None of us are free?

Something long and boring and half-thought out follows…

The modern picture of a human being, post scientific-revolution, has to be this complex dyarchy; both biological and personal. An atomic horde of selfish genes and a singular person with cares and worries and hopes. A perishable temporary bulwark of order, within a great entropic history, which remembers each moment of its fleeting existence. A chemical process experiencing nostalgia. A mindless, selective, adaptive coagulation of matter that has somehow produced mindfulness. Consciousness in a universe of brute atomic incidence.

There is some suggestion that this new viewpoint should, or even must, change our view of free will. We must realise that, since it is chemistry and biology determining our actions, we are not free. None of us are free. We feel free only because we are unaware of the actual way that our choices are determined. A great ocean of causation lies within us, a sea of atoms, signals and conveyers, shifting about and in so doing deciding our lives. You married that woman because of various ectothermic and exothermic processes in your central nervous system, or something of that sort. This view does not deny the reality of our consciousness, our feelings of agency, our emotions, our rationality and so on. Instead it provides an account for them, an explanation, an unseen causal chain operating beneath (and/or through) our cognition. Does this new model render obsolete former notions of free will?

Now the problem with this line of thought, as it currently stands, is that we haven’t defined free will. Until we have done that, we cannot very well say* either that:

A) The new view of humanity can coexist with free will or,
B) The new view of humanity cannot coexist with free will.

* (Not that this stops people from trying).

To really understand free will, let’s start by talking about limits. A choice, any choice, is inevitably hemmed in, constrained, by a variety of contextual factors (limits of logic, personal limits, geographic limits, we could go on). Consider a touch football game. I am limited by various logical factors, I cannot both be and not be on the field. I cannot both run and walk and not run and not walk and do all of the above without doing anything. But, sadly, my limitations go beyond this (team mates disagree with me about how far beyond). I have a certain top speed, a certain agility, a certain throwing range. I couldn’t choose to run down the right wing at Mach 5 before throwing a nine hundred metre pass. It’s not logically impossible, but it’s personally impossible, for me. And if the weather is minus eighty, or we are playing in a vacuum, these limitations might be altered. We cannot contest the fact that yes, I am limited in my range of choices on the football pitch.

And yet, it seems to me that I have a variety of options. I can pass right or left, run with the ball, sit down, dig, throw grass petulantly, taunt, flee, and so on. There are many actions open. I feel very free.

Free will seems to be the ability to make a choice, from a set of possibilities. The fact that a choice exists implies here that the decision is in some crucial way undetermined. It has not been determined. It is a free choice. My laptop does not make such choices, code directs it in such a way that it has no choice, it is locked in, it is determined.

But, one might argue, our internal code, biological not mechanical, locks us in too. I think that I could have passed left or right but, really, my biology had already determined that I would go right. The decision which seemed undetermined – free – was in fact determined – unfree.

And there’s a much bigger problem here. Undetermined, the word we have been using, means not determined (wow!) Something which is not determined at all, is entirely arbitrary. Think about it. Undetermination is total chaos (not chaos in the mathematical sense of the world). Anything, anything at all, could come as a result. So we must speak of underdetermination, the event being partially determined but somewhat undetermined. A dice roll, to the naive eye, looks underdetermined in this way. The outcome must follow the structure of the dice and so on, but a variety of outcomes within that structure are possible. Is that the sort of free will we want? Our choices are an arbitrary, undetermined bit of chaos within an underdetermined structure? Our view of free will now has it looking like arbitrariness. And the issue here, is that when people talk about being free, they definitely don’t mean that they are arbitrary.

So, I suppose, a person claiming to have free will is really claiming that they self-determine their actions. The decision is not undetermined, it is not arbitrary, it was just determined by the self.

The modernist would want to clarify this a bit. For they argue that our self and our body are the same thing. We are our bodies. And our decisions are not mystical decisions exogenous to our physical system. Our decisions are the result of chemical processes in our bodies. And that self, that chemical machine, is entirely determined by the universe it which it exists, by the laws of physics governing the myriad interactions of matter within us.

Someone who believes that the body and self are overlapping but differentiable might say that our decisions are not *just* biological. There is some other self, some soul or soul-like operator, some conductor on the bus making decisions. It is him, or her, that makes the great undetermined decisions. But, then, if these decisions are undetermined, they must be arbitrary. So we modify and say that our conductor is determined, determined by inner values of some sort, and that hence these values, these central properties of self, drive the bus. The bus is self-determined, by the conductor, according to the properties of who you are.

Issue – where do the values/properties come from? Nowhere? Oh that’s arbitrary. Somewhere? Oh, then they are determined extrinsically. That doesn’t sound very self-determined. Maybe you aren’t free after all?

You see there’s no way out of this quandary. We either have external determination at some level of the regress, or arbitrariness. You don’t get to be this undetermined choosing machine, not because of modern science and the modern view, but because the concept doesn’t make sense. At some point down the rabbit hole (and we can drag this game out way more) you end with chaos or determinism.

Ahh, but Heisenberg, someone says, referring not to the drug dealer, but to the quantum uncertainty principle. One common interpretation of the quantum observer effect is that uncertainty is fundamental, that there is undetermination on the atomic level. And this type of undetermination is not arbitrary, they might argue. It’s a probabilistic function, and perhaps our free will is likewise?

Well sure, if you think that their is a material difference here, that something probabilistic is functionally any different from something arbitrary. That argue would need to be made. But a deeper problem is that probabilistic undetermination is pretty dang close to determination. Add both together and we could say this – your actions are determined by the result of an arbitrary selection from a stochastic distribution, and in this sense only, are undetermined. That does not sound like free will.

Perhaps this undetermination stuff was a red herring. Perhaps we need a better definition, a more consistent understanding of what it is to be free. I would suggest that a being is free if it is able to make decisions which are consistent expressions of its nature. A being is able to be itself, without being constrained into being anything else.

Ongoing…

THINGS THAT ARE GREAT, PART TWO: THE WIRE

sss

David Simon, co-writer of the Wire, has a story he tells about New Orleans, about the city before the Hurricane. An old fishing boat, long abandoned, was sitting in the harbor next to the levy. New Orleans, jazz capital of the South, sits dangerously close to the sea level, and the levies keep it dry, keep it safe as the tides ebb and flow. This old boat, rusted, barnacled, is so close to the levy that people are afraid. If a storm kicks up it’ll blow into the levy and knock it over, possibly drown the city.

When the media reported on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, on the total chaos that preceded the city-wide floods – the breakdown in order, the looting, the murders, not many bothered to mention that it wasn’t really the hurricane that knocked down the levy. It was the boat.

A few years later another hurricane hit New Orleans, and another levy broke, and here’s the kicker, the boat was still there, and may have been a contributor.

Contrast the cost of towing a rusted old wreck, to the cost of repairing a city, debit that, credit that, tell me what the efficient market response is?

It would be easy now, to interpret our story through our preselected political frameworks. If I’m on the left I point out that no private business managed to coordinate itself, or even form a collective to get the boat out of the harbor. That’s a nice narrative. I could introduce coase theorem, pointedly ask whether corporations really can solve all problems, talk about negative externalities, public goods and so on. And yet there’s a problem with that. City Hall had been notified of the danger.

So, if I’m on the right wing, I run with that. More government incompetence hey. In all that time, with all their taxpayer-derived resources, they couldn’t move a freaking boat.

And the problem here is that we don’t have a neat example of market failure or government failure, of either dropping the ball. We have an example of both.

The thing that the Wire does well, the reason they teach it at Harvard, the reason it’s the most highly reviewed show on Metacritic and Amazon, the reason that half a dozen critics have called it the best TV show of all time, the reason it stays with you, irks you, hurts you, is because in place of stock dialogue, in place of CGI, in place of well acted platitudinal narrative, in place of a moral lesson, it gives you the seemingly unwinnable entropic reality of a city in decay, a generation losing and a younger one lost, a war against drugs that no one even seems interested in winning, a circular tragedy of corners and body counts, and there’s no relaxing resolution, the string is never tied back up. It’s about the unraveling.

There’s this line I think I’ve heard, someone, sometime, saying that House of Cards is the dark inverse of The West Wing. Following that line, they argue that the show represents actual America in its devious Machiavellian actuality.

That’s nonsense. Each show is a cynical, although fun, caricature. Neither even approaches reality. The West Wing gives us the honorable. House of Cards gives us the sordid. The Wire, channeling Dostoyevsky, channeling Solzhenitsyn, maintains that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of everyone.

I could put that another way. Fox News and CNN, seemingly so distant, are mirrored reflections. The same shock, the same simplification, the same NOISE NOISE NOISE, the same quick summation and cliché and catchy music and twist and controversial statement and switch camera switch camera makeup low lights high lights are you paying attention ad-break and we’re back.

The West Wing is to CNN what the Wire is to old world shoe-leather investigative journalism. The Wire spends a week down in the locker room at the docks asking the longshoremen how it is and how it’s changing. The Wire pulls up a dozen folders of crime statistics and then goes and asks the sergeant down at the bar how he’s been manipulating them. The Wire follows an issue doggedly for twenty years and gives the straight truth of it because that’s what they taught and that’s what we promised when we joined, because Lincoln said that it’s what’s holding democracy together, because the suburbs read back then, bought books, listened to four hour speeches, cared.

Because if a city was consuming itself in the implosive force of heroin and corruption back then, back it those velvet days, at least someone would have the balls to write an editorial. Because if a boat drowned a city in a developed nation, a city of millions, twice in half a decade, someone would actually write about it, and it might be some feather weather hippy, or an old company man on lunch break, or a family around the table after dinner, we don’t know who and it wasn’t like you’d hear straight back, but you knew that someone out there in America was reading. And all I’m saying here, is that if you were in Baltimore, watching kids in the inevitable elliptical approach, as the gravity of the drug industry pulled and the schools tried to shovel No Kid Left Behind, if you were that kid or you were in that suburb, at least you’d know someone was reading. At least you weren’t alone.

It took hyperinflation, a lost world war and a soviet revolution on the doorstep to overturn Weimer and usher in that great age of illusion and delusion. It normally takes war and turmoil to enable demagoguery. And yet, in America today, historic levels of populism are circling the credulous and confused in an age of relative peace and prosperity. And I see that only 20% of American households bought a book last year.

I hate firing shots at people because I always feel culpable myself, but it has to be said. The reason you can’t solve problems anymore, the reason anthropogenic climate change denial is a thing, the reason corporations run your congress, the reason Rome is kindled is simple. It’s because y’all stopped reading.

The amount of noise in America is something else. There’s an endless appetite for catchy presupposition confirming chatter. For something, anything that supports that political tribe that way back twenty-five years ago you decided to go with because… who can remember. And beneath the canopy, lower down below the static, underneath the non-Euclidian arc of the mock sound wars, of signals flying north to south and south to north, on the ground, inland or by the sea, just think of all the stories that are being ignored. Think of all the lives lived in squalor and despair, all the miserable hopeful ignorance.

And the reason that the Wire stayed with me, probably always will, as the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, heck maybe as the greatest piece of literature I’ve ever come across, is because it went there. It went down to Baltimore. And because the media won’t do it anymore, it used a freaking TV show to tell you about a few kids and a few corners, about Wallace – a kid trying to leave the gang that is his entire community, about McNulty – the smartest cop in the service and an Irish adulterous ass, about Barksdale and Omar and Cutty. It’s a show drenched in despair because you should have been despairing. You should have already known.

But you didn’t watch it, did you? Not many people did.

It never rated like CSI.

And so far as I know, the boat is still in the harbor.

THINGS THAT ARE GREAT, PART ONE: DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

It’s the 1860’s and the chess board sits within an annular crowd of the beer drinking and beer drunk. The Grand Master places his piece firmly forward, then the Automaton, this great machine that has been touring the South, creeks and whirls and clicks and takes the castle. The Grand Master moves his bishop. The Automaton takes a knight. The Grand Master shifts his queen. The Automaton advances his castle. A silence, and then, applause. Check mate.

As the crowd dissipates onto the dusty street the Master is unmoved, incredulous. Finally he starts, raising one finger towards the sky.

“By goodness,” he exclaims.

“There’s a human in there!”

…………………………………..

“This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.”  –  David Foster Wallace.

…………………………………..

I have not, yet, had the minimum wage pleasure of working as a cinema attendant. I have never explained to an irate customer that choc-tops only come in vanilla or peppermint and that yes, it’s a little misleading. I have never flicked lights on a post movie theatre and waded across an inland sea of popcorn seeking five lost sets of keys. I have, however, spent enough time around cinemas to know that as the customers leave the theatre, the dominant facial tick is blinking. As they cross the threshold into the well-lit foyer scarcely a patron will fail to rub eyes, to open them wide as an owl and to blink rapid fire like the cinema itself was half chlorine, half caffeine.

They have been fixed upon a screen you see, so thoroughly fixated that the natural functions were improperly discharged. Then, in addition to that, they are also at a point of departure from an invented reality and back into this ancient one. They are crossing worlds, realigning five senses to this gravity, figuring out how to walk and talk again.

Films are immersive.

So much of experienced life is self-reflective. The internet, for instance,- reflects back to you those things that you already value. This is true on a political level; liberals see liberal news, liberal memes, liberal status updates and visa versa. It’s also true on other, less obvious levels. If you value career, status, intellectualism, the odds are that Facebook will build a world of the like-minded around you. If you mine for meaning in fashion, food, music, you will most often see friends who do too. Narcissus gazed into his reflection in the pond, and became obsessed with the beauty. Around him a world of stunning diversity went neglected.

So we might synthesise these points and say that the value of art is in its power to encompass your senses and then take you outside of yourself. That good art convinces you that it is not art, it’s real, and then, having captured you, it quietly wades your imagination out beyond the wash of daily life and inner obsession.

There’s some truth to that. But there’s another, paradoxical fact. There’s something that happens in a whole lot of great art. This thing where you and the characters notice an uninvited guest on your journey. Something, some fracture allows you to look past the characters in foreground and see an author himself, amidst the scene. He’s there, sitting in a study a world away, grappling in frustration with his ineffables, and trying to pass it all on, to give you his world. That vision, of seeing the author himself hunched beneath his existential burden, imbues a sensation akin to brotherhood. What was just fun, or impressive, or complete, becomes personal, when you see the shape of the author in the text. He wrote this for me.

You’ve never been anyone other than yourself. You never will be, you will ever be trapped inside your head. Inside your genetics, your cultural norms, your own loves, your own categories of value, you live out your life. Outside there are people just as real as you, but you only ever access them through language. Art, at its potent-best, magnetised, lethal with static, has the power to take you out of that encasement and put you inside someone else. And the person who you often do the most sympathising with, is the author himself. The process builds empathy, adds emotional octaves above and below, makes you less determined by incidentals of time and place. But I doubt that’s what you’re looking for.

It makes you less alone.

I like Hemingway, not as much as many do, but enough to keep reading. And when you read Hemingway you see, in the artistic choices made, a vision of the author’s world, his values, his struggles and glories. “Amid so much ruin, still the beauty.”

When Cormac McCarthy splinters his hero you see in those shards a reflection of an old, quiet man, a thoughtful man somewhere beside the prairie, staring out at his corn bobbing in the breeze. A man grown by the implacable, brutal, principled aimlessness of the wild.

David Eggers kills both his parents in the first chapter, leaving him and Toph and California. His mother and father, in the book and in real life, are ambushed by cancer and he is somehow anointed a teen parent of his brother. They laugh their way across America, find a place in the world, learn that grief can be overcome and then wander out onto a sunset beach. The frisbee goes back and forward as they run across the sand, leaping higher, yelling out against the wind. And then Dave Eggers the author turns away from Dave Eggers the character, he turns to you, the reader, and he starts swearing. And you remember that art is created, and hence it has a creator, that you were never alone in the room.

No author has engendered as much empathy (and that means pain and joy) in me, as David Foster Wallace. He saw what you were seeing, worried about your worries, laughed at the same things you thought funny. And he was lonely and afraid and heading toward the waterfall.

Things that you learn at the The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic).

“That you do not have to like a person in order to learn from him/her/it. That loneliness is not a function of solitude. That logical validity is not a guarantee of truth. That evil people never believe that they are evil, but rather that everyone else is evil. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agenda-less kindness. That no single moment is in and of itself unendurable. That having a lot of money does not immunise people from suffering or fear. That everyone is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” – Infinite Jest

People usually start by talking about the copiousness of DFW. They might call him eidetic, autodidactic, polymathic. They might suggest that reading Infinite Jest will impart to you as much general knowledge as a good arts degree. That your vocabulary may double. A former student called him a noticing machine.

To me, Wallace was less about information and more about distillation. Between this swirling mess of data – annular fusion, the vagaries of refraction, a thousand pharmaceutical brands, was a desire to tackle central human realities – boredom, loneliness, addiction, the task of finding meaning.

“If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story.” – This is Water

“These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light – the soul’s certainty that the day will have to be not traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer.” – Infinite Jest

His prose corkscrewed around itself, referred to itself, extended itself through a half dozen commas or more, it was true to life but it wasn’t always beautiful. But, when he wanted to, he could mist your eyes with imagery. I only included the above to show you how damn pretty he could write.

After publishing Infinite Jest, Wallace seemed consistently surprised that people found it humorous. He had set out to write a sad book. But the humour isn’t just a sideshow, some candy to incentivise the medicine. It’s the humour that makes it sad. It’s the way Robin Williams is always halfway between laughter and some darkness. It’s the way Jim Carrey moves between morose catatonic and manic catalytic. It’s Owen Wilson. It’s the crying clown. It’s the bipolar universe. It’s the way we have this thing that is so stunningly beautiful and yet so fecund for horror. It’s the bifurcated tone that makes it sad. Beneath our loves and laughs, our ambitions petty and profound, beneath the still ice there’s a torrent running chill. I think it was the position of DFW that everyone, no matter how ostensibly happy, had a substratum of sadness somewhere down deep. It’s the good with bad, bad with good, paradise + lost sort of thing.

And that brings us to loss.

“He was an A student through high school, he played football, he played tennis, he wrote a philosophy thesis and a novel before he graduated from Amherst, he went to writing school, published the novel, made a city of squalling, bruising, kneecapping editors and writers fall moony-eyed in love with him. He published a thousand-page novel, received the only award you get in the nation for being a genius, wrote essays providing the best feel anywhere of what it means to be alive now, accepted a special chair to teach writing at a college in California, married, published another book, and hanged himself at age forty-six.”  –  Although Of Course You End Becoming Yourself, A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.

Troubled youth writes genius book, becomes best non-fiction writer in the land, meets soul mate, with dogs curled up beside them blur focus and roll credits.

That cruise ship essay. Kierkegaard goes to Disneyland. Amidst the greatest luxury on Earth, you have a suicide problem. Is that the theme we focus on?

Do we talk about the fact that Wallace doesn’t write happy endings?

Or do we just say that on this Earth every event has a great swarming mass of causes and effects and that they, like the swimming pool on a cruise liner, rocked right instead of left, that the medicine stopped working when he came back on, that he was out in the deep, Franzen throwing life rafts, that everything he ever wrote about depression was back leaning over his bed, that it was chemical, that shock treatment didn’t work, that Karen didn’t work, that nothing worked and nothing counted and one single moment was in and of itself unendurable.

The power of art is a power of empathy. And I connected with David, he wrote about my world, he fractured reality the way I fracture reality. And that’s why it hurt.

“He’d gone down into the well of infinite sadness, beyond the reach of story, and he didn’t make it out.
But he had a beautiful, yearning innocence, and he was trying.”  –  
Jonathan Franzen, elegy for David Foster Wallace.

In Infinite Jest, when Hal finally speaks, finally introduces himself, it felt like it was David speaking. It felt like the author in the text. There’s a human in there!

“I read,” I say. “I study and read. I bet I’ve read everything you read. Don’t think I haven’t. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you’d let me, talk and talk.

Aw man, he could, on any topic, for any length of time, and I’d happily listen.

In my opinion, for whatever cent, rouble, or baht it’s worth, he was the center. He was the landmass of American fiction. As Carraway said of Gatsby, he was “worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

“It was all sea and oceans now. The great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”  –  C.S Lewis.

DFW
“And when he came to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.”

All sea and oceans

On the side of the dance he felt spotlighted in his thin plastic chair. Sitting there sipping juice, trying to be confident, in the corner of a room full of people who were simply quite a lot better – at trying to be confident. And I don’t know what the song was, or if it even matched the mood, if it even recognized the significance, but she came spinning around the floor in a purple dress and at some blurring point looked down at him as he looked up at her.

I’m alone, and I’m afraid, and I’m heading toward the waterfall.

Then they were all out, with the lights on in the hall – graduation 1952 – and then stumbling down the street in the lightness of whiskey and company. Jay’s voice was up ahead, above the sound of the cars, and the Cottle twins were around him wandering across the road in that group, but he didn’t see any of that, or remember it in the morning. He was too busy looking at her hand. She was laughing at something but he didn’t know what.

“Where are we going?” From up ahead.

“Darman’s.”

The existential question was answered practically.

And she grabbed his hand as he looked away, and then they both looked away.

I’m just a bunch of chemicals. And she’s just a bunch of chemicals. And we’ll only fall through time for so long.

A few minutes later they were following the chain past the lumber-yard where the long flatbeds were stacked with white brown timber in the night, and she was running a few fingers along the links in that fence. And as he watched her fingers his ankle caught on the hem of the footpath and his chest went pitching forward, arms out windmilling. His shoulder fell forward to take the impact and he could see himself, frozen then, with her eyes wide open –

Let me stay! You old son-of-a-bitch stop watching and let me just stay there. It was too fast and I was too young, I wanted to be quick and I needed to be slow.

But they both kept falling through time, losing years like dollars under the couch, and when he’d re-leveled his gaze, it was the autumn of 1992. And by then certain things that had been absolute were now contingent. And certain things that were eternal, were now waylaid in the fog, somewhere at the dark hills, towards the end of the vale of time.

He was watching like a television, the beep-beep of the vital signs and no position on the leather-back could make that comfortable. When she’d murmured he’d rushed forward “Sorry darling?” but she was just breathing. And she never said goodbye, and that hurt because forty years needs an ending. Needs an exhale, a handshake, a clearly defined, shining white rimmed door that they both gently pass through. But he was on the chair in a conversation with the nurse when that machine went silent.

Memento mori.

Fade to dark.

Exit Linda, stage left.

For the next year, every Saturday evening at the table, he still set a place – put the cutlery out where she’d sat, sometimes turning to her spot as if about to speak, but with no one there to hear.

“It was all sea and oceans now.
The great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”

He was sitting on the front chair with the paper, reading about a world that wasn’t his any longer, when Janice called.

“After the war finished fighting went to Minneapolis for a night, saw a film and had a drink I think. I’m not so sure if you were then with us.”

He had a rug pulled up to his neck and fire just simmering behind him as he spoke.

“You know, now’s when you just have to believe in it.”

“Well believe in what?”

“Reunions.”

And past the handset, across the yard, the sun was up and the wind out playing and all the leaves went with it.

Human political history is a long slow grind towards some wavering speck on the horizon that might just be progress. Like in an evolutionary system, there’s a lot of waste, a lot of mistakes, a lot of imperfections in our political approaches, as we struggle along. People who politically are from the far right (Libertarian, Anarchist) or far left (Marxist) are essentially suggesting that we go and try something unprecedented with the whole carefully evolved machine. It’s like someone raising a theory that the heart would be better located higher up, and expecting us to let him run that experiment with our carefully balanced bodies.

Conformism

1. Opinions are not just fashion accessories, that you show-and-tell at parties to project intelligence, knowledge, culture or sensitivity. Instead, they should be heartfelt, researched convictions; your best guess at the actual truth of what this universe is all about. Your fundamental opinions really should define you. Everyone else is just playing status-conscious games.

2. It really breaks the spell, when you realize that most of those who are most fashionable, most charismatic, most cool, are exactly that because they are also most status conscious, most insecure, most inauthentic.

3. There are few things are more obviously indicative of the shallowness of our culture, than the fact that so many of our men now trot along diligently obeying the whims of the fashion corporations, whatever the cost, and in so doing, then thinking that they are individual, mature and expressive.

4. We still call kids who misbehave in school ‘rebels,’ which is to miss the point somewhat – for many the problem isn’t that they are overly rebellious, it’s quite the opposite, the problem is that they are conformist, status-conscious followers of a sub group that wants to be ‘edgy.’

5. Hipsters are one of the few major sub-groups in the Australian scene that are conformist enough to still wear a uniform.

So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.

I wasn’t a partner in a conversation – I was an accessory. Just like you might carry a beer, or a handbag, or a cigarette, so too I was being carried around for a ‘look’. The young friend at the bar was speaking to me from his subconscious, mumbling nonsense soaked in smiles and over elaboration. The jokes were not ‘funny’ jokes – that wasn’t their purpose. The purpose of the jokes, and the laughter, and the bar, was to show that we were part of the group that was young and full of potential. He kept turning away from me whenever I spoke, scanning his eyes around the crowd, looking for a better conversation. He mustn’t have found anything because he turned back and burst out laughing at my mild joke. Around us the room swelled with nihilism, and then we were and out onto the street.