Monday, August 8, 2016

Inhuman West

I drove through the West last week, and realized I love the feeling of inhumanity in it.

I mean, I like great mountains for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is that liking nature is an Approved Interest that you can make small talk about and no one will analyze for its problematic undertones.

But I love mountains in particular; there’s something intoxicating about their sheer scale, something that pictures and video fail to capture (though I still took plenty of pictures, poke me if you want to see them). The scale is… wrong. These things are just too big, and dwarf our perspective. One of the best shots from the trailer for The Force Awakens really captures this scale.

There is a tiny human in this picture.

In cities and suburbia, the buildings all feel the size built for humans. And on flat plains your car is the only thing of interest. It’s easy to get solipsistic there.

Driving through canyons and rockfaces, you instead get the message “the universe was here long before you, it will be here long after you, and it doesn’t even notice you now.” It’s all so epicly big.

It’s also broken.


In the constant cultural wars between “you should not let your ideology become an excuse to hurt people” and “niceness is a way to prevent the underclass from expressing their frustration at how hurt they are”, I think the dividing line is smoothness.

We cherish smoothness as a sign of utopian harmony, from the interior curves of the Galaxy-class Enterprise D, to the latest Apple product, to images of youthful attractiveness, to a well run committee meeting. Smoothness is a sign of having your act together, and a way of avoiding aversive experience. It’s no wonder we associate it with the signs of capitalist success, while the outsourced factories are depicted as rough and angular and grimy (when they show up in media at all.)

The first post of this blog talked about how much Anakin hates roughness, and values smooth things. Anakin is a satire.

A satire fit for this series. It’s impossible not to notice the aesthetic differences between the OT and the PT. Everything in the prequels is CGI smooth - the ships, naboo, the gungans, the Senate, there isn’t a sharp angle among them. In terms of design, this is the idealized world for people who want to smooth out all the pain and disagreements of the world. Anakin lusts after this ideal.

Another perspective for smooth, is fake. The violence is always exported elsewhere (to the droid factories, to Darth Maul, or to Tatooine. To Klingon battlecruisers and Foxxconn factories.) Smooth never lasts. People instead miss the “used future” aesthetic of the original movies, where everything is jangled and boxy and half broken. They stand for authenticity.

A political dialogue that expects smooth operating is just one that is exporting its violence elsewhere. The problems remain repressed, and will continue erupting.

(The Death Star is a uniform sphere, but it can not stamp out a hole of vulnerability in its smooth exterior.)

Whereas inflicting harm on others is a violation of your first principles (or should be.) Finding the difference between “Am I maintaining smoothness” or “Am I trying not to hurt others” can be intuitively difficult, but is at least a goal to aim for. A dividing line to keep us both on the right side of truth, while compassionate to those who need it.

(This political perspective is more directly stated in the infamous editorial Cupcake Fascism . I feel towards it that distinct anxiety you feel about something you agree with, that is presented ineptly and with arrogance. Hence a reason to prefer billion dollar works of art by dedicated craftspeople for expressing your political preferences, than newspaper columns.)


The rocky mountains are huge and broken and anything but smooth. We cannot tame these lands, and there are 150 mile stretches of interstate where no one lives or buys or sells anything, even in a nation that complains of overcrowding. Even when humanity has attempted to master them, building their line of asphalt through a pass and even blasting a tunnel through their heart, you only look up and see how small this presence is to the foreboding entities stretching for miles in every direction. They do not care.

They are jagged and breaking through “our land” into these obscene interjections. I love the sharp roughness of these objects that are beyond my scale of comprehension. It’s not that they can not be denied, but if you deny them, they and the universe simply are not bothered.

I think I could live happily amongst these eldritch monstrosities. Or perhaps waking up every day in view of Mt Fuji. They are a quiet but not tranquil reminder of the world which is much bigger, and harsher, and more beautiful than human beings can ever imagine.

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