In Defense of Theory

In an attempt to cope with this crisis we all find ourselves in I reached back and re-read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Thanks to the library’s free reading app I was also able to read Fisher’s K-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, an anthology of his blog posts, interviews and magazine articles. If there’s a ghost that haunts my everyday thoughts it’s Mark Fisher. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Fisher’s thoughtstylings.

I’ll have to devote a longer blog post to why I think Fisher’s work is important for me, a lowly homesteading blogger. But let me just say that he does a better job than I did of explaining why theory is important to consider rather than dismiss. It turns out that the most rarefied and abstract theories of your Deleuzes and Foucaults can, paradoxically, turn out to be more practical than those who preach the practical.

In a magazine article he wrote in 2009, “Real Abstraction: the application of theory to the modern world” he says of the 2008 financial crisis, “Understanding the credit crunch and the recession demands the acknowledgment that abstractions are real.”

Fisher struggled with and wrote perceptibly about depression. Sadly we lost him too suicide in 2017, but his writing becomes more and more relevant as time goes on. You can read his blog here. If we weren’t in the midst of the need to social distance I’d be grabbing strangers, shaking them and yelling READ CAPITALIST REALISM! I feel like Fisher’s writing is a kind of key that unlocks a door on the horrors and mysteries of our present moment as well as offering a possible way out.

Whale of a Meme

Responding to my post on finding a mysterious plaster footprint cast in our garden, Root Simple reader Peter sent a hilarious link to what I’ve since learned is an early viral internet meme, the so-called “Smithsonian Barbie” letter.

Paleoanthropology Division
Smithsonian Institute
207 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20078

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your latest submission to the Institute, labeled “211-D, layer seven, next to the clothesline post. Hominid skull.” We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination, and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents “conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County two million years ago.” Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety one of our staff, who has small children, believes to be the “Malibu Barbie”. It is evident that you have given a great deal of thought to the analysis of this specimen, and you may be quite certain that those of us who are familiar with your prior work in the field were loathe to come to contradiction with your findings. However, we do feel that there are a number of physical attributes of the specimen which might have tipped you off to it’s modern origin:

  • 1. The material is molded plastic. Ancient hominid remains are typically fossilized bone.
  • 2. The cranial capacity of the specimen is approximately 9 cubic centimeters, well below the threshold of even the earliest identified proto-hominids.
  • 3. The dentition pattern evident on the “skull” is more consistent with the common domesticated dog than it is with the “ravenous man-eating Pliocene clams” you speculate roamed the wetlands during that time. This latter finding is certainly one of the most intriguing hypotheses you have submitted in your history with this institution, but the evidence seems to weigh rather heavily against it. Without going into too much detail, let us say that:
      • A. The specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on.
      • B. Clams don’t have teeth.

    It is with feelings tinged with melancholy that we must deny your request to have the specimen carbon dated. This is partially due to the heavy load our lab must bear in it’s normal operation, and partly due to carbon dating’s notorious inaccuracy in fossils of recent geologic record. To the best of our knowledge, no Barbie dolls were produced prior to 1956 AD, and carbon dating is likely to produce wildly inaccurate results. Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation’s Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name “Australopithecus spiff-arino.” Speaking personally, I, for one, fought tenaciously for the acceptance of your proposed taxonomy, but was ultimately voted down because the species name you selected was hyphenated, and didn’t really sound like it might be Latin.

    However, we gladly accept your generous donation of this fascinating specimen to the museum. While it is undoubtedly not a hominid fossil, it is, nonetheless, yet another riveting example of the great body of work you seem to accumulate here so effortlessly. You should know that our Director has reserved a special shelf in his own office for the display of the specimens you have previously submitted to the Institution, and the entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your back yard. We eagerly anticipate your trip to our nation’s capital that you proposed in your last letter, and several of us are pressing the Director to pay for it. We are particularly interested in hearing you expand on your theories surrounding the “trans-positating fillifitation of ferrous ions in a structural matrix” that makes the excellent juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered take on the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9-mm Sears Craftsman automotive crescent wrench.

    Yours in Science,

    Harvey Rowe
    Curator, Antiquities

I did a little Googling and kept finding this letter on old web 1.0 pages only to discover via the always party pooping Snopes that this bit of genius is a creative writing effort from 1994. The real Harvey Rowe does not work for the Smithsonian but was, in fact, a bored medical student at the Medical University of South Carolina. Rowe was interviewed in 1998 about how his fake letter went viral. He described himself in that interview as a, “42 year old Emergency Room physician turned computer nerd. I’m widowed with two boys, aged 8 and 10. I apparently have the power to cloud minds.”

As the old saying goes, “if it be not true at least it is well invented.” If there’s one thing I despise it’s debunker/skeptic types who run around ruining a perfectly good story. If anything we need a few more good tall tales to counter the bad ones.

There’s a story about Mark Twain showing up at a news event and being disappointing to find other journalists since that meant he couldn’t make up a more interesting story. I obviously missed an opportunity in my plaster foot post to be the next Harvey Rowe. At least you can review my new non-profit on Yelp.

Speaking of old internet memes it’s the 50th anniversary of the exploding whale video which the folks at KATU have thoughtfully remastered for us, though I’m a bit nostalgic for the original glitched VHS original. One Jungian synchronicity uncovered by researchers at the Center for Land Use Interpretation is that the car destroyed by falling whale blubber had been purchased that very day at a car dealership that advertised a, “whale of a deal.”

I’ll leave you all with a Twitter post from today that deserves to go viral:

Babylon Ain’t Falling

Anyone else tense this week? Some random thoughts on the eve of an election:

  • I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict that there won’t be a civil war anytime soon here in the Heart of Babylon. We might have some isolated incidents over the next few days that the press will amplify. But most folks on all sides of the political spectrum are too busy just coping with the effects of a pandemic and the demands of family and work to storm the Bastille. I could be wrong. We’ll see how well this post ages.
  • Doomscrolling twitter and looking at the news too much isn’t healthy. It leads to paranoia and the feeling that a civil war in the Heart of Babylon is imminent.
  • Whatever happens in the next week it’s not time to make brunch reservations. In this election we face a choice between a kind of incompetent proto-fascism (real fascists would organize the buses better at their rallies) and neoliberalism. Proto-fascism is worse but neoliberalism sows the seeds of fascism by worsening conditions for working class and middle class people. In short, neoliberal austerity, international trade deals and anti-labor measures create an opportunity for right wing populists. To be clear I think we need to first evict the fascists and then take on the neoliberals. It’s a long game–they’ll be no brunch for the rest of my life.
  • My LA neighborhood is a liberal bubble. There are no Trump signs. But there are plenty of signs screaming “VOTE.” I find this message irritating and condescending, especially when directed at young people. My response is “VOTE for what?” Give me something to vote for not empty platitudes like “Decency.” What does that even mean? How about Medicare for All? Access to higher education? How about not sending poor kids off to wars?
  • Don’t forget local politics. Everyone is distracted by the soap opera in Washington. Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, our local politicians, almost all Democrats, are engaged in old-school corruption: suitcases full of cash, partying with developers at casinos and cavorting with sex workers.
  • Speaking of LA I have a message to the folks in the rest of this country: you don’t want our mayor Eric Garcetti in a cabinet position even though I’d love to see him be someone else’s problem. He’s another neolib who wants Uber to run everything.
  • Politics should not be about personal expression. It’s about working with other people towards a common goal. This has been an especially hard lesson for me. I think we’re all raised in a culture of self expression and social media only exacerbates this.
  • Political discussions are difficult when you base your identity on them. I have an only child’s sense of being Always Right™. I’ve done a lot of phone and text banking and knocking on doors for campaigns in the last 11 months. The lessons learned are: spend most of your time listening to what other people are saying. Ask open ended questions. Never tell someone that they are WRONG™. Pivot gracefully to what your opinions are. Don’t argue with people. This is all easier said than done and harder when you have political conversations with friends and family.
  • When you make calls for a campaign you quickly learn that you are a political nerd who spends too much time looking at Twitter. Most people are busy taking care of a crying baby, working the night shift on a job they hate and/or just trying to cope with life.

I’m going to leave the last word to Bertolt Brecht:

It takes a lot things to change the world:
Anger and tenacity. Science and indignation,
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite perseverance,
The understanding of the particular case and the understanding of the ensemble:
Only the lessons of reality can teach us to transform reality.

Garage Philosophy

The Central Meridian (aka The Garage) by Michael C. McMillen, 1981.

In his entertaining survey, High Weirdness : Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies Erik Davis uses the phrase “garage philosopher” to describe the self-made DIY thoughtstylists of the 70s counterculture. Considering the epistemological mess we’re in right now, it would be to our benefit to re-embrace garage philosophy, to democratize and make practical the observations of the greats of the discipline. Unfortunately, my public school education, almost all the way through grad school, never exposed me to even a cursory survey of philosophy.

This might be by design. In the years of cold war paranoia I grew up in, I suspect the powers that be didn’t want people thinking too deeply about the status quo. Or maybe it’s just that our overly literal culture dismisses the liberal arts as lacking utility.

Despite my garage philosopher’s sub-undergrad understanding of $50 concepts like epistemology and ontology, for today’s blog post I want to take on a concept I’m triggered by and take it to the philosophical garage for some quick tinkering and repair.

The problem in question is in an article I wasted my time reading in Scientific American floating the perennial “are we living in a simulation” argument. First let me crankily note that when you have a plumbing problem you call a plumber. When you have a philosophy problem you call a philosopher. Please, please, please, my dear journalists, take the ever annoying Neil deGrasse Tyson out of your phone’s contacts. At the very least, only call him when you want to know things like the size of the rings of Saturn. He shouldn’t be allowed near anything that involves meaning or ambiguity.

Speaking of plumbers, let’s get back to the are-we-living-in-a-simulation problem. I suspect most plumbers don’t have this epistemological conundrum since they spend their hours in confrontation with a world that doesn’t generally bend in our interests so easily. Let me also guess that emergency room nurses, welders and gardeners also don’t have the are-we-living-in-a-simulation problem. No, the question bedevils people who spend way too many hours in front of computers and (un)smart phones. I’m looking at you Elon Musk. Put down the phone and let’s head to the philosophy garage.

How to be a garage philosopher

  • Work your way though Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. I recommend this over the more popular survey by Bertrand Russell. Russell has a bias against the Medieval philosophers and that’s a shame IMHO.
  • Form a reading group. It’s more fun to read this stuff with other people and you can do it over Zoom. I formed one to work through a particularly notorious philosophical tome. A mix of genders in your reading group is good. Too many dudes talkin’ philosophy can get insufferable. I should know. Definitely serve drinks.

Binge on Opera for Free

Das Reingold

Early in the pandemic, Kelly had to leave town for an extended period to look after a relative. This left me alone in the house under lockdown with plenty of chores do during the day, such as install a floor and ceiling in her office shed, but not much to do at night. The first thing I did was to fill those evening hours with an intemperate binge viewing of Tiger King that left me confused and depressed. Then friend of the blog Lee tipped me off to the Metropolitan Opera’s free nightly streams. I thought that instead of binge watching Netflix shows I’d watch opera, even operas I’m not thrilled with, if just to see what pre-20th century folks binge viewed.

The way the Met’s free streams work is that they release a new one to watch at 3pm each day. You have 23 hours to watch before it goes away and a new one appears. Each opera streams from 7:30 p.m. EDT until 6:30 p.m. the following day. The streams are available through the Met Opera on Demand apps for Apple, Amazon, and Roku devices and Samsung Smart TV. To access them, without being a paid subscriber, you click “Browse and Preview” in the apps for connected TV, and “Explore the App” on tablets and mobile devices.

Speaking of binge viewing, this week the Met is streaming all (count ’em!) seventeen hours of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle along with Tristan und Isolda, Parsifal and few other Wagner’s hits. Does the story of a magical ring that holds terrible powers and needs to be returned to nature sound like a familiar plot?


Wagner’s Parsifal streams on Sunday the 11th in a striking production the Met did in 2013. Towards the end of the first act is my favorite part, the ringing of the eerie bells of the grail castle, a sound effect for which Wagner constructed a special instrument. And the music that accompanies the appearance of the grail is some of the most beautiful ever written.

If Wagner isn’t to your taste there’s plenty more opera to watch in the Met’s future streaming schedule. Let me just note that this week you may want to catch Götterdämmerung as it’s, shall we say, timely.