With down time around the holidays, I’ve been thinking about an older idea called “ambient TV,” taken from Kyle Chayka’s piece in The New Yorker on “ambient television.” Using Emily in Paris as an example, along with scores of cooking and home improvement shows, Chayka compares ambient television to ambient music, quoting composer Brian Eno, that it is “as ignorable as it is interesting.”
Ambient television, like its music counterpart, is meant to move between background and foreground seamlessly. As we scroll through Twitter or write an e-mail, Emily’s prosaic journey continues on screen. Then, our eyes look up again, taking in the Haussmannian boulevards and cafe conversations. We can figure out what happened in our mental absence and expect a calming, comfortable view when we look up. We don’t get lost, and the drama is largely inconsequential. But unlike something “boring,” it still entertains. As Chayka writes:
Ambient denotes something that you don’t have to pay attention to in order to enjoy but which is still seductive enough to be compelling if you choose to do so momentarily. Like gentle New Age soundscapes, “Emily in Paris” is soothing, slow, and relatively monotonous, the dramatic moments too predetermined to really be dramatic.
Analyzing Emily in Paris and other shows, Chayka remarks on their placidity and homogeneity. Seamless edits, drifting montages, voice-overs, B-roll, and other editing techniques smooth over discord and difference, lulling us into a frictionless drift, as we move our eyes and attention between screens, tasks, and distraction.
Station Eleven is a difficult book to summarize. Covering a tight but dynamic set of main characters and a sprawling timeline, the book layers settings, memories, people, and situations, jumping back and forth between a world devastated by a pandemic, the early moments of the disaster, and the years and decades before the event. But most of all, the book explores a range of themes: loneliness, longing, belonging, meaning, and survival.
But, if anything, the core tenet of a post-apocalyptic roving Shakespearean acting troupe and orchestra acts as a sort of leitmotif, even a mantra, lurking in the back of most scenes and tying the text together: “Survival is insufficient.” What we mean by survival, what we do to attain it, and what it may mean to transcend it.
So it is once a book about plague, about Shakespeare and acting, about failed relationships and drifting conversations, about loneliness and hope, and most of all, about what it means to live.
I listened to Station Eleven during a series of long car rides a few years ago, and I found myself hooked. I had wanted to read it during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic but lacked the mindset, preferring escapism to reflections on a pandemic-ravaged world. Revisiting it then, over a year and half later, I felt more distant, more ready to reflect. And a few things struck me. So I started reflecting on some of those changes. I put it, as well as a lot of non-required writing, on hold. Here are some of those thoughts, though rather late.
Though I’d hate to simplify Odell’s book, a general thesis would be something like this. Our current attention economy, especially ramped up by social media, is destroying us as individuals and society at large, preventing us from getting in touch with surroundings and people, including our self. To combat this destruction, we should drop back or “drop out” and “do nothing,” dwelling in the time and place where we are at, paying attention to who we are with. This gets spelled out more in the quote I wanted to reflect on today:
The first half of “doing nothing” is about disengaging from the attention economy; the other half is about reengaging with something else. That “something else” is nothing less than time and space, a possibility only once we meet each other there on the level of attention. Ultimately, against the placelessness of an optimized life spent online, I want to argue for a new “placefulness” that yields sensitivity and responsibility to the historical (what happened here) and the ecological (who and what lives, or lived, here).
This dual movement of detaching and reengaging with something else is central to the book. Odell focuses on a specific type of re-engagement, more steeped in place and presence, as she points to here. This specific re-engagement reflects her broader values on art and ecology, but regardless of the specifics, disengaging to reengage feels like an essential skill that is often quite deliberately absent from current media trends and technology.
Tristan Harris, former Google ethicist, for example, has written and spoken extensively on the specific “dark patterns” and tactics tech uses to keep us glued to devices and apps, VR pioneer and tech activist Jaron Lanier has pointed out the dehumanizing aspects of these interfaces, and academic Shoshona Zuboff has analyzed and theorized the “surveillance capitalism” facilitated by tech and the tech economy.
Later on in the book, Odell reflects on this disengage-to-reengage theme in a passage drawing from Thomas Merton that I find especially insightful in these current times:
In one of those books, Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton reflects on the relationship between contemplation of the spiritual and participation in the worldly, two things the Church had long articulated as opposites. He found that they were far from mutually exclusive. Removal and contemplation were necessary to be able to see what was happening, but that same contemplation would always bring one back around to their responsibility to and in the world. For Merton, there was no question of whether or not to participate, only how:
She then quotes Merton:
If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events. To choose the world is…an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time. In my time, which is the present.
This passage, including the Merton quote, presents an important addition to the idea of disengaging: That it often leads to a further sense of connection and responsibility, a deeper engagement. Furthermore, it helps ground and strengthen us, letting us engage more effectively and sustainably.
In other words, disengaging is not about full-on retreat or renunciation, though it may start as that. It is about giving yourself the time and space to ween off false connections and noise in order to figure out how to best spend your time and energy.
I was especially moved by Merton’s statement that “If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events.” Lately, and I know I am not alone, I have felt a bit bedraggled and depressed from the world today, both from more distant stresses like climate change and national politics and more personally, with my anxiety as I look toward the job market. But, at least at some base level, I have a choice on how to face these challenges, though that choice–or strength–may be hidden or drowned out by the attention economy.
So, for a span today, I am going to do nothing. In a sense, writing this has been in line with that–along with the music gently thrumming through my speakers.
Trying to get back into quotes, I was drawn to the one below about ignorance and what is often translated as clear-sightedness or lucidity:
The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as good, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. There can be no true goodness, nor true love, without the utmost clear-sightedness.
Though the novel is directly about the Algerian town of Oran under quarantine for Bubonic plague and the main characters finding various ways of coping and addressing the isolation and rising body count, it also explores deeper themes of humanity in the face of overwhelming challenge. The plague itself is partly a symbol for Nazism and other fascist regimes, nihilism, and the specter of the absurd.
This leads to the above quote. Camus’ post-war morality, which developed firmly in his Letters to a German Friend during the war, focuses on these two sides: ignorance and lucidity. Elsewhere in The Plague the two main characters have a conversation:
“What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?” “I don’t know. My… my code of morals, perhaps.” “Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?” “Comprehension.”
Throughout much of his writing, including his early work like The Wrong Side and the Right Side, Camus argues that clarity is at the core of morality. One cannot do the right thing clouded with ignorance, and vise versa: having a clear sense of the situation makes it harder for tyrants to perpetuate atrocities. For example, as he writes on capital punishment:
When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. … There is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak.
Part of this belief seems to step from Camus’ faith in the underlying goodness of most people, a resilient theme in his work. As he says, “men are more good than bad.” This faith girdled his humanism and informed his break from other French intellectuals, like Sartre, who took a more Marxist view of history, less focused on individual morality and more focused on grand causes and social movements.
But as Camus says, most people are inherently ignorant, causing suffering through their uninformed actions or letting leaders abuse them and stir them to abuse. And if clear-sightedness is the core of morality than the opposite is the worst: “an ignorance which fancies it knows everything.” Over the years, I have often come back to this form of ignorance, which I often term “impassioned ignorance,” where individuals, for whatever reason, refuse to change their views in the face of information.
While not new and not inherently destructive (Will Sorr’s The Unpersuadables takes a more positive view, for instance), this impassioned ignorance seems especially destructive today, whether in the rhetoric of anti-vaxxers, science-deniers, those vilifying other races and ethnic groups, and those peddling conspiracy theories like QAnon. Amid fake news and post-truth rhetoric, impassioned ignorance is flourishing.
And I think Camus’ warning is as important as ever, though like the plague itself, addressing ignorance presents an seemingly impossible challenge.
To build some reflection time each morning, I am going to try to post a quote here, now and then. Today is one that I commonly put on my bathroom or bedroom mirror and that came up last night, from the Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
Recently, I was talking with a friend and thought of an old LiveJournal entry I had made my junior year of college. LiveJournal, which still is a thing, though deeply changed, is a blogging platform founded in ’99 that was popular for groups of friends journaling, blogging, and sharing fanfiction. My LiveJournal page operated as a journal and blog, often mingling the (deeply) personal and philosophical.
This particular entry was about the struggle of getting up some days, opening your eyes and solving the “why get up” question. I think a lot of us have been feeling this lately, whether from the quotidian, home-bound nature of working situations or the genuine horrors and hardships of the moment, from job losses, to dead family, to months of uncertainty.
As I reflected then:
I ask myself why I fight. Why I continue to live out days steeped in the same despair and angst. I never find an answer. Instead, I lose myself in the pattern of my life, a pattern arrayed to defend me from such dangerous questions. I have to limit my scope to be happy. Looking beyond the bounds of the “norm,” daring to desire something beyond the regular patterns framed by society, only leads to nausea, a sickness derived from life’s sheer futility
Unfortunately, I don’t find much comfort in the entry, basically advocating getting lost in one’s daily patterns–a pattern that is likely skewed or broken for many right now, leading to this questioning.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to dwell on that today. It is an important topic, but revisiting this old entry, I found myself sucked into a document of other entries, where two things really struck me.
First, how confident and unqualifying most entries were. They flowed out with a flourish and kept going. They made big claims, ignored huge assumptions, talked about deep truths with nontechnical glibness. They were more naive and less self-aware than my current writing. They hedged less. They did not go into deeper explanations, digressions, or intellectual genealogies to the same extent. They were less careful.
But on the other hand, the writing was much less heavy and much more lively, even raw. It also had a more transcendent quality, a reaching or over-speculating that was refreshing and exciting. It wasn’t worried about being “correct” or professional; it was about thinking through things.
It was less like a product and more like a process.
And in some ways, that can be bad, as it is messy and over-sharing, possibly more sure of itself than it should be. Even smug or self-centered. Navel-gazing, not considering its audience as carefully. As some composition scholars may term it, it was “writerly” prose, writing for the writer, and not “readerly” prose, writing for the reader. But I also really liked it. Or at least parts of it.
And so I come back to three larger observations.
First, how much easier or less stressful that kind of writing is. As someone moving to write as part of a living, I am constantly haunted by the specter of “the reader” when I write, a misty figure who always seems excessively invested in picking through my writing to find every possible shortcoming. Writing without that reader, even reading that writing, is liberating.
Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
As time has gone on, I think I let a lot of my creative writing go to the side because it did not feel good enough, or more perniciously, I would start a project and abandon it because I thought I would never be up to the challenge. If I feel the work is bad, so will they.
Though I think this is somewhat inevitable as Glass describes it, and as he suggests, we should just work through it, producing more writing. And on the other side, I think we may be throwing less spaghetti at the wall because we get better at making it. Writing that goes through our self-criticism gauntlet is indeed better–more informed, polished, and mature–but it’s a hard process, leaving lots of dead documents.
But conversely, I thought about Albert Camus revisiting his old writing and finding it refreshing, filled with a life and sensuous poetry that his more current writing lacked. It inspired him in his unfinished final novel, The First Man, to return to a similar style.
The style of the novel feels closer to some of his earlier essays, like in Nuptials, different from the deliberately sparse writing in The Stranger and the expressive yet restrained writing of The Plague, especially in passages like this:
He could breathe, on the giant back of the sea he was breathing in waves, rocked by the great sun, at last he could sleep and come back to the childhood from which he never recovered, to the secret of the light, of the warm poverty, which enabled him to survive and overcome everything.
Albert Camus, The First Man
Camus’ writing always has a depth, poetry, and a sensuousness, but it got more careful as he got published. Those early essays are a bit stumbling, over-extended, and unduly grand, but they have a certain intensity to them. A rawness. Just look at the opening few sentences of The Wind at Djemila:
THERE are places where the spirit dies so that a truth may be born which is the spirit’s very negation. When I went to Djemila there was wind and sun but that must wait. What has to be said first is that a great silence reigns there, heavy and without a crack. The cries of birds, the furred sound of a three-holed flute, the stamping of goats, murmurs from the sky–these are so many noises which made up the silence and desolation of the place.
Albert Camus, “The Wind at Djemila,” Nuptials
And it doesn’t let up much from there.
But finding that balance between the sometimes naive, exploratory confidence of immature writing and the careful craft of more mature writing seems essential. While they seem somewhat contradictory, I don’t think they are. I don’t know where the reconciliation occurs, but I think it mingles the hot fire of younger emotions with more reflective hindsight, somehow allowing both to breathe and inform the page.
Like the generations before us, we were raised on a diet of meritocracy and exceptionalism: that each of us was overflowing with potential, and all we needed to activate it was hard work and dedication. If we worked hard, no matter our current station in life, we would find stability.
Long before the spread of COVID-19, millennials had begun to come to terms with just how hollow, how deeply and depressingly fantastical, that story really was. We understood that people keep telling it, to their kids and their peers, in New York Times editorials and in how-to books, because to stop would be tantamount to admitting that it’s not just the American Dream that’s broken; it’s America. That the refrains we return to — that we’re a land of opportunity, that we’re a benevolent world superpower — are false.
There’s an important difference between apocalypse and a catastrophe. A catastrophe is total devastation, with nothing left and nothing learned. “Apocalypse”—especially in the biblical sense—means a time of crisis and change, of hidden truths revealed. A time, quite literally, of revelation. When we talked about the end of every certainty, we were not expecting any revelation. We were not expecting it to be so silly, so sweet, and so sad.
The pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will linger through the year and across the world. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. “That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?”
Happy Easter! My thoughts go out to the emergency, medical, delivery, care-giving, grocery and other essential workers and their families. I hope folks are able to find some comfort and tradition, despite social isolation.
In terms of the post, I was originally going to post this Thursday, but didn’t finish it. I eventually hope to make a newsletter of sorts, but I wanted to start small, writing a short newsletter-format post, tinkering with it in the coming weeks. So far, this is a (heavily) working title, and I wanted to start small with 1-2 entries per category.
But the gist is there: some things I ran into this week.
Some heavier stuff
It seems that there is no end to heavier stuff this week, but a few things have stood out. Gonna get them over with first.
For one thing, Ed Yong’s writing for The Atlantic has been a thoughtful, informed, and realistic–though certainly serious–guide from the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic to this current week. His most read piece, “How the Coronavirus Will End,” goes through a timeline from the buildup to the current state, to the endgame, to the aftermath of the current pandemic, examining the scientific, political, and social impact of the virus. His piece “Why the Coronavirus Has Been So Successful” is also worth a read if you are interested in the science of the virus
Speaking of The Atlantic and COVID-19, David Frum’s “This is Trump’s Fault” may seem lost in the myriad of recent think-pieces and outright reporting about Trump’s failure with the early stages, and current stages, of the virus, but its clear timeline, taut focus, and overwhelming evidence on each facet of failure makes this a pretty incisive piece. Worth reading for a summation.
Similarly, “He Could Have Seen What Was Coming,” a heavily circulating piece from The New York Times on the early timeline of the virus in the US and Trump’s failure to act, may become one of the go-to articles about the timeline to share with folks–assuming that they still believe in “the fake news.”
Some interesting stuff
This fascinating, yet fun piece on how crimes may be investigated on Mars: “How Mars Will Be Policed.” Sci-fi forensics.
Last week, the Rusty Quill podcast The Magnus Archivestarted its fifth, and as far as I know, final season. I’ve been a fan of The Magnus Archives for a few years now, but re-listened to it this past fall. It’s a horror podcast about a crew of academics centered on the primary narrator, Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute, itself a private, historical institution situated in London that catalogues paranormal happenings and artifacts.
Each 25-45ish minute episode generally focuses around an individual statement being read by Sims, dealing with a supernatural happening. Seemingly disconnected at first, the statements and post- and pre-statement discussions gradually create an overarching world and story filled with engaging characters and twists. While some episodes can be a bit descriptively gory or gross–like a mysterious tenant collecting droves of meat–most of the stories are uncanny and creepy, with imagery and imagination that sticks with you. Worth a listen if you like good stories, especially spooky ones.
The Bon Appétit YouTube channel cooking from home. This is one of their newer episodes, but it is not their first from home. I have long been a fan of the magazine–reading my mom’s as a kid–and their YouTube channel. But there is something oddly comforting and charming about seeing these professional chefs in their apartments and parents’ homes. A window into their personalities.
It is never a bad time to watch The Twilight Zone, which is largely on Netflix, besides season 4. I recommend “Walking Distance,” one of Rod Serling’s favorites. This older Rolling Stone article has some solid additional favorites, though I would add “A Passage for Trumpet,” one mine, as well as “The Howling Man.”
Different media allows different experiences. Books let your imagination work. Movies integrate dialogue, visuals, music, and editing. Audio has a unique intimacy.
Games, too, allow unique experiences.
While I could talk more about some more specifics–like how games are a highly interactive form of media–I mainly want to focus on two games that have been on my mind lately with the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent pixel art game called Wash Your Hands (2020) and the classic cooperative board game Pandemic (2008).
Both address a similar issue, outbreak, in starkly different ways, showcasing the breadth of games as media. But at the same time, I think they also have a lot in common, namely the ability to clarify abstractions in novel ways.
Pandemic: Modelling Outbreak
Pandemic (2008) is a relatively known board game designed by Matt Leacock, designer of Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, where 2-4 players work together to combat and eventually eradicate a series of diseases across the planet.
The gameplay fundamentals are simple. On each turn, the player uses four actions to navigate the board, fight disease, and find a cure. Then, at the end of the turn, they draw two “player cards” that grant new actions but also contain “epidemic” cards that intensify the disease. After the player cards, they draw a set of “infection cards” based on the infection rate and place more disease tokens on the board to simulate the spread of the overall infection. The players must defeat the diseases by finding all four cures before the pandemic spreads too much, leading to their defeat.
Pandemic is a “simulation” game, a game that takes something from real life and models it by using rules and game components. Players then interact with that model, creating different outcomes based on their decisions. In a game about pandemics, this modelling has some thought-provoking parallels.
For one, the explosive spread of certain outbreaks bares a spooky resemblance to reality, along with the relentless growth of the diseases. As players tend one part of the map, another part may quickly get out of hand. Much like real life, the more a city or network of cities is infected, the more quickly the virus grows. Just as we are being told to stay inside to slow exposures and reduce simultaneous cases, “flattening the curve,” players need to constantly monitor and combat cases, keeping them from hitting a critical mass that overwhelms the system.
Last, the different specialists that players play as, ranging from a scientist who can more easily research a cure to the quarantine expert who reduces the spread of new cases, highlight the need for different expertise and cooperation. Players are more effective when pooling their skills and responding to new situations as a team. This fits our current situation: people are more effective working together and pooling resources and abilities–though this isn’t always how things are working out.
However, like any simulation, Pandemic is not perfect. In the card-driven spread of the virus, the disease spreads to whatever site you pull from the deck, regardless of nearby contagion. But, more importantly, the game sidesteps casualties: the human fallout of failure. This leads me to Wash Your Hands.
Wash Your Hands: Cultivating Reflection and Empathy
As Katherine Isbister argues in How Games Move Us, games, like any media, have a unique ability to affect us emotionally. Sometimes this can be quite blunt. For example, Isbister discusses Brenda Romero’s game Train, in which players must fit people, symbolized by yellow pegs, on a train, the goal being to fit as many as possible. After a period of time, the train’s destination gets revealed: Auschwitz. Romero said her goal was for players to feel “complicit,” and players often get a deep sense of guilt and regret.
As a less direct emotional experience, Isbister also cites “flow,” when one gets so engrossed in an activity that they leave self-preoccupation behind. Many games accomplish this, but the game Journey was specifically designed to accomplish this, with its yawning, moving landscape, ambient sound design, and constant movement toward a distant goal.
In Wash your Hands, you control an avatar walking in a cemetery, leaving flowers. The catch is that each grave signifies a COVID-19 death, updated as the death statistics update.
Unlike Pandemic, the gameplay is extremely simple, aligning it more closely to a “walking simulator” than a traditional game. It’s all the little things that add to the experience.
First the graphics, simple and understated with largely muted colors. The simplicity contrasts with the action-hero aesthetic of Pandemic, letting the number of graves, neatly organized in prim rows, speak for itself.
Next, you have the opening screens:
The opening immediately instills a hush with the tally of confirmed cases and deaths, followed by the number of roses left by players and the comforting yet haunting words: “You may feel isolated, but you are not alone. . . . Follow in the footsteps of the mourner before you.”
From this hush, the ambient noise of a forest accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar accompanies the transition to the main game: your avatar in a cemetery surrounded by trees. Then, one simply walks.
Your footsteps leave ghostly traces with a soft crunch of snow audible with each step. Here, the pacing is important, especially when accompanied by the footfall sound. It is slow and meditative.
You then start to come across roses, strewn in the snow. You pluck them up and place them in front of graves with a simple gesture.
But mostly, you are walking, listening to the music, watching the grids of white space and headstone pass by, knowing that each one signifies a human life lost to the disease.
Conclusion: The Power of Clarity
Both Pandemic and Wash Your Hands center on the spread of disease, but they take up their subject matter in completely different ways. But both, in a sense, are teaching tools, or at the very least, tools of clarification.
Amid this tragic pandemic, I have been coming back to issues of clarity–of making sense of things. Because, it’s difficult. The numbers are staggering and relentless. The variables are incalculable. The timeline is shifting and daunting. Not to mention all the information, misleading or accurate.
Amid the noise, tragedy, and acrimony, the power of clarity amid crisis proves more important, as well as the ethical, thoughtful communicators who persist, despite challenges.
I don’t think these games are as important as most of the rhetoric out there regarding this pandemic–though, I think Wash Your Hands is a potent message and experience–but I hope that they help us reflect on the important role that media, of all types, have when shaping our world.
This is a post from an older draft that I originally was going to publish before COVID-19 got serious (I wrote it in February), so it is not connected to the moment per se, but I think it, and the broader goal of blogging, may be helpful during this unique time. Good luck, no matter where you are at, and my thoughts are with you.