A recent conversation with my friend Ken touched on the astonishing drama that fills the lives of many of the students at the community college at which he works and how starkly this contrasts the lives of his own milieu. I described my view of the opposite regime: the middle-class suburb where the safe standardized environments of home, school, church and neighborhood enforce strict bounds on thought and behavior and indoctrinate their own narrow values and aspirations to produce a homogenized, neutered humanity. Later the same day I happened to read the following passage in Thomas Bernhard’s memoir that addresses the same issue but in Bernhard’s dazzling prose.

Background to the excerpt: Thomas Bernhard, was a sensitive child and had a mostly very unhappy childhood which spanned WW2. His family was impoverished but essentially middle-class in values, behavior and ambition. Shortly after the war, living in Salzburg, Bernhard was attending grammar school, which he hated, when one day while walking to school he took the opposite turn on the Reichenhaller Strasse from the direction to the school and instead visited a labor exchange where he got a position as apprentice at a grocery store in the blighted Scherzhauserfeld Project.

The excerpt is from Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard, chapter 3: “The Cellar: an Escape” pp192-194 in the David McLintock translation published by Vintage in 2003.

What I was seeking was something different, something I had not known before, something that might be stimulating and exciting, and I found it in the Scherzhauserfeld Project. I did not go there out of any feeling of pity: I have always detested pity, and especially self-pity. I did nor permit myself to feel pity; my only motive was the will to survive. Having come so close co putting an end to my life, for every possible reason, I had the idea of breaking away from the path I had taken for many years because I was too stupid and too unimaginative to choose another, and because I had been set upon this path by those who brought me up to fulfill the dreary ambitions they entertained on my behalf. I did an about-turn and ran back along the Reichenhaller Strasse. At first I simply ran back, without knowing where I was heading. From this moment on it’s got to be something different, I thought—in my excitement this was the only thought in my head—something that is the very opposite of what I have done up to now. And the labour exchange in the Gaswerkgasse was exactly in the opposite direction. Under no circumstances would I have turned again and gone in any other direction. The farthest point in the opposite direction was the Scherzhauserfeld Project, and it was on this farthest point that I set my sights. The Scherzhauserfeld Project was the farthest point in every respect, not just geographically. There was nothing there to remind me even remotely of the city and of everything in the city that had tormented me for years and driven me to despair, to thinking of scarcely anything but suicide. Here there was no mathematics master, no Latin master, no Greek master, and no despotic headmaster to make me catch my breath whenever he appeared. Here there was no deadly institution. Here one did not continually have to keep oneself under control, keep one‘s head down, dissimulate and lie in order to survive. Here I was not constantly exposed to the disapproving looks I had found so deadly. Here no outrageous and inhuman demands were made on me. Here I was not turned into learning and thinking machine. Here I could be myself. And all the others could be themselves. Here people were not constantly being pressed into an artificial mould as they were in the city, in a manner that daily grew more sophisticated. They were left in peace, and from the very first moment I set foot on the Scherzhauserfeld Project I too was left in peace. One could not only think one’s own thoughts: and one could express them, when and how one liked and as loudly as one liked. One was not in constant danger of being attacked for being headstrong. One‘s personality was suddenly no longer suppressed and crushed by the rules of the bourgeois social apparatus, an apparatus designed to destroy human beings. In towns where stupidity reaches such alarming proportions as it does in Salzburg, human beings are constantly tweaked and shaken, constantly hammered and filed into shape, and they go on being hammered and filed into shape until there is nothing left of the original human being but a revolting, tasteless artifact. In towns of medium size (I will say nothing of small towns, where everything is grotesque) every effort is directed toward turning human beings into artifacts. Everything in these towns is opposed to human nature; even the young are nothing more than artifacts from A to Z. The human species today can preserve itself only in the unadulterated country or in the unadulterated big city—only in the unadulterated country, which still exists, or in the unadulterated big city, which also exists. In such conditions one still finds natural human beings—beyond the Hausruck or in London, for instance, and as far as Europe is concerned one probably finds them nowhere else. For in Europe today London is the only genuine big city; admittedly it is nor on the continent, but it is in Europe all the same; and beyond the Hausruck I can still find the unadulterated country. Everywhere else in Europe one finds only artificial human beings, people whom the schools have turned into artifacts. Whoever we meet in the rest of Europe turns out to be an artificial human being, a tasteless replica of the real thing. The number of such products runs into millions and—who knows?—will perhaps shortly run into billions; and all their movements are controlled by various educational systems, which are in reality pitiless, insatiable, man-eating monsters. All the time our ears are assailed, if we are still capable of using them, by the sickening din of mass-produced marionettes with not a single natural human being among them. It is possible that in the Scherzhauserfeld Project I experienced the Hausruck or London effect, but I was not conscious of this at the time. I had obeyed my instinct and gone in the opposite direction.

People who still like and use vinyl are probably aware of this already but just in case, here’s how CDs make you immoral.

Most LPs, and sometimes other vinyl disks, ask their owners to cherish them. They can wear out and do so very fast if not looked after. The sleeves can get dog-eared. But they reward loving care by being a delight to hold, admire and use. They are tactile. They actually sound like the touch of a touch of that tiny rigid finger caressing their shapely grooves. And this sound reflects the users’ physical relationship with them over time. LPs report to you on the care and love given them as they were mastered, pressed and previously owned. They are entirely submissive, tolerating abuse with graceful degradation that measures but does not judge their treatment. And they respond passionately to a new owner’s loving restoration.

LPs are large enough to offer satisfying presentation for a wide spectrum of sleeve art.

Most CDs ask you to regard them as disposable consumer ephemera. Molded plastic disks that hurt you fingers and molded plastic cases that crack, chip and break, usually before you can get the CD into a player. Their inserts can’t be extracted without bending, scratching or kinking, are nearly impossible to put pack. Handling them, you risk a paper cut or getting them under a fingernail.

The measly little space available for CD artwork allows only miniatures, a constraint that, judging by most covers, frustrates the cover artists.

And CDs, being digital, ask you to back them up, store the music files elsewhere, mutilate them with MP3 and other compressions, and use the data other than for listening. Thus they ask for the medium to be regarded as irrelevant.

So they force us into the morally murky realm of how we should reward artists for their efforts while we copy, share and modify the bit streams. So far we mostly don’t. How this will resolve itself is unclear but I doubt that musicians will be the winners. Cover artists are in mortal danger. CD users are complicit in these crimes.

The only thing a CD can do to redeem anything from this situation is to turn our attention away from itself with packaging. The more effective this stratagem, the more the CD itself is devalued and made irrelevant by its precious container. But this is a fetish — a perversion of the art and aesthetics of recorded music. Not even a gatefold LP with pages inside can be seriously accused of such falsification. Redemption demands equilibrium between disk and cover that engenders enduring love for the music as object. Mere arousal over an aestheticized prophylactic enclosure is no substitute.

So LPs encourage love and CDs selfishness. LPs espouse corporeal longevity and integrity while CDs are a mere throwaway delivery envelope for bits of information as durable and significant as an email.

Certainly there are exceptions on both sides. Some LPs are genuinely not worth a damn while some CDs are. (The 4CD issue of Toshi Ichiyanagi’s “Opera From The Works Of Tadanori Yokoo” comes to mind – but this, like so many nice CDs, is a sort of homage to LPs.) Nevertheless, the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly supports the thesis: Compact Disks make you immoral.

The HATE Society

May 28, 2008

[I wrote the following a few years ago. I sat down to write cathartically about my hate for human behavior but this came out instead. It serves as a reasonable statement of some of my philosophical positions wrapped in some gratuitous self satire.]

When I was a student, a friend and I wanted to found a student group called the HATE society. This acronym stood for hedonists, atheists, temporalists and existentialists. I thought we were very clever to think this up. The cleverness of the name and our self-satisfaction were conveniently hateful. The student society idea never progressed. Perhaps that was because students, student life and student societies were all hateful, or so it seemed at the time. Our university had seven different communist student societies that appeared to spend most of their energy warring with each other. What was our society supposed to do? Meet in licensed premises to discuss and develop ideas relating to the insignificance of existence and the compensations of nihilistic self-indulgence? Maybe the idea of the HATE society, despicable on so many levels, never really stood a chance.

Hedonism is decadent and hedonists are repellant. The idea, that the only worthwhile use of one’s time on this globe is self-indulgence, felt very reasonable. But what to do with this knowledge and how to be self-indulgent was problematic — where to get the money, for one thing. So practice of hedonism turned out to be hard to sustain. The affected swagger of self-confidence retreating in the enduring onslaught of self-doubt.

I was taught that atheism is acceptance of materialism and belief in the non-existence of the supernatural. I was brought up by atheist parents to be a skeptic. As a teenager I had a fling, I’m embarrassed to admit, thought it turned out to be quite educational, with evangelical Baptists before returning to atheism as a university student. Now I consider myself a died-in-the-wool, table-thumping (in the absence of a bible) atheist. I’d like to consider myself a fundamentalist in this regard but that doesn’t fit with my hate for credulity. But I feel comfortable regarding myself as a skeptical but devout atheist.

Temporalist is a word I made up to fit the acronym. We needed a T. Collins’ dictionary gave me: “temporal — 2. of or relating to secular as opposed to spiritual or religious affairs”. Just add an -ism and, bob’s your transsexual auntie (as we liked to say), a new philosophical movement was born: the philosophy of a kind of secularism specifically opposed to spirituality and religion. Sounded good to me.

Existentialist thought occupied me from my teenage years. I suppose there’s nothing unusual in that. I eventually came to the view that attempting to answer the principal existential questions is futile but that the questions themselves are universally important. We all feel compelled to address existential questions and the non-existence of answers causes almost unbearable tension. The tension involves yearning and searching for any explanation. Credulity combines with sham existential answers to bring release of the tension. I experienced this with those very loving Baptists.

At the social level existential yearning and release propels all manner of outlandish ideas and practices despite their demonstrable nonsensicality. Beliefs such as god or nationalism and practices such as prayer or war, all remarkably durable ideas despite their very apparent weaknesses, are cast into existence by the quasi-magical power of existential tension. Sure, other factors contribute and other human beliefs and practices aren’t so harmful but that doesn’t contradict me. Existential tension has a lot to answer for.

Though my existentialist tension was never released, over the years I slowly gained confidence in acceptance of the materialist answer. There is no supernatural supervisor or a place to go after death of the body. We are just more-or-less complex arrangements of matter, ambulant zones of reduced entropy organized out of the environmental chaos of matter (dust) by intricate cellular processes, destined to return to dust when the machine wears out or is destroyed. Brain function is a result of a specific material organization and consciousness is an aspect of brain function.

So my life, thought and perception was material and of no more consequence to the universe than a peanut, a star or a molecule of potassium bromide. Nature was wholeheartedly disinterested in me. Compared to nature, and so to time and space, the phenomenon of my existence was an irrelevance of unimaginable proportion. I may be of matter but matter, apart from a few other pieces of it beside myself, couldn’t care less. Celia Green considered it remarkable that many humans actually appear to retain their sanity when confronted with this utterly inconceivable yet fatally significant thought.

Consciousness, cognition and language interaction, being traits of the human species, along with love, credulity and war, are therefore based in matter. Other than us, nothing within or beyond the universe, nothing natural or super-natural, nothing at all could possibly give a care to my behaviors and thoughts.

At death it’s just over. The material consequences of an individual human existence — a corpse, a photo, a poem or a firebombed city — persist for a while along with some memories, perhaps. All will disintegrate into the dust in their own course. I find it pleasing to think that if I were to create a large hard, smooth object of fully cured vitreous porcelain, it would be my longest lasting legacy. My life memorialized by a toilet bowl.

The persistent existence, beyond my individual human life, of morality, values, humanism etc. is interesting but is also material in nature since these are ideas and thus an aspect of brain function. The phenomenon of their existence outside of the self is partly realistic but also misleading for they exist, not quite as matter but as the dynamic state of certain specific matter, namely a collection of human minds (plural). Persistent ideas propagate from one mind to others. Humans imagine them, injected into the “hive mind” (the currently fashionable notion of the mesh of human minds interconnected by various languages) where they are sustained by the energetic motors of existential tension and pervasive credulity to evolve as memes through time and societies. I admit being complicit, in my own way, of sustaining and nurturing the memes.

I don’t really want to judge our established memes. They have no responsibility for themselves. But I do anyway. I would prefer to practice judgment only of their applicability to me and within my sphere of influence. But beyond that, I can’t deny that I love them, hate them or ignore them as capriciously as the rest of us. Presumably this is my relationship with humanity more than it is with humanity’s ideas.

Unquestionably, the well-established memes can have utility and some have awesome power. They can be deployed to organize populations for war or for peaceful co-existence, to generate wealth for individuals or for societies, to exploit and impoverish or to educate, empower and cure disease.

There’s also no question that they exist. God exists. Heaven exists. They were here before I was and will be here after I am gone. But they are still only ideas in the minds of people, products of material evolution and liable to extinction with our species. They have no other existence.

I found the truth of all this inescapable. Deny it and I am forced to deny the basic axiom of materialism, denial of which is denial of empiricism and reason. Despite sometimes wanting to, I could never bring myself to do so, at least not since renouncing that teenage thing with the ever-loving Baptists. Natural philosophy and empiricism compels me to accept materialism and the non-existence of the super-natural just as they compel me to accept that the sun shines on the earth. I can’t prove the truth of either, nobody can, but the evidence is overwhelming.

So I applied materialism, and what follows from it, to some specific existential questions. Materialism, turning menacingly into an overbearing alter ego, didn’t answer my first one: why am I here? Instead he rebutted the question. “Who cares?” he said angrily. “Hardly anyone and nothing besides. That’s who! It doesn’t matter why you are here. That’s as irrelevant as why a leaf is here. It matters not why you are here but that you are here, how you got here and what you’re going to do about it.” [His emphasis, not mine.]

“But what you do is your own business,” materialism continued angrily, “yours alone and its a lie to say otherwise. It’s your job to figure out what you believe and what you do. Accept ideas from outside without all due consideration and you deny individual freedom and responsibility. All education, indoctrination and media are essentially authoritarian. Received wisdom isn’t. Feel free — turn yourself into an automaton programmed by your environment if you want. But uncritical acceptance of external ideas is credulity. So don’t come to me for tea and sympathy when received ideas abandon or fail you.”

So materialism, harsh as he was, didn’t answer my existential question before he stormed off. But he had unwittingly given an answer to what was going to be my next one: what is the nature of my freedom as a human? It was, perhaps, a meta-answer but it was a crucial one.

While I busy myself here, making stuff up for this essay, more or less, about my personal history (oh yeah, like you’ve never done it), humor me as I coin a name for the alter ego’s rebuttal. His philosophy of “materialist existentialism” never released my own existential tension but it was a handy framework for mulling over other questions.

For example, materialist existentialism readily allowed me to accept the worthlessness of many customary existential answers. I wasn’t going to talk myself into going to church like that pussycat Kierkegaard. And I wasn’t going to fret over the evil in the world — it doesn’t exist anyway, other than as a subjective individual evaluation of things — nor over the actions of others outside my sphere of influence. On the other hand, my new philosophy — not itself new, I presumed, but new to me — rebuked me sharply for being passive in the face of life and my environment, for not expanding my sphere of influence and striking out to actually do anything. Following my path of least resistance from school to a comfortably paid career, living a life with consequences that were barely measurable and, averaged over time and space, not necessarily positive, was an act of cowardice.

So materialism was a product of empiricism that led me inexorably to atheism while materialist existentialism bullied me into libertarianism (what you do and believe is your business and yours alone) and thus into secularism. Furthermore I chose to adopt temporalism — I invented it, I thought, so I might as well go first — because I disdained the spiritual and religious lies forever hurled at me. I suppose materialist existentialism could also justify hedonism, but I never had either the wealth or courage required.

Maybe the HATE society idea, that distant but still visible beacon of my studentey pretentiousness, wasn’t all that far from the mark after all. Only the hedonism bit didn’t work out — the rest turned out to be correct. Maybe now is the time for an update: replace hedonism with materialism to produce … the MATE society? Maybe revise this manuscript in front of me — getting rid of the first person singular and past tense — and there we have it: the MATE society manifesto. Come! Join us in the MATE society. We’ve got ideas, unoriginal perhaps, worn out even, but revitalized in a new style with all the passion of reformed HATE. Ideas ready to thrust into the minds of others in that fecund milieu of … um …

Perhaps in another 25 years, if the bits and bytes are still available, I can look back on this MATE society manifesto, like Krapp reviewing old tapes of his thoughts on reviewing even older tapes, and enjoy a chuckle over my mid-life post-studentey pretentiousness.