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A Quiet Place

We watched Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders yesterday. I had never seen it before, and frankly did not care for it too much, but the trapeze artist Marion (played by Solveig Dommartin) got me thinking about the time when I read a lot of French literature: Camus, Cioran, Blanchot and continental philosophy. I also read authors like Beckett, a lot of Wittgenstein and sometimes went back to Kafka. In the film, Marion goes through a crisis. The way she speaks about her condition reminded me of an old fantasy I’ve had since childhood.

The fantasy goes more or less like this. I find a small door in the wall, open it and find myself in a blank space. I explore the space and find it completely silent, empty and vast. When I return through the door, I find that time has stood still. I quickly figure out I am able to enter or exit the space as I wish and do whatever I want for as long as I want while I’m there. The emptiness and silence of the space is mine to use as I please. Because I was a bookish child, I thought of this fantasy space as a place where I could read and think in peace.

I have a similar feeling when I read the authors I just mentioned. The volume of the world is turned down and there is room for thought. Because I have studied literature a lot, I should probably know whether there is a term for this feeling or not. There might be, but none comes to mind right now. “The void” may be one, but it sounds much too melodramatic. I’ve tried to write about silence before: silence in films, silence and language, the unsayable and about many other things around the subject. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to say what I want to say.

Recently, I’ve thought about social media and the noisiness of modern media in general. It seems to lock the door to that quiet place or fill its silence with unnecessary babbling. We are supposed to respond to the babbling and try to form informed reactions to all this noise. I’d like to say that most of it is meaningless, but that wouldn’t be accurate. It’s too meaningful. There’s no room for thought when you are force-fed meaningful content from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed. We are supposed to be creative as well and generate content for modern media ourselves, but it seems like all you can do are collages made of that very noise. Is this being creative? Or is it just more noise?

There are other kinds of creativity that do not thrive in this cacophony. They begin with isolating yourself from the world as best you can and then creating the world anew. You will be channelling what you see around you in some sense, of course, but in a way that is not detached from the way you see the world yourself. It’s a Romantic notion of creativity, but I like it. Unapologetically and unironically. Many of the existential, modernist and minimalist authors I so enjoy we’re actually lamenting the death of this type of creativity. In the Wenders film, Nick Cave becomes the symbol of what I’m talking about. When he showed up last night, I knew everything was going to be alright, left the room, took a shower and went to bed. I never finished watching the film.

Notes to Self: Don’t Waste Your Time Online

Your life is short. Time is valuable. Produce something. Write, make music, draw, paint, anything. Imagine things and make them come true. You will feel great once you are done, even if it’s junk. Put what you think worthy online. Make stuff accessible and find proper channels. (Facebook is not a proper channel for anything but Facebook posts.) Do these things for fun as well. Do them as much as you like, but remember to rest. Your side hustles are not going to become your main hustle.

Find someplace quiet. Don’t be afraid of sitting still. Read a book, any book. Read without purpose, and read with purpose if you must. You subscribe to the New York Times for news. Read the New York Times. You subscribe to the London Review of Books. Read the London Review of Books. You subscribe to Spotify. Listen to music and podcasts from Spotify. Pick a film and watch it from beginning to end. Don’t watch it on YouTube or your computer. Watch a DVD. Go to the movies. Go to a museum.

You have a gym membership. Go to the gym. A gym with heavy metal blasting in your ears can sometimes be your quiet place. Go for a run. Organize your closet. Do a bit of housework. Brush up on your languages. These things may seem like chores, but it’s really time set aside for thought and reflection. The best ideas may come to you when you’re not paying attention and doing something else. Do these other things so that you can do the things that really matter. You don’t necessarily have to do any of this, but if you have prepared for them and set aside the time to do them, why not to do them?

To Facebook or Not to Facebook

As the dirty little secrets of Facebook’s business model keep coming, I find myself in the midst of my weekly struggle over whether or not I should leave Facebook. I left Facebook a few years ago, only to return a few years later. Now I think I may have made a mistake. But I go back and forth, as I said, on an almost weekly basis. There are two main reasons for this back and forth.
First, I find that Facebook is exhausting. The way I use social media is draining, although it’s mostly good fun. It’s almost like having a second or third job on top of your regular duties. It’s somewhere between work and play, and quite often it feels more like work. The funny thing is that Facebook was made for people like me: socially awkward loners who nevertheless like to stay in touch with others. Like many introverts, I find social occasions exhausting. Computerized interaction is easier, but on the other hand I’m able to go on more intense binges when the interaction is computer-assisted. This leads to social exhaustion not unlike the one I feel after a cocktail party. This problem is easily fixed just by using Facebook less.Facebook_on_Nasdaq

Secondly, we keep hearing awful things about the way Facebook handles its customers’ data. I think by now everyone has accepted that the customers’ data is Facebook’s actual product. It’s sold to advertisers and third parties for a profit. You are a product for Facebook. many of us seem to be okay with this, because we get a nice little toy to play with in exchange for our data. Others, myself included, feel slightly violated. It’s nothing serious, I’m sure, but I do feel it gnawing at me every day. It’s disturbing. It’s like living in a soft dystopian nightmare with funny animal videos. I can block it out most of the time, but it’s there. This too, can be exhausting. Unlike social exhaustion, however, I don’t really know how to deal with it.
Not too long ago, a philosopher wrote an article for the New York Times where he asked whether it is our duty to leave Facebook or not. He came to the conclusion that unless Facebook is doing harm willfully, he would not think it necessary to leave. I wonder if his opinion has changed after hearing the latest news. I’m pretty sure people who work at Facebook are not bad people, but their network is so vast that they cannot have full control of it in any meaningful way. That’s kind of the point of the entire enterprise, too: to provide a platform where the users create the content. Hence the philosopher’s question.
I predict that Facebook will soon be subjected to all kinds of new regulations, both self-imposed and external, and it will become entangled in these rules and restrictions. We will applaud the regulations at first, then find them too restricting and confusing, and finally move on to the next toy. Once we know how Facebook’s algorithm works and the rules are set, we will grow bored of it. We are all curious monkeys and while our curiosity often leads to trouble, in this case it may be our saving grace as well.

For the Laziest Writers

I have always looked for ways of working that involve the least stress, physical or mental. Ideally, I don’t want to get out of bed to do a day’s work. This rarely happens, but because some of my work involves writing, I sometimes get to spend the day in bed, working. It’s about as great as it sounds. But, is there a way to make it even easier? I think I may have found it. Because I can work in bed, there is little physical stress involved. The mental stress is unavoidable, but I actually enjoy some of the mental stress and thinking that goes into the writing process. What I don’t like is the actual typing.

My tablet has a Gboard speech-to-text application integrated into its virtual keyboard. I believe it’s something invented by Google, perhaps to spy on all of us. They call it “voice typing.” It was quite poor in the past and required incredibly clear enunciation, lots of editing, frustration and quiet rage. However, I tried it again a few days ago and noticed that it’s actually quite good now. At the very least, it is usable. And that’s all I ask for. It has now enabled me to fulfil one of my old Proustian dreams: doing a day’s work in bed without even opening my eyes very often. What could be better?

On a more serious note, voice typing is actually very useful when you have to communicate with someone and do not want to use the virtual keyboard on your device. If you are like me and hate those things, voice typing your message is a godsend. The app on my phone is slightly different and it does not understand Finnish like my tablet app, but it’ll do in a pinch. I suppose I could configure my phone to do all the things my tablet does, but I haven’t gotten around to it just yet. Being able to talk to my phone actually diminishes stress in my everyday life, because I write emails, send messages and and write stuff on the go all the time. Having to fiddle with tiny slippery keyboards is a pain, speaking a note is much easier on the nerves. Simply put, I’m a big fan of speech-to-text, voice typing, or whatever it’s called.

Are there any downsides? Yes, of course there are. First of all, Google listens in on everything I say. Therefore, I can’t really record anything that would be considered confidential or sensitive information. It’s a bummer. Secondly, speech-to-text is useful for text that is conversational, but other genres are problematic. Blog posts are easy, text messages great, but writing something like a research article still involves sitting at the desk typing away on a keyboard. Thirdly, the text requires editing afterwards. With text messages and the like you don’t really have to be that careful, but with emails, for example, you do have to edit. There may be more downsides, but out of these three, I can live with the genre limitations and the editing. What sometimes worries me is the spying aspect.

Should we be worried? I worry, but I can’t get too worked up about it even if I try. There’s a recording of me speaking these words somewhere in the bowels of Google, for example, but will that information ever be used against me? There are many things we don’t know yet. Big data is a thing, but we still don’t know how the individual should relate to big data. Some are quite paranoid, others think that it’s basically a big dumb pile of data that cannot be used in any nefarious way to hassle individual people. AI has a role to play in the paranoid scenarios, but AI itself is still quite dumb. Even if some of the paranoid fears are feasible, I place my trust in the fact that nobody really cares about my data. There is nothing interesting there for anybody, I think.

Therefore, I think I will continue using this application. At least for the moment. I will continue to trust the good will and, more importantly, the indifference of my fellow Internet-dwellers. If I become an example of someone whose laziness doomed him in some way, so be it. And should something happen, I still have my notebooks, pencils and pens with which I can take notes without getting spied on by giant corporations. These thoughts, at least, are still private in the old-fashioned sense. You’re not going to see them, nor can Google access them. At least not yet.
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Book Review: Men and Manners: Essays, Advice and Considerations by David Coggins

men and mannersI came across David Coggins when I happened to see his new book called called Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations. A quick search pointed me to a few of his articles in various journals, magazines and websites. I wanted to take a little break from menswear books, and a book about manners by someone who looked like a traditionalist seemed interesting. The other thing that drew me to the book was Coggins’s prose style. He favours short and straightforward sentences and brief texts that include anecdotes and interviews. In other words, it’s light and pleasant reading. I bought the ebook, which I now regret, because the physical book looks very nice. Perhaps I will get a physical copy of his book on style a bit later.

Men and Manners is divided into eight sections, only one of which concerns dressing up. It has advice on very basic things from how to behave during public occasions to suggestions for more intimate situations. Advice on how to tip, for example, is useful for those of us who live in countries where we don’t really tip. How to attend and leave parties I found useful, because sometimes slightly less formal public occasions can be difficult to negotiate. Reminders to keep plans are welcomed by anyone who finds it annoying when people cancel plans at the last minute. The English teacher in me was glad to see a chapter on punctuation. And it’s always good to hear someone saying that looking at your phone in company is distracting. Coggins’s tone is not too normative on this last point, and he appeals to friendship instead:

When we’re together, let’s make it count. Bring your good material, open that good bottle of wine you’ve been saving, ask questions and, since you’ve gone through all that, for goodness’ sake, man, pay attention!

Despite what I said earlier, the bits about dress were the ones that I was drawn to when I started reading. Coggins has a take on formality that somewhat echoes what Bruce Boyer has said before. It involves the strange idea that dressing in a more casual manner makes you more authentic. Coggins writes:

There’s been a proliferation of the unwelcome view that if you dress in a sloppy way then you are somehow more authentic. This exists the closer you get to Silicon Valley and is meant to convey that you have more important matters to think about than dressing well. All it implies, in fact, is that you are authentically sloppy. Does not having good table manners make you more authentic? Does not bathing make you most authentic of all? Of course not.

This authenticity could be formulated in another way. It’s actually very calculated. People dress down to identify with a certain class of people and to indicate their preferred peer group. Casual clothing is thus a kind of uniform, perhaps even more so than formal dress. People who dress casually like to say that they don’t really think about clothes, but they usually do. Sometimes they think about them more than people who wear suits. Suits are easy and require little thought once you have them and know how to wear them. Finding the right band T-shirt for the right occasion is much harder and overdressing or underdressing becomes quite complicated when the line between the two is blurry.

Because Coggins is a professional writer who wears many hats, he likes to think about dress and manners in terms of editing. By way of an analogy, he maintains that the signs of a well-edited mind show in our outward appearance and actions. Like I said, the book is light reading, but it did teach me a lot about writing. Reading the book, I was horrified by my previous reviews on this blog, and a few other texts as well. Convoluted sentences, like clothing and accessories, can seem garish and peacocky. After reading Men and Manners, I will try harder to edit myself in the hope that in trying harder, my writing on the blog will look more like an effortless exercise in casual (but not too casual) thought.

Menswear Books: True Style by G. Bruce Boyer


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G. Bruce Boyer is probably the best writer on menswear writing today. He is my personal style icon and also that of Simon Crompton of Permanent Style. He dresses with apparent ease and tries to teach others how to succeed in looking like they dressed themselves effortlessly in a kind of crumpled elegance that nevertheless projects a certain type of care one takes in living one’s life. The effect of course demands great care: one’s wardrobe must be sufficient and each item of clothing requires thought.

I’ve written about Bruce Boyer before and instead of going through the book like a traditional review, I would rather like to discuss three points he makes in True Style that have opened my eyes to a few things. He repeats these points in other writings as well, but everything is condensed nicely in True Style in insightful and relaxed prose.

First, Boyer has ideas about dressing up and dressing down. There is a whole cultural history attached to all this, but we can use a James Dean or a Marlon Brando as a shorthand. “The male rebel proletariat”, as Boyer calls this figure, became the norm after they appeared on the scene. The T-shirt and jeans combo is great, but what it is is essentially a way of dressing down. Instead of looking up trying to emulate the upper classes, dressing in this particular uniform means you are attaching yourself to a certain ideological position in US history that finds its representative examples in the lower classes. I have nothing against this and really don’t think of style in terms of value, but I have noticed family and friends get irritated when I relate Boyer’s point to them. Not too long ago, a few of my friends were enthusiastic about denim named after an infamous prison. That takes dressing down all the way to prison. Again, nothing wrong with that, but I resisted the urge to discuss Boyer with them. After noticing that people do dress up or down according to ways they observe and value others in terms of social stratification, it’s hard not to notice the choices people around you make.

Second, being comfortable in your clothes is of course important, but looking like you’ve been accustomed to wearing them may be even more important. Boyer writes about the English country house aesthetic, the way they are always a bit dishevelled and disorderly. In terms of clothing, there are associations with old money and sprezzatura, but it really comes down to having clothes you love and wear all the time. They may take some time getting used to. A suit, for example, is clothing you do have to learn to wear. If you are uncomfortable in your suit, you may not look very good. Clothes should look worn and familiar, because they are your clothes and you live in them. If they are a bit scruffy, good! If there is a nick in your shoes that cannot be quite polished away, even better! (This does not apply to evening dress, but that’s another matter.)

Third, there are days when I feel I need to wear a suit and I think Boyer has managed to explain why. The sense of occasion is lost when casualization takes over. I speak in front of people for a living, and it is not always the best idea to show up for work in jeans and a T-shirt. This is not because there is something inherently inappropriate in jeans and T-shirts, but because I do need to have a sense of formality when I do what I do. It helps me take my work seriously. Again, there is nothing wrong with casual clothing, but there are situations where I need a bit more support. Clothing is part of the professional arsenal of a man, Boyer says, and it should be used as a tool to get things done. We can talk of the aesthetics of clothing all we want, but there is also a utilitarian side to all this. Sometimes you just need a grey flannel suit to finish a job.

There is of course more to say about all this, but it’s easier to simply direct everyone into the capable hands of Bruce Boyer himself. His writing is thoughtful and elegant. He introduces his readers to brief snippets of cultural history that contextualize our choices of clothing. He teaches readers how to “be themselves on purpose”. I don’t think I’ve read anything poorly written or thought out by him. It’s all good stuff, but True Style will give you a book-length text of Boyer’s best. Go read it!

Book Review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

kill all normiesI bought the audiobook version of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies for a bike ride we took this summer. It’s a fairly short book and it did make the ride more enjoyable. The book lists a number of Internet phenomena that have occurred in recent years and links them to broader social and political movements. It starts out strong, has a strong middle, but it does seem to fall into the trap of simply bemoaning various transgressions of the 4chan crowd in its final chapters.

The incidents, memes and hate campaigns mentioned in the book are ones that most of us have lived through. The great thing about the book is that it collects these together in a single work. I was going to say it collects them into a narrative, but that would not be accurate. There are stories to be told when recounting the events, but the larger narrative arc seems to fall apart. I’m not sure it was even the intention of the author to draw one. In any case, the episodes – starting with Harambe – work well by themselves. It goes all the way to Pat Buchanan and introduces his idea of the culture war to younger readers. If there is a longer historical arc here, it does not burrow further than that. Kids reading the book are probably not familiar with the orchestrated effort behind the ludicrous idea of a culture war, and it’s good to have it written out like this.

For anyone who was already familiar with all the events described in the book and who already knows how the culture war (such as it is) has progressed thus far, the meat of the book is in the relentless barrage of examples from the junkheap of the Internet. As with many other books about online culture, it’s heartbreaking. Of course, if you love the Internet and all its potential, you don’t have to crawl through its sewers and participate in the horrors of 4chan culture or the rest of it. But knowing that it’s there matters. The online attacks against women, for example, are something you simply have to know about in order to have an intelligent conversation about what the Internet has become. Seeing all this fuckery laid bare in front of you is arresting, and it should be. It is also profoundly sad.

If the Internet was only the junk Nagle sifts through in her book, we would all opt out. It would simply be the playground for nasty children who shout at people from the bushes. Luckily, it’s not. It is a vast online space you can use for the betterment of those around you and explore to your heart’s content. It is a place of commerce. It provides all kinds of possibilities for everyone who has access to it. The idiotic snark that tries to pollute it may be a trace of the nerd culture that started it all, but it doesn’t really matter where the moronic cynicism came from. The Internet is far bigger than that now, but people who are not to be taken seriously remain. We need ways of discrediting and dismissing them. There are many tools for doing this. “Don’t feed the troll” is one of them. And I don’t advocate punching people, but have you heard of the Nazi blowhard Richard Spencer since he was punched in the face on TV and became a meme? There are many ways of reacting to online bile, that’s all I’m saying. Some of them work better than others in different contexts.

Discussions like Nagle’s book tend to look at surface-level phenomena online that reduce people and issues into one-dimensional memes. Richard Spencer is now the face-punch guy. It doesn’t matter what he says, because he is now the face-punch guy. Violence is an extreme way of memefying someone, but in his case it did the trick. People become simple images, complicated issues hashtags. This process is in itself tragic, because it kills thought in public discourse. It deprives us from any intelligent analyses of phenomena that guide our thought, politics and our lives. What, then, is to be done to counteract this rot? I’m not sure, but I have come to the conclusion that Twitter is for cute animal videos, Facebook for feeding your self-styled Tamagochi-avatar, and Instagram is for holiday snaps and advertisements of luxury items. The serious matter of thought takes place elsewhere and we should quit pretending it can survive on social media or the 4chan-cesspools of the Internet.