Category Archives: argybargy

Egregores and the Egregious

An early morning riffle through this week’s New Yorker produces a marvelous collision of Americas. The first is a two-page spread advertisement for Sensei Lānaʻi, a “Four Seasons Resort” which proposes “Elevating Wellness into Wellbeing”:

This is the single most offensive ad I’ve encountered so far this year, and maybe ever. You owe yourself a close reading of the text:

I then turned a couple of pages to arrive at The Talk of the Town, the lead piece of which is Adam Gopnik’s “Fault Lines” which begins

Readers of “Through the Looking-Glass” may recall the plight of the Bread-and-Butterfly, which, as the Gnat explains to Alice, can live only on weak tea with cream in it. “Supposing it couldn’t find any?” Alice asks. “Then it would die, of course,” the Gnat answers. “That must happen very often,” Alice reflects. “It always happens,” the Gnat admits dolefully.

Gopnik goes on to consider America’s current crisis of democracy, and says

The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.

…Keeping a republic is a matter not of preserving it like pickles but of working it like dough—which sounds like something you’d serve alongside very weak tea. But it is the essential diet to feed our democracy if we are to make what always happens, for a little while longer, happily unhappen.

What a juxtaposition: the utter crass ME-ness of Larry Ellison’s Lānaʻi (“Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison bought 98% of the island of Lanai in 2012 for an estimated $300 million…”) with Gopnik’s rendition of our current slide toward the “default condition of humankind.” But Gopnik tells only a part of the story, which includes Lewis Carroll’s discription of the fatal anatomy of the Bread-and-Butterfly:

its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.

Thus, if the Bread-and-Butterfly did find its weak tea with cream, it would die as its head dissolved; if it didn’t find its weak tea with cream, it would starve. The Bread-and-Butterfly is, as Gregory Bateson noted, a classic example of the Double Bind:

the essence of a double bind is two conflicting demands, each on a different logical level, neither of which can be ignored or escaped. This leaves the subject torn both ways, so that whichever demand he or she tries to meet, the other demand cannot be met. “I must do it, but I can’t do it” is a typical description of the double-bind experience.

Hobson’s Choice is another common trope, in which the Choice is between something and nothing. Both are all too present in today’s world.

Somewhere in the searching and reading that this conjunction provoked, I stumbled upon a term that was new to me: egregore, “powerful autonomous psychic entities created by a collective group mind.” Egregores: The Occult Entities That Watch Over Human Destiny

sustained by belief, ritual, and sacrifice and relies upon the devotion of a group of people, from a small coven to an entire nation, for its existence. An egregore that receives enough sustenance can take on a life of its own, becoming an independent deity with powers its believers can use to further their own spiritual advancement and material desires… provides instructions on how to identify egregores, free yourself from a parasitic and destructive collective entity, and destroy an egregore, should the need arise. Revealing how egregores form the foundation of nearly all human interactions, the author shows how egregores have moved into popular culture and media–underscoring the importance of intense selectivity in the information we accept and the ways we perceive the world and our place in it. (from the Amazon precis)

How very like the ‘Trumpism’ that seems to stalk the land and contribute to that “current crisis of democracy.”


And A Pseudoethnography of Egregores. Quite enough for a Monday.

Omnia disce

If I have a patron saint, it’s probably Hugh of St-Victor [12th century, author of Didascalicon], whose advice was

Omnia disce, videbus postea nihil esse superfluum
(Learn everything, you will see later that nothing is superfluous)

One can’t, alas, Know Everything, but elaborating one’s understanding of the world around has been a lifelong Odyssey, and a great joy. Sometimes the piling up of knowledge and the interweaving of threads of understanding leads to precipices, viewpoints where an unanticipated vista opens to disclose a chasm of personal ignorance. Happens all the time…

It’s a measure of something that I have read NONE of the reading list on issues of race in this issue of Harvard Gazette. I am uninformed in these matters, and forever surprised/chastened to discover vast realms of ignorance of important things I should have known about. Just now I happened upon May Jeong’s Ah Toy, Pioneering Prostitute of Gold Rush California, which considerably enlarges my knowledge of the history of Chinese immigration into California, and raises a host of other issues and questions about intersectional matters.

It’s easy to find examples of “I’m not responsible for…” with respect to evils of the past (slavery, the extirpation of aboriginal populations, anti- stances toward various Others, etc.), and indeed I’ve mouthed the formula myself in defense of one thing or another. The question of ‘responsibility’ might be reframed into a discussion of how does/should/might one take account of complicities in distant (temporally, spatally, socially…) iniquities and inequities. At the very least, one ought to be ready to inform oneself when a chasm of personal ignorance presents itself. Books like 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the works of Eduardo Galeano (among them Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, The Memory of Fire trilogy) and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States tend to blow the wheels off the wagon of complacency.

Lately I’ve been reading Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (which sports Kate’s beautiful maps) which provides a potent backstory to recent events like Ferguson (Amazon blurb: “…exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation’s past…”). So much of our national mythos is built upon glorifications of events and people, of wilful self-deceptions under the rubrics of Patriotism and exceptionalism, of flaunted symbols like The Flag and the honored dead of glorious wars, and of notions of Progess and Victory. The Emperor’s Raiment, the thumping of tubs, demagoguery, coming to a screen near you…

A brace of haiku in praise:

moral certitude
inspires the cannon fodder
waving flags: Huzzah!!

another martyr
ours or theirs: keep careful count
a winner someday

a new toy

Not sure if this is a Good Thing or a calumny, but it’s progress of a sort.

The new iPad arrived yesterday, and I’ve been playing with Adobe Illustrator Draw, attempting to actualize an idea I’ve had for a few months. Take an image in which I see something that I want to call other viewers’ attention to. Sketch the outlines of what I see on a new layer, then export the sketch. Here’s an example, raggedy but clear enough to show the potential:

Start with an unfolded image (what I call a tessellation, though it’s just a single mirroring), like the one I labelled “voracious blue-eyed goddess”:

voracious blue-eyed goddess

sketch in the lines my imagination sees:


and turn off the background:


Who is it?

Hillary Clinton.

I had no idea…

Adobe and Amazon Hell

On May 7th I bought a 12-month subscription to Adobe InDesign via Amazon, at $16.99/month. I installed the software and had been using it for almost 2 months. On Sunday June 26th I exported a pdf of my current project. When I then tried to use InDesign I got a message from Adobe saying that my account was cancelled for non-payment of the monthly subscription fee. The Amazon page showed that the payment had been made and that my subscription was active.

What to do?

I called Adobe’s Customer Care and spent more than half an hour on the phone with an agent in India, who told me that my only option was to CANCEL the suspended subscription and buy a NEW subscription—the cancelled account could not be reinstated.

I contacted Amazon and was told that everything on their end was correct: I had an “active” subscription for the product. So I cancelled that subscription (they waived the “early cancellation” fee and refunded the last month paid) and bought a NEW subscription, at the NEW price of $19.99/month (Adobe had raised the price without telling me and apparently without informing Amazon, so that [I deduce] Amazon’s payment of my subscription fee was $3.00 less than Adobe expected, hence the cancellation by Adobe of my access to InDesign).

My account information page at Amazon shows that the new subscription is paid and active. The Amazon Licenses page has a button labelled “Access Product” but the link is broken (“Trying to find something? The page you specified could not be found.”). Evidently THAT link is supposed to authenticate my purchase to the Adobe server; without that authentication, Adobe has no record of my License.

I’ve talked with Amazon Customer Care people in Cape Town (twice, two different reps) and somewhere in the US, and have been assured that the Problem has been Escalated. I tried again to use InDesign this morning, got the same message, called Amazon, and actually achieved a three-way call (me, Cape Town, India) and am assured that the issue will be resolved in 24 or 48 hours. I’m not holding my breath.

All of the people I talked with were friendly, professional, helpful… but not really able to DO anything. The connection between Amazon and Adobe (who are after all business partners in this) seems to be defective or worse: the arrogance/greed of Adobe’s subscription model is surely part of the problem (I thought I had what amounted to a contract for a year, at $16.99/month), but it seems the quality control on Amazon’s Web page link management is at least as much of a problem.

To add one more annoyance, when I open LightRoom there’s now a message from Adobe saying that they have found a problem with my payment for the Creative Cloud Photography package (LightRoom and Photoshop), which I ALSO have via an Amazon subscription, and that if I don’t straighten it out in 13 days, my access to THOSE products will be cancelled. It develops that Adobe has raised the price for that package, again without telling me or, seemingly, informing Amazon: $9.99/month instead of $6.99. Amazon knows about the issue and, I’m told, has a Team working on it.

It’s not about the money. I NEED those products (they are, in effect, the Only Wheel In Town), so I’m over the barrel and I’ll pay them the additional 20-25%. It’s about the Service. And the complete absence of recourse. I’ve now lost 3 days on my project with InDesign, and spent several hours on the phone (mostly on hold) trying to straighten out a problem that I certainly didn’t cause myself. And I very much doubt that I’m the only person in the world with this problem.

I probably ought to promise not to do this

but sometimes people put the case so eloquently:

Future political scientists will analyze (let us hope in amused retrospect, rather than in exile in New Zealand or Alberta) the precise elements of Poujadisme, Peronism and Huck Finn’s Pap that compound in Trump’s “ideology.” But his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government, whether Léon Blum’s or Barack Obama’s, is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and “success.” It is always alike, and always leads inexorably to the same place: failure, met not by self-correction but by an inflation of the original program of grievances, and so then on to catastrophe. The idea that it can be bounded in by honest conservatives in a Cabinet or restrained by normal constitutional limits is, to put it mildly, unsupported by history….

Claire Underwood is a more stable person to have in office than a cross between Sauron and Bozo the Clown.
(Adam Gopnik New Yorker Daily Comment, 11 May 2016)

so why keep blogging?

I’ve been rethinking what blogging is for, and recognizing that my 2004-ish notions of its utility and purpose are, well, anachronistic. In the days before The Facebook and Twitter, back when hypertext seemed like the New Jerusalem of the conveyance of ideas via personal writing for the Web, my own blog felt like a channel to communicate discoveries and thoughts to an audience of … ah. People who added my blog to their RSS feeds, and thus would be notified whenever I posted something new. Those would mostly be friends to whom I’d sent the blog’s URL, plus maybe a few people who happened to stumble on the blog in other ways and added it to their RSS feeds. A pretty select, not to say limited, group. And now, in 2016, tending an RSS feed is just not something that people do.

So my blog postings, when I get around to making them, wander out into the aether and just keep wandering. Very occasionally a real person makes a comment on one of my posts, but most of the incoming traffic is basically spam (though why anybody would bother baffles me), and I’m mostly communicating with myself. I’ve decided that’s a good thing, not a limitation or still less a reason to stop using the medium. So the primary purpose is to record for myself things that I might want to find again, and/or be able to trace back to when I first encountered. Any communication with others that results is just gravy, though certainly very welcome gravy.

Today’s case in point of something I might wish to find later comes from the just-arrived New York Review of Books, from an article by Mark Danner on “The Magic of Donald Trump” in which he cites Richard Rorty, writing in 1997. That’s 19 years ago, right? Rorty died in 2007, but ‘prescient’ is perhaps an understatement:

members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. (in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in TwentiethCentury, pp 89-90)

(a Google search for richard rorty “nonsuburban electorate” gets 420 hits, so it’s not like Mark Danner is the first to note the passage in connection with the present).

Yup, something I may want to locate again.

argybargy du jour

All those years ago I was drawn to Anthropology because I thought it was a comprehensive and comprehensible way to MAKE SENSE of the world around me; and in my years as a prof I approached teaching Anthro in the same spirit, looking at the great variety of solutions to the practical problems of living that people had developed over the vastnesses of time and space (well, 10,000 years or so; and terrestrial space, but still…), returning again and again to the observed Fact that the Emperor was Naked. And now I find myself looking to one particular/peculiar strain of the discipline to, once again, [try to] make sense of the contemporary world.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of things that have fundamentally the same message. Much seems to emanate from David Graeber, and is concerned with bamboozlement in many forms:

…a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of US corporate bureaucracy — away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole… corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable… (19)

…the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last 30 or 40 years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence… (27)

What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. (30)

…public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth. (35)

If one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true. (37)

…what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action — taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings — and not others. (98)

(The above from The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. There’s much more I’d transcribe from Graeber’s writings, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and of course Debt.

A similarly resonant voice: Tariq Ali in the latest London Review of Books:
The New World Disorder (Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015)

But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times. Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening. If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.

and this announcement by William Arkin, via Gizmodo, of a Twitter feed covering a lot of the same dolorous but important ground:

o here’s what I plan to do: Expose. Explain. Secrecy and euphemisms are carpet-bombing us into submission. I’m sick of the parameters of the sanctioned debate. So instead I will try to treat the secret world like a sports league: There are coaches, players, commentators, bookies, and marketing geniuses. We’ll have something to say about all of them, something to reveal every week. The teams are the NSA, the CIA, FBI, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, ICE; and that’s just Division I. There’s a Division II playing somewhere else, far more obscure but nevertheless influential and odious, populated by billion-dollar institutions like the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or U.S. Army North, real parasites on the American spirit, survivors because what they do festers in the dark. Each has a history and personality, a lineup, a budget cap, a general manager, a narrative to sell.
(much more and very worth reading)

Cuisine collides with living language

Lately we’ve been exploring what can be done with ground duck. Last night I used half a pound in a stir-fry (with tofu, collards, a tomato; and using a Thai prik mixture smuggled by a friend) and there was a half pound of duck left… So I went to sleep on it, and woke up thinking about a solution: fine choppage of ginger, scallions, cilantro (all withering in the refrigerator and needing to be used); mix with duck; shape into little torpedoes; steam, or sauté, or poach. I followed that inspiration through several steps:




But what are these little torpedoes? From some back corner of the mind came an answer: quenelles de canard. I was pretty sure that ‘quenelle’ was the right designation for the shape and even the cooking method, but I googled it anyway. And immediately found myself in a rapidly-unfolding linguistic muck heap. Yes, I was right about ‘quenelle’ in a culinary sense, but recent argybargy in France has put the term into hazardous territory, such that one might want to find another designation for the …ummm… torpedoes. I’ll leave it for you to peruse the relevant Wikipedia page (Quenelle_gesture_) and consider the depths of linguistic play.

Others have found themselves deep in it:

(from International Business Times)


And here’s where it all began a decade or so ago.

Evidently quenelle derives from knödel, at least in the mind of the OED, so we’re somewhere in dumpling-land, a pleasant place to be on a snowy Sunday morning.

Aaron Swartz

I didn’t know Aaron, but a whole lot of people whom I admire and follow did, and they have a lot to say. Just to put them in one place, for future reference

Larry Lessig
Alex Stamos
Quinn Norton
Cory Doctorow
Doc Searls
Ethan Zuckerman
Dave Winer
danah boyd
Dave Weinberger
Brewster Kahle
Remember Aaron tumblr
…and Ron Nigh adds Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian
…and The Digital Archive’s Aaron Swartz Collection, crowdsourcing “any digital materials you think appropriate in a memorial collection: emails with him, code archives, photos”
…and a Twitter hashtag #pdftribute (via Kerim)
Jason Scott, acerbic but believeable
and Dan Gillmor
and Gardner Campbell, who points to Matt Stoller’s post, among others I’ve already noted above