The Outsider Complex, Baby

Question: What if our understanding of coherence needs a makeover? 

Is clean writing a myth? In a discussion about David Foster Wallace the other day, I am left to wonder whether a person who, lacking in the accouterments and support systems of a professional writer, should hold themselves to the same standards as someone whose entire network of habits and attitudes is geared to the task? After all, I’m a first-year teacher who is already spending way too much time tarrying over these kinds of concerns anyway. Yet, I am human, I do think deeply about things, and I do wish to discuss things at more length than Facebook or Snapchat make available. In contrast with most people in my culture, I feel that it is a civic obligation for me to do so. At the same time though, as someone associated with writing as a craft and process, I do feel ashamed when my writing doesn’t uphold those traditional conventions of style and quality that we so like to emphasize in our critical appraisals. I think, at this point, I’m willing to sacrifice those quality standards and conventions for the sake of being able to say something, at least, whatever its level of quality.

I think this attitude discouraging humble, blue-collar discourse, whether shared by others or simply a figment of my own imagination, is dangerous — the idea that, if our words do not meet a certain quality or thoroughness, they should not be uttered at all. I think this is a convenient development in favor of the powers-that-be that dissuades the common person from being able to speak a mind and take part in the important discursive issues of his or her day. I think we should say what we can, when we can, take pride that we have tried, and actively appreciate the same efforts when they are taken by others. This aversion to discourse pairs well with our sense of anti-intellectual suspicion in America, and our sense that these types of political or philosophical matters shouldn’t be tackled by the average citizen, but only by those “qualified” in their respective academic echelons. How tidy and oligarchical a development. I love people like Alain de Botton and his organization “The School of Life” for making complex topics available to and digestible by the common person, and also circulating artists who made it a point to do the same, like Dante, Montaigne, Camus, Austen, etc. I dream that my career trajectory will eventually bring me to a similar pursuit. Also, the publisher Zer0 Books tries to circulate a sense of “non-academic intellectualizing” as part of its mission statement and reason for existence. People should be able to talk about important subjects without consulting the Papal Order of American Academia, and feel comfortable doing so. It’s to our detriment as a country and culture that we ostracize people who try to start important conversations in public.

Contemporary culture has eliminated the concept and public figure of the intellectual. A cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheered by hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their stupor. Zer0 Books knows that another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist – is not only possible: it is already flourishing. Zer0 is convinced that in the unthinking, blandly consensual culture in which we live, critical and engaged theoretical reflection is more important than ever before. (

Wallace’s prose makes me wonder whether our expectations of cleanly written prose even realistically depict the way that the human brain relays or receives information. Our brains have been molded in the shape of listicles and status updates and infographics. Why do people assume that the styles and conventions of writing that we learned as children are still adequate to the task of expressing ourselves in the age of ubiquitous access to information and social media? I mean, throughout the day, my intellectual and emotional experience has to vary tremendously from what our ancestors experienced. If careful, the depth function of our consciousness can disappear extremely quickly, and there has to be a much more varied and frenetic look and feel to what abides in its place. I mean, one minute I can be looking at a cat video, and the next be plunged into the depths of existential despair by some well-written and especially prescient news article. Wash rinse repeat, and this can happen several times throughout the day. Is our emotional wiring really built for this kind of vicissitude throughout the day? I mean we handle it, sure, but should we continue without knowing the game in which we’re embroiled?

But why am I worrying about conveying a sense of consistency and coherence in my writing when nothing like it exists in my life off the web? We are inundated every second with different types of media and different styles of narratives to the point where our mental tools, used to regulating our emotional reactions and decision-making priorities, can’t seem to keep up. Who among us is only thinking of one thing at a time? We have been told that multi-tasking takes away from our attention and focus and prevents us from giving any one subject its due. But who, nowadays, has mastered the ability to control their experience of time? To slow down and set certain standards about how much they’re going to try and bite off in a particular moment? At the same time, I’m not sure that my attempts and understanding many different subjects at a time is an immature version of multi-tasking, or my brain’s desperate attempt at synthesizing multiple seemingly disconnected narratives in an attempt to understand the bigger picture of what the hell is going on — and more importantly, how my potential and actual behavior fits into the grand scheme of things. One feeble primate brain, one woefully antiquated cognitive operating system, built for the days of tussling with wildebeests and conserving body heat, trying to make its way through a world where nothing is as it seems. Will our methods of communication continue to stay the same as our world transforms at the speed of light?

Exploration: We’re Doomed. Now What?

When I read an article like this, I can feel the anger surging through my body. I can feel my sense of individual moral obligation bash its head against a problem too large to properly conceive. I am one man, in one moment, with one conscience, grappling with a multi-generational, species-transforming issue that pays no heed to national boundaries or cultural differences. Why does writing in this blog help me to reconcile that fact? Maybe this is just my way of alerting the rest of the tribe of what I consider to be a real existential threat. One that I’ve considered a serious threat for years, but have watched dumbfounded as many of the people that I care about continue to ignore or pretend to ignore it.

I mean, seriously.  If anyone’s looking for our tragic flaw as a species, it’s the inability to give this conversation the bandwidth it deserves. It’s been a curious development learning about global warming. First, you’re a kid, and you hear about the greenhouse gas effect, and you just think it’s “cool” and talk about it at the dinner table with enthusiasm. Then, you get a little Captain Planet vibe that your littering is killing “Mother Earth” and that we should be working harder to keep an eye on our stewardship muscles. Then, the big step happens, when you realize that your consumptive habits have a serious effect on the health of the environment. Suddenly that new television set looks a little suspect in your living room. Suddenly you worry about where your clothes came from and who made them, and out of what.

Keep moving farther, you start to encounter certain things. Al Gore. Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Hurricane Katrina. Surviving Progress. Earth 2100. Vice News. Adbusters. You start to hear contrarian news outlets which aren’t in the pocket of corporate interests. But you develop a curious relationship with these outlets. You know every time you watch one of their segments, you’re going to be either really dejected, or really pissed, and that doesn’t always align with our ideal day. Doesn’t exactly get us in the carefree mood to mingle at the local bar that night. Extended, it can start to look like compassion fatigue:
“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”
I mean, I’m not surprised that more people aren’t talking about this. This kind of issue is hard to discuss conceptually, difficult to regulate emotionally, and a pain in the ass in terms of the amount of individual change each person would be responsible for if they were actually paying attention. Without the necessary government incentives, the onus is on the individual to sacrifice for the benefit of the collective, and capitalism hasn’t exactly strengthened that muscle over the years.

The Outsider Complex

“It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”
— Albert Camus, The Stranger
My students and I have been reading Camus throughout this quarter, and I’ve been thinking often about the anatomy and context of the Outsider (Camus’s L’Étranger can be translated to “The Outsider” as well as “The Stranger”). Why do we push Strangers and Outsiders to the periphery? What if we didn’t accept this ostracism dynamic without questioning it a bit more, in others and especially in ourselves?
We could go into the political and philosophical implications of that NYT article, but I think there is something else more interesting. I think what’s really curious is my individual cowardice in wanting to talk about these things for a long time but having been repeatedly discouraged out of it by social pressure. This is a HUGE issue. But because of things like compassion fatigue, and the sheer amount of mental energy it takes to discuss this kind of thing, who wants to talk about it?
Why are we so easily dissuaded out of good ideas? The Outsider Complex? Lately, that’s the only person I’ve wanted to hear from, is the Outsider. Because even though I read The Stranger earlier in life, I’m slowly but surely realizing that the majority of helpful opinions and ways of seeing things have developed in deep solitude, in the minds of social outcasts who have had to find other outlets for their creativity. I think of the many brilliant minds who were confined to anemic bodies, or the people who for one reason or another found it difficult to connect with others. For better or worse, these people are stuck on the outside, where, coincidentally, some of the best ideas come from. Objective observation. It’s much easier to see what’s happening in a sports game when you’re spectating. Likewise, Outsiders are able to see things and understand them because not only do they have physical distance, but also emotional distance. They are not caught up in the emotional snares of sociality, not caught up in the relationship incentives of agreeing with any one person or going along to get along. They see things for what they are, and perhaps they are even a little more critical of these structures because of their anger for being left out. Therefore, they criticize with even more ardor, until their criticism becomes caustic, biting, even vengeful. I see this in many different critics. You can tell that they mock and deconstruct and flay out of a deep sense of pain and hurt. You have hurt me, and thus I desire to undress you in public and reciprocate the favor. I’ve definitely observed it in myself.
But this is just another place where anthropology ends up being the go-to resource for understanding my own behavior and the behavior of those around me. We are so thoroughly driven by tribal psychology. It’s just so fascinating, because the bulk of human beings support the status quo and become an inertia-like force for keeping things the way that they are. Improvements seem to only come from the outside. Yet, the Outsider may have the best critical perspective on being able to handle a problem, but the least amount of social influence with which to implement that solution. The very tools and qualities that enable a theoretical understanding of the problem are the exact reasons why those theories are so hard to put into practice. I think this is probably the main dynamic in that new movie about the Wall Street catastrophe, “The Big Short.” From what I understand, Christian Bale’s character is that Outsider. Can’t wait to see the movie.



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