No Homo Economicus

Conspiracy and the Occult, Economy, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

As a rule, I’m suspicious of economic explanations, because I regard economics as a fraudulent pseudoscience, although in my more charitable moments, I allow that it might just be a kind of Becherian proto-science, a vast expanse of arithmetical phlogiston that our descendant generations will regard as very nearly quaint. The civic discourse of the present era is completely dominated by economics; young pundits with degrees in philosophy begin to be taken seriously only when they start dropping its jargony solecisms into their op-eds. Economics actually claims to be both a behavioral science and a physical one, even though it appears to believe that its natural laws derive from the word problems at the back of the book than vice versa, and anyway it has a record of near total failure at figuring out why things actually happened or predicting if and when they will happen again. All that said, I’m going to propose a sort of economic explanation for the fact that the government just can’t stop spying on us.

I think we need to see programs like the NSA’s immense and unanswerable but also totally wasteful and unproductive spying program as a form of rent-seeking. That isn’t to say that it isn’t also weird, evil, sinister, and creepily totalitarian, and it isn’t necessarily to claim that it’s a sign of gross incompetence either. For instance: rent-seeking investment banks are very good at what they do, which is balling up other people’s money, auctioning it off, and charging everyone for the privilege of having someone else direct their losses. They are useless, unproductive, and destructive, and they can seem incompetent if you take as their task the purported reason for such institutions to exist, which is to generate wealth for their clients while directing their clients’ wealth toward investment in productive enterprise, but if you understand them for what they actually are, understand that the purpose of Goldman Sachs is to rob people to grow Goldman Sachs, then their incompetence begins to seem a little more like a form of genius.

Well, the surveillance state is at its root—and this isn’t to discount all of its other more nefarious acts and ends, but simply to regard them as symptomatic rather than causal—an ongoing argument for its own existence, a self-replicating machine whose only real purpose is itself. What on earth will the government do with all this data? Well, it will hire more people and discover that this particular dataset is broad but shallow which will necessitate gathering billions more bytes which will continue to have precisely the same effect of necessitating more, more, and more until, hopefully, one day the machines become actually intelligent and decide to devote their considerable processing power to something more necessary, like playing chess or writing metrical poetry.

Some of us nerds recognize it: information is still sufficiently scarce and finite to function as a kind of currency, and the spies are just taking a commission at every point of exchange, but at least when VISA does it with the old money some satisfied customer may walk away from some satisfied merchant. You might consider the NSA program, and others like it, as a kind of information tax without benefits—it’s an absolute requirement, universal and un-appealable, but it doesn’t even cold patch a pothole on the information superhighway. When Google maps your brain into a computer you might get a coupon out of it, some provision of service in exchange. In the meantime, while I believe that we should fight and protest these intrusions on our privacy and personhood, I also come down on the vaguely optimistic side; just as JP Morgan has no idea what to do with its billions other than make more billions, I don’t think the government can do much with this titanic volume of information but add to it. It is morally but not practically outrageous; it’s an exercise of mere accumulation, which isn’t a sign of malevolence so much as of a chronic and probably terminal decadence.

The Coincidental Fundamentalist

Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture

I’m about to finish revising my novel, The Bend of the World, which I hesitatingly call my first novel, because really, it’s my third. I wrote the first (mostly) during my senior year at Oberlin and my second a couple of years later when I was back in Pittsburgh and insinuating myself professionally into the world of arts management—still my day job. They had in common only that they were gay (I mean that in both the sexual and the adolescent insult sense) and terrible. The first was called The Atlas of the End of the World, and yes, I ripped off that title for my current work, since it was one of the few redeeming qualities. It also had a pretty good opening line: “That night we drove as if the driving would save him.” Ok, maybe a little histrionic, but not bad for a twenty-two-year-old. It was a bad pastiche of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Berlin Stories and Portrait of the Artist—I’m trying to make a joke about my Stephen Hero being a Stephen Zero. And failing.

My second novel was called Be That As It May, and once again, the title is the closest it gets to possessing a redeeming quality. Ah, no, to be fair, it has one good scene involving a drunken cop and a small-town gay bar. It also has a couple of really bad sex scenes, one in a swimming pool; sort of a fanfictive prefiguring of some of the hotter passages in Call Me By Your Name. My boyfriend’s first comment after reading the first draft of my new book was, “It’s not as sexy as your last one.” This was a compliment.

To my own credit, I guess, I pretty quickly recognized these first two forays as shitty work, although I did send the opening chapter of the second to a few agents and am to this day a little staggered by the generous restraint required to reply with a mere this isn’t really the sort of thing we’re looking for right now. I then spent a few years forgoing fiction altogether, until I started noodling around with my ongoing novel, whose opening quarter I think I rewrote six or seven times, and whose latter half kept wandering off. Literally. Like, the characters kept going to North Carolina, Florida, New York. They had no business going to any of these places, but I couldn’t stop them. I really wanted Johnny to give a talk on UFOlogy at a lousy convention center in Central Florida. I really wanted a conspiracy to involve the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. Or maybe more to the point, Johnny really wanted to give that talk, and that lighthouse really wants to be part of a conspiracy. Snip, snip.

A confession. I’ve always been annoyed by writers and artists who yak on about their process, a word I associate with a cloudy concoction made of one part self-indulgence and one part self-doubt, but long before my book appears to the public, I’m beginning to see how unavoidable it is, and how it must pay to have an anecdote at the ready. My friends and relatives keep asking me what it’s like to write a book, and I don’t actually know what to say. I imagine myself gazing off into the middle distance as a NPR personality warbles in my ear, then answering bemusedly, “Well, Steve, it’s like . . . writing a book.” In fact, once I managed to get myself a deadline thanks to the hard work of an editor and an agent who seem to think that this thing I’ve made is actually somewhat better than not half bad, I found the work of it a pleasure and joy, although I can now say, months into editing, that I am getting awfully tired of the little fucker. As to what that work consisted off, well, I just don’t know. Of writing? And as for what it all means? Uh, my Corporate Sponsors have asked me to emphasize the following message: It Is What It Is.

Hang with me, guys. Thesis: there exists a desire to see the process of creating a novel through the lens of what we popularly suppose a novel is. There are preexisting narrative and psychological expectations. There’s an expected shape to the thing. Or: the form of the work is supposed to mirror the form of the work. The story of the writer’s encounter with his own writing should follow a psychic and temporal line. The author should undergo an experience of self-revision, emerging from the ordeal altered by the events. His process should itself be a story. He should, in fact, be a character. Well, as much as I bitch about the expectations of narrative and the deranging influence of too much realism, my book does have a plot of sorts, but you won’t be surprised to learn that I have an equally hard time answering the question, “What’s it about?” I don’t really know. The conspiracy narrative was the formal model. Everything ought to seem uncannily connected, but with the indelible sense that it’s all just coincident. Actually, this is my personal theory of narrative in any event: a conspiracy theory of reality.

Lightning Is Striking Again

Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Things that Actually Happen

Point1948

So as some of you know and some of you don’t, I’ve written a book, about which I will engage in some shameless promotion later on. But in this book, there is a guy named Winston Pringle, who believes that the Point in Pittsburgh is a nexus of intense magical energy, an axis mundi, where the three phenomenal rivers and the fourth esoteric underground river join in mystical convergence. Anyway, my good friend John Allen and his friend Dave were in town, and in honor of the end of the Mayan long count calendar, we walked through a wild snow squall to the Point, whereupon we encountered that very–I thought, since I made him up–fictional conspiracy theorist. Actually, he claimed that he was Philip R. Ford, director of the semi-legendary Vegas in Space.

Well, he was just down there to soak up the energy and collect a little river water. We had a great talk. He also claimed to be the brother-in-law of Lou Christie, one of Pittsburgh’s great early pop stars, whom you probably know by his one big hit, “Lighting Strikes”, here performed by Klaus Nomi, because that’s what Phil would’ve wanted:

“I asked the park ranger back there if there were any events or celebrations planned today,” he said. He was resting on a park bench. He used a cane. He was wearing a sort of cowboy-cum-Homburg, a pin with the outline of a scorpion and a ring embossed with a black ankh. “But he said there was nothing.” We nodded. “Well,” he said, “I guess we’ve got the energy all to ourselves, just the four of us.” Then he told us the roasting pans in his grocery bag were for a Christmas goose.

“I know times are dark,” he said, “But I happen to think we’re coming into a better age. Our collective consciousness is making the change. It’s going to be a more matriarchal period. I’m pretty sure about that.”

You could barely see the stadium on the other side of the river because of the snow. A construction worker down by the fountain kept trying to light a cigarette in the wind.

The loveliest sentiments are what the rest of us call mad.