Monday, January 08, 2024

The Importance of Not Being Earnest

I pass on some of the paragraphs from Rao's latest piece to archive them  for myself here on MindBlog, and to make them available to other readers:

For my purposes, I will define earnestness as being helplessly locked into a single way of looking at what you’re doing, unaware of other ways.

I suspect there are only a few known and culturally familiar modes of being non-earnest…I think they are humor, irony, and surrealism. I’d guess humor is at least as old as civilization and possibly as old as life. Irony proper seems like an outgrowth of early modern conditions. Surrealism is the newest and youngest mode, barely a century old. I think this potted history is fun, but I won’t insist upon it. Maybe there are more modes, and maybe they appeared in a different sequence, or were all always-already present.

Here’s the core of my argument: the more complex the circumstances, the more dangerous it is to inhabit them from a single perspective; ie earnestly. The only really good reason to do so is when dealing with small children or deeply traumatized adults who both need some earnestness in their environment to feel safe.

The importance of non-earnestness is evident even in the “simple” task of chopping vegetables. If you’re doing that for more than 15 minutes, you’ll likely get bored, and start to get sloppy and careless. Creative multi-modal engagement with chopping vegetables — seeing shapes perhaps, or noting colors and textures with an artist’s eye — keeps you mindfully absorbed for longer, more robustly.

In your brain there are two basic modes — mind wandering, sustained by the default-mode network, and focus, sustained by the task-positive network — and my assertion is that they should work together like a clock escapement, unfolding as little micro-fugues of fancy that depart from and return to a base literal mode, and trace out a kind of strange-attractor orbit around the nominal behavior. Something like this is visible at even more basic levels: A healthy heart exhibits high HRV (heart-rate variability). Fitness trackers use HRV as the primary indicator of cardiovascular health. Low variability is a mark of poor health or disease.

Now apply that same principle to complex, large-scale systems and problems. Can you afford to be on-the-nose earnest in thinking about them? Are humor, irony, and surrealism optional extras?

The more complex the circumstances, the more dangerous it is to act in ways that are entailed by only a single perspective. Such action is fragile and degenerate. Robust action contains multitudes. It contains obliquities that harbor strategic depth. It contains tempo variations that encode unsuspected depths of adjacent informational richness.

Action must be richer than thought, because phenomenology is always richer than any single theorization. Earnestness — action confined to the imagination of one theory of itself — is behavioral impoverishment. Non-earnestness is proof of richness. Proof of life.

There is more than one way of looking at complex systems, and action within a complex system must make sense in more than one way. There must be more than one categorical scheme through which an unfactored reality can be viewed and justified.

I think we’re currently caught between the retreat of irony and the advent of surrealism.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that the last decade has been marked by a broad and intense backlash against irony, the dominant mode of non-earnestness between 1989-2010 or so (I think humor dominated the 70s and 80s). Now, after a transient decade of various sorts of unstable forays into deadening collective earnestness, it feels like we’re shifting en masse to a dominantly surreal mode.

I’ve decided to approach 2024 with a surreal orientation. I don’t quite know what the hell that means yet, but I plan to fuck around and find out.

Humor would be nice to have in what’s already shaping up to a joyless year, and irony will provide, as it always does, some solace in the darkest, most joyless depths of it. But the workhorse modality is going to be surrealism. Beat-by-beat, breath-by-breath, the creativity of our responses to the year is going to be shaped by our ability to repeatedly escape into the adjacent impossible, and from that vantage point spot the germs of new possibilities. You cannot jailbreak the future from tyranny of the past without stepping outside of both.

It is hard to escape the thought that we are going to be unsurprisingly unlucky as a planet in 2024, with few and uncertain bright prospects to alleviate the general gloom. We are going to end up with a cognitively compromised geriatric as US President by December. We are going to let two bloody wars grind on. We are going to see weaponized AI compound myriad miseries.

If there is serendipity —surprising luck — to be found in 2024, it will be found and nurtured at the micro level. By people who understand what it means to chop vegetables non-earnestly, and escape the tyranny of the real with every breath and stroke. By people who are not too scared of life to stubbornly resist the temptations of humor, irony, and surrealism in service of the idiot gods of authenticity and earnestness.

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