Week 29 - Halfway Through July

(Spoiler alert: I did not learn to love the plague.)

But: a small bit of good (for once) personal news: I started a new job this week, as a full time course instructor for the EPFL Extension School. This is a university-affiliated faculty position for online learning with an emphasis on professionals looking to upskill - basically adults who are already working who would like to learn something new (machine learning, data science, basic programming skills). The school started pre-covid and is online-only. It’s not a MOOC, it’s “blended teaching:” a mix of pre-recorded lectures and exercises you can self-pace mixed with hands-on project-based instruction. My job will be about 50% fielding questions and video chat one-on-ones and 50% course development. It’s also full-remote, so for better (and worse) I never need to leave my corner of the living room again… but maybe I’ll be able to (eventually).

It’s obviously early yet, but I’ve been interviewing with them for more than a month and I’ll say this is first time in a while that I feel legitimately good about all aspects of a professional project: fair pay for a solid days work, small but significant improvements in the lives of others. A product that people both like and want. No real academic politics. Flat organization. Basically a bunch of smart education-minded adults trying to do something worthwhile together in an environment that is properly supported. Well, but not extravagantly, funded. It’s just… nice.

Friends will get you through times with no money but money will not get you through times with no friends. If you are one of these friends (and if you’re reading this you probably are), your love and support the last few months has literally kept us alive. Thank you.

Various other projects continue at an utterly. fucking. exhausting. pace.: more soon on all of these…

A song for July:

Bonus: Franz Kafka’s Head Weighs 45 Tons (Around this time last year we were in Prague)

Inflection Points and a History of Unstranding

The remainder of this post contains spoilers for the novel Station 11by Emily St. John Mandel. I like the book, if you think you might, you should stop reading and come back later.

I now have an entire bookcase full of books that I’ve bought and never read, in a temporary apartment I’ve lived in for longer than I ever owned my permanent house, whose contents are in storage still. I’m neither an advocate for maximalism nor soylent-flavored performance minimalism, but I do confess to a bit of Marie Kondo. I have a natural tendency to hoard, and unfinished tasks make me anxious, and so I’ve cultivated a practice of intentionality around objects, especially those that require attention: I don’t like to keep things in my home or my field of vision I don’t know and like, or at least find useful. For a long time I insisted (a private rule, never articulated) that every book on my shelf be one that I had read completely and wanted to read again or at least had some other sort of attachment to: a gift from a close friend, a memory of a moment that mattered, but if it wasn’t personally of interest, it didn’t get to live with me.

Anyway, that curatorial rule is dead. There are a lot of books. I haven’t read them. Grad school really ruined my drive to read for pleasure, and the doom-scroll took it from there. The truth is I’m reading a lot, all of the time, constantly, the same terrible things, reading them until I choke and fold in on myself in non-information, re-reading, switching to Twitter in case my email doesn’t have the gift I want, the clear path out of this timeline. The post that is never coming, the one that says “It’s over.” The one that says “you weren’t wrong, it really wasn’t supposed to be this way.” Or maybe, echos of an evangelical childhood: “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Is that too much to ask? That’s never there. Of course it isn’t, but I keep looking, and then I switch to email, which is empty so I look to Twitter, put down my phone in frustration and check the same site on my computer, in case maybe the bigger version has more information than the pocket version. It doesn’t. It never does. Every once in a while someone horrible says something cruel and there’s a virtual beating and then they resurface, like a groundhog-day cage match where you hate everyone, death loop passing for sport. I don’t feel any better. I’m not sleeping much these days. There are a lot of unfinished tasks.

Ultimately Olivia Laing explained to me what’s going on here, in her essay that opens Funny Weather, which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Paranoid and Reparative Reading. You should go read Laing, and you should go read Sedgwick. You can put this essay down, I’m not nearly as interesting, and also: I’ll be here. Nothing I have to say will expire in the next year or so. I’m slowing down as an act of defiance. And anything is better than paranoia all the way down.

Right, so: I’ve found myself wanting to read again. To read for pleasure. To read for survival. Pleasure as survival. I decided to start with Station 11, because I figured I could see if I still liked it. It being both the book and the act of reading. I read Station 11 when it came out and I loved it. I just wanted to wander back and find something I loved again, and also because Survival is Not Sufficient.

(Sidenote: As soon as I read Mandel’s novel I’d known I wanted to stage it. I still want to but it’s not a play, it’s a mail-art performance which incorporates the biography of Ray Johnson. Maybe 100 Moticos I Will Never Have Time To Make?. It’s beautiful and poignant, and if you sign up you’ll receive The Mysteries: one object at a time. )

One of the things I find most jarring about rereading Station 11 in 2020 versus 2014 (a mere handful of years) is how optional participating in the internet felt then. The emphasis in the book is on the collapse of “real media:” dead tech of broadcast. There's still a vague wonder about "online culture" and the text includes snide comments about “phone zombies.” Perhaps an in-joke to those of us who can feel better that we’re reading a “book” (on a device, probably), as opposed to a “social media update” on the same screen? In the book, midway through the ravages of the collapse, one background character even remarks she wishes she could tweet about it. We’re meant to see that as a bit dumb, and it serves as a foil to another character’s heartbreaking aside that he wishes he had a chance to say goodbye to his boyfriend. I can only read both gestures as deeply humanly sad. Not pathetic, but sad: the same pull for human contact across a network or infrastructure that forbids or is incapable of returning it. Chances are I was doing both while reading - tweeting and reading - and so the effect in 2020 is less smart-and-knowing and more dead-eyed appeal to a moral hierarchy of the written word that doesn’t exist. (It doesn’t exist and yet I can’t help feel insisting it helped dissemble us. The apocalypse comes shining like the sun.)

A memory I am unable to corroborate, as if all evidence has been erased: On September 11, 2001 I was a student at the MIT Media Lab. The Lab building has a black-box theatre, which was converted into office cubes, which is where my office stood. Vestigial theatre-bits remain and so it’s quite easy to set a mood (or a non-mood… for nearly a year I lived in permanent theatrical twilight). There is a lighting grid, projection gear, no windows, a sound system. On the day the towers fell, one of the faculty members, an unrelenting and insufferable dude-bro, ordered the head of AV to project CNN onto the wall opposite our office, where it sat, in my memory for weeks although it was probably just a day or so, before a student braver than myself asked that we please stop pretending our grad student office was the Dr. Strangelove war room.

That first day, CNN airs a stream of worldwide condolence messages, which include a videotaped statement from the Taliban. This sticks in memory because it is the first time I’ve even heard the word “Taliban” (a fact which tells you all you need to know about America in the early 2000s) and they are given airtime alongside everyone else. The production value is low, it looks like it was shot with a VHS camcorder and lit with fluorescent overheads. A group of bearded men - one steps forward and reads a note in halting English. They seem… menacing? But the words offer an apology. It’s confusing and unclear. The man specifically says that he’s sorry for the sorrow of children. Even the anchor seems not quite able to explain what they’ve broadcast and says something vague about how it’s “nice we’re hearing from everywhere.” We. Accepting the condolences as are our due. The narrative blood congeals so fast. I will be unable to find evidence of this broadcast ever happening.

Talking about this day also sometimes seems like granting too much power to both the terrorists who orchestrated the day and the subsequent US administrations who crafted a narrative to drive two-plus decades of policy hung on nationalist ideals for which the entire world continues to suffer. But here’s a truth: up until the morning of September 11th 2001, it was possible to believe that broadcast news was reporting on an event which had occurred, past-tense, and was now being set in context.

On September 11th, for a short and shocking period of time, the center did not hold and we were weightless. It seemed not one person in the entire infrastructure of officially sanctioned information knew what to do, or even if they should do anything at all. There was no context - it was a moment of pure media. A massive McLuhan orgasm of context collapse.

This is the anxiety of Station 11, which imagines the moment of the collapse of humanity as the collapse of official understanding of nation-state narrative as conveyed by traditional media: no army, no national guard, no radio, no television:

“By day five… most of the newscasters weren’t even newscasters, just people who worked for the network and were seemingly unused to being on the other side of the camera… then countries began to go dark… and the local news became more and more local, stations dropping away one by one, until finally the last channel on air showed only a single shot in a newsroom, station employees taking turns standing before the camera and disseminating whatever information they had, and then one night… the newsroom was empty. Everyone had left.”

But after the news cycle of 9/11, an astounding crest and crash, the speed of information on the internet overtook and obliterated whatever fragile, charred skeleton of “objectivity” claimed media had a connection to reality. This was a lie always, of course, but a useful one, and on this day it became a ghost. Henceforth all media was context and all context was narrative, and simply getting your hands on the control knobs was synonymous with the ability to craft reality. This blasted us directly through the Arab Spring and on into Palantir and the dominance of ad-tech, the election of Trump and Kellyanne “alternative facts” Conway. All lines blurred, all bets off, and the knob between fact and fiction turned so hard it snapped completely off.

Jenny Odell in How to Do Nothing:

Berardi, contrasting modern-day Italy with the political agitations of the 1970s, says the regime he inhabits “is not founded on the repression of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the contrary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent and critique banal and ridiculous. Instances of censorship, he says, are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention.”
I know that in the months after the election, a lot of people found themselves searching for this thing called “truth,” but what I also felt to be missing was just reality, something I could point to after all of this and say, This is really real.

In the fictional version of the plague, the flu in Station 11, humanity is overwhelmed by the immense speed of the virus. This is an act of vengeful (or uncaring) god, rather than an act of deliberate human cruelty. In this fiction, there is nothing that anyone can do. The rate of infection is so fast that the lines go dead, cars stop in the highway, operators keel over at the helm and the networks fail, the grids go offline, not because no one cares but because no one is there to care. Humans are bereft of information and connection and thus done in. And critically: it’s not really their fault.

Mandel does a lovely job of weaving a story that shows how attempting to put these events into a gendered and religious narrative is so much more dangerous and less satisfying than the quieter (feminine coded) way of care and being. This is the part of the book I love, but ultimately the notion that the plague is one of the many terrible things that just happen rings hollow, given our current state of affairs. For us it’s not the silence of the network, but the roar of it. Not the lack of information but the complete and utter overwhelming rule of the assassins creed: Nothing is true; everything is permitted. We won’t have killed ourselves out of ignorance and lack of information but the opposite: stochastic signal, stochastic terrorism, a constant diet of noise, the empty calories starving us to death in what looks like a glut.

And turning the knife: thousands, maybe millions, dead because of deliberate and cruel choices made by humans. One or two crime families clowning as leaders, who ultimately just don’t give a shit, or worse, believe the statistics that this illness impacts the poor and people of color and cheer it on for this reason. In this very real time of white supremacist death cults, it is critical but likely not sufficient to take care. We might also need more knife tattoos.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, January 27, 1838

This fact, our current reality, is so unsatisfying it would never appear in fiction. Even in the AI models we teach our cars, the trolley problem assumes a decision needs to be made, it never accounts for pretending ethics isn’t real.

All the travel and infrastructure moments though? The brilliance of Station 11 shines in the liminal space of airports, the holy-of-holies, the sanctum sanctorum of the capitalist moloch. In 1999, Ani DiFranco sang about the humanity of the arrivals gate: “Gonna go out to the arrivals gate at the airport / And sit there all day / Watch people reuniting / Public affection so exciting / It even makes airports OK” This song came out two years before the TSA, founded in the wake of 9/11, would ensure those moments were impossible, the gate closed to all but ticketed and scanned passengers.

Airports are some of the most segregated, hyper-controlled, commerce oriented, class organized and theatre-of-the-cruel environments I can imagine of which humans voluntarily partake. These are not the logical sites for the cradle of memory to survive, let alone exist. And yet somehow, it does. Because of the practice of everyday life. Because survival is insufficient. Because the story of stranding has always been the story of unstranding.

At first the people in the Severn City Airport counted time as though they were only temporarily stranded.

This was difficult to explain to young people in the following decades, but in all fairness, the entire history of being stranded in airports up to this point was also a history of eventually becoming unstranded, of boarding a plane and flying away.

- Station 11