Archive of posts about Category: culture

René Girard, The Last Psychiatrist, and Mimetic Narcissism

I’ve been reading a lot of René Girard lately and along the way, I’ve seen a lot of parallels with another favorite writer: The Last Psychiatrist (TLP). My fascination with TLP goes back to 2011, when I discovered and quickly became obsessed with his writing on narcissism, media criticism, advertising, and psychology (and later made a movie that was heavily influence by his writing).

Connecting the dots in my mind has been delightful, and I wish they could get together and hash things out. Unfortunately, Girard is dead and The Last Psychiatrist is… well, last I heard he was drinking himself to death while writing a book about porn. I wish him well, wherever he may be.

There are many parallels between Girard and TLP, but I want to pull on one little thread that begins with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.


TLP’s project is far-reaching and delightfully tangential, but at its core, it’s a wickedly incisive, earnest, and often hilarious exploration of narcissism:

Shame over guilt; rage over anger; masturbation over sex; envy over greed; your future over your past but her past over her future…

The narcissist feels unhappy because he thinks his life isn’t as it should be, or things are going wrong; but all of those feelings find origin in frustration, a specific frustration: the inability to love the other person.

He’s a man in a glass box, unable to connect. He thinks the problem is people don’t like him, or not enough, so he exerts massive energy into the creation and maintenance of an identity: if they think of me as X…

But that attempt is always futile, not because you can’t trick the other person– you can, for an entire lifetime, it’s quite easy. But even then, the man in the box is still unsatisfied, still frustrated, because no amount of identity maintenance will break that glass box.

If the other person is also in a glass box, then you have a serious problem. If everyone is in their own glass box, well, then you have America.

The Last Psychiatrist: A Generational Pathology: Narcissism Is Not Grandiosity

But where does it come from? Where did it start?

Reading TLP, you get the sense that this epidemic of narcissism is a fairly recent phenomenon. Except, hold on, here he is talking about Dostoevsky:

Most people will give you the usual suspects, so let me add my personal favorite: Notes from The Underground. I know I’ve written about it elsewhere, but it’s a profound work of psychological insight.

While not exactly about depression, it’s fairly obvious he is depressed. But more importantly, the reason for his depression is an inability to connect with any other people. He sees them, he has remarkably precise observations about their character, but he completely misses/misinterprets their connections to him. He can only process reality in one direction, inwards: what it does to him, how it makes him feel, the impact of it on himself. Everyone else in the world is relevant only in the way they affect him.

Because of this perspective, he cannot help but be depressed; and, from my own experience, that narcissism is by far a more significant factor in today’s “clinical depression” than anything else.

— from a comment on Recommend writing about depression – majordepressivedisorder | Ask MetaFilter

Notes from Underground was published in Russia in 1864 and it wasn’t science fiction and I don’t think Russians got American TV until 1989. The Boomers and American TV may have taken narcissism to dizzying new heights, but if it was going on in 1864 then you can’t pin it entirely on TV or advertising or going off the gold standard or thinkpieces in The Atlantic or mind-coddling or glyphosate or seed oils whatever is making us all sad and fat and angry these days.

Girard was also a fan of Dostoevsky and like TLP, he saw in his work a great illumination of his big idea: mimetic desire.

“Except for a few characters who entirely escape imitative desire, in Dostoevsky, there is no longer any love without jealousy, any friendship without envy, any attraction without repulsion. The characters insult each other, spit in each other’s faces, and minutes later they fall at the enemies feet. They objectively beg mercy. This fascination coupled with hatred is no different in principle from Proustian snobbism and Stendhalian vanity. The inevitable consequences of desire copied from another desire are envy, jealousy and impotent hatred. As one moves from Stendhal to Proust, and from Proust to Dostoevsky, the closer the mediator comes, the more bitter are the fruits of triangular desire.”

– Deceit, Desire and the Novel (page 41)

Girard reads Notes from Underground and doesn’t see narcissism1, but a classic case of mimetic desire. The Underground Man is trapped in internal mediation, locked in mimetic rivalry with everyone he encounters. The result is a man consumed by envy, jealousy, and impotent hatred. In other words, the classic narcissist.

(if you’re lost and want a good primer on Girardian thought, I recommend Secrets about People: A Short and Dangerous Introduction to René Girard).

Because Girard is an anthropologist2, he’s well-positioned to sees that this phenomenon has roots that predate the 20th century. He wrote an essay called “Innovation and Repetition,” which is hard to excerpt but goes something like this: once upon a time in the West, before the intellectually wild and libertine 18th century, the term “innovation” was considered a bad word. Intellectuals and thinkers considered innovation a dangerous thing that could topple the social order.

The way to a good and virtuous life was through imitation — but not imitation of just anyone — you had to imitate great figures from the past, paragons of virtue from the domains of religion or philosophy.

But then, starting in the 18th century, thinkers started to get interested science and innovation and as we proceeded through the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea of God started to die. Imitation became gauche and innovation was the hot new thing.

The narcissism of today is not some recent phenomenon, but the result of a centuries-long shift in Western thought and culture. We didn’t invent it, but we perfected it.


Imitation may be uncool, but it happens regardless. You’re going to have models. The only question is “who?” and if you’re not deliberate about it, well, this is where TLP really shines.

One of his great insights was that ads don’t sell a specific product, they teach you how to want — as in, the car commercial doesn’t tell you “a Lexus is great” but it does tell you “your car defines your sexual desirability” or “your car is how you communicate who you are.” You watch the BMW ad and think “that guy’s a douche, everyone knows driving a BMW won’t get you laid” and the trick has worked — by rejecting the specific message, you accept the premise. “I love nature, that’s why I’m a Subaru man.”

And into this narcissistic world where internal mediation runs rampant, advertising comes in like a genius con artist and sees the setup for the greatest con of all time. You can trick people into wanting what you want them to want and all they’ll ask for in exchange is for you to define their identity.

If you don’t understand this, then you’re an easy target for advertisers, ideological charlatans, and anyone who wants to plug into your mimetic API for their own ends. You’re walking around with the private keys to your identity exposed.

If that makes you depressed and bitter, well then, don’t worry, they have something they can sell you for that. And if you immediately blame capitalism, then I think you missed the point of section II.


So, what do you do, if you’re like Underground Man, moving through the world bitter and spiteful of everyone around you, filled with envy and rage?

TLP struggled to answer this question, and I think that was in part because he saw mimesis as wholly the province of narcissists:

The narcissist has identity– but it is one he chose, not one that evolved naturally. That means he thinks of himself as something– based on a model. He consciously identifies with someone– Tony Soprano, the guy from Coldplay, Jack Kerouac, or a combination of traits from people, etc. The psychopath has no model– he just exists. Since the narcissist’s identity is entirely made up, it requires other people for constant reaffirmation of his identity and of its value.

The Last Psychiatrist: Psychopathy, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Narcissism

The healthy individual doesn’t copy his identity, he allows it to evolve naturally. But what does it mean for your identity to evolve naturally? We can agree that the wholesale imitation of a TV character is a bad idea but is it possible to even exist without some level of imitation?

He never arrives at the Girardian concept of a higher, external mediator, but does get pretty close:

So what about the next generation, those under 25? If the problem was the unopposed influence of TV– not the TV, per se, but the lack of opposing influence– then the solution is some opposing influence.

I am nervous about recommending “the Classics” because it sounds contrived and pretentious, but anything that has withstood the test of time and is not something that was created to be consumed by current narcissist adults is as good a place to start as any.

Do the opposite of what the narcissists did. They wanted to know enough to fake it. They read just enough to use the book to build an identity, so they read about books, but not the actual books. 

— via The Last Psychiatrist: Can Narcissism Be Cured?

The unopposed influence of TV needs a counterweight — you need to go further into history, find something old to read — but he doesn’t quite arrive at the Girardian insight — why you need to go into the old books.

It’s not because they boomers didn’t read them, and it’s not because they’re Lindy (although that’s related), it’s because they’re above you, far away enough in time and space that there’s no risk of mimetic rivalry. Imitating the ancient Greeks or Romans, or Thomas Edison or Joan of Arc or basically anyone who isn’t someone in your actual life or on TV is better than imitating someone you know, a potential rival.3

If mimesis is inevitable, then who you choose to imitate is really important. To deny the choice, to let yourself go wherever the current takes you, means that you’ll inevitably imitate the people around you or whoever the dominant culture or whoever advertisers wants you to imitate.

Maybe you get lucky and have good role models, but maybe you don’t and you end up bitter, envious, and full of impotent rage. And that’s no way to live. At least that’s what my models say.

Choose wisely, wildman.

  1. What does Girard think of narcissism? Well, he wrote an essay called “Narcissism: The Freudian Myth Demythified by Proust” and the astute reader will guess from the title that he’s not a huge fan of the concept. It’s hard to distill his opinion down to just one sentence, but — wait, never mind, he actually wrote this: “The whole theory of narcissism is one of the most questionable points in psychoanalysis” (from Mimesis & Theory). And there’s a funny bit where he basically says that the very idea of narcissism is an obstacle to “arrest our thinking at the point where Freud arrested his; it confirms our natural tendency, the tendency of all desire to consider ‘self-centeredness’ and ‘other-centeredness’ as separate poles that can become dominant in separate individuals.” In other words, the concept of narcissism prevents you from understanding the real truth and which diehard TLP readers will see the delicious irony here. If Girard’s favorite pastime was pointing out things that are actually mimetic desire, then TLP’s favorite pastime was pointing out things that are actually narcissistic defenses (against change, usually). For example: therapy, trying to understand yourself, addiction, projection, blaming others, rage, reading too much TLP, writing thinkpieces, hating on hipsters, etc. And maybe me pointing out that things are defenses against other things is my defense against… things. Or change. I don’t know. 

  2. Yes, I know his formal training was not in anthropology. 

  3. Look, obviously there are people from the past that are not good to imitate. The point isn’t that “everyone dead is a good role model”, the point is that “a dead person can’t become a rival.” You still have to choose good models. 

The Umbrellas of Sharebourg

I dropped in on a Clubhouse discussion tonight about whether or not AI-generated music can be as good and wonderful as people-generated music.

I drifted off into thought about an idea I read somewhere.1 The idea is that apart from the beauty or artistry of a work of art moving us, we are also moved by the very act of its creation — its creation is an inspiration, a kind of gift. In fact it’s a kind of double gift because it’s the gift of the artwork and it’s also the gift of saying “this is possible, to create something beautiful is possible”, which is the gift of inspiration.

I got it immediately but it didn’t really hit me until I went to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I loved, yes for the colors and the story and I don’t have the words frankly to describe why I loved it, but after I saw it, or maybe sometime during, I thought “how could someone love life this much?” and I mean Jacques Demy, the director, that you would have to have a deep love of life for all its sorrows and joys to create something like this, and that, that sense of love was more moving that the picture itself, or perhaps equally moving, or perhaps it’s completely impossible to distinguish between them.2

Which is why I, my tech brain, the one that’s seen what AI can do, how it can be quite creative with words — I actually do think that AI-generated music has a decent chance at making music just as “good” as what great musicians make. I think it’s possible, at least for music.

I don’t think that you can, knowing that it was AI-generated, ever wonder how much the AI loved life because the AI doesn’t love life, it can’t, not in the way we love life.

Context matters in how we experience these things, and sometimes it matters so much that it’s a bit absurd. Modern art seems to me a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the idea that the story behind a work of art or that its context is what matters, to such an extent that most people, lacking the requisite context, have no fucking idea what they’re looking at in a modern art museum and if you’re like me, maybe you’ve found yourself alone in a cavernous white room, surrounded by odd objects when the absurd strikes you like an existential taser.

“Perhaps you’d be more comfortable with something more representational?” asks the security guard, she’s seen that look of terror before. “Yes” I say, “can you take me back to the impressionists?”

Context matters a lot in movies too — I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at the Metrograph in New York on a dark and cold night when I was feeling low and exhausted and then here was this intense bright wave of love, at just the right time and place for my soul.3

My favorite place in Chicago is The Music Box Theatre, not just for their curation, but because there’s really nothing like seeing a movie in a packed grand theater with an organist warming up the audience. It matters that there are still physical places where you can go and see great art and entertainment, because it’s not just that we get to see things on a bigger screen, but it’s that we know that others care, and we can share some of that joy and sorrow and joy with them, a collective inspiration.

It’s not just the thing, it’s the act of making the thing, and then, the act of sharing the thing.

  1. I wish I could credit the person but it’s gone, but maybe it was Finite and Infinite games? 

  2. The reverse of this phenomenon is when a film is made cynically. Sometimes I watch a film and have a kind of visceral negative reaction. It’s not just the content or the craft, but something worse, something ugly, like the opposite of a gift — some films seem to despise the audience, to hate people. Watching those films feels ugly, it feels like something has been taken from me. It’s rare, but not rare enough. 

  3. I think it also helped that I knew almost nothing about it beforehand, except that it was a musical and French and from the 60s. 

The great reshuffling, coming hard and fast to a polity near you

It’s been quite a year. I started the year pondering how Cats happened, and now, the longest eight months later, the question remains unresolved but somewhat less important. An apocalypse can be a disaster or it can be a prophetic revelation, and to this amateur observer, Cats was a disaster that revealed nothing while the pandemic is both disaster and revelation. It’s time to see what we can see, and maybe get there before the rest of the world shows up.

The pandemic, you may have noticed, has caused a seismic shift to remote work. People (with means and mobility) are leaving cities, rents are dropping in SF and NY, and there’s a housing boom in the ‘burbs and maybe everywhere that’s not a city.

In America, this has led to proclamations of the death of cities in general and New York and San Francisco in particular.

But proclaiming the death of cities in the middle of a pandemic is kind of like saying you’ll never drink again when you’re lying fetal on the bathroom floor after a night of drinking. You’ll drink again, you know you will, and cities will come back.

A few years ago, a friend of a friend was leaving Chicago and on his way out he wrote a Facebook post about how he was tired of all the racism in Chicago and just couldn’t stand it anymore. I mean, yeah, it’s a racist place, but it’s been that way since forever. He went to grad school in another American city, I assume one without a racist history, but the point is that he was leaving anyway for personal reasons. A lot of the “I’m getting out!” content feels a bit like that. Yeah, sure, your ex was a bitch, we get it, but why did it take you seven years to see it?


Sometime soon, maybe in a year, maybe in five years, there will be a vaccine and people will forget about the pandemic. Half the country is already pretending it doesn’t exist and in five years, when it really doesn’t exist, the other half will forget that it existed (or are you betting on the memory of Americans?).

The really big thing is not that people are leaving cities, it’s what enables them to leave cities — the decoupling of cities and work for a huge number of people around the world.

There’s a massive group of people who just went from needing to live near work to having the freedom to live just about anywhere with good wifi.

Now, I’m just a filmmaker trying to avoid a 150-page first draft of a screenplay that needs rewriting and you probably shouldn’t listen to me, but I think it’s a worthy exercise to think about where people will go and what that will precipitate.

With the virus still floating around, some people are staying put and some are hiding out in the woods until things cool down and some are heading to the ‘burbs where they will spend the next twenty years smugly expounding on the virtues of lawns and the traffic, my God the traffic even though the traffic isn’t so bad now that all the commuters are gone.

But sometime soon, people will forget about the pandemic and a lot of people will move back to cities, and a lot of us city-lovers will move to new cities.


Because a life entirely mediated by Zoom is soulless and empty. Because many people will crave all the things that cities offer: great restaurants, bars, dating markets, live comedy, live music, art galleries, theater, cinema, excitement and energy, weirdos, running into friends, the ability to join a face-to-face community or scenius, and the feeling of discovering something new every day.

Cities will have a lot to offer, as they have for thousands of years, especially for young single people who just lost an entire year of youthful fun to the pandemic. And as the population of cities shift more to young, single, and ambitious people, more young, single, and ambitious people will be attracted. Network effects, or something.

College kids want to party, you may have seen on the news.

And if you’re young and breaking into an industry, you want to expose yourself to the upside of chance encounters and casual off-the-record conversations. You don’t “run into” people on Zoom. Ever tried to Tinder when back home in the ‘burbs visiting your parents?

Nothing propinks like propinquity. Most of the interesting stuff happens outside the official channels, not to mention the aesthetic reasons for preferring cities, or that some of us just prefer to be around other people.

As long as cities offer some level of serendipity and a lot of easy-to-access culture, they will be desirable places to live for a lot of people.

There’s a latent force, a pent-up energy, a coiled spring. And when the pandemic ends, people will exercise their newfound freedom to move and a lot of shit will go kinetic.


For the newly mobile, let’s call them the mobile middle class — not quite the leverage class, but people with high incomes that are not tied to their local economy — the desirability of a city will be increasingly tied to lifestyle factors.

Prior to the pandemic, I spent eight months living more or less nomadically. I kind of despise the word “digital nomad” but I can’t think of a better term, so here we are. I had a remote freelancing gig and moved around a lot, spending time in Mexico, Colombia, Barcelona, San Francisco, and New York.

Being a digital nomad (ugh) really shifts the calculus of where to live, especially for people without kids. In my experience, nomads tend to look for a few things:

  • Good weather
  • High-speed internet
  • Affordable short-term housing
  • Safety
  • Culture and “lifestyle” (so broad! can mean many different things to different people!)

Some people prefer warm beachy spots like Bali or the Canary Islands while some prefer places with lots of culture and things to do — places like Berlin, New York, Lisbon, Barcelona, Mexico City, Austin, Medellin, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.

Looking at the fastest-growing locations for digital nomads might provide a hint as to the kinds of places that will grow in popularity.

Up until now, this has all happened on a small scale. Remote jobs were relatively hard to come by.

Not anymore. The pandemic just created tens or even hundred of millions of new remote workers.

Are they all going to move? Will they all go abroad? Will they all choose nomadic lifestyles? No. Obviously not. But we’re going to see a massive shift in preferences — we’ve already seen the revealed preferences of mobile people with families, but a large percentage of the newly mobile will want to live in cities and that when they choose which city to live in, lifestyle and cultural factors will be more important than job opportunities.

This will lead to growth in cities that offer the things that nomads previously looked for — culture, weather, affordable cost of living, interesting people, culture, etc.

What happens when people start flooding into towns and cities whose growth was previously limited by the number of high-paying jobs?

Well, The Washington Post has an article about it. You should read it because it’s the future.

Let’s take an example of a Google engineer, currently living in San Francisco making $150,000 a year. They can buy a house in San Francisco for $2 million or they can move to Asheville, NC or Nashville, or Austin or Denver or Salt Lake City and get a lot more house and still have money left over (if they move quickly).

Or maybe they’re want to explore the world a bit. They might live in South America or Europe or Asia or Africa for a while.1

Same income (for now), more lifestyle or culture or whatever.

This is going to cause some serious tension. I read the WaPo article and didn’t see any mention of pitchforks, just angry people on Instagram, but it’s early.

Let’s take Asheville as an example. You might be thinking “wait, this has already been happening in Asheville for the past ten years” and yup, but now it’s going to happen harder and faster.

The local middle class, that is, people who have in-demand skills but are tied to the local economy — their economic opportunities won’t open up in the same way that the SF engineer’s lifestyle opportunities just did. It’s asymmetrical, or something.

If you’re a software engineer in Asheville, your job market just went from a 30-mile radius to anywhere in the U.S. (the world too, but software engineers don’t want to compete in the global market, more on that later). But if you’re a teacher, saving for a home for the past five years and just when you got that down payment together… a bunch of carpet-bagging remote workers come into the market and start bidding up housing values! And you don’t even like kombucha.

I saw hints of this when I was in Barcelona. The city is a magnificent place to live, which has attracted foreigners. The increased demand for housing, coupled with an increasing percentage of the housing stock devoted to Airbnbs (because it’s also a huge tourist destination), is forcing long-term rental prices up.

As rents rise, long-time residents find themselves priced out of the market. The tension is there. You hear it when you talk to native Catalans and you can see it in the graffiti.

Now, imagine what happens if just 10,000 newly remote Americans or Europeans — people making an annual salary of $75,000 to $150,000 — decide they want to live in a city where a median salary is around 40,000 per year.2

Just as scaling effects have dramatically shifted incomes for the leverage class, the same will happen for cities, but instead of the power law favoring the cities with the biggest economic engines, it will favor the cities (and towns and suburbs) with the best lifestyles.

Longtime residents will rebel. There will be anti-foreigner sentiment as a kind of global gentrification happens and people fight for the souls of their cities.


There’s a quote in the WaPo article and it may look like insipid politico-speak but I think it says everything you need to know about how this is going to play out:

“There is a tremendous opportunity, excitement and potential,” says Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, “but also great challenges if we’re not thoughtful, and the inequality and inequity continue to grow.”

Those are not sober words.

Pat Ryan, I don’t know a thing about him, except that he’s human and humans respond to incentives.

And he, along with every other mayor and county executive in the world just had the same thought: holy fuck we’re going to make a lot of money on this… if… we play our cards right. Remember when we had to give out all those tax breaks to lure corporations here? Remember how Amazon gleefully bent us over the table just to talk about locating a warehouse here? Fuck that noise, we’re going straight to the source.

Of course, there will be, uh, you know, great challenges if we’re not thoughtful about… I’m sorry — it’s hard to concentrate — there’s a giant hose of money that just fell from the sky — what was the question?

Follow the money, McNutty.


If we play our cards right. That clause is doing a lot of work, because there will be winners and losers here. Pat Ryan happens to be sitting at the head of some very desirable real estate, but not every civic leader is so lucky.

Coming soon: towns, cities, states, and any other polity with the power to tax will be fighting to attract high-income remote workers.

If this sounds familiar, then maybe you read about it in The Sovereign Individual or maybe you read this on Entrepreneur.com:

“Meanwhile, some destinations are making their best pitch to attract remote workers, and others will likely want to follow suit. States like Vermont, Maine and Oklahoma already had grant programs in place, offering cash to full-time remote workers that relocated somewhere within their borders. Beyond the U.S., countries like Estonia and Georgia in Eastern Europe, and Bermuda and Barbados in the Caribbean are greatly relaxing their worker visa requirements in an effort to lure digital nomads, largely to boost their economies suffering from a drop off in tourism.”

With Working from Home Here to Stay, Expect These 5 Things to Change

Cities that are slow to adjust will lose out.

Cities that are slow to adjust and have things like bad weather and poor governance working against them could face a vicious cycle — as high-income workers leave, the tax base shrinks and services decline, which pushes the local middle to the suburbs. Less disposable income flows into cultural endeavors, making it a less attractive place for artists and other cultural producers, which makes it less attractive for high-income people, and so on.

I see the death of some cities, just not the ones people are talking about right now.

I’m not a political scientist, I’m just a filmmaker and you really shouldn’t listen to me, but my gut is telling me that as states compete for residents, we may apocalypse, I mean uncover, some unsavory truths about democracy. That is to say, that people don’t really care about it that much. Sure, they care about a lot of the things that usually come with democracy, but the actual voting, well it’s hard when the choices suck and for some reason I can never find the checkbox for “end the drug war and also the other wars.”

As people figure out that it’s easier to vote with their feet than it is to change their local political economy, they’ll go where the going is good.


Whatever happens, if it happens, will happen fast.

One salient feature of the pandemic is that it force a lot of complacent people to make drastic and swift changes in their lives. If you think of change as a kind of muscle that can be flexed, then I think we have a lot of people who primed to respond quickly to incentives. The more you make big life-altering decisions, the easier it is to make more of them. The world is getting less inertia-y, or something.

And one salient feature of rapid social and economic change is conflict.

As progressives leave expensive cities in search of better lifestyles in towns and cities around the U.S. (and the world), they’ll bring their progressive politics, higher real estate prices, and kombucha.

Did you read the article? It’s already happening and I don’t know anything about book publishing but I wouldn’t be surprised if the writer, Karen Heller, already has a book deal for an explainer on the 2028 election.

Ironically, the great reshuffling could be a moderating political force in the U.S. If progressives migrate to red states (who’s got the warm weather and low taxes?), then red states will turn bluer and the blue states they leave behind will redden. Theoretically, this could place more states into purple territory, forcing senatorial and presidential candidates to play more to moderate median voters and less to the partisans.

Or maybe it will lead to violence! A lot of things in America lead to violence!


If you’re a tech worker living in the U.S., you might be reading this thinking “hey, this all sounds pretty good for me.”

Tranquilo amigo, because companies will pretty quickly figure out (if they haven’t already) that if all their employees are remote, it doesn’t exactly make sense to only hire American citizens. Why hire an American engineer who expects to make $130,000/year when you can hire one in Warsaw or Kigali who expects half or a third of that?

High-skilled English-speaking people around the world will have access to the global labor market and just as outsourcing in the 90s led to rising incomes for millions of poor around the world (and the resultant resentment and its attendant political strife of left-behind U.S. factory workers), we’ll see millions of people around the world lifted from their previously-tethered-to-the-local-economy jobs to global remote jobs.

I remember hearing somewhere that whenever large groups of people are lowered in status, there is strife.

Of course, the biggest losers from all of this will be the precarious class, people without high incomes or the ability to move. Luckily, American elites, will rise to the challenge of the day and, realizing how fucked up things are, will finally figure out how to create a society with work, opportunity, and dignity for all occasionally use the precarious class as a pawn in a Girardian competition for status, if they’re not too busy with that goddamn money hose that just fell from the sky.

A massive potential energy is about to go kinetic.

It will happen fast.

Things could get ugly.

I hope they don’t.

Average is over, as Tyler Cowen says. Stay frosty.

  1. Time zones will cause friction in the short-term, but as remote work evolves, some companies will require you to live +/- a few hours of a single timezone and others will compete for workers by allowing truly global remote work, basing teams around time zones. 

  2. These are loose numbers based on informal conversations I had over the course of two months, but I’m in the ballpark. 

Cats (!!!…?)

Let me just say, that having seen it last night, that Cats is not a ‘good’ movie. The humor doesn’t work. The costumes are bizarre and often unsettling, sometimes horribly drawn on, especially for poor Jennifer Hudson.

It wasn’t even a good musical — the music is jarringly bad and remarkable in its un-catchy-ness and inability to get caught in your head. I woke up thinking that I had ‘Memory’ in my head but it was actually something from Phantom of the Opera.

Also! The entire movie is fucking insane! It’s fucking nuts! It’s comically fucking insane!

What the fuck is a jellical cat? What is the plot of this (spoiler alert: something about cat heaven)?

Why, for the love of God, are the cockroaches so humanoid? Why is the sense of scale so creepy?

How is it possible for something so asexual to be so sexually weird?

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Cats since I my parents took me to see it as a teenager on Broadway. It just seemed like this entirely inexplicable phenomenon.

Love, hate, or indifferent, it doesn’t take much to come up with plausible reasons why people would love Hamilton, or Phantom of the Opera, or Rent, or Evita, or [insert any musical that isn’t Cats here].

But Cats just felt so bizarre to me. In a way, many musicals feel like parodies of the musical genre to me — no matter how engrossing, I always fall out at some point in the middle and wonder “wait. this is ridiculous right? we all know this is ridiculous?”1).

That feeling was 10x with Cats because it’s grown adults dressed and made up as cats in tights singing about being cats AND YET SOMEHOW CATS WAS AT ONE TIME THE LONGEST-RUNNING MUSICAL OF ALL TIME AND GROSSED OVER 1.3 BILLION DOLLARS I DON’T KNOW IF THAT’S INFLATION-ADJUSTED OR NOT BUT STILL.


I’m reading All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, an oral history of one of the great shows of all time, back when the golden age was really golden and men were… metrosexual… or something.

One thing that surprised me was that the original script for episode 3.11, has Omar and Brother Mouzone shooting Stringer Bell and then pissing on his dead body, which apparently was the rigor in Baltimore gang wars at the time.

The actor, Idris Elba, was so incensed by the desecration of his character’s dead body that he threatened to walk off the show and eventually the writers changed the script. I admire Elba, who wasn’t yet the star that he is today, for having the chutzpah to make a stand and risking his reputation as an actor that’s easy to work with.

All of this leads me to the question: what the fuck was Idris Elba thinking joining the cast of Cats?

What were any of these people thinking?

I know that probably comes off as snark. I swear, I’m not being snarky.

I’m honestly and earnestly curious about how and why this movie was made. And I have a theory about how the cast came aboard:

“I auditioned [Taylor Swift] for ‘Les Mis’ and she was brilliant,” Hooper recalled. “And actually, I reached out to Taylor first among all the actors…I wrote to her and said, ‘Would you consider being part of the cast?’ And she said yes straight away. So, she was actually the building block that created the cast of the whole film.”

‘Cats’ Director Tom Hooper Didn’t Finish Movie Until Hours Before World Premiere

My theory is that Hooper got Swift on board because of his reputation for his previous work (Les Mis, The King’s Speech) and then used that to get other actors to come on board and next thing you know, you have Judi Dench and Taylor Swift and Idris Elba and of course they all want to work together, they’re all great and famous and this sounds like a lot of fun.

I don’t think any of them had any idea how the thing would look in the end, and maybe nobody did, not even Hooper, until there it was and you’ve already spent a ton of money and you might as well release it and see what happens.

I don’t know if that’s what happened, but it seems plausible, and maybe that’s just a risk of relying so heavily on CGI — you don’t really know how it’s going to look until you do it. Maybe they didn’t really test it, first. I don’t know.


So, how to feel about all of this?

On one hand, I think that this movie is the result following a blind faith in IP to its logical conclusion. It’s not original to point out how severely depressing it is, the extent to which anything with a big budget these days goes to something that is a remake, a sequel, an adaptation, or anything with existing “IP.”2.

I mean for as bad as this movie has been panned and how much of a ‘failure’ it is, it’s still made $40 million at the box office.3 That’s not a lot by Hollywood success standards, but it’s still a lot of money, more money than Uncut Gems, Midsommar, and many other good and well-known movies.

If it had been made for less, somehow, maybe by using costumes instead of CGI, we might even be talking about it as a surprise success.



I had a great time seeing Cats in a theater last night. It wasn’t a good movie but it was an entertaining theater experience. I mean that sincerely.

I went with friends and the nearly-full theater in Chicago came for the fun. We shouted at the screen, we meow’d in derision, and we laughed. A lot. It was really funny. I know, not in the way it was intended (none of the intended jokes landed).

But it was a genuinely good time in a movie theater, and that’s more than I can say for more than a few movies I’ve seen in the past year, notably the Rise of Skywalker, which was a dull slog and all the more painful because I loved Star Wars as a kid and well, Cats the musical was well, you know.

And there was something genuinely exciting to me about the existence of this thing on a meta level, about the inexplicableness of it — you might say it’s… ineffable.

If some people get together and make something inexplicable, bizarre, strange, liable to rewire your sexuality if you see it in the wrong headspace, or just plain fucking nuts, I mean I think we should at least celebrate the effort.

We should have movies that are weird and bold and insane and inexplicable, even if it means having some spectacular failures.

And if we’re going to lament the Marvel- and Disney-ification of movies today, then we ought to be more charitable to what breaks the mold, even if it is a disaster.

I think we people who care about movies, who want to see great movies, that we should encourage the creation of more insane and weird movies, if for no other reason than that occasionally one of them will be amazing or blow us away.

All of this is to say – I don’t know. Maybe it’s the alcohol or maybe it’s the haunting image of Rebel-Wilson-as-CGI-cat eating a living humanoid cockroach that’s making it hard to process what I think about this movie, but I’m really happy that it exists.

  1. A feeling that I couldn’t express in words until I saw the brilliant Porcupine Racetrack sketch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zW3N_NK6-ps 

  2. The use of IP has always bugged me a bit, since all writing is IP, at least all writing done now, while remaking Sense and Sensibility doesn’t involve intellectual property in a legal sense, it’s in the public domain. 

  3. As of January 5, 2020. 

Transgressive behavior: when is it celebrated and when is it punished by power?

I’ve been researching the life of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun. She lived most of her life dressed as (and passing for) a man. One thing in the story that has always bewildered me is why the Pope (Urban VIII for you Popeheads) would (after 30 or so years living as a man) grant her permission to continue living as a man.

The answer is complicated and goes into the way sexuality and gender were viewed in the 1600s1, but this passage from Eva Mendieta’s In Search of Catalina de Erauso, highlights something interesting:

First, we have already mentioned the importance of her virginity, verified by church authorities. This quality, which implies asexuality, was considered by society to be admirable and virtuous.

In addition, despite the fact that Erauso departed from the social norms, she demonstrated respect for and submission to both ecclesiastical and military institutional authorities; therefore her transgression neither challenged nor threatened the status quo.

In Search of Catalina de Erauso (171)

Which reminded me of TLP on Solzhenitsyn:

You keep your job at McDonalds and the system gets another data point confirming it is right. I hope the parallel between this and anything written by Solzhenitsyn is immediately obvious, if not, read anything by Solzhenitsyn. The Matrix doesn’t need you, but it will offer you a free pass if you help get the other batteries in line.

Transgressive behavior may not only be tolerated but rewarded or celebrated, if it fits into the narrative of the powerful or supports their power.

I think that if Erauso had used her position of celebrity to advance the power of women or done anything else to upset the existing military-state-church power structures, then the response to her lifestyle choices would have been much different.

  1. See Mendieta’s book for a much more robust discussion of the various factors at play. 

Despite your complete lack of distinguishing features, we have decided to hate you

The quote in my post on witch hunts yesterday mentioned another persecuted group in medieval Europe, the Cagots, a group of people that everyone decided to just hate for basically no reason:

Cagots were shunned and hated; while restrictions varied by time and place, they were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries, which were often on the far outskirts of the villages.

Cagots were excluded from all political and social rights. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots, enter taverns, hold cabarets, use public fountains, sell food or wine, touch food in the market, work with livestock, or enter mills.

They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from the other worshippers. Either they were altogether forbidden to partake of the sacrament, or the Eucharist was given to them on the end of a wooden spoon, while a holy water stoup was reserved for their exclusive use.

They were compelled to wear a distinctive dress to which, in some places, was attached the foot of a goose or duck (whence they were sometimes called “Canards”).

So pestilential was their touch considered that it was a crime for them to walk the common road barefooted or to drink from the same cup as non-Cagots. The Cagots were often restricted to the trades of carpenter, butcher, and rope-maker.

The Cagots were not an ethnic nor a religious group. They spoke the same language as the people in an area and generally kept the same religion as well. Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots.

Their only distinguishing feature was their descent from families long identified as Cagots! They weren’t even hated for the normal reasons of like religion or skin color or sexual orientation!

“Even though they look like us and have the same religion, we hate them and they probably have the plague! But we’ll let them make rope!”

The 1600s were quite a time to be alive.

Witch hunts

From 1609 to 1612, there was a big witch hunt in the Basque Country. Hundreds if not thousands of women were burned to death for the crime of being a witch.

You could denounce your neighbor (or whomever) for witchcraft and the Inquisition would give you a chance to confess to whatever you felt like confessing to. Then after your confession, they would charge you. If they charged you with something, e.g. witchcraft, that you hadn’t confessed to, you would be burned.

A common accusation was that women were flying in the night to wild orgies with animals, usually goats, which symbolize the devil.

If you confessed to the thing you were about to be charged with, you would perhaps receive a more lenient sentence, like being expelled from your native village for two years, which is not a great thing to happen to you today but was even worse back in the 17th century especially with the awkwardness of trying to explain to your new friends that you were evicted from your last village for being a witch.

Much of this comes from Mark Kurlansky’s book on Basque history:

“Nobody who could be identified as distinct and different was safe in this age. It is inevitable that in such an era, the Church would also grow concerned about Basque heresy. In past times of intolerance, Basques had been lumped with other undesirable groups.

“…But by the late 16th century, the Canon Episcopi, which had been universal Church law, was being circumvented by the claim that society was faced with a new and more virulent form of witchcraft and therefore the old laws did not apply. Witches, poor rural women, were consorting with the devil just like the Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, Lutherans, and Cagots.”

That last sentence there is interesting to me because of just HOW FUCKING INTOLERANT PEOPLE WERE BACK THEN. Basically, anyone who wasn’t Catholic was considered an infidel and had to be converted or executed.

And even a Catholic woman had to fear that any perceived slight to another person, not matter how unfounded, could land her in front of the Inquisition.

Two competing revolts

From gwern’s 2018 news:

I don’t know how many blue-collar workers they will put out of work—even if software is solved, the robotic hardware is still expensive! But factories will be salivating over them, I’m sure. (The future of self-driving cars is in considerably more doubt.)

A standard-issue minimum-wage Homo sapiens worker-unit has a lot of advantages. I expect there will be a lot of blue-collar jobs for a long time to come, for those who want them. But they’ll be increasingly crummy jobs. This will make a lot of people unhappy.

I think of Turchin’s ‘elite overproduction’ concept—how much of political strife now is simply that we’ve overeducated so many people in degrees that were almost entirely signaling-based and not of intrinsic value in the real world and there were no slots available for them and now their expectations & lack of useful skills are colliding with reality?

In political science, they say revolutions happen not when things are going badly, but when things are going not as well as everyone expected.

My speculative view is that there will be (or currently are) two competing revolts: one from the aspirational 14% and one from the working class.

Both will face disruption from automation. Both will be angry about a promised future that does not exist: the manufacturing jobs won’t be there anymore, but neither will the guaranteed high-wage jobs promised to college graduates.

I don’t think we have a way of talking about this really, or finding solutions to it that work for most of society. Something like the UBI can ameliorate the personal finance aspects of the disruption, but to me, that just feels like throwing money at the problem.

People want meaning and status through their work; they want to feel like they are important and making a contribution. Just giving people money doesn’t solve that.

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