“Cholesterol Culture”

This one’s for Jessica.

Good morning, Bloggers! A couple things of possible interest, for you. And maybe they’ll all link up into something along the way…pour, perhaps, into a little grey pool.

First, the thing that kept me up late into the endless snowfall tonight, a documentary on PBS’ “Independent Lens” which addresses a particular interest I have about documentary filmmaking…ever since I saw the “making-of” documentary companion piece to “Ryan”, that revealed the award-winning animated movie about the NFB wunderkind to have been, hmm, shall we say, also about the man who won the award for it. If that’s quite enough of a convoluted thing to say…

Hold on just a sec while I save that deathless prose ‘o mine…

Anyway it’s a pretty damn compelling thing, this “Operation Filmmaker”, especially when seen in the light of the “Ryan/Alter Egos” subject matter…and indeed for me it was almost as though I knew, at every moment, what was going to happen in it. For people who are used to seeing brown-skinned actors portray conflicted terrorists in American action movies and TV shows (and who among us is not so used?), it’s also a fascinating, somewhat guilt-provoking double vu…I mean forget what the PBS page says, I’m not sure how much it really does count as a “surprising allegory of America’s involvement in Iraq”, because it is far more a life-imitating-art thing, or at least so it seems to me…I don’t know when I last saw a documentary movie quite so, er, novelistic as this, and in a way it’s very familiar and in a way it’s very jarring, but any way you look at it I think you can’t help but find it arresting.

Because the novelistic element…the “factitious” element of such a documentary, as one interviewee eloquently puts it…that is an element which the viewer will bring to the documentary experience too, not just something inhaled off the hot celluloid carefully cut and spliced, and artfully assembled by the filmmaker into something as close as possible to a slice of life. Because the viewer is implicated too! With every great documentary’s viewing — and I do happen to think this is a great documentary — comes also a great responsibility on the part of the audience to try and see what hasn’t been shown. Well, don’t you think? In the documentary editing suite, all cuts are recursive…all lenses are mirrors, and all mirrors projectors, and all eyes participant fingers, smearing their prints on the screen. In this movie particularly, it is so clear that the filmmaker is also a subject, that it probably can’t be anything other than art…at least, it can’t be anything devoid of art. So in a way, this is every way of seeing gone wrong: everything a documentary should be, only flipped on its side. Illegitimately.


Christ, I take it all back. It is a freakin’ allegory.

Good job, Nina.

Because we see her in there, you see, and that probably isn’t accidental — in fact at certain points it is practically what you might call ham-fisted. And yet that’s part of the art too, what you might call the “art” part, except it gets screwed up…but then also, it all really happened. So…

Oh, to see the “making-of”! But there does not appear to be one.

And so because it does not exist, I guess we will have to invent it.

Curvatures and re-curvatures, Bloggers! This movie was no mean feat. There is no easy “what an asshole” solution, to this problem. Pebbles set to rolling downhill long ago (has it really been three years?), once mystifying effects, practically atomic, inelastic, add up mysteriously to become cascading causes of their own: stories of their own. Bombs long planted detonate finally in serendipitous sequence, losing their randomness as they move up into the interconnected past, to grasp the base of the hourglass…their fireworks shooting up all through it, like bright little stems.

(This one’s also for Holly, because she liked the bit about the flowers. Talking about the light-cone here, Holly. It’s just a thing I do. Admittedly with some annoying frequency.)

But anyway that’s the thing about recursion, that in this particular case I like quite a bit: in fact, thank God for recursion! Otherwise I would just be on the receiving end of all this, it would just all be infall, infinite energy density in the spacetime defect that is the wormhole’s mouth of memory…time’s choke-point, nothin’ but plaque. But in recursion, you see, the thing that’s drawn also draws the thing that draws it…and so I find, perhaps implausibly, that I have an input to offer here. Something to give back, right? As it were: to my own past.  Down into the water.

Here’s Holly’s husband, the estimable Andrew…and here he is again. And here’s what I wrote him just tonight, as I was watching “Operation Filmmaker”. I’m sure you’ll agree it is all pretty damn funny how things occasionally come together. Wish I could take credit for it!

Well…I’ll take a little credit.

“You know, Andrew, after looking that thread over a couple of times, and the links it contains…

Wouldn’t you say a lot of those people seem to have a troubling faith in the ability of science to find usefully authoritative descriptions of how the world works?

I was searching for a way to sum it up, and finally figured out what it is: it’s certainty. But not the ideological kind of certainty (though there’s enough of that in evidence too), rather what bugs me is the sweeping assumption that the only debates left are political ones! As though everything there is to know were already known, and the only thing left to disagree about was what to do with the knowledge.

And might that belief not also be one of the headwaters of totalitarianism? Not that I’m one bit a technocrat, but rather I think I detect the technocratic urge simmering away under that discussion…and I couldn’t help thinking “haven’t we all played this scene before? Did the last ten, twenty, eighty, hundred and fifty years just never happen, or something?” Well, you know my opinion, of course: that the half-life of theoretical plausibility is shortening up. So naturally I find myself shuddering at the prospect of anybody saying “if I were in charge, here’s how I’d act based on the best information”, because I don’t see how you could ever trust anyone who believed there was “best information” that could mitigate their responsibility for making bad decisions in any way, even if only in a stoical way — that is, I don’t see how you can tolerate receiving hypotheticals from people who don’t know how to gauge whether a theory is likely to prove solid or unsolid…or how to gauge their own ability to tell, and the trustworthiness of their own opinions about relative theoretical plausibility. I mean, in that context — in the context of a world in which from year to year we can’t be sure whether or not butter really is bad for you, or if smaller earthquakes today really do reduce the severity of bigger earthquakes tomorrow — or, you know, any topic of this general stripe which is genuinely politically hot — then isn’t even the standard argument for “smaller” government rather woefully cart-before-horse-putting? When the real issue’s the same as it’s always been: how to deal with uncertainty about the future at a collective level, full stop. Not how to deal with the tension of collective vs. individual, I take that to be a secondary effect — as far as I’m concerned, once you’ve wondered how to deal with uncertainty on a collective level, you’ve said the primary thing, framed the issue nice and square. But, of course I’m just an average Canadian liberal — I look at “small government” and conclude that’s just code for “government doomed to suffer a catastrophic collapse exactly when I need it”, I look at private or P3 models for healthcare and consider them something akin to building dams out of sugar. I look at people mixing up the concepts of personal freedom and democratic freedom willy-nilly and think it’s like they’re arguing about whether it makes any practical difference to know if the Earth goes around the Sun, when the fact is the Earth either does go around the Sun, or it doesn’t…I don’t think the argument is one of science and empiricism, in other words, I think it’s one of observation and failure to observe. Of perspicuous representation, if you like.

I don’t know…I could be talking out of my hat, I suppose…still what got me thinking about it was your friend Hexar allowing as how he considered government a necessary evil…and, you know, I don’t actually agree with that formulation! Where I live, freedom is exceedingly easy to get hold of and keep: if I march fifty miles north into the mountains I can find all the freedom I could possibly desire. No government whatsoever; lots of rocks and trees to hide behind. Plenty of food, plenty of fuel, plenty of quiet. So what’s necessary about the evil of government? It actually isn’t necessary or evil, so long as you can escape it pretty much any time you want. Okay, so Canada’s a big and sparsely-populated country, but what I’m saying is, that “necessary evil” stuff isn’t generalizable, it’s actually quite site-specific, and of course in the States it is also part of a national mystique, a social/historical/political narrative that most Americans have impressed upon them very powerfully, and from a very early age. But now, what I like is the concept of political liberty, as a rights-based condition that only exists in political society, because it acts as a countervailing force on the personal freedom of the powerful in such a society, i.e. the people who fall on the good side of the ledger of economic equality. Out on a camping trip, this power relation of course doesn’t obtain, as we all know: you can leave your Locke at home, it won’t fit in the canoe…but back in the world of traffic lights and money supplies, it re-emerges, because where political society doesn’t exist, it doesn’t exist…you can only ever get it where that “necessary evil” holds sway. So, I don’t see it as evil at all, because I love my political equality, my democratic freedom, that the powerful cannot take away!

Does that make sense?

So…I just think most libertarians are full of it, you know, and very hidebound and impractical…although like you I’m impressed with the politeness of that bunch. But it’s not just Woobegone on that thread, it’s also many of his interlocutors, who seem reasonably comfortable speaking as though the well of history has been capped…intelligent and educated people, of course, but I found myself mistrusting their easiness with summary, the startling convenience of their facts.

Gee, now that I’ve gone so far as this, I think I would put all this in an email instead of a comment, but I can’t seem to find your email address around here anywhere…

Anyway, I’m a little surprised at your LibDems, I had not expected to find the American meaning of “libertarian” current anywhere outside America! Down south it’s a sort of political default, it’s the basic American “moderate” — less government’s generally better, whatever “less” means. By contrast, when I hear someone say they’re a libertarian in Canada, I don’t think they’re moderate at all, and I don’t think “liberty” is their interest…I think their interest is personal freedom in political society, not the thing that restrains it, and in my opinion is actually reduced by it. It’s sort of like the thing about cholesterol (which, so I don’t sound mean, somebody on the LC thread did in fact bring up in an extremely timely way, and the other folks there didn’t just go “whuh-huh?”, they grokked that bizness), which is that having a lot of the good stuff (so they say — and by “they” I do not mean cardiologists, but public health spokespeople — different critter, there) is more important than having less of the bad stuff. For me what seems most beneficial is for the sheath of liberty, of political freedom, around each person to be as thick as possible, positively fat. And “small” government is not good at supplying that fatness. Of course “big” government that is also poor government isn’t any good at supplying it either, and is even better at taking it away…but even good “small” government won’t get the HDL (do I have that right? is that the “good” cholesterol?) up to levels your doctor would be happy with…

And the irony here is that for twenty-five years it was known that there was this good/bad thing with cholesterol, but public health spokespeople told us there was just a “cholesterol number” that you needed to get down…because they were concerned if people were given the whole truth it would only confuse them, they had to create a cholesterol “culture” before they could start handing out the straight dope about how many kinds of the stuff there are. Know what I mean?

So I guess when I click through that link, I flash on “cholesterol culture”. I think that’s what those debates are like.

Jeez, I guess this should’ve been a post. Whoops. Feel free to delete it if you like, Andrew, it’s kinda long and rattling, and I’m beginning to think I’ve been a bit presumpuous…at least: careless.

Cripes, “Cholesterol Culture”, that’s a title, ain’t it…”

Well, and I guess it is. Either that, or a way of life, I’m not sure…

Mind you, “not sure” is rather the point: i.e. the recursive subject of “sure”, obviously. So, vase or faces, Bloggers? Figure or ground?

Mistakes, or clues?

Men may know the nature of things, but it seems they can do something else too, if they feel like it. So take a look at this mess, Good Lord how have the mighty fallen, after they got tripped who me don’t know what you’re talking about! The Edge World Question used to be just about my favourite online thing ever, but the questions have been getting worse and worse…there are still bright people in there who are saying very bright things, very educational things but as answers they are not as good…! Because a certain sense of restraint seems to’ve been lost over the last couple of Questions, and the howling ineducability of the digerati seems to be getting louder and louder…trying, I suspect, to drown out the echoes. In effect: doubling down. For our pals Doug Rushkoff and Freeman Dyson, there is still all the time in the world for to sit and ponder…they speak clearly, and obviously adore specificity. Alan Alda and even the joker who runs Wired are worth reading, too! But God help us the cholesterol culture that’s at work over at Edge these days, it’s horrifying. When the publisher of Wired magazine is one of the intellectually responsible people? It’s practically disgustipatin’. Did I suggest Andrew’s LibDems were bad? These guys are a thousand times their inferiors, they do exactly the same thing only their feet are held disgracefully as far away from the fire as it’s possible to be located. And cold-footed, they are living in the past.

But all the questions are about the bloody future!

Thankfully, though, as I said…it isn’t all of them. And even in the offenders’ greatest excesses there is still something useful to be grabbed onto, like a handle. With every great documentary, comes also a great responsibility to see what hasn’t been shown! And this is a wonderful time in history — the fucking future! — to solidly declare for, as my friend Jack says, some fidelity to the actual.

Smudges on the glass, Jessica. I give ’em back to you. Those were what you wanted me to see, right?

I see ’em, okay.

Do you see me?

Cardiologists tell me that a heart attack is a horrifyingly complex beast — there is never any one cause, there is never any one meaning, there is never any one thing that could have been done. Because heart attacks are not theoretical; as Einstein said, matter is not simple but subtle.

So we might well call, at this point in time, for a little more matter, and a little less art.

But who should we call to? Only ourselves. Because we must bring the matter, to the art.

And if we have no matter to bring…why then, we must invent it.


Tell ya what: if flowers in a vase look like anything, they look like trajectories. Well, ain’t it so? You may find them by accident; trip over them, fall on your face in them. Bring them home later as surprises.

But as soon as you drop them into that hourglass, they go all hyperbolic on you.

My apologies to you, the viewer, if my randomly-picked thoughts here have done the same.

But let’s move on, now.

6 responses to ““Cholesterol Culture”

  1. Oh, those pig-ignorant fuckers. I’m having a heart attack of the brain just reading this shit. In a page of twenty there are two, maybe three people who aren’t living their blinkered fucking pie in the sky engineer’s bullshit. It’s awful. It’s gotten WORSE. This is terrible. This is not what we need — fucking NOBODY needs this. Futurama couldn’t even mock this, it’s a disaster. I keep expecting to read someone write “what we need is some sort of telepathic LENS…!!!!”

    Garbage and I’m sorry I linked to it. The few people who are on the ball seem inhumanly bright, now, which is wrong in itself but you have to wade through so much mindless techno-spunk even to get to them…! Time to pull the plug on Edge, this thing’s done. What a waste. Christ.

  2. Well this piques my interest, because remember when you were writing about the Large Hadron Collider. Asking what are the prospects that this will really change our root conception of reality. And I’m saying, wrong direction to look, jesus man let’s just invent the Lens! (If anybody here doesn’t vaguely know about Doc Smith, that’s worth a thread in its own right – we can interview each other.)

    I’ll read what’s on this Edge link and come back in a while. Tomorrow at worst.

  3. Oh yeah, the Lens thing! You know, I forgot all about that…!

    If you want to read without gritting your teeth, Jonathan, try some of the earlier Questions; things start to go wrong around the time of “What Are You Optimistic About?” but prior to that it’s really very good — “What Have You Changed Your Mind About”, “What Do You Believe Even Though You Cannot Prove It”…

  4. Hmm, interestingly, it seems other people out there are thinking a lot about your Lens…and I was just going off a couple of responses, I had no idea it would be such a prevalent obsession! I think these guys all mainly read Discover magazine…

    Still, Jonathan, I like your Lens a lot better than I like theirs. Theirs has something wrong with it, I think…

    Basically I think the majority of these responses can be summed up as: we will become immortal and our machines will become conscious, materialism will be ultimately vindicated along with the many-worlds interpretation, and one day everything will be astonishingly easy to accomplish.

    Feh. This is an environment which essentially casts Rupert Sheldrake into the role of level-headed skeptic.

    Awful stuff! They’ve really lost it.

    One or two thought-provoking answers, though…but we’re in the land of diminishing marginal utility, here, and besides why are so many of these answers so damn boring?

  5. Ah, that was a long day. Pardon me. This is subtle material, and it’s been swimming in and out of focus.

    Let me pick just a couple of themes out of it all…

    * How to deal with uncertainty about the future at a collective level. (Nicely put!)

    * Knowledge is power. But it is institutional power, far more than it is individual power.

    Even in pre-industrial times, the kind of knowledge you could bargain with, you had to gain through an apprenticeship – perhaps from one teacher, perhaps with a guild and a tradition. Already you had to participate in an institution.

    With printing and the industrial revolution certain kinds of knowledge became more powerful, even world-transforming. But their application entailed an industrial system, diversified into hundreds of specialized companies, banks and colleges. Even the purest of knowledge had to be pursued academically. You took the courses, you passed the apprenticeship, and eventually you became one researcher among many, in a network of specialties that fed one into another.

    The academic discipline as a whole had radical power. The modern system as a whole was changing civilization beyond all prediction. But where were you?

    Probably you were maintaining your status in your little corner of the picture, by aping the manners and language, the jargon and the inside knowledge, of the known leaders of your profession. By sounding generally well-informed, while dropping little nuggets of high-level, up-to-the-minute erudition. Which you could; because you religiously read the newspapers, and made a conscientious habit of staying well-informed.

    Now its the late 19th to early 20th Century. Newspaper printing is cheap, it’s a mass market. It caters to your habits.

    And so we come to where Hermann Hesse kicks off his Magister Ludi or The Glass Bead Game (1943) by snarking his era as “The Age of the Feuilleton” – meaning what we’d think of as the lift-out colour supplement:

    We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name, the feuilletons. They seem to have formed an uncommonly popular section of the daily newspapers, were produced by the millions, and were a major source of mental pabulum for the reader in want of culture. The reported on, or rather ‘chatted’ about, a thousand-and-one items of knowledge. It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer among the writers of them poked fun at their own work. Ziegenhalss, at any rate, contends that many such pieces are so incomprehensible that they can only be viewed as self-persiflage on the part of the authors. Quite possibly these manufactures articles do indeed contain a quantity of irony and self-mockery which cannot be understood until the key is found again. The producers of these trivia were in some cases attached to the staffs of the newspapers; in other cases they were free-lance scriveners. Frequently they enjoyed the high-sounding title of ‘writer’, but a great many of them seem to have belonged to the scholar class. Quite a few were celebrated university professors.

    Among the favourite subjects of such essays were anecdotes taken from the lives or correspondence of famous men and women. They bore such titles as ‘Friedrich Nietzsche and the Women’s Fashions of 1870′, or ‘The Composer Rossini’s Favourite Dishes’, or ‘The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of Great Courtesans’, and so on. Another popular type of article was the historical background piece on what was currently being talked about among the well-to-do, such as ‘The Dream of Creating God Through the Centuries’, or ‘Physico-chemical Experiments in Influencing the Weather’, and hundreds of similar subjects. When we look at the titles that Ziegenhalss cites, we feel surprise that there should have been people who devoured such chitchat for their daily reading; but what astonishes us far more is that authors of repute and of decent education should have helped to ’service’ this gigantic consumption of empty whimsies. Significantly, ’service’ was the expression used; it was also the word denoting the relationship of man to the machine at that time.

    Thus Hesse motivates his meditation on a monastic purification of knowledge, where you take the courses and suffer the apprenticeship – in total anonymity, renouncing reward and fame. What if this is the only way for civilization to keep from dissolving into a pool of drivel?

    Well yeah, okay, and it’s easy enough to take Hesse’s snark as a diagnosis of most of those Edge pieces, or Wired magazine, or obviously the blogosphere. But wouldn’t we rather people were at least trying to stay informed, than not?

    There has to be a civil quorum for distinguishing sense from nonsense. But the academies can’t fulfill that role.Yes, they’ve got the knowledge, collectively. But we don’t want everybody else to just shut up. And crucially, any academic is only on solid ground when reporting on the findings of his research specialty. In a big way, we have the condition Hesse was recommending: as academics we subordinate ourselves to the method of study, and suppress our wider opinions. Anything more, and we become publicists or politicians – and forfeit the massive collective authority of the discipline.

    So I think we’re stuck with the fluff. And have been for some time: Hesse’s lampoon would have had H.G. Wells right on target in the 1890s, when he was writing cute science sensation pieces for the Pall Mall Gazette on evolution, silicon-based life, and “The Man of the Year Million”.

    This’ll do for a start.

  6. Ah! Man, it’s taken me a long time to reply to this, Jonathan! I think because it’s rather subtle. Yes, what are we stuck with, and are we stuck with it indeed? I think the thing I so enjoyed about Edge previously was its leavening of scholarly knowledge (as an academic bull-session eavesdropped on by the reader, wild tale-spinning speculation after hours, when the ties are loosened and the scotches are had) with the cautious and diligent interjections of educated academic outsiders, attempting to bridge to the wild flights of academic imagination, life as it’s lived by actual people, non-theoretically.

    Well, okay…in these earlier iterations, what you had was academics not spinning fancies outside their discplines, but inside them…they, too, seemed to feel constained by a fidelity to the actual. And where the laymen proposed illegitimate connections, they were a good corrective for it…heck, where they themselves made illegitimate connections, they were a good corrective for it! But Alan Alda did as sterling a job of correcting and checking as Freeman Dyson did — his interest was interest, and that also fed back into the system. “Fidelity to the actual”, it’s a wonderful phrase! The academic and the layman each benefit from it, but when they feed it back on each other the whole of that fidelity’s much greater than the sum of its parts — two men get the job done in one-third the time it would take one man working alone. I’m copying your style a bit, here. It’s a great style for this stuff, I think. You should write a book! What if one could have such a thing as a lyrical textbook, how great would that be?!

    Anyway, to the current-day Edge: the relationships have been flipped, somehow. Now it’s the scientists who are being encouraged to perform as laymen! But they have very little experience of being laymen, at least in their own field…they can’t trip on the extra-disciplinary connections as well, they can’t switch gears into caution and diligence and lay interestedness (not a Scrabble word!) as the educated amateur can. They can’t host Scientific American Frontiers! The most they can do is preach from its pulpit. But wasn’t the aim of Edge to displace the distorting organ of academic communication? Wasn’t it supposed to be a wonderful agora of enlightenment, that dissolved the conventional boundaries of who could talk to whom? An ongoing online lecture series, with good and nourishing feedback: an extremely fun cocktail party where no one played the part of the bore. This is what it was. It had aspirations. Utopian aspirations? Well, maybe…and so I shouldn’t be surprised that a crash came, because it always does. One should not focus on the crash, on the period of inevitable decadence. But it’s hard, because goddamnit, it used to be so beautiful in its younger days!

    Maybe we are, in fact, stuck with the fluff. But I think out here in this little sector of Internet-land we are learning to do a lot of the stuff that that sector of Internet-land seems to have lost its feel for. Maybe, Jonathan? Things do change over time, after all: the kids of today were raised differently than the kids of yesteryear, there is a new beauty in the air, there are new and different democratizing influences seeping through the earth. Who am I to criticize Hesse? But then who am I to criticize GKC either, and he said something truly hilarious, and hilariously true, that eventually waned in the face of fact: that people bloody-mindedly shunt away the future that their leading lights have called for, and like to defy prediction by not changing after all.

    You’ve read one of my favourites, “The Napoleon Of Notting Hill”? We should shoot some emails back and forth on it. In fact you should write a little essay on it, and let me host it here on my blog. I don’t know why you don’t have a blog yourself, Jonathan…!

    So anyway, despite all the silly millenial language we’ve all had to suffer, maybe there is something special about this Internet stuff…and maybe Edge had the right idea about changing some longstanding patterns of academic-lay dialogue with it. But I do think they’ve fallen into a bit of a trough, these days. I don’t see any reason why they should continue to lie in it, though!

    And not that I think paper and ink can’t make changes either: I had a dream of a newspaper where the column-inches-by-subject ratios were all flipped end-for-end…Madonna’s religion gets buried on page 64, politics is all on Page Three, the headlines are all about scientific discovery and half the front page is book reviews…what a world, what a world. I still mean to take a stab at it one day. Evening delivery; no one’s doing that anymore. Broadsheet. Retro. For the diligently interested layman. I sound like a 19th-century SF writer, don’t I? Imagining in the year 1984 we’ll all be taking hansom cabs everywhere. But still. One of these days.

    I think we can hope for more, in the arena of distinguishing sense from nonsense!

    If Edge would just stop asking academics questions they’ve been trained not to answer, maybe we would!

    But perhaps I’ve said too much.

    By which I mean: the hockey game’s getting good.

    More later!

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