Word Virus

Cut-up experiment #111

What follows is an excerpt from my 2020 work, The Limits of Control. I wrote the book entirely on a Brother Activator 800T mechanical typewriter. At regular intervals, I chose pages at random, alternately cutting them lengthwise, horizontally, diagonally, as well as digitally, and reassembling them to produce the sort of experimental textual cut-ups proposed by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. I transcribed these cut-ups onto new typewritten pages, scanned them into the computer, and ran the images through optical character recognition software.

According to Gysin and Burroughs, splicing into written records from the past can potentially cut into the future, too, revealing ruptures in the flow time. As with any experiment, there is a temporal lag between conducting the experiment and observing its result (I chose one solar year). Furthermore, there is no expected or anticipated result — anything could manifest. Nor would it be known to causally or correlatively follow the experiment. Therefore, the fruit borne of these experiments could be categorized only as items of interest or disinterest.

This extract was submitted to but not included in the Unsound Intermission edition.

The Limits of Control is available here.

cut-up experiment excerpted from The Limits of Control
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Word Virus

Fight Virus with Virus, or: Fear & Loathing in a Time of Pandemic

A Problem With Fear, or Laurie’s Anxiety Confronting the Escalator is a quirky 2003 sci-fi-rom-com by Canadian filmmaker Gary Burns — and useful for thinking through this moment. The movie revolves around protagonist, Laurie, a young man crippled by his multiple fears. When he is alone, he is incapable of using elevators, escalators, of crossing the street, taking public transportation, without succumbing to paralyzing panic attacks. Laurie’s sister, Michelle, an executive at a tech company called Global Safety Inc., chaperones him through these necessary quotidian travails. Laurie’s girlfriend, Dot, a fashion-conscious and sympathetic sociology student, worries that Laurie’s phobias will prove too much to bear and put an end to their relationship.

Global Safety Inc. manufactures a kind of predictive wristband that warns its wearers, including Laurie, of impending danger. But a computer virus has infected Global Safety’s software. Suddenly, all of Laurie’s anxieties, each more gruesome than the last, begin to manifest before his very eyes: a man’s backpack gets caught in the subway doors; a woman’s scarf becomes entangled in the mall’s escalator. Soon, everyone’s fears are coming true. The film’s fictional TV media, covering the string of events, refer to it as the “fear storm” gripping the city.

One of Global Safety’s engineers, an unlikable grunt called Erin, is the first to discover the virus. But Michelle and her team deliberately suppress Erin’s evidence. Knowing that Laurie’s fears are causing the storm, and crazed by his company’s efforts to silence him, Erin confronts Laurie and commands him to commit suicide. Faced with this shock, Laurie surmises that he needs to overcome his fears — the final fear being his commitment to Dot — to stop the chaos.

I cannot be the only one right now feeling like Laurie, watching in horror as my worst fears come true: there is now the terror of totalitarian control, on top of the terror of the virus itself.

Social measures that only weeks ago seemed unthinkable are becoming realities that we cannot ignore, nor oppose. Italy and France have decreed its citizens indoors, while the US considers similar policies. For me in Canada, our borders are effectively closed to anyone who is not a Canadian citizen. Social distancing practices in effect in Montreal mean that mass congregations are cancelled; the province has banned gatherings of more than two people, the strictest restrictions on Quebec’s cherished civil liberties since the 1970 October Crisis.

In 2012 during what has come to be known as the “Maple Spring” student uprising across Quebec, which took place in context of the global Occupy Movement, the provincial government implemented a temporary measure (called “La Loi Speciale”, the special law) outlawing groups larger than 50. This was an attempt to stifle demonstrations that at the time were attracting participants in the tens of thousands. Protestors saw the law as an egregious breach of the right to protest and disregarded it, chanting: “we don’t give a fuck about your special law.”

Under any other circumstances, Quebec would be the first place to mobilize resistance to the limitation of freedoms we have come to think of as fundamental. In 2020, though, in the face of a global pandemic, no such protests are taking place; Canadians are largely accepting with grim resignation that a dark cloud has set in over our sunny ways. It is a living nightmare, though, to which, I argue, we have been acclimating culturally since 9/11, through mediations — in popular music, and in disaster films like A Problem With Fear.

Commentators have noted Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion, as a prognostic Hollywood script for Covid-19: “it is not surprising that Contagion has been one of the top trending movies on both Amazon and iTunes since January” say the behavioural researchers A.T. Kingsmith and Patrick Ciaschi in a recent CBC op-ed. Another article published in The New York Post calls the movie “basically a blueprint for 2020.” But fear of disaster has more broadly underpinned the fantastic imagination in the 21st century. Think of Justin Timberlake’s 2018 single “Supplies”, in which he croons to a prospective lover: “Some shit’s about to go down, I’ll be the one with the level head, the world can end now baby, we’ll be living in The Walking Dead.” Or Grimes’ current album Miss Anthropocene, in which the singer aims to make ecological destruction “fun”, casting herself as the “Goddess of climate change.” The Swedish musician Leif Elggren in 2003 released an album entitled Virulent Images/Virulent Sound, which claimed to contain “micro-recordings of eight different samples of highly potent viruses.” Why even imagine such things?

Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Richard Grusin articulates this anticipatory turn of 21st century mediation. In a book of the same name, he calls it “premediation”, or the proliferation of pre-emptive mediations of disastrous events. Premediation is similar to, but not the same as, remediation (the enfoldment of old into new media) or premeditation (attempting to forecast the future). The goal of premediation is not to accurately predict the future, however, but rather to mediate in advance every conceivable outcome of an event, in order to minimize the trauma of media terror the likes of which the west experienced immediately after 9/11. The newsreader’s favourite 21st century expression — “…in the coming days…” — exemplifies premediation.

Grusin explains: “What premediation strives for is not to prevent future catastrophes but to prevent those catastrophes from having been unanticipated to protect us from being caught unawares and shocked by future catastrophes.” Grusin stops short of suggesting that premediations might have some effect on the outcome of real events. But what is implicit in Grusin’s claims is that one of those premediations will come true. The filmmaker Adam Curtis advanced this notion through a montage scene of disaster movies in his 2016 BBC documentary, HyperNormalisation. Is it possible that, somehow, we are inviting disaster simply by imagining it?

In a recent article for Philosophical Salon, Slavoj Žižek, citing Tolstoy, likened Coronavirus to a meme — a viral mediation: “The basic category of Tolstoy’s anthropology is infection: a human subject is a passive empty medium infected by affect-laden cultural elements that, like contagious bacilli, spread from one individual to another.” Žižek notes Coronavirus’s “stupidly repetitive” nature as a neither-living-nor-dead organism: if Covid-19 were a meme, it might be “CTRL C + CTRL V = HOMEWORK FINISHED!”

Still, I find that turning to William S. Burroughs’ notion of media virality is more useful right now, against the backdrop of the kinds of social controls of which even the Nazis never dared to dream. Across several texts, Burroughs traces the history of the Mayan calendar as the ultimate control mechanism, with which the priests exercised an almost absolute authority over the peasants’ everyday lives. “The Calendar was predicated on the illiteracy of the workers,” Burroughs explained in an essay called “The Limits of Control”: “Modern control systems are predicated on universal literacy since they operate through the mass media.”

The current-day controllers are not priests but rather the benefactors of global capitalism: the world’s trillion-dollar companies stand to benefit the most from this disaster, as we teleconference from self-isolation through Microsoft Teams, search Google to see if we’re experiencing symptoms, and panic-buy toilet paper on Amazon directly from our Apple devices. Credit card companies are profiting as essential businesses increasingly refuse cash; amidst cataclysmic layoffs for small businesses, Wal-Mart and Domino’s Pizza are hiring. Because we are now conversant in the language of “viral” mediation — viral premediation — we are also primed to automatically understand and react in fear to a real virus’s virulence.

Gilles Deleuze took Burroughs further still: “Control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers,” wrote Deleuze in his essential essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”: “where the passive danger is noise, and the active, piracy and viral communication.” Coronavirus is a technology oscillating in time against the transmission of its mediations. This has confounding implications for the natural, subjective suspicion of Empire flexing its control, and the leftist impulse to resist it: “not to shake hands and to go into isolation when needed IS today’s form of solidarity,” Žižek argues.

What I read in all of these disaster narratives is the ultimate premediative text. I want to be like “Clippy”, Microsoft Word’s paperclip assistant character, and say: “It looks like you’re writing a suicide note.” Just after 9/11, Jean Baudrillard already identified a kind of subconscious, self-destructive premediation in The Spirit of Terrorism: “The countless disaster movies bear witness to this [suicidal] fantasy, which they clearly attempt to exorcize with images, drowning out the whole thing with special effects.” But it is not our own suicide, the suicide of the leftist cultural project, but rather the suicidal recognition by capital that it cannot possibly continue in its controlling capacity. Even before Coronavirus, the world was already under imminent threat from ecological catastrophes — catastrophes compounded through extreme consumption and equally extreme disparity. If the stupid self-reproductivity of capital is not itself the virus, it has produced the current conditions which complicate the mitigation of this tragedy. Furthermore, resisting control at its most suicidal could spell mutual destruction.

The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher offers us a viable strategy. In an essay titled “Remember Who The Enemy Is,” Fisher writes: “As the two most acute analysts of Control society, Burroughs and Foucault both recognised resistance is not a challenge to power; it is, on the contrary, that which power needs. No power without something to resist it. No power without a living being as its subject. When they kill us, they can no longer see us subjugated. A being reduced to whimpering — this is the limits of power. Beyond that lies death. So only if you act as if you are dead can you be free.” It is eerie reading this advice from beyond Fisher’s grave, but it may offer not only survival but also the opportunity for what Žižek calls “reinvented Communism”: “The present crisis,” Žižek urges, “demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rationally egotistic thing to do.”

During this time of imposed self-isolation, we might consider ourselves “playing dead” to control. This enforced downtime might even be characterized by Deleuze’s metaphysical concept of Immanence: “What is immanence?” Deleuze asks: “A life … This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be one to another, but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn’t just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness.” The space of immanence is where the virtual becomes actual, thoughts become actions, ideas become words, and words build the world in which we live.

A Problem With Fear does not end with the clichéd idea of Laurie simply choosing love by overcoming his fear of commitment to Dot. This would be the easy answer: loving those that love you. The film’s pivotal scene is one in which the whistleblower, Erin, and Laurie are trapped together in a freefalling elevator, with Erin again commanding Laurie to kill himself. Instead, Laurie hugs his aggressor, and the elevator correspondingly slows its descent. As the doors open and Erin exits, he looks back on Laurie with wonder, saying, “you just saved the world.”

What I am calling for is not some notion of “the power of positive thinking”, or McMindfulness, the sort of disimagination displayed by celebrities like Gal Godot singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” from the comfort and safety of their reinforced cocoons. No. We must overcome our problem with fear, and, like Laurie, truly commit to moving forward together.

I am advocating, for instance, the kind of creative solidarity displayed by the musicians’ platform Bandcamp, which last Friday, March 23rd, waived its sales cut, thus transferring to artists — many of whom are especially hard hit through touring cancellations — 100% of their earnings. I am advocating The Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association collecting 1,300 respirators to protect front-line healthcare workers. I am advocating crawling up inside this in-between time, this immanent space, and playing dead to capital. This means a moratorium on dystopian premediation, imagining instead what utopias might look like through acts of genuine solidarity, not just during times of crisis but every day, from now on. At the end of the world, the limits of control, it is easier than ever to imagine an end to capitalism.

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Word Virus

The dog that didn’t bark: silence in the age of virulence

Yesterday afternoon I heard myself whisper to myself: “I wish I could just disappear.” It startled me, as if for a moment my voice belonged to someone else. I was all alone in my bedroom at the time, the most private and intimate of domestic spaces, sitting silently in front of a screen. Indeed, there was no way I could have physically appeared to anyone. “Bedrooms are the private space of silence par excellence,” wrote the historian Alain Corbin in A History of Silence: “It is necessary to them.” And yet I had never felt more awash with noise, the necessary privacy and silence of my domestic space infiltrated. We can quarantine ourselves from a virus, but isolation from information is no longer an alternative.

What is startling about coronavirus is not the virulence of the virus itself, but rather the compulsive proliferation of mediations about the virus — the hysterical whys and what-nows and what-ifs. Media scholar Richard Grusin calls this “premediation” — similar to, but not the same as, remediation (the enfoldment of old into new media) or premeditation (attempting to forecast the future). Rather, premediation seeks to mediate in advance every conceivable outcome of an event, in order to minimize the trauma of media terror the likes of which the west experienced immediately after 9/11.

Premediation is not like a weather forecast, Grusin explains: “To premediate the weather would be to try to imagine all of the possible scenarios that might conceivably arise so that the weather could never come as a surprise.” Anecdotally, I have never seen media channels so singularly devoted to one topic: nearly every headline — from politics to the economy to arts, culture and sport — is dominated by COVID-19 and its premediation. “The real struggle,” a New York Times op-ed claims, “is how worried to be.” Another piece invites us to “play with a model” to chart just how much worse coronavirus could get. It’s almost as if the media were the virus.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”, first published in 1892, contains a potent and frequently cited passage. In the story, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to Dartmoor to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a racehorse named Silver Blaze, and its trainer’s murder. In a conversation with a Scotland Yard detective regarding the facts surrounding the crime, Holmes mentions a “curious incident” involving the stable’s dog. The detective informs Holmes, “The dog did nothing in the night-time”; to which Holmes replies: “That was the curious incident.”

This absurd passage is most often trotted out as a metaphor with semiotic implications. The clue that illuminates the truth of the case for Holmes is that the stable dog did not bark. In a sense, the conspicuous absence of the sign is just as significant as the sign itself. We might even be tempted to say that the absence of the sign produces its corona — the residual halo surrounding its occlusion. We are already socially distanced technically, through social media, confined, self-isolated, in the bedroom. And yet the bedroom is no escape from internet virulence. The quarantined, silent refuge of the bedroom has been invaded by the virus of the word, rendering self-isolation both imperative in one sense, and impossible in another.

Since 9/11, we have effectively been in training — with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, SARS, Bird Flu, H1N1 — through increasingly interconnected, amplificatory, “viral” mediation to imagine and enact the spread of actual, viral virality — how a contagion could potentially play out and to what magnitude. We have not yet had a true global virus, I argue, because we have not yet had the technical infrastructure for global hyper-virulence. “Control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers,” wrote Gilles Deleuze in his essential essay, “Postscript for the Societies of Control, “where the passive danger is noise, and the active, piracy and viral communication.” Coupled with the premediative impulse, we are now experiencing the peak onslaught of mediations about a virus, mediations which are themselves contagions search-engine-optimized for maximum internet virality. The coronavirus is a technology oscillating against the transmission of its mediations.

“The word is now a virus,” William S. Burroughs wrote prophetically in his 1962 novel, The Ticket That Exploded: “Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.” When the viral media event is a virus, we can’t say something, yet we mustn’t say nothing.

The dog that doesn’t bark is no less rabid.

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Word Virus

On Going Apeshit

“Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?” Beyoncé asks rhetorically, on the lead single that she and Jay-Z surprise-released last week, from their first collaborative album as The Carters. Sure. Who hasn’t? Later, she inverts the question, replacing ‘crowd’ with ‘stage,’ invoking the legendary madness of her live performances: if the audience was left wondering, Beyoncé gives a demonstration of “going apeshit” near the end of the video, violently shimmying and shaking in a flowing white gown, before the Nike of Samothrace, the winged but headless sculpture depicting the Greek goddess of victory. “She went crazy!” Jay-Z hollers during the breakdown, confirming firsthand just how apeshit Beyoncé is apt to go.

Most of us have an idea of what going apeshit means. But where did the term come from?

“Apeshit” was first officially observed in 1955 by the American Dialect Society’s quarterly journal, American Speech, as United States Air Force slang, meaning to “react in an irrational manner; go into a frenzy.” Apeshit appears again in Donald J. Plantz’s 1962 WWII pulp fiction novel, Sweeney Squadron: “If Captain Christiansen goes to base hospital,” Plantz writes, “I’m riding next to this ape-shit bastard.” In the October 1976 issue of the British magazine New Society, an article on contemporary youth notes: “The kids go ‘ape-shit’ — leaping high off the ground, as if on invisible pogo-sticks.” The OED defines apeshit in a July 2009 update as coarse slang for “crazed, infuriated, excited; mad, insane.”

Indeed, as evidenced most recently by the Carters’ be-bopping and scatting, we are living in the age of apeshit.

According to the Google Ngram Viewer, the vernacular use of the word apeshit has increased exponentially since the mid-1970s. The TV producer David Chase eulogized The Sopranos star James Gandolfini at his funeral in New York City in 2013, regaling mourners with a story of how the actor unloaded his frustrations on set: “The cameras rolled, and you opened the refrigerator door, and you slammed it really hard,” recalled Chase. “You slammed it hard enough that it came open again. And so then you slammed it again, then it came open again. You kept slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and slamming it and went apeshit on that refrigerator.”

Donald J. Trump has been known to go apeshit, too. Quoting Jeff Landry, former Trump campaign aide and current Attorney General of Louisiana, Douglas McGrath writes in a January 2016 article in The New Yorker: “You have to answer just right, or he goes apeshit.”

If there is one adjective that can accurately describe the US president’s hair-trigger actions and reactions, it is most assuredly apeshit. “Trump Went Apeshit Anti-Science This Week,” trumpets a headline on the blog Autostraddle: “Let’s Fight Back.” In response to his comments about “shithole countries,” a group of online vigilantes began trolling the Yelp pages for Trump’s hotels and properties around the world, detailing just how shitty they are. Vice noted of the comments: “people are going apeshit, and getting personal.”

Other instances of shit-talk are on the rise as well. In a May 2017 interview with MSNBC, the political strategist Rick Wilson’s tongue slipped on live television: “They’re afraid of the mean tweet,” said Wilson, of the president’s adversaries: “They’re afraid of Donald Trump going crazy, you know, ripshit bonkers on them.” That comment spawned a Slate article about the regional etymology and sense of “ripshit” by the lexicographer Ben Zimmer, in which he cites Kory Stamper’s Strong Language blogpost from 2014, entitled “Add -shit and stir: The intensifying affixal -shit.” “The way things are going,” asserts Zimmer, “I think we need as many words for intensified craziness as we can possibly get.” Even word nerds are going apeshit right now.

Yet, apeshit is distinct from other forms of shit — say, batshit, which also implies a sort of loose-cannon insanity, or chicken-shit, meaning cowardly. Like cat shit or rat shit, exposure to batshit can literally make a person go crazy.

To me, apeshit has a more combative connotation than batshit or ripshit, dipshit or jack-shit. We might imagine an ape actually throwing its shit, as apes are wont to do to visitors of zoos the globe over. Apeshit is arguably the craziest of all shits — it also, importantly, is black shit, and implicitly, the shit of desperate, caged animals. Which is why it’s so remarkable in the context of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s song: presumably, the crowd goes apeshit because of a momentary liberation and delightful respite from disenfranchisement; the Carters go apeshit for precisely the opposite reason: no matter how much wealth or status Bey and Jay accumulate, or how much pleasure they derive from their creative work, they are at once emancipated and enslaved by the trappings of fame and fortune.

Still, there is something encouraging about apeshit. I am perennially reminded of what Slavoj Žižek wrote in his 1991 tome Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture: “When we become crazed in our obsession with idiotic enjoyment,” says Žižek, “even totalitarian manipulation cannot reach us.”

Perhaps apeshit is the operative mode proper to our current cultural moment — to do to art, music, literature, politics, society, what Tony Soprano did to that refrigerator door. Going apeshit is the idiotic enjoyment enabling not only sovereignty from structures and systems of oppression, but also the simple, fundamental freedom from having to give a shit.

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Word Virus

2017: The Year of …

2017 was a whirlwind year. There was scarcely a moment’s pause to be savored from one terrible news story to another — from hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, to the Grenfell Tower fire, to the daily cascading indignities of Donald Trump’s America.

Consumer culture, too, appeared to be operating at hyper-speed, as PR disasters in quick succession shook up companies like Pepsi, United, and American Airlines. The media, already churning out stories quicker than ever, zoomed by at an unprecedentedly frantic pace.

Online, the year’s most common responses to this rapid-fire chaos manifested in “Hold my beer” tweets and “Distracted Boyfriend” memes, each in its own way speaking to the ostensibly instantaneous escalation of events piling one atop another.

But another syntactical trend emerged that I think indicates a more appropriate reaction to the raging tire fire that was 2017: the ellipsis. Those three little dots, which ordinarily signify a textual omission, have assumed broader significance and deeper cultural meaning in a year when we could barely seem to catch our breath.

By late-2017, ellipses were… everywhere. And not just in the usual, pedestrian places; more than simply denoting a redaction, or representing the trailing-off of a thought, ellipses came to characterize in text form the actual pace and cadence of spoken speech. Rather than tweeting, for instance, “Did Trump just say that?” one might have thumbed into their iPhone something more like, “Did… Trump just… say that?” “2017 was…mostly bad,” wrote music critic Rob Arcand in a twitter post sharing his end-of-year-in-music list; “Thank you, Facebook,” snarked GQ editor Kevin Nguyen, following the social network’s snub of his publication’s Colin Kaepernick person-of-the-year story: “So proud to work at… Magazine.”

The elliptical tendency infected mainstream journalism, too: Gail Collins of The New York Times wondered in a December 11th article about whether or not Alabama voters would care that Roy Moore was accused of pedophilia: “History would suggest … not so much.” And in a puff piece about a Newfoundland police constable delivering Christmas gifts to unsuspecting motorists, Jeremy Eaton of CBC News wrote: “For the second year in a row, the detachment in Bay Roberts was rewarding drivers for … being nice.”

It might be tempting to put this fashion down to the entrenching into contemporary consciousness of the three little bubbles that have become such a familiar sign of digital communication. Officially known as the “typing awareness indicator,” those flashing ellipses alert us that the person on the other end of our texting conversation is composing a message. They also appear at the end of nearly every social media post and URL that doesn’t fit into the allotted onscreen real estate.

A persuasive argument could be made that ellipses mimic the stilted, start-stop speech patterns, particularly of the millennial generation — a brand new talk that is not very clear. Like upspeak or vocal fry, the ‘stop-and-go lilt’ is a kind of affectation that has worked its way from the mouths of celebrities on chat shows into quotidian conversation across national and cultural lines. Still another plausible explanation could be twitter’s recently expanded 280-character tweet format. What do we do with all that extra space? Fill it up… with three dots!

But I’d like to see ellipses as something more productive — as thoughtful pauses, suspensions of speech that reflect consideration, gaps that otherwise might be filled with an um, or an uh, or a like. Those kinds of breaks in real-time communication are indicators of complex cognitive processes at work, a careful screening and selecting of the next thought, the next word, the next action. Pausing… it turns out… is a good thing.

One of the ways that a moment’s intermission can be of benefit is in exercising self-control. In the time of 24-hour news cycles, it isn’t enough to just be up on the news; one must also react to it in the appropriate span of time — which is getting ever shorter, due to the onslaught of newsworthy incidents, and the constant turnover of their coverage.

The Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow claims that our decision-making processes — the ways in which we make sense of the world — are influenced by two mental systems: System 1 reacts quickly to stimuli, much like a reflex would; System 2 is slower and more deliberative. System 1 is the part of our consciousness responsible for hitting a baseball, say, or tallying 2 + 2. System 2 is the part that compares appliances in a department store, or double-checks the validity of a dubious assertion.

One of System 2’s jobs is also, at certain times, to override System 1, if and when it makes a poor decision: “every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell,” writes Kahneman. A second’s delay, it seems, can be enough to stop us posting that nasty comment or inconsiderate reply.

Another way that delay could be advantageous is in reconditioning our ability to wait for things. In the online, digital world, we are so used to instant streams, and buying with one click, that we’ve lost the ability to recognize when the simple act of waiting is either favorable or necessary.

In his 2011 book entitled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, the global market expert Frank Partnoy claims that the chief factor in what he calls good decision-making is our ability to manage delay: “That is why it is so important for us to think about the relevant time period of our decisions and then ask what is the maximum amount of time we can take within that period to observe and process information about possible outcomes.” We may increasingly want to see instant results to our actions, but timing is integral — a baby takes nine months; a harvest only happens in the autumn. Sometimes we just have to sit still.

So I see reflected in our obsession with ellipses a glimmer of hope for 2018. It shows that, on some level, we are thinking, processing, pausing, resting, resisting, anticipating, and imagining a better world.

Wait for it…

 

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Word Virus

Who By 🔥

The signs are everywhere: We live in uncool times.

Fossil fuel combustion continues to drive most global economic activity. Human-powered climate changes are irrevocably warming the planet. Devastating forest fires—like those in 2016 that destroyed the oil-slick city of Fort McMurray—are the new normal. The world appears aflame. And it seems that the language we now use to describe culture has transformed accordingly. Hence, the proliferation of the shorthand 🔥.

Over the past decade, things that once might have been labeled as “cool”—chiefly of music, but also more broadly in relation to skills, talents, fashions, events &c—increasingly began to be designated “fire.” Not “on fire,” mind you. Not “fired up” nor any modified variation thereof. Just “fire.” Fire as an adjective was abruptly ubiquitous. And calling something fire suddenly bestowed a kind of hotness beyond any measure of cool.

This year, we achieved peak fire thanks to the 🔥 emoji’s saturation. Two years ago, Jessica Bennett of the New York Times had already proclaimed the emoji’s victory in the war for words. The OED’s selection in 2015 of 😂 as word of the year, as well as the Museum of Modern Art’s 2016 acquisition of the original emoji set (which interestingly contains a bomb but no figure for fire) entrenched these digital icons permanently into the public imagination as legitimate linguistic forms. Aptly, 2015’s “fire mixtape” became 2016’s “🔥 mixtape.” Clever tweets were 🔥. Drake’s Views was 🔥. Even academic papers, NPR podcasts and poutine were 🔥. Everything that was anything this year was 🔥.

 

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Social media scholars Luke Stark and Kate Crawford believe that emoji perform a valuable, immaterial form of labour, and “serve to smooth out the rough edges of digital life.” “Emoji,” they write, “were intended to normalize and then capitalize on the collective strength of affect in human social relations online.” Emoji are not productive, but rather affective: 🔥 isn’t a thing in itself, but it encourages an impression of a thing. To call someone’s mixtape, album, podcast or party 🔥 is also to confer symbolic weight upon it, to assign to it a cultural currency. Like real fire, 🔥 needs an igniting spark, and that spark is most often human, classed, gendered and racialized affective work.

Stark and Crawford rightly point out that emoji’s “highly compressed lexicon” is predominantly designed to stimulate social media activity. Nonetheless, 🔥 suggests something deeper, more profound and abstract. Something hotter.

“Hot” as a synonym for “up-to-date” or “in demand” flourished in common North American parlance in the mid-1800s. Before long, its usage in that context thrived: hot topics came hot off the press; hotheads and hot feet were hot to trot; hot hands remained hot on the trail of the latest hot spots. But hot also came to denote something stolen, illicit or illegitimate. “Hot,” as defined by Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of the Underworld meant “too well known.” By the mid-1900s, hot’s usage as a descriptor cooled considerably.

Concurrently, the colloquialism “cool” arose out of predominantly Black lingo in the US to specify a new genre of stylish, sophisticated and sexy Jazz. By the time of the Cold War, cool had turned into a popular term for hipness and general approval. Cool indicated something intrinsically good, but it also conveyed an icy notion of quiet, slowness, calm, pause and reflection. Cool was furthermore associated with acceptability and safety—refuge from the heat. Cool was all right. And so, a generation warmed to cool. That is, until fire caught fire.

What’s chilling about fire’s eruption into popular vernacular use in the 21st century is how consumately it seems to capture the fever pitch of our hellish age. The Book of Revelation ends with a rain of fire that devours Satan’s armies. Death, Hades and the resurrected fallen souls are then tossed into a lake of burning sulfur to be tormented forever—the “second death” of a damned humankind.

Still, aside from fire’s overt apocalyptic connotation is its implication of speed as the operative mode proper to late capitalism. Fire burns quickly, and with passionate intensity. If hot means fast, and cool sounds slow, fire is positively hyper. And the transformation of fire into 🔥 swiftens the economy of an already abridged expression, reducing it further to instant and unambiguous iconography. Cool was neither hot nor cold. 🔥, on the other hand, is unmistakably 🔥.

🔥 in this sense is a super-linguistic incendiary of post-modern abbreviation that strongly gestures toward cultural accelerationism. Accelerationism, the nihilistic It-philosophy of both the radical right and left, espouses speeding up the alienating processes of capitalism. Accelerationism is the underlying logic behind Žižek’s last-minute endorsement of Trump, and arguably the most politically and theoretically progressive strategy to effectively counter the “contradictions and absurdities of capitalism.”

In The Futurist Manifesto, F.T. Marinetti advocates setting ablaze our libraries and “books of today,” replacing them with blunt and crass images. “Our hearts know no weariness,” he writes, “because they are fed with fire, hatred, and speed!” For Jean-François Lyotard, whose Libidinal Economy is considered a formative accelerationist text, fire constitutes the key to Freud’s death drive, and what Lyotard termes “libidinal irreversibility.” Put bluntly, it’s impossible to get un-fucked. And we are now legitimately, properly fucked.

As the dismay, astonishment and disbelief subsided from the news of both the Brexit result in Britain and Donald Trump’s US presidential election, shocked tweets turned to memes. Shortly, a number of posts emerged quoting Michael Caine’s sizzling line from The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

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Doubtless, 🔥 was the hottest buzzword in a year characterized by zero chill. We might not have started this fire, but it’s our charge now. If there was one sunny spot to the spread of 🔥 in 2016, it might be found in the familiar Buddhist proverb: Light a fire for someone else; it will also brighten your own path. Let us continue fighting fire with 🔥.

It’s the fieriest weapon we’ve got.

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