Signal-to-Noise: The Self and the Exterior World
Seeking quiet in a noisy world. Signal-to-noise ratios.
This is the street near my apartment complex, a week or so ago when it rained. There is the quiet patter of falling rain on the street; it mixes with the city's sheen of dust to make things gritty, the air goes stale. The lit-up signs of storefronts and the neon from windows make the falling droplets and puddles glow, all sorts of unnatural colors; hot pink, magenta, cyan, green, red. There are clouds that hang in the night sky, almost like a mist, glowing a light grey color. It reminds me of growing up in Texas, during the colder months, being in the car and driving without direction with friends. The sky with moisture in it seems thinly vaulted in some way, as though it would echo sounds rather than lose them in the dry distance.
And not far from here there are a succession of digital billboards displayed for the highway, they flit from one advertisement to the next. Each one displays for a 10 second interval and then switches. Advertising space on the highway has now entered the dimension of time, and not just on the radio. Sometimes when I'm driving on the highway, from a distance I won't be able to tell if they're physical or digital, until they switch. Like most other things now the reality of billboards is fleeting, uncertain.
Only subjectively uncertain though, reality is still firm reality. People are just inundated by so much information that things are lost in the overload. Things are as simple, as awful and as good, as they've ever been. And people are exactly the same as ever. I've been reading lots of Dostoevsky lately, and I was at work the other day only to feel a strange sense of vertigo, it was more existential than sensational, existing by a measure of chronology rather than distance or height. I looked around at all of the customers, all of the sad expressions, the distracted faces, the neutrality, the listlessness, and realized that people are exactly the same as they were in the Russia of the 19th century.
Technology has progressed obviously, things have changed in world affairs, but these changes are merely circumstantial in the face of human nature. We are all exactly the same as we've ever been, and our society is merely a superficial template for human affairs to conduct themselves, by the same processes as ever. It is the same world, through and through. People move about, lost inside of their heads, thinking that no one feels the way that they do, that their faces and movements and actions don't betray those very feelings. That they aren't on full display in the things that make them angry and the things that make them happy, the things that they say on social media and the gaps of the things that they've chosen to hold back.
People think, then they act, and then they wait for a reaction. Over and over again, across time. This is human history. Do these things ever make us happy? Probably not, at least not at the end, sometimes while we're doing them though. Because after it's done, the thing itself is no longer active. If anything it merely becomes fodder, for thought that will go into future actions. The goal I suppose is to imbue this process with meaning, otherwise what's the point?
So people cultivate meaning as well; narratives, beliefs, identities. Lots of us utterly trip over ourselves to do this, we crave it intensely, this is grist for the mill, fuel in the tank. I guess the goal, over the years of your life, is to hammer down the most authentic meaning possible, the one most aligned with reality, in as much as you can decipher it through all of the background noise of your mind and personality. So you think and act, bang your head against the wall, which is really yourself, as many times as you need to until you can sense the boundaries, the concrete truths.
Many philosophers don't like that word "truth", particularly since the days of post-structuralism; Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, many of them didn't think anything so abstract as truth could be pinned down. Noam Chomsky does though, he believes that with facts you can assess very many concrete truths about ourselves and the world we're living in. Which seems self-evident at face value. After all it is, in essence, the entire goal of philosophy. Subjective as all reality is, there is clear overlap in our common wants, needs, health. The idea that truth is a superfluous abstract would defeat philosophy’s purpose altogether, while at the same time being a truth of some form or another in itself. The truth that there is no truth.
This might sound like a gross oversimplification, and it may very well be on some levels. But it seems to me that things are comparatively simple, to the ways in which we think about them, the ways we act on them. Easy? No, not at all. Anyone who tells you it’s easy isn’t all there, because it never has been.
I’ve also been reading Snow Country by Kawabata, after that I intend to read more Mishima, then maybe Soseki, after that I’ll probably take a break from the old dead men and read Hiromi Kawakami. I hear she’s very good. But this is all of course before I read every one of Dostoevsky’s novels, I’ll get back into Gogol probably too. Point being, I’ve got a very long list, it’s become somewhat consuming to me. But in the midst of all of this though, all of this written life, it’s important to remember to notice the world outside.
To go exercise regularly, thanks Mishima. To be minimal though eloquent, and thank you Kawabata. And to never be satisfied with anyone’s consensus of things but your own, Dostoevsky of course.
Across time, in the present, I’m sitting in a coffee shop.
I’m sipping a drip-brew with a little bit of half-and-half and a little raw sugar. I was wondering a few minutes ago, if real intellectual activity was possible in this century. Or if our technologies have conditioned us to generalizations and rigid binary patterns; left or right, art or entertainment, populism or elitism, right or wrong.
In a time when journalists and politicians and public intellectuals engage gleefully in flame wars against one another online. It’s funny to me that that’s something that went mainstream, I remember a few years ago anyone who got caught up in an online argument was considered more or less inept in the real world. You could ignore trolls back then, because there was a world outside, it wasn’t thought to be contained totally inside. Now our entire political process is predicated on this kind of behavior.
Which if you look at the trends of the internet and technology, going back to the 90’s until now, this was pretty inevitable. Our culture was always headed towards this, and it’s not all bad. I guess people are the same as ever, they just have new mediums by which to express this. Our brain physiology hasn’t changed significantly, due to evolution, in nearly 500,000 years.
There are only so many solutions to our problems, scattered throughout the historical record, along with prophecies of our destruction acting themselves out in the past. We’re still crushing each other on prehistoric battlefields, when the rivers dry up, when the animals die out, not to survive, but to win. It’s all happened before and if we aren’t careful, it will again.
Dostoevsky once said that there are no individual sins, sin is collective, and everyone is responsible. He said, in the same book in fact, Demons, that in order to overcome the world, you must first overcome yourself. In short, that true altruism would arise only once the self has been mastered. Gandhi had a similar quote, as you might remember. I used to think that people were mostly very dumb. But I don’t think that anymore, I think people are just sloppy for the most part. We care very little about ourselves and it makes it hard for us to care about anyone else. To push ourselves to be who we want to be and then to be courteous and conscientious to our neighbors. Instead resentment begins inside and then ripples outward like a current, rather than kindness or certainty.
I am the only thing in this world I really have any control over, so I start there and move outward. That’s all. Signal-to-noise, the self is the signal and once aligned with it, you should have an easier time finding matching patterns in the exterior world. Ways in which to be useful to your community.
This is all easy to say of course, some of it’s downright obvious. This has all been thought, now we require action. My recommendation would be to develop a plan, most people my age complain about how hard it is to be an adult, how disorganized they are, how inept they feel. Think about what it is that you want, and start moving towards it, it can be in little ways at first. That’s how anything is done, meaningful gratification is never immediate. Rome wasn’t built in a day as they say.
Accept the responsibility for the things you want, and by way of this accept that you are actually capable of achieving them.
For years I wanted to be healthy, I wanted to cultivate the kind of willpower one develops from really disciplining oneself to work-out and build strength. And then I read Mishima, who was clearly off his rocker in more ways than one. But on the other hand he started lifting weights regularly at the age of about 30, after having spent his entire childhood and adult life as a very thin, often anemic and borderline anemic, bookish type with little to no agency in the world. Having been an anxiety-ridden person for most of my life, obsessed with my little creative endeavors, with movies, books, art, and music, but with very little follow-through, I related to this. When he talks in Sun and Steel of the days when he would take pride in his isolation at night, sitting in his office alone, and only thinking, letting his body deteriorate. I related to that deeply. I remember it being a huge revelation as a teenager, sometime around Freshman year of high school, when I realized I could take some kind of pride in thinking. That I could eclipse my physical shortcomings, my feelings of weakness, by trying to be intelligent and making this, and art, the crown jewel of what little pride I had. I could do this and scorn everything else, in my resentment.
Mishima continued his regiment until his highly publicized suicide at age 45, but he spent most of his adult life in peak physical condition. Of course he was deeply narcissistic, obsessed with aesthetics and his own body. But I was willing to leave out the more toxic aspects of this and use the inspiration from the working parts to go to the gym almost every day, and I’ve been able to stick with it. For me it’s a matter of my own physical health, cultivating willpower in putting my mind to something and to seriously accomplish it. And it was just a decision I made one day, which was startlingly simple in my mind, despite the physical difficulty of lifting weight.
I told myself that I wouldn’t necessarily be in Mishima’s condition, but if I did something every day, I would be closer to my goals than if I did nothing at all. I simply had to accept personal responsibility for it. And after I did, my anxiety was much improved, not gone altogether obviously, but there was a feeling of startling relief. Partly from better physical health and party from a new foundational structure of confidence, laid every day one brick at a time.
I could have accepted that I couldn’t do it, that I didn’t have time, that it wasn’t reasonable, but I chose not to.
I was also frustrated with how little I was writing, and ideally this is what I want to do with my life, so I need to work at it. So I decided that I would try my best to write at least 1,000 words everyday, however I can fit them into my schedule. I’ve missed days, but by merely having the goal and deciding that it’s something that needs to be done, I’ve certainly written more days than not. And a significant amount. This was also a simple decision.
Another thing was reading, I buy lots of books, I love books, but I was getting lost in all of them. My reading life was becoming totally fragmented, mercurial, I’d start things all over the place and never finish them. I wanted to read great works of literature again, to grant me more flexibility in my own writing and, much less, in my own life. So one day I decided that I would start things and not allow myself to read anything else until I had finished the book I was reading. I made the biggest hurdle by really beginning this in earnest with Moby Dick, from there it was all cake. You might think that you want to read, but don’t have time. To which I would just submit my own experience to you, that being that I’ve decided to use some of the hours I would be vegging-out in front of Netflix or lost in a YouTube hole to reading a book I love. Reading print is a more active endeavor, it’s true, it takes effort to move your eyes across each line and internalize the material. But the quality of information is much greater as a result and your mental acuity is sharpened for having done it.
These are a few of the little lifestyle decisions that I’ve made, simply as a reference to you. But by far, the most important thing is to make the firm decision and to not let any of the asides dissuade you from your goal. The creeping second thoughts, that really don’t amount to much anyway, other than self-defeat. Stay focused, stay determined, even when you don’t feel like it. They say to follow your bliss, but the only way to even find it, for any lasting or meaningful period of time, is through effort, focused dedication.
And it’s important we realize this, because the world only looks like it’s getting worse. And most importantly, more than anything else, you have to face the things in your life that make you uncomfortable, that scare you. You’ll notice that once you do, things will become much much easier. And you can get down to being the person you want to be, rather than defaulting as someone you’d rather not. There are solutions throughout history, for the problems we’re facing, for the issues we’re dealing with, but none of them have ever come easily.