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Deadly. Holy. Rough. Immediate.

Baron Von Swieten: Mozart, music is not the issue here.  No one doubts your talent.  It is your ju
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  1. All life is a stage, so this article is taken with favorable reflection and applied. I would not mind taking a survey prepared roughly & immediately: that is, with enough options to express what I might like about Andrew Yang’s ideas/approach without putting me in his box, a survey that does not impose the choice limits that the big election narratives do, as so well-described on this website.

  2. Really a fantastic note that I think is worth revisiting (thanks Ben for bringing my attention to it).

    My thoughts:

    The four theaters are useful and absorbing categories, and as I was reading the note I felt compelled to categorize. But as I began sorting, a couple questions came up:

    • What about intentionality? Does intent matter? Is the same deadly performance by a racoon and an “innocent” equally deadly? If intentionality does matter, then maybe the four theaters become eight.

    • What about cross-theatricality? It may be tempting to put Trumps and Musks into deadly theater, but I think it would be deeply inaccurate. Deadly theater is Biden (with a vestigial touch of Rough). Trump can Theater-switch (Rough to Deadly to occasional Immediate) with intentionality. It’s not easy to say which theatrical mode was his most dangerous one - I’d venture Rough. Musk, also switches theaters (I’ve made the case that he ventures into (good) Holy and (good) Immediate more than some would like to recognize). And I wouldn’t say that deadly theater is his comfort zone by any means.

    So I ended up in a place where I couldn’t quite map good and evil to the theaters, as I was initially tempted to do. Danger lurks in all the theaters(-as-metaphors). And I really appreciate that Rusty made it clear that even Holy Theater can be used for good and evil. Historically, it’s hard to say which theater was the most empirically deadly. Was it the romantic love of country or the wholesale adoption of an ideology that made Naziism so fierce in Germany?

    And I’m not exactly sold on “It’s ALL Deadly Theater today, ALL the time”. We can complain that everything is deadly theater. Mozart complained that everything was deadly theater. But it’s not easy to find moments in history when things were otherwise. Deadly theater is kinda the status quo by definition. As a lingua franca, deadly theater can be dangerous, not to mention dangerously relativist.

    A couple of days ago I met with a young entrepreneur. He’s trying to create an app so that people with similar niche interests could find each other locally and meet up. During our talk, I asked him what sparked his interest in this concept. And he told me that he felt he needed something like this. I asked him what niche specifically. And he stumbled a bit, mentioned a few substacks and a few TV series, and finally announced that he didn’t want to just hang out with “basic bitches”.

    My problem with his answer was not that he was elitist or condescending or crude. I, too, increasingly, have less interest in “basic bitches” (though I reserve the right to make exceptions). My problem was that non-basic was an awful niche and a lousy purpose. I’m not sure non-'deadly theater" is much more advanced.

    And a little bit on theater. I love holy theater. My wife was working with Peter Brook as a stage manager around the time we first met. I was on the board of what I considered to be a Mecca for holy theater. Some have religious experience, others hallucinogenic ones – I had mine in the theater.

    The last two decades have been tough on Holy Theater in the theater. So tough, in fact, that I gave up searching. If the theater world is a reflection of the real world, then I would have to agree with Ben that, increasingly, It’s All Deadly Theater, All the Time.

    But, (leaving theater again) assuming Ben is right, I’m not sure IT IS ABOUT BEING RIGHT. Being right in this case means fighting against all non-truths and non-Truths. If we seek to take on All Deadly Theater, then our eyes are about as clear as Don Quixote’s. Mozart may have been right about Deadly Theater, but thankfully, that’s not the bulk of his legacy.

    In practical terms, the lingua franca of All Dead Theater All The Time likely means an adjustment from MAKE, PROTECT, TEACH to make, PROTECT, teach. But it’s still not exactly clear to me what it is we are protecting. Families? Nest eggs? Sanity? Ok. That IS a lot. Is that enough? My gut says no.

    That is: IT IS enough. But a pack it does not make. So, maybe, divided we stand.

  3. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks, Anatoly!

    I think the issue you may be running into based on your questions here is that you want to use the one (major!) dimension of our dialogue this idea seeks to organize as a universal categorization scheme. It isn’t. I don’t think you can make intent or good and evil to the theatres. Plenty of deadly theatre is accidental and lots of people perform holy theatre thinking to communicate some underlying good (even when they ain’t).

    I think we should generally prefer non-deadly theatre. I also think that the underlying goodness or badness of the response we seek to evoke through our use of meme is not perfectly correlated to, if not wholly independent of, the nature of how we perform. When I say I think it is important to recognize deadly theatre, it is not because I think it is some proxy or canary in the coal mine for “Bad Ideas” but because it is a destructive memetic communicative tendency independent of its underlying moral content (and to a much lesser degree, because I think that it is more likely than other forms to be associated with bad underlying moral content).

    I disagree with this contention, or at least how I understand it, with some fervor. While I recognize you did not say exactly this, it is very popular these days to state something like, “Media, internet and social media aren’t changing us, they’re just revealing what we’ve always been!” I don’t agree with that at all. That’s the contention I’m going to be pushing back on - that is, I think social media has absolutely and permanently changed how our culture processes, produces, consumes and spreads memetic content as opposed to non-memetic (or less memetically loaded, if we’re going to be pedantic about whether the former can even exist) information.

    If your contention is distinct from that characterization, I’ll be interested in discussing what you are saying a bit more after I’ve fleshed out my argument in favor of deadly theatre as its own problem worthy of a very high level of attention, which I haven’t yet done (in the original piece, or here). That also means I won’t really be making or arguing those contentions at length on the forum right now.

  4. I think that when I wrote “deadly theater is kinda the status quo by definition”, I meant something close to your “…Deadly Theatre is by definition the Common Knowledge about what theatre is”.

    But, I do have some thoughts on the point and counterpoint that you brought up.

    “Media, internet and social media aren’t changing us, they’re just revealing what we’ve always been!” I don’t agree with that at all. That’s the contention I’m going to be pushing back on - that is, I think social media has absolutely and permanently changed how our culture processes, produces, consumes and spreads memetic content as opposed to non-memetic”

    I’m not sure these contentions need to compete. Can’t we say instead:

    “Media, internet and social media are just revealing what we’ve always been by changing how our culture processes, produces, consumes and spreads memetic content…”

    Sure, it can be wordsmithed a bit, but I’m trying to point out a non-trivial non-dialectic. Let’s see if I can make this make sense:

    America of the last ~300 years was, in a way, an awesome anti-memetic exception. Between the frontier, the melting pot, the new cities, etc. American culture benefited from a chaos(complexity?) that trumped memetics. Whereas, during most other times and settings across all of human history, Deadly Theater reigned supreme — and the cultures of those times reflected this memetic narrowness (and we should thank our lucky stars that we even got Mozart (and, by the way, Mozart in the Jungle is also pretty awesome)).

    It’s tempting for me to use the BIG religions as examples here of fostering overbearing memetics, but let me try something more fun. Let’s try Italian food. Everybody loves Italian. Foodies love Italian and they go to Italy to experience it. What used to happen (this has changed in the last couple decades) was that if one went to an Italian region - say Piedmonte - they would not find Italian food. They would find Piedmontese food. Pretty much the same (delicious) 10-15 things on every menu in every restaurant. And the folks from Piedmonte would spend most of their lives eating those 10-15 things. If you have the time and budget, then you go to 10 regions and experience Italian food, but it’s not an accurate picture of the actual culture in Piedmonte. (Ironically, food was one of the things that Americans couldn’t get right for most of those 300 years).

    I like food. The idea of having only 10-15 things to eat my whole life sounds awful to me. But it’s totally fine for our memetic Piedmontese peasants. Because they are not woke foodies like me.

    So I understand that if your priors are Mark Twain’s America or Saul Bellow’s America, the current shallowing out of culture appears to be painfully dramatic. But those were exceptional priors — historical & sociological outliers.

    My priors were in suburban NJ, where I got to spend my teenage years in the 90s. The sameness of culture was deafening there (a Todd Solondz movie will show better than I can tell).

    Regardless, I agree deeply with “I think social media has absolutely and permanently changed how our culture processes, produces, consumes and spreads memetic content as opposed to non-memetic”. But I don’t think that gets you out of having to reckon with the bigger, non-pedantic, existential and historical (and Girardian?) Memetic question. If the historical trend has gone from a handful of big, deep “lifetime” memes to hundreds (or thousands) of shallow “current thing” memes — yes, things have changed, and a lot is being lost, but going back doesn’t seem like a great answer either.

    We know the deadliness of the old deadly theater memes. We have yet to learn about how deadly the new ones will turn out. (Judging how the Ukraine conflict is playing out, downstream of Twitter, there’s certainly reason to be concerned at the geopolitical level. And, with the mental health crisis, and the loneliness crisis, and the next 10 absurd crises, things are likely to get scarier (especially for those with kids). And yet, the individualist in me still thinks, “well, if I can choose from thousands of memes, it sure beats the alternative”, and “Theater might have died, but as long as they keep making TV shows like The Great, I’ll get by.”

    Anyway, I do think that bits and pieces of the American exceptionalism that I describe, as well as those from Italian food, and German romanticism, and Russian friendship loyalty, and beneficial(prosocial?) technologies, etc… can be pulled and collated into a new path(narrative superstructure?) forward. Maybe. I haven’t seen anybody try it, or anything close. And I do agree with you that this magical path forward would benefit from being minimally Deadly.

  5. Another way to consider these contentions is through the lens of depth, in the sense that social media et al. are shallowing out our culture/humanity.

    There is depth of tradition (chuch versus Lifetime Fitness ™ versus swiping habits), depth of craftsmanship (carpentry versus ikea), depth of expertise (study/practice/work versus Google Search), depth of sacrifice (service versus service ™), and even depth of emotion (I love you vs. love ya!), etc.

    Alternatively, with the likes of GPT and Dall-e challenging humanity on its own turf by replicating our Kanneman System 1, perhaps depth can be simply defined as Kanneman System 2.

    I’m finding it an interesting exercise to map depth onto the DHRI theater framework. At first, it appeared to me that depth may be found in approximately equal parts across deadly and holy. But on further reflection, since the ratio of Holy to Deadly is quite low even under the best circumstances, most depth is, and always was, in the service of Deadly (perhaps with the exception of work… my intuition tells me that honest work should somehow be elevated to holy, even if it’s the most plebeian variety).

    But what makes depth so very special and critical is when it is in the service of the Holy. Without depth, there is no Holy. Without Holy, we lose the best of humanity’s achievements. We lose Mozart, Einstein, Brook, etc. So, quite a bit is at stake.

    Whereas Deadly depth can be replaced/reinforced by systems (institutions, technologies, ecosystems, narrative machines) as we see happening in today’s markets, Holy can be a product of human depth and human depth only.

    That is not to say that now we find ourselves in a “it’s All Deadly All the Time” situation. I think that’s missing the reality by a mile. Arguably, there’s more non-deadly theater today than ever — but it’s relegated to the shallow side of the pool — to the rough(populism) and immediate(social media).

    I would say that the shallowing out of culture is a 100-year trend, just now going parabolic. But the supercharger of “social media” is not just extremifying the shallowness, it is also expanding its universe. Here, I would make a further bifurcation, noting that while the shallowing is certainly lamentable, the expansion is interesting and complex, and may yet have some wonderful and terrible emergent qualities.

    Another thought: With so much flux in tech, culture, humanity - a new theater may emerge. Maybe something like a Network Theater.

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