Even as a child [Sam Bankman-Fried] thought that the whole idea of Santa Claus was ridiculous, and when he encountered the fact that some people believe in God, he was incredulous. His takeaway: “Mass delusions are a property of the world, as it turns out.” He “had to accept that there was nothing he could do about this … He simply came to terms with the fact that the world could be completely wrong about something, and he could be completely right.” Much of what he was taught at school he thought ridiculous, especially the humanities.
This pattern of behaviour was accompanied by a profound internal void. His inner life and cultural world are severely truncated. “I don’t feel pleasure,” he wrote in his journal while at Jane Street. “I don’t feel happiness. Somehow my reward system never clicked. My highest highs, my proudest moments, come and pass and I feel nothing but the aching hole in my brain where happiness should be… I don’t feel pleasure, or love, or pride, or devotion.” Years later, after moving to Hong Kong, he was saying something very similar: “In a lot of ways I don’t really have a soul. This is a lot more obvious in some contexts than others. But in the end, there’s a pretty decent argument that my empathy is fake, my feelings are fake, my facial reactions are fake. I don’t feel happiness.”
Reading Wendy Brown’s Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber (2023). The format of the book itself is irritating: small pages and small type. The ideas, however, are interesting. I note that Rahel Jaeggi endorses it on the back cover.
Last night watched Errol Morris’s The Pigeon Tunnel (2023). Very good. Lighter on some things than I would have liked, but on the whole, beautiful and surefooted. The most resonant part for me involved dwelling on that line from le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim, “the inmost room is bare.” Morris wants to take this in an existential direction, and why not; but to me this image is most effective as a rejoinder to the way we habitually picture democratic government: that behind or beneath the surface chaos, deep within the hidden corridors of power, there is a room full of hyper-competent, wizened experts keeping the whole enterprise from going off the rails. But there is none such–the inmost room is bare. Politics is only the aggregate of actions taken by people just as flawed as we are.
W. B. Yeats, from MICHAEL ROBARTES AND THE DANCER
They must to keep their certainty accuse
All that are different of a base intent;
Pull down established honour; hawk for news
Whatever their loose fantasy invent
And murmur it with bated breath, as though
The abounding gutter had been Helicon
Or calumny a song. How can they know
Truth flourishes where the student’s lamp has shone,
And there alone, that have no solitude?
So the crowd come they care not what may come.
They have loud music, hope every day renewed
And heartier loves; that lamp is from the tomb.
Finished reading Michael Ignatieff’s 2013 memoir Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics in the early hours of the morning, when I couldn’t sleep. Choice quotations:
The Liberal government had cut the deficit, and our methods of restoring fiscal discipline in the 1990s, however brutal, were admired worldwide. The economy was growing and the prime minister was widely credited with creating the conditions for sustained prosperity. (43)
Global admiration is some recompense for immiseration, I guess!
I don’t have good feelings about the ferrets dispatched to check out our modest family house in the south of France, hoping to find a splendid chateau that would fit their narrative of the spoiled expatriate. (140)
Having a home in the south of France isn’t a sign of being spoiled, so long as it’s modest.
I wanted a moment of pure recognition (83)
This remark strikes me in light of the classic opposition between recognition and redistribution, albeit Ignatieff is describing his aspirations for a conference speech during his leadership campaign. Nonetheless, this is the psychology of elitist liberalism in miniature. The candidate’s exceptionalism (his unique standing) will become a searchlight directed outwards into the darkest crevasses of society, offering the dwellers there what the acclaiming crowd now bestows on him: recognition.
The crux of the book is this: “Embracing a political life means … knowing who you are and being adamant about what a political life is for. You can’t succeed unless the people who elect you believe that you’re in it for them. If you’re not in it for them, you shouldn’t be in politics.” Yet the very next sentence reads, without a hint of potential contradiction: “It might take a long time to figure out who you do politics for” (178).
In other words, if you believe yourself to possess certain traits and virtues, jump in the ring; figure out who you want to represent as you go along. Missing from this picture entirely is the notion that there might be other potential candidates with organic connections to the communities they presume to represent (working people, migrants, minorities, etc.)—and anyway, shouldn’t those communities feel lucky to have such a magnanimous and accomplished intercessor?
22/10/23: Of course, the unsayable thing that the text nonetheless concedes from the outset is that Ignatieff was foredoomed; the smarter thing would have been never to have thrown his hat in the ring. Easy for me to say, with my talk of organic communities and genuine representation, but the real sequence of events confounds my theory in any case: the figure who restored the Liberals’s standing and vanquished Harper is Justin Trudeau, the ultimate figure of dynastic privilege and, in Ignatieff’s terms, a political “natural.”
Nihilism as the will to power’s desublimation: Jiwei Ci via Hans Sluga
Finished the audiobook of Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge yesterday; listening to Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger now (both pub. 2023).
I’ve probably known something about Rory Stewart for as long as I’ve known anything about British politics, but my timeline gets hazy: I’m sure I read the notorious New Yorker profile from 2010, but I must have done so while already living in the UK. My recollection would place in back in 2009, before I moved. I think—and this is ironic since it turns out that they’re friends—I must have conflated the Stewart profile with Adam Gopnik’s profile of Michael Ignatieff, published August 31, 2009. Oddly enough, that piece made such an impression on me that I can remember where I read it: over lunch at the old Penang Hawkers Corner, in Renaissance Arcade.
Ignatieff fucked everything up: Politics on the Edge reveals that Stewart admires him regardless. I will read Ignatieff’s book (Fire and Ashes); I want to know what kind of a through-line there might be between their two stories.
Watching Caravaggio (1986), dir. Derek Jarman