at the foot of the mountain of choice; against a future kink-fascist Sousa
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
It is characteristic of our time to be caught between two extremes: everything matters, nothing matters. Here is a little meditation on both.
Each of these statements is true. Every tenth of a degree of global warming is countless more lives lost; every bit we prevent saves those lives. If all of humanity is lost in a deluge of ocean water and toxic waste, organisms will take another bazillion years to reorganize and evolve and that, in its own way, is totally fine. Everything matters. Nothing matters.
Whether you struggle to meet basic needs, or have all your whims fulfilled and more, satisfaction remains elusive. I read some science fiction situation - if you recognize this, let me know - in which everyone had just what they needed financially, not more (a feasible possibility, numbers substantiated by this bad article). In this circumstance, it was agreed that actually, everyone was satisfied, because some challenge, conflict, and negotiation make life rich. Once you get too un-challenged by your wealth, life is not that interesting anymore.
Let us not waste time worrying about how sad and unfulfilled the wealthy are. Rather, we can take in stride the understanding that having way more than enough is not the secret to satisfaction.
It seems like there are two different flavors of satisfaction. The first is front of mind for me and my brain chemistry: the work of solving problems and navigating complexity. Success at these activities yields satisfaction.
The second comes less naturally to me. Seeking out pleasure—the sweetness of fruit, the release of intoxicants, the magic of entertainment—is a more direct route to satisfaction. In the last while, more people around me are willing and committed to seeking pleasure, which has made it more available to me. It’s really, really nice.
Life’s a bitch and then you die; that’s why we get high. Why bother with the struggle if we can just take the faster route to satisfaction? It does feel futile to struggle, but struggling from a position of power and failing is a lot different from deciding from the outset it is simply too challenging.
“For those of us whose lives are already easy, giving up means making life even easier, at least in terms of effort. For the directly impacted, it means surrendering to devastation. Giving up on their behalf is not solidarity. And I doubt that anyone in desperate straits has ever taken comfort from the idea that somewhere far safer, people are bitter and despondent on their behalf.”
The Past Is Red, my most recent mid-term future read, is set on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, now known as Garbagetown. The main character is named Tetley, after a washed-up packet of tea. She is relentlessly, almost thanklessly optimistic and positive, despite being alienated by other residents of Garbagetown.
At one point in the book she reminisces, in a neighborhood called Winditch, full of discarded plastic trophies. The people of the past had so much extra left over after they met basic needs that it was not just possible but common to reward people for unremarkable efforts. Eighth best daffodil; fourth runner-up.
Catherynne M. Valente, author of the The Past is Red, explains:
“I wanted to write about a postapocalyptic world where our civilization was not looked back on with awe and admiration, but disdained…[we] wrecked a perfect biosphere because we couldn’t be bothered not to…
I wanted to write about something I so firmly believe: that in a good world or a horrific one, the thing people will give the most for, crave the deepest, is entertainment, to be transported from their existence into another, distracted, elevated by stories and lights.”
In Feral, George Monbiot writes about the existential emptiness of not needing to do anything to survive: working (or not) for money which is then exchanged for meeting all your basic needs. He posits that we often talk about adapting for climate change as losing things, but encourages us to think about what we get back. Specifically: the purest, most elemental satisfaction of catching your own meal, of tapping into your own animal instinct.
A defining climate effort of our time is All We Can Save, an ode to ambition and community on a global scale. Their theory of change is that
“The climate crisis is a leadership crisis…We need a broad leadership upwelling, with many more people linking arms to grow a life-giving future for everyone.”
They insist that everything matters. Hold that alongside more of Solnit’s words:
“Prophecies are always partly self-fulfilling; by promoting whatever outcome they describe, they make it more likely. In this we can distinguish them from warnings, which assume the outcome is as yet undecided, and urge us away from the worst version. “You could be annihilated” is a very different statement from “You will be annihilated”. One includes room to act; the other puts nails in the coffin.”
“Nothing you love ever comes back,” says Tetley, in a moment of despair. Mostly, she is right; death and destruction make up one of two necessary bookends on our experience of being alive. Kirsten utters about the same phrase in Station 11, also after the World As We Know It has ended.
But even when the world ends, we start again. Animals of all kinds work on surviving, and seeking pleasure. When those animals can create societies, some form of political structure emerges. This adds a layer of (non)meaning to the choices the individuals of those societies make.
A beautiful visual piece about individual choice features these words from Leah Stokes, climate policy expert:
“When we start to see the choices that are not available, we can begin to see the role of political power in our daily lives.
Who decides what options are available for us to choose in the first place?”
It is characteristic of our time to stare into the face of loss, at the foot of the mountain of choice, surrounded by people and places we love, which yield both flavors of satisfaction. It is characteristic of time that we must proceed; up the mountain we go.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
This weekend I went to my first techno party. I hadn’t gone out dancing in a while, especially for a little solo bop, so I bought a ticket for Grace, a monthly-ish queer techno party in the basement of a bar on the Royal Canal.
Grace is a self-serious affair. Folks are at the door with stickers to cover your phone camera so you can feel like you’re at Berghain. Partygoers dress almost exclusively in black, accessorizing with harnesses, fishnets, and for some reason Ariana Grande bunny masks. No one is really making out or attempting conversation. Mostly people bop back and forth to the beat while facing the DJ, trying both to have a good time and to look like they’re too cool to be having a good time.
Here’s how techno music works: The DJ amasses a library of looping samples; parts of other songs, rhythmic snatches of spoken text, drum loops, and synth patterns; and pins them all to the same tempo and relative tonal space. On top of these samples, which the DJ swaps out and recombines to create a constantly shifting musical and rhythmic texture, there’s a constant rubbery booming bass on each downbeat.
This bass is the root and the heartbeat of techno. It’s what makes it both easy to dance to and at the same time, hypnotically monotonous. Dancing alongside these harnessed cool kids, I found it easy to play it safe and settle into a standard groove, bouncing from one foot to another with a little side-to-side sway in my waist. With no choruses to [attempt to] sing along with or significant drops to anticipate, the goal of this simple groove is sustainability: being able to maintain the same effortlessly cool-looking movement pattern for the entire night, with or without a drink in your hand, interspersed only by brief trips to the bathroom.
But I almost immediately began to find this groove boring and to an extent, hegemonic. The 4/4 time signature implied by the constant regular bass, the 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 that backs most standard pop tracks, takes on a militaristic and march-like quality when techno strips away all lyrics and verse-chorus structure, like a future kink-fascist Sousa. So I found myself on the dance floor trying to add some syncopation and more interesting rhythmic textures with my own body: dancing to the off-beats, 2 and 4, or adding a circular triplet pattern in my hips to complicate the squareness of 4/4. I started to wonder if any techno DJs are purposefully playing with complicated time signatures like 9/8 or maybe playing with the syncopated bass rhythms of reggaeton and dancehall. And is it still techno if it complicates the genre’s rules?
And then the bass dropped out, and all these looped syncopated textures sprung suddenly out from where the steady beat had compressed them. This is a hallmark of techno: the DJ will cut away the constant bass, often for just a couple of bars, to bring it back in with seemingly increased power. This is the closest you get in techno to a drop, and the emphasis is often placed on correctly hitting the moment when the bass comes back in, jumping or throwing your hands up in time.
But for me, the moment when the bass cut was much more significant. The loops these DJs layer together are so interesting and rhythmically complex, embedding polyrhythms within each booming beat of the track, and when the beat cuts, you can fully hear them. Throughout the night, each time the beat cut out I grasped for those loops, latching on to a syncopated synth with my hips and sticking a busy drum pattern under my feet. Then, when the bass came back in, I’d be sailing forward on that complex wave until we reached the next frayed spot in the mix’s fabric, where I could take another loose thread in my hand and pull.