Friday, October 13, 2023

Blithe Spirits and Heavy Souls

This post is another abstracting/condensation of a recent Ventkatesh Rao essay with the title of this post (Its subtitle: ‘ Learning an experiential posture for the Permaweird.’) In this case, it is a 4-fold reduction in the words I need to scan through when I return to this MindBlog archive to recall the ideas.  

I’ve found some useful “unexpected validation for unexpressed thoughts the reader already holds’” in his contrasting of ‘insight porn’ with ‘presence prose,”  as well as his distinction of Blithe Spirits and Heary Souls to make the point that you don’t have to retreat from the world to feel good.

Rao doesn’t make it easy on readers. He assumes a thorough knowledge of contemporary and classical culture.  I suggest going to if  references to ‘fingerspitzengef├╝hl’, ’Red Pill/Blue Pill’ , or ‘larps’ mystify you. Here’s my reduction:

…the kind of writing I am choosing to do is vaguely unsatisfying.. in “the endocrine circuitry and muscle memory around this behavior isn’t tuned right” way. The vibe is off. I’m “not feeling it.” It feels like more of a grind…writing in the kind of hard mode I’m in right now, when the fingerspitzengef├╝hl doesn’t feel quite right, feels draining rather than energizing. It has the desired objective outcomes, but lacks the subjective payoff.

I think the problem isn’t with me, but the growing fogginess of the world. So let’s start by looking at why insight porn used to work, why it stopped working, why writing in the new mode feels less satisfying, and why that’s actually a good thing.

Insight porn works by covertly constructing satisfying models of the world starting with nuggets of unexpected validation for unexpressed thoughts the reader already holds…Insight porn rarely tells you something you don’t know. Instead, it gives you permission to consciously believe something you already unconsciously suspect to be true, and to drop the opposed belief you didn’t realize you were only pretending to hold. That’s why a sense of relief is a primary response to consuming good insight porn.

Insight porn at its most sophisticated was a delivery mechanism for pills, as in red pill/blue pill…With relatively few words, you could “pill” people in various ways, using oblique approaches against which they had few cognitive defenses, causing large sections of their world-views to collapse, generally in favor of some flavor of cynical anomie or radicalized fervor, and they’d thank you for it…with an array of pills, eroding and destabilizing the entire landscape of worldviews…

…it was actually a useful, perhaps even critical thing to be doing roughly between 2009-17, when serious problems were beginning to manifest across the civilizational stack. If mental models hadn’t been developing cracks and fissures along with the worlds they were supposed to be describing, we’d all have suffered much more mightily than we did through the culture wars and Great Weirding. Through the shadow war of mass, mutual pilling, we inoculated ourselves with a diverse array satirical skepticisms of the prevailing societal order. We became better prepared to inhabit the Permaweird we now find ourselves in.


The kind of writing I’ve been practicing … over the last few years is about trying to make myself, and the reader, feel present in the world. Let’s call it presence prose. …One visible sign of this is that I often talk about current events these days, which I rarely did ten years ago. I actively aimed for “timeless” a decade ago. Now, at least in this newsletter, I’m fine with transient relevance… presence prose is not news. Nor is it “analysis” in any legibly scoped and bounded way (analysis within a “niche” is another 2010s genre of writing that feels increasingly dated these days). It’s a kind of mental time travel into a mode of experiencing some leaky corner of the entangled world in real time.
To write for presence, you must begin by setting aside mental models and theories in favor of whatever flow of raw data you can find and consume…. Where possible, you must also travel closer to empirical and phenomenological sources, while being ever mindful of the fact that such close-in loci today also feature people consciously crafting livestreamed narrative theaters of validation rather than actually paying attention. Such people are part of the phenomenology you must make sense of. Elon Musk visiting the US border isn’t a citizen journalist looking into the immigrant crisis there. It is a bit of theater that is itself part of that crisis, which comes swaddled in multiple overlapping theaters of this sort.


The thing is, insight porn is simply more satisfying to produce and consume than presence prose. Writing or reading in that mode reliably produces the dopamine required to produce or consume more. While not quite entertainment — insight porn has utility, and often calls for demanding levels of effort on both sides — you don’t do it for the utility.

A diet of insight porn, I think, creates and sustains a certain light-hearted and carefree way of being present in the world. It turns you into a blithe spirit. Under the right conditions, it can make you worldy, yet carefree. You feel present in the world, but untroubled, if not untouched, by your experiences in it.

The right conditions are obvious: This diet works when the world is doing well enough, at least for you, that you don’t have to choose between being present and feeling good. When most of the things you could choose to think, write, or read about, or even directly experience, are pleasant. When you only have to add a calibrated amount of discomfort through insight porn to feel present, like a dash of pepper on bland food, there are no real tough choices to be made.

Through the 2000s and 2010s, even my most serious-minded and altruistic friends, working on difficult social problems that entailed a great deal of misery for other living beings (both human and animal) typically could find refuge in other areas of interest that were pleasant to think about. The subsisted on a diet of insight porn. The world had problems, and if you were in a position of privilege, you could choose to work on some of them, but it didn’t look like a dumpster fire in every direction. You didn’t have to put yourself through escape-artist contortions to indulge in a bit of restorative escapism. You didn’t have to build entire reactionary larps to inhabit.

You didn’t have to retreat from the world to feel good.

it does seem that regardless of ideology or how hopped up on pills you are, the dumpster-fire index has been growing higher for everybody. In 2023, it is still possible to hold on to a generally pollyannish worldview of all being for the best in this best of all possible worlds, but it takes significantly more cognitive effort than in 2013. Having a mansion helps, which is one reason I’m scheming to get one. Having a particular talent for a an absorbing pursuit of excellence in something like wood-working in a cabin in the woods helps as well.

What are the consequences of polyannish postures being more expensive and less attractive to sustain?

From my observations, I’d say most people switch modes. They go from being blithe spirits to being heavy souls. People who operate with a default mindset of a sense of a world on fire, a default joyless world where ease and pleasure do not come naturally,

Most people, I suspect, have a preference for one mode or the other, but don’t have psyches rigidly anchored to either blithe spiritedness or heavy soulfulness. Depending on the dumpster-fieriness of the world, most people can experience either mode of being. I suspect most of us are naturally blithe-spirited, just as most of us are naturally right-handed. But we can all experience heavy souls, just as we can all use our left hands. And as with left-handed behaviors, heavy souled behaviors are awkward, janky, and unnatural for most people.

I certainly am naturally blithe-spirited. I don’t go out of my way to see the world as a dumpster fire, even if I don’t go out of my way to retreat from a pressing sense that it is. The preference is perhaps not as strong as my right-handedness. I can only write slowly and very badly with my left hand, but I can write tolerably well in heavy-soul mode. Almost as well as I can in a blithe-spirit mode.

This understanding feels correct to me. Writing today feels unsatisfying today in the same way using my left hand for a task requiring any sort of dexterity does. The fingerspitzengef├╝hl is off because I’m using fingerspitzen I’m not used to using. I’m not feeling it, because I don’t often use this hand, and the finger-tips haven’t developed as much sensitivity.

But I’m getting slightly more comfortable with each essay. And the resulting posture in the world feels slightly less wrong each time. I don’t think I’d go back to a blithe spirit posture even if I could. Any more than I’d go back to right-handedness if I managed to practice my way into full ambidexterity.

The world is changing, and it feels right to change with it. And if the appropriate posture for experiencing the Permaweird is a heavy-souled one, so be it.

1 comment:

  1. I've been following Ribbonfarm on and off for years, and am glad to be reminded to catch up again! Thanks!