrative that begins and ends with an entrance.

If only the visitor allows herself to inhabit.

Nevermind that the origin of Japanese gardening was for Kyoto bourgeois, hungry for nature like Brooklyn hipsters going West. The point is the immediacy that exists for me. You. I. The potpourri that emanates through our senses and fuses with our being.

Yeats’ poem The Second Coming is not just an allegory for a Europe of ashes. It is the capturing of expression in a Poké Ball to be summoned whenever I wish to inhabit a bookended moment revitalized with each reading—including every shower recital I’ve proudly made with the windows flung open. An ominous slouching expression for sure.

To return to the point: let’s understand the ludicrousness of any judge who sentences us to wear glasses to see the world as they do. To proclaim, “art is always political” is a gross oversimplification, forcing a meaning from outside within. Something that really says “art is always political [so long as it agrees with my politics].”

But life can’t be reduced to one modality. Life is everything. And we bring everything with us to art: to the polychromatic panels of Moebius or the prophets of Khalil Gibran or a ballet rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

If “art is always political” why is no one arguing capitalism’s flaws in the comments section of Charles Mingus’ Goodbye Pork Pie Hat? Because they’re too busy listening. Focused. Being absorbed. Peter Sloterdijk writes, “Reality begins where the state and it’s terminology end.” Art snaps us back to reality after our fabrications have stretched us thin. Real art is for the real world. And if we’re really listening, we transform along with that world.

“But, but, but… Everything in society is political! Ya know Aristotle said…”

To believe I am a mere political animal belittles what it means to be human. Unfortunately, pursuing this line of thought is inappropriate in a post like this (that’s what comments sections are for). A one sentence, blog-fitting, retort is that an all-encompassing definition is not a useful definition at all; that a proper definition of “political” doesn’t treat the political like gut flora: it’s not always with us.

Whenever I hear proponents of politic’s pervasiveness I can’t help but also hear a hunger for tyrannical thinking, that one size fits all path to understanding. Because the infamous statement is a snake in the garden offering one answer. Such a simple choice, you see? It enables the slimy, hacking, spewing Leviathan to become a faulty cheat for experience. Type in “something for nothing,” at the main menu and act like you earned it.

I’m not arguing that art can’t inspire political sentiments upon reflection. Of course it can. Many artists wouldn’t have a job otherwise. The key word is “reflection.” Reflection is not part of the immediacy of art; it is an afterthought, an integration with the self as the work dips behind time’s horizon. Something I bring to the potluck; not what’s waiting on the table. The important takeaway is that reflection does not necessarily lead to the political.

“Art is always political” only exists because politics as a subject has become an ocean of still water bursting with mosquitoes. No wonder intellects have tried to force the world of politics on art. We can’t help but itch. But that doesn’t mean art must itch too. It doesn’t have to. The choice is always individual. Those who say otherwise are dragging the mosquito to Van Gogh and commanding, “Now, suck!”

To be fair, no, I have not given an adequate definition of “art,” or some regurgitation of a critical theory. Time is short and I prefer not to waste it. I only wished to subtract a single frame from an infinitude of possibility. To prevent “art is always political” from becoming a garbage guardian of tradition.

See this as a long post-it note with, “Never subject yourself to a critic or an aesthetic theory, to tell you what to feel or how to think,” written in all uppercase and stapled to the fridge. (I’m pleased with the irony.)

Are there answers that are more correct? Yes. Criticism comes in degree, e.g. the “art for art’s sake camp” is barren cynical crap. The latter is the loose end of the spectrum while “art is always political” is the slip knot at the other. A remnant of 20th century growing pains too busy writing grandiloquent prescriptions for society’s woes; ignoring actuality for what’s easily codified. Afterall, master narratives are only masters of stillborn stars. Their flashlights shine darkness on the day.

Civilizations are measured by the art they produce. They resonate across time as doors to experience or a vision of one. But withering times are more interested in stamping art as synonyms for their theory rather than art itself. All returns to farce. I refuse to the play the game, and choose to value the totality of experience brought to bear on art over any single shortcut.

I choose to live in a world in which art is [Not] always political—“by definition, you see.”

This article originally appeared at Plurality Press, who never managed to published it in complete form or pay for the article as agreed. Thank you, PP.

Internet Enlightenment is a Pile Up on I-192.168.0.1

Another dead notion that simply won’t shut its beak: the idea that the internet was supposed to connect all of humanity and it failed. “It failed.” Is your brain fried? Are you microdosing alcohol in between ayahuasca retreats in Mexico? We are connected. The tentacles reach into every home and hug us to the same monster. We all see each other all the time and perhaps what’s really said is that the equivocal we doesn’t like what it sees.

Where do we begin? First, we have to understand the hope that was placed in the internet.

It’s neatly summed up in 1996’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” A manifesto addressed to governments, proclaiming the Leviathan’s disbarment from the digital country. The emotion swirling around John Perry Barlow’s fingertips must have been contagious as the flu. It’s dripping with hope. Full of love for a transformation that might as well have been transcendent: a freeing from monkey limbs and turnip brains.

What Barlow envisioned is the philosopher-kings of a new age. A rational, enlightened being more interested in truth than gorilla-posturing. Humanity could accelerate to walking on two legs using its newly minted tool and become leaders of a glorious utopia that would inspire heaven’s spires to rise through the dirt of the earth. You don’t need institutions or a Republic with the internet playing puppeteer.

Over twenty years have passed. And while there are more people wearing “philosopher” as a four-syllable summary of their personality on Twitter, there are few people who can claim enlightenment. The tool didn’t fulfill the zealot’s prophecy.

To start, governments ignored Barlow and co’s “Do Not Disturb Sign.” Because if there are natural laws to sovereignty one of them is its insistence on dominating every sphere of social interaction. Sorry anarchists.

And part of the general we more or less welcomes it. The wild west must be tamed so coastal ignorants can plant a garden. A safe, welcoming environment that’s always splashed with sunshine. Only a father can guarantee such security. With each day the mighty bicep of the state further chokes the web with an aviator grin. All applaud king Chadzer.

But what’s worse: the people who live online are nothing like imagined. They have become slimy toads; burnt toast stepped on, on a corner; oversized black tees; fat whales vaping fruit-flavored juice mixing with the smell of rotting Taco Bell; shades drawn to chase out the son; a keyboard coated with white film grease peeled off in Spring; a Vitamin D deficiency that no doctor will diagnose; fake usernames born in 1970 that have been drinking porn since 2002; content indifference that loves to laugh at the all-too-serious and pokes captured bears with blue iron: Shitters.

These folks could be Diogenes, but they eventually become addicted to the same drug in an always-connected world: the need to wave flags. And that’s what everyone does, frog-person or otherwise.

The more embedded you are within a community, the more you need to distinguish yourself from its members. When the whole goddamn world is connected you’ll grab any stick to demarcate. Seeking either approval or discord through signals flamboyant as a peacock-in-heat’s feathers. Busy as hell marking up HTML with whatever can be funneled out of the neocortex. Marching with allies, throwing stones at enemies.

We don’t live in closed off information cul-de-sacs: that’s the clickbait quick-spit–shine-up highlight. Instead, everyone has a license to drive on the same superhighway and people aren’t happy about it. They want to share the road with the same smug vehicles they drive. And because it turns out people aren’t like them—on some level, resembling another species—they try to crash into whatever bumper sticker offends their sentiment. And when that fails they shut down parts of the highway altogether.

Because connection is ubiquitous.

Everyone sees what everyone else thinks. And instead of laughing at the absurdity of it all we’ve chosen to dig the trenches deeper, always keeping an eye on the other side across no-mans-land.

But here’s the best part. What you typically see is the extremes. That rabble-rousing minority who never learned the virtue of silence. With a wave they wash their tyranny across discourse and slave away to mold a combative image of the way things are. These are the people who give credence to the Civil War narrative.

So no, the web is not a catalyst for authenticity and self-actualization—whatever the hell that means. Nor could it ever have been. It can’t produce better people; not on its own at least. What it did accomplish is an always-open window into the minds of the other. A job well done. We can prick and prod and distinguish and spit and applaud all over each other’s brains. The scope of human experience is stupefying and the internet has given us access to the biggest slice of the stupid.

What will happen—is happening—is another division: an adaptation; the cell must divide to survive. Some will be capable of exploring this landscape without being captured by the petty politics of its mating rituals. Others will drown, blaming someone else for their lack of oxygen. But navigating the hyper-connected doesn’t require an ubermensch. Just a good sense of humor.

Laughing at the Face of Seriousness with Diogenes

“Every age, and ours above all, would need a Diogenes; but the difficulty is in finding men courageous enough to be one, and men courageous enough to suffer one.” – Jean le Rond d’Alembert.1

We live in serious times. Everywhere, flags are planted, trenches dug, and positions taken. Ideas are no longer just thoughts—if they ever were—but weapons. They’re soldered to identities and fired across the web like whining missiles. Choose your words carefully because dissent is met by a madness that tears apart anyone who dare speak out of line. What you share decides whether or not you’re “on the right side of history.”

Two options appear: blindly pick a side or abandon the conversation. Neither is appealing when we all like the sound of our own voice. How then can we navigate between a vacuous whirlpool and a hungry outcrop? Who can help us?

Diogenes prowled Athens in the 4th Century B.C., armed with only a cloak, a staff, and a biting tongue. He snapped at the Greeks. Criticizing the way they lived and holding out his hand for the coin he was owed. It quickly earned him the nickname “kyon,” or “dog,” which as an adjective translates to “Cynic.” A smear Diogenes blithely rolled around in.

“And it was plain that he acted accordingly, adulterating currency in very truth, allowing convention no such authority as he allowed to natural right, and asserting that the manner of life he lived was the same as that of Heracles and that he preferred liberty to everything.”2

Any talk of the Cynics, Diogenes or otherwise, demands a brief detour. It’s important to note that the Cynicism of Diogenes is not the same “cynicism” as we use it today. The snickering attitude that undermines all values in the name of disillusioned self-interest—what Peter Sloterdijk calls “enlightened false consciousness,”3—is typically denoted with a lowercase “c.” While the philosophy as represented by Diogenes and his followers keeps the kingly capital “C.” The two are part of the same river. But for this blog’s purpose it’s useful to dig and ditch and separate them.

Like Socrates, Diogenes found his calling from an oracle of Apollo. Olympus commanded, “paracharattein to nomisma:” deface the currency.4 There’s some numismatic evidence that Diogenes whittled away at the coins of Sinope when he was a banker—leading to his exile. But no oracle should be interpreted literally. The word nomisma is a play on nomos: “laws.”5 The proper interpretation of the prophecy means, “overthrow all human laws.” And so he did.

Diogenes unshackled all societal comforts to discover the bare minimum needed for happiness. “He would often loudly proclaim that the gods have granted human beings the means to an easy life, but this has been hidden from sight because they seek for honey-cakes and perfumes and the like.”6 What Diogenes sought was a way of living that inspires courage to face capricious Fortune. That meant a life of poverty as the shortcut to virtue. The dirt of the street became his dress; a ceramic jar became his home, and he adopted a new profession, to invest in the soul.

Our picture shouldn’t be confused with an ascetic meditating behind a wall. Diogenes was no monk seeking just his own salvation. He proclaimed, “I am a citizen of the world.”7 As the first cosmopolitan Diogenes recognized all people as his siblings—and nation’s borders as crude lines. Hence, he rejected all values which were not universal. For him, the only state that matters is a “moral” state, “a positive allegiance to the whole earth.”8 Diogenes fled towards reality, and labored to take others with him.

An iconic image paints Diogenes holding a lamp on a sun-drenched afternoon, searching for a “man.”9 The scene is irony in action. There are no people for Diogenes to discover. The Athenians have become strangers to themselves, suffocating their being in fancy illusions rather than living in accordance with what it means to be human. To reflect their absurdities Diogenes lived a ridiculous life of action. He became the reflection that stares back from the sewage water and sprays it on anyone close enough to get wet.

His weapons of critique were clever puns, satire, and parody. “Humor is the chisel stamp of Cynic discourse.”10 It meant saying whatever needed to be said to shock people out of their servility. What they ordinarily think of as the “good” or the “right” is misguided. It’s tempting to draw parallels to a Zen master who prescribes medicine in the form of riddles. Except Diogenes tries to heal those who don’t want to listen.

Diogenes’ bombshells weren’t made of mere words. He weaponized his body. “He masturbated in the market-place one day and said, ‘If only one could do away with hunger by rubbing one’s stomach!’11 Through this outrageous act the wall between public and private shattered. Custom is brought into question by embodying the breach. Afterall, Dogs fornicate wherever they please.

But Diogenes wasn’t content to paint a bullseye on the foreheads of ordinary citizens. He attacked the metaphysical temples erected by the academies. An aghast Plato called him, “A Socrates gone mad.” The compliment was warranted. “Plato had defined Man as an animal, biped and featherless, and was applauded. Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it into the lecture-room with the words, “Behold Plato’s man!”12 Diogenes was the jester who wished to drag philosophy back to the earth. When Zeno of Elea said there is no such thing as motion Diogenes stood up and walked around.

Is this a portrait of a philosopher? Maybe, but it’s far from a familiar one. While Diogenes may have written treatises they’ve been eaten by time; and he erected no methodological system—earning him Hegel’s scorn. All we have are anecdotes and aphorisms: quick witty sayings imparting an ethical lesson. Yet, that was all he needed to leave a crater in his wake; scientists are still puzzled by samples from the crash site.

Through the Roman age, the Enlightenment, and the aftermath of two World Wars, thinkers have sought to salvage whatever they can from the irreverent Diogenes; or, sentenced him to a crucifixion next to a singing Eric Idle.13 Oddly enough, it was in the attempt to remold Diogenes that Ancient Cynicism twisted into our familiar modern cynicism. Because Diogenes can be interpreted as unhinged skepticism: a sententious questioning many feared would lead to moral nihilism and the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of any other. Though nihilism may not even be the greatest fear posed by Diogenes’ example. We can’t have intellectuals exposing their genitals at a Paris salon. Can we?

“Other dogs bite their enemies, but I my friends, so as to save them.’14

In the late 20th Century two prominent philosophers independently returned to Diogenes: Peter Sloterdijk in his bestselling Critique of Cynical Reason and Michel Foucault in his last lecture series at the Collège de France.15 In the Cynic they sought a model for contemporary social critique. They found it. For them, Diogenes is not the paragon of progress, nor is he the abyss dug by self-interested scoffing. Instead, Diogenes epitomizes an attitude that will helps us survive these times of seriousness.

The foundation of Diogenes’ attitude is reason infected with rabies. A courageous daring that leaves no facet of the historical moment unturned. Diogenes sets the stage for Kant’s sapere aude, “dare to know.”16 A philosophy that it no so much concerned with the right answers, but the nerve to discover them with the resources of reason. Ask not, “Who am I?” but “What am I?” What are we?

But before one can ask they must master themselves. Self-mastery is the vaccine to prevent choking on perceptions that confuse empty verbiage for the reality beyond a screen. It’s a liberated happiness. Diogenes’ example teaches us to overthrow language games, to pave a road to freedom by pissing against the blind idealist wind. Particularly useful today. A modern Diogenes might throw an online revolutionary a spear and say, “There, go kill your leviathan puppeteer.”

For Foucault the most important application of Diogenes’ example is parrhesia, “free speech.” Drawing on Diogenes, he concludes that individuals have a duty to speak the truth in all circumstances whether or not they’re invited to flap their lips. We have a duty to shamelessly say what needs to be said to rip apart all mirages that lead people to a Djin’s oasis.

But there is a danger here, isn’t there? The guillotine is always craving fresh heads. But to abstain from saying the truth is to spit on the truth. And abstinence only empowers illusion which “like a shepherd, leads most men where it wills.”17 One must have the courage to speak without fear. Of course, with Diogenes this doesn’t mean always upholding conventional manners of dialogue. Next time someone calls you a “victim,” reflect the assertion by blowing a raspberry.

The most urgent takeaway lesson from Diogenes’ class is a sense of humor. Comedy lifts the veil on our mindless habits and forces us to confront them for what they are. Because laughing at ourselves, at our own fallacies, is already a life leaning towards emancipation. Humor raises our anchored beliefs and let us shamelessly, and fearlessly, sail towards truth. Which is we why we find the legacy of Cynicism not in philosophy, but predominantly in satirical fiction—fitting for a character more literary than historical.

“What good is a man who has spent all his time philosophizing without having once disturbed or worried anyone?” – Diogenes the Cynic18

Philosophy appears in the imagination as a nose in a book, but Diogenes stuck his nose in the business of everyday life. He lived an embodied philosophy. Because life is the litmus test for any belief. You are what you do. Seek harmony between your pronouncements and action, and constantly reassess—here is a definition of “authenticity” for a serious world. How funny that we travel through the history of knowledge only to arrive back at a mother’s wisdom: “Actions speak louder than words.”

Seeking truth—new values—is a mission that is lived day-to-day. The key to our chains is in our pocket. We only have to struggle to reach for them, and laugh if we drop them on the ground. In a sequel to Raphael’s School of Athens, onlookers would raises their eyebrows, as Diogenes turns to Plato and Aristotle to whack their toes for encroaching upon the sun.

[This article was originally published in a now defunct magazine. And since this is a dump, what better place for it to find its rest.]

1 Luisa Shea, The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon. Johns Hopkins University Press (December 10, 2009), p. 23.
2 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (R.D. Hicks, Trans.). Harvard University Press (January 1, 1925), 6.71
3 Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reasoning (Michael Eldred, Trans.). University of Minnesota Press. (1987). p. 5.
4 Luisa Shea, p. 94
5 Luisa Shea, p. 9
6 Robin Hard, Diogenes the Cynic Sayings and Anecdotes. Oxford University Press (2012) p. 56, (Diogenes Laertius 6.44; G322).
7 Diogenes Laertius, 6.61
8 John L. Moles, “Cynic Cosmopolitanism,” in The Cynics, The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. Eds. R. Bracht Branham and Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé: University of California Press, 1996. p. 111
9 Diogenes Laertius, 6.41
10 R. Bracht Branham, “Defacing the Currency: Diogenes’ Rhetoric and the Invention of Cynicism,” in The Cynics, The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy. Eds. R. Bracht Branham and Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé: University of California Press, 1996. p. 93
11 Diogenes Laertius, 6.46
12 Diogenes Laërtius, 6.40
13 Terry Jones, Life of Brian. HandMade Films, Python (Monty) Pictures, 1979
14 Robin Hard, Diogenes the Cynic Sayings and Anecdotes. Oxford University Press (2012) p. 68, (Stobaeus 3.13.44; G149).
15 Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others. Eds. Frédéric Gros: Palgrave Macmillian. (2010)
16 Immanuel Kant, “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?,” p. 1, see http://library.standrews-de.org/lists/CourseGuides/religion/rs-vi/oppressed/kant_what_is_enlightenment.pdf
17 Robin Hard, p. 81 (Stobaeus 3.22.41; G289)
18 Luisa Shea, p. 10

Finding What’s Worthy to Hate: MLMs

Hate is platitudinously a powerful word: a summoning of one’s energies to a focal point like a magnifying glass to burn a single mocking ant. Hunch over long enough and eventually your neck is as cracked as the ground. Hates’s a waste, they say. It does more damage to you than it does to the hated. So the lesson goes. Perhaps, true.

But how much gets done when someone’s emotions start flooring the pedal? So long as the driver has a purpose—something worth being mad about—there’s mileage in hate. And the world presents plenty of kindle to burn.

Talk to the right politically-aligned misanthrope and it’s clear there’s more to hate than love in the world—at least in the abstract. Outrages are handed out on a gilded platter, the usual suspects at a wine and cheese party for NGOs: famine, war, injustice, etc. The tastiest morsels require a refined taste: a refined politics. Why bother listing them, again? But the academic hater is a boring type: in more need of the reassurance that there is something to hate, than the object of their hate.

Luckily, there do exist those rare objects of scorn that twist your intestines into ratty gnots. And when you find that object, seize it; let it translate, even if it’s shit out on a blog like bird droppings in Central Park. The smarty-pants quotable philosopher Aristotle said, “Those who do not show anger at things that ought to arouse anger are regarded as fools.” And there is one image in my sights that has inspired a degree of disdain like no other.

MLMs.

My hate, for the time, is reserved for MLM companies, a word considered derogatory by those filed away in its cabinet. MLM PC terminology is limited to “network marketing,” “direct sales;” “pyramid scheme.” But why bother getting mad at MLMs? Aren’t they obvious, easily dismissed? So, I thought.

There is a widespread MLM ecosystem like the fungal highways directing traffic beneath the forest’s floor. There are the scammers (MLMs), companies that support the scammers, and companies that help companies that support the scammers attract the attention of the scammed. Search Google to find SEO agencies dedicated to the cause, raising their pissed-on-flag to help rally an army of idiots. MLMs are members of a universe, with related entities existing as the quantum laws that hold the planets in place.

But I don’t hate MLMs for all the jobs they’re constantly creating. It’s the people work for them.

We have to understand that there are two types of people that fall for the MLM scheme:

  • Get-rich-quick egotists.
  • The desperate.

The former deserve the soiled rot of their harvest—though the successful among them end up as presidents of some MLM venture. It’s for the latter that I hate. MLMs target the destitute, hungry, unsure, indecisive, lonely, old, busy, inexperienced; and instill a religious hope that their product is the spiritual answer the people crave. Is it any wonder that MLM Facebook groups abuse a “John 3:14” sign by holding it next to whatever knock-off garbage they’re selling? It’s a fervor born from peer pressure, crosses, and latex smiles.

But there is no gold at the end of the rainbow. Only a crackhead’s snickerdoodle, more dust than doo. And suckers of MLMs lose everything.

Isn’t it there own fault? “These people brought it upon themselves.” Sure, they did. In the same way a fly becomes trapped in the spider’s web the impudent take out loans for a $5,000 buy-in. It’s the fly’s nature to be ensnared but I can’t help but pity the fly’s foolishness. There will always be ways to take advantage of people but that doesn’t necessitate a shrug.

Should I turn the other cheek; let it go? Perhaps, true. Still, the Western canon begins with μῆνις: rage. And since I enjoy putting the canon on a pedestal, might as well perpetuate the trend. Achilles had it right. Be mad at the Agammemnon’s MLM.

The word “hate” in its everyday usage has been stripped like an Instagram model of almost all of its meaning. We “hate” the vomit of pop-culture, or our neighbor’s tacky Halloween decoration, or paying taxes. When we use “hate” we really mean “dislike.” But there’s an older meaning, an energetic bubbling of disgust that hijacks the mind’s eye, turns whatever is hated into an idol that begs to be torn down.

I hate MLMs.

The Amazons Have Returned: The Instagram Ass Model Revolution

The Amazon’s have returned from the Terme to hack out a new home in this strange world. What a nice surprise! Where have they settled? Instagram. What ancient wisdom have they brought to teach? That less is more. Their arrival ushers in a new era, one that glows with the sun through your smartphone. What have they done? The Amazons have turned Instagram into an economy of asses.

On any index the ass economy has an unstoppable inertia. Clearly, this is the rocket that will take us to Mars—or at the least to the gel section at Target. And it’s all done in the name of love. Upside down hearts freely give themselves to the millions, upon millions—upon millions (upon millions)—of followers who graciously show their support with comments like…

Hey beautiful, how are you doing and how is it going over there? wow i must say your smile is priceless and adorable, I am Anthony and you?

And

Ur Bubs, natural or implants?

And…

U must be horny

Such adoring fans! It makes the heart melt.

For the sake of research, and sentences as fine as lacy thongs, I courageously Googled “top Instagram butts” to discover who these angelic trendsetters are, and what we can learn from their transformative pursuits. What I’ve discovered is inspiring.

Miss Andrea Abeli not only lives on Instagram but has expanded her territory to a website. This is a woman who knows how to hit a hole in one. On her beloved site you find a fan page, a texting page, an Amazon wishlist, promos, and a female models wanted page. Each navigational entity is icon’d with one of two artistic styles: a glistening ass or an ass begging for freedom from the confines of its jeans. Only a silly snapshot logo—a ghost in aviators with a sardonic tongue—stands differently. If it turned around the aesthetic would be complete.

This woman is adding to the coffers of Fort Ass: golden rounded bytes that are windows to the soul. Who would have thought you had to start from the bottom to get there? There are naysayers though.

What kind of insensitive monster could possibly complain that all this skin hearkens the downfall of the West? This is a welcome revolution. I have seen more asses on Tuesday than every single person in my ancestral line—all the way back to the first potato. Now that’s progress. There’s a history book to be written here: From Ass to Instagram and back to Ass: How Instagram Brought About World Peace. A kind of hobbit’s journey where the climax is to throw your clothes into a molten fire to reveal one g-string to rule them all.

Because these asses are the leaders of today.

Anyone who insults the Amazon warriors is against artistic expression. There is a perfect pose, a strut, a facade of life that Plato’s forms can only gawk at. As Miss Julie Giles—floating naked on her back with her tits buoying just above the water table—says, “It’s impossible to explain creativity. It’s like asking a bird, ‘How do you fly?’ You just do.” Genius.

What would Michelangelo do/be in this world? How could the aggravated man possibly compete? Would he bother to sculpt the Pieta when a young Medici would be too busy admiring manipulated angles that make slabs of fat into marble? Maybe Michelangelo would have been a photographer, one commissioned by the Pope to create a nunnery calendar.

What these Amazons need next is stock options. I want to invest. Screw Bitcoin; the ass economy is on a trajectory that would make Rothschild sweat with a lip-bite. What we need is an ICO: a unifying blockchain-backed currency whose value is dictated by hashtags like #bootybootybooty (2,746,289 posts) and #bootyfordays (3,749,982 posts). So long as I don’t subscribe to exclusive Patreon images I’ll be rich—in spirit.

The Amazons have returned. Their asses are marching in union, arm-in-arm. A sisterhood of entrepreneurial thots, and the wretched civilization of men who support their asses with gold.

Who Died First: God or Nietzsche?

On some day in 1883 God died. How? Why? Nobody knows. It’s now largely considered a mystery for pre-teen detective stories. What we do know is that God’s death is our fault, or so proclaims Nietzsche like a street urchin newspaper boy.

But there are naysayers. People who claim to have seen the obituary years ago while clipping for coupons, so that the tombstone is nothing than a symbolic gesture for the masses stuffed in a stadium. What follows next is a logical backflip across the Grand Canyon: the powerful have always wielded religion like a scepter, never believing.

Is this true? Did King Alfred swat away God like a fruit fly, leaving the window open when he needed him to rally against the Danes? Did Constantine forget his cross as he dipped his sword in blood like Fun Dip or did greatness do it for Christ? Is both too much to ask?

We’re stuck with another binary decision and we have to pick one: wear it like a thrift store hat if only for the mirror and decide whether or not we can tolerate the notion that its previous owner may have scratched with lice. Either those who swayed the paths of nations believed or they didn’t.

21st Century enlightenment (a word more abused than dogs abandoned to Mississippi woods) makes it difficult to imagine a politician praising God and meaning anything more than an applause. Harder even to imagine a bishop placing his heart of hearts in transubstantiation, that it is the sticky blood of Jesus that clings to the corner of his mouth where lip cheese greets him each morning.

How can we imagine them believing? We’re indoctrinated into the skeptic-influencer market. Dawkins’ harangues sound like the bells from science’s steeple, calling all people to kneel in recognition that God was never alive in the first place.

Following the film roll the projector is turned back at the audience. And the past is washed with the deluge of the present: of course, simple folk were morons; you have to be dependent on the stink of the earth for your eyes to search the stars.

Lying beneath this notion like fish waiting for spring is first that intelligence inherits power. And I’ll take that as a fair-enough assumption. Sure, there are a few cases of the inept, the infertile, the delusional, whose names stain history like coffee rings. But I see no issue in accepting this first premise as a general rule.

Now we arrive at the second: that intelligence inadvertently sees through the God illusion. From A to B, from B to C. A syllogism brought down from an ivory Sinai. Brains built to manipulate don’t fall so easily for the omnipresent ghost that haunts the sheep from the shadows; aristocrats are just too goddamn smart. Powerful people must be in the know.

It’s as if…

A sage with a flowing beard white with wisdom descended the treacherous mountain pass. Arriving at a village square he proclaimed, “God is dead!”

Anxious, a priest and bishop approached and whispered, “Excuse me, can you shut up?”

“Don’t you hear me! God is dead!”

“Yes, we know. We killed him long ago.”

“That’s what I’m saying!”

“No, no. You misunderstood. We killed him.”

“You? You killed him!”

“We’ve got a good thing going here so can you please be quiet. We’ll be forced to burn you at the stake for heresy if you don’t stop acting like a lunatic. Or you can come inside. We have a poker game tonight. Actually, we have one every Thursday and you’re invited. The fire’s warm.”

So the sage played poker with his newfound brothers and lost what little silver he had saved, for he knew not how to deceive.

It all seems so conspiratorial.

Admittedly, there are absurdities that seem to self-evidently dismiss themselves like negative numbers multiplying. Catholicism is one that’s always presented culprits pale even before they’re hung: saints resembling hero cults; ritual performances artificial as courting; a mind-melting insistence on mathematical equations that require more faith than his humanly possible—three-in-one is one-in-three is two and two make five; requiring a giving-up as much as a giving-in. ‘Ah, these exist for power dynamics. To catalyze the faith of the people and keep them from all inquiry.’

What a grand conspiracy these doctrines point too! A masterful stroke of bewilderment that will ensure livestock never wonders what’s beyond the pen. “Come on, they were so obviously in the know! Who would trust such nonsense!”

And herein lies the second inherent premise, the scum that returns in summer. That intelligent people in power cannot live with contradiction, that they will summit the mountain and tear it down with nails and teeth until it no longer covers the sun’s truth. Because being comfortable with contradiction is the signal flare of lesser souls. It’s a notion that suggests the oldest philosophical fallacy of them: bullis shittis.

Is it so difficult for even the best among us to accept the absurd? To believe the fantastic like Newton huddled over his alchemy or a basement dweller massaging their messiah complex. No human escapes foolishness, as inevitable as old balls gracing toilet water like glaciers drifting towards the sea. My mother said poverty knows no race; and I say “stupidity” knows no class—or education. It’s wrapped around the code with the rest of the garbage.

Except for the rare pessimists sculpted from the same vein as Al-Maʿarri, I imagine the vast majority of the influential were true believers. Yes, there are countless cases of immorality, of crimes against profession. But people pull excuses from their hats like nomad magicians and trust that absolution will be enough to bribe their way into the pearly gates: it’s natural that most sinners think of themselves as innocents.

Did God die before Nietzsche? I doubt it.