A Cathedral of Their Own

I’m not sure I could tell you what this all adds up to or why this blog is an expression of these ideas. But I like the idea of a consecrated but untamed place, and the spiritual development the term implies, not impressed by a conquering army, or ritual defenestrations, but by those who hoped that one day others might enjoy a cathedral of their own.

-J Arthur Bloom, missionary ground: A brief word on this blog’s title

Jordan’s post made me realize that I have always sought to make my little corners of the web into missionary ground, in the sense that he is describing.

Growing up, I would tell my dad about the stuff I had learned in history (mostly) or English, and he would say something to the tune of—“That’s totally wrong. But remember it because it’s what your teacher will want you to say on a test.” I found this very troubling. Teachers were authority figures, but my dad was the king of authority figures. That their stories did not line up—that they straight up contradicted one another—was really quite unpleasant.

Since that time I have consistently sought certainty in a world where so many stories are presented as though they were born of the true knowledge of the storyteller. Any certainty would do; even a Pyrrhonian certainty that no one knows anything at all. I’ve tried that one on for size many times, and it will always have a hold on me.

In 2004 I set out to conquer the untamed stories by declaring a little corner of the Blogger empire my missionary space—again, in Jordan’s sense. I was not looking to convert the world—I was looking to build my cathedral.

And I did attempt to build it. First, from Protagorean foundations. Then, from Popperian ones. Then, from Humean and social science inspired ones. Between these episodes of attempted craftsmanship was a virtual ocean of reading, quoting, linking, writing, and arguing. Between attempts to raise up an elegant edifice was messy trial and error, and intense devotion to particular ideas for brief and longer periods of time.

The truth is in the mess, and not the edifice. No matter how many cathedrals I start I am always living in the untamed lands, where stories vie for my allegiance. Where sometimes I think Pyrrho was right and we are all little more than dreamers and storytellers, and the rest of the time I am merely certain that my own mind is systematically working against me.

Writing at The Ümlaut this year has been good for me; I have followed trains of thought in a far more focused, less messy manner. Still, I scrutinize my work and wonder whether they form a whole or if they are incompatible pieces to entirely distinct puzzles. Are this, this, and this part of one story or am I contradicting myself? What about this and this? I often have trouble trusting my answer to this question.

Still, I continue to work on my next cathedral, clinging to the hope that this will be the one. I feel I have made a great deal more progress than the last time I made the attempt. But is this an accurate reading of my circumstances or is this the same false confidence I always feel when setting about a task of this sort?

If I have given the impression up until this point that I have some sort of anxiety on this score, I hope you’ll forgive me for that bit of stylistic indulgence. I actually love it down here, in the untamed lands, where I’m never more than half-sure of anything. I don’t know if I’m going to ever finish a cathedral with solid enough foundations to last long, but I do know that I am so much better at navigating these parts than I was even a year or two ago. And I am incomparably better than the 19-year-old kid who planted a flag in the blogosphere nine years ago.

When it comes to cognitive biases and imperfections, I have grown comfortable thinking of my mind as a table at which many strange characters sit. One of those is GMU-style libertarianism, informed largely by people like my friend Eli and the GMU professors who have a large presence in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Then there are people close to me in my life, whose idiosyncrasies I know well; I often think about how any one of them might react to a particular story I have read. Then there are the people I seek out who often force me to experience the cognitive dissonance of disagreement when I know the person I am disagreeing with is intelligent—people like Noah Smith, Claudia Sahm, Bernard Yu—they are numerous these days, I am proud to say. And there are others.

This isn’t to say that I have cataloged the sources of my biases and elevated myself above them—I am just as imperfectly human as anyone else. But I am more comfortable living with my biases than I used to be.

I really am serious about this next effort to build something, but I am also keenly aware that a cathedral is something that no individual can build alone—indeed it cannot even be built in a single generation. We speak of people like Daniel Kahneman or Everett Rogers—to say nothing of Adam Smith or Charles Darwin—as having done immensely important work because after decades or centuries of other people building on top of what they did, we now know that their work was, indeed, important.

So I will continue to do work in the hopes that I can add a few pieces to something bigger than I could ever possibly accomplish on my own.

And in the meantime, I will revel in the madness of this perpetually untamed space of stories and uncertainty.

The Caped Surveiller

So the thing you’ve got to realize is, most comic book superheroes make no sense. You don’t even have to think about it very hard. You don’t have to dig under the surface; just look at the surface and they generally don’t make sense. Take the greatest superhero of all—Spider-Man. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spider-Man—my dad just loves to tell people about how his little girl said she was going to marry Peter Parker some day.

Continue reading The Caped Surveiller

Tropes

“Yet another improbable set of problems tackled, and back where we started,” she sighed, relieved.

“We sure get mixed up in a lot of strange stuff, on an alarmingly regular basis,” he observed. She pondered this for a moment.

“Do you ever get the feeling that we’re stuck in an endless cycle of tropes that are moving our relationship forward bit by bit, leading towards some sort of dramatic culmination?” She asked.

At the stunned look he gave her, she quickly said, “Yeah, me neither.”

The Adventure Ends

The adventure had come to an end, their love for one another confessed; at last they could begin to build their life together. Or so they thought. No sooner was the final deed done than they were flung back to their homelands, separated enormously by time and space. The forces that had set their adventure in motion cared little for the feelings that had grown between them during the time they had spent together. In a sense, they had been used by the universe to fulfill a particular purpose, and once that was completed, they were simply returned to where they had been before the whole thing had begun. No thinking creature had brought them together, and in the end, they were thoughtlessly separated, never to see nor hear from one another for the rest of their lives.

Answering Malice with Violence: a Look at the Psychology of Holyland

characters

It’s no secret to my friends that I’m rather obsessed with the manga series Holyland; a series that is not even available through legal channels in the US. On its face it’s just another wimp-to-badass manga with a high school student who keeps getting stronger, and therefore by (improbable) happenstance ends up fighting ever strong opponents.

There are a few things that set Holyland apart, however. One thing that draws many fans is that the artist is clearly a martial arts nerd who clearly worked very hard to make the fights as realistic as possible, contra just about every other manga in the genre. Addressing the readers directly, Kouji Mori frequently chimes in to explain the physics and anatomy of what goes on in a given fight, and why it’s different from what most fictional fighting or common sense assumptions might lead you to believe. The only real break from reality (aside for the main character’s improbable quickness in learning new techniques) is that people seem to heal way too quickly from their injuries. But even here, an effort is made towards realism.

The thing that really sets it apart, that I want to talk about here, is the psychology of the thing. Kamishiro Yuu is no ordinary hero or even anti-hero. He’s a victim who tries to rise above it, but whose trauma looms large throughout the series, always threatening to turn him into something worse than the people that created him.

malice

Continue reading Answering Malice with Violence: a Look at the Psychology of Holyland