Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Aron Hsiao Ph.D.

I’ve worked in a wide variety of very public roles and written a number of books. In my “real life” I’ve had an audience varying from hundreds of thousands to millions over the years, across big media, online media, and academic media.
Some of you may also know me from the classroom, as I’ve taught at a decent array of major universities, in topic areas from linguistics to anthropology to sociology to cultural studies and media. I am not currently teaching.
Companies and Brands
If you’re wondering if I'm the “same Aron Hsiao that...” then, in fact, I probably am. I won't mention all of the companies, brands, and publications here because many of them won’t want to be directly associated with a blog like this one.
On Google
But if you’ve searched Google for “Aron Hsiao” then you’ve found me. The writer me, the professor me, the photographer me, the technology expert me, and so on. All of those pages and pages of results are, in fact, me. I am not aware of any other Aron Hsiao that has recently (in a decade or more) ranked in the first dozen-plus pages of Google’s results.

Born February 29th, 1976
Ph.D. Sociology (The New School, 2014)
M.A. Social Science (Chicago, 2004)
B.A. Anthropology (Utah, 2001)
B.A. English (Utah, 2001)
7 Books
Thousands of articles
1 Life
2 Kids
5 Goldfish
2 Cats
1 Dog
Lived in Salt Lake City, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and now... Provo.
Myers-Briggs INFP/INTP

I started “blogging” for the first time in 1999 at twenty-three years old, as I was going through my first serious breakup. Without meaning to, I continued to blog on a personal basis more or less without interruption after that. Now it’s been going on seventeen years. All of that content (well, most of it) is here, in one place.
In professional life, I have also ended up spending a decent amount of time blogging for an income for others. Still do.
But after all these years, Leapdragon remains home.
Many have questioned the wisdom of maintaining a site like this one, and from 2007 through 2015 I kept it increasingly obscure online. I have grown tired, however, of hiding myself behind a “professional” cardboard cutout. I’m forty years old and my life, like the lives of many others, gets more complicated by the day, personally and professionally.
It’s time to just be me again, in public, and let the chips fall where they may. So here I am.

Politics: Mixed—Old Left + Old Right (Fuck the SJWs)
Music: Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten
Novel: 2666, Roberto Bolaño
Operating Systems: Mac OS, Linux (Android)
Aquarium Fish: Common goldfish, fully grown
Illumination Technology: Neon tubing
Rag: Counterpunch
Academic Work: Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
Work of Art: Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Helnwein
Art Medium: Still photography
Club/Pub: The Pub, Ida Noyes Hall, University of Chicago
City: New York City
Place: Antelope Island, Syracuse, Utah
Fabrication Material: Leather
Drink: Green Chartreuse
Beach: Ellwood Beach, Goleta, California
Design Language: Swiss/Modern/Bauhaus
Season: Fall

Parenthood is an all-encompassing, but rewarding and at times surreal, experience.  §

Sunday night slice of life: I am a parent.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

There are a million things in my life that I’m not sure about, that seem up in the air. Always have been. But parenthood is one solid thing amidst all the bizarro wreckage of 42 years.

It’s also my most consistent provider of work right now in life. Everything else waxes and wanes, but the parenthood labor remains more or less constant. Looking around the house, it’s not entirely clear who lives here or what they do, but it’s very clear that there are kids involved.

I wasn’t sure it was the right time to have kids when we decided to have kids. My ex-wife (wife at the time) found this infuriating and weak. But I knew from experience—from having grown up as the oldest of multiple kids—that kids take life over. When I finally agreed, I knew that I was sacrificing a career and a particular financial future.

No regrets whatsoever. The kids are everything. This is also true in a very literal sense in terms of the material circumstances of life. Tonight:

  • Cleaned boogers off the wall

  • Returned dozens of toys from all over the kitchen to bedroom

  • Went through a stack of random, wildly folded up “papers” left around the house

  • Found re-hidden plastic easter eggs and put away into Easter decor storage

  • Triaged kid art and decided which pieces to save and which pieces to gently “retire”

  • Re-stacked skateboards again, hope it lasts for a few days this time

  • Put a random stack of bead bracelets and necklaces into a random jar

  • Threw out a week and a half’s worth of “saved” food in the fridge

  • Retrieved laundry from under couch cushions

  • Sorted game pieces from general soup back into their proper game boxes

  • Vacuumed up scattered pine needles and leaf fragments from unfinished “project”

  • Found all electronic devices but one and plugged them in to charge

  • Installed roll dice skill on Echo due to missing game dice in the sort-out

  • Put away some winter items, though not all because it’s been still cold and rainy

  • Gathered up recent daughter mementos and put them into a “scrapbook pile”

  • Made mental note to get ahold of a scrapbook

  • Gathered collected rocks from around house and put them in rock collection box

  • Neatly stacked all fidget spinners

  • Neatly stacked all guiness record and comic books

  • Put all crayons, markers, pens, and pencils into “writing things” flower pot

It all took hours. I don’t really use any of these things, but they are the considerable clutter of my life. Sometimes a reflect bemusedly on the fact that I have a Ph.D. in sociology, but I’m working from home as a copywriter, comms manager, and general geek while stacking up fidget spinners in my spare time.

But I don’t do that very often.

I do wonder, however, about the people who seem frustrated at parenthood, or bothered by the fact that they had kids or are a parent. I think these people are sad, and sadly divorced from their humanity. Yes, I’m judging. Part of my job as a parent is to make judgments, at least for a few more years.

Peterson, Gambino, Sanders, Trump, and the importance of being earnest.  §

I said something about earnestness a few days ago. Then, Childish Gambino dropped his latest.

Meanwhile, the Bari Weiss article on the “intellectual dark web” continues to rankle out there, and to generate in particular discussion about Jordan Peterson, even as “This is America” continues to spread and to be increasingly juxtaposed with recent work and comments by Kanye West.

I think that both Peterson and Gambino are exploding—at least in part—for the same reasons.

— § —

I’m fascinated by earnestness for two reasons:

  1. I was born a tempermentally earnest kid.

  2. I had this earnestness insistently trained out of me by years of public school, years as an undergraduate, years in grad school, years in the workforce, and years and years of participation in a culture that sees earnestness to be somewhere between risible, a tragic birth defect, and a mortal sin.

There aren’t many earnest people left. Mostly, we make fun of them, have them make the coffee, and don’t invite them to the parties or out on dates.

© Aron Hsiao / 2005

We work hard to train our young people to be urbane, ironic, and detached. Our contemporary literary giants are such because they are so god damned postmodern; they don’t mean a single thing, because what is meaning something anyway beyond a form of slave labor in the service of one master or another, so the really smart slaves sabotage the machinery and play at being earnest with a self-aware wink and a nod, all the while crossing their fingers behind their back.

If you’re really good at this, it gets you a lot of dates in grad school. People will hang out with you and sleep with you just to spend time with someone who’s so god damned good at wittily referring to everything while meaning nothing in a kind of symphonic production of hilariously insincere sincerity.

But actual earnestness—is hard to find. So hard to find that when we now experience it from someone, we mistake them for Jesus.

— § —

What makes Peterson different from the other academics and the rest of the self-help crowd, and what makes Gambino different from Kanye, is that we get the feeling that both Peterson and Gambino:

  1. Actually know what they believe. This is no small thing in a world of people whose minds are largely trained to think in referentiality and “critical thinking,” which at some level is a virtue, but at another level becomes the particularly postmodern vice of refusing to ever allow yourself to believe anything completely, underneath it all.

  2. Are actually willing to say what they believe without an asterisk, in an entirely “no, not even joking, not joking at all” kind of way that causes everyone to get them wrong, thinking it all at first to be a great send-up or an even greater racket, but then later to become confused because they don’t know how to listen in this register.

In short, what links Peterson, Gambino, not to mention Sanders, Trump, and a bunch of other figures of explosive recent importance is the sense that they are not putting us on, nor are they trying to produce what we want to hear.

The idea that you “produce for an audience,” that you “ensure that you’re delivering value for your employer,” that you “measure your impact and iterate on successful strategies” is so ingrained in us that we have forgotten that there was once a separation between this dimension of being and a more personal way of being-in-the-world in which you were not working for some marketplace in some way with every single utterance.

— § —

Recent years have put the lie to the adage that you ought to “be yourself.”

Everyone says this, and everyone says they are doing it, and nobody means it on either count. Everyone knows who they are supposed to be. Liberal, conservative, academic, blue-collar, white, black, everyone knows that there is a particular model for the “socially acceptable person” that the market demands.

Yes, to some extent this is always the case, but the degree to which it is the case and the ways in which it can affect your personal life vary from age to age. In our age, you’ll be fired for having the wrong political opinion or using particular words in even innocuous ways that would have been invisible just a few years ago—because companies, families, and organizations of every other kind are now “activist” groups with “mission statements” and they explicitly and publicly place themselves on the political spectrum.

It’s part of employee training now to find out what your Fortune 500 company’s particular political issues are and what positions they take on these issues, and to undergo (and have to sign) “training” in which you agree to adopt these positions as a condition of employment.

On both sides of the aisle, people now “cut off” their friends and even their family for voting in the “wrong” ways. Because of course you can’t “surround yourself with toxic people” or people who are trying to “destroy our society,” etc.

And so it is that everyone—the famous and the public intellectuals included—adopts a particular persona constructed from the market demands that surround their particular location in society. Everyone knows who “their audience” is, and they also know that thanks to social media, Goffman’s “backstage” has disappeared; everyone is now always on frontstage all the time.

We are all public figures.

And the final requirement for any persona to be valued by the marketplace, after a long list of requirements is enumerated, is: “and of course, you should also be yourself.”

© Public domain

Any attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction can easily lead a person to dark thoughts about totalitarianism, which is why worry about encroaching totalitarianism has overtaken everyone on every side of every aisle.

Everyone attributes their sense of the tragedy of it all to “the opposition” without realizing that in fact it is “the culture” and the cultural logic that emerges from the demands that they, too, habitually make now as a consumer of other people in the market.

— § —

Enter these figures.

Peterson, Gambino, Sanders, Trump, going viral, exploding into public life, being characterized both as geniuses and terrorists.

Behind the “issues” that these people are discussing, I suspect that the deeper resonance that’s occuring arises from the fact that they exude an actual authenticity in a culture in which “authenticity” is one of the coins of the realm, but most of the currency in circulation is counterfeit, and we all know it.

In the face of the genuine article, the public experiences a mix of agony and ecstasy. Agony at the incredible power that comes with non-counterfeit wealth, and at the envy that it all produces; these people have become culturally rich by breaking all of our cardinal cultural rules, and that doesn’t seem fair. Ecstasy at the experience of El Dorado that obtains when we hear them—real diamonds shimmer and are so much more brightly; real gold is so much softer and more lustrous; real opals put their plastic counterparts to shame.

As Jeffrey Goldfarb once discussed at some length in The Politics of Small Things, in a totalitarian culture, simple, earnest personal honesty—the unaffected speaking of believed truths without consideration of their eventual consumption and consequences—is street terrorism of the most thrilling kind.

Earnest honesty threatens to destroy everything, simply everything—and that is as delightful, and as terrible, as anything that a totalitarian citizen can recall ever having experienced.

Childish Gambino. Some things need to be said by everyone who can say them.  §

Since this dropped I can’t stop watching it. The national discussion—and finally, this work has managed to initiate it—is not wrong. This is one of the most important works of American art to be created in my lifetime.

The layers of meaning and resonance involved stretch well beyond those in the work proper.

Million of words have been written and spoken in attempts to capture and describe our America—today’s America—and its fundamental problems, contradictions, and zeitgeist. I’ve participated in that struggle, at the margins, always feeling that words were inadequate to the task. But Glover has done it, economically and powerfully, in three minutes with just a handful of words.

— § —

Things that I’ve seen about this video that I think their writers got right:

  • Our Jim Crow legacy
  • Distraction—celebrity, entertainment, narcissism, wealth, drugs, denial—in the face of deepening crisis
  • Gun violence (c.f. recent cases, last few years) and the relative values placed on guns and people
  • The tragedy of black-on-black violence
  • The larger context of racial violence and relations
  • Actual vs. entertainment-represented status and lifestyles of Americans
  • Takedown of a particular contemporary branch of hip-hop culture
  • Open car doors—note no drivers, they’ve been shot—on cars that aren’t the cars of the wealthy
  • Social media and cell phone culture, activism, and its impotence
  • The now infamous horseman of the apocalypse
  • Reference to other communities descended from slavery (America is part of that larger story)
  • Cynicism—get your money, the “gospel” of money
  • The way in which riot police descend on suffering communities after violence, but not before
  • The interruption and following 420 reference echoing the moment of silence for Stoneman Douglas

Four more things that I’ll add that I haven’t seen anywhere yet:

(1) When all the drama is done, and he finds a kind of relief dancing on top of the car to cries of “get your money”—an idea that both the music and scene suggest to be the postcathartic arrival at a decision, a place of certainty rather than shock or questioning—he is alone. This is very much also our America. All that has gone before in the video is commodity, as he seems to point out—the guns, the kids, the drugs, the music, the phones, the riots, the media, the lives—and money is the basis for commodity exchange. Get your money, it is the doorway to everything, the choir seems to be saying, but we know that they are saying it cynically, almost sarcastically. But what is the critique here in explicit terms?

Others have pointed out the death. I’ll also point out something else—that he dances alone. No matter how transcendent (or, say, desperate) his dancing, no matter how much separation from the mayhem he has found on top of that car, no matter how much money he collects or at the expense of how many crimes, he dances alone—no evidence of functioning community, friendship, or family. The children, too, have left him. This would seem to be evocative of certain facts on the ground.

(2) There is a developmental arc here that is half Hegelian, half Piaget, and that echoes a prospective larger historical arc (see if you can imagine which one). He begins in innocence and a kind of natural genuineness (which obscures yet embodies its contradiction, the brutality of Jim Crow and the minstrel show), with some foreshadowing of what is to come. This gives way to cynicism and disillusionment, which are the environments of brutality and exploitation. At the end, he (and the music, too) find a synthesis of these two, at first uncomfortable and overwhelming yet also inevitable and cathartic, giving way to a feeling of naturalness once again as he finds his alignment with this synthesis, as shown by the dancing. Then—a new thesis; he is running. Darkness returns. Everyone forms the game; everyone plays the game; the game is constituted by its players.

Innocence, disillusionment, integration. Innocence, disillusionment, integration. Mutual constitution and engagement, even if the complete body of interests of each party remain unmet. This is the cycle of almost everything in social life, at all scales. Those who believe in God or in the “arc of history” (this would seem to encompass both left and right these days) see a Hegelian telos beneath this cycle. What we have not found right now is the integration that will follow our present epoch of disillusionment. Perhaps the purpose of his critique is to foreground the cynicism of disillusionment and call once again for reflection toward a new synthesis—a new integration.

(3) The cadence and tenor of the experience also echo those of our lives. America lulls itself the complacency of production values and naive, self-satisfied first-worldism—along too many axes to enumerate in a place like this. And then—we are brought back—to America. Reality is unforgiving, and the contradictions can no longer be painted over. They erupt without warning—as mass shootings, as terrorism, as Trump—in ways that we tell ourselves and experience to be “out of the blue.”

We lie, including to ourselves. It’s not out of the blue, and it’s no longer rare—there is too much tension in the system. Attention is required, yet from an explosion of attention we rapidly return to complacency. We “slip up.” And then—the actual state of America erupts into view once again somewhere else. The title, and the line as delivered, are not merely descriptions; he is not telling us that this is America. He is reminding us that this is America. It is a corrective, as delivered by an instructor: “No. You slipped again. Pay attention this time. This is America.”

His “this is” is covertly “you are in.” You are in America. You know what that means. “Don’t catch you slippin’ now.”

(4) Formally, he has done historic newsreel footage, not “music video.” Frame corners are rounded off like vintage film. Grain has been added. Dynamic range is very high, highlights are not clipped, posterization is very low but there is a lot of “natural dithering,” the color response isn’t that of a digital colorspace like sRGB or aRGB, it’s more limited than that. I don’t know if this was actually shot on film, but it gives that effect.

The shots are long, with pans and zooms, not transitions—like reportage. Also, note the horizontals vs. the frame lines, as well as the shift upward to catch the observers with mobile phones. Whether shot handheld or not, it was made to look as though it was shot handheld—again, like reportage.

This is being presented to us as a documentary—not as entertainment. It’s a subtle effect, but it brings an entirely different psychology to the viewer, without their realizing it. It is presented as coming from “the archives of what actually happened” (or, say, is happening) rather than from the national entertainment machine.

— § —

Very few contemporary works bear repeated listenings/viewings/readings without running dry. And very rarely have artists produced “music videos” that represent a complete synthesis of the visual and musical forms. This one is different. The visual and aural elements can’t be separated; they are deeply intertwined. There are a multiplicity of interpretations, a wealth of references, much ambiguity—and yet all of it, even interpretations that appear to be contradictory, are deeply evocative of America, itself beset by impossible contradictions at the moment. I’ll do the impolitic and say that this resonance goes beyond the experiences of the African-American community that is most obviously represented.

To me, this work captures the essence of this American moment. And paradoxically, it is also hopeful—by the very act of creating it, Glover implies that this isn’t the eternal, unavoidable America. There are alternatives; things can be different.

But perhaps—and this is a message that both left and right need to hear right now—neither an analysis of, nor the pursuit of, money or of power—as held by or held over anyone—will get us there. Perhaps we should instead wonder what we might be missing in our endless discussions about who’s abusing the money or who has or does not have the power—and try to ensure that we stop idolizing or seeking the performance, and even more to the point, seeking refuge in the performance of dancing alone.

You don’t appreciate mentorship until you’re older than most likely mentors.  §

I need someone to learn from. I am sorely lacking in guidance, in a model for how to live and how to succeed right now, and I can feel it in my bones.

© Aron Hsiao / 2002

Problem is, I have no interest in life coaches or in therapists. These aren’t people who have been any more successful at anything than I have. They’ve followed the same basic path of school, to degree or training, to career, to middle class boredom. Even if they had anything else to say about anything else, they haven’t actually done the things I’m interested in learning about.

There are people—more than one—that I’d love to learn from, but you can’t just approach successful people with hand extended asking for “help,” especially more than once. And I’d want a lot more than once. Even worse, I’m getting to the age at which most of these people are younger than me, so they’d feel awkward about it.

I watch them with awe and a tinge of envy, seeing how adept they are at dreaming interesting dreams and then going out and doing surprising and brilliant things to make them come true with a kind of innocence that borders to the cynical eye (which I no doubt have after years in academics) almost on naivete.

Penelope Trunk says that to get successful people to help you, you need to ask them interesting, flattering, and specific questions. Problem is, I don’t even know where to begin, much less do I have interesting, flattering, and specific questions.

I’d just approach them and ask if they would adopt me and teach me everything they know. If I was sixteen years old, that might work out, but when I’m forty-two and they’re in their twenties or thirties, it hardly works that way.

I’ve told my kids more than once that if you find someone older than you who’s leading a life that you admire and is willing to be friends with you, you should spend as much time with them as you can and learn by watching and asking questions as much as you can, because someday you’ll be the oldest person in the room and if you don’t have the answers you seek by then, there may not be anyone to ask for them.

The common advice to “surround yourself only with successful people” becomes harder and harder to make use of the older you get. At some point, it turns for reasons of mere plausibility into “surround yourself with people” and then later into “surround yourself with pets” before eventually turning into “surround yourself with period collectibles” and then “surround yourself with medical equipment.”

But it’s hard to convince young folk that this is good advice; they mostly want to do other stuff, and only to get to the “serious” stuff once they reach middle age—by which time it’s far too late.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young.

Don’t “do epic shit.” You’ve been had. It’s time to “do basic shit” instead.  §

Is anyone else put off by the rhetoric of success and fulfillment in our culture? Whether it’s self-help books, TED events, interviews with “thought leaders,” or any other forum, any discourse on living a good life invariably tracks toward a relatively uniform series of phrases:

  • Do epic shit

  • Accomplish great things

  • Expand what is possible

  • Change the world

  • Do the impossible

  • Transform lives

© Sylvana Colmenares

There is this constant, rolling thunder of rhetoric about how the path to happiness lies in, essentially, being Ghandi. Or Mandela. Or Jesus.

I can just hear the beautiful people now, echoing this: “Oh yes! Yes! That’s exactly what I mean! That’s what my five bullet points and introductory joke are all about! You, yes you can be Ghandi. Or Mandela. Or Jesus. Each of us is a minor deity! Hell, each of us is a major deity if we’ll only get out of our own ways! You as Jesus? Why not! Seize your destiny and be the creator of a radical new reality. The world needs the transformation that only you can bring!”

Some thoughts.

  1. What utter bullshit we all are willing to consume, in large quantities. How did this discourse ever get off the ground, much less become culturally ascendant?

  2. There are so many billions—who just want to chop wood, carry water, and tend to their own little corner of the world with their own little families—to whom this presumedly universal appeal does not actually appeal.

  3. It is never humanity’s rank-and-file saying these things; it is those of extremely high status or wealth. It isn’t easy to achieve status or wealth, or more people would do it. Even the little-corner-tenders wish they had an extra $100 monthly to upgrade their garden hoses and repaint the shed. If changing the world is easy, surely just getting an extra $100 monthly should be desperately easy. But I suspect that if you put any regular Joe from the streets (not the towering offices) of <insert megacity here> on the stage or in a book’s pages, they’d say that it’s damned hard to transform your June, much less the entire world.

  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe that in all of this stuff what I actually see is the global elite telling other members of the global elite how to allocate their money to and with one another—either “Invest in me and people like me!” or “Here’s what you need to care about, how you need to act, and how you must present for me to invest in you!” but dressed up in the language of ethics or aspiration.

  5. Nearly all of the breathless advice on offer takes the form of a discourse of positivity about risk and failure—personal, professional, and corporate. Take risks. Be willing to fail. Do these things that led Unicorn X to succeed. None of it confronts the fact that risk tolerance requires reserves—that if most took these personal, professional, and corporate risks, they would simply end up alone, hungry, and homeless, rather than ascending to the top of the food chain. None of it considers that naked chance has an awful lot to do with success, and that countless people throughout history have lived lives full of idealistic risks, failed utterly, and died miserable (or even died executed), and that we used to call these people “dreamers” and “schemers” not just to describe them, but to warn the children about the likely consequences of simply “following your passion no matter what” and “always thinking outside the box.”

  6. In short, the people who are best positioned to take and use this advice to positive effect are those that don’t really need it.

  7. Yet thanks to modern communications systems, all of this has come to serve as a kind of weird success porn for the global middle class and underclasses, whom are the vast majority of folks. It’s the modern form of gossiping about and hanging off every word of the royals, even though the astute folks know deep down that they’ll never even catch so much as a glimpse of the palace interior with their own profane eyes (the stupid people wrangling their way into the palace and getting hung in the process).

— § —

I have the hunch that a certain amount (and not a small amount) of the politics on the left and right just now—both blood and soil and privilege and intersectionality as discourses—is down to the fact that people are struggling with this hyperbolic cheerleading from the elites, divorced from all reality.

Blood and soil is a values reaction. “You know very well that radically innovating a dot-com into a ‘unicorn’ is something I’ll never, ever do. I reject the lies that you tell me, and advocate for the pursuit of opposite, far more democratic values—the very mundane values of reproductive lineage, which everyone actually does have, and a patch of land, on which everyone actually does stand.” It is expressed histrionically to match the histrionics cheerleading of the elites, because otherwise it is tough to get everyone excited about something that is not, in any sense, elite—that is universal to seven billion people on the planet.

Privilege and intersectionality is an instrumental reaction. “Okay, I buy your story that I can become Jesus. Now I demand the conditions that will make that become possible for me.” It is expressed as true belief because the language of the cheerleaders is also the language of true belief; to embrace their promises requires true belief. Utopianism is all about transforming the world and doing the impossible, so when people are reassured that this is their destiny, it’s not all that surprising that they set out to accomplish it, even if there are practical considerations that seem to obstruct them.

The distasteful irony of all of this is that many of the people at the heights who pepper society with this optimistic hucksterism claim to be enlightened and hew to one spiritual tradition or another, often publicly. Buddhism is a common one, though there are others, some of them secular. But their claimed enlightenment often leaves behind a key tenet of every tradition of enlightenment: the notion that individual humans are very, very small, and our job is to make peace with that, live our lives in acceptance of the suffering that this implies, and simply do every day the little things that need to be done, with gratitude not for our ability to change the world, but in fact for our chance to chop wood and carry water at all (i.e. for the simple fact that we exist and are alive, despite the smallness of both).

— § —

It seems sad that “enlightenment” has become an insidious thing, but under the label as it is used today, I believe that it has. This is a key reason for the popularity of someone like Jordan Peterson. People are tired of being told that it is their destiny to “do epic shit” and “change the world,” then looking around and realizing that not only have they not done so but that in fact they can’t see any possible avenue by which this might occur, much less do they actually want to be involved in any such project.

Look around for people that are telling us instead that:

© Aron Hsiao / 2018
  • Life is hard

  • But you can get through it

  • It’ll still be hard, but easier, if you speak plainly and do your small everyday shit with acceptance and dedication

  • Defend your little bit of ground because it’s all you’ve got, and don’t pursue someone else’s because it’s all they’ve got

  • That’s all there is, but there are moments when it doesn’t seem so bad if:

  • You let go of trying to be Jesus (if that’s your thing) and just do your fucking laundry on time

  • You pull yourself together, forget TED, and just do basic shit (if you haven’t been doing it)

  • Don’t worry, we’re all actually in more or less the same boat, the rest is all lies

  • Always have been, always will be, and that’s basically it, man

I suspect that these are the voices that are going to rise to the top of the cultural pile as the forces of reaction continue to accumulate over the next few years.

Time to try an old something new, all over again.  §

Leapdragon has been around since 1999. In that time, I’ve seen more blog searches and blog redistributors than I can count come and go. Every now and then, I connect this thing to one of these platforms to see what happens. So I’m doing that again.

Why? Good question.

One of the reasons why Leapdragon has been so long-lived is that my ambitions for it have always been very small. Like, desperately small.

When I started writing, I’m not sure that “blog” was even a thing. Instead, people called them “web diaries.” That’s more or less how I thought about Leapdragon. It was my diary (well, as much of it as I dared publish for the public) put online. But it’s also in keeping with the original idea of a blog—that is to say, a “web log.” A log. Like, what I did last summer and not much more than that.

Basically, this thing is about:

  • No particular ideology

  • No particular theme or topic

  • No particular political project

  • No particular format

It remains me, chucking online whatever I think whenever a bee begins to buzz about in my bonnet with sufficient fury to cause me to feel a compulsion to post. I have posted about just about everything here: dating, marriage, kids, academics, publishing, technology, tutorials, pets, cooking, housekeeping, philosophy, road trips, and whatever else. And none of it as “advice.” No instructions, no “how to” imperative. Perish the thought.

And I’ve always done it with no particular ambitions about readership, coverage, completeness, etc. Not to serve an audience, but to mark down what I think, as honestly as I can.

I’ve actually started other things that might have been called “blogs” over the years, each of them with bigger or more specified ambitions. They didn’t survive. Not because they didn’t find an audience, because eventually they didn’t find a regular poster (e.g. me). I got tired of writing about the topic, in each case, fairly early on, and found myself rolling my eyes at caring about audiences and growth and being “right” and so on.

But Leapdragon, because it has no aspirations and no regular posting schedule, can’t be underserved, undermined, or betrayed. The audience has always been very small to nonexistent, but for that reason, the posting has continued.

For that reason, I’m a bit hesitant now, years after any previous attempts, to give this thing any new avenues for distribution, because I really don’t want to upset the balance. And yet, people here and there are recently telling me that I should distribute it, and maybe—just maybe—I’m old enough now to not give a shit about any blowback and to just keep pressing on.

So we’ll see. But here goes.

Now, if this works, you can: Follow my blog with Bloglovin.

I don’t expect to actually get any more traffic this way, and that’s actually perfectly okay. There are just times when you follow your nose for the hell of it, and this is one of them.

Jordan Peterson upsets elites for personal, not political reasons.  §

Having listened to a decent amount of Jordan Peterson content and read his book, the way that he continues to be represented in the press and in much of academics is fascinating to me. There is a general consensus amongst the elites that he is dangerous for some reason, but their explanations invariably mischaracterize what he produces.

I think I finally understand why this is. One thing that is often mentioned by press that is favorable to him is that he is “earnest” by nature. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that he believes not only that there are bad things, but that there are good things. Not “good” as in enjoyable to particular person(s) in the world, but objectively and morally good—as in noble, edifying, inspiring, uplifting, and and worthy.

© Travis Rupert / 2018

These are, in general, concepts that are foreign to our cultural elites, whose cynicism and ironic skepticism are legendary.

They have been taught—and now believe and teach themselves—that nothing means anything. Everything is a pose, or at best merely a personal preference. Belief in “goodness” as a quantity and as a concept is as anachronistic as belief in a flat earth or in the four humors. Such belief rightly belongs today only to the credulous, to the naive and the simple.

Now along comes someone who says without irony and while holding a Ph.D. that nobility is actually a thing. Not only that, but lots of grown people actually agree with him. This is very troubling to our cultural elites. Though they frame their reactions as exercises in public intellectualism, I think something more personal is at stake underneath it all.

They can’t afford to confront the possibility that nobility might exist after all, because they have spent their entire lives being dismissive of it. They have spent their entire lives, in fact, cultivating the kind of willful, self-satisfied ignobility that an ironic, postmodern pose embodies. It is the adolescent triumph of the sneering nonbeliever, “woke” not so much in the social justice sense as in the “your parents have been lying to you and Santa Claus isn’t actually real” sense.

To imagine that there might be something actually noble somewhere in the world, or that there might be things to be taken seriously, or that (most importantly) something somewhere in human life might actually mean something to someone without the wry qualification of caveats or knowing winks—is to imagine that they have wasted their entire lives becoming something banal and tasteless when they might have been so much more.

They argue that Peterson is a threat to social structure precisely because they can’t admit to themselves or anyone else that Peterson has placed them uncomfortably face-to-face with their personal values and unexpectedly shown these to be avoidant and overcompensative rather than impervious and astutely shrewd.

In short, Peterson makes them feel like middle-class teenage punk rockers feel when they come face-to-face with actual battle-worn and battle-weary rebels that have been on humanity’s toughest front lines. Their years of taking the piss—which used to make them feel important and knowing—suddenly feel small and twee after all instead, despite pretensions to the opposite—as do they, themselves, if they don’t push back cognitively and reinterpret things as quickly as possible before the rising implications become conscious realizations.

If Peterson is right, they’re suddenly not the smartest people in a room full of naive plebes; rather, they themselves are the naive ones in a civilization of adults who were right all along. And like all callow youths, they can’t afford to countenance this loss of face at the personal level; it would require that they start all over again in building a self that they aren’t embarrassed by in a world in which nobility and vice are things after all.

In short, it’s not what Peterson might mean for the world that is so troubling to some people, despite what they say; rather, I suspect that what’s at stake is what Peterson might mean for their images of themselves and their own contributions to the world.

Thoughts in proper fragments after listening to the wisdom of Amy Tan.  §

Don’t try to make things more than they are.

We are specialists at this in our society. This is the story of marketing, of the anthropology that we embrace in the west, and the story of much of modern science—a kind of metaphysical striving for more, for the same kind fo achievement and accumulation that we seek in everything else.

© Aron Hsiao / 2018

That’s not to say that science is bad, necessarily, but that its purpose shouldn’t be the mere enlargement of things, if those things are to be meaningful for and useful to us in the end.

— § —

This is the very same impulse that led me by mistake to academics, and that I discovered that academics in turn made and makes.

I went in search of wisdom, but what I found was facility under the banner of Wisdom, on the mistaken theory that wisdom isn’t enough, and Wisdom is what we’re really after, and Wisdom can’t possibly be Wisdom if it is as small as wisdom.

But if you take wisdom and try to engineer it to skyscraper heights and nuclear powers, what you get is instrumentalism. Mere wisdom is not merely the small, but also the understanding that it is the small that is wisdom.

— § —

We are a culture and a species and a collective metaphysics that hungers for conclusions. Not just in the academy. Not just in commerce. Not just in religion.

We want to know how the story ends; how the argument ends. Not just to know, as it turns out—because we long ago discovered that this knowledge doesn’t readily present itself. The innovation of the Enlightenment was the realization that in this absence, which is all that being provides to us, we could construct the ending instead. Follow the threads, add the girders, tighten the bolts, erect the edifice.

If the universe won’t provide the conclusion, the end, the outcome, the fruition, the final, the tool, the affordance—then we will. And we did. And they are powerful things in the most immediate sense.

But they are so utterly, utterly temporary as to be meaningless in the bigger sense. As the power of the event shock wave approaches the infinie, its durability and thus ultimate reach throughout all that is, being inversely correlated, approaches the infinitesimal.

— § —

What’s missing in everything—everything we do, from parenting to academics to cooking to vacations—is the observing. The conclusion is never profound. The result is never profound. The outcome is never profound.

The numinous cannot be found in Wisdom, but rather only in wisdom.

And wisdom can only be found in observation. In the endless geographies of being, which stretch as they do over so many axes—time, space, memory, feeling, mind, God, color, breath, thought—the observation is infinitely more powerful, more profound, and more wise than the conclusion.

— § —

To succeed, we can rely on any number of Enlightenment technologies.

To meaningfully be is to dwell in mere observation of the small and the actual and to consciously refrain from going any further than that.

Belonging is a subtle joy that is not to be underestimated.  §

Humans need one and only one thing to function successfully: belonging.

Public domain

Note that it’s not enough to find one group or another who’s willing to “take you in” as a member; it only works if you belong in every sense of the word—that is to say, if there is some measure of similarity in values, habits of thought, levels of capability, etc. Belonging generates and supports identity, but it is also enabled and constrained only by identity.

It’s also not enough to “belong” in atomic ways—to belong to one person here and one person there, in a fragmented social miasma that doesn’t rise to the level of a group or a network. A social aggregate can’t sustain belonging, only a social body can. Belonging, in other words, must be more than a matter of location; it must be justified, intelligible, called for in some sense.

To someone like myself that is struggled for a lifetime to find belonging—not for want of trying or for lack of social interaction and people around me—it is edifying and comforting to see my children find it. It makes me want to issue a warning to parents: all the achievement in the world, all the love in the world, cannot make up for a sense of belonging. If your child finds it, do nothing to upset it. It is the primary, and perhaps only, determinant of success and happiness in life.

When a child is able to say, “I am one of them and they are those like—and for—me,” the negative effects that accrue from all the rest of existence and its suffering are rendered largely moot.

And as for me… Forty-two years and countless people and places in, the quest continues.

The struggle to make peace with life.  §

Sometimes it seems as if everything is dark and everything is suffering, and as though no matter how hard you try, you cannot do things right or well or without harm.

© Aron Hsiao / 2004

I don’t know what to do with that feeling.

Even worse, a lot of people seem to think that they know how to do things right and well and without harm. I don’t believe them. Nothing in my 42 years has come close to convincing me that there are any paths that don’t lead to injustice and sadness.

It seems to me that all paths lead to injustice and sadness, and that anyone that thinks they can find one that doesn’t… is likely on one of the most direct paths to causing it.

— § —

I have been living with a sense of permanent catastrophe for many years now. This is how people become “tired.”

Something wicked this way comes.  §

Alfie, speech control, and the subversion of democratic outcomes in Europe; compelled speech, compelled action, and the statutory concentration of wealth and control in North America.

© Magnus Manske / CC-2.0

The plebes are far more aware of the tendencies of the elite than are the elites themselves, who are blinded by the very high moral regard in which they hold themselves.

Trump and Brexit were forces of reaction, yes. But the reaction is reaction against a new kind of oppression that lies somewhere in the center of the Venn Diagram on which is plotted totalitarianism, autocracy, and oligarchy.

If no one is willing to concede—and at this point, everyone gives every impression of being determined to hold fast, then faster—then catastrophic things and a new chapter in the history of suffering are on the horizon. The only question is just how distant the horizon remains at the moment.

I think both sides overestimate how long it will take us to travel there.

The incoherence of the cultural moment, especially on the left.  §

Just stumbled across this article from Commentary again, and was floored by it again:

© Gage Skidmore / 2016

“Hillary was running as a woman at precisely the cultural moment when gender had become a highly fluid concept. College kids (the majority of whom are now female) reject ‘gender binaries’ like male and female; transgender activists successfully argue for gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms; men become women and vice versa; and the Cover Girl company recently featured a male model in a full face of makeup to hawk its wares. As liberal culture is constantly reminding us, it’s a post-feminist, gender-fluid world, right? So who cares if a woman is in the Oval Office?”

I’d forgotten after reading countless other post-morta about this insight that really serves to illuminate what happened to college-educated white Women, who are both amongst the most “woke” in the country and also amongst the most maligned for their supposed treachery. Role strain a-go-go; to be “woke” in this country is to be pulled in a thousand different directions at once. Yet to have a strong, coherent opinion on anything at all is to be either an ideologue or a reactionary. The cultural injunction on all sides is to refuse to be “for” anything, as preference implies discrimination in the literal sense, and discrimination is bad. Yet to act without preference as a matter of pure contingency, lacking articulated principles, in all cases, is also the very definition of reaction.

All things are bad; therefore, embrace nothing; however, to refuse to embrace anything is equally bad—it is seen as the most self-serving member of the set of “all things.”

It’s so emblematic of where we are as a nation, left and right—the contradictions in both are undermining our ability as members of society to function in an integrated way; it’s no wonder that in the aggregate we are also not integrated.

The tragedy of natural selection is catching up to us.  §

In some traditions, despair is a sin, so I’ve been trying to figure out where mine comes from.

A great deal of it, of course, comes from my own circumstances, but these are themselves metonymous to me of the larger circumstances of humanity in some ways—of the stench of fait accomplis everywhere around us.

My own circumstances don’t really warrant much of a discussion and everyone who knows me well knows them anyway. Meanwhile, talking about the larger circumstances of humanity is largely beyond me these days; my communicative faculties and thinking faculties have left me as I age and fall away in time and distance from pursuits that actually required sustained and nuanced thinking of any kind.

But I do want to complain, to lament, for just a bit.

— § —

As a matter of historical contingency, the greater part of the world and its population is and are today riven into two distinct tendencies. If we anthropomorphize each of these, they are both hopelessly naive and have been captured by a kind of weak-kneed denial in the face of the human condition. Probably both have been softened by the advances that humanity made since the Enlightenment, and as a result, neither is capable of setting jaw and pulling triggers, either at the level of consciousness or at the level of action.

Public domain

There are not enough battle scars on faces; there is not enough real trauma in the history to grant perspective about what amounts to endless stores of pettiness.

Both sides are working as hard as they can to destroy humanity, quite literally—to wipe us from the face of the earth in the space of just a generation or two. I won’t bother to go into all of the mechanisms by which this can occur—climate change, nuclear proliferation, superpathogens, etc. And I won’t bother to stand against the accusation that I’m Chicken Little and the sky is falling, same as it always was, same as people “like me” always were, etc.

I’ll just get on with it by saying that on one side, an infantile, sentimentalist tendency mistakes “nurturing” for “survival” and essentializes everything about humanity, our ecosystem, and the geosystem in precisely backward ways. They see dignitity and the importance of the inividual where none exists. They mistake the natural for the social and the social for the natural, at every level and scale and in every nuance, seeking to rectify through tears and indignation that which can only be rectified instrumentally and through instrumentality that which can only be rectified with empathy. These are the left, and they will cry maudlin tears that no-one hears as the forces of physics cop to their demands and destroys us.

The other side misconstrues anthropology and greatly misunderstands the scale, importance, and survival prospects of the lone individual. They see power and the efficacy of the individual where none exists. They mistake the individual for the collective and the collective for the individual, at every level and scale and in every nuance, seeking to rectify through lone initiative that which can only be rectified collectively and through social action that which can only be rectified through the personal vision-quest. These are the right, and having called the out a bold challenge to the forces of physics, they will stand proudly armed with their little pistol and shoot at the forces of unleashed armageddon with a box full of small game ammo.

— § —

In short, humanity is not meant to survive, nor is it likely capable of surviving, not just in the long term, but—in would increasingly seem—in the short term, and not only is there no way around this, but in fact, the silly little individuals of this species will stand around squabbling like rats in a cage as the laboratory burns down.

What is needed most right now is probably a totalitarian regime of incredible technocratic efficiency to save us. This as opposed to the totalitarian regime of incredible emotional catharsis that appears to be making a play to come to fruition in the general collective right now.

The last great hope is probably China. But given human nature, the flaws of the Chinese regime, and the state of things already, China is probably about as far away from being able to lead us to survival as the average bourgeois spinning class attendee is from being able to design a nuclear reactor.

We suck. And rather than doing anything about it, we are either clawing for “luxury goods” of dubious value or histrionically trying to cry our way to the negation of masculinity, somehow imagining that thermodynamics cares and that this will save us.

Abrahamic theism and ancestor worship have been replaced by a worship of our own weak productive apparatus (Right) or our own cognitive epiphenomena (Left), but misplaced religion is misplaced religion all the same, and the new ones are likely even less functional than the old ones.

— § —

In short… Social justice is stupid. Economics is stupid. Feminism is stupid. Belief in the power of markets is stupid. “Consciousness” in the political sense is stupid. Classical liberalism is stupid. “Freedom” is stupid. Virtually every value embraced on either side of the political aisle across the bulk of the world right now is… stupid.

Whichever side wins, we are fucked, because every value system on offer right now is stupid and fails to confront the realities of the natural world as they actually are, mainly because we’ve become too comfortable to be willing to—or capable of—looking death, collective or individual, in the face and making the hard choices that it compels us to make.

— § —

Everyone will be shocked when they finally realize that the 1950s immediately prior to the clarity of the spirit of nuclear catastrophe probably is and was as good as it gets, or will ever get, for humanity before its destruction.

As the saying goes, you don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone, and (given my previous statement about the metonymous relationship between my life and the life of the species as I experience it right now), I am feeling this quote at multiple levels of scale and analysis.

And the despair causes me, beset by all of the same weaknesses as everyone else, to want to just throw my hands up, concede, and drink myself into a stupor at the party.

— § —

The signs are all around us. We are heading into dark, dark times. Everyone will insist that they are not responsible; it is their opposition who is responsible.

Everyone is responsible. Everyone is wrong.

Sometimes springtime brings flowers; other times, it brings the flood.  §

It’s not easy to write tonight, and yet at the same time I am compelled to do so. It’s a cry on the wind. It’s a verse written in the sand on a beach left behind. It’s a note to oneself, packed away and likely to be discovered only decades later by one’s heirs, as they sort through one’s things.

— § —

Spring is here and I should be relieved. It’s been a long winter. Of illness for the kids and of snow and cold at inopportune times and of changes that haven’t been welcome. Last year I felt optimistic about springtime, about the return of new growth and the opening up of the world under the resurgent sun.

© Aron Hsiao / 2015

I do not feel that way this year.

Permeating everything is a sense of decay, a sense of melancholy, a sense of the passage of time. If I let myself slip just a little, I might even say that permeating everything is a sense of foreboding—the sense that the die has been cast, that it was cast long ago, that circumstances now have a logic of their own that must play out, that destiny will in fact soon arrive to demand its due.

I am doing my best to keep up appearances through all of this. Fulfill obligations. Chop wood. Carry water.

But I am not optimistic. No, I am not optimistic just now. Samuel Johnson once said that nothing concentrates the mind like the knowledge that one will be hanged in the morning. This is very much the feeling that I have, seeping in around every edge.

The feeling that there is no exit.

— § —

Yes, there will be something to come next. No, I don’t really want it, nor do I want to find out what it is. I wish the would could be paused, and could stay exactly as it is right now—forever. At that I would breathe a transcendental sigh of relief, and perhaps fall dead right then and there in ecstatic peace.

But the world will not be paused.

It will conduct and demand its reckoning. I can’t honestly say that I stand here, ready to face it with courage. Rather, I stand here helpless to do anything else, come what may.

From the outside, that probably amounts to the same thing. From the inside, it’s not the same thing at all. Let’s just get this all over with already.

Vampire, werewolf, surgeon, billionaire, and pirate.  §

Could it be that all of western society right now is a massive, unconscious shit test? There are times—increasingly frequent times—when I am absolutely certain that this must be so.

Public domain

And that men are failing miserably.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to wake up. But after everything that has gone before—after generations of the inheritance have been lost—is this even possible any longer?

— § —

My level of trust these days? Zero percent. Less than zero percent.

The question is what I can do with that. Hopefully not nothing, but we’ll see.

— § —

One side is wrong. Given the level of diametric opposition involved, it cannot be anything other than so.

And given the level of diametric opposition involved, when it is determined just which side it is that is wrong, bound up with the emergence of that decision we’ll find catastrophe and the collapse of western civilization.

Maybe, given material circumstances, even all of human civilization.

Human psychology is an absolutely brutal thing.

That we’re so damned smart is precisely why we’re so damned stupid.

— § —

I repent of all the ideological sins I committed in my youth. From here on out, I fight the good fight.