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Milan Kundera

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I have already written on the joys of cleaning house and how less is more when it comes to possessions.

But possessions aren’t limited to the physical realm. Your digital files – documents, emails, music libraries, photos, etc. – share many features with property, especially as regards the need to keep them well organized and consistently backed up. Then there is the world of tasks and commitments. Left unchecked, they will proliferate, and come to weigh down you down as surely as a surfeit of trinkets. But most people devote nary a thought to this very important element of life, let alone approach it in an organized and systemic way.

Going paperless and streamlining everyday life certainly appeals to people. Banks, shops, and utilities companies offer electronic statements and receipts. Tim Ferriss preaches it in bestselling books. The tech giants offer clouds, companies peddle software and productivity apps, and entrepreneurial gurus hawk “systems.” But faced with this avalanche of information, many people don’t know how to bring it all together, and their work and life habits remain as ossified and unproductive as before.

I do not say I have the best or most comprehensive solution. I do, however, say that I have a pretty damn good solution, or else I wouldn’t have bothered writing about it. Even better, it is immediately actionable, and 100% free (barring your computer and cell phone). I promise you that if you implement even parts of it, you will not only see immediate increases in productivity but a newfound feeling of psychological wellbeing as automated routines begin to care of the myriad minutiae that are not immediately actionable (“Buy eggs”; “Do problem set 4″; “Write blog post on productivity”) that we nonetheless have no choice but to store up and let loose to wreck havoc in the recesses of our minds.

The end goal is to become a cybernetic paperless ninja. He is unburdened by surfeit possessions, but has exceptional access. He never looks at his calendar, but never misses a meeting or appointment. He doesn’t spend (waste) a single moment of his life reminding himself of minutiae, and instead uses his brainpower to learn and to focus on the big life goals. To paraphrase David Allen, his mind is like water.

The Power of Evernote

Download Evernote.

This is the central element of our system. Some of you might view is as just another note-taking program. We will transform it into nothing more or less than our second brain.

The one that keeps track of trivial but essential crap so that you don’t have to.

Evernote is a free program (though a paid upgrade is well worth it for power users). You can create notes there, as text files, or as images, videos, or other attachments. Crucially, these notes aren’t only stored in “Notebooks” (the equivalent of Folders) but can be linked together via “Tags.” This allows us to convert it into an exceedingly powerful task manager and organizational system. The information is stored in a cloud, which can be accessed and manipulated via a Desktop application (works offline), a web browser, and your cell phone.


Most of the following draws from the The Secret Weapon, an organizational system developed by the Brain Toniq d rinks company. (I highly recommend you check it out yourself, especially for the explanations and philosophy behind the system, but that isn’t absolutely necessary to benefit from it).


You create notes about tasks: “Do the laundry,” “Install such and such a program,” etc. If a task is exceedingly long and/or complicated, make it a project instead (e.g. “Overview: Moving House”), with check boxes/hyperlinks designating its associated subtasks. Now organize these tasks and projects in the following manner:

Create the following Notebooks:

Cabinet – This will contain your life notes, your documents, various clippings from the web and elsewhere, and – if you wish – a diary.

Actions Pending – This will contain your tasks, both immediate and long-range.

Completed – Upon completion, tasks in Actions Pending are transferred to this notebook. You can think of it as a tasks archive.

Now set up the following Tags.

.What – A list of broad categories (e.g. Business; Learning; Self-Improvement), specific projects (e.g., for me –, or some combination thereof. In short, the activities and themes that characterize your life.

.When – Within it, create the following sub-tags: 1-Now, 2-Next, 3-Soon, 4-Later, 5-Someday, 6-Waiting, and !Daily. This allows you to organize your tasks by their priority level, so you will always know what to do next. Though you can and are encouraged to experiment around with this to see what works best, in general those tags mean the following: 1-Now refers to tasks that you want to do right now; 2-Next refers to tasks you will do immediately after the 1-Now tasks are done; 3-Later is within the next day or two or three; 4-Later is within a week or two; and 5-Someday is sometime within the next few months. The 6-Waiting tag is for things that you can’t act on at the moment, e.g. you want to get back to someone, but you can’t do it before they reply to your email.

The !Daily is for things you want to do or check daily, e.g. floss your teeth (if it isn’t a daily habit and you want to make it one). I also insert “Overview” tags onto major projects I’m working on into this tag, because it gets checked daily and I can keep close track of my progress on them.

You can also add !Weekly and !Monthly tags (I prefer to insert them as subtags within !Daily so that they don’t appear on the front page) where you can track more long-range projects, e.g. Fitness – Do 100 press-ups in one session. No point in checking it daily or even weekly, but it’s worth getting back to this goal every month or so.

.Where – Where the tasks takes place, say @home, @online, @work, @university, @London, etc. Add these as subtags. No hard and fast rules here – whatever works best for you. If you are visiting a city for a limited amount of time, and you need to do a bunch of tasks there (e.g. get document from land registry; visit such and such a friend; etc), this is well worth exploiting.

.Who – If the task involves somebody else, add them in as subtags: # John Smith, # Amanda Waters, etc. This also augments your social intelligence, as once your database gets bigger, you can click on your contacts and quickly see the interactions you’ve had with them, even if you hadn’t been in contact with them for years. When meeting you, they will feel like it hasn’t been a day since they last saw you.

.Wherewithal – This is my own contribution to The Secret Weapon. The gist of it is that much as we might wish otherwise, we only have a certain, limited stock of energy; we can’t automatically work at tasks night and day. So the idea is to give each task a rating based on the time it demands and its complexity. Insert the subtags &0, &1, &2, and &3. As a rough guide: &0 is simple and takes a few minutes; &1 takes half an hour; &2 takes an hour or two; and &3 can require a half-day to a day of focused effort (there is no need to have &4 or higher, because at that point the tasks become Projects that are best split up into subtasks).

The Cabinet

Create the following tags: .Brain, .Diary, and .Docs.

In .Brain, organize as you see best. Personally, I have the following subtags: “life”, “scribbles”, and “world.” The “life” tag has subtags on the elements of life that I’m interested in living and in developing – fitness, game, productivity, skiing, travel, etc. with notes and clippings on said subjects. The “world” tag has subtags on things that interest me but don’t directly relate to life and/or self-improvement, e.g. “history,” “languages,” “politics,” “China,” and so on. The “scribbles” tag has subtags like “books,” “movies,” “reviews,” “excerpts” (most of these are printouts of the highlights I make on my Kindle files), “notes” (notes on books, movies, etc.), “cheatsheets” (these are hand-crafted, very information dense notes on particular topics that are worth reading when you take up some activity again after a long break), “quotes,” etc.

The .Diary tag contains any notes you make about things you did today. Can be tied in to the subtags under .Brain, e.g. if I skiied today, I will tag it as “.Diary” and “skiing.”

The .Docs tag contains documents: Printouts, scans, photos, etc. I subdivide it into the following subtags: $archives (docs that are now obsolete), $cards (business cards or contact details – and are co-tagged with .Who), $core (the most important documents), $projects (docs related to specific projects, with sub-subtags for each project), and $what? (empty tag containing sub-subtags relating to the “sphere” of each document – e.g. $education, $finance, $medical, etc).

So what are you waiting for? Start scanning your documents, receipts, etc. and uploading them. You don’t need 95% of them. The only ones that really need a physical copy are stuff like passports, driving licenses, birth certificates, etc. It is possible to encrypt individual notes and this is of course highly recommended in the cases of particularly sensitive documents.

Congratulations! You are now paperless, and you no longer have Word documents with to do lists and disjointed notes on various subjects floating around on your hard drive and your email. It’s all in the Evernote cloud.


Most people’s inboxes are a right mess, inundated with unreplied-to emails, subscriptions they are no longer interested in receiving, promotions, and to do tasks send to themselves for lack of anywhere better to put them in.

It’s time to clean out this bitch.

Go to a point approximately a month ago, and start mass archiving everything. Archiving removes emails from your sight, but doesn’t delete anything, so it will all still be searchable. After your finish that lengthy task… download the Evernote Web Clipper.

The Web Clipper allows you to clip text from, or an entire page, from your web browser and send it to Evernote, while simultaneously assigning it to a Notebook and tagging it. Alternatively, you can send the email to your Evernote directly, using “@” to designate the target Notebook and “#” the target tag.

From now on, perform the following test on emails:

  • Can I reply to this now/within 2 minutes? Then do it now.
  • If not, then “clip” the email and send it to your Evernote as a Task, entitling it “Reply to [Contact] (on [subject])”; putting it into the “Actions Pending” notebook; and tagging it as appropriate with the .When, .What, .Wherewithal subtags / forwarding it to Evernote directly with the above titles and tags.

Then archive it, regardless of whether you reply to it now, or leave it for later. (There is an option in GMail to automatically archive email threads that you reply to).

The end result is a thing of beauty:


Second, download Boomerang for Gmail (if you use Gmail… there may be equivalents for other email applications). Boomerang allows you to (1) set up an email such that it is sent at a certain time and date in the future and (2) set up automated alerts if the recipients of your emails don’t get back to you within a certain time period – say, one week – in which you case you could send them a firm but polite nudge.

This isn’t strictly necessary for implementing Paperless Ninja, but it does largely eliminate the need for the “6-Waiting” time tag in the original The Secret Weapon system.

The Calendar is for Events, not Tasks

The calendar. It’s good to check it frequently, but many of us don’t – and end up missing out on events. Time to make this but a bad memory.

Create two calendars in Google Calendar. (This assumes you are using Google Calendar, which I recommend given its integration with Gmail).

MyCalendar – Contains “do or die” events. Well, maybe not “die,” but going to them isn’t just an option without consequences… if you don’t go to a meeting, you might get fired; if you don’t go to lecture, you might get a failing grade. You’d better go.

MyOptions – Contains events that you can go to or not depending on whether you feel like it e.g. a distant friend’s B-Day party, your Chinese language Meetup groups horse-riding excursion, a local wine tasting, that kind of thing.

Then set up the following system of notifications.

For MyCalendar, go to “Reminders and Notifications,” and click on “Daily Agenda” under the email column. This will send you an email at 5am in your time with a list of the things you are scheduled to do today. If said schedule is busy, I recommend clipping said email and tagging it 1-Now for easy consultation as the day goes on.

Second, for specific events that you haven’t yet decided whether you’ll go to or not… or which need some kind of action (e.g. an RSVP in advance, or signing up to a class), set up email reminders.


Time the email so that it arrives at about the time that the event becomes actionable on. For instance, if you wish to sign up to a class, and the window for that is 4-2 weeks before it begins, then set up an email reminder for 4 weeks beforehand.

When you get the email, use the Web Clipper on it and add on the appropriate time tags and other tags.

Clean Desktop

Here is my desktop.


Much nicer to look at than some disorganized space overflowing with random folders, disjointed Word documents, program shortcuts, and to do lists – wouldn’t you agree?

There is a good place where to keep the things you’re working on at the present moment and it’s not on your desktop, which just distracts and depresses you. It’s the My Documents or Documents folder. Here is mine:


Very minimalistic. The first four entries are concrete, currently active projects (respectively, they are my two blogs; the book I’m writing; and the media translation website that I’m developing). The Workspace is for everything else that isn’t big enough or high priority enough to warrant its own folder. The rest are just a few files that aren’t really convenient (for a few reasons) to keep on Evernote.

All the old stuff/completed projects should be archived away so as not to constitute a distraction. I prefer to file it away in my Evernote Cabinet notebook. Likewise with plans for future projects. I also store them all in my Evernote Cabinet. I can easily access them if I wish to either (1) review, (2) take up again, or (3) start working on them, but they don’t occupy “active space.”

The setup is also highly efficient and allows very quick and efficient backup. My current Documents folder is a mere 326MB. (Once upon a time, it was ~20GB).

Enter the Cloud

Everybody is talking about cloud storage, but few are utilizing it to its maximum productivity and storage potential.

Keeping your data in a cloud has several advantages:

  • Security: Somebody can steal your password and delete all your documents from the Google Drive. Or an EMP could wipe it all out. But you can also lose your laptop, or get it stolen – and if you haven’t backed up your data recently, you’re in some trouble – and only going back to pen and paper will save your data from nuclear winter (though then you might then have to burn your notebooks as fuel so the point is moot anyway).
  • Backups: Automatic and constant if there is an Internet connection.
  • Access: Not limited to your PC… you can have access to your data from any device with an Internet connection. No need to bother with tedious transfers when getting a new PC… just install your cloud programs, and let them do it for you.


  • Storage limits: Different services give you different amounts of storage space for free – we’re not really interested in paying for it, though you can – but it will surely be smaller than what you’ll get on your hard drive. This, incidentally, is another good reason for limiting the size of your Documents folder.
  • Secret state surveillance: That said, it is exceedingly unlikely they will be specifically interested if you’re a nobody like 99.9999% of people. If you are very concerned about this, there are several sites with strong encryption that claim not to have backdoors… though if you have a genuine reason to avoid state surveillance, e.g. if you are a Wikileaks member or a Deep Web baron, you’re better off eschewing it altogether.

Here is a rough schema to get you orientated:

Private Friends Public
Articles Evernote Email Blog; social networks
Documents Evernote Cloud (GD; DB) different
Music Cloud; Streaming Torrents
Photos Cloud Flickr Flickr
Videos Streaming YouTube YouTube; torrents

Articles is an all-encompassing term for things you write that are useful in some way. If they are for your own reference, keep them on Evernote; if you want to share them with family and friends, then… well, email, duh; if it’s for public consumption, then use a blog (WordPress, of course) or Facebook, Twitter, etc. (Yes, you heard that right. Anybody who is still using Facebook for things they would rather not let the rest of the world know about are… a bit naive).

Documents are things specific to your life and various projects. For personal files, there’s again Evernote. For sharing with friends, the best cloud is probably Dropbox. For public sharing, there are upload/download sites; your own hosting (if you have it); or public folders in Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.

On music and videos… to be honest, I’m not a fan of lugging about huge amounts of tunes and movies in this day and age. Cloud companies probably won’t care about if you store this material – even pirated material – on their servers, as long as you don’t share it, because (1) it’s hard to tell whether something is pirated anyway, or legitimately ripped; and (2) shafting your customers on behalf of Hollywood/RIAA/MPAA isn’t good publicity if nothing else. If one the other hand you wish to actively share your music and movies, well, I won’t tell you no of course – but I’m not expert here, so don’t ask me for advice. Use that torrents thing, I guess?

Personally, I think the future of both music and movies is streaming. It is so much easier to pay a paltry $5 or $10 per month to get access to far, far more music and movies – across multiple devices – than you could ever get in a private collection. For music, you have Google Play, which not only allows you to stream but also gives you 20GB (!) of space for your own music collection (though I have found that they have 90% of what I have anyway). For videos, you have Netflix, of course, and you also have Amazon Instant Video (which comes free with Amazon Prime, which is well worth getting if you live in the US and buy most of your things online).

Photos you had best keep on an ordinary cloud for personal use. I have made Yandex Disk – which offers a generous 10GB of free space – as my photo cloud storage choice. What is its really big advantage? You can connect you cell phone to it, so any pictures you take are automatically, immediately uploaded to there. This guarantees easy, guaranteed retrieval of any images you snap on your cell phone (e.g. that cop beating up a protester now walking up to you to confiscate your phone). For sharing with friends and the public, the best choice at the moment is probably Flickr. It offers a phenomenal 1TB (sic) of free storage, but not in a way that allows easy retrieval. So it’s not that good a choice for storage, but there’s probably nothing better for presenting your photos and albums to your friends and showcasing it to the public.

Once you’ve made your options and downloaded the cloud services you wish to use, you will want to setup a system that enables quick, automated (or semi-automated) backups.

One alternative is to just insert your Documents, My Music, My Pictures, etc. folders directly into the relevant folder on your cloud. But I see no good reason to do this… it’s not like you’re starved of HD space nowadays.


Another option, which I use, is to keep all that on your hard drive, but install SyncToy, a simple program that automatically copies things between two different folders. (You can have it be “synchronized” – things are copied both left and right, which can be dangerous if for some reason one side deletes everything; “echo” – things are copied left to right, aka in this context from your normal documents folders to the equivalent folders on the cloud; and “contributions” – things are copied left to right, with no deletions). Above you can see my current setup.

Never Forget a Password

When it comes to passwords, they always recommend you to think up of a unique, hard one for each application and keep them all in a secure place.

But honestly, do you know anyone who does that consistently?

Last Pass comes to the rescue (h/t Matt Forney). This extremely nifty application:

  • Securely stores all the passwords you care to store through one master password (which really should be unique and very hard).
  • Intelligently autofills (and auto-logins, if you wish) your username and password as soon as you get to the appropriate webpage.
  • Integrates with all the major web browsers.
  • Passwords can be organized within folders, and each entry can have additional notes (e.g. some logins are more complicated than just a username/password combo).
  • Auto-fills forms.
  • For a paltry $1 a month, the mobile version is unlocked.

Lighter than Air

One of the major problems of modern life is the sheer amount of things we have to keep on top of.

Tasks big and small, urgent and longterm; documents, notes, information, and passwords that have to be kept up to date, well organized, accessible, and secure; events we have to go to or would like to go. Everything under the sun, and everywhere under the sun – notebooks, diaries, the desktop, emails to oneself…

And all this weighs down on our souls.

Now weight is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you.

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? – Milan Kundera, in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

In other words, weight can give meaning. But what kind of meaning can said notes and tasks impart? They will just make you into an office slave.

Become a paperless ninja so you could spend your time getting weighed down by men (if you’re a chick… or a gay man, I suppose), and even loftier things like life goals and self-discovery, instead of having to be preoccupied with trivial bs.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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1. Long Live Death!

Why is everyone so afraid of death?

Granted, it is directly opposed to our instinct of self-preservation; but in reality, our intellect should recognize it as the road to the ultimate freedom – a world free of boxes, restrictions, the prison of existence itself.

As the Japanese saying goes, “while duty is heavier than a mountain, death is lighter than a feather”.

Life is a constant barrage of insults, injuries and injustices, punctuated by brief moneys of success and happiness; yet their very fleeting nature, by holding out an illusory hope of sustained bliss, just further reinforces life’s burdens. As Milan Kundera wrote:

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Yet death is complete dissipation into thin air, nirvana. Sublime ∅blivion.

Its just that the road to death is hard and painful, ending in a cliff. Yet did we fear or hate our existence before birth? Of course not. We couldn’t. We were free of the shackles of reality binding us to life – and the fear of the primeval darkness of the thereafter.

Rationalism is death; Claws of Cthulhu. Hence the fundamental irrationality of the human aversion to, and fear of, the eternal peace of the benign Void.

2. Totalitarian Aesthetics

Totalitarianism is a form of unity, and as such suicide. It co-opts everything and concentrates all power in the hands of One Leader. The urge to fall into a single body or mass, the feeling of vertigo, the abyss of sublime oblivion.

Such is the totalitarian aesthetic – monumental, militaristic, millenarian. The final triumph of the will over reason; for all reason leads to this suicide. A challenge to the Gods themselves.

…..The future of the West is not a limitless tending upwards and onwards for all time towards our presents ideals, but a single phenomenon of history, strictly limited and defined as to form and duration, which covers a few centuries and can be viewed and, in essentials, calculated from available precedents. With this enters the age of gigantic conflicts, in which we find ourselves today. It is the transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism, a general phase of evolution, which occupies at least two centuries and can be shown to exist in all Cultures…..

…..The last century [the 19th] was the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and scepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money. But in this century blood and instinct will regain their rights against the power of money and intellect. The era of individualism, liberalism and democracy, of humanitarianism and freedom, is nearing its end. The masses will accept with resignation the victory of the Caesars, the strong men, and will obey them…..

…..Life will descend to a level of general uniformity, a new kind of primitivism, and the world will be better for it…..

(O. Spengler, 1918)

3. The Power of the Text

[No picture. For a text is worth a thousand pictures.]

All the great epics have already been written. Fantasy and sci-fi can only reference the all-encompassing monomyth. Art has long sunk into abstract oblivion, or the wry regurgitation of old forms (sarcasm is the lowest form of wit). God is dead. The Romantic struggle to return to belief only produces pale imitations of the original, a meaningless reaction superseded by the (third) nihilism of transparency.

The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference. I will leave it to be considered whether there can be a romanticism, an aesthetic of the neutral therein. I don’t think so – all that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.

…The system is itself also nihilistic, in the sense that it has the power to pour everything, including what denies it, into indifference.

There is no more hope for meaning. And without a doubt this is a good thing: meaning is mortal. But that on which it has imposed its ephemeral reign, what it hoped to liquidate in order to impose the reign of the Enlightenment, that is, appearances, they, are immortal, invulnerable to the nihilism of meaning or of non-meaning itself.

This is where seduction begins.

Baudrillard, On Nihilism.

We live in a world of poshlost.

Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.

- Nabokov (1973)

The tyranny of the System. Those who write the texts rule. References upon citations upon references, binding us into an iron cage, a paper prison. Impossible to break out of the mesh. A matrix so fine we don’t even see it. Realizing its existence is enlightenment. And madness.

Against this hegemony of the system, one can exalt the ruses of desire, practice revolutionary micrology of the quotidian, exalt the molecular drift or even defend cooking. This does not resolve the imperious necessity of checking the system in broad daylight.

This, only terrorism can do.

It is the trait of reversion that effaces the remainder, just as a single ironic smile effaces a whole discourse, just as a single flash of denial in a slave effaces all the power and pleasure of the master.

The more hegemonic the system, the more the imagination is struck by the smallest of its reversals. The challenge, even infinitesimal, is the image of a chain failure. Only this reversibility without a counterpart is an event today, on the nihilistic and disaffected stage of the political. Only it mobilizes the imaginary.

- Baudrillard, On Nihilism.

Now all that’s left to the prophet of the postmodern testament is either the reproduction of the old forms, or their destruction. No new ideas, only citation, revision, – and annihilation.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Consequent to my post Categorizing the Russia Debate and the lively debate it spawned, it occurred to me that much of Russia’s tortured and intriguing history could be rationalized as a self-reinforcing loop within a belief matrix. This can even be extended further to many other societies – I will also have similar posts up for a) Germany’s “Reich cycles”, b) America’s “liberty cycles” and c) the continuous “radical redefining of terms” that characterized Soviet history from 1914 to 1953. Here I will focus on outlining my theoretical framework (the concept of a belief matrix); then I will post about how it can be applied to different societies.

My assumption is that societies can be defined along two axes – their degree of ease with themselves, and with the West. By the latter, I mean specifically the Idea of the West: acceptance of the scientific method; rule of law; economic rationalism; and liberalism. An important semantic point is that these should not be conflated with “Western countries” (the US, the UK, France, etc); though they have, by most measures, internalized the Idea of the West to a far greater extent than most other cultures, they cannot ever reach unity with it because they are, at root, organic, human societies, whereas the Idea of the West is an absolute.

The other axis denotes how content a civilization is with its traditions. The default steady state is acceptive; though occasionally challenged by dissidents who reject tradition, society is characterized by a state of sobornost – a deep sense of spiritual harmony amongst classes, regions, races and sexes. Or as my definition of Russophilia goes, they understand, accept, forgive and unconditionally love their community / nation. This can break down when a culture is faced with unexpected challenges, such as Malthusian crises in the pre-industrial era or contact with the West (or rather its manifestations in British gunships and American multinational companies) in the modern era. In the latter case, society typically enthusiastically embraces the trappings of the West and rejects its own traditions, after viewing them from the Western frame of reference. This causes severe internal dislocations, leading to disillusionment and culminating in a vehement rejection of Western values, to an extent impossible in its absense. One can view Bolshevism, Nazism, fascism and radical Islamism as extreme forms of this rejection (and by rejection, implicit acceptance), relying as they do on Western technics in their attempts to recreate an imagined past.

The “Western countries” are unique in that somehow or other they have succeeded in substantially imprinting the Idea of the West onto their own traditions. This is much harder than it sounds. The scientific method is alien and unfamiliar to the peasant mind filled with images of rain gods and trickster demons. The rule of law cannot sit well in human societies traditionally reliant on communal coercion, “big man” influence and sacrificial scapegoating. Economic rationalism is anathema to subsistence societies, characterized as they are by reciprocal, socially-determined networks of gifts. Market forces, by destroying this communal spirit, would tear these societies apart, hence the universal disdain for merchants, usury, etc, typical of all rural pre-industrial societies (e.g. see Aristotle discovers the economy, Karl Polanyi). And liberalism (rights for all, including minorities) frequently stands in opposition to democracy (the generally anti-market, conformist will of the people).

It is probably no surprise that capitalism and liberalism historically developed most vigorously in the United States, with its abundant high-quality land and scarce labor yielding massive per capita surpluses. The Idea of the West first appeared in the “West” because of the region’s inheritance of Latin (law) and Germanic (customs) traditions, favorable geographic factors (long coastlines, good rivers and fertile, varied climes) and comparatively successful control of population pressures (through fertility suppression – West Europeans married later and had fewer children than most other civilizations, and later outmigration to their colonies). That said, it should be emphasized that even here relations between the West and tradition were uneasy and factitious; as I emphasize again, the Idea of the West is an ideal which humans can only aspire to, but never reach unity with.

Having laid out the basic concepts, it is now time to look at two general cases of human socio-spiritual dynamics: Malthusian (what happens to belief systems when a traditional society exceeds the carrying capacity of the land and begins to fall apart?) and Western (what happens to traditional societies when they come into contact with the West?). Both begin at the same place.

State of Stasis

At first, society is in a state of stasis, of sobornost. As in all traditional societies the individual submits to the communal will and the sovereign will (the Lord, the Emperor, Allah, etc)… and is all the happier for it. From Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Hard to comprehend for an individualistic Westerner, perhaps. But this is the way most people lived throughout the eons of human existence. Stadtluft macht frei?? Perhaps Arbeit macht frei isn’t so far off the mark.

(Here I would rush to add the caveat that this only applies to communal work where everyone partakes and lacks knowledge of and is too unimaginative to imagine any “better” alternative, such as aristocratic indolence or financial speculation. This is patently not the case in industrial societies and explains the failure of totalitarian attempts to go back to the future).

The Malthusian Loop

Before the industrial era, all societies were subject to Malthusian dynamics in which population growth saturated the carrying capacity of the land and leveled off at an unstable plateau. The period of high growth was typically regarded as a Golden Age of bucolic virtue (e.g. republican Rome), which I’ve labeled The Rise of Empire. Because of limits to growth, this could not last. Subsistence stress resulted in the growth of cities and large standing armies to soak up the landless poor, and literate bureaucrats to manage the new problems. Paradoxically, even as problems loomed on the horizons many aspects of culture like literacy, inventiveness, etc, flourished. This is because society encouraged its thinkers to “scan” for solutions to these problems.

However, these same cities and intelligentsia fuel feelings of resentment on the part of peasants on account of a) their perceived decadence and lasciviousness and b) the fact that said degenerates are supported by their taxes. To accommodate the rising reaction and diminishing surpluses, politicians and kings are forced to go back to the future. Way back. Quoting from my notes on Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

In other words, society begins by rejecting the Idea of the West (in those times, “rule of law” and Greek scientific-rationalism), and the state intensifies efforts to both legitimize itself and coerce people into believing in it. But nonetheless, a breaking point is eventually reached and society loses faith in the state (hitherto, tradition), culminating in the collapse of civilization, a prolonged period of anarchy and reversion to older forms of social existence focused on family, clan and community (denoted as The Collapse of Civilization).

During the anarchic period, there is a “radical redefinition of terms” as patriotism (faith in country) goes from being an accepted tradition, to a rejected tradition: for once the Sun dawns over the new Dark Ages, the peasant commune; the manor; self-sufficiency, etc – these are now the new pillars of traditions. Any surviving agents of the state (soldiers turned brigands, renegade tax collectors, the urban intelligentsia, etc) are its enemies.

After a few dark centuries, roving bandits seize permanent control of settlements, and become stationary bandits with an interest in development and permanent extraction instead of pillage. Localism, mysticism, anti-statism, etc, once again become heresies. The specter of the state rises anew, rewinding the loop to Year Zero.

The Sisyphean Loop

When a traditional society comes into contact with the West, there occurs a great deal of turbulence, much like in a society in the throes of Malthusian crisis. This loop is reproduced below:

As attested to by numerous chronicles, first contact with Westerners by less advanced civilizations results in fascination and a determination to catch up, especially to acquire its military-industrial technologies to prevent Western predation. The two cleanest examples of defensive modernizations are seen in Japan during the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, and repeatedly in Russian history (Muscovy under Ivan the Terrible, the Russian Empire under Peter the Great and Alexander II, Stalin, Putin?).

Local traditions are seen as incompatible with modernization and are rejected by the ruling elites, often stirring social unrest as the internal balance of power is disturbed. There occurs a growing gap between the Westernizing elites and the more traditional mass of society. The former come to be seen as foreign leeches on indigenous soil, decadent and degenerate; using the rhetoric of Westernization to feed themselves (e.g. see the French-speaking Tsarist aristocracy). This in turn discredits further Westernization, especially once the easiest (and ostensibly most useful) task of military modernization is completed. The people and the elites lose faith in the West: the former because they associate it with degeneracy and corruption (e.g. the Russian workers and peasants most aware of it: because of the development of railway systems, even a peasant from a rural backwater could now comprehend the parasitic decadence of the Court), the latter because of the shallow nationalism consequent from reinvigorated military, economic and cultural strength accruing from limited modernization. There is a gradual movement now back towards tradition (e.g. Slavophilia, the intelligentsia’s idolization of peasant life, etc).

But now one of two things happens. A part of the elite realizes that their decadence is politically dangerous (a large gap between the masses and the elites presages revolution), and tries to move back towards indigenous traditions – back to the people, so to speak. This is opposed by another part of the elite that has gotten used to its perks and privileges, despite the spiritual anomie in which they are stuck because of this. The ruling elites become disunited and weak; the masses are increasingly disillusioned with the whole system; new ideologues appear, preaching about total rejection of the West (e.g. the Bolsheviks) and a return to an imagined past of purity and virtue, i.e. to tradition (e.g. the radical Islamists who overthrew the Iranian Shah).

There appears a crisis, further straining divisions in the government and polarizing society in general (e.g. World War One). Eventually the government is forced to reform, but alas and alack, as per de Tocqueville the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to try to get better. By reversing course and showing weakness, it delegitimizes itself in the face of crisis; furthermore, it frequently becomes more democratic just when the people are becoming more hardline, and extremists (Bolsheviks, Islamists, etc) are waiting in the wings. The extremists moderate their positions to win over the people and consolidate their control; after that they unleash terror, taking the country into the far-top fringes of uncompromising rejection of the West. This is the dark region where totalitarianisms rise and democides are unleashed.

On the other hand, if the elite remains united; if the crisis is not very severe; if the people retain a firm belief in the Idea of the West and are unswayed by the extremists, then a more moderate outcome can be expected – a reversion back to the past, the state of stasis, yet having assimilated some elements of the Idea of the West during its loop so now “better” and perhaps “fairer” than before (at least by the standards of more Westernized states). They remain in this comatose state until another shock (e.g. defeat in war by a more Westernized nation, or recognition of weakness) forced them to act, restarting the loop.

Why do I call this a Sisyphean loop? Because while it lasts this basically explains a tortured nation’s attempts to catch up with “the West” (roll the rock to the top of the mountain), but never managing it (the rock keeps going back downhill). This is very pronounced in Russia – it’s entire history since gunpowder Muscovy has been one of quixotic attempts to catch up to and surpass the West, yet which all too often ended in catastrophes wrought of messianic delusions, and prolonged periods of stagnation, decline and frustration. I will explore its dynamics more closely in an upcoming post, focusing on a) the continuous “radical redefining of terms” that characterized Soviet history from 1914 to 1953, b) the belief dynamics of the post-1988 transition and c) its prospects for the future: sovereign democratization (the “Putin Plan” – democratization / Westernization on its own terms / while retaining belief in tradition), return to authoritarian stasis (Russia’s “natural state”, in both meanings of the term), totalitarianism or liberalization?

Yet this is not specific to Russia, it’s just that the overall dynamic is most visible there. Even nominally “Western nations” like the US – that archetype of the West – is imprisoned within the Sisyphean loop. It’s just that through the accumulated circular momentum of liberal tradition, the structure of its political system that moderates sharp swings towards extremism in the population and of the media which muffles extremist voices, and most importantly its reconciliation of liberalism with popular democracy, its “liberty loops” manage to remain anchored firmly within the bottom-right quadrant, well away from the instability brought on by the disillusionment / rejection of tradition of the left, and the totalitarianism of the top. But what makes the US a spiritually much more satisfied nation is that the very organic nature of the integration of its sobornost and Westernism makes Americans unaware that they life in the Belief Matrix, just like everyone else.

Laws of the Matrix

Why do I call it a matrix? a) because it is a matrix / grid, and b) in honor of the films, of course – whereas people believe they have free will, in reality all choices are predetermined and our only task is to try to understand and accept why we made those choices (in itself a Sisyphean-like endeavor – so yes, don’t bother pointing it out, I know I’m in the Matrix too).

Law of Skewed Perspectives – ideologically skewed people have warped perspectives on other people, interpreting moderates as biased; and those slightly biased, as irrevocably so. If political leaders are sufficiently out of sync, then the people are radicalized in the other direction.

Law of Quantum Truth – any individual finds it hard to judge the position of another, including herself; this is best done by a large number of individual, informed observations which tend to build a probability map around the likely position. Malevolent ideological opponents would represent the extreme edges of that probability map as that individual’s true position, whereas in fact it is not (or at least very rarely so).

Law of Circularity – at its extremes, ideologies converge (or flip). For instance, shout very loudly that you are a zealot for progress, justice, freedom, etc, even as your actions forsake those ideals. Examples: Bolsheviks, neocons, liberasts.

Law of Extremism – they tend to flip if they do, but they need to be in separate enclaves to build up into really extremist movements. Violent revolutions tend to happen during agrarian-industrial transitions because you have lots of self-contained classes thinking similarly and very opposed to each other (e.g. urban proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, etc); these differences tend to become less extreme in the later stages of industrialism when there is greater social mobility.

Radical Redefinition of Terms – how traditions are defined, and hence whom the community accepts and whom it rejects. A good illustration is the Russian Revolution: Bolsheviks came from being viewed as traitorous outcasts in 1914, to heroic defenders of the Motherland by 1918 against the foreign-backed Whites – who had themselves become heretics. During the 1930′s, the Party turned on itself and consigned many Old Bolshevik stalwarts into oblivion. Severe shocks can lead to a RRoT from below, while totalitarian regimes can perform RRoT’s from above.

Law of Chaos – big, sudden changes lead to instability, chaos, unpredictability, e.g. after radical redefinition of terms.

Law of Distance and Antipathy – the more distant you are from a certain viewpoint, the more you hate them. Hence the reason moderates are moderates, and extremists are not.

Law of Social Development – agrarian (collective belief → stability, rigidity, conservatism, but catastrophic breakdown if system fails); industrial (less collective, more skeptical, but still similar); post-industrial (atomized, enclave concentrations, very skeptical).

Law of Heresy – the totalitarian mind, in its rejection of the West and fervent rediscovery of traditional belief, views all deviations from orthodoxy as heresy (see Law of Skewed Perspectives, which applies to ideologues).

As commentators Scowspi and Kolya in the Categorizing the Russia Debate discussion noted, true artists are by definition dissidents (at least in the opinion of other dissident artists ;) ), hence they find life tough in totalitarian societies and may themselves become extreme in their dissidence.

The concept of heresy is alien only to someone who completely internalizes the Idea of the West (this is of course impossible in practice).

Consequences for the Future

We live in a very, very interesting time. I’m sure the next few decades will be far more fun than even the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, though whether this is a good thing is an entirely different question.

1) The Sisyphean Loop will remain as strong as ever as societies try to reconcile their traditions with the West and to internalize the paradox that is liberal democracy. Whereas there have been some major discontinuities this century, the dominant trend is that the power of liberal democracy is taking sway throughout the entire world – if not in reality, at least as an ideal. Practically all nations, except a few in the tortured Dar al-Islam (where Islamism constitutes a major alternative, albeit discredited by rational people), accept liberal democracy as the optimal form of government, much as Fukuyama observed in his “end of history” thesis”.

2) But… there remain lingering attractions for the dark splendor of totalitarian ideologies, which are supported by the eternally valid justifications of moral relativism and post-modernism. All that’s needed is the force to implement it, which is rather lacking as of now…

3) Perhaps not for long though. The Malthusian belief cycle is reasserting itself in the shadows of industrial civilization – the polluted, drying rivers; the depleting oil fields; the melting permafrost releasing Siberian methane into the atmosphere; failed states and spreading chaos; the democratization of the means of making terror from the state to the individual.

4) Right now, I would say the world as a whole turned a corner with the 2008 Crisis (a much less noticed, but in reality more significant thing about that date is that it was most likely the year of peak oil production). “Scanning” was much in progress during the 1970′s-2000′s (clean energy, “sustainable development”, etc), when energy and ecological problems first made themselves felt. I think the 2010′s will see a heightened period of chaos, governments everywhere will become more authoritarian and new colonial empires will emerge. “Scanning” will within one to two decades be suppressed and confined within certain parameters as governments begin to chronically fear instability and collapse, fear that nothing they can do will save their societies from collapse. (They are already preparing: note the proliferation of CCTV cameras, databases, militarized security forces, etc). Quite possibly questioning the health and desirability of industrial civilization will come to be classed as subversive, perhaps under the rubric of the war against terror.

5) Then there’s the Internet and connectivity. Though often touted as democratizing and enlightening, this is not always the case: totalitarianism becomes more total than anything dreamt up by the despots of yore in the age of ubiquitous mass surveillance, and extremism is honed, not blunted (see enclave extremism). Like all previous technologies, the Internet cannot be anything more than a reflection of the society that exploits it. And our societies do not appear to have bright futures ahead of them…

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
What a picture wants? Sublime emotions, not words or analysis.
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The sea billows in its elemental rage and snow-capped mountains loom above the thick fog ahead. A schooner and dinghy flounder in a fury of air and water, forlorn and forsaken. Sailors can be made out on the two ships, frantic atoms against a backdrop of deadly beauty. Insignificant, they stand out. After all, the sublime needs a human presence (yardstick?) to be appreciated.

The painting is ‘Stormy Sea’ (1868) by Ivan Aivazovsky. He was one of the most prolific Russian artists and is especially famous for his mastery of the seascape, which ranged from the calm (‘The Coast at Amalfi’) to the catastrophic (‘The Storm’).

What does it mean to ‘want’? Negatively defined, it is to be deficient in something, such that the absence of it grates on the soul. When we look at a picture, in a sense it becomes a part of us, a simulation in that part of the brain responsible for visual processing. Conflicts can appear between our innate sense of aesthetics and the simulation that was thrust into our mind. Presumably then, a picture is in want of something if it is deficient in something – an object, or perhaps something more general, say lighting. Or maybe it completely fails to arouse any interest and can be dismissed. In any case, let’s say a picture wants what we want of it.

However, in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Kundera wrote, ‘we can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.’ In other words, wanting cannot be an enterprise based on pure reason – since we live life only once (that we know of, anyway), we have no basis for comparison had we decided to want another way. Einmal ist keinmal. When we perceive pictures, we do it from the prism of time and space – a form of intuition, according to Kant in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. They become for us (to use the existentialist slang). So when looking at pictures and their wants, we must cast aside the Apollonian and embrace the Dionysian. (This also conveniently saves me from exposing my ignorance of the jargon of art criticism. Should I really be writing this?).

People seek to add beauty in their lives. It is the silent orchestra to which they march to, the invisible sketch along which they tread. Commanding admiration, it is a source of social power that has been exploited since the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic.

Yet beauty has no moral value of its own. Dostoevsky remarked that ‘beauty is mysterious as well as terrible’; according to Schopenhauer, it reaches its pinnacle in the form of the sublime, a concept of greatness beyond mortal imagination. Schopenhauer saw beauty (pleasure through peaceful contemplation of a benign thing) rising to sublimity (pleasure through seeing a vast, threatening thing capable of undoing the observer) and reaching a terrifying crescendo in the ‘fullest feeling of sublime’ – knowledge of the vastness of the universe in all its dimensions and the consequent insignificance of the observer.

The power of nature has been the motif par excellence of art that seeks the sublime since the Romantic period. (I say ‘seeks’, because a storm on a canvass can never threaten the life of an observer in the same way a real storm could. At best, it can build shaky bridges to the sublime, by creating a simulation of the real storm inside the mind of the observer. On another, not entirely related note, movies and especially video games can create such ‘simulations’ much more effectively than a novel or painting – yet Film Studies are derided and I know of no Video Games courses. But I digress).

This subliminal, transcendent power of nature is made explicitly clear in ‘Stormy Sea’. Humans and their petty constructions are utterly powerless against Poseidon’s trident. The best they can do is cling onto their ships (finite chunks of wood hacked out of seamless, elemental Gaia) and pray her revenge doesn’t snuff out their finite, atomistic lives. And all the while the mountain towers all of them, as if it wants to bear them down into the water by the sheer scale of its presence.

I want this painting to go further. I want the waves to break apart the ships and spill its cargo across the waters. Not out of vindictiveness, but because I appreciate the aesthetic. ‘Apocalypse’ is derived from a Greek word that literally means a ‘lifting of the veil’, a kind of revelation to a chosen elect of the eschaton, which refers to the end of the world or similar big, bad thing. For the Apocalyptic in art is nothing less than the pinnacle of the human aesthetic. It is the act by which beauty morphs into sublimity; a graceful disrobement that lays bare the sublime in all its consummate transcendence.

The ships are physical manifestations of the human soul. In the painting, there is a break in the clouds which illuminates the ocean beneath it. There is a dark land mass from the left. (The dinghy, more ‘human’ in scale and spirit than the schooner, lies closer to both light and darkness). Light is traditionally associated with hope and good; dark with despair and evil. Yet here they are in a cruel transposition, for the choice is either drowning in the illuminated water (succumbing to false hope) or seeking salvation on the black earth. Will they choose bliss, ignorance, the unbearable lightness of being; or will they choose the heavy burden of reason (which can dash them against its treacherous rocks)? And will they have a choice?

Therefore myself, I want the picture to come alive. Let the simulation play itself out. It might be deterministic… but the sublime soul knows that contemplation of the ungentle seas and rippling sky has value of its own. After all, gaming is fun.

As for the picture itself, I don’t know what it wants. I do know what it doesn’t want, though. People writing essays purporting to know what it wants.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.