The Most Wretched

My noble and distinctive (and literary!) name is perpetually shunted aside by the tawdry feats of this reflexology quack. Never shall I rise above the abrasive din of the news about the “good” doctor and his technique for improving flexibility—through lewd gyrations and undulations! From what I understand, my nemesis caters to the gravid and, no doubt, wanton.


This, in response to the belle dame’s entry (see, I’m doing what the guy said to do):

“Everyone will write a memoir” was supposed to be another of my “awful” predictions, although, unlike the apocalypse article, I’m not certain that this is the most awful outcome. The most I’m willing to commit to is that it would be another valuational slide to another portion of the spectrum. I made the prediction because it is obvious to me that we are sliding in that direction. Of course, I agree with the concerns you raise; I wonder, though, whether they involve valuations that, like the sexual mores, we will ease up on in time. “When in Rome…” seems to apply to our own place as we travel forward in time and, in fact, the short term effect of our changing, technology-mediated mores may be that we’re becoming, as a culture, more Mediterranean. But yeah, I was primarily trying to express potential philosophical discomfort with the thing, while at the same time fully admitting that I’m in the thing.

So I agree about intimacy, and the value of limiting disclosure to a small circle of friends. I agree that full disclosure and zero taboo leads to “boring sex”, i.e., no tittilation and thus, paradoxically, none of the incentive that progressively brought about the disclosure. It may be, though, that the future forebodes “boring sex”. First of all, Foucault’s radical claim, made by Freud and Marx as well, is that sexual repression didn’t exist in the same way 600 years ago, because sex was simply regulated by various practical taboos. They just said, “Hey! Don’t have sex! God doesn’t like it, and it creates complications for the community!” But everyone, commoners and nobility alike, knew “about” sex (wrapped up in these stories are some ideas about proximity to animal breeding and sexual repression). If you look at Greek drama, they don’t talk about sex not because they’re prudes, but because they don’t think there’s much to say about it. They probably had fairly “boring sex”, too.

“History of Sexuality” chronicles all the ways in which the Church and various social institutions (law, medicine, psychology) encouraged and developed a discourse (and a technical knowledge) about sex where there was none before. Among other things, all the focus goes to the venal sins, in law and religion. People start witch-hunting for onanism (and Foucault says, pederasty) for the first time. And the S&M thing was that the deeper your horror at your sexuality, the more pleasure you got from confessing to the proper authorities. And the whole time, it seems that the authorities are becoming more and more knowledgeable about the ways and mechanisms of common sexuality. To demonstrate this, Foucault describes all the explicit (written) precautions boarding-school adminstrators took to protect the young boys from each other. Then there’s this anonymous Victorian gentleman who wrote a several volume memoir detailing his increasingly bizarre sexual contests, all the while claiming that his book is meant for moral edification. When Freud casts off the shackles of repression and instructs people to talk at great lengths to psychologists about their sexuality and their personal histories, Foucault sees this as a culmination of and not a break with a modern Western development. Likewise, sexual guruism and sexual athletics post-60s. And then the fact that millions of people can’t get it up without the help of a corporation would be seen as something of a confirmation of his entire body of theory.

The social investigation of sexuality is supposed to parallel at every point an investigation into other details of the private lives of individuals. It’s as if history is for the sake of the sociologists. Or, more likely, the sociologists investigate for the sake of society.

Now, the difference is that we’re all registering ourselves with everyone else. We like to record the details of our lives and have others there to comment on them. I know that I feel a strange compulsion to leave a record of myself, and that the loss of my harddrive felt like a terrible loss of a vast chunk of my being. The radical-constructivist theory of Foucault and ilk says that there’s no simplicity to my desire; my desire is conditioned by a long and complicated historical process (Pinker would view all of the preceding as nonsense). But if this is true, it probably doesn’t make sense to rail against or attempt to reject the pedigree of my desires. After all, if repression is something like an historical accident, it does lead to “good sex”. The problem is dealing with changing mores: do we join them, can we join them?

But if people keep demanding more and more personal information, and people keep feeling this intense desire to “get themselves on film”, I think this means that everyone will write a memoir, or make a autobiopic, or whatever. Data storage is running away from the existing data, so people keep finding new data that needs to be recorded, indexed, patterned, cross-referenced, etc. If everyone wrote a memoir, it would represent the biggest sociological data trove imaginable. But, like you said, people lie, so the most important social mores to instill would involve the spiritual sanctity of a personal record. To meet society’s demand, a person revealed to have lied in his memoir would have to be treated like a child molester. Okay, but is this terrible? I think you would see a weird double relationship to the memoirs: on the one hand, no one would want to have a dull memoir; on the other hand, no one would want to depict himself (truthfully) as a monster, so everyone would play a Baudelairian game, preemptively creating a colorful canvas of themselves. In the same way that the shame of confession should ostensibly prevent you from sinning, but the promise of confession allows you to sin, the prospect of the memoir would be a postmodern moral guide.

In The Future: I

Foucault suggests that the urge to disclose is a built-in component of our (Western) culture. In his terminology, the system of control is leveraged on an s&m relationship between repression and confession, with the net result being that we experience growing compulsions to express our private selves and in effect to register ourselves with society. At least, this is my light gloss on a shallow reading of a dense (and soporific) body of theory (in History of Sexuality: I).

It’s a provocative idea, anyway. One of the explicit implications in the book is that the disclosure of sexuality (how and how much) and the subsequent attachment to identity are in no way antisocial, or at least that they are a natural response to society’s prurient investigative interest in sexuality. And Foucault’s constant lament (or whatever he’s doing) is that each phase initiates a more complex and fine-tuned system of control over the individual.

Of course, in his thought control seems to be held by the system of society rather than by a cabal of inviduals. The system, in fact, binds rulers and ruled together in unexpected ways, and involves (yes!) s&m relationships. The success of the system’s control is contained in the fact that individuals respond to the system in ways that the system dictates, and take on individually roles of social enforcement. Self-disclosure is supposed to be the ultimate internalized social duty.

So my sense is that Foucault would be amused and/or dismayed by the diary-publication that occurs on the web. He would nod knowingly when told about efforts to semantically organize personal information (foaf), and about Google’s latest services. He might laugh at the emergence of “openness” as a social virtue. He might, however, take hope in the possibility that the reins of the systems of control are finally slipping from the hands of the rulers of nation states. Being a pessimist, though, he’d probably see this as no victory for the individual.

In the future. My prediction is that everyone will write a tell-all memoir. Zero-cost self-publishing (Lulu and CafePress) will make this possible. The books will be bought by friends and family and will contain uncomfortable truths and shocking revelations. But each person will explain his need to write a memoir as a desire to be “honest about my life”. There will be an expectation that people of a certain age will have written something that others can read. Otherwise, they will be considered rude, immature, or possibly sinister. “I read his memoir” will be the equivalent of googling in dating and networking nowadays. It may be that memoir writing will take on a coming-of-age significance and will be conducted in formal installments: at ages 20, 30, 40, etc. The important thing, though, is that every word must be openly available. People having trouble writing their memoirs will complain about feeling like they “don’t exist”.

Things We Need

A remarkable quote:

Somebody: I do note, however, that you now have a blog. Not criticizing, just sayin’. You can call it a lead-in to real social software, which would be quite useful, but as yet it’s a blog. If you can make useful collaborative webspace—perhaps a single page where different colored users can manipulate the same stuff (in realtime?)—that would be very cool.

Useful collaborative webspace. I want to meet this request, but what exactly do we need? Surely more than “different colored users”. Right now, all the concepts cluster around blog, wiki, groupware,forum, and chat. Where’s the beyond or, if we must, the synthesis?

  • There’s TiddlyWiki. Goofy! Look how people are using it.
  • There’s PHPWiki, simpler than Mediawiki , that lets you insert dynamic content plugins into the pages.
  • We’ll see what Jotspot brings to the field.

What I Want.
I want I-know-not-what-yet. It’s the old simplicity-depth-information conflict. It’s information systems design. You want a single page, indeed with colored users, to be as useful as possible, but not dizzyingly complex. You want to be able, but not forced, to navigate to more specific pages. You want all the pages to be out in the open and easy for everyone to find, but you also want them organized in some logical (even hierarchical) fashion; you also don’t want to be locked into one form of organization (date-based, hierarchical, category, document, etc.). You want your own stuff, but you want to work with other people, and you never want to wait for an administrator’s permission. You want to be able to do the basics without thinking about it, but you want to be able to do exactly what you want. You want it to be integrated, but you don’t want to have to stretch a metaphor (“pretend the article is a guestbook…”). You definitely don’t want to do everything the way a system, no matter how sophisticated, dictates that you do. You want to rise to the challenge of (ahem) new informational paradigms, but you want to navigate information in a natural, intuitive and potentially deliberative way.


  • I want a book browser attached to a personal document system. Presently, the document management systems are web filesystems that let you download files that members of a working group have uploaded. I want a system that you can hand a text, word, pdf, docbook file to and it will generate an indexed set of html pages to be read linearly (you know, like in a book). Basically, I want the back-end script the etext sites must have, but I want the books to be discrete entities in a database.
  • I also want wiki systems to be able to import any wiki page into any other wiki page, like the {{templates}}. This would be an easy and cool way to handle semi-dynamic content.

Conditions of a Universal Philosophy

A bogus sketch:

Unity and Occupation, and quality thereof.

Quality as:

  • For Unity: Perceptibility, Comprehensibility, and Sympathy.
  • For Occupation: Interaction, Continuity and Enjoyment.


  • Unity: Partial (subjective) perceptibility, full (a priori/rational) comprehension, partial (intellectual/moral) sympathy.
  • Occupation: No interaction, eternal continuity, partial (intellectual) enjoyment.
  • Embodiment: Supreme Rational Being
  • Activity:


  • Unity: Full (systematic) perceptibility, full (intelligible/rational) comprehension, self-same sympathy (zero or total).
  • Occupation: Full interaction, limited continuity (closure and horizontal development), self-same enjoyment (zero or total).


  • Unity: Full (systematic) perceptibility, partial (economic/material-rationalistic) comprehension, partial (social/moral) sympathy.
  • Occupation: Partial (material) interaction, limited continuity (closure and horizontal development), partial (physical) enjoyment


  • Unity: (Paradoxical) perceptibility, No comprehension (leap of faith), full (religious) sympathy.
  • Occupation: Full (spiritual) interaction, No continuity (no principle), partial (mystical) enjoyment.

For the Record:

I (heart) Huckabees is very good and What the (bleep) Do We Know? is very bad. The two movies talk to each other. The first says to the second, “You are dumb and prey on people’s existential fears”. The first also brings into clear relief what people mean when they say things like “existential fears”. It even has a neat master’s thesis about the relationship between the two strands of postmodern thought, the one that emphasizes connectivity or thoroughgoing connection and the one that emphasizes spiritual aloneness and arbitrariness.